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A Drone Program That Has Killed Hundreds Of Civilians Finally Killed Some That The White House Regrets

Jason Linkins   |   April 23, 2015    6:40 PM ET

This morning, the White House disclosed that a January 2015 drone strike, conducted in Pakistan by the CIA with the intention of taking out an al Qaeda compound, resulted in the deaths of two al Qaeda hostages who were not known to have been in the line of fire at the time of the attack. "The killing of American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto is the first known instance in which the U.S. has accidentally killed a hostage in a drone strike," Wall Street Journal's Adam Entous reported Thursday.

President Barack Obama held a brief press conference Thursday morning following a statement released by the White House, which described the incident as a "uniquely tragic situation." Obama told reporters that he was taking "full responsibility" for what happened, and offered his "profound regrets" and "deepest apologies" to the families of Weinstein and Lo Porto. "The White House has launched a review of the strike to see if changes are needed to the drone program to avoid similar mistakes," Entous noted.

This particular mission, greenlit by the CIA without the president "directly sign[ing] off on the strike beforehand," according to reports, will be declassified. During the press conference, Obama signaled his commitment to "identify[ing] the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy."

Watching the coverage of these tragic deaths, a viewer would be left with the impression of a drone program that has had a stellar record of accuracy up until it unfortunately killed two innocent people. But, in fact, killing innocent people has been a central part of the drone program from the very beginning, and is in many ways an inescapable consequence. It's not that a perfect program finally slipped up. Rather, a program that has killed somewhere between 400 and 1000 civilians in Pakistan alone finally killed an American civilian, to whom no wrongdoing can be even tangentially attributed.

Weinstein and Lo Porta won't be the last innocent people to meet their untimely end in this fashion, but the next innocent people to die probably won't end up meriting a special press conference and investigation into what went wrong.

The basic argument for the use of drones in these circumstances is that fewer American soldiers end up getting killed, because American soldiers need not put themselves in danger in a high-risk ground mission in order to rub out the next unlucky name on the White House kill list. This is obviously a very good argument for the use of drones.

Another argument for death-by-remote-controlled-aircraft is that it feels very clinical and efficient, both in terms of targeting enemies half a world away and in terms of putting a greater distance between those doing the targeted killings and the personal, moral dimension that one finds oneself in when one takes another human life.

This is a less good argument for the use of drones, ably demonstrated Thursday. Of course, all methods of warmaking result in innocent deaths. But few are celebrated with the same marketing campaign as drone warfare, advertised as "targeted strikes" and "signature strikes" -- terms that connote a certain amount of exactitude and which sell drones as a life hack for warfare, as precise as a smartphone app.

In fact, these are not as precise tools as you might imagine. Despite having a descriptor that most Americans associate with exclusive, high-end service, "signature strikes" are actually much less exacting than "targeted strikes." "Signature strikes" are probably better known as "firing into a crowd of people and hoping for the best."

What they mean by "signature" is quite revealing. According to the U.S. theory, insurgents can be identified from above merely by the nature of their movements. A convoy of Toyotas with guys in the beds carrying guns presents a certain signature on the ground, tipping off a drone operator that bad guys are coalescing. We strike them without knowing their names, their affiliations, their motives, or sometimes anything more than where they were walking or driving.

That helps explain why we see so many wedding convoys and parties accidentally bombed. Pro-tip for the CIA: Insurgents operating in areas known to be under the eye of U.S. drones tend not to travel in long convoys, because being a fundamentalist militant does not always mean you're an idiot, too.

And as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism noted back in January 2014, the very first CIA drone strike carried out during the Obama administration, which originally boasted that "up to ten militants were killed, including foreign fighters and possibly a 'high-value target,'" also killed nine innocent civilians, "most of them from one family."

And this "signature" strike, carried out on January 23, 2009, was actually the successful one of two that occurred on the same day. As Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman reported, here's what happened a little later:

Tribesmen a world away, in the tiny village of Karez Kot, later heard a low, dull buzzing sound from the sky. At about 8:30 in the evening local time, a Hellfire missile from a remotely operated drone slammed into a compound “of interest,” in CIA parlance, obliterating a roomful of people.

It turned out they were the wrong people. As the CIA’s pilotless aircraft lingered high above Karez Kot, relaying live images of the fallout to its operators, it soon became clear that something had gone terribly awry. Instead of hitting the CIA’s intended target, a Taliban hideout, the missile had struck the compound of a prominent tribal elder and members of a pro-government peace committee. The strike killed the elder and four members of his family, including two of his children.

According to Klaidman, what followed was a "tense back-and-forth" between the president, CIA director Michael Hayden, and Hayden's deputy director Steve Kappes. During the conversation, the two CIA officials defended the use of these strikes on the grounds that one "could take out a lot more bad guys when you targeted groups instead of individuals," and Obama asked for reassurance that these strikes would not kill "women and children."

Obama eventually won a modicum of procedural oversight over the drone program, but it nevertheless expanded considerably. And as it grew, those queasy feelings of uncertainty either diminished or became easier to tolerate.

Until today, when all the euphemisms that might otherwise have served to paper over the deaths of innocents suddenly proved to be insufficient to the task.

Naturally, even though everyone is deeply regretful about the deaths of these two men, there's no reason to believe that the drone program won't continue be conducted with the same robustness as it was before this tragedy was disclosed to the American people. As Obama told the New Yorker's David Remnick last year, he's "wrestled" for a long time with the fact that "American drones have killed between some four hundred and a thousand civilians--a civilian-to-combatant ratio that could be as high as one to three."

Today, circumstances finally pinned him to the mat.

Hot Trend For 2016: Even More Extravagant Super PAC Lies And Corruption!

Jason Linkins   |   April 22, 2015    4:32 PM ET

According to the Associated Press, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) is poised to "give [the] traditional campaign a makeover." Which sounds exciting! I think we can all agree the "traditional campaign" could sure use a touch-up or two. So what are Bush's people going to do? They're going to coordinate their efforts with their Right To Rise super PAC, all day, every day, as early and as often as they can.

But wait! "Is that allowed?" you are thinking. "I thought campaigns weren't allowed to coordinate with super PACs." Yes, that's probably what you were told about this brave new future of total campaign finance corruption.

But rules were made to be broken, and most of the rules governing these super PACs were created already cracked and weak as hell, so this is basically their natural progression. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of the Associated Press' anonymous "Republican familiar with the strategy," who says, "This is the natural progression of the rules as they are set out by the FEC." You can basically expect any candidate who doesn't want to lose this election to follow Bush's example.

Naturally, arriving at this conclusion requires a bit of between-the-lines reading. But it's not like I am closely parsing the lines of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to make the case that Robert Frost was writing about Santa Claus. This just requires one to examine the available facts and apply a modicum of common sense. Here is what we know, from the Associated Press, about this campaign "makeover":

The traditional presidential campaign may be getting a dramatic makeover in Jeb Bush's bid for the White House as he prepares to turn some of a campaign's central functions over to a separate political organization that can raise unlimited amounts of money.

The concept, in development for months as the former Florida governor has raised tens of millions of dollars for his Right to Rise super PAC, would endow that organization not just with advertising on Bush's behalf, but with many of the duties typically conducted by a campaign.

Should Bush move ahead as his team intends, it is possible that for the first time a super PAC created to support a single candidate would spend more than the candidate's campaign itself — at least through the primaries. Some of Bush's donors believe that to be more than likely.

You should read this as, "The Bush campaign will be coordinating with their super PAC out the yin-yang."

Come on, now. No credible modern presidential campaign is going to turn over its central functions to an entity with whom it cannot coordinate. No credible modern presidential campaign is going to allow an entity it cannot coordinate with to spend the bulk of its money. It's literally insane to believe that.

The official Eat The Press position on super PACs has always been that the notion there's a firewall between campaigns and these big-spending organizations is an outrageous lie that only the most naive little fawns in the forest could possibly believe. The official Eat The Press position is that there's no distinction of any kind between a candidate, the campaign and the actions of a candidate's allied super PAC entities. This Bush "campaign makeover" only proves this position is correct, and that all political journalists should adopt a similar position immediately.

Further reporting from the National Journal bears this out. In their piece, "Trading Places," Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher note the extent to which the top strategic minds in the game aren't heading to work on campaigns, they're signing up for a ride on the super PAC gravy train. As Alberta and Goldmacher note:

Some 2016 candidates have already made their decisions. Rand Paul recently tapped Jesse Benton, a family member and longtime associate who ran his Senate campaign as well as his father's 2012 presidential bid, to take the wheel of America's Liberty PAC. An alliance of super PACs supporting Ted Cruz have been organized by close friends, including Texas attorney Dathan Voelter, and sources close to Cruz expect him to designate a top political lieutenant to take over the reportedly $31 million outfit. And Carly Fiorina's super PAC, Carly for America, is being led by Steve DeMaura, a friend and associate who formerly was the political director of Fiorina's other political action committee.

In any previous cycle, it's a near-certainty that these people and others tapped to run a candidate's super PAC would have served in a principal position on the campaign -- as a senior strategist, or political director, or even perhaps campaign manager. "Before the super PAC era, a guy like Steve would have a very high position in her presidential campaign," Keith Appell, a prominent GOP consultant and senior adviser to Carly For America, says of DeMaura. "But now super PACs give candidates the flexibility to distribute top talent to other places where they can really make a difference. … I think candidates are going to take that chance and put more talented people at the super PAC, because they'll have more opportunities and more resources there. That's already happening, and it's going to continue to happen."

This is obviously also where a mofeaux goes to get paid, son. A candidate can only raise money in $2,700 chunks. The super PAC is where you go to raise tall dollars from the highest rollers. If you want a choice cut of the boodle, a well-heeled strategist has to head for the dark money.

Now, Alberta and Goldmacher still haven't left the cuckoo land where candidates and super PACs don't coordinate. "Super PAC heads are not allowed to coordinate strategy with the actual campaign," they write, elsewhere insisting that candidates in this arrangement need to find "someone with whom they can continually cooperate without ever being able to coordinate -- or ever ask for advice" to run the super PAC. Mike Murphy, the veteran GOP strategist and television round-table regular who is expected to run Right To Rise for Bush, is presented in the piece as a guy who will never be able to converse with the candidate again, forced to operate in a "cone of silence."

