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Why I Love Politics: Jeffords, Perry and Zakaria

This Sunday’s Shorts:

Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve received more email and twitter responses regarding my posts about allegations that Fareed Zakaria is guilty of plagiarism than I have about any of my Michael Brown-related posts. The OurBadMedia website that published the original accusations against Zakaria has now posted a second set allegedly “showing how Zakaria blatantly and repeatedly plagiarized in not just what is his most popular book, but two different cover stories for the magazines he used to serve as editor for, Foreign Affairs and Newsweek.” As yet, however, as Politico’s Dylan Byers notes, the charges do not seem to be gaining much traction in the national press, in contrast to the allegations from two years ago which led to Zakaria’s suspension. This may be because it is not clear that this is outright plagiarism or – as some readers have suggested – it may be that media members are reluctant to condemn one of their own. Among those on my twitterverse feed, however, most of the comments are along these lines: “Wait, @MattDickinson44, are you seriously pretending this might not be plagiarism???? pic.twitter.com/WbEyTN2Wg9” Whatever the merits of the charges, the bottom line remains this (my students, take heed!): when in doubt, quote and cite!

In this era of a polarized punditry, it was perhaps surprising to see agreement among pundits on the Left and the Right regarding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent indictment, and it is not just because of his mug shot. While it may not be the case that, as a RedState pundit claimed, “If Perry has the right team in place, which it looks like he does, he can ride this Democrat overreach into the top slot of the 2016 GOP primary”, this does seem to be an instance of a Democratic prosecutor trying to criminalize a political act. Or, as one columnist drawing on legal expertise put it, the “Rick Perry indictment is the dumbest thing since Rick Perry.” The Perry campaign wasted no time on milking the charges for political gain, with everything from campaign ads to t-shirts publicizing what they claim is partisan-driven prosecutorial excess.

Still, not everyone sees this as a win for Perry. And, in fact, if the charges do stick – most legal experts think this is farfetched – it’s hard to see how Perry’s presidential aspirations will be helped. In the meantime, however, he’s wasting no time in trying to capitalize on this free publicity.

Finally, former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords’ funeral was held yesterday. Almost every one of his obituaries led with reference to his decision in 2001 to bolt the Republican Party and caucus with Senate Democrats, thus giving Democrats a Senate majority. While it is probably not true that his decision “singlehandedly bent the arc of politics” – Democrats retained their majority for a mere 18 months – it did create a national sensation at the time of his announcement. In announcing his decision, Jeffords stated that, “I have changed my party label, but I have not changed my beliefs. Indeed, my decision is about affirming the principles that have shaped my career.”  He may have meant that.  However, left unsaid in the countless obituaries was just how far Jeffords’ voting record moved left during his remaining four-plus years as a Senator. In fact, in the years after he declared as an independent, his voting record was consistently more liberal than not just every Senate Republican’s – it was to the left of most Senate Democrats as well. I will go into more detail about this in a separate post, but it is a reminder that small state Senators typically have a deeper electoral cushion than do their large-state colleagues, and hence more flexibility in how they cast their votes.

Jeffords, Perry and Zakaria.  You can’t make this stuff up.  It’s why I love politics.

 

 

A President’s Dilemma: Race, Riots and Midterm Elections

With recent polling suggesting a slight hardening of opinion against demonstrators in Ferguson, we take our WayBack machine to September 1966, as President Lyndon Johnson struggles to balance pressure from activists advocating stronger leadership on civil rights against a growing backlash among moderate voters triggered in part by a series of race-related riots in urban areas. Heading into the fall midterms, Democrats running for office grew increasingly concerned that Johnson’s handling of civil rights was going to be a drag on the party’s fortunes.

On September 6, 1966 several thousand people rioted in the Summerhill neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia after Atlanta police shot a black male suspected of being a car thief. White House Fellow Tom Johnson spent a week in the Southeast gauging political sentiments among opinion leaders in that period, and filed the following report with LBJ’s senior White House aide Bill Moyers.  Johnson drew two important conclusions from his meetings with opinion leaders during his trip: First, they felt the “President is not playing ‘fair’ on civil rights issues” and second, “The President should not come into the Southeast before the November elections.” Here are the first two pages of the three-page memo to Moyers:

race relations 9.66(1)

LBJ Johnson memo 2

What, according to these opinion leaders, should LBJ do to change the political calculus? “Treat Negro rioters with rebuke equal that given white troublemakers in past.”

