Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sunday Reading

A Different Language — Former Congressman Tom Allen on the modern GOP.

Nothing I had learned about politics before my election prepared me for the intense polarization of contemporary congressional politics. When I first went to Washington to work for Sen. Ed Muskie in 1970, Republicans and Democrats debated public issues vigorously, but there was more genuine give-and-take and mutual respect, and the players did not treat politics as a blood sport. Six years on the Portland City Council taught me that most local issues could be resolved without petty or partisan combat.

Dwight Eisenhower accepted the major legislation of the New Deal. John Kennedy started the legislative push for a substantial tax cut. Lyndon Johnson came from a Senate known for working across the aisle. Richard Nixon signed clean water and clean air legislation. Ronald Reagan raised taxes many times to deal with mounting deficits created by his 1981 tax cut; George H. W. Bush did the same, to resounding criticism from the Right. Bill Clinton antagonized elements of his Democratic base by supporting a balanced federal budget, free trade and welfare reform.

George W. Bush was different. His election in 2000 was, in hindsight, stage two of the Newt Gingrich revolution. Senator Lincoln Chafee (R.-R.I.) recalled, shortly after Bush’s election, that Dick Cheney quickly laid out to a small group of moderate Senate Republicans, “a shockingly divisive political agenda for the new Bush administration, glossing over nearly every pledge the Republican ticket had made to the American voter.” In his first term, President Bush abandoned international treaties, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and drove through two massive tax cuts that primarily benefitted wealthy Americans.

Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign employed “microtargeting” as a part of their successful strategy of mobilizing the Republican base instead of reaching out to the middle. That political strategy was consistent with the Bush administration’s style of governing and the way Gingrich and Tom DeLay controlled Congress: Drive through the most right-wing policy that the Republican caucus could support; only move legislation that has the support of a substantial majority of the majority party; take no prisoners.

As I listened over the years to baffling arguments in committee, on the House floor or in private conversations, I lost hope in our capacity for bipartisan agreement on our major public policy challenges. On budgets, taxes, health care and climate change, the evidence that mattered to us made no difference to our Republican colleagues. What Democrats took as well-established fact, Republicans understood as easily dismissed opinions. When we wondered, “Do these guys believe what they say?” our answer was usually no. But if the Republicans didn’t believe the things they were saying, they were extraordinarily gifted performers on the House floor.

Major Dilemma — Matthew O’Brien on liberal arts majors and the economy.

Is our college students learning?

Rarely is the question not asked nowadays. Graduates now face a tough labor market and even tougher debt burdens, which has left many struggling to find work that pays enough to pay back what they owe. Today, as my colleague Jordan Weissmann points out, young alums aren’t stuck in dead-end jobs much more than usual (despite the scare stories you may have heard). But that’s a cold comfort for grads who borrowed a lot to cover the high cost of their degrees.

There are two, well, schools of thought about why freshly-minted grads have had such a tough time recently. You can blame the smarty-pants majors or blame the economy. In other words, students can’t get good jobs either because they aren’t learning (at least not the right things) in college, or because there aren’t enough good jobs, period.

This is far from an academic debate. If recent grads can’t find good work because they didn’t learn any marketable skills, there’s little the government can do to help, besides “nudging” current students to be more practical. And that’s exactly what conservative governors in Florida and North Carolina are considering with proposals to charge humanities majors higher tuition than, say, science majors at state schools.

But there’s an obvious question. If liberal arts majors “didn’t learn much in school,” as Jane Shaw put it in the Wall Street Journal, why haven’t they always had trouble finding work? Are there just more of them now, or is this lack of learning just a recent phenomenon?

Breaking News — Jim Romenseko with a story about The Onion that should be from The Onion.

When WSFA-TV (Montgomery, Ala.) reporter Jennifer Oravet read in The Onion that PR firm Hill & Knowlton was advising the U.S. to cut ties with Alabama, she went to work, made a phone call and posted her findings on Facebook:

“I contacted the PR firm listed in this article, they claim the article is ‘ficticious’ and have no involvement in the alleged study.”

Actually, Jennifer, all Onion articles are fictitious. (Just one c.)

Did she know that when she put in the call to Hill & Knowlton? I called WSFA to find out and was told that Oravet is taking the day off. A newsroom colleague – she wouldn’t give me her name – insisted that the reporter/anchor knew the Hill & Knowlton/Alabama story was fake from the start.

“It doesn’t sound like it based on her Facebook post,” I said.

“Did you see her report?” the colleague asked.

I said I had, and figured she had been set straight about The Onion before going on air. Wrong, I was told — Oravet always knew it was a satirical paper.

WSFA Facebook commenters have their doubts, too. One writes:

“I don’t know what’s better, her original post, or her backpedaling to ‘cover up; her mistake. I’ve done dummy things like that (most recent when I applauded Beyonce at the inauguration… lip sync anyone?) but come on, admit you’re stupid sometimes just like the rest of us.”

Another person writes:

“LOL, so I read through the comments and I see that someone “demands” we give [her] a break. Seriously?? Someone takes the Onion as serious and we should give a break??? Eff that, this was a fail of epic proportions and should be exploited to the nth degree. There’s honestly no coming back from this! Only in Bama!”

I’ve emailed Oravet for comment, hoping she occasionally checks in on days off. I also called and emailed WSFA news director Scott Duff earlier this afternoon.

Doonesbury — Baby, baby.