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Stirewaltisms: The Problem of Policy in Politics
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Stirewaltisms: The Problem of Policy in Politics

What happens when politicians decide that getting power to do the right things makes it necessary to say the wrong things.

Sen. Rick Scott listens during a news conference at the Capitol on January 25, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Let’s get the corny part out of the way right off the top: Effective, patriotic leadership requires individuals to thoughtfully balance political needs and sound policy objectives. The latter cannot exist without the former, but one can certainly get elected with crummy policies, as most of human history will show. 

That is why voters should insist on leaders of good character who can be counted on to usually treat politics as a means, not an end.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the grubby stuff.

Witness Nikki Haley telling Fox News that Ron DeSantis is soft on trans and gay issues because his hugely controversial sex ed ban in Florida doesn’t go far enough. “I think Ron’s been a good governor,” she said. “I just think that third grade’s too young.” 

It’s not Donald Trump calling the Florida governor a “groomer,” but it’s still pretty yucky—particularly because it has policy consequences. 

Haley can be a serious person who has shown political courage for the sake of sound policy in the past, most notably in her decision to take the Confederate battle flag down from the South Carolina statehouse. But even if her stated views on sex ed are sincere, talking about it in this setting in this way renders thoughtful policy discussion on a genuinely important subject impossible. 

This is how Republicans ended up botching immigration and health insurance policy in the Obama era and how Democrats spectacularly screwed up crime policy during the Trump presidency. If the bidding war on how schools teach human reproduction has already reached “hold my beer” before the end of February in the year before the election, one shudders to think how blunt and facile it will be by the end. 

The GOP did not have a replacement for Obamacare when the time came after a decade of blabbering for the same reason the party ended up debating a “deportation force” before settling on “build the wall” for an immigration policy. It’s the same reason Democrats had to explain why “defund the police” actually meant increasing police funding. 

Politicians who knew better decided that in order to get power to do the right things, it would be necessary to say the wrong things. They saw other contenders who were cynical or just did not know better getting attention for saying outrageous things that aren’t even feasible, and decided they could not be left out. Policy bankruptcy doesn’t happen all at once; it happens when enough people make enough little bargains with themselves about why it is good and important to pander and deceive.

Or consider Sen. Rick Scott, the Floridian who was the foil for President Biden’s claim that Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare. When he declared his reelection campaign before the State of the Union address, Scott was “going to continue to push” his plan that would sunset all existing federal programs, including entitlements. Today, not so much.

Scott offered his plan as a political vehicle for Republicans to run on in 2022, despite all of the loud objections from most of his colleagues. Scott miscalculated and could not see it was obviously bad politics to fling a half-baked, freelance proposal on such a sensitive issue out in the heat of a midterm election, but it turns out it was bad for policy, too. 

By giving Democrats such a juicy pitch to swing at, Scott helped make sure it would be many years before Republicans would ever want to consider even modest reforms again. Like Mitt Romney’s effective attacks on Rick Perry on the subject in 2012, Scott proved that the campaign trail is no place for easy answers to hard questions. 

It’s great to run on policy points. It’s good to keep it simple. But if a campaign becomes a bidding war, the price of political expediency quickly outruns the benefits.

Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 43.6%
Average disapproval: 52.6%
Net score: -9.0 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 1.6 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↑ 1.8 points

[Average includes: Reuters/Ipsos: 41% approve-52% disapprove; ABC News/Washington Post: 43% approve-53% disapprove; CBS News: 45% approve-55% disapprove; Fox News: 45% approve-54% disapprove; Monmouth: 44% approve-49% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


New York Times: “Cockatoos contain contradictions. ‘They behave like gremlins,’ said Antonio Osuna-Mascaró, a biologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. His colleague Alice Auersperg agreed. ‘Imagine a toddler with pliers in their head,’ she said, that is also able to fly. But just like toddlers, cockatoos can be sweet and curious, always exploring the world around them. … In a study published Friday in Current Biology, Dr. Osuna-Mascaró, Dr. Auersperg and their colleagues showed that the cockatoos are only the third animal, besides humans and chimpanzees, known to select varying tools based on the tasks they expect to face. … Once presented with the box and the tools, six of 10 cockatoos were able to innovate the correct solution. … When given the simpler box, the birds picked up the pole significantly more than would be expected if they were choosing between the two tools at random, showing they understood that it was the right tool for the fishing task.”


