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Michael Gerson: Gays can keep their rights if they don’t sue for them

In today’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson compares and contrasts the debates over gay rights with the debate over abortion rights — and concludes that gay rights, once gained, will be longer-lasting and more “settled” because they (mostly) haven’t been imposed by an out-of-control judiciary on an unwilling or divided public. Instead, the cause has advanced naturally and gradually through culture. And he warns:

It remains possible that the gay rights movement could provoke a backlash. If the Supreme Court were to strike down restrictions on gay marriage nationally, one could expect a Roe-like reaction in parts of the country.

Gerson might be right in a tactical sense. But his argument ignores a couple of things:

• The advancement of civil rights tends not to take an either-or approach to the question of judicial advances versus cultural advances. The ending of Jim Crow across the South, for example, clearly relied on court cases like Brown v. Board of Education, but the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and his cohorts simply made racism less acceptable as a matter of custom. Racism isn’t gone, of course, but the days of being overtly racist and a participant in polite society are largely over. Both aspects — legal and cultural — were important to including African Americans in the life of the country.

• The argument also ignores the question of whether certain civil rights actually exist under the law. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers differ on this, of course, but if a right to abortion actually exists under the Constitution, then it doesn’t really matter how “settled” the debate is. The whole point of being under the rule of law is to recognize that minority rights often conflict with the desires of the democratic majority.

It’s nice if everybody likes it when you exercise your rights. But it’s not strictly necessary.

Is Barack Obama middle class? Is Ruth Marcus?

The Washington Post runs an article today asking why Barack Obama — “the rare president who comes from the middle class” — seems to be having such a tough time actually connecting to the middle class. It’s a silly thesis.

Why? Because even though Barack Obama grew up with humble beginnings, Americans have never known him in humble circumstances. He bounded onto the national stage in 2004 as a candidate for the U.S. Senate — a lawyer and a writer who had been educated at Columbia and Harvard. An Ivy League education is your ticket into the elite, no matter where you started from. Obama may have been “middle class” during his childhood, but his entire adult life has been spent among that elite.

Truth is, it doesn’t take humble roots to have a “common touch.” Bill Clinton had it — he’d studied at Oxford! — but so did George W. Bush to some extent. (Remember the beer poll?) It’s usually an act; in this case, Obama doesn’t seem to be very good at the faux pork-rind munching that the common touch requires. Which is ok: It would be nice, politically, if he wasn’t so seemingly cool, but we didn’t hire Barack Obama to be our beer buddy.

But the Post probably believes it’s onto something with this “middle class roots” story. And no wonder. Today’s issue also features Ruth Marcus commiserating with working mothers about babysitting problems … because she had a tough time getting reliable child care while she was off to Davos, Switzerland. It’s fair to wonder if the Post really knows what the middle class looks like.

Dana Milbank’s column on Peter Orszag: Dick jokes galore!

Once upon a time, I dimly remember, Dana Milbank was a pretty sharp Washington Post reporter — albeit once with a sense of humor that made his weekly chats at the website both informative and entertaining. As he moved into column writing, though, he became the Post equivalent of Maureen Dowd: trifling, nonsensical and almost completely unilluminating. There was last year’s “Mad Bitch Beer” brouhaha, of course, involving Hillary Clinton. But today we get an even better sense of the depths Milbank has sunk to.

His column about Peter Orszag, the president’s budget director, is a series of dick jokes.

Like:

On Monday morning, we finally learned the secret to Orszag’s sex appeal: The man may look like Louis in “Revenge of the Nerds,” but he has an enormous deficit — $1.6 trillion this year alone, and forecast to last for years, according to the 2011 budget the administration released Monday.

To see the 41-year-old Orszag perform Monday in an auditorium at the White House complex was to see a man with an impressive body of facts, who is not shy about sharing it.

And:

Orszag knew all the moves. “You have to remember,” he told his listeners, that “the 2001-2003 tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug benefit were not subjected to PAYGO.”

Oh, Peter, subject me to PAYGO.

And:

No doubt about it: Orszag has some amazing figures.

As comedy, this is third-rate high school “that’s what she said” stuff. As journalism … well, as journalism, it’s better comedy.

Worse yet, it’s not all that timely. The explosion of Peter Orszag as sexpot stories came last month, when news broke of his engagement to one woman and illegitimate child by another. Milbank’s column about Orszag is late, lame and dumb. He used to be capable of better stuff than this, but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

Are there 400,000 terrorists plotting the destruction of America?

Call me skeptical, but the Washington Post reports that’s how many people are on the FBI’s terrorist watch list.

During a 12-month period ended in March this year, for example, the U.S. intelligence community suggested on a daily basis that 1,600 people qualified for the list because they presented a “reasonable suspicion,” according to data provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee by the FBI in September and made public last week.