Note that the “Carmichael riot” cited in the second page of the memo refers to the Summerhill area riot in Atlanta. Stokely Carmichael, a leader of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), had been accused of inciting the riot in the immediate aftermath of the police shooting. (At this time SNCC had spearheaded a voting rights drive in Atlanta with the goal of electing a black to the Georgia legislature, but there was disagreement with SNCC regarding what role whites should play in the movement. That presaged a split in the civil rights movement regarding the most effective tactics for furthering the movement’s goals.)

As Johnson’s memo makes clear, not all of the displeasure with LBJ was due to civil rights; Johnson’s memo also notes the first signs of growing unease with the U.S. escalating military presence in Vietnam, and rising concern over inflation. All three issues proved increasingly intractable, and in combination helped fuel the end of the Democrat’s New Deal coalition and the rise of the “Republican majority”. In the 1966 midterm elections, Republicans gained 47 seats in the House, and three in the Senate, although Democrats retained majorities in both chambers. It was a harbinger of things to come. With the exception of Carter’s four years as president, Republicans – bolstered by support from an increasingly Republican south together with white, middle- and working-class Northerners (the so-called Reagan Democrats), would hold the Presidency for the next two decades, and control the Senate too from 1981-87. Despite losing popular support in presidential elections, however, Democrats were able to hold on their House majority throughout this period in part due to the increasing importance of incumbency which helped shelter party members from national currents.

It is far too early to draw firm conclusions regarding the implications, if any, of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent Ferguson demonstrations on national politics.  But as the Johnson memo to Moyers reminds us, and as President Obama knows all too well, the effort to balance protection for civil rights with concern for law and order is an exceedingly difficult task – one for which presidents are unlikely to win any political rewards no matter what their stance.

Repeat After Me: Zakaria, Plagiarism and Magnanimity

Fareed Zakaria, the host of the CNN news show GPS and a Washington Post columnist, is on the hot seat for the second time in two years for allegations that he plagiarized material for use in his written work. Some of you will recall that in August 2010 Zakaria was briefly suspended for posting a passage in his Time magazine column that bore a close resemblance to a passage written by Jill LePore in her New Yorker article on the same topic. Zakaria admitted that the event was a “terrible mistake” and was briefly suspended, but was reinstated after his editors deemed it a one-time event.  At the time the original accusation occurred, I posted this response that, while not necessarily defending Zakaria, certainly expressed some empathy for how that mistake could occur, since I had nearly made a similar mistake myself.

Now, however, two anonymous bloggers at the Our Bad Media website are claiming that Zakaria “has a history of lifting material in his work across several major publications – despite public assurances from his employers that a previous plagiarism scandal was only an isolated incident.” This is the same duo who accused Buzzfeed’s Benny Johnson of multiple instances of copying material verbatim from various online sources.  Johnson was subsequently fired.

It is not clear that Zakaria is even guilty of the charges, never mind that he might suffer Johnson’s fate. In a communication sent to Politico he vigorously denied the accusations, arguing that he did in fact cite sources and otherwise drew on material that was clearly part of the public record. Here is part of his defense: “My usual procedure with a piece of data that I encounter is to check it out, going as close to the original source as is possible. If the data is government generated (GDP, spending on pensions, tax rates, defense spending, etc.) then I often don’t cite a source since it is in the public domain. If it is a study or survey produced by a think tank, then I usually cite the institution that conducted the survey. In many of these cases, there was a link in my column to the source. This was not always possible, however, because Time magazine, for example, did not always allow for links. My columns are often data-heavy, so I try to use common sense, putting a source into the text when it was necessary. In many of the columns cited by the bloggers, I found the data they refer to in a primary source not the secondary one that they highlight.” Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s boss at the Washington Post has already dismissed the one case cited by the bloggers that involved a Zakaria column for that paper.  As I noted in my earlier post on this topic, I’m not completely objective here, but I find some of the latest claims against Zakaria to stretch the meaning of the term plagiarism as I understand it. However, I’ll let you be the judge.

