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December 04, 2009

Palin's Statement on the Birth Certificate is Fine... And Sorta Empty. Which is Feature, Not a Bug.

If you care, what she said pretty much tracks with my own statements: No, I don't believe he was born in Kenya, no, I don't believe there is some massive conspiracy, but yes, people have a right to know these things for a fact and not a belief, and yes, he's being sketchy about this for whatever reason, and yes, people have the right to ask questions and demand proof.

I think it's an empty thing to ask for proof since the thing is already well-proven. But no one else has to accept my personal evidentiary standard. And given that this mystery (well, not-really-a-mystery) is entirely within Obama's power to solve by signing a simple form requesting that Hawaii release his long form, I think it's fair to ask him to do so.

Here is my problem with beating up on Palin for this: A lot of the people who will beat up on her are the same sort of people who say the Republican Party needs to be open to moderates, and toss moderates a rhetorical bone here and there, and stuff like that.

Which I agree with, actually.

But the deeper point they are making is that politics is not about Simon Pure purity on questions. They are advancing the idea that politics is about coalition-building, doing what is necessary to attract 51% to your flag, and that those they consider too hardcore about conservative principles are doing the party a disservice by elevating philosophical integrity and ideological coherence above the vagueries and punts often necessary to negotiate a rough consensus.

Which, again, I agree with.

So what did Palin do? Well, what she did here was toss a rhetorical bone to the 25-30% of the country which is very much interested in this birth certificate question, while not nearly embracing the theory itself. She offered, in other words, a sort of vague stab at consensus -- let's agree that these questions are fair game and punt on the more divisive question of whether the theory has any merit -- which is what what people like David Frum are always urging when it comes to appeasing moderates.

Well, look: The exact same principle applies to both moderates and conservatives. If we're supposed to overlook the frequent leftward deviations of, say, Lindsey Graham, as necessary (it is asserted) for winning an election and building a coalition, can it really be honestly contended that we must suddenly become Simon Pure on other issues?

Because that's what I think is animating this. There is a desire by some that Sarah Palin firmly reject the birth certificate theory -- and not just the theory, but deem all inquiries or suspicions as de facto illegitimate -- and thus demonstrate her philosophical integrity and ideological coherence.

Hey, she's a politician. She's supposed to avoid making strong statements that alienate one wing of the party or the other. Guys like David Frum make their rent by beating up on other Republicans for not being open to a bit of ideological fudging and philosophical slack on some issues.

But now we're going to demand that everyone in the party adhere strongly to one side of this issue?

You mean: There's a litmus test for Republicans now? Really? Gee, every time I hear about litmus tests people like Frum freak out about an attempt to "purge" the party. But now we're suddenly in favor of them?


Convenient, isn't it, that some will resist litmus tests except when they stumble across a litmus test that's personally important to themselves.

What happened to all that talk of giving our politicians a bit of leeway to define the rhetorical space they think they can win in? Apparently that gets tossed out the window as regards this issue.

My theory about politicians is pretty simple: They lead from the middle. Not from the front, usually, as many strong ideological conservatives demand. Such people want to see their pols out in front on every issue, making the strongest possible case for this issue or that -- especially when it comes to the unpopular positions, the positions the movement needs the most rhetorical effort on.

I don't buy that. That's a way to lose votes, generally. You talk and talk and talk up the positions where you're already winning and people need precious little converting, you offer a fair amount of talk for the positions where you're almost but not quite winning, and you throw your base a rhetorical bone here and there on the issues that are losers and would take some seriously heavy rhetorical lifting to ever change the public's mind.

You punt on those. You say enough to show you're on the right side of things and then you pretty much drop it. You leave the heavy lifting for the activists and the pundits and the polemicists. The people who don't have to worry about securing 51% in a personal referendum on themselves every two or four or six years.

You don't lead from the rear, simply echoing whatever the public says; the public catches on to that, and deems you a flip-flopper and weak leader. You get somewhat closer to the front, but not too close to it. You lead from the fat middle, surrounded by lots of people.

