06/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TV SoundOff: Sunday Talking Heads

What a week we've had! First 100 Days! Swine flu! Biden panic! Press conferences! Chrysler bankruptcy! And TWIST! Arlen Specter leaves the GOP to become some kind of Democrat thing, just like on the episode of Fringe! This week has amazed, humbled, enhanted, terrified, angered, mystifed, sickened, simonized, dry-cleaned, slow-cooked, dry-rubbed, contributed to the delinquency of a minor, and manslaughtered the innocence of all of us. Now, more than anything, we need a series of teevee shows that will reduce the entire experience into a series of dull-colored banalities, and a liveblog that would, in turn, add even LESS value!

So, hello, and welcome to your Sunday Morning Liveblog. My name is Jason and I'm sleepy. Please feel free to make with participation: send an email, leave a comment, or follow me on the twitters. That's it in way of preamble this week! On to our favorite Sunday Morning aperitif, known as...


Oh, yeah! David Souter, too! And Laura Ingraham is part of the Sunday morning panel today? Egads.

Also, Jack Kemp passed away overnight, and sincerely, we wish all of his loved ones the best, and send along only our very best thoughts.

Chris Wallace asks, "Where do we stand with swine flu?" I mean, are we exclusive, or can we contract other flus? Fox News has booked everyone you'd ever want to ask about flu and flu-like symptoms or Laura Ingraham - Richard Besser of the CDC, newly minted HHS head Kathleen Sebellius, and DHS head Janet Napolitano. Besser says that "we're not out of the woods" yet, but the CDC has so far received "encouraging news."

Sebellius drew that short straw, and has to answer for Joe Biden getting in front of a microphone and panicking everyone, with the galloping mass transit consumption. Sebellius says, careful about pleasure trips to Mexico, but you can still ride the subway. Wallace goes Fox Mulder on us: OMG is it possible that you tell us one thing but at the highest level of government are saying something else? Sebellius says no. "Are we to believe the vice president is some sort of a crackpot?" Wallace asks. Biden is but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. Of course, that's why someone else is running the Department of Hawks And Handsaws.

Janet Napolitano explains that closing the border with Mexico is not a sound containment strategy for the flu, so why not spend money on sound containment strategies, instead of paranoid ones? Or is it just okay for Chris Wallace to say crackpotty things and make Joe Bideny suggestions?

Of course, one of the things that makes no sense to me is that this disease was brought from Mexico, to America, by Americans. So, I don't see what closing the border gets you, unless we're going to adopt policies that forbid sick Americans from returning to America.

"Are the government and the media guilty of overhyping this?" Wallace asks. AND? Where'd that "and" come from? Besser says, "Efforts at the border are not going to help with the outbreak." Wallace asks if shutting down an entire school system for one sick kid sane? Besser hedges at first, but then points out that had the virus turned out to be highly contagious, then yes, it would have been smart. Only in hindsight does it seem like an overreaction.

Besides, don't we have to wait a few more weeks until we're all running through the streets as mindless rage zombies? That might actually make for a better group of Sunday shows. Imagine George Stephanopoulos' panel devouring each other's flesh, live on the air, as Peggy Noonan's eyes glow with a spectral, scarlet rabidity? Sorry, but that would be an awesome thing to watch from the safety of an underground government compound.

Janel Napolitano has her hands full with the flu, and doesn't want to answer a bunch of questions about serving on the Supreme Court.

Battle of the Senators: DURBIN vs. ENSIGN - BLOOD IN THE SCOTUS edition.

Ensign says he does not want the litmus tests, unless the judges pass the litmus tests in the way they prefer! And he doesn't want "activist judges" - he wants people who interpret the law but do not have "opinions" or make "decisions." BASICALLY ENSIGN WANTS ABORTIONS BANNED. That's what he thinks the Supreme Court is all about, abortion bans. Durbin suggests that jurists shape law all their time, through their decisions. Ensign's too invested in his "WAAAH, THEY INTERPRET LAWS IN WAYS I DON'T LIKE, AS IF THEY WERE SOME SORT OF CHECK ON LEGISLATIVE POWER" canard.

So, moving on to Specter! What does it mean! Ensign says, "it means the Democrats can ramrod bills!" Seriously? Has Ensign never met Arlen Specter? Because to know Arlen Specter is to also know that his vote is never certain, but tends to not ever be in lockstep with the Democratic caucus.