No, wrong, no. There is no way a presidential candidate is going hand their BFF the keys to the campaign, the lion's share of the money, and then say, "Now, we have to avoid each other until November of 2016, but let's catch up after the election is over, because I'll want to hear about the things you did for my campaign." This is not to be believed.

And yet this arrangement is portrayed in the National Journal as a "complicated" chance these candidates and their super PAC machers are taking. The Associated Press similarly characterizes this as something of a daring stunt, noting that the "architects of [Bush's] plan" believe the super PAC's "ability to legally raise unlimited amounts of money outweighs its primary disadvantage, that it cannot legally coordinate its actions with Bush or his would-be campaign staff." An overawed Center for Competitive Politics head David Keating shows up in the piece saying, "Nothing like this has been done before. ... It will take a high level of discipline to do it."

To which I say: Snap out of it, you guys!


We've already learned that campaigns coordinate with super PACs, they've just hitherto done so in a cutesy manner. As Paul Blumenthal reported, several Senate candidates during the 2014 election cycle provided the world with strange, extended videos of nothing but b-roll footage, so that their affiliated super PACs would never want for golden-hour camera shots of their candidates shaking hands and walking in slow motion and handling files. And shortly after the 2014 election, CNN's Chris Moody broke the story of how outside groups established what amounted to secret numbers stations on Twitter, allowing for campaigns and super PACs to "share internal polling data" with one another.

In both cases, the FEC responded with little more than a "¯\_(ツ)_/¯". So it makes sense that campaigns in this election cycle would simply push the envelope further, knowing full well that their coordination will be both near-impossible to suss out, and unlikely to carry any consequences in even a worse-case scenario.

This is not going to even remotely require a "high level of discipline" to pull off.

But why does this matter? Well, you have to remember what a super PAC specifically allows. These organizations exist to give mega-wealthy donors the opportunity to contribute exorbitant sums of money to subsidize a presidential campaign without fear their name will ever be attached to the way money is spent. This is a high-stakes, high-dollar, completely opaque investment, and those providing the ducats expect that no effort will be spared to get the win. So there's a better than even chance that what oozes forth from the tentacles of these super PACs will be the really seedy, dirty, gross stuff that would -- or should! -- shame the people dredging it up.

That's why every time someone mentions there are allegedly "rules" that prevent campaigns from coordinating with super PACs, you need to ask, "But who are these rules protecting?" Typically, this non-coordination requirement is presented as something that protects you -- Oh, sorry about the total lack of transparency in the campaign finance system, but rest assured the candidates can't coordinate with these entities. This is the precise wrong way to think about it. The "no coordination" rule exclusively protects the candidates from having to take responsibility for the irresponsible stuff their campaign does.

Here's a fine example of what I'm talking about. Back during the 2012 campaign, a President Barack Obama-allied super PAC called Priorities USA Action, run by Obama's Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton, produced an advertisement that alleged that Mitt Romney killed a woman. According to the story this super PAC told, Romney's Bain Capital shut down a GST Steel plant, which cost a man named Joe Soptic his job and, by extension, the health care of Soptic's wife, who subsequently succumbed to cancer. The ad was an extravagant lie, ably penetrated by the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler. Which means that what Priorities USA Action did was shameful and gross. But the mythical firewall between candidates and super PACs protected Obama from any backlash, like so:

Multiple attempts to elicit reaction from the Obama campaign have also been unsuccessful. Robert Gibbs, senior aide to the Obama campaign, would not condemn the ad when pressed on its accuracy in a Wednesday appearance on MSNBC.

"This is an ad by an entity not controlled by the campaign. I certainly don't know the specifics of this man's case," Gibbs said.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter told CNN that it is illegal for the campaign to coordinate with Priorities USA Action.

"By law, we don't have anything to do with their ads," she said. "I don't know the facts of when Joe Soptic's wife got sick or when she died. But as I said before, I do know the facts of what Mitt Romney did with GS Steel. I do know the facts of how Joe Soptic lost his job, lost his health care."

Bill Burton? Shucks, we hardly know the guy, sorry! You say he's got an ad out? Well, you know, it's a free country I guess, especially if you have a pile of secret money laying around that wants to be spent.

For as long as these heinous arrangements have existed, those who've sought to rein in the vulgar amount of money in politics have darkly warned of a coming brutal correction. Former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) termed Obama's embrace of the super PAC system a "dance with the devil." His partner in campaign finance reform, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), has predicted that super PACs would lead to a "scandal" that would "destroy the political process."

"Because they won't stop," said McCain. "Because they won't stop." And right on cue, the 2016 cycle ushers in the most significant escalation in this game, in which we are asked to believe that despite being given the majority of the talent, the money and the responsibilities for running a presidential campaign, there will continue to be no coordination -- zero, nil, the null set! -- between candidates and their dark money mills. Don't you believe it.

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American Politics To Continue Being A Grotesque Plutocratic Spectacle For The Foreseeable Future

Jason Linkins   |   April 21, 2015    1:23 PM ET

It's been a while since we've checked in on how American politics is thriving within the Doom Loop of Oligarchy (TM Ezra Klein!), but a fresh dispatch from Politico's Mike Allen offers us another opportunity to goggle at the slow-motion death of American exceptionalism. The issue at hand, as ever, is the ruling class of billionaires who fund our presidential campaign dumb-show. More specifically, it's the Brothers Koch, who have an assignment for former Florida governor and presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. Per Allen:

In another surprise, a top Koch aide revealed to POLITICO that Jeb Bush will be given a chance to audition for the brothers’ support, despite initial skepticism about him at the top of the Kochs’ growing political behemoth.

Mr. Bush will be expected to perform a two-minute classical monologue about tax cuts, a two-minute comic monologue about tax cuts, and 32 bars of a contemporary Broadway musical ballad about union-busting.

This is good news for Jeb, I guess. As Allen notes, the last time the Kochs cooked up an audition, it was at their "winter seminar" in January, and according to those present, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was the clear standout at that confab. But Bush will be getting "a second look" at the brothers' summer conference, because "so many Koch supporters think he looks like a winner."

Of course, as New York's Jonathan Chait points out, it was only yesterday that the Kochs "signaled" that their favorite in the race was Wisconsin governor (and historically over-eager Koch amanuensis) Scott Walker. Looks like we got some drama, y'all!

Obviously, winning the affection of the Koch brothers is a significant prize, since they've pledged to raise and spend the oddly specific amount of $889 million on the 2016 election cycle. But never fear -- there's a long list of other billionaire weirdos at whom candidates from across the political spectrum can cringe on bended knee, begging for boodle, if they fail to receive the Koch nod. Plus, there's an entire financial industry waiting to receive the private, reassuring genuflections of candidates who play populist on the weekdays.

It goes without saying that the fun part of this election is going to be watching all those political pundits argue about which candidate is the most "authentic."

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Can We Even Be Sure That 'Draft De Blasio' Is A Real Thing Or Not?

Jason Linkins   |   April 20, 2015    5:06 PM ET


Editor: Have you seen the "Draft de Blasio" thing, where the New York mayor is allegedly going to run for president?

Me: I don't think it's real! It can't be a real thing.

Editor: It got a big old article in the New York Post.

Me: You realize of course that the fact that there is a "big old article in the New York Post" does not, in and of itself, serve as an endorsement of its realness.

Editor: I'm not saying it does. I'm saying this is where you'll find this story, such as it is.

Me: All right, let me go look at it.

Despite repeated claims to the contrary, Mayor Bill de Blasio is positioning himself to be the leftist “progressive” alternative to Wall Street-friendly Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democratic candidate for president, a national party operative told The Post.

De Blasio’s hope, the operative said, is a “Draft de Blasio’’ movement will develop among progressive activists over the next several months that will lead to the mayor being able to defeat Clinton in the primary elections next year in much the same way leftist Sen. George McGovern successfully challenged the initially front-running establishment Democratic candidate, Sen. Edmund Muskie, more than 40 years ago.

--The New York Post, "de Blasio in secret bid to be Dems’ 2016 pick," April 20, 2015

Me: As I suspected, this insistence that "Draft de Blasio" is a thing fails to convince me of its essential thingness. The New York Post has a single "operative" willing to compare de Blasio to George McGovern. This sort of reads like an April Fools' Day prank that got published on the wrong day. Maybe this is what 2016 is going to be like -- a series of tricks.

eyesEditor: Yes.

Me: How are we going to stay sane? What are our strategies for coping with this?

Editor: These are the questions you could pose and answer.

Me: What if we all agreed to just not have a presidential election until, like, June of next year? Just everyone go home and wait until then?

Editor: Put this into writing!

Me: Wait, though! You do not actually believe that de Blasio is going to run for president though, right?

Editor: Right. I do not believe it.

Me: Why is this a story, though? What happened?

Editor: "@DraftDeblasio" is a twitter account someone made. So I suppose that's the reason? Everyone freaking out over a Twitter account, basically?

Me: OMG so this is why? There is a Twitter account?

Editor: Yeah, basically.

Me: You know in the movie "Inception" they had to spend, like, millions of dollars and invent crazy machines and then a team of people had to all almost get killed to make ONE person think ONE thing. They should have just used Twitter and then the whole movie would have been six minutes long.

Editor: Ha, ha, yes, I know it.

inceptiononeMe: Have you considered the possibility that NONE OF THIS IS HAPPENING, and it's actually still 2007 and I am alone at our old office and some chemical fumes from the construction down the hall have knocked me unconscious and I need someone to come help me!? Or maybe I am in the "Inception" world? Maybe you are just a figment of my imagination -- a literary device that I constructed with whom I'm now trapped in a conversation -- and what I think of as "the real world" is just a gossamer web of half forgotten memories.

Editor: Maybe! I'm sorry that if you are, in fact, in the "Inception" world, it's lacking some quality Joseph Gordon-Levitt for you.

Me: I'm more of a Tom Hardy man but I appreciate the sentiment, even if you are just a dollop of pixellated memory dust that's here to implant the notion that this crazy world, in which "Draft de Blasio" is a thing, is actually the real world and I'm not in a coma somewhere.


