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Speechwriting

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Not Too Distant Mirror.

“The ritual, by now, is well-established. President Barack Obama will travel to the lower house of the national legislature from the executive mansion, and…give a long speech extolling the nation’s virtues and present circumstances — the state of the union is invariably described as ‘strong’ — and laying out the regime’s priorities.”

A day before the big show, Joshua Keating’s consistently funny If It Happened There column at Slate looked at the State of the Union. “Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.”

Which, of course, is exactly what happened. There are innumerable things Congress could be doing right now to create jobs, spur opportunity, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and generally make life better for families in America. Some of them — raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, investing in infrastructure and early childhood education, admitting climate change is happening and proceeding accordingly — were even mentioned in Obama’s remarks, not that we can expect much in Year Six of this presidency (and an election year to boot.)

But with all due respect to Sgt. Remsburg’s sacrifice, when the only thing all of our nation’s legislators can get effusive about is venerating Americans wounded in battle, the republic is in a bad way indeed. As James Fallows put it: “[W]hile that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg…I don’t think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014…the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.” That it should – The last refuge of scoundrels and all that.

“This Sunday, the eyes of millions of Americans will turn to a fetid marsh in the industrial hinterlands of New York City for the country’s most important sporting event — and some would say the key to understanding its proud but violent culture.”

ICYMI, If It Happened There has aptly covered the Superbowl also. “The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game’s lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.”

Speaking of the handegg finals — as usual, also not lacking for tawdry paeans to militarismcongrats to the Seahawks on a convincing Superbowl XLVIII win. As I said on Twitter, I had no real dog in this fight – I was just happy to see the two states with sane marijuana laws karmically rewarded for their forward thinking.

Keep Calm and…Oh, Never Mind.

“We all know that the dangers facing us today are greater by far than at any time in our long history. The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle nor even the airman prowling the skies above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology. But whatever terrors lie in wait for us, all the qualities that have helped to keep our freedom intact twice already during this sad century will once more be our strength.”

Along the lines of Richard Nixon’s paean to the fallen Apollo 11 astronauts, a draft, circa 1983, is unearthed of Queen Elizabeth’s potential remarks on the start of World War III. “The moving words were written by an imaginative speech writer taking part in a disaster planning exercise.”

Win the Future!™


We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future.

The best place to do business? Um…how about the best place to live, create, raise a family, be a community? Ah well, Win the Future!™ At this point, my thoughts on the the president’s State of the Union address probably don’t matter much, since I pretty clearly wasn’t the intended audience, and the intended audience apparently dug it quite a bit. But, as for myself: Suffice to say, the “fetal position fallacy” that characterized the 2010 SotU seems to now be in full bloom. This speech, highly reminiscent of Dubya’s 2006 address, basically made Barack Obama seem like the best Republican president we’ve had in years.

It wasn’t just the bland corporate seminar tagline — Win the Future!™ — that rankled. Here we have a Democratic president — the great hope of the left only two short years ago, imploring us all to clap harder for a five-year budget freeze (only in non-defense, discretionary spending, of course, and still not enough for the GOP), a promise to review regulations that put an “unnecessary burden on businesses,” and a lower corporate tax rate. WTF, indeed.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with national goals like increasing competitiveness and doubling exports (provided you aren’t suppressing wages to do it), and I’ve speculated here on getting rid of corporate taxes in the past. (10/12/00 — Arguably, they’re redundant.) But, really, what a thin gruel to offer the American people at this hour. Is there no other way to answer the challenges of the future than a Tony Robbins slogan and generous heapings of business seminar pablum? Have things gotten so bad for the Left that we’re supposed to applaud a president simply for not explicitly threatening Social Security?

Alas, it looks like that may be the case. In his address, the president made sure to make obeisance once again to the deficit witchhunt: “Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.” What you didn’t hear was any attempt to explain that family and government budgets are not the same, or that cutting spending in the midst of a fragile economic recovery is actually a terrible idea. It’s like Keynesianism never existed.

