Various matters

More support for "far left" positions. Obama's commendable transparency policy. Scarborough for president?

Published September 4, 2009 4:05PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

(1) A newly released Gallup poll finds the American public almost evenly divided on whether they approve or disapprove (47-49%) of Eric Holder's decision to appoint a prosecutor to investigate torture crimes.  As Greg Sargent notes, the wording of the poll suggests that he's undertaking a much broader investigation than he is -- i.e., it obscures that he's launched a rather limited investigation into whether CIA interrogators exceeded the torture permission slips they were given.  Had it been clear that Holder was undertaking a limited probe -- and, more to the point, had the media consensus not been almost entirely against those investigations (as usual) and the American public thus not subjected to an almost entirely one-sided debate -- support for Holder's investigations would almost certainly be even higher.

But even as is, we find here what one finds on issue after issue:  namely, positions which command broad support among the American public -- but which are disliked by political and media elites -- are dishonestly depicted as being confined to the "Far Left" (see also here and here). 

(2)  The area in which Obama's actions have most betrayed his campaign pledges has almost certainly been transparency and secrecy.  But Obama deserves credit for this:

President Obama will announce today that the White House will regularly make public most of the names of visitors to the White House.

“For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis,” President Obama said in a statement . . . .

Officials say that every month they will post on-line records of visitors from the previous 90-120 days. . . . The new policy is the result of the Justice Department settling lawsuits brought by the good government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which had sought visitors logs from both the Obama and Bush White Houses . . .

The released logs will provide the following information about visitors: their full name, whom they met with, when they entered the White House and when they left. . .

On Twitter, ABC News' Jake Tapper writes:  "if the WH's new transparency policy on visitor logs works as they say, it will constitute a momentous shift in openness from Exec. branch."  I wouldn't go that far -- there are still major problems with the administration's conduct with secrecy -- but, assuming the exceptions aren't abused, this is definitely a substantial step forward. 

(3) In a December 2008 post on nepotism and dynastic succession in politics, I documented that there are no fewer than 15 U.S. Senators "with immediate family members who previously occupied high elected office," and that was not intended to be exhaustive; they're just the ones I found.  I then added:  "Family succession is hardly unheard of in U.S. political history, but what was once quite rare has now become pervasive."  Writing at, political scientist Tom Schaller says that I'm wrong about the historical trend, and features a chart -- based on unpublished research performed by Schaller and another political scientist -- that purports to show the opposite trend:  that the number of U.S. Senators with close relatives in the Congress has been steadily declining. 

My observation was based on numerous factors,  including a lengthy interview I conducted with Dr. Nathan Burroughs of Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, an expert in dynastic succession in American politics.  I then posted a podcast interview with him on the topic, during which he said:

NB: I've seen people who have famous last names tended to climb the ladder much faster and have a long-term political effect. . . But in terms of how level the political system is, it certainly appears that people who have famous last names, particularly political last names, have a real leg up on everyone else. . . .

When I was doing a little bit of work on the Senate, the average number of senators who are from political families in the 1950s was 14. Now's it's 22 in the current Senate before Hillary Clinton resigned, opposed to a high of about 24. About a quarter of the governors in this countries are from political families. The House is not quite as much a problem, it's about 14%. But certainly it looks on the surface like this is a pretty strong trend. . .

GG: So one of the things that you and I talked about, I think a month or so ago, was what is really the trend?  To find that out, you really have to do a statistical analysis. You seem to be suggesting that the trend has actually worsened, at least in the Senate for example, there's an appreciable increase in the past several decades.

NB: It's shocking, actually, when I ran the numbers, the correlation between time, as you advance through time, and the percentage of the Senate which is from political families, is 0.896, which, given the maximum of any correlation is 1, that... It means that every single decade there's been a substantial increase in the average number of senators from political families, and sometimes it will go down in one year, but it will go up by three the following year. It's been very steady.

In the 1950s it was just under 14 senators on average who were from political families, and right now it's 24. If Caroline Kennedy gets the seat it will continue to be 24. And if you look at the possibilities, it's looks like some of these may not manifest. Both Joe Biden in Delaware, Ken Salazar was a serious candidate in Colorado, Jeb Bush just recently announced he's not going to run for the Senate in Florida, but he could have; I was looking at that number could have hit 30 in the next cycle, if everything broke that way, which would have been remarkable. . . .

Now, it's possible that's changed in the last 10 years [in the House], but [dynastic heirs] didn't have a lot of success at the House level in the 1980s, when they were trying to immediately succeed. Now, if you look lately, it seems like on an anecdotal level that they've had a great deal more success in people from the same families perpetuating directly from one year to the next. 

