Category Archives: E.J.Dionne

Insured by Smith and Wesson

I think bringing guns to a town hall meeting about health care makes no sense at all (unless you're on your way to Afghanistan or Iraq, or police duty, or something like that, and have no where to put your gun(s).).  The people bringing the guns, however, seem to do so to make a point about freedom–freedom for guns, I suppose.  But we were talking about health care, so I don't get it.  Despite the ravings of several enumerated lunatics, a system of universal health care derived from obligatory taxes is (1) clearly not unconstitutional and (2) it has nothing to do with guns (other than fixing the wounds caused by them).  Finally, few people want to argue with the guy with an assault rifle.  Maybe that's the point.  If it is, poo-poo on the gun toters for trying to intimidate people.    

Having said that, Now here's a crappy argument from E.J.Dionne against the bringing of guns:

The Obama White House purports to be open to the idea of guns outside the president's appearances. "There are laws that govern firearms that are done state or locally," Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said on Tuesday. "Those laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality."

Gibbs made you think of the old line about the liberal who is so open-minded he can't even take his own side in an argument.

What needs to be addressed is not the legal question but the message that the gun-toters are sending.

[For the record, I can't find the transcript of this remark, so I can't tell what question was asked]  Dionne mocks Gibbs' (political) answer in one paragraph, and then affirms it in the second one.  It's not a legal question, obviously; the people with the guns were not violating the law (it's up to local law enforcement to maintain order, etc.).  As another political matter, by the way, Gibbs knows (I guess) that had he said, "shame on the gun people," we would be talking about that, and not, for instance, health care.  I can think of an example of where someone said something about a white guy with a gun and our liberal media changed the subject from health care (any subject but that) to the white guy with a gun–care to guess what I'm talking about anyone?

Along those lines, Dionne wants to do the same thing:

On the contrary, violence and the threat of violence have always been used by those who wanted to bypass democratic procedures and the rule of law. Lynching was the act of those who refused to let the legal system do its work. Guns were used on election days in the Deep South during and after Reconstruction to intimidate black voters and take control of state governments.

Yes, I have raised the racial issue, and it is profoundly troubling that firearms should begin to appear with some frequency at a president's public events only now, when the president is black. Race is not the only thing at stake here, and I have no knowledge of the personal motivations of those carrying the weapons. But our country has a tortured history on these questions, and we need to be honest about it. Those with the guns should know what memories they are stirring.

I remember seeing a black guy with an AR-15 (that's an assault rifle of sorts).  Besides, I wouldn't expect someone inclined to bring a gun to a debate about health care had in mind the vaguely relevant question of civil rights.  As in the other case, this is not what it seems.

The gun guys and gals, I imagine, want to change the subject from the content of the debate inside of the hall, to the fact that someone had a gun outside of it.  They're as silly as the ravings of the "Obama wants to ration toilet paper set."  Let's ignore them.

Why don’t they live by it?

E.J. Dionne tries out an argument against concealed carry laws, with disastrous results.  He writes:

Isn't it time to dismantle the metal detectors, send the guards at the doors away and allow Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights by being free to carry their firearms into the nation's Capitol?

I've been studying the deep thoughts of senators who regularly express their undying loyalty to the National Rifle Association, and I have decided that they should practice what they preach. They tell us that the best defense against crime is an armed citizenry and that laws restricting guns do nothing to stop violence.

If they believe that, why don't they live by it?

. . . . 

Don't think this column is offered lightly. I want these guys to put up or shut up. If the NRA's servants in Congress don't take their arguments seriously enough to apply them to their own lives, maybe the rest of us should do more to stop them from imposing their nonsense on our country. 

This argument has the sour flavor of the ad hominem tu quoque: If Senators in favor of concealed carry laws were serious, they would not permit gun restrictions at their own place of work (they don't, so their argument is wrong).  That criticism is silly and misdirected.