Editor: Oooh, I'm gonna put "dollop of pixellated memory dust" on my business cards now. So really this "Draft de Blasio" thing was not for nothing! I got a cool new biz card out of it.

Me: Well damn, I didn't get anything out of it!

Editor: :(

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One Hillary Clinton Think Piece To Rule Them All

Jason Linkins   |   April 17, 2015    2:29 PM ET

This week, we were faced with the daunting prospect of having to make sense out of all the Hillary Clinton think pieces that were microwaved into existence after she decided to formally enter the 2016 presidential race. And there were so many pieces of "think" to go through! Millions of microscopic particles of thinking! It was all way too tiresome.

So, in lieu of adding to an already crowded canon, what follows is a Frankenstein's monster of everyone else's hasty Hillary musings. It is one brutal Hillary Clinton think piece to rule them all -- here presented with apologies to Jason O. Gilbert, whose joke we have stolen.

eye of thinkpiece


The wait is over. Well, the longest tease in American politics is officially over. There is no breaking news here.

It comes as no surprise to most but with a video released Sunday afternoon -- delivering what might be the least surprising news of the political season to date -- Clinton made it official. Ending two years of speculation and coy denials, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Sunday that she would seek the presidency for a second time, immediately establishing herself as the likely 2016 Democratic nominee.

For all the months of quiet and careful planning, however, her campaign's rollout did not come off as smoothly as envisioned. The moment was thrilling -- OMG she's doing it! -- as well as anticlimactic. The afternoon's blown; what's for dinner?


The slick, two-minute video shows quick cuts of a carefully diverse collection of Americans explaining what they are getting ready to do over the next year, talking about the challenges they face. Maybe a bit too much stock footage. It could have been for auto insurance, or soap, or anything. The video was relentlessly, insultingly vapid -- a Verizon commercial without the substance. Adding insult to vacuousness was the demographic box-checking nature of the video, however beautifully filmed.

Hillary Clinton is almost the Zelig of this rather upbeat video. She shows up at the end of a very peppy video, outside a suburban home, with her voice sounding like she's trying to strike a positive note. "I'm running for president," she said with a smile near the end.

A friend just messaged me that he had watched the video and thought at the beginning that it was paid advertising content.


Hillary Clinton has spent more than a quarter-century in the public eye as first lady, senator and secretary of State, and her life has been scrutinized, investigated and dissected. The biggest concerns now, by contrast, are internal: Can she avoid the managerial and strategic dysfunction that plagued her campaign in the 2008 primaries?

When Clinton first sought the presidency eight years ago, her most memorable words were "I'm running for president, and I'm in it to win it," a phrasing that critics viewed as reflecting a broader sense of entitlement. That announcement began a downward trajectory in which she went from being considered the inevitable nominee to finishing in third place in the Iowa caucuses, behind Mr. Obama and John Edwards.

Remember: cattle futures, the White House travel-office firings, and the missing Rose Law Firm files. Unethical or just paranoid? That could be a distinction without much difference. Doings of HRC's younger brothers, Hugh and Tony Rodham, will come in for scrutiny.

Above all, however, Hillary Clinton will struggle against the inevitability of her own campaign, the messianic pull of an office that has long eluded her and could once again be out of reach. But the truth is that this country is 230 years old and has had 43 presidents and not a single one of them has been a woman.


Hillary Clinton has loomed so powerfully in the American consciousness for so long that it's hard to remember how delicate, how combustible, how ultimately improbable the project of electing her president is likely to be. Her longtime coziness in the ritzy Washington-to-Wall Street Acela corridor could drive away many voters. The lesson learned from 2008: Clinton isn't as comfortable going big -- a la Barack Obama or even her husband. Using social media, rather than a big balloon drop and confetti-laced rally, was a wise choice.

And then, there's the fact that the public is hungry for someone new, she is not somebody new. She is old. She is not the new.

I think people want to see change, want to see something new and Hillary Clinton is just not that person.

Above all, can she represent the future more than the past? I think she's going to try to run away from foreign policy.

Regardless, if Ms. Clinton stays in the race, she may want to eat at a Pizza Ranch at some point.


It would be hard to name another politician who has her varied experience.


The characterization of Clinton in popular culture also often holds her to be inauthentic and ruthless. This was emphasized one more time on the evening before her announcement, when NBC's "Saturday Night Live" began with Kate McKinnon playing Clinton. In some ways there was more substance in this week's "Saturday Night Live" skit on the making of the video, in which Hillary, played by Kate McKinnon, struggles to record herself on her phone, than in the actual finished product. It's an auspicious beginning for what could end up a 20-month run of SNL politics hall of fame sketches.


The Hillary Clinton presidential campaign wants you to know one very important thing about the former First Lady, New York Senator and Secretary of State: She's just like you! She will also look for ways to demonstrate that, after more than three decades in public life, she understands the ways of modern campaigns and can appeal to younger voters. There's a final takeaway from everything we now know: Hillary wants to send the message that she's taking NOTHING for granted.

But she has yet to show she can marry her brand to this universe to mobilize voters or raise big money. It's all too clear she's acting at being down-to-earth rather than truly inhabiting her chosen role. Unscripted Hillary still feels scripted. That reality speaks to the fundamental truth of this race for Hillary: Her greatest attribute is that she's Hillary Clinton. Her greatest weakness is that she's Hillary Clinton.

So what could possibly go wrong? Everything. Anything. Anything and everything. Regardless of the outcome, Mrs. Clinton's 2016 campaign will open a new chapter in the extraordinary life of a public figure who has captivated and polarized the country since her husband, former President Bill Clinton, declared his intention to run for president in 1991.


Where Clinton's candidacy is likely to rise or fall is on how the American people respond to her personally.


As Hillary Clinton prepares to end months of speculation, a new mystery is emerging: just what kind of president does she want to be? What does she stand for? Why does she want to be president? Clinton's early rollout is answering the process question (how the announcement will go down, etc.), but it isn't answering the message question (what her campaign will be about). Clinton cannot sustain this sort of aspirational politics in the more than 18 months between now and November 2016 without getting very specific.

She lacks: A clear rationale for her candidacy. What is Clinton's rationale for running? The bigger problem, in fact, is that she lacks a rationale for running. It's a cliché these days to say that the question hovering over Clinton's campaign is about its "rationale." Did Hillary Clinton talk about her rationale for running? I don't feel now that I know much more about her rationale or ideas for a candidacy than I did an hour ago. What is her rationale for running?


No one will remember or care weeks from now, if they do even now.

A Celebration Of The Professionalism Of Campaign Reporters

Jason Linkins   |   April 14, 2015    3:59 PM ET

What are the first words that come to mind when you think about campaign reporters during an election cycle? For me, those words are dignity and distinction.

These are some of the qualities you'll see in abundance in the video above, which depicts reporters coming to grips with the arrival of Hillary Clinton's van. The traits manifest themselves in myriad ways: the serene certainty of knowing what really matters because you've been there before, the graceful bearing that comes from being a calm professional, the obvious outward projection of self-respect and poise ... they're all there.

No one is acting at all as though someone just shouted, "OH NO SOMEONE STRAPPED A LIVE GRENADE TO THIS JACK RUSSELL TERRIER EVERYONE SCATTER SERPENTINE SERPENTINE!" Everyone is comporting themselves in a way that makes you think, "Why, I think the next five hundred some-odd days of campaign coverage will be something I'll look forward to, rather than pray daily for a quiet aneurysm to transport me from this mortal plane to a place where there are no cares, just a restful peace."

If our campaign reporters have any flaw, I think you'll agree that they are almost too mannered ... too noble in their bearing, so much so that it can be pretty intimidating for the rest of us.

Look at Orange Pants. Run, Orange Pants. Run forever.

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Paging Hillary Clinton And The Media Covering Her: Could You Please Climb Out Of Plato's Cave?

Jason Linkins   |   April 12, 2015    7:30 AM ET

Every election cycle can be considered, first and foremost, a monument to hype. With every passing week, the political world is a blizzard of brash predictions, bold pronouncements, and bad advice. This year, your Speculatroners shall convene every Sunday and attempt to decode and defang in a way that will hopefully leave you feeling unharmed and less confused. We hope this helps, but as always, we make no guarantees!


Former senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to finally make official her intentions of running for president this Sunday, and on this occasion, we'll note -- as we and everyone else have noted many times before -- that her past will hang over the entire proceedings.

By now, we're familiar with the story. Clinton is part of a "political dynasty," and she'll carry that baggage whether she likes it or not. Her long career, while providing her with plenty of political experience, will nevertheless challenge her to find ways to be "new" at a moment when, we are told, the "people" are ready for "change." And of course, there is Clinton's long and rocky relationship with the media, a tale that's been told and retold in so many different ways that we're genuinely surprised DC Comics hasn't optioned it for a gritty reboot.

This week, New York magazine's Jason Zengerle replowed another one of these old rows in a piece titled "Is Hillary Clinton Any Good At Running For President? (And How Much Does It Matter, Anyway?)" Once again, the past puts the first stamp on the present. After all, Clinton did once do this thing (running for president), and we remember how that thing went (doubleplusungood), and damned if this new thing (running for president again) doesn't remind us of that other thing that previously happened.

There was a little sparring on the Internets over this piece. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan referred to it as "The Platonic Ideal Of Horse Race Journalism," and in case you aren't getting the irony, it's that the Platonic Ideal of horse race journalism is actually something much less than the Platonic Ideal of journalism itself. Trivial nonsense tends to rise up in the news cycle at these times, creating opportunity costs for more substantive explorations of important issues. Per Nolan:

Team A has a new strategy! Team B made a mistake! Team C has a new manager! This style of "horse race journalism" has the effect of completely obscuring the issues underlying these political campaigns. So why do reporters do this? Because it is easy. It is easier to cover campaigns like this, and it requires less thought, and it leaves journalists less prone to being attacked by one side or another, and it is, in general, purely speculative rubbish which cannot be truly refuted. So it is what we get.

Zengerle raised mild objections on Twitter, saying that while he agrees "that horserace journalism is a scourge," it's also "reality" and thus "important to try to understand the ways it does -- and does not -- effect elections [sic]." And in fact, Zengerle's piece makes an honest attempt to explore this, at times reading like it was written to arm its author against the tendencies Nolan reviles.