So why take up this topic in a blog devoted to analyzing the presidency and American politics, if not to debate Zakaria’s guilt or innocence?  One reason is that this topic is increasingly relevant to those of us who blog – and to those who read our blogs. The charges against Zakaria are likely to resurrect an earlier debate triggered by the Johnson case regarding what constitutes plagiarism in the digital age. While some participants dismissed Johnson’s actions as a trivial copying of fluffy material, the New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan did not: “It’s pretty simple, at BuzzFeed or at The New York Times: Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link. Use multiple sources; compare, contrast, verify.” She went on to point out that with the availability of online search programs, it is becoming increasingly easy to catch cases of plagiarism.

The flip side of that, however, is that in the digital age, the temptation to cut and paste, or more typically to closely paraphrase on-line sources, is all the greater. Anyone who blogs frequently, as I do, is aware of this. As I noted in my earlier post on Zakaria’s initial plagiarism charge, “the proliferation of news aggregators has made it easier to justify using other writers’ material without attribution. I am not immune to this temptation. Almost every day I post an 800-1,500 word comment that more often than not is based in part on someone else’s research and/or insights. I work without an editor, and although I am careful to follow journalistic norms by citing other’s work (thanks to my year as a cub reporter for a daily paper, I have some journalistic training), I live in constant fear that I will have forgotten a link, or dropped a reference such as “As so-and-so said” in my blog post. And once I hit the send button, it’s very hard to make corrections.”

Those fears have, if anything, become slightly more magnified now that I’m posting almost daily at the Christian Science Monitor and weekly at U.S. News. I appreciate the broader audience, and I would not be able to produce material on an almost daily basis for their consumption were it not for the fact we live in the digital age, where a world of information is available at a keystroke – even here, in God’s Green Hills, where woodchucks outnumber people. But it’s not just bloggers who have to remain vigilant against falling into sloppy attribution practices.  My students are returning to campus, and if the past is any guide, more than one of them is going to wrestle this year with the issues that have gotten Zakaria in hot water.  So that I might prevent a trip before the judicial board (never mind Our Bad Media!), let me reiterate some simple but important guidelines that students might find helpful as they navigate through the Brave New Digital world.

1. When I directly quote anything, I put it in quotations marks and cite the source. Even if I paraphrase, my general rule is to err on the side of caution and cite the source if this can be even remotely construed as someone else’s material.  You are never going to get in trouble by crediting someone else for inspiring what you wrote, no matter how trivial the material.

2. When I come up with a wonderful idea (say, the special theory of relativity) but am vaguely aware that someone else might have discussed this too (that Al guy?), my default option is to be generous and cite the previous work. I’m cognizant that my “original” idea might in fact owe something to someone else’s research. Moreover, citing related work helps situate my argument in the broader literature, and gives reader a way to assess the intellectual background associated with the particular topic.

I’m acutely aware that the pressure to publish regularly, and to drive audiences to one’s site can tempt one to take shortcuts when it comes to citing sources for ideas and information. “I was first!” is an emotion that dates back to kindergarten, if not earlier. I suspect those pressures are magnified as one moves up the media food chain. However, I know from experience that my students feel similar pressure when they realize that the 5-page paper analyzing Obama’s sources of power is due the next morning. My advice under those circumstances is to be magnanimous – cite your sources, no matter how tangential to your argument. You’ll be glad you did. And it just might keep you from becoming the inspiration for the new website Our Bad Student.

Same-Sex Marriage: Reigniting the Culture War?

Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney gave a highly publicized speech at the conservative Liberty University yesterday.  The speech was billed as an opportunity for Romney to reach out to a group – evangelicals – who so far have shown him only lukewarm support during the Republican nomination race.  (Most of you will recall that high turnout among evangelicals was the single most consistent predictor of a Romney primary loss.) Many pundits wondered whether Romney would use the Liberty University speech as an opportunity to push back against President Obama’s recent announcement that he now supported same-sex marriage. Indeed, social commentators such as Patrick Buchanan argued that Obama’s open support of same-sex marriage – “the Antietam of the culture war” – might cost him the presidency.  “Obama,” Buchanan declared in reference to Obama’s decision to publicly back same-sex marriage, “may also have just solved Mitt Romney’s big problem: How does Mitt get all those evangelical Christians and cultural conservatives not only to vote for him but to work for him?”

