Chris Wallace, the boss would like to see you now.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klzZxOat3mc]

Every once in awhile, someone on FOX News starts feeling a little dangerous and decides to actually do the news, just to see what it feels like to be a real reporter:

In an unexpectedly lively exchange on Fox News Sunday this morning, host Chris Wallace took on NRA head Wayne LaPierre for his group’s tasteless ad calling Obama an “elitist hypocrite” for having Secret Service protection for his daughters while opposing the placement of armed guards in every American school. “It wasn’t picking on the president’s kids,” LaPierre argued, somewhat futilely. “The president’s kids are safe and we’re all thankful for it.” When Wallace pointed out that “[Malia and Sasha] also face a threat that most people do not face,” LaPierre shot back: “Tell that to the people in Newtown!” But Wallace wasn’t buying the indignation. “Do you really think that the President’s children are the same kind of target as every schoolchild in America?” Wallace asked LaPierre, adding, “I think that’s ridiculous, and you know it, sir.”

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Obama hearts guns

From New York Magazine:

Ever since President Obama awkwardly insisted to The New Republic last weekend that, “Yes, in fact, up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time,” media fact-checkers (including our own DI Dan) combed through every bit of White House photographic evidence for even a single snapshot of the president in the gun-toting act. Sensing that the ensuing SkeeterGate was getting out of hand, White House officials released the above photo to theofficial White House Flickr stream this morning. “For all the ‘skeeters’,” tweeted White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, “POTUS shoots clay targets on the range at Camp David on Aug. 4, 2012.” Yet we can already predict the obligatory conspiracy theory backlash, noting that there’s not a clay pigeon in sight. Apparently we’re not the only ones thinking this. As newly-departed White House Senior Adviser David Plouffe tweeted soon after: “Attn skeet birthers. Make our day – let the photoshop conspiracies begin!”

Perhaps this is actually a brilliant strategy: depicting Obama shooting a gun is probably the only way to get Republicans to start banning them.

False equivalency and the White House: Obama becomes a media critic

From the newly released New Republic interview with the president, Obama had some thoughts on the prevailing practices of today’s political media:

One of the biggest factors is going to be how the media shapes debates. If a Republican member of Congress is not punished on Fox News or by Rush Limbaugh for working with a Democrat on a bill of common interest, then you’ll see more of them doing it…

The same dynamic happens on the Democratic side. I think the difference is just that the more left-leaning media outlets recognize that compromise is not a dirty word. And I think at least leaders like myself—and I include Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in this—are willing to buck the more absolutist-wing elements in our party to try to get stuff done…

In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, “A plague on both their houses.” On almost every issue, it’s, “Well, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree”—as opposed to looking at why is it that they can’t agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?

The usefulness of the wacky fringe

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtyKofFih8Y]

As Barack Obama enters his second term, speculation is predictably high about every aspect of what’s coming up: new policy proposals, the specter of continued gridlock on Capitol Hill, a heavy docket of significant rulings pending at the Supreme Court, and so on.

Central to this debate is the question of whether Obama will be able to leverage his electoral triumph into real momentum for his policy agenda. Will the Republicans continue to draw from their playbook of the last four years, or will they be inclined to compromise more in the wake of their poor showing at the polls in November?

Despite the partial fragmentation of the national GOP between moderates — in the most relative, unanchored sense of the term — such as John Boehner and party hardliners like Michele Bachmann, early indications are that Republicans are unlikely to shift much until at least the 2014 midterms, depending on how they do.

Which brings me to the above video, of radio host Alex Jones displaying an alarming mental instability on a nationally televised show inexplicably hosted by Piers Morgan. Say what you want about Morgan, but at least he had the good sense to shut up, for the most part, during this “interview” and allow the world to see just how unhinged the gun nut really was.

But it also made me think about the nature of political conversation in the U.S. these days. For years now, the right has not only allowed, but often actively encouraged, radical and unreasonable rhetoric, for the simple reason that it helps rile up the base and inspire them to increase public pressure on Democrats, vote for Republicans, donate money, and so on. That’s an understandable short-term goal (it helps in the next election), but it’s produced impressive long-term benefits as well: each time a foaming-at-the-mouth conservative espouses an armed takeover of Washington or impeachment of the president for allegedly not being a naturally-born American or whatever else, the right-wing boundary of acceptable conversation shifts further right.

