Stirewaltisms: A Supreme Break for Biden
Plus: An outbreak of decency, Newt Gingrich’s target audience, and the mailbag.
A SUPREME BREAK FOR BIDEN
Sometimes, a Supreme Court vacancy can be a huge political advantage. Sometimes it can be a burden. But sometimes, it can be a vacation. And a getaway has to sound pretty marvelous to President Biden right now.
Let’s start with the obvious stipulation: Nobody yet knows for sure what the political ramifications will be of the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer. Presidents can make bad picks, candidates can have hidden problems, and events can change the context for a nomination. But as it is, this should be a welcome distraction for the beleaguered Biden, though probably not something that will much change the trajectory of this year’s elections.
If there is such a thing as a provenance for a Supreme Court seat, this is primo left-wing property. Some of the biggest progressive judicial heroes stand in line behind Breyer: Oliver Holmes, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, and Harry Blackmun. This makes the pick easy in one way. Especially since a new progressive to replace Breyer won't change the ideological balance of the court, there’s no case to be made for a moderate.
But that presents the first danger for Biden: That left wingers will not think his nominee progressive enough. And Lord knows Biden will run scared from the wingers. You could see how Democrats could split over the pick the same way they have on climate change, the legislative filibuster, etc.
But we’ve seen this scenario with Biden before. As with his vice presidential pick, Biden promised a Supreme Court appointment to a black woman. It's no surprise, given how much black women did to make him president. Had so many of them in 2020 primaries not blocked the white progressives’ rush to pick a radical nominee, Biden would not be president today. (And Donald Trump probably would be.)
This is not wokeism, but transactional politics of the old-school identity mode. Black women got Biden where he is, and he’s going to show his appreciation. And he’s unlikely to risk it with anything other than a textbook pick. Just as Trump took no chances on his first Supreme Court appointment, Biden will probably go with the chalk. There have been dozens of black, female jurists who have been carefully making their ways through the judicial ranks since the 1980s. Now is the time to cash in the investment with a candidate impeccably trained, carefully vetted, and determinedly liberal without sounding like a radical.
The apparent White House shortlist seems set, and all fit that bill: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, whom Biden appointed to replace Attorney General Merrick Garland on the D.C. Court of Appeals last year, Judge Michelle Childs, a federal district judge in South Carolina, and Justice Leondra Kruger of the California Supreme Court. Woe betide the woke youngsters who would try to block the ascension of the first black woman to the Supreme Court. They’d get knocked down quicker than Bernie Sanders in South Carolina.
The Judiciary Committee hearings could get ugly, though. Noted C-SPAN thespians like Ted Cruz, Cory Booker, Josh Hawley, Marsha Blackburn, and Mazie Hirono will surely not allow such visibility to be wasted on conviviality and modesty. But the chairman, Dick Durbin, and the ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, are adults. Thank goodness Grassley doesn't have a serious primary challenger, or he'd have to climb up into the chandelier to howl with Cruz and Hawley.
If this is all done by July, as Hill Democrats are saying, it should be an easy vote for every “yea” and “nay.” This is an election year, though, with potentially open primaries for both parties’ presidential nominations right around the corner. The incentives for stupidity will appear high.
But perhaps no president has ever had as much experience with Supreme Court nominees as longtime Judiciary Committee member Biden. If he and his team can work with Durbin and Senate Democrats for a smooth takeoff and landing, it should be a pleasant diversion. That would be a much-needed win for an administration that seems snakebit.
Unless they mess it up and it turns radioactive the summer before an already difficult midterm …
AN OUTBREAK OF DECENCY
There are few controversies in politics that leave me feeling better about all the parties involved, but this week’s contretemps between President Biden and Fox News White House Correspondent Peter Doocy is surely one. It’s rare enough that it merits some closer examination.
To recap for whoever could have missed it, Doocy shouted a question at Biden as the reporter was being led out of a photo opportunity at the top of a Biden event with the Conference of Mayors on Tuesday. “Do you think inflation is a political liability in the midterms?” Doocy hollered in turn as he and other pressies were leaving the room. Biden muttered, “It’s a great asset, more inflation. What a stupid son of a bitch.” Ladies and gentlemen, Joe Biden, king of the hot mic.