This administration — and all of Washington, really — is now so prisoner to Republican message-framing that “bring[ing] discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President” is somehow considered a great thing. Woohoo! Austerity we can believe in! It’s not the most inspiring peg to hang your hat on, to be sure.

Speaking of Ike, Obama also tried to inject some historical cachet into the speech by talking of one of the Eisenhower Era’s signature events: “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said, and it probably is.

But, as Fred Kaplan (and others) has well pointed out: “The lesson from the 1950s is that it takes more than private enterprise to revive American innovation. It takes lots of government spending.” And I’m not seeing how the president is going to be able to pull that off anymore, now that he’s willingly enclosed himself — and all of us — in the Republicans’ deficit-scare paddock. To really Win the Future!™, it’s going to take a lot more from this administration than a zippy corporate rebranding and a string of hoary, Third Way cliches.

Dark Side of the Moon.


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

In a fascinating remnant of alternate history, Letters of Note unearths Nixon’s Safire-penned speech on the (possible) failure of Apollo 11. “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

West Virginia Granite (This Byrd has Flown.)

Mr. Byrd…said he had no illusions that his oratory was going to change the outcome of the final vote. So why was he on the floor day after day? What was he accomplishing? ‘To me, that question misses the point, with all due respect to you for asking it,’ he said. ‘To me, the matter is there for a thousand years in the record. I stood for the Constitution. I stood for the institution. If it isn’t heard today, there’ll be some future member who will come through and will comb these tomes.‘”

Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, 1917-2010. Known as a fierce defender of Senate prerogative and a legislator with a penchant for pork, Senator Byrd, we all know, held some indefensible positions in his day. But at least he got on the right side of history before his time came. Rest well, Senator.

Souter: “A Pantheon of Values.”


A choice may have to be made, not because language is vague but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well. These paired desires of ours can clash, and when they do a court is forced to choose between them, between one constitutional good and another one. The court has to decide which of our approved desires has the better claim, right here, right now, and a court has to do more than read fairly when it makes this kind of choice.

In his commencement speech at Harvard over the weekend, former Justice David Souter lays out his judicial philosophy, and thumbs his nose at the originalists he recently sat alongside. “The meaning of facts arises elsewhere and its judicial perception turns on the experience of the judges, and on their ability to think from a point of view different from their own. Meaning comes from the capacity to see what is not in some simple, objective sense there on the printed page.” (Found by way of Politics Daily’s Andrew Cohen, who gushes about the speech here.)

SotU: The “Fetal Position” Fallacy.

I know that we haven’t agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.

They do? I thought they expected change we can believe in. But worn-out nods to an elusive, ephemeral, and, given the current GOP, often undesirable bipartisanship does not constitute such. In any event, so concluded the President’s State of the Union address last Thursday. This is old news at this point, so I’ll keep it brief. Suffice to say, while it got better as it went along, I thought the speech was merely ok, and often troubling. Throughout the evening, the president’s remarks had that excessively-poll-tested, small-bore feel that conjured up grim odors of 1995 and 1996. Throw on a flannel and fire up the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, y’all: One year into the Obama era, are we already back to V-chips and school uniforms?

Part of the president’s problem is that the Senate is looking like the elephant’s graveyard of progressive-minded legislation right now. The president called for an energy reform bill. The House went out on a limb to pass one last June. The president called for a financial reform bill. The House passed one in December. The president called for a new jobs bill. The House also passed one in December. All of these bills, and many, many others, are languishing in the Senate right now, as Sen. Reid and others try to figure out how to somehow get something — anything! — passed with a larger majority than Dubya ever enjoyed.

The Senate issue aside, there were other problems in the President’s speech, including far too many nods and feints in the direction of ridiculous deficit peacocks like Judd Gregg and Evan Bayh. First off, at the risk of sounding like Dick Cheney, I tend to think that deficits are troubling, but, even in the best of times, they shouldn’t really be the foremost driving concern of our government policy. If we run a deficit to invest in education now, we’ll save money down the road and improve Americans’ quality-of-life to boot. (Put in somewhat ugly fashion, it’s invest in schools now or prisons later.)