I think these senators would consent to people carrying weapons around them at other places (say at their local Qwik E Mart in their home state)–at least that's what the laws they support allow.  The US Capitol is an exception to such laws (for reasons too plain to mention).  So the other part of this argument is a nearly textbook fallacy of accident: applying a general rule to an obvious exception.

As one who opposes relaxing gun laws (most of the time), I find this argument (and this endorsement of it) embarrassing.


**7/28/09 edits for elegance–

La’ ci darem la mano

E.J. Dionne seems conflicted about gay marriage.  He writes:

And, as a New York Court of Appeals judge cited by the California court majority noted, fundamental rights "cannot be denied to particular groups on the ground that these groups have historically been denied those rights." If history and tradition had constrained us, equal rights for African Americans would never have become law.

But to find a constitutional right to gay marriage, the California majority chose to argue that the state's very progressive law endorsing domestic partnerships for homosexuals — it grants all the rights of marriage except the name — was itself a form of discrimination.

This is odd and potentially destructive. As Justice Carol Corrigan argued in her dissent, "to make its case for a constitutional violation, the majority distorts and diminishes the historic achievements" of the state's Domestic Partnership Act.

The court found, correctly according to Dionne, that the domestic partnership law–however historically  "progressive"–amounted to discrimination.  Dionne ought to know that these two laws are different things (the progressive one about domestic partnership and the one about marriage).  "Progressive" legislation aimed at circumventing legal discrimination (the denial of marriage to homosexuals for whatever reason) may be nice, but it still endorses the discrimination as legal (so goes, at least, the argument of the California court).  So even if the legislation is, in its proper historical context quite "progressive", that fact hardly justifies maintaining it.  Imagine had equal rights been handled this way–let's not call them "rights" but "things due" or something like that.  Dionne's position, it seems to me, is just the obverse–the double negative as it were–of the argument he has just rejected.  That is to say, the "progressiveness" of the legislation is no more reason to maintain it than the fact that such discrimination has long been lawful.      



It’s not often that one finds someone who embodies an odd philosophical position.  Nobody really is a solipsist (although I think I knew someone once who was).  I’m beginning to think, however, that E.J. Dionne, liberal columnist for the Washington Post, might be an epiphenomenalist, that is, someone who believes the mind has no causal influence on the body, but is merely a byproduct of the brain’s workings.  The epiphenomenalist can merely observe the body doing the things it does, he cannot will the body to do as he wants.  The body does what it wants, then the mind makes up a story explaining why that was what it wanted to do.  In a similar fashion, Dionne observes political changes and viewpoints (even his own) without really intervening.  Here he is yesterday:

The era of the religious right is over. Even absent the rise of urgent
new problems, Americans had already reached a point of exhaustion with
a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan and

That style reflected a spirit far too certain of itself and far too
insistent on the moral depravity of its political adversaries. It had
the perverse effect of narrowing the range of issues on which religious
traditions would speak out and thinning our moral discourse. Precisely
because I believe in a strong public role for faith
, I would insist
that it is a great sellout of those traditions to assert that religion
has much to say about abortion and same-sex marriage but little to
teach us about war and peace, social justice and the environment.

I’d have two things to say about that last paragraph.  First, where someone else might say why faith ought to have a strong public role, Dionne uses his believe in faith (odd as that may see) as the explanans–the thing that explains–his position.  This is pure Dionne, of course, where an argument is necessary, he brings an explanation.  Thus his argumentative epiphenomenalism: no one in his world has reasons for her positions, there are in fact only personal or psychological explanations.  These may be in some sense accurate and helpful, but they really belong to something other than political argument.  

Here’s the second point.  People whose faith differs from Dionne’s have a lot to say about war and peace, social justice, and the environment.  It’s just a little different.  Ok it’s a lot different.  It involves Armageddon, dominion, and so forth.  Dionne seems to think it’s wrong.  Perhaps in another column he can argue for that claim.  After all, they argue for theirs. 