Ensign says that growing the GOP will take learning to respect the differences between Republicans who hail from different regions, and who have different takes on the countries needs. None of these qualities, apparently, are welcome on Ensign's Supreme Court.

Both Senators have nice things to say about Jack Kemp - Durbin praising him for his inclusivity and Ensign lauding his ability to generate policy ideas that shaped the Republican party.

Let's commence to paneling! Ingraham, Liasson, Kristol, and Williams.

Kristol says that the public is not going to react poorly to Obama's call for a jurist capable of understanding the plight of ordinary Americans, but that the GOP will grumble a little, and yet the nominee will be confirmed and seated. Ingraham says that Sonia Sotomayor's qualities - liberal decisions and being tough on litigants - are not disqualifiers, but that the GOP shouldn't surrender challenging the "empathy" argument.

Mara Liasson notes that there is a small subset of the world that cares a lot about SCOTUS nominations amid a larger world where people could give two tugs of a dead dog's tail. Don't let that stop you, political media!

As for the Specter switch, Kristol spins it as big trouble for Obama, Williams spins it as an additional sign of the Democratic party's popularity. I would say that the big takeaway of the Specter switch is that it's a regional story about a guy who maximized the advantages of power to preserve his seat again and again and again finally running out of advantages and making a last ditch deal to save his own power and career. Honestly, these sorts of stories wouldn't be that remarkable if incumbents were more regularly challenged in office. But there's so much skin in the game now and it's so easy to stay in power by insulating yourself with a crao-ton of special interest money that it just rarely happens.

Meanwhile, Liasson points out that Jack Kemp was a pioneering force of outreach into poorer communities long before Michael Steele arrived on the scene with gimmicks to amuse his fans and to act all urban to jack up the GOPs soundscan. I think that's what she meant by "timely passing." Not that, WOOO WHAT A GREAT DAY FOR JACK KEMP TO DIE or cue the Roy Batty/Blade Runner speech: "I've seen things you people couldn't believe, Bob Dole on the stump in New Hampshire. I watched my hand get fused to a football. All those moments will be tears in rain......time to die."


Okay! Swine flu! Arlen Specter! Just two items on today's agenda, so, I guess Schieffer is taking a break today. He's got the same healthcare troika as Chris Wallace up first.

So, 800 cases of the swine flu! "Where do we stand?" Besser says that we're dominating, like the medal count in the Olympic Games. He notes that the regular influenza causes 36,000 deaths a year, for the sake of perspective.

Kathleen Sebellius. When she talks, her hands move as if she were typing on an invisible typewriter. Is that going to be a thing with her? She'd be fun to turn the volume down and pretend you know what she was talking about. Right now, it would be like she's explaining the complicated history of the carriage return to Bob Schieffer.

Why didn't Napolitano close the borders? Same question, same answer: we try to do things that do tangible good, not crazy things that are expensive, difficult and useless. "Have there been an overreaction?" Same answer: no, you have to get ahead of the flu, help me out Dr. Besser. Besser says that you begin a fight against pandemic with aggressive countermeasures, and then you tailor it back. Aggressive, I assume, doesn't mean "crazy," hence no border closure. Also, no one launches a war in Iraq!

Sebellius' brain says "the Obama administration is allowing science to be the guide toward making prudent steps," but her body is saying, "Here's how I palpate pizza dough for maximum deliciousness."

Schieffer wants to know if the flu is going to mutate into something more dangerous, like Face-Peel-Off-itis. Napolitano says that it could come back stronger in the fall, so, enjoy your summer vacations!

Sebellius says wash your hands, cough into your sleeve, and keep your sick kids home from school, which is what my wife would tell you to do!

Here's my first close encounter with Arlen Specter, who'll also be on Meet The Press later, and who is already demonstrating himself to be hardly the super lockstep sixty vote genius the media is making him out to be.

Schieffer asks Specter if his switch will "mutate" into some other virulent strain of political movement. Specter basically gives a high-concept answer that equates to "The Club For Growth is killing moderate GOP congresspersons."

Specter says that he won't be helping out on EFCA, having attempted to strategically switch his position on that issue to his own advantage.

What about replacing Souter? Specter says Obama is not using "code words" when it comes to looking for an "empathizer" for the SCOTUS - someone with the background to understand how court decisions affect ordinary people. He goes on to suggest that greater diversity and an emphasis on education would be good choices for a Justice. At Schieffer's inquiry, Specter suggests that it would be a fine idea to have someone on the Court who wasn't a legal professional. Schieffer apparently only recently found out that the Constitution doesn't require a legal background for SCOTUS appointments, and Specter - as dedicated a historical obscurist as you'll find - sticks up for that notion.