Cue the Liberty University speech. However, rather than make Obama’s declaration the centerpiece of his address, Romney only referenced gay marriage once, saying, “Culture — what you believe, what you value, how you live — matters. As fundamental as these principles are, they may become topics of democratic debate from time to time. So it is today with the enduring institution of marriage. Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.” Although that statement triggered a standing ovation and the largest applause of the address, Romney did not elaborate this point, nor did he address social cultural issues more generally. Nor did he discuss his Mormon faith, choosing instead to speak more generally about Judeo-Christian values.

Why didn’t Romney come out more strongly against same-sex marriage?  There are two reasons, I think.  First, he can read the public opinion trend lines as well as anyone.  As I noted in my last post, opposition to same-sex marriage has been dropping during the last decade, so that today, as this Pew Poll indicates, a slight plurality of the public now supports same-sex marriage.

Other polls suggest support is over 50%. This trend follows growing support for accepting homosexuality more generally.

More importantly, about half of independents, who promise to be the key voting bloc come November, are also same-sex marriage supporters.  That’s up by 18% in the last decade-and-a-half.

There’s a clear generational bias at play here, with younger voters – the so-called millennials – showing greatest support for same-sex marriage, while opposition is strongest among the oldest cohort.  Interestingly, most African-Americans still oppose same-sex marriage, although support is growing among this group as well.  There is little risk, however, that their opposition will lead them to vote against Obama come November.

The bottom line is that Romney recognizes what I argued in my last post: that support for same-sex marriage is not going to hurt Obama, and it may help him, particularly among younger voters and, possibly, independents.  It may also have given Obama a short-term fundraising boost among his base.  To be sure, some 30-plus states have banned same-sex marriage, so this is not to say that Obama wants to make this the centerpiece of his reelection bid.  But neither does it suggest that Romney will gain much by publicizing his opposition.

This leads me to the second reason why Romney did not make a bigger deal of his opposition to same-sex marriage: it’s not an issue that concerns many Americans.  Consider this bevy of polls at Pollingreport.com asking what Americans consider to be the most important issue facing the country.  Cultural issues, such as gay rights, same-sex marriage or family values, barely register in the single digits.   Economic issues, including jobs and the budget deficit, on the other hand, consistently top the list of highest concerns among a strong majority of those polled.   The implication is clear: while same sex headlines may grab the headlines today- David Gregory made it the centerpiece on Meet the Press this morning -  and while it is of deep concern to activists in both parties, this issue is simply not going to be influencing very many voters come November.  It may be, as Buchanan would have us believe, that “everything is up for grabs this November: the House, the Senate, the presidency, the Supreme Court and whether we still call the United States of America God’s country.”  The reality, however, is that November’s vote will not turn on whether and how voters read the Bible – it will turn on what’s in their pocketbooks. It’s still the economy, stupid.

“You Lie!”: Assessing Claims About Obamacare’s Cost

Three days ago the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)  released its latest 10-year projection for the cost of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), prompting a flurry of  “I told you so’s” from Republican Party leaders, conservative bloggers and other critics of Obamacare. That’s because the CBO report estimated  ACA’s 10-year cost to be $1.76 trillion, or nearly double what President Obama indicated in his September, 2009 nationwide address to a joint session of Congress . (You remember that speech – it’s the one during which Representative Joe Wilson called out “You lie!”)  In making the case for his health plan to Congress, Obama stated: “Now, add it all up, and the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over 10 years — less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration. Now, most of these costs will be paid for with money already being spent — but spent badly — in the existing health care system.  The plan will not add to our deficit.”   In fact, the CBO estimated at the time that the health care plan – which they eventually priced at $940 billion over a 10-year period – would not only not increase the deficit – it would actually reduce it.