And I think people like David Frum would generally agree with that. And I think when it comes to issues where he wants the GOP to have a more moderate/liberal take, he urges this sort of thing. He beats up on Republicans for being "too conservative," too out in front (on the conservative side of things) in the debate.

But when Palin does pretty much the same thing with what is, unfortunately, a minor but still possibly damaging wedge issue, apparently the rules suddenly change and now Palin is demanded to be a powerful rhetorical force for knocking down this conspiracy theory and repudiating it and educating the Republican base and.... you know, all the things Frum generally disapproves of when someone is inclining towards the conservative side of things. Suddenly the rule shifts from being "be careful about wading into divisive issues about which a consensus does not exist in the GOP" to "take on a divisive issue in the GOP and help form a clear and coherent consensus for one position."

Nah. To hell with that. I apply the same rule on this Frum insists upon as regards moderate-skewing positions: Toss 'em a bone. A little for you on the right, a little for you in the middle, now let's move past this and talk about the stuff that truly unites 90% of us and commands 60+% support in the general voting population. And talk about that stuff some more, and more, keep talking about that stuff, and leave this other stuff, this more divisive stuff, to a simple statement that bridges the ditch between the two wings. Check that particular box and move on.

Political parties that want to advance an ideological agenda are in the business of pushing weird ideas on the apolitical and uninformed. I call these ideas "weird" just because they do seem weird to anyone who hasn't bought into them. Reagan's (Laffer's) idea that you could cut the tax rate and yet take in more revenue from taxes? That's a weird idea, when you think about it. It's counterintuitive. Turns out, it's right (at least under certain conditions -- at some point you fall off the Laffer curve and will start taking in less revenue), but it's weird.

This idea is now not so weird to the public, as they've seen there's a good bit of truth in it. But in 1980? Weird.

If all you care about is winning elections, you can construct a platform devoid of any "weird" ideas and simply play exclusively to the apolitical, uninformed middle, never ever disturbing them with a weird idea, always just telling them what they already believe. Of course, this makes the party a nonideological one, one without any real agenda to advance. And so neither party ever really abandons its own weird ideas. Though they tend not to talk those ideas up during election campaigns.

I think those who want this Birth Certificate Conspiracy Theory to go away are bothered by the fact that this is a decidedly weird idea. And they realize, intuitively, that each party can only present so much weirdness to the public and still be elected. Each party has a Weirdness Quotient they dare not go too far above, for fear of being rejected as, well, too weird.

Newt Gingrich constantly pounded on the Democrats for their weirdness. His rhetoric was filled -- deliberately, of course -- with the words "strange," "weird," "bizarre," etc., in describing liberals' beliefs and agenda.

So I understand those who are very, very annoyed about the Birth Certificate thing. To them -- to me, actually -- it seems like a very poor expenditure of that limited stack of Weirdness Cards we can play in an election cycle. If we're going to be weird about something, such people say (and me along with them), let's play one of those limited, precious Weird Notion cards on something more substantive, something more important to the party, something that we maybe could possibly win on, if not now, then maybe ten years from now.

A weird idea like a fully human, fully ensouled life begins at conception -- which is deeply weird to anyone who hasn't already bought into it.

But the thing is -- as commenters are always pointing out to me, and they're 100% right -- it's a futile effort to try to pound the party into the specific, poll-tested, media-friendliest shape you want it to be in. As commenters kept telling me when I objected to people yelling "Obama's a Muslim!" at Palin rallies -- "What are you going to do? You can't control these people. Stop just dwelling on the fact they're a little emotional and maybe not so politically savvy. Just accept it -- you/we are savvier than them, and nothing's going to change that. Accept that the party consists of a lot of different sorts of people, with differing degrees of savviness and different political hot buttons, and stop berating people over the fact they call out weird stuff at Palin rallies. That's going to happen, and you can't change that, and the only thing you're doing by dwelling on it is giving the story more legs."

And you know what? I think, damnit, they were right. Including about all my worries that people might, maybe, be too strident at health care town halls.