The truth is that not all horse race journalism is created alike. Some of it is alive in the present moment and displays an understanding, on the author's part, of which things matter and which things do not. And some of it is empty-headed doggerel completely free of any signs of self-awareness. We can recognize the latter version when we see it -- like when 20 reporters assign themselves the task of "guessing" when Clinton's launch date will be, or when the news of Clinton's having procured office space leads journalists to treat Brooklyn as some kind of previously undiscovered Xanadu.

Andrew Gelman at The Washington Post recently pointed out one particular "tell" of bad horse race journalism: Its "wheels" are "greased" with "empty platitudes." Gelman cites a recent New Yorker piece in which David Remnick wrote: "The 2008 Democratic race was not just good sport; it also made Obama and Clinton better."

Gelman's response:

Huh? Where did that come from?

It sounds reasonable, kinda, and it fits in with [Remnick's] expressed desire that Hillary Clinton have serious competition in the 2016 Democratic primaries. But... is that how political reporting has to be done? You have an opinion and then you say fact-free, reasonable-sounding things that line up with that opinion?

Similar platitudes show up in Zengerle's piece. The 2008 race was "the campaign as soap opera"! The 2012 election was "Nate Silver's world." It's possible that Zengerle is offering these fact-free assertions as a way of critiquing them, but it's hard to tell, because these are the kind of sad, lightweight ideas that show up in political reporting like nitrogen shows up in the planet's atmosphere. There's a sort of truth to these assertions, sure, but they tend to feel like placeholder sentences, something that a pundit or a reporter ended up including because they felt like the paragraph had to be a certain length. Rarely do these declarations feel like the product of an engaged, analytical mind.

Moreover, this lorem-ipsum style of political journalism tends to be shaped by the peculiar media obsessions of the moment, rather than by how people are living their actual lives and making actual political choices. This is how Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who will not be running for president, nevertheless gets cast as Clinton's foil. The media believes that "foils" make "candidates" better, and in this case, one needed to be invented. From there, the story runs away with itself -- and it escapes so quickly that no one takes the time to explore why the differences between Clinton and Warren may actually be significant. It's enough for most political reporters to note that Warren is "against the banks" and would "challenge Clinton from the left" and leave it there.

Just because I've centered this discussion on Hillary Clinton doesn't mean that this stuff only happens when she's involved. It happens everywhere and to everybody. Clinton is important here, though, for two reasons. One is, let's face it, trivial: She's newsy at the moment. (See, I'm not immune from this either.) But what's really unique about Clinton is that she, like no other political figure, seems to be particularly locked in an embrace with the political press, somewhere deep inside Plato's cave, informed only by the lights and shadows that each is casting at the other. (The New York Times, probably unintentionally, illustrated this on its most recent Clinton campaign piece by using a photograph, seen here and above, that depicts Clinton encased in dark, amorphous shadows.)

Over at The New Republic, Elspeth Reeve has written an utterly wonderful exploration of this, noting that the media's perennial demand for Hillary Clinton to be more "authentic" always backfires on everyone, because the media doesn't really understand what "authenticity" is, and whenever Clinton actually evinces any of it, the media recoils in disgust and confusion.

I fear that this whole "Hillary has got to be new!" thing is the same soup, just reheated. What evidence is there, after all, that political reporters understand "new"? How do they define what is and what isn't a cutting-edge policy idea? When President Barack Obama talked at great length about climate change during his second inaugural address, political pundits called it "bold." But for people who'd already been involved in the science of climate change and the policy prescriptions to combat it, talking about climate change was anything but "bold." It just seemed bold to the media, because it hadn't been what they expected.

Reeve lists a number of occasions when Clinton's expressions of authenticity caused a backlash, but the one that sticks out in my mind is what Reeve refers to as Clinton's "most famous feminist moment," this sound bite from 1992: "I suppose I could've stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."

As Reeve notes, "history has mostly forgotten that Clinton was responding to Jerry Brown’s claim that her law firm benefited from Arkansas state business, and not speaking about stay-at-home moms." That's probably because Clinton got pilloried for saying this. It was authentically her, speaking a truth that was authentically felt by an untold number of women, but the media treated it as if she'd leached something radioactive into the groundwater. As The Boston Globe's Joan Wickersham recalled back in January 2013:

She got slammed. The cookie-baking reference was seized upon as evidence not just that Hillary wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, but that she had contempt for women who had made this choice. (What she really had contempt for was the assumption that, for a politician’s wife, this was the only choice.)

The press and the public chose to misunderstand her, and they made her atone. “Family Circle” magazine ran a contest pitting Hillary Clinton’s cookie recipe against Barbara Bush’s. Barbara, with her usual patrician who-the-hell-cares? insouciance, turned in a recipe essentially copied from the back of the chocolate-chip package. Hillary’s entry was hipper: modernized with oatmeal. It was a canny, good-humored response to a situation both ludicrous and covertly hostile. Here was a supremely talented and accomplished woman who had made a verbal blunder, and we punished her by making her put on an apron. I’m embarrassed now to see that I copied down the recipe. (Although the cookies, as I remember, were excellent.)

This is an actual, objectively crazy thing that really happened. And there's no guarantee that minds won't be similarly lost in this election cycle. That's why Reeve offers this advice:

To become more “authentic,” Hillary must become even more fake, set us at ease by playing to all the dumb tropes of the popular portrait of the everywoman -- one who is devoted to slopwave food (premium juice, premium oatmeal, kale slurry) but is a little embarrassed about it. A wacky career gal who is unlucky in ... something. Clinton should consider tripping publicly, perhaps while eating yogurt. Then laugh really loud, but not inauthentically loud. The only thing worse than being fake in politics is being real.

That is 100 percent correct.

But I can't just beat the media about the head, here. This cuts both ways. Clinton and her camp have nurtured their own grievances with the media to such a degree that their every move now seems to be hyper-informed by the cameras. They're like a jumpy cat that's convinced itself that any minute now, someone's going to tromp on its tail because they love to watch it yelp.

Take, for example, all of the news leading up to Clinton's announcement. It's been prefaced by breaking stories of new staff hires, the fundamental message being that there will be a more sunny, optimistic campaign disposition and a complete image makeover coming down the pike. We're also told that the launch will be noteworthy in its intimate approach to voters, and that it will intentionally de-emphasize the woman at the center. As CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Dan Merica describe it:

As she and a coterie of advisers prepare to launch her presidential campaign, their work is guided by a new set of humble principles: No big crowds. Few soaring rallies. Less mention of her own ambitions. And extinguish the air of inevitability propelling her candidacy.

That's all fine and dandy, but you have to understand that this story only exists because the Clinton campaign took pains to provide it. So mindful of their old story, they are now telling the story about how they intend to tell a new story. Every campaign puts a lot of effort into spin, of course. But it seems like in Clinton's case, there's a great deal of fear that the media is so informed by everything that's come before that this current moment will go unremarked upon if Clinton's team doesn't intercede.

Clinton can't possibly run for president if she's constantly looking over her shoulder, watching for the gremlins of the past. She will face a lot of tough questions from people focused on the present, who will be trying to do right by the public they serve. It's going to be important for Clinton to be able to distinguish what matters now, and not to reflexively assume that every difficult moment that arises is steeped in some ancient enmity.

Clinton's history, her successes and her failures are, of course, fair game for anyone seeking to assay her chances of winning this election, and what sort of president she might be. All of the changes to her campaign staff, and the themes she's targeting as she formally enters the race, demonstrate that she's as aware as everyone else that it has to be this way. The thing that needs to happen, if we're going to avoid an onslaught of the thoughtless "rubbish" Nolan warned about, is not for the parties involved here to give passes to one another, but rather for them to make a game effort to stay focused on what matters to people right now. It's time for everyone to step away from the shadowplay in the cavern's depths and ascend back into the world.

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2016ers Are Launching Campaigns Left And Right, And Political Reporters Are On It

Jason Linkins   |   April 8, 2015    6:43 PM ET

It's campaign-launch season, and our country's political reporters are on the scene, giving you the analysis you need. "Hey, a thing seems to be happening!" they are saying. "We should find out some stuff, about this thing," they add. And so we now have, not one, but two lengthy explorations of Presidential Candidates Giving Speeches And Stuff, in The Washington Post and Politico.

In The Washington Post, Robert Costa and Philip Rucker take on the heady matter of "how presidential hopefuls try to create magic with campaign launch events." The short answer is, they do it the same way you would throw a surprise birthday party for your great-aunt Marjorie, except at the end of it, secretive donors nod and give you dark money. Basically, hired guns choose a date and a venue, and then add what brand marketers call "zazz." So I think we can all agree that this is magical.

This is all stuff you could have surmised simply by being alive, though, so the bulk of Costa and Rucker's article is spent demonstrating just how many campaign events the two men can remember, and who they can get on the phone to talk about those events. The answer, it turns out, is: a lot! Obscure names, too -- we're talking B-sides, not just hit singles. Why, they even get former John Edwards aide John Davis into the piece to suggest that Hillary Clinton "launch" her campaign at a diner. "That could serve as an anchor to reintroduce herself yet again," Davis says. And let's be honest, it would probably be a lot easier to reintroduce Clinton to America than it would be to reintroduce Edwards.

Eventually, Costa and Rucker grow confident enough in their knowledge that they get into the game themselves:

Could New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie begin his bid this summer on a Jersey Shore boardwalk rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy?

Might former Texas governor Rick Perry stage an announcement in his childhood home of Paint Creek, highlighting his rural, impoverished roots, or in a military setting as an homage to his time in the Air Force?

Will Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, campaigning as a suburban Midwestern everyman, wear one of his treasured Kohl’s shirts or ride in on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle?

Could they? Might they? Will they? The answer is probably: Yes, unless no. At any rate, Costa and Rucker's spitballing sure gives the impression that anyone could be in charge of this campaign-launching stuff if they really wanted to.