The CBO cost estimates were a crucial factor in the health care debate because the projected decrease in the budget deficit provided political cover to ACA’s supporters.  With the latest 10-year CBO projections, however, ACA’s critics are crying foul, arguing that the public fell victim to a Democratic bait-and-switch scheme.  However, as liberal bloggers and other defenders of ACA were quick to point out (see here and here and here), the most recent CBO report did not suddenly change costs projections or any of the previous assumptions on which it based its estimated 10-year cost of Obamacare. That’s because the latest 10-year projection, which by law the CBO must produce every year, includes both additional costs but also more revenue – both a function of adjusting figures based on ACA’s implementation date. Remember, ACA doesn’t begin to be fully implemented until 2014, when provisions expanding Medicare eligibility for the poor and the insurance subsidies for middle-income people kick in.  Additional provisions, such as the tax on high-end insurance plans, don’t start until 2018.

The point is that the initial cost estimate Obama used in his 2009 speech was based on several years in which ACA wasn’t really in effect. The latest CBO estimate includes more years under actual ACA coverage, so the costs appear to be going up.  But so are projected revenues.  In fact, under the latest CBO projection, it is estimated that 10-year impact of ACA will reduce the budget deficit more than previously estimated.  As the (much maligned) Fox News accurately reports, “As expensive as it is, the CBO predicts the law will actually reduce the deficit because it increases the income from a range of tax increases and penalties on individuals, employers and insurance companies — by $81 billion more than last year’s projection.” To ACA’s supporters, then, conservative critics either failed to read the text of the CBO report, or they are deliberately misrepresenting its findings.

Projections that ACA will actually reduce the budget deficit are not likely to mollify its conservative critics who point out that the CBO also estimates that in total some 4 million people will lose employer-sponsored health coverage – a figure that belies Obama’s claim that ACA would not affect people’s existing health care coverage.  ACA’s defenders point out, however, that this number is less than 2% of those who currently have employer-based coverage.

And so the debate goes on. In assessing the competing claims, here’s what I think you need to keep in mind: efforts to estimate the likely cost of ACA a decade out are little more than educated guesses.  No one really knows what impact ACA will have on the budget deficit that far in advance.  To begin, given the current court challenge (the Supreme Court will hear challenges to ACA this month), no one can be sure which ACA provisions, if any, will still be in place a decade from now.  But even if ACA survives the legal challenge, there are far too many unknowns to have any faith in a 10-year projection based on estimates of costs and revenues.

Consider the CBO’s 10-year government budget estimates more generally.  Under the current law, the CBO is required to estimate government spending and revenues over a 10-year period, and its “non-partisan” projections are closely watched by government policymakers as well as those in the private sector. Independent analyses show, however, that the CBO’s 10-year budget projections aren’t very reliable.  This isn’t because CBO analysts lack expertise, or that they are somehow biased. It is because they are tasked with an impossible job. For starters, the CBO is required to assume that existing laws governing government spending and revenue aren’t going to change over the projected timeline.  That’s almost never the case.  But even if it were, other economic variables, including changes in GDP, inflation and even demographic factors are almost impossible to accurately anticipate.  Forget 10-year estimates – studies show that the CBO’s one-year budget projections aren’t much more precise than simply assuming that next year’s economic numbers will mimic this year’s.  As evidence, consider the following graph showing actual and projected CBO budget figures across a 10-year period:

As you can see, the CBO projections completely missed the coming housing collapse and the accompanying economic recession, not to mention spending on two wars – as did everyone else!  We should be skeptical, then, when we hear pundits evaluate ACA based on its estimated budgetary impact a decade from now.  Unlike Joe Wilson, I’m not accusing anyone of lying. But typically judgments about ACA say more about the pundit’s own ideological leanings than they do about any certainty about what ACA’s actual economic impact is likely to be, particularly that far ahead. This is not to say that the CBO projections are wrong – in fact, they may be the best projections available – but they are projections made with a great deal of uncertainty.  The truth, I think, is that there are simply too many moving parts and too many unknowns to be confident in predicting how ACA is going to play out.  But that won’t stop both sides from trying.