WaPo: “Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is so concerned that party disunity will sink GOP hopes in the 2024 presidential election that she plans to require all candidates on the official primary debate stages to first pledge their support to the party’s eventual nominee. But many of the likely contenders are pushing back. Former president Donald Trump said this month that he won’t commit to supporting the winner if he loses the nomination. ‘It would have to depend on who the nominee was’ he told a conservative radio host. Former Maryland governor Larry Hogan, another potential candidate, recently tweeted that he ‘won’t commit to supporting’ Trump. Others have settled on more nuanced hedges. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who just created a new organization to help him explore a possible campaign, says he will support the eventual nominee, but is certain Trump won’t be that person.”

Tim Scott pitches unity as he eyes 2024 bid: NYT: “Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, openly eyeing a pathbreaking run for the Republican presidential nomination, came home Thursday night to the city that started the Civil War to test out themes of unity and forgiveness aimed at the current war in his party — and the divisions roiling the nation at large. … His speech Thursday to the Charleston County Republican Party could have been the kind of routine dinner address that all elected officials give, this one honoring Black History Month at a local college. But the television crews and reporters piled on to the risers at The Citadel military college’s alumni center were there to watch what amounted to a soft opening for a White House run by Mr. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate. And it came only a day after a festive kickoff event for the presidential campaign of Mr. Scott’s friend, political benefactor and fellow South Carolinian, Nikki Haley.”

During Iowa visit, Pence stakes out culture warrior lane: Politico: “Former Vice President Mike Pence wants to make something clear: No 2024 Republican presidential candidate will outflank him on the gender, sexuality and education controversies that animate the right. … Pence’s path to his party’s nomination centers on reaching Evangelical conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina … Pence’s splash in eastern Iowa likely resonates in that part of the state, where coverage of the parental rights movement has saturated local media.”

Education dominates GOP shadow primary: Los Angeles Times: “In the opening stages of the 2024 GOP presidential race, the ‘parents’ rights’ movement and lessons for schoolchildren are emerging as tinderboxes. … Nowhere is the drive more visible than in Florida, where DeSantis has made an aggressive push against what he calls ‘woke’ policies. … DeSantis has also extended his political influence to local school board races… flipping at least three boards from a liberal majority to a conservative majority. … [Trump] has staked out his own positions on the same issues and recently released a nearly five-minute video outlining what his campaign called a ‘Plan to Save American Education and Give Power Back to Parents.’”

Former Trump spox now at Fox raves about DeSantis: Mediate: “Speaking Wednesday on Outnumbered, Fox News host Kayleigh McEnany — the famously loyal one-time press secretary to the former president — praised Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and encouraged him to enter the 2024 race without delay. … ‘Will he wait? How can you wait when you are currently the hottest governor in Republican politics?’ … McEnany did make clear that she does believe the former president will be a formidable force in the 2024 race.”

Romney warns of a Trump triumph in crowded field: NBC News: “‘I think President Trump is by far the most likely to become our nominee,’ [Sen. Mitt Romney] said in the Capitol on Wednesday. ‘If there’s an alternative to that, it would be only realistic if it narrows down to a two-person race at some point.’ … Some Trump-skeptical Republicans fear that a crowded field could split the vote and pave the way for Trump to carry the party’s banner for the third presidential election in a row.”

Poll: Trump narrowly leads DeSantis: Quinnipiac: “Given a list of 14 names of Republicans… former President Donald Trump receives 42 percent of the vote among Republican and Republican leaning voters followed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who receives 36 percent. … Former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley receives 5 percent, former Vice President Mike Pence receives 4 percent, and former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo receives 4 percent. No other candidate tops 2 percent of the vote.”


Politico: “High-level Democrats are rallying to President Biden’s reelection, not because they think it’s in the best interest of the country to have an 82-year-old start a second term but because they fear the potential alternative: the nomination of Kamala Harris and election of Donald Trump. … This is all to say that the only topic Democrats may be less happy to discuss than actuarial tables and Biden’s second term is his vice president. To express their concerns about a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent touches, to put it mildly, on highly sensitive matters. More to the point, Democrats have seen what happens when anyone in their party openly criticizes Harris — they’re accused by activists and social-media critics of showing, at best, racial and gender insensitivity. This doesn’t stifle concerns about her prospects, of course, it just pushes them further underground or into the shadows of background quotes.”


