Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Reading

Between the Extremes — Ryan Lizza examines how Washington has changed Barack Obama.

In 2006, Obama published a mild polemic, “The Audacity of Hope,” which became a blueprint for his 2008 Presidential campaign. He described politics as a system seized by two extremes. “Depending on your tastes, our condition is the natural result of radical conservatism or perverse liberalism,” he wrote. “Tom DeLay or Nancy Pelosi, big oil or greedy trial lawyers, religious zealots or gay activists, Fox News or the New York Times.” He repeated the theme later, while describing the fights between Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich-led House, in the nineteen-nineties: “In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago—played out on the national stage.” Washington, as he saw it, was self-defeatingly partisan. He believed that “any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in.”

If there was a single unifying argument that defined Obamaism from his earliest days in politics to his Presidential campaign, it was the idea of post-partisanship. He was proposing himself as a transformative figure, the man who would spring the lock. In an essay published in The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan, a self-proclaimed conservative, reflected on Obama’s heady appeal: “Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.”

Obama was not exaggerating the toxic battle that has poisoned the culture of Washington. In the past four decades, the two political parties have become more internally homogeneous and ideologically distant. In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama wrote longingly about American politics in the mid-twentieth century, when both parties had liberal and conservative wings that allowed centrist coalitions to form. Today, almost all liberals are Democrats and almost all conservatives are Republicans. In Washington, the center has virtually vanished. According to the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have devised a widely used system to measure the ideology of members of Congress, when Obama took office there was no ideological overlap between the two parties. In the House, the most conservative Democrat, Bobby Bright, of Alabama, was farther to the left than the most liberal Republican, Joseph Cao, of Louisiana. The same was true in the Senate, where the most conservative Democrat, Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, was farther to the left than the most liberal Republican, Olympia Snowe, of Maine. According to Poole and Rosenthal’s data, both the House and the Senate are more polarized today than at any time since the eighteen-nineties.

It would be hard for any President to reverse this decades-long political trend, which began when segregationist Democrats in the South—Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond—left the Party and became Republicans. Congress is polarized largely because Americans live in communities of like-minded people who elect more ideological representatives. Obama’s rhetoric about a nation of common purpose and values no longer fits this country: there really is a red America and a blue America.

Public vs. Private — Michael Kinsley discusses the boundaries between a politician’s public and private life.

So what’s the standard today? And what should it be? The Internet virtually guarantees that any gamey information about a politician will probably come out. It has accelerated the so- called race to the bottom: Even if a news outlet makes a decision to suppress some information, less scrupulous competitors make that impossible. (The Washington Post once declared in an editorial that, while it didn’t report news based on rumors, sometimes the existence of a rumor, true or not, was itself news. This got the Post in tremendous trouble, but it’s actually quite true.)

What has changed since 1980 is my basic premise: that many voters — enough to matter — would find information about a politician’s private (i.e., sex) life politically relevant. Many, probably most, don’t. It turns out that the real sophisticates here are the voters. It’s the journalists who are prudes. I’m not saying this is a good thing. But it does change the equation.

When even evangelical Christians are willing to overlook a politician’s three marriages spiced with open adultery as long as he’s good on school prayer, we clearly have moved to a new point in this ongoing discussion.

The Mousetrap keeps on going… Ben Brantley checks in on the longest-running play in modern history.

LONDON — It was a dark and stormy afternoon when I ventured into the old building with the twisting staircases, on one of those London side streets that always seems to be in different places when you look for them. Oh, I knew what I was in for: screams, gunshots, a whistling psychopath, fraught minutes in the dark and rigid postures of fear. But I hadn’t come to St. Martin’s Theater to be frightened or even stimulated. I was there for comfort.

Well, that and the chance to pay my respects to a woman who had given me bountiful comfort since my childhood: Agatha Christie, whose play “The Mousetrap” was just about to begin its 24,655th performance. Hundreds of thousands before me, starting before I was born, had followed this same path, making a cheerful pilgrimage to a mecca of sanitary murder.

The house was hardly full on this Tuesday afternoon. But there were 90 or so schoolchildren in attendance, many of whom I was told were seeing their first play. I heard several foreign languages (including American, of course) being spoken by the adults seated near me. More than at any point in my career as a theater critic, going to a play felt like being part of a field trip to a historic site.

“The Mousetrap” was something I had never sought out in the past. I knew it was there – the longest-running play in modern history (it opened in 1952) – in the way that I knew Big Ben and the Tower of London were there. But now that the show was coming up on its diamond anniversary – as is, may I remind you, the reign of a certain pigeon-shaped monarch – I felt it was time to make a courtesy call, and see how the old girl was holding up.

I mean the play, not the queen, though parallels between the two are encouraged by the management. The program includes a large picture of a be-gowned and be-pearled Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh standing on the grand but shabby country-house set of “The Mousetrap” on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2002. And many of the values that “The Mousetrap” would seem to embody are not unlike those associated with the Queen herself: perseverance, stately coziness and equanimity in the face of disaster.

Doonesbury — WWND.