But Politico's Todd Purdum would probably disagree, at least judging by his recent story, whose headline asks a question -- "Do splashy campaign kickoffs matter?" -- that the sub-hed then answers: "Yes, say the experts." ("You only get one chance to make a first impression," the sub-hed continues, in what I'll guess is an unintentional echo of an old shampoo commercial. Fun fact -- Politico could also have gone with "Because you're worth it.")

Purdum explains that a successful campaign event involves a lot more than picking a scenic locale and sticking your candidate on a motorcycle. There's actually a deeper, hidden set of signs and signals that are handpicked to evoke very specific ideas and put the launch in a larger thematic context.

Purdum supplies plenty of examples. He notes that Ted Cruz's decision to begin his campaign at Liberty University served as "an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual campaign he will wage for the conservative soul of the GOP." Rand Paul's launch event, meanwhile, featured an "intergenerational audience and notable black figures on the stage," a sign of the Kentucky senator's intent to build a newer, more inclusive base than other candidates'. And Clinton, Purdum suggests, will have to put an important thematic stamp on her own launch event, one that demonstrates "that the most familiar analog figure in either party still has some fresh digital moves to bust." (The concept of "busting a move," by the way, was at its funky freshest in the late spring of 1989, so this might not be as heavy a lift for Clinton as many are making it out to be.)

So who, then, are the "experts" Purdum speaks with to convince us of the theory that these events "matter?" Well, they are:

1. "Carter Eskew, a veteran Democratic media strategist."

2. "Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist in Los Angeles."

3. Ted Van Dyk, a former aide to Hubert Humphrey.

So, if you were hoping that "experts" meant, say, some political scientists like Lynn Vavreck or Brendan Nyhan, doing a deep, scholarly analysis of how voters have responded, over time, to campaign pageantry, I'm afraid you are bereft. Instead, you get a former Humphrey adviser and two guys whose lives depend on convincing would-be electoral candidates to give them large sums of money for their secret guru knowledge. What would you expect them to say about this? Surely not Oh, you know, these things are all mostly ephemeral nonsense!

Actually, Van Dyk's involvement in this piece is my favorite thing about it. Per Purdum:

The most chaotic announcement season in modern times was probably 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson did not drop out of the race until March 31, and the April 4 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King froze other prospective candidates in place. Vice President Hubert Humphrey finally declared on April 27, in a luncheon speech at Washington’s Shoreham Hotel written largely by Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz and edited by Humphrey aide Ted Van Dyk. [...]

But Humphrey could not manage to extricate himself from Johnson’s unpopular Vietnam policy -- or even win the unstinting support of the president himself. The traumas of that year -- Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary in June -- and his own sense of loyalty kept Humphrey from doing what today’s candidates take such pains to do: Stake out his own identity and claim to his party’s support early enough to make a difference. He won the nomination but lost the White House to Richard M. Nixon.

“These many years later,” Van Dyk added, “it still hurts to recall the events of 1968.”

It's sort of hilarious that in the same piece that stresses the need for Hillary Clinton to scrape off the barnacles of a long career in order to show that she's still got some cutting-edge, modern "moves" to "bust," you get some walking historical relic's dusty observation: 1968 -- wow, man... I don't know.

In the end, we may not have answered the question "Do campaign kickoffs matter?" But the answer to a different question -- do articles like these matter? -- is, I feel, just about within our reach.

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20 Campaign Reporters Wasted A Year Trying To Make A Useless Prediction About Hillary Clinton

Jason Linkins   |   April 8, 2015    1:51 PM ET

Sometimes it's almost possible to feel sorry for campaign reporters during a presidential election cycle. Take, for example, this report in Politico about the staggering waste of a score of people's short time on this earth:

In the past year, at least 20 journalists from as many news organizations have tried to put a date, rough or specific, on when the former secretary of state would announce her highly anticipated presidential bid. That guessing game came to an end last week when the Clinton team signed a lease on campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, all but guaranteeing an announcement within the next two weeks, in compliance with federal law.

The shifting timeline, which ranged at times from January to October, was almost certainly the result of changing plans within the nascent Clinton campaign, as well as the conflicting interests of various Clinton confidants and sources. Nevertheless, the changes likely left readers doing a double take.

Twenty news organizations essentially spent a year attempting to guess when Hillary Clinton would announce her intentions to run for president, an exercise that is pointless for two reasons:

1. Clinton has obviously been a candidate during that entire time.
2. It's actually not a public service to guess an announcement date. If any "readers" were doing a "double take," it was probably because they kept wondering, "Why does this reporter seem to think I give a fig about any of this?" It's like 20 reporters were competing to become the next "Ed Glosser: Trivial Psychic."

No one who managed to guess the answer to the question of "What time is Hillary Clinton?" will be remembered for this feat of journalistic derring-do. In fact, the only thing you get for having spent a year on obtaining this unnecessary information is the knowledge, in the hour of your death, that you wasted a substantial portion of your life and will now die alone and unremarked upon.

Meanwhile, Clinton will probably announce in a couple of weeks or whatever, unless she doesn't. It doesn't matter. When it happens, you'll know it.

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Drexel Law Professor's Email Mishap Touches Off Idiotic Freakout With University Administration

Jason Linkins   |   April 8, 2015    1:47 PM ET

As much as our fancy technical gadgets and devices allegedly make life easier, anyone who's spent any time mashing keys and closing tabs knows that modern life is filled with its own perils. The accidental reply-all, the direct message sent to all of Twitter, the occasional sending of a malformed link that takes the recipient where no one intended them to go -- most of us have found ourselves on one end or the other of these pitfalls. This week, a Drexel University law professor became the latest person to become Internet famous for this kind of routine error. Unfortunately for her, her higher-ups in higher education have reacted with all of the aplomb of a decapitated chicken.

According to Above The Law's David Lat -- who both broke the story and was the first to attempt to inject some sanity into it -- Drexel University professor Lisa McElroy, while trying to share a link about legal brief-writing to her students over a network called TWEN (The West Education Network), accidentally included a link to a Pornhub video. And not just any Pornhub video -- a Pornhub video prominently featuring anal beads. Which is sort of appropriate when you think about it, considering that finding some kind of pleasure from pulling something out of your ass is practically a prerequisite for a legal career.

It seems like it was no more than a very mortifying accident, similar in many ways to what befell then-Fox News White House Correspondent Major Garrett back in January of 2010, when he inadvertently tweeted out a shortened link to the website of a Las Vegas call girl.

Garrett apologized for sending the link, telling his followers that it was an "innocent mistake." And even if Garrett was sizing up Nevada entertainment options and forgot what was on his Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V clipboard, an innocent mistake is precisely what it was. Garrett is a grown-up and he can do what he likes. Most of the world, properly recognizing this, moved on swiftly. As Lat reports, however, McElroy isn't getting the same break: "But this being legal academia, of course a mountain had to be made out of a molehill."

As Lat goes on to report, rather than being a chill-ass adult about this, Kevin Oates, the law school's senior associate dean of students, instead sent an email to all of Drexel's law students, obliquely referencing an "erroneous" email containing "inappropriate material" that was sent to some students. Way to get the titillated tongues -- of a universe beyond the few students who were originally involved -- wagging, super-genius!

From there, according to Lat's source, McElroy was put on leave, "pending an investigation" into whether she violated Section 9 of Drexel's sexual harassment and misconduct policy -- which deals with specifically with "concerns about [the] personal safety and physical and emotional well-being" of students.

"According to federal law and the University’s policies and procedures, Drexel is required to initiate fact-finding for all reports of inappropriate behaviors of a sexual nature that may impact members of our community," the school said in a statement. Which... what?

Let me go ahead and conclude this investigation for Drexel. It seems more than reasonable to assume that McElroy did not intentionally seek to discomfit, harass or harm anyone and that she accidentally pasted the wrong link. There could be any number of reasons she had that link on hand. Maybe McElroy, like so many normal humans, is into kink. Maybe she watches erotic videos. Know what? She's allowed.

However this link made its way into the message, it's clear it was not intended for public consumption. Given how desperate, unhappy and repressed the typical academic is, anyone being honest about this is obliged to recognize they could have easily made the same mistake. As Lat writes, "Now her students know that 'law professors are just like us' — they watch online porn."

Compounding all of this is the fact that McElroy suffers from a "severe anxiety disorder," which she wrote about for Slate back in July of 2013. So all of this needless pearl-clutching from her superiors probably can't be good for her. The best thing for everyone here is to recognize this as an unhappy accident, definitively in the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I zone (as Lat also points out), and move on as quickly as possible. To be honest, the way Drexel's administrators have gone to ridiculous extremes in this matter makes me wonder what twisted stuff, exactly, they get off on.

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Yet Another Hopeless Plea For Some Fresh Perspective On Sunday Morning

Jason Linkins   |   April 6, 2015    3:52 PM ET

As more and more Americans continue to follow my example and find something better to do on Sunday mornings than slog through the network television chat shows, the people in charge of these ratings-starved programs will have plenty of opportunity to wonder why they've been abandoned.

For an answer, you could do worse than to look at this past weekend's offerings. In a news cycle dominated by the knotty Iran deal and the many unanswered questions associated with it, the Sunday shows served up a demonstration of one of their most frustrating problems: the unwillingness or inability to provide viewers with any points of view that weren't completely, boringly predictable.

Anyone who tuned into these shows during the last presidential election probably understands this problem all too well. Given the opportunity to delve into any of the issues that animated normal Americans, or invite the sorts of guests who could rile the candidates from their comfort zones and force them to go off-script, the Sunday shows, with alarming regularity, steered instead into the fluff. Again and again, Well-Known Romney Spokesperson and Well-Known Obama Spokesperson would be invited on to the Sunday shows to assure America that they really, really thought the man who was paying them to dispense prepackaged campaign idioms was a super-swell guy.

These are shows that require no spoiler alert. You can't spoil what's visible from a mile away. And when everyone knows what everyone is going to say the moment the booking is announced, why tune in? These shows' producers are hung up on the idea that only a certain, narrow range of guests can possibly bring in high ratings -- and they don't realize that this is a big reason why ratings are hopelessly in decline. Edward R. Murrow's "wires and lights in a box" are forever projected on the wall of this particular dreary cave.

