CHILDHOOD’S END: The death of a dream!


Part 1—Believing O’Donnell: For decades, we liberals had it good in the tribal wars of self-esteem.

In 1988, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show went nationwide. From that point forward, we liberals could hear Limbaugh’s clownish misstatements as they aired coast to coast.

We also could hear conservative listeners speaking to Rush, declaring themselves “ditto-heads.” Following Limbaugh’s groaning misstatements, we could hear reflexive affirmation from millions of gullible followers.

Among liberals, this produced the widely-voiced belief that we were the smart ones, the “nuanced” observers, the people who play the game straight. Our self-esteem soared in the Limbaugh/Fox years, even as we took a series of painful political hits.

These were the happy years. We got to believe that we were smart—that their side featured the very dumb players. We got to believe that our leaders are honest—that their side is run by dissemblers.

We often blamed our political failures on the dishonesty of their side’s leaders, matched with the dumbness of their followers. Even as we lost political ground, this view of the world was extremely good for liberal self-esteem.

Except among the proudly deluded, that era has come to an end. Increasingly, we liberals are creating a world which crawls with disingenuous leaders—and with highly gullible followers, our own liberal ditto-heads.

Limbaugh pioneered this culture, but this is how our own world works at this point. For one small example, consider a segment from last Thursday evening’s Last Word.

Three days earlier, President Obama had made a peculiar statement concerning the Supreme Court’s review of the health care law. Almost everyone saw the strangeness in what the president said:
OBAMA (4/2/12): With respect to health care, I'm actually—continue to be confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the law. And the reason is, because in accordance with precedent out there, it's constitutional. That's not just my opinion, by the way. That's the opinion of legal experts across the ideological spectrum, including two very conservative appellate court justices that said this wasn't even a close case.


Ultimately, I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.

And I'd just remind conservative commentators that, for years, what we've heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I'm pretty confident that this—this court will recognize that and not take that step.
Say what? Almost everyone saw the oddness in Obama’s formulation. Whatever he might have meant, Obama had said that it would be “unprecedented” to “overturn a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

In fact, the health care law had passed the House by a narrow, seven-vote margin. But however strong a congressional majority may be, everyone knows that the court has the power—indeed, the duty—to overturn a law if fails to pass constitutional muster.

Beyond that, everyone knows that this wouldn’t be an “unprecedented” act by the court. In context, the use of the term “unelected” only seemed to add to the oddness of Obama’s remarks.

Whatever Obama might have meant, he had actually said an odd thing—and virtually everyone knew it. Lawrence Tribe, dean of liberal law professors, said that his former student “obviously misspoke.” Obama began to walk back his own statement one day after he made it.

Obama made a peculiar statement. Unless you were watching Lawrence O’Donnell’s cable “news” program last Thursday night.

O’Donnell’s show airs on MSNBC, a corporate-run “news channel” aimed at liberals—a channel which has increasingly been aping the practices of Fox. In line with that emerging culture, O’Donnell seemed to suggest that criticism of Obama’s statement had been—what else?—a form of Republican hypocrisy.

That’s hard to do if you actually quote the relevant part of Obama’s statement. So O’Donnell took a different approach.

As he introduced Thursday night’s segment, O’Donnell quoted a different part of Obama’s statement—a single sentence which, standing alone, actually makes perfect sense. He then pretended that this was the part of Obama’s statement which had been disputed. (To watch the whole segment, click here.)

This is the way the segment began. O’Donnell’s conduct represents the end of an era—the end of a childish dream:
O’DONNELL (4/5/12): So Republicans and the noise machine at Fox News think it’s perfectly OK to say this:

GEORGE W. BUSH (videotape): It’s the only branch that’s unelected and whose officers serve for life. Unfortunately, some judges give in to temptation and make law instead of interpreting it. Such judicial lawlessness is a threat to our democracy and it needs to stop.

O’DONNELL: And Republicans and Fox News world think it is a high crime to say this:

OBAMA (videotape): I just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.

O’DONNELL: Joining me now is Politico’s chief White House correspondent Mike Allen [and] senior writer and MSNBC political analyst, Steve Kornacki.
Quoted on its own, that part of Obama’s statement is perfectly accurate. But that isn’t the part of the president’s statement which has been widely critqued.

Soon, O’Donnell offered the nugget around which his segment would turn. On his worst day, Limbaugh himself couldn’t have played the game better:
O’DONNELL: Mike, tell us what’s going on here? They are suddenly very, very upset that a president, actually quoting Republicans, not saying they’re— He was using the Republican phrase about them being unelected saying, “This is what you guys used to say.” And they can’t take it when he says that.
It’s true. Down through the years, Republicans have often referred to judges as being “unelected.” But that wasn’t the part of Obama’s remarks which has been widely critiqued.

O’Donnell’s segment proceeded as planned thanks to the help of a couple of friends. Surely, Allen and Kornacki each understood that O’Donnell was working a bit of a scam—that he wasn’t quoting the part of the statement which had been so widely discussed.

But so what? Each pundit politely played along, as their counterparts frequently do on Fox. The result?