Now, it was a dumb question in the way that almost every one of these shouted questions is dumb. They are intended not to elicit a sincere answer as much as to provoke the president to engage further. My favorite of this kind of dumb question was in 2012 when the Washington Post’s Phil Rucker shouted at soon-to-be Republican nominee Mitt Romney, “What about your gaffes?” as Romney was solemnly treading away from a war memorial in Poland. As if Romney was going to stop and holler back with his opinion of his recent verbal missteps.
In addition to bait, these questions are in part acts of defiance by a press poll that exists in a bubble inflated and maintained by the campaign or the White House. But they’re also occasionally successful. Presidents sometimes can’t resist taking the bait, which was particularly true for Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Sometimes presidents even linger when leaving the stage, hoping that they’ll get some flak. Doocy knows that inflation is not helpful to a president’s party, but such an inquiry is well within the bounds of the venerable tradition of dumb, shouted questions.
But even with all that, one can’t help feeling a little sympathy for presidents. If someone yelled at you as you were getting ready to start a meeting at your office, you'd be peeved. “Do you think your division’s declining sales will be a liability in your quarterly bonus?” might elicit an even hotter hot-mic moment than Biden’s. But Biden is the president. This is what he signed up for, and he should do better, even if he didn’t mean for the line to be broadcast around the world and even if he is hardly the first to do so.
At this point, both men faced a choice. They could try to exploit the moment for their own advantage, or they could show a little grace. We saw almost only the former during Trump’s four years. His ugly, insulting confrontations with reporters were a big part of the Trump show. Trump was able to show his supporters that he was at war with “the enemy of the American people,” while his targets could show their viewers, readers, or listeners that they were standing up to the bully at the podium. It was all heat, no light.
But Biden went the other way, even though many Democrats would have cheered if he had doubled down. The Trumpy move would have been to bash Fox News, disparage Doocy personally, and complain about right-wing news in general—to always play the victim. Instead, Biden called Doocy with kind words, letting him know the president understood it was all part of the job. No hard feelings.
Doocy also had a choice to make. Many Fox viewers would have cheered if Doocy had gone on-air and denounced Biden and taken deep umbrage at the remarks. There’s lots of attention and profit to be had from a spat with an unpopular president. Indeed, when Doocy joined Fox’s biggest booster of the GOP, Sean Hannity, later that night, Hannity was goading the reporter to express deeper outrage. Doocy demurred and acted like a grownup.
"Hey, Sean, the world is on the brink of, like, World War III right now with all of this stuff going on. I appreciate that the president took a couple of minutes out this evening while he was still at this desk to give me a call and clear the air."
"That's enough,” Doocy said. “So we can move on. We can now move forward. There will be years- three to seven years of opportunities to ask him about different stuff."
More of this, please.
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.
TIME OUT: PAPA DON’T TAKE NO MESS
The Atlantic: “Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. … But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs. …The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police. …The leading area of investment in the music business is old songs. Investment firms are getting into bidding wars to buy publishing catalogs from aging rock and pop stars. The song catalogs in most demand are by musicians who are in their 70s or 80s (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen) or already dead (David Bowie, James Brown).”
DOES TRUMP HAVE A FRIEND IN PENNSYLVANIA?
The Republican primary for retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat in Pennsylvania has become one of the most expensive and contentious in the country. In a crowded field, former President Trump’s endorsement could prove decisive. But Trump is so far hanging back after watching his first pick flake out. NBC News: “So far, neither [hedge fund maestro David McCormick nor celebrity physician Mehmet Oz] has lured Trump off the sidelines after his first choice for the seat, Sean Parnell, dropped out amid scandal. Worried about backing a losing candidate, Trump is apt to withhold another endorsement until he has a clearer idea of who’s most likely to win, more than a half dozen Republicans close to him and McCormick told NBC News …”
Wall Street makes it rain: Politico: “McCormick held a fundraiser at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan on Monday night that was attended by former Trump officials like Gary Cohn, Tony Sayegh, Hope Hicks, Justin Muzinich and McCormick’s wife Dina Powell. After that event, McCormick went on to a strategy dinner at the even more exclusive Links Club on the Upper East Side with his fellow Bush ’43 alumni, including … former Bush and Romney adviser Dan Senor. McCormick also talked campaign strategy with his inner circle, which includes Wall Street titans like EMCOR Chair Tony Guzzi, Goldman Sachs’ John Rogers and Blue Ridge Capital’s John Griffin. Former NYC Department of Education chancellor Joel Klein also joined.”