Post Game

Maybe you’re not like me, but I open the op-ed page for directives from the liberal media.  Most of the time, however, the liberal media disappoints.  I get instead a kind of post game breakdown of the sort you’d find in the most technical of sports sections.  There’s an election going on, as some of you may know, and the candidates (in particular the Democrats) are out there making their case–"vote for me because of I am a better fit for the job–my judgment, record, etc., make me so."  So, liberal media, who is better?  Let’s ask E.J.Dionne:

To be sure, just about everyone anticipated that when the field
narrowed, Clinton would be one of the contenders left standing. She had
won allies from her work for her husband and in the Senate, was helped
by the residual affection for Bill Clinton in many parts of the party, and created a support base among women.

But the scenario-builders pondering this contest two years ago imagined
a showdown between Clinton and — let’s be honest — a white guy. It
was thought that a moderate Democrat (popular choices included Mark Warner of Virginia and Evan Bayh of Indiana) would cast himself as the "electable" alternative to the "divisive" Clinton.

Alternatively, John Edwards
had the chance to go at Clinton from her left (he’d run against
"Clintonomics" as the pro-labor, mill-town-born populist) and from her
right (he was, after all, a Southern white man).

Obama upended all these calculations. Warner and Bayh understood how
much the race had changed and decided not to run. Obama bested Edwards
in Iowa, effectively blocking Edwards’s only path to contention.

He doesn’t care.  While his conservative colleagues stake out clear positions and defend them–urging others to believe as they do–Dionne can’t bother do anything other than, er, color commentary:

Against anyone but Obama, Clinton could have counted on strong support from African Americans. Against an Adlai StevensonGary HartPaul TsongasBill Bradley
sort of reformer, she would have assembled the "regular" Democratic
coalition: blue-collar whites allied with black voters. This is, more
or less, how Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton and Al Gore
prevailed in the primaries. Against a centrist, Clinton would have won
the liberals. Her strength among women would have provided her with
additional ballast.

Obama not only created an alliance between African Americans and
upscale reform voters, but he also changed the composition of the
Democratic electorate by drawing in hundreds of thousands of voters
under age 30.

To me this is just baffling.  I can see how this would be interesting from the perspective of political operatives or political scientists.  But most of us are rather interested in who is a better fit for the job.  Dionne assumes however we are like him.  We’re interested in who runs the better campaign organization rather than who, for Pete’s sake, is better for the job.  It’s a little early, in other words, for an explanation.

Because the Clinton campaign failed to anticipate the imperatives of a
race against Obama, it was only in the past two weeks that she managed
to move to offense. Her campaign has gone back to its basic argument
that, love her or not, Clinton is the experienced fighter who can be
trusted to deal with a nasty world and a decaying economy. She’s trying
to turn Obama’s newness into inexperience, his eloquence into slickness
and his conciliatory nature into a form of softness. It is no accident
that her "red phone" ad about her readiness to be president was created
by a veteran of Mondale’s campaign who made a similar ad against Gary
Hart in 1984.

And to conclude:

This is not the campaign Clinton had hoped to run, but it’s the one
approach she has left, and it’s had the effect of forcing Obama to
respond to her. You wonder what would have happened if she had adjusted

That’s not really what I’m wondering.  I wonder if anyone can explain what this article was about.

But by sensibility

I recently edited this.  When I wrote that, I was thinking of the clairvoyant insights of E.J.Dionne.  Today he writes:

Yet there is another world in Democratic politics, a practical, mostly middle-aged and middle-class world that is immune to fervor and electricity. It is made up of people with long memories who are skeptical of fads and like their candidates tough, detail-oriented and — to use a word Obama regularly mocks — seasoned.

At this point one might expect that such a generalization would be followed by tedious, but detailed and accurate, analysis of polling data from numerous sources.  Your expectations would be wrong.   

These are the Hillary people, and they gathered in Manassas last weekend in significant numbers at the Grace E. Metz Middle School, cozy schools being a preferred venue for a Clinton campaign aware that mammoth rallies are normally beyond its reach.