People are people. We're people, we're not a coordinated marketing campaign. Even if it's desirable that we change each and every single person in the party to the media-savvy, slickly-answering, poll-aware sort of people we'd love to have the media interview, it's impossible to do that.

And so we should shut up about it. It is, as they say, what it is.

So I think this whole effort to beat down the Birth Certificate people and either get them to drop their suspicions -- or at least keep quiet about them -- is futile, and, being futile, a big waste of time and energy. Time and energy better put into other things.

And furthermore -- I think some believe this Birth Certificate thing is a lot more damaging to the party than it really is. The public won't tolerate too much weirdness from a political party or their activists, but they do accept some. After all, the Democratic Party flirted with Trutherism -- a conspiracy theory a hell of a lot weirder than suspicions about fudging a birth certificate -- and the Democrats had our lunch in 2006 and 2008.

Would it be better if the party didn't spend it's Weirdness Markers on this particular theory? Yeah. But is it going to kill us if we do? No. It's not going to kill us. It's barely even going to hurt us.

So what the hell do I care if Palin throws a bone to the Birth Certificate people? (Who make up a big chunk of our base, bear in mind.)

Am I morally outraged? Intellectually outraged? Well, let me see: the left has given soft-to-middling support for the theory that George W. Bush and his cabal of Ruthless Jews bombed the United States of America for either an oil pipeline in the Caspian or to give Israel the room to murder Palestinians. The media now routinely "vets" private citizens for voicing an opinion contrary to Obama's. Sarah Palin was savaged by a bloodthirsty liberal media, which did not mind at all that one conspiracy theory -- Trig Trutherism -- persisted in many salons on the left.

In other words: No. No outrage here. Sorry, fellers, I'm all tapped out.

A while ago I was in New York City and was talking to a girl, an educated, professional chick. Cynical and savvy. Politics came up, and she alluded to the birth certificate thing.

"You buy into that?" I asked. Not judging, not outraged, just genuinely curious. I always like to know how politics looks in the "real world." You know, not online, surrounded by like-minded partisans and the occasional indefatiguable troll-bot.

"No," she shrugged. "I don't care if it's true or not. I just want them to bring this asshole down."

That's sort of my attitude, really. Call me a cynical bastard, but I'm really kind of past giving a shit if it's true or not. (FYI: It's not true. Ask me if I care.)

And I think that girl's attitude is representative of most of the people that could be brought together for an anti-Obama coalition.

I don't think anyone who's made up their mind to vote against Obama in 2012 -- presidential elections are referenda on the incumbents, after all -- is going to really care if this candidate or that tossed some small-potatoes vague rhetorical support to a birth certificate conspiracy theory.

No one's going to say, "Well, the jobless rate is still at 9%, but you know what? Sarah Palin once said that a high elected official should turn over a document that proves his eligibility for the Presidency, and so they've lost my vote."

I just don't believe that. I think the Birth Certificate Conspiracy Theory is as wrong as it is, ultimately, inconsequential. For either side.


By the Way: Both sides of this should prepare for disappointment.

For those who are really into this theory, and want prominent officials to embrace it to mainstream it and give it legs: Not going to happen. It's too weird. Too much effort for too little payoff. (Zero payoff, in fact.) Apart from a few politicians in very safe conservative districts, who can afford to play with this stuff without consequence, not going to happen. No one running statewide or nationally is going to get too close to this.

For those who want their politicians to stand firmly against conspiracy theories and overheated imaginations: Not going to happen. Too large a bloc of the conservative base buys into this to give them the finger.

If you didn't like Sarah Palin's answer -- because it wasn't strong enough in either direction -- get ready for a lot of disappointment, because Sarah Palin's answer is going to be the basic default generic answer for almost all politicians on the right.

Hell, it's become my default answer, and I'm not running for anything. It's a political fudge that allows people to get along without breaking out into rhetorical violence.

So am I compromising my core beliefs to make people kind of like me...?

Oh dear. There's some politics going on at a political website. Film at 11.

And no one should be too upset to see professional politicians plying their craft, either.


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posted by Ace at 01:24 PM

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