The problem is, there’s no counteroffensive from the left, which generally polices its commentary to an astounding degree (especially surprising given the increasingly partisan nature of American politics). Insane leftists don’t fare well in the United States. But crazies are the mainstream across the aisle.

There are several reasons for this. For one, there’s really no American far left to speak of these days. Even in Europe, which has moved steadily right in recent years to the jaunty tune of “austerity measures” and “shutting borders to Islamic fundamentalists,” lefties retain much of their glamour. (See Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, for example.) But in the U.S., we’re confined largely to the likes of Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and a smattering of others, all of whom have their devoted followings but none of whom enjoy the warm embrace of large swaths of the population at large or have any real political power.

Another reason for the prominence of right-wing insanity is, ironically enough, liberal media establishments. (No, I do not mean that the media establishment at large is liberal; I’m referring specifically to the media institutions that are liberal, such as MSNBC and a host of online blogs and news sites such as the Huffington Post.) The first one to trumpet something stupid said by a lowly or irrelevant Republican is usually a member of a Democratic-leaning media organization. This makes sense when the said troublemaker is reasonably significant, but in recent years the left has played an outsized role in promoting people such as Orly Taitz, ineffective and mostly impotent members of Congress like Allen West and Michele Bachmann, and even a thoroughly discredited post-2008 Sarah Palin — the last of whose every sideways glance the press breathlessly reports as if it signaled the Second Coming, even as she and her family have drifted into tawdry, broadsheet-worthy behavior (see Palin, Bristol).

Without a huge assist from left-wing media promoters, all such tragic humans would have faded slowly from the spotlight (to varying degrees, of course: Sarah Palin will always be more interesting than Orly Taitz). Instead, they’re kept front and center in our public consciousness by “media watchdogs” like Mediaite — which, by the way, uploaded the above video. It’s time to start ignoring people whose most recent credentials include, for example, stints on reality TV (a growing subset of Americans, to be sure, but not one I’m ever interested in hearing about).

But whatever the causes, one consequence consistently remains: right-wing brashness dominates the news cycle while liberals mostly cower in fear. And this state of affairs has started to make me wonder whether the American progressive sector would do well to unleash its own attack dogs a little more often.

Take the Newtown massacre, for example, and try to imagine the GOP and Democrats on opposite sides of the gun control debate from where they are now: in other word, Democrats against gun control, and Republicans in favor of it. Would the right have waited several days, as did Obama, and then given a speech in favor of some very vague “changes,” then waited even longer before finally announcing the conclusions of a study group led by the vice president that would result in a myriad of mostly ineffective and insignificant executive orders and a thoroughly unambitious legislative agenda?

Of course not. We know this because guys like Rep. Louie Gohmert were appearing on TV shows within a day or two of the shooting and saying they only wished there’d been more guns at the school. Then the NRA held its notorious press conference and made things even worse. I’m using the words “notorious” and “worse,” however, in a very relative sense, since in reality the event was quite successful from a far right perspective: it once again slammed the door in the face of timid liberal attempts to ever so slightly nudge public policy.

So what I’m saying is, the next time something like Newtown happens — and there will be a next time, as we all know by now — I don’t want to hear Democrats and liberals clamoring all over each other to be the first to demand an assault weapons ban. That is a quintessential Democratic tactic, and one that Barack Obama has practically made his trademark: beginning the negotiation by asking for exactly what he hopes to get by the end. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is a horrendous strategy in any situation, but it’s even worse when the counterpart is an increasingly unpredictable and radical political party.

Instead, we should hear people calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. I’d love to have that conversation play out on the national stage. Of course, there are several issues with this approach. For one, the media has a funny way of discounting staunch leftist rhetoric in a way it doesn’t on the right. But again, I think this has become a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: the media doesn’t necessarily have any ingrown bias against leftism, but they’ve developed artificially skewed boundaries of acceptable discourse anyway because that’s what they’ve been exposed to for so long. Destroying that stasis won’t happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere.