Specter claims that he is becoming "much more comfortable with the Democratic approach" to governing, if not their complete portfolio of policies, per se. Specter suggests that medical research funding is one instance. Public health care plans, however, not so much.

Schieffer asks Specter WTF is wrong with the GOP? "What would you say to them" as far as advice goes, he asks. Specter recommends listening to Olympia Snowe and giving the shaft to the Club For Growth. He follows this up with a strange sounding theory that the loss of Lincoln Chafee was the lost load-bearing wall that brought the ceiling down on the party.

Specter then goes on to say that he doesn't agree with all of the votes that he has cast, which Schieffer treats as bizarre - "That begs the question, what votes do you regret casting?" - but is actually a very good point. If we're going to have these people in office for DECADES, we need to accept the fact that time will pass, and views will change as the real-world effect of decisions made in the past create results that can be evaluated. Sometime in the past, we've allowed any informed change of mind to become a bad thing, and that an unflinching grasp on hidebound ideas and policies has become a good thing. But there are huge differences to be discerned between people who make informed changes in mind and the callow, Mitt Romney-esque, shift with the wind to win alterations (which bizarrely, are seen as a virtue, because WOO YOU LEARNED TO PLAY SAVVY POLITICS). Basically, we get stick with leaders who are dumb and polarizing and credited with savvy by pundits, who are also mainly dumb and polarizing (since they are selected for screentime based upon how well the play their commedia dell'arte roles), as opposed to a nimble, smart, adaptable and communicative set of leaders.

Bob Schieffer talks about how he is going to be doing a lot of graduations this year. And despite the fact that he contends that most people don't recall their graduation speaker, he's going to summarize it for the record anyway, and then recommend that people just start attending random commencement ceremonies. I don't remember a word of my undergraduate commencement address because it was given by the President of the University, John Casteen, and he's a thudding, charisma-free bore. I didn't go to my graduate school commencement address because it was being held at the Richmond Coliseum and I thought it would be a pain in the ass to find a parking space. I remember parts of the valedictory speech given the day before graduation at UVa, because it was given my Tom Brokaw, and occasionally, I have found myself wishing that he'd take his own words seriously.

I guess the problem with commencement addresses is that they are all basically the same, they largely have nothing to do with what you're about, and the remembering of the words will probably only lead to disappointment, when you learn that it was just a collection of random bromides that not even the speaker particularly believes in all that much.

Speaking of!


An emailer, Paul F. passes along a BBC report on the swine flu, that contains this money quote: "Preliminary analysis of the swine flu virus suggests it is a fairly mild strain, scientists say." Paul goes on to say: "Add to that the comment from Friday's Bill Maher Live With... show, where Bill cited data from last year's typical flu season (he didn't cite a source and I've been too lazy to verify -- sorry!) that killed something in the ballpark of 36,000 people worldwide. That datum sounds reasonable out of 5-6 billion folks on this rock, so I'm not inclined to question it anyway."

I'm also told in advance that this iteration of MTP will be full of Specter money quotes. So, since we have some breathing room, let's review some of the stuff we know about Arlen.

--Two weeks ago, Arlen was billing himself as the guy the GOP needed to have in their pocket to ensure that they wouldn't get steamrolled by Obama and the Democrats.

--not likely to change his stance on EFCA, despite the fact that he's switched parties now, making moot the gambit of his earlier switch on EFCA.

--Specter will remain a reliable vote for the hyper-timid incrementalist bullshit approach to environmental reform, climate change policy, and energy policy.

--Is in favor of some reform on some small bore health care issues. As Matt Yglesias reminds, however, he's aprt of a "bloc of senators out there who sound generally supportive of health care reform, but seem opposed to every possible way of paying for comprehensive reform."

--Specter paints himself as being on the dividing line between the two parties, but believe me, the guy has gone all in on supporting his share of Straight Out The Right Wing Fringe nonsense.

--Regardless, Specter comes to the Democratic caucus as essentially a made guy, at least, as far as Ed Rendell - who can be a real DOPE! - is concerned:

--And just so there's no mistake, Arlen begs your pardon, but he's never promised the Democrats a rose garden.

Oh boy. We're getting Sebellius, Napolitano, and Besser, again. Today has really been a small-scale battle between three networks that wouldn't mind blowing this flu out of proportion and three professionals who are trying to urge some perspective. Meanwhile, Joe Biden, FREAKING OUT THE SUBWAYS. How many legs did he personally give the panic?