Everyone else in America knows what Obama was criticized for. But if you relied on O’Donnell last week, you still have no idea.

O’Donnell’s segment was one small part of last week’s programming on MSNBC. But the silly deception involved in this segment typifies the larger drift now on display at this “liberal” “news channel.” Most remarkably, MSNBC has run a remarkable series of scams in recent weeks concerning the killing of Trayvon Martin. In the course of its many deceptions and misstatements, an era has come to an end.

For decades, we liberals got to think that we are the smart and honest players. We got to believe that our leaders are honest. We got to believe that liberal voters are too smart, too nuanced, too intellectually honest to accept a ditto-head role.

No one watching MSNBC can continue to hold such a childish belief. In endless ways, this channel’s recent conduct—and the conduct of its viewers—has represented a type of “childhood’s end.”

Tomorrow: Our own ditto-heads

But why would Obama do that: On Thursday evening, there was one small break from the pretense that Obama had said nothing wrong. Responding to the question we’ve cited above, Mike Allen—and O’Donnell himself—made these peculiar remarks:
O’DONNELL: Mike, tell us, what’s going on here? They are suddenly very, very upset that a president, actually quoting Republicans, not saying they’re— He was using the Republican phrase about them being unelected saying, “This is what you guys used to say.” And they can’t take it when he says that.

ALLEN: Well, both sides here are working the refs, the ultimate—the ultimate swing vote. Here you just have one vote on the margins.

I think the president also would take back some of what he said. There’s going to be plenty of time in—

O’DONNELL: He marched it back a little bit.

ALLEN: Yes, every day, he has.
But why in the world would Obama do that? Why would he “march it back a little bit?” Why would he do that “every day?” Unless you already knew, O’Donnell gave you no way to know why Obama would so such a thing. A similar scam occurred Wednesday night, with Van Jones and Richard Wolffe cast in the role of dissembling helpmates.

(To watch that segment, click this. In that case, you do see the tape of Obama’s peculiar remarks. The misdirection proceeds from there.)

This is how Limbaugh has always treated his gullible conservative listeners. As liberal viewers start accepting this treatment, a childish dream, of three decades’ duration, has finally come to an end.


  1. It doesn't matter if FOX misstates or lies.

    People aren't stupid you know. You're just assuming they believe everything they hear on FOX.

    They can get the real facts. You don't seem to think people can think for themselves.

    Oh wait, I said FOX? I meant MSNBC.

    Yeah, so your critique is invalid.

    FOX viewers aren't dumb, you know. They can think for themselves. They don't swallow every misstatement whole.

    I mean, MSNBC, of course.

  2. As Bob points out, President Obama impled that he was unfamiliar with the principle of judicial review. That was established in the case of Marbury v Madison, the most important Supreme Court decision in history. In that same discussion, he misstated key facts about another seminal Supreme Court case, Lochner v. New York -- getting the decision wrong and even getting the period wrong by several decades.

    For any President to be so ignorant would be deplorable. For a former professor of Consitutional Law to make these errors is shocking. How could Mr. Obama make these errors? They're comparable to the errors that drove Michelle Bachman out of the Presidential race.

    I agree that MSNBC erred by not identifying these errors as the crux of the controversy. But, IMHO the mainstream media also hid these shocking errors by simply not giving them much prominence.

    1. There is literally a zero percent chance that OBama is unfamiliar with Marbury v. Madison. Zero. Instead of pretending he is unfamiliar with that case, maybe you should consider the possibility that he misspoke. The fact that you wont consider that possibility says a lot.

      His errors re: Lochner were minor and irrelevant.

      Its clear the president was making 2 points: (1) Striking down this law would be judicial activism of the sort conservatives always complain about and (2) the constitutional basis of the law is very strong and striking it down would be unprecedented.

      I think Obama can be faulted for misspeaking and I suspect the error was made because he was trying to score political points by using conservative rhetoric.

      What I find hilarious is that conservatives like you have been whining about "activist judges" for 30 years and republican politicians and presidents (including Saint Reagan) have repeatedly stated that Courts which strike down acts of congress are acting improperly. Conservatives were against Marbury before they were for it. Flip floppers!

  3. Any way you cut it, it was a bizarre and stupid remark from a "constitutional law professor." Larry O'Donnell will never call it what it was. Jaw droppingly ignorance.

  4. This analysis, among daily MSNBC analysis here, would be grand if, for example, MSNBC was spearheading the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Or was in close association with the Democratic party, hiring potential candidates for its shows, repeating its talking points and, in many case, writing those talking points.

    And, further, if MSNBC was the bell-weather for liberals, nationwide. And if it's news and business reporting consistently reflected, say, "socialist" priorities.

    But of course none of that is true. It certainly is a fact that you've got some highly partisan, and not very competent, talk-show hosts on MSBNC. Which "liberals" live for these shows, I don't know.

    And in view of all the lies and omissions found in major media, it's hard to see how or why anyone would find so much time for inconsequential opinion shows.

    But go ahead -- keep flogging it, it's the kind media criticism for which one doesn't need to know very much, and if that suits you, you've apparently got a got new and appreciative audience for it.