An iconoclast emerges: There’s a great read from reporters Blake Hounshell and Leah Askarinam and their interview with legendary Democratic demographer, Ruy Teixeira in the New York Times. Teixeira is the co-author of one of the most influential and most misinterpreted political books of the century. The Emerging Democratic Majority caused many on the blue team to believe that a more ethnically diverse America would automatically be a more Democratic America. “Now, as President Biden sinks in the polls, Teixeira finds himself fighting against what he says is a caricature of his famous book … unafraid to take on what he calls a ‘race-essentialist’ dogma that is dominating the Democratic Party. Teixeira is unsparing about the party strategists who he believes are leading Democrats astray — and unapologetic about offending many on his own side. His newsletter has become a kind of samizdat for like-minded liberals who aren’t as willing to speak their minds.” Read it all HERE.
Larry Hogan: Stop scaremongering and get to work: The Atlantic: “Biden and the Democrats use the memory of January 6 to pretend that their preferred reforms are necessary to stave off a return to systemic, racist voter suppression; Trump and his supporters use it to pretend that he was robbed of victory. Instead of pursuing their self-interested political agendas, our representatives in Washington need to focus on fixing the part of our electoral system that really did come under attack on that day. Ambiguity in an existing law called the Electoral Count Act, written nearly a century and a half ago, led the January 6 rioters to believe that they could change the result of a free and fair election—which should worry every American. … To end this absurd notion, the process needs to be spelled out more clearly in the statute. Thankfully, a bipartisan group of leaders is now focused on that issue.”
What’s Gingrich’s target audience?: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s threat of jail time for the members of the House committee investigating the January 6 attack sounded at first like just typical Gingrichain lip flap: "The wolves are gonna find out that they're now sheep, and they're the ones who—in fact, I think—face a real risk of jail for the kind of laws they're breaking." Sure, dude. And I bet you can tell me where to send $5 to help jail the sheep-wolves. … But Gingrich went bragging to the WaPo last week about how he is helping House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy & Co. write a —you guessed it—updated Contract With America. It is Gingrich’s cowbell, and his fever never wanes. The article read like Gingrich trying to puff up his role, and if he wants to relive the thrills of 40 years ago, crackpot talk about jailing Liz Cheney is one sure way to suck up to members of the conference too young to remember him from the good old days.
Epilogue: Vanity Fair: “On August 24, 2020, [Jerry Falwell Jr.] resigned from Liberty [University] in the wake of a sensational tabloid scandal that could have been dreamed up in the writers’ room of The Righteous Gemstones. A former Miami pool boy named Giancarlo Granda claimed he had a nearly seven-year affair with Falwell’s wife, Becki – and that Falwell often liked to watch them have sex. …When I told Falwell that many people thought he, consciously or not, wanted to destroy himself, he considered it for a moment. ‘Subconsciously, yeah, I believe that’s true,’ he said, nodding. ‘It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice.’ He went on: ‘Because of my last name, people think I’m a religious person. But I’m not. My goal was to make them realize I was not my dad.’”
Worth reading: Writer Rob Henderson looks at a recent scandal involving a University of Pennsylvania student and her dubious claims of childhood hardship. It reveals what Henderson says is the crucial need for standardized testing in higher education admissions. “Marginalized people often have difficulty detailing their hardships in a way that affluent people can understand. As colleges continue to ditch standardized testing requirements, victimhood narratives in college essays will further proliferate because applicants will aim to stand out amid all the undifferentiated academic excellence. … If someone discusses their disadvantages in an understated manner, or in ways we aren’t used to, then perhaps those are exactly the individuals we should pay more attention to. And if someone is especially adept at accentuating their marginalization, then that person may not be as marginalized as they claim.” Read it all HERE.
WITHIN EARSHOT: BIDEN OR THE NINERS?
"When in the course of human history has the side that's doing the censoring and trying to shut people up and make them show papers and marginalize a part of the community ever been [the correct side]?"—Aaron Rogers in an interview with ESPN responding to President Biden’s statement that the Packers’ homeopathic quarterback should get vaccinated against coronavirus.