The Iran negotiations have been presented in much the same way. Take CBS' "Face the Nation," for example. This past Sunday, viewers were treated to the sight of Energy Secretary Dr. Ernest Moniz playing the role of Obama administration dogsbody, followed immediately by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sunday morning futility infielder extraordinaire. Sending Moniz into the rut was, perhaps, an inventive idea from the White House, as he came to the table with science-community cred and academy sheen, but the show still ended up resembling nothing so much as two opposing teams' cheerleaders running through their rah-rah routines. (Not that Moniz and Graham ever directly confronted each other, or even appeared on screen at the same time. These shows are too averse to friction of any kind to allow that to happen. Mustn't leave anyone with the idea that maybe one guest or the other could have "won" the debate.)

What about outside perspectives on the matter? Well, most of the Sunday shows woke up this weekend with the same idea: Let's hear from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu! The only problem is that Netanyahu's opinions on the Iran deal have long ago been set in amber. There's actually no reason in the world to have Netanyahu go through the rote exercise of moving air across his vibrating vocal cords and using his lips, tongue and teeth to shape the sounds into words. At this point, one need only look back over the massive body of previously expressed Bibi-opinions and cut a video mashup for all future use. Making Netanyahu take time out of his day to go through the motions was unnecessary, and probably a little unkind, to all involved.

"Face the Nation," to its credit, did just this -- leave Bibi on tape and let Moniz offer the Obama administration's already well-practiced responses. NBC's "Meet the Press" let Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) follow Netanyahu as the White House's chorale leader. ABC's "This Week" gave Netanyahu a few minutes of air, and then moved on to the story they should have just spent the entire show covering -- the horrific California drought. As for "Fox News Sunday," well, they deserve some credit for booking Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), whose positioning in the Iran debate is at least interesting. A nominal Iran skeptic, Corker has thus far held off from joining either the White House's hallelujah chorus or the GOP's hothead squad, in an effort to try to be "the adult in the room."

Still, beyond the Beltway, there's a world of outsider perspectives to be had. Why can't these shows find any?

This is not a phenomenon unique to the Iran story. Last year, with the annual mens' college basketball tournament occasioning a debate about the NCAA's labor-cartel arrangements, "Meet the Press" endeavored to pretend as if it deeply cared about the issue. But the results were as timid as they come, and critically, the same lack of unique outsider perspective was to blame. As The Nation's Dave Zirin wrote:

To discuss this issue, Gregory secured three people for the Meet the Press table, including NCAA President Mark Emmert. That's good start! Mark Emmert, is a man who makes a $2 million annual salary defending the status quo. The people Emmert could have been in discussion with is tantalizing. Maybe we would see civil rights author Taylor Branch, whose piece on the NCAA rocked the sports world. Perhaps one of the other guests would be New York Times columnist William Rhoden, whose book $40 Million Slaves examined the social position of African-American athletes. Or we could get USA Today’s Christine Brennan, who has written extensively about equity for women in college athletics.

Instead, according to David Gregory’s twitter feed, the Meet the Press team wanted to bring in some former jocks. That is a great call! There are numerous ex-college players who have been actively organizing to wrest a degree of justice from the clutches of Mark Emmert. Maybe they booked former All-American Ed O'Bannon, who has led a lawsuit against the NCAA’s use of player’s likenesses without their permission. Or perhaps they would bring on Ramogi Huma, a onetime UCLA football player who started the National College Players Association. We could hear from a former NCAA athlete who is a woman, like Kate Fagan, who could speak to issues of Title IX and how paying certain athletes could affect others. Or best yet, Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter, who led his team to actually organize a union. America could hear from the young man who said, “Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”

As you might surmise from Zirin's lengthy setup, all of those useful voices went unheard, as "Meet the Press" instead, confusingly, opted to book former Duke basketballer and famed former Obama "body man" Reggie Love. Also present, for some reason, was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose agency's current stance on its contract debt collectors running buck wild is basically just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. There was no real reason to think that Duncan would offer any challenge to Emmert, or to the NCAA's status quo.

And, indeed, as Zirin went on to note, Love was a complete non-entity and Duncan's bold solution to the NCAA's problems was to find some way to ensure that its athletes are properly fed and allowed to travel home for family emergencies. "Emmert just sat back like he was getting a spa treatment," wrote Zirin, a description that could really be applied to anyone appearing on the Sunday morning salons.

As helpful as the P5+1 negotiations have been to everyone who makes their bones being loudly for or against stuff on camera, what would truly serve the public right now are some different points of view. Israel is not the only country in the Middle East currently looking askance at Iran. With the terrifying rise of the Islamic State, and the swelling instability in Yemen casting a bloody pall over the diplomatic politesse we've seen in Switzerland, it might be interesting to see whether some future arrangement between Iran and the West is currently at the forefront of everyone's minds over there, as it seems to be here.

We could use some Iranian perspective on the matter, while we're at it. Someone like Meir Javedanfar, the Iranian-born/Israel-residing co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran, could provide a unique look at what's happening in Iran as the diplomatic efforts proceed to the next act. Even now, while Javedanfar looks favorably upon the deal's potential, he's nonetheless sounding an alarm about how the Iranian government is communicating the details of the deal to its citizens. Javedanfar recently called on the U.S. State Department to "translate the text of the agreement on their site into Persian, so that the Iranian public are left with no doubt as to what has been agreed and what has not been agreed." It might be interesting to hear from someone who can speak about the diplomatic arrangement with a sane level of both optimism and skepticism -- and who might have insight into the specific ways these efforts could be waylaid.

Or, we could hear from the other mostly voiceless party to this pageant of statecraft -- the Iranian people. Why not book someone like British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai, author of City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran? Few writers have offered as detailed a look at what passes for normal life in Iran's capital, where ordinary Tehranians are forever navigating the perils of a paranoid, fundamentalist authoritarian state as they attempt to act upon their intimate desires and longings. Navai's work sows a deep distrust of Iran's rulers and a deep sympathy for the people most directly oppressed by it. In that, there's probably no better way of viewing our own dilemma with the nation -- a state that's hard to trust, ruling over a citizenry that no one wants to see harmed.

If there's one rule of thumb I would urge the world's Sunday-show producers to keep in mind, it would be this timeless piece of advice from Paul Waldman, which I reckon I'll keep mentioning until someone recognizes it for what it is -- the path to fortune and glory. "As a first rule," Waldman wrote at The Washington Post last year, "the people you bring on should 1) know as much as possible about the things you’re going to discuss, and 2) have little if any interest in spinning."

Following that advice would immediately make any Sunday show stand out from its competitors. Someone, anyone, please take the chance. The 2016 presidential election is looming, and I can already script the voiceover: "This morning! A debate between Jeb Bush's campaign spokesperson and Hillary Clinton's campaign spokesperson! We will finally determine which one thinks their candidate is more awesome, and who believes it the hardest!" In a terrible burst of precognition, you, the viewer, will be able to see how the entire next hour will unfold. And chances are, you'll go looking for something else instead.

[CORRECTION: This post originally depicted Zirin's post on "Meet The Press" as having been written in 2015. This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that it was written in 2014. We regret the error.]

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Some Atlanta Educators Just Learned A Cynical Lesson About Accountability In America

Jason Linkins   |   April 3, 2015    5:20 PM ET

It isn't every day that people who abuse their positions of authority are held accountable for wrongdoing. Actually, to be statistically precise about it, it isn't any day that happens, really. But there is some good news on that front, for a change: This week, in an Atlanta courtroom, some malefactors finally got nailed.

Per the Associated Press:

A group of former Atlanta educators convicted in a test cheating scandal were locked up in jail Thursday as they await sentences that could send them to prison for years.

In one of the nation's largest cheating scandals of its kind, the 11 defendants were convicted Wednesday of racketeering for their roles in a scheme to inflate students' scores on standardized exams.

Yes, that's right, in the most recent scandal of its kind, a group of educators, including one principal and a number of school administrators, were caught altering the results of one of those daffy standardized tests that now subsume the lion's share of all pedagogical opportunities in America's public schools. Only this time, some are saying that this is a huge story and the biggest development in American education law since forever.

From AP again:

"This is a huge story and absolutely the biggest development in American education law since forever," University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson said. "It has to send a message to educators here and broadly across the nation. Playing with student test scores is very, very dangerous business."

There's really no doubt that those convicted did a Very Bad Thing -- like, you know, The Worst Thing "since forever" OMG -- if for no other reason than that their actions will scandalize other public school educators, who are currently described so frequently in media accounts as "embattled" it's like their homeric epithet. The only people more demonized by political elites from either party are sadists who attempt to set up demented death-cult caliphates.

And sweet fancy Moses, did they ever lay the wood to those folks they convicted! Per the AP: "Over objections from the defendants' attorneys, Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter ordered all but one of those convicted immediately jailed while they await sentencing. They were led out of court in handcuffs."

They took them out in chains! That's hardcore. That's humiliating. That's a sight that will make other people think twice before committing similar crimes -- it's what real accountability looks like.

Or at least that's what a horrifyingly unequal justice system looks like when it plays out right before our eyes. Last year The New Yorker took a close look at the teachers and administrators involved in this scandal and, well, read the story for yourself and decide whether these are people who should be shackled; or if, rather, society should apologize for creating the terrible circumstances into which they and their students were thrown.

So while an Atlanta judge somehow found the courage to lock these educators up even before they've been sentenced -- again, not a thing that happens to white-collar criminals (with an emphasis there on "white") -- the justice system typically has little appetite for such accountability. These educators stumbled into one of the few areas of American life where a willingness to lower the proverbial boom on a corrupt actor actually exists.

Let me give you a blueprint for how this sort of thing would have gone down if the scofflaws were high-flying bankers. What if you had a situation where, say -- I don't know -- a big bank laundered money for drug cartels and aided and abetted the transfer of funds between rogue nations and terrorist organizations.

This is an actual thing that an actual bank -- HSBC -- actually did. They broke the sort of laws that, had someone like you or I done the same, we would be lucky to avoid being flayed alive in the town square for it.

But when an organization like HSBC gets caught engaged in these sorts of crimes, what happens next is that the authorities tasked with meting out accountability invoke something called "collateral consequences."