She does not lack for loyalists. Paulie Abeles of Derwood, Md., held aloft a hand-printed sign that did not mince words: "Talk Is Cheap. Mistakes Are Expensive."

Abeles explained that people who are being "swept along by the eloquence of Barack Obama's speeches" forget that at one time, George W. Bush was seen as "charming" and "inspirational." And electability was on her mind. If President Bush raised the terror alert level four days before the election ("I happen to be very cynical," she averred), the Democrats would want their most experienced candidate confronting McCain.

Well, that's one person.  Got any more?

As she speaks, Doug Hattaway, one of her aides, notes that her practical litany is precisely what appeals to working-class and middle-class voters who respond to "tangible issues." They also rebel against the idea that they are not part of the cool, privileged masses for Obama. One of the signs at the Manassas rally defiantly touted "Well Educated High Earners for Hillary." This is a party divided not by ideology but by sensibility. Things have gotten very personal.

Let me get this straight.  Dionne goes to a rally for Hilary Clinton.  A rally is a place where active, motivated supporters of a candidate go.  At that rally, he quotes one supporter and one of Clinton's aides as evidence of her appeal–and a tasteless sign as a sign of the divisiveness of the Democratic campaign as a whole.

I don't know what this kind of column is doing on the op-ed page.  It seems like reporting, albeit very bad reporting.  Dionne talks to exactly two people, consults no polling data, and goes to one place.  On the strength of this, he draws the conclusion that the party is separated by "sensibility" (which he doesn't define by the way), not by ideology. That may be the case, but  Dionne doesn't even come close to offering the kind of evidence that would establish that.   But it should be stressed that all of Dionne's wasted or half hearted effort is directed at establishing some kind of meta-political point–that is, a point about the politics of politics.  And so he looks for explanations of people's attitudes when they can just as easily offer justifications–here's one Dionne hasn't considered: People vote for Clinton because they think she will be a better President.

Ad puerum

Every now and then E.J.Dionne puts up his dukes. This time it concerns the slime campaign against the 12-year old Graeme Frost, a boy who had the misfortune to qualify for Maryland’s SCHIP program (an expanded version of which Bush vetoed). The young Mr. Frost, who benefited from the SCHIP program after a serious car accident (and brain stem injury) delivered the Democratic response to Bush’s veto. In response to this, many mainstream–and this is an important classification–conservative personalities attacked young Mr.Frost and his parents, claiming they were undeserving of such federal benefits (among much else).

>So rather than just condemn the right-wingers as meanies, let’s take their claims seriously. Doing so makes clear that they are engaged in a perverse and incoherent form of class warfare.

>The left is accused of all manner of sins related to covetousness and envy whenever it raises questions about who benefits from Bush’s tax cuts and mentions the yachts such folks might buy or the mansions they might own. But here is a family with modest possessions doing everything conservatives tell people they should do, and the right trashes them for getting help to buy health insurance for their children.

>Most conservatives favor government-supported vouchers that would help Graeme attend his private school, but here they turn around and criticize him for . . . attending a private school. Federal money for private schools but not for health insurance? What’s the logic here?

There isn’t any.