“I’m not sure anyone has asked you the most important question that everyone (me) wants to know: Where did you come up with ‘holy croakano?’ Although I think I’ve heard you say it on your excellent podcast, or maybe on one of The Dispatch’s, I’m not entirely sure… So I don’t know if you pronounce it ‘croak-AH-no’ or ‘croak-uh-no.’ I’m guessing the former.”—Kevin C. Smith, Fort Worth, Texas
Almost! You really want to hit the “holy” hardest. “HOLY croh-KA-no!” Of the many blessings of being my father’s son is my linguistic inheritance. Born in the 1930s in Springfield, Illinois, he was the son of the first Stirewalt in generations to leave the farming life and the environs of the Embarras River in southern Illinois. My grandfather was a lover of American phraseology, and more than 125 years after his birth, his sayings still live on in my family, including, “I wouldn’t do that to see the Last Supper with the original cast.” That set my dad up for success, because as we all know, country people have the best, most colorful words. Then my dad went off to college, where he studied speech and linguistics, and into the Army, where he was a disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio, collecting new words along the way from people of all manner of different backgrounds. He even brought some linguistic souvenirs home from Korea: “Would you like more eggs?” “Just a skosh, please.” But the greatest treasure trove of words was still ahead. My dad became a coal salesman, which took him across the country, around the world, and up and down the linguistic ladder from mines to board meetings and everything in between. It also meant that I would grow up in, and eventually work as a newsman in, West Virginia, which is Valhalla for lovers of dialects. How else would I know when someone is nuttier than a peach-orchard boar? One of the things that I most love about America is our enduring regional dialects, but they remain under heavy assault by the boring, monosyllabic mush that is taking over American English. Part of our mission here is to collect, use, and celebrate these gems, so by all means folks should send us their best. As for the origins of croakano, I definitely picked that one up from my dad and his childhood friends, but make no claim on the etymology beyond the graduates of Butler Elementary School, circa 1942.
“In your Dispatch of 1/20/22, you mention ‘the pro-Putin, nationalist voices in the GOP.’ Please explain who in the GOP you believe to be pro-Putin, and on what do you base this opinion.”— James Brooks, Bloomfield, Michigan
I’d start with the most recent Republican president, who is also the frontrunner for the party’s nomination in 2024. While Donald Trump was often pushed by his own administration and Republicans in Congress to hold the line with Russia, Trump himself obviously has a super-creepy thing about the “very, very strong” Vladimir Putin. Their summit in Helsinki was one of the weirdest spectacles I have ever seen in U.S. foreign policy. But it does not end with Trump. This poll from The Economist is only so-so for methodology, but it’s recent enough and good enough for our purposes. It shows that Putin had a higher favorability rating (18 percent) among Republicans than their America’s president (14 percent). This summer, Will Saletan did a good job of rounding up and tracking the changes in Republican attitudes about Russia. It’s worth a read, but the thrust is that sentiments toward Moscow have warmed significantly even as Russia has engaged in worse conduct. It’s of a piece with the nationalist right’s hero worship of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban. For a relatively small, but very intense group of populist Republicans, despotism from behind the former Iron Curtain is in vogue these days. My point is that there are enough of them to make traditional Republicans think twice about rallying around President Biden, potentially depriving Biden of some leverage to use with Congress in facing down Putin.
“I usually enjoy your analyses and appreciate your insights. But I take issue with the following: ‘Democrats spent much of the previous seven years in a state of high excitement over Russian meddling and encroachments. While many of their allegations were overhyped, they are being proven right in the main: Vladimir Putin has relentlessly sought to weaken the Western coalition against him to assert Russian control over the free people of Eastern Europe.’ I am not aware of any Democrats expressing concern about Putin’s attempts to control Eastern Europe. Their stated concerns about Russia were wholly oriented toward Putin’s alleged meddling in domestic U.S. politics and their sole motivation was to undermine Trump. Do you have any evidence to the contrary? Which Democrats were concerned about Putin’s aggression toward Eastern Europe? Please enlighten me.”—Lawrence M. Segan, Harrison, New York
Oh, now, Mr. Segan! Don’t kid a kidder. You are obviously a well-read person who follows politics closely. You are not aware of “any” Democrat who expressed concern about Putin’s ambitions in Eastern Europe between 2015 and now? Their concerns were “wholly” about political meddling? Their “sole” motivation was undermining the then-U.S. president? If something like 42 percent of American adults call themselves Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, that would be at least 180 million human beings. Words like “any,” “wholly,” and “sole” can’t ever work when you’re talking about a group of Americans larger than the entire population of Russia. But even if we limit it to Democratic office holders or leading figures in the party – a category that would still cover many thousands of people – such absolutes would not do. There are loads of prominent Democrats on the record expressing concern about Russia’s designs against Eastern Europe and NATO. Here, here, here, here, and here are examples I could find in a five-minute Google search on the subject between 2015 and 2021. What I think you really meant was that you didn’t believe them, and think their claims were cynical and politically motivated. My point was that Democrats shouldn’t be fair-weather opponents of Putin, even if the issue has lost political salience for them with Trump out of office. Democratic attitudes toward Russia have grown sterner as Republicans have become more approving, of those facts there is no denying. Now we get to see how deep those changes have gone with different domestic political inputs.. The point I think you were trying to make underneath the “any,” “wholly,” “sole” business is that leading Democrats will not stick as domestic political advantages diminish and dangers increase. You may be right, and we will soon find out. But whatever happens, I would encourage you to avoid painting your fellow Americans with such broad strokes. Try to leave a little room for the goodwill and patriotism of others. It doesn’t cost you anything and sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised. Plus, you’ll be more persuasive!