OMG. That Newsweek cover is ridiculous!

They are serious about this? That's just sad.

Gregory clarifies: "So, you can have this virus coursing through a community and have a large number of cases that are less severe." Then he asks, "Are we overreacting?" Well, the answer is, have you been repeating the aforementioned sentence, over and over again? Or have you been ordering your graphics department to manufacture TERRIFYING IMAGES OF PIGS?

Meanwhile, amping up the terror is Joe Biden, who apparently sneezes whis way through most flights. And a flight was grounded in Munich this week, which led me to Twitter:


Meanwhile what about the human cost of lost rap concerts and people replacing handshakes with friendly nods. Besser says, "We try to channel people toward things that work." Gregory says, "Well that's YOUR message, but people seem to be reacting differently." Wow. We're going to prosecute the basics of human nature, today? WHO SHALL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WAY PEOPLE HAVE RESPONDING TO THE PANIC THAT SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN CAUSED BY MAYBE DAVID GREGORY FREAKING OUT ABOUT THE FLU FOR FIFTEEN MINUTES STRAIGHT?

Gregory asks, "Why not seal the border?" Why not anticipate that an obvious question is going to be asked by everyone else on Sunday, and try to get a better inquiry?

Gregory is like: OMGZ MY KIDS MIGHT GET SICK! WHAT DO I DO? PREPARE A VOODOO POULTICE? Besser says, UHM, CALL A DOCTOR, MAYBE? Be thankful you have health care for your family?

And now, Arlen Specter in the hizzy. What's his take on the recent opening on the SCOTUS? Specter says, again, education and diversity is key, would perhaps look favorable upon someone outside the legal system or circuit courts. He seems to echo some of the White House line - but TWIST!: people who "know something other than wearing a black robe."

Gregory asks about what Obama means by "empathetic." "Is that code for activist judge?" Maybe I should just go back to bed, since I've seen Specter answer these questions. "If you're talking about empathy, you might be talking about something broader than that," Specter says, "We'll have to test the nominee on that."

Gregory asks if, in light of his switch, if he regrets his past decisions on votes on Alito and Roberts. Specter says no, and he's not ashamed of his opposition to Bork, years ago.

Gregory brings up Specter's remarks from two weeks ago. What changed his mind to become part of the "steamrolling" force? Specter says, blah blah, he's not going to "subject his twenty-nine year record to the Republican primary" which is code words for: "I am going to lose the primary." He goes on to talk about how he's not promised to be anybody's bitch, caucus-wise.

An interesting wrinkle: Specter says, "If I see that there are other issues where, if I feel as a matter of conscience, I will continue a filibuster." I think this is the critical part of the equation that needed to have been considered before anyone made a deal to not oppose him in the Democratic primary. The filibuster threat is what's gridlocking the Senate, and specifically preventing the policies that the people have voted for from being enacted. It seems to me that if Specter's conscience is inflammed, he can still vote his conscience and debate his point of view as fervently as he likes.

But, if he's going to maintain the recent reign of filibustering everything, then there's just no reason to have him in the Democratic party - he should have remained the GOP caucus' problem. Part of this deal should have included him stepping out of the way of straight up and down votes on these matters, and returning a little order to the Senate where not everything needs to be subject to the vote of a supermajority.

Can Specter name other issues that he doesn't see eye to eye with the President? "We don't have enough time," Specter says. SMOOTH MOVE, agreeing to let him run unopposed, Ed Rendell!

Specter apparently wants to dine out on having voted for the stimulus package, which to me would really be a dizzyingly low bar to a claim of basic common sense. Specter, I gather, wants a medal for it.

Specter claims that he received no inducements to the switch. Gregory questions that, and asks if there's a deal in place to preserve his seniority on committees. "That's an entitlement. I've earned the seniority. That's not a bribe or a gift. I'll be treated by the Democrats as if I've been elected as a Democrat." BUT YOU WEREN'T ELECTED AS A DEMOCRAT. That's the point!

Though my God! It's not like this is Specter's fault! The Democratic party has accepted all of this reasoning without a whimper! It makes you wonder why all the senior members of the GOP don't just switch to the Democratic party? They get to keep their seniority, keep voting the way they want, continue to elect filibusters as obstacles, remain renegade to the broader interests of the people who put that caucus in charge, PLUS they get the added side benefit of Democratic party bosses saying, "Don't worry! We won't be running anyone against you!"