Two pundits

The lack of ideological "balance" among the distribution of syndicated columnists (pointed out by Media Matters) ought perhaps to be considered in greater depth. (This is not to say, by the way, that "balance" is some kind of objective worthy for its own sake). Eric Alterman pointed out the other day that the "progressive" pundits tend to be far less ideological and much more prone to argue against "progressive" positions than ideological conservatives will argue against conservative positions: >Were I writing about it in detail, and I may, I would note that many of the top "liberal" columnists, including particularly Richard Cohen, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kistof, Susan Estrich, and Nat Hentoff, among others, are the kind of "liberal" columnists who feel no sense of loyalty whatever to liberals and liberalism and actually enjoy bashing them whenever possible. This is not true of the conservatives. And so the balance is actually much worse than it looks from these numbers and graphics. George Will, for instance, has remarked on a few occasions that the war in Iraq has been an unmitigated foreign policy disaster. Count how many times, however, liberals such as Joe Klein attack the progressive left. That's a good point. But there's more. E.J. Dionne spends most of his time on meta-political navel gazing: >As Virginia goes, so goes the Senate — and the nation? >The decision of former Virginia governor Mark Warner to run for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. John Warner is more than just bad news for the GOP. It reflects fundamental shifts in the balance of political power in the country, the growing force and volatility of suburban voters, and the fact that the old red-state-blue-state maps are becoming obsolete. That's really political reporting. What it's doing on the op-ed page is a mystery. Here's Jonah Goldberg, in another paper: >For years, some of the shriller voices on the left have argued Sept. 11, 2001, was a classic example of blowback from our support of the mujahedeen's struggle against Afghanistan. But the fact is, we didn't "create bin Laden" — he largely created himself. And to the extent that any superpower can claim credit for him, it's the Soviets. It was their withdrawal, not our support, that convinced the foreign fighters that their pinpricks felled the Soviet bear. >Today, a new blowback thesis is in the works. The Washington Post, Time magazine and The Associated Press are just a few of the news outlets that have asserted the U.S. is arming the Sunnis in Iraq. This is simply not true, Gen. David Petraeus insisted in congressional testimony Monday. But it's no surprise that many people are leaping to that conclusion because the familiar blowback story line is the only plausible one for millions of people who've made up their minds that the war is, was and forever shall be hubristic folly. Similarly, opponents of the war denounced Petraeus' testimony before he said a single word, not because they know the facts better than Petraeus — please — but because anything that doesn't fit the narrative of an ever-worsening quagmire must be a lie. Many war supporters have certainly forced reality to kneel before faith in recent years. But reality can't stay on bended knees for very long. Many Democrats, too, have been grudgingly breaking from their base's otherworldly narrative of late, though they continue to insist that a "political solution" can be had in Iraq without a concomitant military one. Even the Sunni insurgents are coming to grips with the fact that Al Qaeda doesn't have Iraq's best interests at heart. >But there is one group that is under no inclination to nod to reality: Al Qaeda. The jihadis' mission, as always, is to create a new reality. If the bin Laden of the late 1980s could convince himself that his motley crew delivered the death blow to the Evil Empire, leading to the formation of Al Qaeda, one can only imagine what lesson he and the bin Ladens of tomorrow would take from America's defeat in Iraq. That's a story line we should all hope won't be written. However full that passage is of sophisms (pick them out if you want), you have to admit that Goldberg has the courtesy to use the op-ed page in attempt to advance a thesis.

Argue for it

Every now and then we point out why we tend to pick on conservatives (which we do). There are lots of reasons. The main reason is not that we’re liberal (which we are); it’s not that we think any particular liberal argument is advanced by pointing out the weaknesses in corresponding conservative arguments (they’re not–but then again the liberal arguments may not fail for the sophistical refutations brought forward by conservatives, that’s different); nor is it that we think that finding fault with conservative arguments and arguers in general advances the cause of liberalism in general.

Rather, the primary reason is that conservative pundits have a marked tendency to state their views in the form of arguments. That is to say, they’ll give a series of reasons for embracing some conclusion or another. Since we like arguments, we like reading them and thinking about them, we find this approach appealing (even if we find it often lacking).

On the liberal side (i.e., among major newspaper pundits–the blogosphere is another matter entirely), on the other hand, you don’t often see the kind of energetic arguing typical of George Will or Charles Krauthammer. This is not an indictment of liberal pundits either. There are lots of ways of stating one’s case. Stating in the form of a persuasive argument is just one. We wish they did it more. But that’s a different matter.

Take E.J.Dionne’s op-ed today as an example of the difference between liberal and conservative pundits. Dionne writes about Ted Strickland, Governor of Ohio. In discussing Strickland’s success (in an otherwise red state), Dionne points out that his positions resonate with the people:

>Strickland’s political skill only partly explains Ohio’s political transformation. A state that voted narrowly for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 not only elected Strickland as governor in 2006 but also sent Sherrod Brown, an economic populist with a far-more liberal public profile, to the U.S. Senate.