“I was wondering about how political fundamentals change without the smartest people realizing they are changing? Democrats were losing the South for a while before they really realized it. They also lost their hammerlock on Catholics and the white working class and didn’t savvy to it for a while. Well, I want to know exactly when and how and why Republicans lost Big Business/Corporations/Rich Uncle Pennybags? It seems like just yesterday Obama was personally spanking The Supremes at his State of the Union over Citizens United and soft money—while he and the Democrats were actually starting to really rake in all that filthy lucre. What happened to Republicans Wholly Owned & Operated By Heartless Capitalists?”—Scott Salvato, Mooresville, North Carolina
I can tell by your question and your sense of humor that you already know the answer, Mr. Salvato. But I wanted to share your note because you raise a good point for us all to remember when talking politics. We are prone to broad generalities in discussing demographics: “white working class,” “soccer moms,” “Catholic,” “college educated,” “Hispanic,” and on and on. These terms can be useful shorthands when discussing trends, but are usually greater hindrances than aids in understanding. Fifty-five percent of top earners voted Republican in the 2000 presidential election, according to exit polls. In 2020, it was 54 percent. Geographical and demographical shifts are typically more complicated, less complete, and not as durable as the conventional wisdom holds. What makes the shift in the South in the late 20th century and the corresponding political migration of black voters so fascinating was that they have been deep and long. Many analysts have gone wrong looking for similar patterns in subsequent shifts—as the Teixeira interview above illustrates. And you point to an important part of this: Much of this political typology is either wishcasting or negative partisan messaging. Everybody wants to be the party of the working class and the aspiring minority groups. Nobody wants to be the party of pasty white fat cats. I say ignore it in the main, and focus on the specifics.
“Please provide informative captions (person, event, location, date) for the pictures that appear with your articles. I’m having fun with my “Ancient One, Great Zog” trope, but I would prefer, as a paying subscriber, that The Dispatch be as professional as Bari Weiss or National Review.”—Cynthia L. Wright, Indian Trail, North Carolina
Don’t you figure I have enough to contend with answering folks here in the mailbag, Ms. Wright?! A month into this project, and the amount of correspondence is going up, not down. I am very happy about the interest, and certainly find you and your fellow readers engaging and delightful, but this has been like doing two newsletters in one. At least until the tide of letters slackens, let’s crowdsource this sucker. I hereby initiate the Stirewaltisms cutline contest! Readers should send in their 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 winner 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!
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 anonymous. My colleague, the intrepid Samantha Goldstein, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!
WHEN TROLLING YOUR MOM GOES WRONG
Mt. Pleasant [Michigan] Morning Sun: “Midland Public Schools Superintendent Michael E. Sharrow took to Facebook … addressing false rumors that litter box accommodations were being made for students who identify as ‘furries.’ … According to Sharrow, a rumor has spread ‘that litter boxes were provided within MPS student restrooms for those who identify themselves as ‘furries.'‘ ‘Let me be clear in this communication. There is no truth whatsoever to this false statement / accusation! There have never been litter boxes within MPS schools.’ … A ‘furry’ is someone who role-plays or identifies as an animal, or an animal character with human-like characteristics. [At the district’s Dec. 20 school board meeting] a parent expresse[d] concerns over a unisex bathroom featuring ‘a litter box, for the kids who identify as cats.’ ‘I am really disturbed by that,’ the parent said. … Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock mentioned the controversy on her official Facebook page, stating, stating, ‘Kids who identify as ‘furries’ get a litter box in the school bathroom. Parent heroes will TAKE BACK our schools.’”
Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a forthcoming book on media and politics. Samantha Goldstein contributed to this report.