Perhaps the larger problem is that almost no Americans would support such a proposition (repeal). But why does that matter? A wide array of social movements — from women’s to civil to gay rights and more — took their first steps in a landscape of profound public hostility to their objectives. And anyway, my point isn’t actually to repeal the Second Amendment. The point is to make a big enough deal about it so that the proposals from the opposite side — say, arming teachers in every school — get taken right off the proverbial table.

Indeed, such was the promise of Occupy Wall Street. Unfortunately, the movement failed to crystallize into something truly permanent. But despite Occupy’s short, limited role, the entire national conversation shifted rather dramatically for a time. Today, it is commonplace to hear politicians and public figures speak of the 99%, the 1%, and so on, but these were concepts only just recently introduced into the broader lexicon. And at least as importantly, it served as a heavy counterweight to the classist “takers” rhetoric coming from the right. Would Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comment have exploded nearly as loudly as it did if Occupy Wall Street hadn’t raised the issue of middle-class exploitation just months before?

I think not. Although the movement ultimately fizzled out, the ragtag group consisting largely of students, social misfits, hipsters, and the unemployed briefly jolted the boundaries of discourse in the opposite direction from their long-term trajectory. The question is whether that shift represented an insignificant and temporary diversion from the mean, or a useful lesson on how to conduct political warfare in the future. Yes, the Democrats have managed to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. But just imagine what the left could accomplish if it actually started fighting.

Apparently “baby killing” is not such an effective scare tactic anymore

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and a new poll reveals that the ruling is more popular now than it’s ever been before:

Seven in 10 adults say the Supreme Court should not overturn its landmark decision establishing abortion rights, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

That is the highest level of support for Roe v. Wade in the poll’s 24 years of tracking the question. Only about one in four said the court should overturn its verdict.

Michael Tomasky zooms out:

Same-sex marriage approval. Marijuana legalized. Now this. It continues to amaze me how the country has flipped culturally. I think this is probably Obama’s biggest impact, more than health care or anything else. He’s changed the political culture of the country. In some senses by doing particular things–repealing don’t ask, don’t tell. But in other senses just by being Barack Obama.

In accepting him as their president (which 70 percent of Americans happily do, even when they may disagree with this or that policy), Americans appear also to have accept in some internal way that it’s a different time and a different country now. It seems natural that that psychic change would first manifest itself in certain shifting cultural attitudes, as these are low-hanging fruit compared to the big policy changes that face ferocious opposition in Washington.

It may also be that it’s not really Obama who made these changes, that they were well in formation when he just happened to come along and embody them. I think here of the Beatles as an analogy. They certainly changed the culture and the world and led a revolution, but many societal factors were lined up in harmony just waiting for someone to come along and pop the cork: the rise of the teenage demographic, the end of conscription (in Britain, which gave young males more freedom), and so on. Everything came together and boom it all went. Same kind of thing here.

“A personable middle-aged man.”

That’s the sensible description of Barack Obama, as written by China’s state-run Xinhua:

Barack Obama, a personable middle-aged man, inaugurated as the first African-American president of the United States four years ago with an ambitious oath — “Yes, we can.”

However, when Obama swore in for a second term as the country’s top leader on Monday, a man with eyebags, black spots and white hair stepped on the stage.

The article ends on a gloomy note:

Apparently, sad moments overwhelmed happy ones in Obama’s first term, as the number of things he can’t do is far beyond those he can. Even his own doctor admitted that President Obama now looks eight years older than four years ago.

Whether the next four years could be easier for him remains a mystery, but it is for sure that Obama, buried in unstopping affairs at home and abroad, could never be any younger.

Returning the favor to Bibi

Alan Berger thinks President Obama should pay Israel a visit just ahead of the nation’s January 22 elections:

A politician is expected to reward friends and punish whoever dares to cross him. So Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s barely veiled backing for Mitt Romney not only bent the unwritten rule requiring Israeli leaders to preserve a posture of immaculate neutrality in US elections; it meant that Obama owes the Israeli pol some sort of payback.