The ever-churning list is said to contain more than 400,000 unique names and over 1 million entries. The committee was told that over that same period, officials asked each day that 600 names be removed and 4,800 records be modified. Fewer than 5 percent of the people on the list are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Nine percent of those on the terrorism list, the FBI said, are also on the government’s “no fly” list.

One wants the government to be vigilant about protecting the country from terrorists, of course, but there’s a danger opposite to that of not investigating enough people and that’s investigating too many people. Leave aside, for the moment, the dangers to civil liberties; I’m willing to be a substantial portion — maybe even most — of the names on that list have nothing at all to do with terrorism. But they’re still consuming some of the FBI’s investigative resources. And time spent investigating the innocents might well cause the FBI to overlook the next Mohammed Atta.

In any case, it’s possible that the FBI will do everything as well as can be done — and that a terrorist will still slip through anyway. But the job might be easier if investigators weren’t flooded with so many (probably) false ledes.

Bill Kristol believes insiders like Newt Gingrich are outsiders

Bill Kristol in today’s WaPo:

In a recent Rasmussen poll, the only candidates with double-digit support among Republicans were Mike Huckabee (at 29 percent), Mitt Romney (24 percent), Sarah Palin (18 percent) and Newt Gingrich (14 percent). These four are running way ahead of various senatorial and gubernatorial possibilities. So a party that has over the past two decades nominated a vice president (George H.W. Bush), a senator (Bob Dole), a governor (George W. Bush) and another senator (John McCain), now has as its front-runners four public figures who are, to one degree or another, outsiders.

This is a bit of dishonest framing on Kristol’s part. He surely knows that every president since Jimmy Carter — with the exception of the first George Bush — has won office by running as an “outsider” pledging to bring change of some sort to Washington. Even Al Gore, the sitting vice president, tried to fashion himself as an insurgent with the “people versus the powerful” theme of his 2000 campaign.

But it kind of defies common sense that two governors — one of whom has his own show on Fox News — a vice presidential candidate and a former speaker of the House can in any rational sense be judged as “outsiders.” As always with Kristol, the question is whether he’s lying or dumb. I don’t see why we have to choose.

This is not a story about the media dying. This is a story about the media evolving.

The Washington Post is closing down its weekly tabloid that went to readers across the country. Basically, it was a Reader’s Digest version of the Post’s best reporting and opinionating — and it was a terrific idea to grow the Post brand outside D.C. back in 1984.

National Weekly Edition editor Sharon Scott confirmed that the tabloid, started more than a quarter century ago, will be shuttered.

Circulation, which she said peaked at about 150,000 a decade ago, is now about 20,000.

“Our subscriber base is literally dying off,” she said, noting that many readers are retirees. Like other publications, advertising revenue also has suffered during the recession.

I can’t feel sad about this one. The “National Weekly Edition” went to former D.C. residents, classrooms and pointy-headed intellectuals who had no other way of looking at the Post on a regular basis. But you know what? That’s what the Internet is for! I don’t know the numbers for WashingtonPost.com, but it’s a cinch the site pulls in far more readers from outside the beltway than the old tabloid ever did. No, those readers aren’t paying to look at the Post’s content. But the audience for the Post’s journalism is bigger than ever before. The shutdown of the tabloid isn’t about the loss of that audience, it’s about the audience moving to other Post products.

Robert Samuelson: Paying non-poverty wages is “welfare”

In the Washington Post today, columnist Robert Samuelson talks about America’s “welfare state”:

Broadly speaking, the U.S. welfare system divides into two parts — the private, run by firms; and the public, provided by government. Both are besieged: private companies by competitive pressures; government by rising debt and taxes. GM exemplified the large corporation as private welfare state. In contracts with the United Auto Workers, GM promised high wages, lifetime employment, generous pensions and comprehensive health insurance. All this is ancient history: New workers get skimpier benefits.

This stuff pisses me off. Samuelson basically identifies non-poverty-level compensation for GM’s workers as “welfare.” What crap.

He’s not wrong to say that GM got in over its head with promises to its workers. (As always, it’s worth noting that some of those problems would’ve been alleviated with a national health insurance plan.) (Also worth noting: Nobody forced GM to enter those compensation agreements.) But among some die-hard anti-union capitalists like Samuelson there is a perverse idea that capitalism works best if labor costs are kept to their bare minimum. But the question is: Who would capitalism work best for in that instance? If GM was fabulously successful but its workers couldn’t afford to, say, buy a GM car or send their kids to college or, hell, retire after a lifetime on the assembly line — well, that would suck.