>The conversion rate among Ohio voters in just two years was staggering. According to exit polling, 30 percent of Ohioans who voted for Bush in 2004 voted for Strickland in 2006; 20 percent of Bush’s 2004 voters supported Brown.

>Why the big change? Scandals involving former governor Robert Taft and former representative Bob Ney made even loyal Republicans squeamish. Strickland won a fifth of self-identified Republicans and a quarter of conservatives, while holding on to more than 90 percent of liberals and Democrats, and roughly 70 percent of moderates and independents. If national Democrats reached such numbers in 2008, they’d win the presidency decisively.

>The new economy has hit Ohio hard. Industrial cities such as Youngstown and Cleveland have suffered under the lash of globalization. Brown’s tough stand against free trade appealed in a place where the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs makes the promise of a flat, highly competitive world fall very flat indeed.

>What might Democratic presidential candidates learn from Ohio? As a matter of style, Strickland suggests they must understand that “people are desperately wanting to believe that political leaders understand them and that they are trying to deal with their day-to-day lives.” Memo to overly cautious candidates: Strickland also thinks that “the display of genuine emotion is important.”

>Substantively, Strickland says the economy matters most, although he has been a strong opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning. “The foreclosure problem is huge,” Strickland says. “The people are desperate for jobs.” He sees health care and education as central — they were the key issues in his recent budget. These questions “ought to give Democrats a leg up,” but only if they can “talk about these things in a way that gets people to believe you will do something about them.”

>There’s the rub for Democrats in 2008. Voters want government to work but aren’t sure that it can. They want government to solve problems but worry that it won’t. This creates a strategic paradox: Democrats need to discredit Bush’s government without discrediting government altogether.

All of this may be a fine explanation of Strickland’s success. But it has the air of a trade journal publication for political strategists. Why should it interest a typical voter to read an article in the newspaper about what the typical voter wants? From the point of view of political analysis, on the other hand, Strickland’s story is interesting. But you couldn’t put anything Dionne says here against the conservative pundit who will argue that the voters are wrong.

Sure they voted that way. But why should they vote that way? Whatever his many vices, and they are many, that’s the kind of question George Will would be asking.

No respect

E.J. Dionne wonders why the left gets no respect, no respect he tells us:

>Why can’t the left get any respect?

>Whenever you use the word “left” in American politics, you feel almost compelled to add quotation marks. Today’s left is not talking about nationalizing industry, abolishing capitalism or destroying the rich. What passes for “left” in American politics is quite moderate by historical standards.

Was yesterday’s “left” communist? Whatever are these historical standards? Even Dionne begins the discussion with his own George Will quality liberal communist. And he wonders about respect. One of the reasons for this lack of respect can be found in the media: just ask Bob Somerby, Eric Alterman, Glenn Greenwald, and Media Matters.

But forget about that. Another reason, I think, these lefties get no respect is they never go toe to toe with their conservatives in the discussion of ideas. Dionne, for instance, rarely if ever replies to conservative arguments. And its even rarer that he makes arguments for his own position.

Today, for instance, he ignores the question as to whether the “left” position on any given issue is a better one and focuses instead on whether it is a more popular one. So, as he discusses Democratic candidates (they must be the left), he talks not about their positions or arguments or principles, but rather:

>That’s why every leading Democratic candidate for president chose to appear at this week’s “Take Back America” conference organized by the Campaign for America’s Future, the leading group on the party’s progressive end. This included Hillary Clinton, whose roots in the centrist politics of the Democratic Leadership Council run deep. Clinton not only knows how much political energy there is on the left; she also knows where public opinion has moved, particularly on the Iraq war.

Jeez. Maybe the candidates had reasons for going to the conference that Dionne, in his position as the Post’s official lefty, could at least mention (if not defend). Dionne’s failure to do this, however friendly he might be to the causes or arguments of the left, doesn’t add much to our national conversation.