If Obama’s past performances can be taken as a reliable guide, there is little chance he would retaliate against Netanyahu by meddling in the Israeli election scheduled for Jan. 22. But he should. Not for the petty motive of settling scores with Netanyahu, but to safeguard the true long-term interests of Israelis, Americans, and all the peoples of the Middle East…

Considering that a new party to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud is polling 12 to 14 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, that Likud’s own list is now dominated by radicals impatient with democratic restraint, and that Israel’s centrist and left-leaning parties seem to be in steep decline, an Obama speech could hardly be expected to enable someone other than Netanyahu to form the next government. In Israel’s parliamentary system, however, the shape and disposition of a government is often determined in the bargaining, balancing, and bribing with ministerial portfolios that go under the rubric of forming a coalition. And the right sort of speech from Obama could have a crucial effect on the post-election process of deal-making.

Steering clear of the cliff

Joshua Green wonders what might have been, had President Obama been willing to maximize his leverage from the fiscal cliff:

Even before the deal was settled, many liberals were outraged at how much he was willing to concede to avoid going over the cliff — an event for which every poll showed Republicans would be blamed. Most Republicans were terrified at the prospect.

Nonetheless, Obama agreed to raise income tax rates only on households making $450,000 or more; establish a generous inheritance tax exemption; and lightly tax dividends and capital gains. The income-tax threshold alone sacrifices $200 billion compared with what he had once insisted on. But the revenue sacrificed isn’t terribly important.

What is important is that Obama yielded on resolving the budget deadlines, the most consequential being the need to raise the debt limit. Already, Republicans are threatening default without deep cuts in return. Had Obama been willing to go over the cliff, they probably wouldn’t be, since the public would be furiously blaming them. By pulling back, Obama passed up a chance to “break the fever” (as he likes to put it) that afflicts the Republican Party and led it to oppose nearly all that he has done during his presidency.

What the presidents read

The literary site Full Stop has just posted my short piece on presidential reading lists:

In this golden age of American polarization, it is no surprise that even one’s reading is subject to the scourge of partisan bickering. During this year’s presidential campaign, Amazon.com actually produced an interactive map detailing which states’ customers were buying conservative versus liberal titles and coloring those states red and blue, respectively.

Even politicians are now just as often producers as consumers of the written word: today, penning a flag-waving bildungsroman-esque memoir is nearly a prerequisite for launching a presidential campaign. Obama authored Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope; Mitt Romney wrote No Apologies. If Herman Cain fends off his circling sexual harassment accusers in the dually relevant courts of law and public opinion, perhaps he will release a recipe book of pizza toppings.

Winning votes, one by one

The story of Barack Obama’s data-driven campaign approach is still being told. Building on their 2008 success, the Obama data junkies assembled a truly astounding, state-of-the-art framework to microtarget advertising and fundraising appeals to the individual level. The MIT Technology Review just ran an eye-opening three-part article on how the team put the data monstrosity together:

Many of those who went to Washington after the 2008 election in order to further the president’s political agenda returned to Chicago in the spring of 2011 to work on his reëlection. The chastening losses they had experienced in Washington separated them from those who had known only the ecstasies of 2008. “People who did ‘08, but didn’t do ‘10, and came back in ‘11 or ‘12—they had the hardest culture clash,” says Jeremy Bird, who became national field director on the reëlection campaign. But those who went to Washington and returned to Chicago developed a particular appreciation for Wagner’s methods of working with the electorate at an atomic level. It was a way of thinking that perfectly aligned with their ­simple theory of what it would take to win the president reëlection: get everyone who had voted for him in 2008 to do it again. At the same time, they knew they would need to succeed at registering and mobilizing new voters, especially in some of the fastest-growing demographic categories, to make up for any 2008 voters who did defect.

Obama’s campaign began the election year confident it knew the name of every one of the 69,456,897 Americans whose votes had put him in the White House. They may have cast those votes by secret ballot, but Obama’s analysts could look at the Democrats’ vote totals in each precinct and identify the people most likely to have backed him. Pundits talked in the abstract about reassembling Obama’s 2008 coalition. But within the campaign, the goal was literal. They would reassemble the coalition, one by one, through personal contacts.