Collateral consequences is an idea that Attorney General Eric Holder laid out near the end of a famous memo that everyone initially thought was going to be a new, punitive guideline to disciplining bad banks. But "collateral consequences" encapsulates this notion that the state has much more important things to consider than "holding people accountable for their actions."

From that memo:

In the corporate context, prosecutors may take into account the possibly substantial consequences to a corporation's employees, investors, pensioners, and customers, many of whom may, depending on the size and nature of the corporation and their role in its operations, have played no role in the criminal conduct, have been unaware of it, or have been unable to prevent it.

As a theoretical construct, this is fairly reasonable -- don't wreck the innocent on your way to punishing the guilty. But the way this precept has been applied has been much different. As Dealbook's Ben Protess and Jessica Silver-Greenberg reported, it's the principle that got HSBC largely off the hook: "State and federal authorities decided against indicting HSBC in a money-laundering case over concerns that criminal charges could jeopardize one of the world's largest banks and ultimately destabilize the global financial system."

As punishment for directly aiding some of the world's most noteworthy sociopaths, HSBC was forced to pay $1.9 billion in restitution. That sounds like a big number! But bear in mind that this penalty amounted to "little more than half of the $3.5 billion in pre-tax profits the bank earned in the third quarter of 2012," and just a sliver of the $16.8 billion the bank netted in 2011. HSBC also earned a deferred prosecution deal (where you don't get prosecuted as long as you super-duper promise to stop laundering money for drug cartels and terrorists), and was made to apologize. "Our bad," said the bank's spokesperson, probably.

As Reuters reported, former U.S. Treasury official and University of Notre Dame Law professor Jimmy Gurule said that this settlement made "a mockery of the criminal justice system," and recommended that HSBC be subject to the same sort of treatment as these Atlanta educators:

In his view, the only way to really catch the attention of banks is to indict individuals.

"That would send a shockwave through the international finance services community," Gurule said. "It would put the fear of God in bank officials that knowingly disregard the law."

But the way we prosecute banks is actually designed to prevent such shockwaves. Matt Taibbi, whose book The Divide offers a thorough filleting of the way "collateral consequences" has become a promiscuously dispensed "Get Out Of Jail Free" card, explained how this works in an interview with Amy Goodman, "Of course it makes sense to not always destroy a company if you can avoid it. But what they've done is they've conflated that sometimes-sensible policy with a policy of not going after any individuals for any crimes."

And so you get Lanny Breuer, the Obama administration's alleged point man in holding Wall Street's feet to the fire, telling the New York City Bar Association that he adheres to a strict, "sit down, you're rocking the boat" principle:

We are frequently on the receiving end of presentations from defense counsel, CEOs, and economists who argue that the collateral consequences of an indictment would be devastating for their client. In my conference room, over the years, I have heard sober predictions that a company or bank might fail if we indict, that innocent employees could lose their jobs, that entire industries may be affected, and even that global markets will feel the effects. Sometimes -- though, let me stress, not always -- these presentations are compelling. In reaching every charging decision, we must take into account the effect of an indictment on innocent employees and shareholders, just as we must take into account the nature of the crimes committed and the pervasiveness of the misconduct. I personally feel that it's my duty to consider whether individual employees with no responsibility for, or knowledge of, misconduct committed by others in the same company are going to lose their livelihood if we indict the corporation. In large multi-national companies, the jobs of tens of thousands of employees can be at stake. And, in some cases, the health of an industry or the markets are a real factor. Those are the kinds of considerations in white collar crime cases that literally keep me up at night, and which must play a role in responsible enforcement.

Being too big to jail "is a good thing," to borrow a phrase of Martha Stewart's (who apparently wasn't big enough). Meanwhile, Breuer now works for the people he was supposed to punish, a fine reward for a job well (not) done.

In the case of the fraud committed by these Atlanta educators, dogged investigators and prosecutors were allowed to make their case and are now hailed public guardians of justice. In other words, they weren't treated as shabbily as former SEC investigator Gary Aguirre was by his own agency.

Once again, here's Taibbi:

Aguirre joined the SEC in September 2004. Two days into his career as a financial investigator, he was asked to look into an insider-trading complaint against a hedge-fund megastar named Art Samberg. One day, with no advance research or discussion, Samberg had suddenly started buying up huge quantities of shares in a firm called Heller Financial. "It was as if Art Samberg woke up one morning and a voice from the heavens told him to start buying Heller," Aguirre recalls. "And he wasn't just buying shares -- there were some days when he was trying to buy three times as many shares as were being traded that day." A few weeks later, Heller was bought by General Electric -- and Samberg pocketed $18 million.

After some digging, Aguirre found himself focusing on one suspect as the likely source who had tipped Samberg off: John Mack, a close friend of Samberg's who had just stepped down as president of Morgan Stanley. At the time, Mack had been on Samberg's case to cut him into a deal involving a spinoff of the tech company Lucent -- an investment that stood to make Mack a lot of money. "Mack is busting my chops" to give him a piece of the action, Samberg told an employee in an e-mail.

One would imagine that an SEC investigator, provided with evidence of brazen insider trading, would be given the opportunity to make a case. But what happened next will probably not astonish you. Aguirre was sandbagged by his superiors at the SEC and pressured by Morgan Stanley's lawyers -- among them several who'd spun through the revolving door between regulators and the regulated -- to drop the case. When the still-undaunted Aguirre continued anyway, he was dismissed from his job. The happy ending, I guess, is that the government was finally compelled to fork over $755,000 after Aguirre successfully sued for wrongful termination. (Mack was finally deposed by the SEC, conveniently "days after the five-year statute of limitations on insider trading had expired in the case.")

These Atlanta teachers were, astonishingly, prosecuted under Georgia's version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, the theory being that their actions were not some hasty, sloppy, misguided attempt to save their school from closing, but actually an elaborate criminal enterprise concocted for the purpose of securing teensy bonuses. The invocation of RICO -- which is more often used to bring down dangerous mafia families and much less often on dodgy schemes cooked up in a teachers' lounge with a busted microwave oven -- means that these educators face the prospect of decades-long jail sentences for crimes in which little money was at stake and resulted in the death of nobody. It really is something of a legal coup that prosecutors found it so easy to convince a judge that RICO was appropriate here.

Would that RICO could be successfully applied in banking cases! The very proposition is essentially treated as something of a fantasy. Prosecutors are currently attempting to apply RICO to a case in which Bank of America stands accused of "effectuating a captive reinsurance scheme that defrauded plaintiffs ... and compelled them to fund illegal kickbacks and referral payments in the form of purported reinsurance premiums to Bank of America," but it looks like the bank will dodge this on a technicality.

It's a pity the prosecutors in that case are unlikely to be as successful as bringing the RICO sledgehammer to bear as those who prosecuted these Atlanta teachers. And those teachers probably rue the fact that they were much easier to prosecute, as well. As ProPublica's Marian Wang describes, standard operating procedure for cases in which regulators actually put together iron-clad cases against Wall Street criminals looks something like: 1) go after the scofflaws with all the skittishness of a newborn kitten, 2) if at all, and 3) at best, secure financial settlements so teensy-tiny that the judge presiding over the case stands up in court and calls you a disgusting, quivering coward.

Yes, that happened, too. U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who presided over the 2011 case Securities and Exchange Commission v. Citigroup, spent a sizable part of his opinion -- in which he refused to endorse the negotiated settlement -- lambasting the SEC regulators for their long-form imitation of an invertebrate.

But while such prosecutorial performances may stand out as gutless in the Southern District of New York, anyone who's spent time near Capitol Hill recognizes it as bog standard. As we've recently learned, if someone like former Rep. Aaron Schock commits the sin of fraudulently applying for a higher mileage reimbursement than that to which he is entitled, suddenly everyone in Washington becomes infused with the courage of Eowyn facing down the Witch-King at the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

And yet many of the same, serious people who talked so tough about the representative from Downton Abbey and his misdeeds, also consider it an open question as to whether skeevy financial advisors should be brought to heel for systematically defrauding their clients to feather their own nests. Why, such a move could imperil the entire financial sector of the economy! There could be collateral consequences!

In the end, I think that these Atlanta teachers have learned a lesson: Be a banker. Or a polluter. Or run a for-profit education scam. Or snooker people with predatory mortgage agreements. Or rip off people with penny-stock schemes. Or run a college sports cartel. Or create a super PAC. Or "torture some folks."

Just don't ever change the answers on a standardized test.

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What Would Rand Paul Do About A Discriminatory Indiana Pizza Shop?

Jason Linkins   |   April 2, 2015    3:54 PM ET

What's the public to do, in a world where the state allows a private business owner to discriminate against the LGBT community? In the minds of those who create and support such laws, the public is probably just supposed to sit back and endure the poke in the eye.

But what if the overarching sentiment of the public leads rather in the direction of a vigilante form of consumerism, which can drive bad business practitioners perilously close to the brink of going out of business? Well, they'll have the support of at least one Kentucky senator and presidential aspirant, based on what we know of his views.

On Wednesday, the ongoing controversy over Indiana's new take on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act veered suddenly into territory that seemed tailor-made for April Fools' Day, when the proprietors of Memories Pizza, a Walkerton, Indiana, pizza shop, publicly announced to a reporter (for reasons that elude understanding) that while anyone is welcome to eat in their restaurant, they "would have to say no" to a gay couple seeking their catering services for a same-sex wedding. (It's important to note that, at the moment, there's no evidence that Memories has actually acted on this position.)

The mere existence of this news story raises some fascinating questions. For instance, what was the reporter's plan here? Just walk door to door asking people whether they'd service gay weddings until they found someone who said they wouldn't, and then make that single instance of theoretical pizza-denial the story of the day?

Also, why didn't anyone learn more about the genuinely strange tenets of these pizza-makers' theology, which seems to hold that all manner of sinner -- the liar, the philanderer, the criminal, the pedophile -- could receive wedding catering services, as long as they are not part of a gay couple planning a same-sex wedding? I could have spent all day learning about the underpinnings of this pizzeria's curious moral code.