Specter maintains that the fact that two people are going to run against him means that the Democrats haven't agreed to clear the field for him. Of course, they won't be FUNDING a competitor, and Obama will be campaigning for Specter. That's a "different question," Specter says. He'll still have to run against some seriously disadvantaged and wholly disowned competitors.

"I'm prepared to run in a contested primary," Specter says, "But I don't want to run against a stacked deck, like I would have has to in the Republican primary."

That's pathetic. Specter's traded a fair competition - in which the GOP's base in Pennsylvania have simply shifted to the right and now favor a more conservative candidate - to a competition that truly is a stacked deck! To say that technically, the Democratic Party can't literally stop a person from running as a Democrat is beside the point. It's a terrifying uphill climb for a candidate without the blessing of the party and Specter knows it. David Gregory, I'm told has covered politics for a long time. Surely he's learned a goddamned thing about it! But no, Gregory accepts this premise, like everybody else apparently.

Congressman Joe Sestak, might be that guy who'd run against Specter and the Democratic party machine.

"The stimulus vote was a mighty big test," Specter says. Not for a lot of people, actually! Would Specter support a public health care plan? "No, and you misquote me, David, I did not say I'd be a loyal Democrat." Specter adds that the report in the Wall Street Journal from Jonathan Weisman and Greg Hitt that had him quoted as saying he would be a loyal Democrat that would support the Obama agenda was erroneous. "I did not say I am a loyal Democrat," Specter replied, snarkily adding, "You know, I read once another mistake in the newspaper. Some newspaper." Ha, he's right. Good luck, there, Arlen, because take it from me, Jonathan Weisman is the sort of guy who will throw himseld a holy piss-fit when you suggest that he or one of his reporters got a quote wrong!

What's the future of the GOP? "It would be my hope that there would be a wake up call...I've worked for a strong two-party system." And then there's the whole grievance against the Club For Growth - HOW DARE THEY PROMOTE OTHER CANDIDATES. So, I guess this detour to the Democratic Party could be temporary, if the GOP would agree to restack the deck for re-election in the GOP primary, and acknowledge, as the Democrats have disappointingly done, that seniority is an entitlement. Gah.

Now David Gregory is going to sit down with Joe Scarborough and Ed Gillespie and let them have themselves a good cry. Gillespie says that the GOP will come back, which is like the bare minimum for good news - I mean, of course they'll come back. Scarborough cites Chris Dodd's troubles as a key piece of good news, and David Patterson's ineffective leadership, as well. And yeah, there you go. PEOPLE FRACK IT UP, and lose elections. But more to the point, at some point, the GOP will revise their governing agenda. I think it'll be a long walk in the wilderness, but this is how it works.

Still, it's a matter of media fascination! Scarborough works his well-played rhetoric: we got away from cutting spending and Colin Powell and embracing radicalism.

Anyway, lament, lament, cover of Joe Scarborough's book, no GOP votes for Obama's policies is Obama's fault, blah blah.

Gillespie wonders if the GOP will adopt the filibuster strategy that the Dems threw down on certain Bush nominees. He casts it as an unprecedented bout of political obstructionism. I sort of rue the cycle of vengeance, but it's important to note that prior in the cycle came the GOP using various parliamentary laws to hold up, unnecessarily, a huge number of Clinton judicial appointments, just because they could. When the Dems threatened to start filibustering Bush appointees, the GOP pretended like they'd always been the party of strictly applied up or down votes to judicial nominees. They actually hadn't been.

Scarborough says the GOP should not be running crazy fearmongering ads, when they should be maybe coming up with policies.

Okay, I am going to leave you with some bad news - TERRIBLE NEWS! - that we will all have to deal with! On August 9th, 2009 I will not be liveblogging these Sunday shows! I will be on vacation, at a beach somewhere, laying on a hammock, grilling meats and whatnot. I am letting you guys, the readers, know this so that we can all decide on what to do! Should we have a guest blogger? Should we do some sort of open thread? Should we have a national vacation from Sunday Morning Political Talk Shows? Should we PANIC, like the SWINE FLU? We need to begin mulling this liveblog crisis now! Send your suggestions to me in an email with the subject heading: "OMGZ HOW WILL WE CONTEND WITH THIS DREADFUL VACATION IN AUGUST."

Together, we shall get through this. But I am still totally taking a vacation! That is non-negotiable. I mean, okay, low-to-mid five figures negotiable, maybe.

Have a good week!