But to be absolutely clear: Compensating your employees who work for you — even compensating them generously — is not “welfare.” Welfare is given to people who can’t or won’t provide for themselves. Wages are paid to people who earn them.

Why is the Washington Post booting Dan Froomkin?

I first started reading Dan Froomkin’s “White House Briefing” — now “White House Watch” — back when I was a reporter in Kansas, and I remember how it opened my eyes to the journalistic possibilities of the Internet. I had grown frustrated with the limitations of coverage of the Kansas congressional delegation; my paper didn’t have a Washington bureau reporter, so we were forced to rely on AP’s sporadic coverage to keep abreast of our state’s (then) powerful Republican senators.

Froomkin, though, made me realize that my paper didn’t need a reporter in D.C. to do a better job covering our congressmen. All we had to do was devote one reporter to use the power of the Internet to track what other news organizations and other resources were saying about the politicians, and distill it into blog form — “aggregation” is what the media professionals call it now. So “Congressional Briefing” was born. I e-mailed Froomkin when it started, and he was nice enough to give me some advice. And my paper’s coverage of Congress improved dramatically, if I do say so myself.

While George W. Bush was in office, Froomkin did more than gather White House-related links from around the web; he organized them and presented context to give readers a clearer, deeper understanding of what was going on. He was sharp-tongued about it — which lead to criticism from conservatives that he was a liberal hack — but Froomkin said his allegiance wasn’t to Democrats, but to accountability. And since Obama had come to office, Froomkin had remained sharp-tongued, apparently being sincere about that accountability thing.

And now the Washington Post has fired Froomkin. What a bad idea. Andrew Alexander, the Post’s ombud, reports:

Froomkin bills his often-irreverent online column as a “pugnacious daily anthology of White House-related items from news Web sites, blogs and other sources.” He does not operate as a White House reporter. Rather, he compiles material about the White House and offers his own commentary, often with a liberal bent.

That slant seemed to attract a large and loyal audience during the Bush administration, but it may have suffered when Barack Obama became president.

Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, whose stable of contributors includes Froomkin, said late Thursday: “With the end of the Bush administration, interest in the blog also diminished. His political orientation was not a factor in our decision.”

This might be a good decision if Froomkin was giving Obama a free pass. He’s not. Even conservatives like Ed Morrissey have admitted as much:

That leaves just a couple of interpretations.  One could be that the Post didn’t trust Froomkin to maintain an hawk-like watch on a Democratic administration.   That might be a problem, but I’ve talked with Froomkin, and he seemed to take that job seriously.  Perhaps the Post thought they couldn’t trust him to do that, but if that was the case, they should have removed him during the Bush years, and they didn’t, so that explanation seems unlikely.

Which leaves me with two explainations:

• The Post recently merged its print and web operations after a longtime division between the two. The print guys were never comfortable with Froomkin’s “pugnaciousness” and at times loudly criticized it. It would appear possible that the new structure of the Post is allowing the print side to strangle a tiny bit of the life out of the web side of things.

• Andrew Sullivan is making the case that the Post is bowing down before its neocon masters. I don’t buy that. I think the opposite is true: I think it is possible the Post is (perhaps inadvertently) pandering to a largely liberal audience that isn’t quite so interested in seeing a takedown of a president they like. That probably has meant a diminished audience for Froomkin.

I’m not going to say that doesn’t matter — hey, I live in online journalism, and I know the importance of traffic — but for a journalism beacon like the Post, that shouldn’t be the end-all be-all of Froomkin’s importance. If Froomkin really was still doing good accountability journalism in an unconventional way — and he was — then the Post is diminished as a journalism brand by his removal.

UPDATE: After a brief chat with somebody a bit more informed than I am, I’m going to weight my explaination a lot more heavily towards the first possibility. The print guys can’t stand the pugnacity of the web. I think they’ll eventualy regret that decision.

Well, it’s good the world’s not going to hell or anything

Both the Washington Post and New York Times have stories about President Obama going gray this morning.

Bill Kristol has a newspaper column again!

Standing athwart history, yelling Maybe later!

Standing athwart history, yelling "Maybe later!"

Now he’s at the Washington Post. And today’s he’s giving advice to Congressional Republicans: Obstruct President Obama. Obstruct him some more. And when that’s done, obstruct him again.

There’s no talk about Republicans putting forth a competing agenda, because — as Kristol himself admits — Republicans don’t have one. That’s something they’ll have to come up with in between obstructing:

Long term, they need fresh thinking in a host of areas of domestic policy, thinking that builds on previous conservative achievements but that deals with the new economic and social realities. In the short term, Republicans need to show a tactical agility and political toughness far greater than their predecessors did in the 1960s and the 1930s.

Right. Figuring out how to solve today’s challenges can wait. There’s too much obstructing to do.