Alas, these are topics for a slower news day. Instead, we got a story about a single business publicly proclaiming its discriminatory business practices. As noted elsewhere on these pages, the main problem with publicly proclaimed discriminatory business practices is that -- as a natural consequence of that proclamation -- those practitioners lose a competitive edge in the marketplace. This is something that the state of Indiana is discovering, as benefactors who once made wide practice of spending their money in the Hoosier State are now looking to take their business elsewhere.

For Memories Pizza, these natural consequences were similarly and swiftly felt, as the community reacted harshly to its public declaration. In many instances, those protesting the pizza shop didn't exactly cover themselves in glory -- the proprietors reported that the adverse reaction included "threatening phone calls and disturbing social media messages" that included inane death threats. (One thing that should not be at stake here is any human being's continued survival.) All of this led to a backlash-to-the-backlash, summed up by Fox News' Megyn Kelly, who declared that the story had "set off a new debate about which side is intolerant."

Perhaps in the short term this is true, and the hasty and stupid have contended to see who can make their hasty and stupid versions of public protest ring out the loudest. But once all the inglorious rage has burned off, we return to a larger debate as to whether the public at large has any recourse against a business that openly proclaims itself to have discriminatory business practices. It also raises a secondary debate over how the public, acting in legitimate protest against a business that mistreats consumers, should be viewed when it mounts a campaign against such a business. This is a thought exercise in which I've already engaged:

But memory leads to a past controversy involving Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and his views on the Civil Rights Act.

As you may recall, Paul got famously bogged down a while back in a sticky controversy of his own when, during an appearance on "The Rachel Maddow Show," he asserted that private business owners have the right to run their businesses as they see fit -- an abstract idea that conflicts in practical terms with the Civil Rights Act. Paul expressed no fellowship with racist lunch-counter operators, and he lauded the Civil Rights Act's beneficial effect on ending discrimination in public accommodations, but he stuck to his absolutist take on private property ownership: If a private business owner wants to discriminate against people, that's their right.

But that's not to say that the public at large had to sit back and accept it. Indeed, Paul did assert that consumers had a recourse available to them and a role to play in these situations -- and it resembles a more civilized version of what the public has already meted out to Memories Pizza. Paul laid all of this out in precise detail in an interview conducted by the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal (emphasis mine throughout):

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that.


PAUL: You had to ask me the "but." I don't like the idea of telling private business owners -- I abhor racism. I think it's a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant -- but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that's most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about, in my mind.


INTERVIEWER: But under your philosophy, it would be okay for Dr. King not to be served at the counter at Woolworth's?

PAUL: I would not go to that Woolworth's, and I would stand up in my community and say that it is abhorrent, um, but the hard part -- and this is the hard part about believing in freedom -- is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example -- you have to, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things and, uh, we're here at the bastion of newspaperdom, I'm sure you believe in the First Amendment so you understand that people can say bad things. It's the same way with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people who have abhorrent behavior, but if we're civilized people, we publicly criticize that, and don't belong to those groups, or don't associate with those people.

A lot of things that have already happened in the case of Memories Pizza that Paul, rightly, would not sanction. But in this interview Paul clearly recommends that the public should stand up in their community, publicly criticize those with "abhorrent" business practices, and convince others to end their association with those businesses.

In other words, let the market decide. This was the natural theoretical position of many defenders of Indiana's RFRA. Surely a gay couple seeking a wedding cake could go to another baker. Surely some businesses would benefit, as public sentiment attached itself to more inclusive consumer alternatives. Surely, in some strange way, this law actually creates entrepreneurial opportunities for gay business owners!

That's the pretty story you tell yourself if you support the rights of private business owners to discriminate against significant swathes of the community. The problem, which supporters of the law may not have foreseen, is that in our modern, social media-engaged world, a wronged customer can do a lot more than tell a few close friends about the shabby treatment they've received somewhere. They can potentially mobilize a sizable portion of not only the local community, but a national audience, and if their claims are credible, push those businesses to the brink of going out of business.

Is that intolerance? Is that bullying? Nah, son, that's just capitalism in its most Hobbesian form! This is why it's probably preferable to have a law that deters discriminatory business practices: It protects customers and proprietors from each other, and from themselves.

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Mike Pence Dodges Criticism By Calling Critics 'Intolerant.' That Dog Won't Hunt.

Jason Linkins   |   March 31, 2015    7:36 AM ET

This weekend, on ABC News' "This Week," host George Stephanopoulos rather conscientiously attempted to elicit a "yes" or "no" answer from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who was invited to clarify the unique language of his state's recently enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That "yes" or "no" question, "Can a florist in Indiana refuse to serve a gay couple without fear of punishment," was dodged by Pence, as were additional iterations, ranging from whether the law's general intent was to enshrine the right of private business owners to deny service to customers for religious reasons, to whether Pence personally believed that such discrimination was lawful.

Stephanopoulos insisted that the question was relevant, because one of the law's supporters, Eric Miller of Advance America, specifically cited the ability of private business owners to refuse service to members of the LGBT community as one of the Indiana law's major, and particular, selling points. Stephanopoulos offered Pence multiple chances to either correct Miller's contention, or to publicly confirm that it was true.

Pence never answered one way or the other. Instead, showing an Ed Milliband-like flair for repeating one's talking points, Pence largely stuck to his script, insisting that the Indiana law was in no relevant way distinct from similar laws -- including the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed decades ago and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. (This is not, in fact, true.) At a point, though, you can see the patience drain from Pence's face, as he offered one intriguing deviation from his flash cards:

PENCE: George, look, the issue here is, you know, is tolerance a two-way street or not? I mean, you know, there’s a lot of talk about tolerance in this country today having to do with people on the left. And a -- but here Indiana steps forward to protect the constitutional rights and privileges of freedom of religion for people of faith and families of faith in our state and this avalanche of intolerance that’s been poured on our state is just outrageous.

Here, Pence is retreating to a rhetorical fortress of sofa pillows that some conservatives often crawl behind when the sentiments of the vox populi bend in the direction of calling them out for bigotry. You liberals want everyone to be tolerant! But you're not tolerant of us! Gotcha!

There is so much confusion tied up in that defense, it might seem senseless to even try to untangle it. In terms of the ever-growing national support for LGBT rights, especially, the argument sounds like the death rattle of an old way of thinking that's quickly going extinct. But given how often people like Pence deploy this argument, it's worth giving disentangling it a shot. Let's start at a basic level: To be tolerant does not mean that one must be tolerant of intolerance. Okay? If you tolerate intolerance, you have, well ... promulgated intolerance. That would seem a self-affirming point, but it clearly is not obvious to the Pences of the world, so let's peel it back further.

When a person says, "Hey, let's please be tolerant of others, even if they are of a different race or gender or creed or religion or sexual orientation," what is typically meant is that such people should be treated equally by society. They should have the same legal rights and opportunities as everybody else. The same fair shot at carving out a decent life. That's what most people mean when they talk about being tolerant. Critically, what is not being demanded is universal agreement, or even universal acceptance. Indeed, the ability to countenance our occasional disagreements and allow for criticism in a tolerant manner is something that makes our society stronger.

What Pence is doing, unfortunately, is confusing criticism for intolerance. Right now, the wide world is learning about Indiana's law, discovering that it is in many meaningful ways different from previous Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, and reacting with a collective "Duh fuh?" This reaction, as much as Pence would prefer to believe otherwise, is a thing that's well beyond the coordination and control of a monolithic "Left." But even if it were, the simple fact of the matter is that criticism of the law is absolutely legitimate. There's nothing distinctly unfair or intolerant in debating or critiquing the actions of lawmakers or the laws they pass. That's just the price of doing business in politics.

And speaking of, there is a price of doing business in business as well. A law that forbids discriminating against customers based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or et cetera -- that, my friends, is the real two-way street. What is a "two-way street" after all, if not a promise to everyone traveling upon it that bright yellow lines, illegal to cross, run right down the center? What Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its unique statutory language has done is remove those sensible yellow lines. Gone is a world in which people walking into private businesses can be assured they won't be discriminated against. Now, in this new Indiana, business owners face the undue burden of having to publicly proclaim themselves to be practicing fair and equal customer service. What was once automatically assumed -- the neighborly, amicable relationship between business and customer -- has become something that everyone now has to double-check and newly ensure.

Part of what Pence describes as an "avalanche of intolerance" is the reaction from those recognizing that a line has been crossed, who are now resolved to withhold their custom from the state of Indiana until such time as the previous, two-way street regime is restored. Pence is incorrect to describe this as "intolerance." What Pence needs to understand is that this reaction is simply the natural consequence of the actions he took as governor.

The assurance of fair, non-discriminatory business practices is, as it turns out, pretty essential in a competitive marketplace. And when you take away that assurance, you imperil your ability to compete. Just as an openly discriminatory florist opens itself up to the risk that not enough people will want to continue doing business with it to maintain that business, so too does an openly discriminatory state endanger its ability to maintain itself economically.

Those are the consequences. And consequences have nothing to do with tolerance. All the states that Indiana competes with for economic benefactors will happily tolerate Indiana's law all the way to the bank. Anyone who tells you that "tolerance" is supposed to provide everyone with the means of living a consequence-free existence has badly lost the thread.

If there's something meaningful to be learned here, however, it's that talking about tolerance is much easier than building and maintaining a tolerant society. It should be acknowledged that this Indiana law exists because of a tension between differing communities of people, and different schools of thought. Resolving this tension will take hard work. But it's precisely hard and conscientious work that everyone deserves. To be tolerant is to acknowledge this, and to seek reasonable reconciliations and accommodations in instances like this. Were Pence a more conscientious governor, he'd recognize that the solution that's been crafted is neither sufficiently reasonable, nor sufficiently accommodating, and he'd resolve to work harder at achieving something that is.

His protestations of intolerance aside, Pence is fully entitled to believe that gay people are icky, or Godless, or whatever he wants. He just can't -- without criticism -- enshrine the right to discriminate into the law. No one is stopping anyone from having these opinions, coming on television to express that opinion, or even holding office while possessing these views. You just can't have a whites-only lunch counter, or a straights-only bakery. Or, perhaps in Indiana, you can, but if you do, then people who are being discriminated against have a right to encourage people to take their business elsewhere and criticize those business practices. And those on the receiving end of that reaction will, unfortunately, have to tolerate that.