That seems to be virtually the polar opposite of what Schaller says his data reveals.  I'm not sure what accounts for the discrepancy.  I've emailed Dr. Burroughs to ask his view and I'll post whatever I receive.  For one thing, it appears that Schaller is using a much narrower definition of "dynastic" -- he counts only those with family members in Congress as opposed to, say, Governorships or other high political officials; clearly, if the son of a Governor is elected to the U.S. Senate from that state, that should count towards dynastic influences in politics, though Schaller's definition would seem to exclude it (it's also unclear if he is counting spouses as "relatives," which accounts for many of the modern cases).  Additionally, Dr. Burroughs explained that he did not assess pre-World War II trends, whereas Schaller did.  Still, there is clear tension in the claims, but whatever else is true about trends, nepotism and dynastic succession are a major, major part of our contemporary political process (and media culture). 

(4) Chuck Todd this week noted the series of petty scandals the Right has been manufacturing and remarked:  "The ability of some conservatives to create media firestorms is still much greater than liberals these days."  As D-Day notes, this is reflective of one of the more irritating media syndromes:  their tendency to talk about media coverage as though they have nothing to do with it and can't exert any influence over it; media coverage is just something that happens to them.  During my interview with Todd a couple of months ago, he said:

Now you're getting - this has always been something that I've been - not to go off on a sidebar here - but I've been waiting for somebody, during the campaign, to ask both candidates. Because both of them, in the general elections, and frankly even during the primary with then Senator Clinton, all said that the Bush administration tried too hard to expand executive powers. And then you would say, which executive powers are you willing to give up? And none of them would actually say which executive powers, because once you're president you don't want to give up any of your powers.

He was "waiting for somebody" to ask the presidential candidates which executives powers they would relinquish.  It's as though someone forgot to tell him he works at NBC News.  It's very common for media stars to lament how the media covers petty stories or otherwise distorts them -- as though someone is forcing them to do it and they have no agency.  If the Right is better at "creating media firestorms," that's due to what "the media" does.  Also, does anyone ever wonder why the Right would be better at that if we had a Liberal Media?   

(5) Politico's Mike Allen is a frequent guest on MSNBC's Morning Joe, where his "Playbook" column is promoted.  Today, Allen published a lead story in Politico "reporting" that Joe Scarborough -- the host of that program -- is a serious leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.  Seriously.  I think it's safe to assume that Mike Allen's spot on Morning Joe is secure for the foreseeable future, but how desperate must one be to get on TV to be willing to write an article claiming that? 

This article is also yet another installment in the seemingly weekly Politico series claiming the GOP is resurgent (to be led by 2012 presidential nominee Joe Scarborough).  According to the Politico article, the GOP has an excellent chance to defeat Obama in 2012, and one of its "sources" for this claim is Liz Cheney, who explains that Americans are realizing that the GOP is more trustworthy than Democrats on the economy and national security.  That's what they call "reporting" -- calling up Liz Cheney and building an article around her surprising and informative prediction that the GOP is resurgent.  The one thing I will say for Politico is that whenever one thinks they can't get any more absurd and attention-desperate, they prove you wrong. 

(6)  Following up on my post about Afghanistan yesterday:  continuing to wage war in Afghanistan makes things like this inevitable: 

A NATO airstrike before dawn on Friday killed 80 people or more, at least some of them civilians, in a once-calm region of northern Afghanistan that has recently slipped under control of insurgents, Afghan officials said.

Whatever pretty justifications are invented for staying there indefinitely, it's simply impossible to imagine what net good can come of it when things like this continue to happen, as they will.



(7)  About the White House's new transparency policy, the ACLU's Michael German said:

The White House is the people's house, and after years of closed doors, Americans will finally know more about who consults the administration on matters of public policy. This is an important and welcome step towards increasing transparency and public accountability.

While the new policy is commendable, some vaguely worded exceptions to it do raise concerns about the potential for abuse in classifying matters under the umbrella of national security. We encourage President Obama to define these exceptions narrowly and to keep secret visits in the White House to a minimum. The ACLU will continue to hold the administration to its commitment to be, in its own words, "the most open and transparent administration in history."

That sums up this development rather accurately, I believe.



(8)  Illustrating the transparency benefits of the new disclosure policy which CREW extracted through its litigation, the Obama White House released to CREW today numerous documents chronicling the extensive White House meetings which Obama officials -- including the President -- have had with representatives of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries over the past several months as health care policy was being formulated.  The idea that the White House has just been sitting by passively watching Congress try to formulate health care policy was absurd from the beginning (as I argued here).  These documents seem to bolster that fact rather compellingly, and illustrate the value of knowing with whom government officials are meeting.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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