American satisfaction with immigration levels continues to crater—Gallup

Out-of-state cash floods Wisconsin Supreme Court race—Wisconsin State Journal

After DiFi announces retirement, Rep. Barbara Lee joins crowded field—AP

Poll: Gov. Jim Justice strongest probable Manchin opponent—Politico

Poll: Gallego leads Sinema, slew of potential GOP challengers—OH Predictive Insights


“Everybody I speak with in Florida, they all love him. And he does set the tone for, I’d say every other governor in the nation. I think he’s our best governor and he should stay governor for a bit longer. He’s young. You know, he has decades ahead of him where he can be our president.” Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin explaining to pro-Trump TV network Newsmax why Ron DeSantis should eschew a presidential run.


“I vowed more than 30 years ago that I would never watch another state of the union address, inaugural address, or presidential candidate debate unless I was being paid to do so. I have stuck to that rule ever since. I would vote for any candidate, of any party, who would promise to return to the wholesome practice of submitting the constitutionally mandated report in writing. If it was good enough for 75% of the men on Mount Rushmore, it’s good enough for anyone who runs for the office nowadays. Harrumph.”—Ken Krantz, Williamsburg, Virginia

What more could I add, Mr. Krantz? You even gave me a Harrumph!

“Each of these fractious problems [listed in an honest State of the Union] could be addressed by the appropriate congressional committees (in ‘regular order’) if they could meet in secret to hammer out compromises that everyone will support, even if they are nobody’s first choice.  (Think of the task force that led to the 1983 changes to Social Security, or the BRAC process.) No one would be ambushed, and everyone would have political cover.  Come to think of it, that’s exactly how the United States of America was created—by a convention that met in secret for four months and created the most enduring constitution the world has known. Conclusion:  In 2024, a presentation of the real SOTU would be a helpful means to frame the issues that will need to be addressed by the candidates for president.  That’s what the SOTU should be.”—Chip Watkins, Arlington, Virginia

I promise, gentle readers, that the message above was not really me writing under an alias. Hear, hear, Mr. Watkins! Transparency and accountability are two different things, and often work toward opposite ends. Certainly, transparency and the rewards it offers for performative popinjays in our idiotic primary system are serious impediments to compromise on big, important issues. While the American Revolution culminated in the convention you described and the empire of liberty we now enjoy, the French Revolution culminated in the Convention Nationale, which was open to the press and spectators and predictably devolved into political theater and the Reign of Terror. Congress should debate legislation in public and votes should be recorded, but lordy day, get the cameras out of the committee rooms.

“My final thought is why not have the president publish the speech and have it printed in newspapers and magazines across the country so that all Americans can view it at their leisure and then use the paper to start a warm fire in their fireplace. So much more useful than Pelosi tearing up Trump’s speech.”—Patrick Conroy, North Fort Myers, Florida

I like it, Mr. Conroy! Very festive, provided that you will also accept burning the papers to light a charcoal grill. I’m happy to embrace a new tradition: the Steak of the Union.

You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the writerly Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)

You people are sometimes really mean, sometimes really dirty, but always funny. (We may need to consider a Rejection Collection like The New Yorker.) With a gift of a picture like this one from Managing Editor Rachael Larimore, you did not disappoint. But our winner kept it particularly, ahem, punchy while still being topical, and, most crucially, speaking in a voice true to the subject’s.


“The next balloon gets used as a speed bag.  Not a joke!”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Paper Tiger Division:

“Two rocks again??!!  I’ve really gotta stop playing rock paper scissors solitaire.”—Rick Whaley, Portage, Michigan

Winner, Hans und Franz Division:

“When I won my gold in Olympic weightlifting, it was for the clean-and-jerk. Never got snatch.”—Julia Alliger, Hurdle Mills, North Carolina

Winner, It Takes a Village (People) Division:

“Macho, macho man.

I gotta be a macho man.

Macho, macho man.

I gotta be a macho.”—Bill Ehrich, Laclede, Missouri

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the top entrants and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


AP: “Federal workplace safety authorities have fined a central Pennsylvania confectionary factory more than $14,500 following an accident last year in which two workers fell into a vat of chocolate. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Mars Wrigley in the June accident at the Elizabethtown M&M/Mars factory, saying the workers were not authorized to work in the tanks and weren’t trained on the proper safety procedures for the equipment. Officials said two workers employed by an outside contracting firm fell into the partially filled chocolate tank while doing maintenance work. Emergency responders were able to free the pair by cutting a hole in the bottom of the tank, officials said.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Broken News, a new book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.