And that being said, right now is emphatically not the best of times. We know exactly what happens when you cut spending too quickly after a virulent recession — It was called the 1937 Roosevelt recession, and it would be flagrantly idiotic to repeat it. Just because the GOP doesn’t seem to understand basic Keynesian economics doesn’t mean we should follow them down the rabbit hole of flat-earth thinking, just so we can look bipartisan.

No, the problem with deficits isn’t necessarily the running of a deficit. It’s the running-up of massive deficits for patently stupid reasons — like, say, prosecuting a war of choice in Iraq, or doling out excessive tax breaks to multi-millionaires. And that’s why some of the President’s nods in that direction were so irritating last Thursday. Calling for a spending freeze on discretionary spending, without touching the exorbitant “security-related” budget (cute euphemism, that), is kabuki theater at best. And at worst, you’re balancing the books at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens. (I tend to agree with Candidate Obama on this issue anyway.)

Similarly, this deficit commission which the president plans to foist on Congress by executive order after the Senate killed it, is, again, at best kabuki theater and at worst trouble. It’s clear to everyone involved that the entire point of this commission is CYA: i.e, to create political cover for raids on entitlement spending, while once again ignoring the grotesquely swollen defense budget. (Altho’, to be fair, Secretary Gates has at least tried to rein in growth in this sector.) In other words, this commission will basically just be a chance for deficit peacocks to pretend they’re Serious People and “make tough decisions,” while in fact the one really tough idea that actually needs to be tackled — reining in defense spending — will be completely avoided.

In any event, all this discussion of the deficit ignores the larger problem. Obviously, one of the president’s biggest charges coming into office was to restore economic sanity after eight years of Dubyaite excess. That being said, people were not looking to President Obama for this sort of deficit tsk-tsking and small-bore, fiddling around the margins. You’d think we Dems would have learned this by now. But curling up into a fetal position and mouthing moderate GOP-lite bromides will not stop the Republicans from kicking us, ever.

We have a Democratic president, an 18-seat majority in the Senate, and a 79-seat majority in the House. In short, we Dems need to keep thinking big or we will pay dearly at the polls this November. Perhaps the dysfunction of the Senate is the central problem Obama faces right now, but his speech nonetheless suggests that we’re getting dangerously close to Eisenhower Republican territory now, and not even in the good “the military-industrial complex is completely frakked” kinda way. Without vision, the people perish. So too will our party, if we keep up with this thin gruel, triangulation schtick. At the advice of the careerist DLC-types over the years, we have tried this path several times over — Put simply, it does not work.

The Perils of LCD Politics.

“I don’t honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn’t figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he’s not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he’s going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they’re seeing right now is ‘liberalism,’ and they don’t like what they see. I don’t, either. What’s they’re seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That’s a recipe for going nowhere fast — but getting there by November.

I already said my piece about this last week, and was going to let it drop for now. But this long essay by Drew Westen on the problems with Obama’s leadership so far is right on the nose and well worth-reading. “[W]hat Democrats just can’t seem to understand is that the politics of the lowest common denominator is always a losing politics. It sends a meta-message that you’re weak — nothing more, nothing less — and that’s the cross the Democrats have had to bear since they ‘lost China’ 60 years ago. And in fact, it is weak.

The Lobby Echoes.

“In the official record of the historic House debate on overhauling health care, the speeches of many lawmakers echo with similarities. Often, that was no accident. Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.”

As a speechwriter in the House, I’m sort of a rare bird…but perhaps I shouldn’t be: An estimated 42 Members — 20 Dems and 22 GOP — get caught lifting industry talking points for the health care debate. Suggested TP’s make the rounds all the time, of course, but they’re usually meant to be guidelines, not taken word-for-word. Oops.

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