Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Reading

Failure Is An Option — Liza Mundy in The Atlantic on how losing is the new winning.

When is a public figure’s failure a sign of abiding character flaws, and when is it a harbinger of growth? When is an attempted comeback a marker of tenacity, and when is it a red flag signifying a delusional lack of self-awareness? And—considering that Louisiana Senator David Vitter is still in office despite the prostitution problem that came to light in 2007—is it even possible, in our scandal-sogged culture, for a politician to permanently fail?

Once upon a time, it was. “In the old days, if you were involved in a scandal, and if it was sufficiently bad, you sort of did the honorable thing. You know: ‘I have committed an unpardonable sin, and I’m going to drop out and never run again,’ ” the political analyst Charlie Cook told me. The failure didn’t have to be full-fledged; it could be a mere foible. In 1972, Edmund Muskie’s presidential candidacy was short-circuited when he was widely believed to have cried during a press conference (a charge he denied); despite his stature in the Senate, he never again enjoyed serious presidential prospects. When, in the course of the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, Gary Hart was discovered to be monkeying around with Donna Rice, he dropped out of the race and went into seclusion. He later attempted a comeback, but it fizzled.

These days, complete failure is less assured. “More people are taking two or three direct torpedo hits to the engine room and trying to keep going,” Cook says. In part, this is because the electorate has grown more understanding of everything from mental instability to marital trouble; thanks are also due to certain politicians who pushed the boundaries of the possible. Cook believes that Bill Clinton’s success in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic primary, following the Gennifer Flowers scandal, marked a turning point, as did Clinton’s subsequent survival of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The acceleration of the news cycle has also helped to keep failure from sticking the way it once did. As Wendy Mogel, the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, the seminal adversity-is-good-for-you parenting manual, put it to me, the speed with which one viral scandal displaces another lulls an Anthony Weiner into thinking that he can plausibly argue, “I haven’t done anything wrong since 2012 and a half.”

The public still has its limits, of course; failure at one’s actual job is one. “People really liked Jimmy Carter,” points out the pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, but his inability to deal effectively with the economy or the Iranian hostage crisis meant “there was no coming back.” Job failure is not the same thing as pre-job failure, however: many politicians lost bids for the presidency before they won. The ur-example may be Richard Nixon, whose legendary goodbye to politics (“You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”) was followed several years later by a presidential victory. We have a robust tradition of electoral loss’s serving as a corrective to hubris. As an incumbent governor, a certain young Arkansas hotshot lost touch with the voters who had put him in the governor’s mansion. He failed to win reelection, won those voters back, and never forgot the lesson.

All of which calls to mind another Clinton. Hillary’s career has absorbed any number of mortal wounds and failures: the implosion of the health-care-reform effort she spearheaded as first lady, her husband’s betrayals, her loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. Pressing on has only driven up her favorability ratings. “She just gritted it out,” Cook says. “Even a lot of Republicans at the end [of the primary] said, ‘Wow, she showed a lot of character.’ ”

In real life, of course, failure is sometimes just that: failure. Truth is, the current catalogue of pro-failure literature does not celebrate failure in all forms. We like failure when, and only when, it ends in victory. “Lots of people never achieve their goals; they do not achieve their dreams, even though they have worked really hard and prepared themselves,” points out Scott Sandage, a historian and the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. “To believe that failure is only a valuable lesson if it leads eventually to triumph really isn’t embracing failure at all. It’s crossing your fingers behind your back that eventually you’re going to succeed.” Victory and loss are often beyond our control, whatever we might like to think about our ability to triumph over circumstance.

Too Nice — Kevin Drum in New York on how the Republicans fixed the farm bill.

Republicans hate domestic spending, but their hatred is not completely indiscriminate. Some programs offend them more, and others less. The general pattern is that social programs offend Republicans to the degree that they benefit the poor, sick, or otherwise unfortunate. The struggle over the farm bill is not the biggest policy dispute in American politics, but it is the one that most clearly reveals the priorities and ideological identity of the contemporary GOP.

The farm bill traditionally combines agriculture subsidies (which hands out subsidies to people on the arbitrary basis that the business they own produces food as opposed to some other goods or services) with food stamps (which hands out subsidies to people on the highly nonarbitrary basis that they’re poor enough to likely have trouble scraping together regular meals). Conservative Republicans revolted against the normally automatic passage, insisting that the cuts to food stamps — $20 billion — did not slice deeply enough. Last night the House rectified its failure by cutting food stamps by $40 billion.

The putative rationale for the food-stamp cuts is that eligibility standards have loosened, or that it encourages sloth. Jonathan Cohn makes quick work of these claims, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities makes long, detailed work of them. Click on those links if you want a blow-by-blow refutation. The upshot is that food stamps are a meager subsidy, of less than $1.40 per meal, for people either stuck in very low paid jobs or unable to find work at all. Their cost has increased because the recession has increased the supply of poor, desperate people. Republicans have offered specious comparisons to welfare reform, but that law both offered funds for job training and was passed in a full-employment economy. Neither of these conditions holds true of the GOP’s food-stamp cuts, whose only significant result would be the first-order effect of making very poor people hungrier.

Get the Hook — Andy Borowitz says Justice Scalia wants a new pope.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Saying he was “sorry it had to come to this,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said today that he was forming an “independent search committee” to select a new Pope.

The visibly upset jurist appeared at a press conference with the sole other member of the newly formed search committee, Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justice Scalia said he had “no other alternative” but to pick a new Pope himself after reading what he called a “disturbing” interview with Pope Francis today: “The Pope said he doesn’t want to speak out against abortion and gay marriage. Well, sorry, my friend, but that’s the entire job description. You should have thought of that before you let them blow that white smoke in Rome.”

Justice Scalia acknowledged that only the College of Cardinals has the legal authority to choose a Pope, but added, “Quite frankly, those jokers got us into this mess. Right, Clarence?”

Justice Thomas had no comment.

Doonesbury — Baby, baby.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. The farm subsidies exist because farmers produce food. Does that mean that the 40-50% of the corn crop that goes to ethanol is not subsidized? And on the SNAP program, why would Repubs not want to subsidize big buisnesses like Walmart and other retailers and resturant chains whose employees need to supplement their meager pay?

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