    1. Schoolmaster,

      As the post alludes to, Rush wasn't so big back in '88, but because he cultivated a gullible audience, he has become a very powerful figure in the Republican party. Do you want someone from MSNBC to be that sort of spokesman for the Democrats in twenty years?

      Sadly, the Democratic party is closer to the likes of MSNBC than the OWS movement. I see very little of the ideals of OWS in proposals from elected Democrats, and much of the wealthy's agenda camouflaged in anti-Republican complaints. Just like we see on MSNBC, or read about in the NYT and Washington Post.

    2. @hypo,

      So, in a media climate already overwhelming controlled by corporate America, including MSNBC, you're worried that in 20 years MSNBC may be as far to the left as Limbaugh is the right? Or that the Democratic party will be all Occupy Wall Street in 20 years and MSNBC will be the reactionary restraining factor -- sort of like the DNC today? Or that MSNBC will be the rabble rouser that gets leftists elected, same as Rush gets the right-wing in office, despite the fact that its corporate parents would never stand for that?

      In any case, I get it now: Bob dare not let up on MSNBC, even for a single day, because who knows what MSNBC may become, in 20 years? It might even have influence on American public life, by then!

    3. "Stop talking about MSNBC, Bob -- it's irrelevant! It has many viewers, you say? Well, *I* don't know any!"

    4. Anon 10:00,

      No, I am worried that MSNBC will become entrenched as a faux opposite, balancing network to Fox News. Thereby making it more difficult to get non-corporate approved messages into the political discussion. Isn't that a bit more likely than your imaginings, all three of which have a strong player with a far leftist perspective.

      You bring up the DNC, and if I read you right, with disdain. Why don't you think MSNBC is just as much an enemy to the left side of the Democratic party as the DNC is? Don't fool yourself, these networks can be quite powerful, especially at election time.

    5. @Hypo

      If I read you correctly, you're saying that if we could only reform MSNBC in unspecified ways then MSNBC would be a full-time left-wing network, untied to the Democratic party?

      But that can't be right, because MSNBC will never promote a left-wing network.....

      Or do you want a "fair and balanced" network -- "fair and balanced" being defined as the center between Republicans and Democrats and giving voice to both, but to nobody else? But we've already got that at the networks and PBS, presented with the usual inevitable corporate bias to the right (who's paying the bills, after all?).

      Meanwhile, you claim to abhor corporate approved messages, and you're worried that MSNBC will affect election results. But how will it adversely affect results? By getting Obama elected? If you hold the views you claim to hold here, surely that's a better result for you than a Republican victory?

      Or is MSNBC bad because it will work actively against the handful of leftists in the party, in favor of Obama and Democratic centrists? So in your view, MSNBC's main failing is its refusal o promote socialist candidates?

      Of course of this makes sense. Unless we assume that you're actually critiquing MSNBC from the right, and not from the left as you claim.

    6. Anon 1:37-

      The reason I believe MSNBC is bad for the American political landscape is that it follows the sad trail of Democrats being happy with denigrating Republicans, and, importantly, having no complaints about putting their thumbs on the scale to score points against the enemy party. I despise the attitude that the ends justify the means.

      From the New Deal to the mid 70's the legislation fought for by the Democrats was a very healthy mix of free enterprise and socialism. I agree with Dean Baker and Paul Krugman's economic analyses, and believe that the truth of these positions could be convincingly portrayed. MSNBC ignores the importance of this economic battle.

      Fox News does two things simultaneously. They belittle liberals, and they put out the drumbeat of unfettered capitalism. They get black eyes all the time for going too far in the former, but the repetition of their other message runs deep. How many take it as an axiom that lower taxes are always good, even when fighting two wars?

      MSNBC gets the black eyes without the payoff. Where is the propaganda that is metronomically announcing that taxes and spending create a better society? We used to have Democrats out there fighting for urban planning and public transit, unions and living wages.

      You are correct that this is hard to imagine with the corporate fat cats signing the checks, but by pointing out that these are just bread and circuses, maybe we can regain the belief that it is worthwhile for the government to regulate the amount of political speech large players can enjoy. The ethos of the FCC rules that were in play a few decades ago created in the broadcasters the separation of news and entertainment within their overall structure. These ideas do not need to be abandoned forever.

      The way MSNBC does business pushes us away from serious political discussion. How and when they do it should be exposed for all to see.

    7. @Hypo,

      We've had close to 60 years of commercial broadcast networks in the U.S., and not one has ever promoted working people's interests or told the truth about finance, taxation and American foreign policy.

      The only real-world choice is between MSNBC as it is -- an ineffective promoter of vaguely liberal or partisan Democratic interests -- or a far more effective promoter of right-wing interests, like Fox. Comcast/GE are not going to pay for a network which informs the public and which would, in turn, call into question their and their advertisers prerogatives, claims of wealth and societal influence. OTOH, they're quite likely -- if the current business model fails -- of aping Fox, as MSNBC used to do.

      Which is why the fixation here with MSNBC strikes this reader as an enormous waste time, no more rewarding than flagging every lie and idiocy which occurs on Fox.

      Maybe Bob wants to demonstrate that corporate America is depraved whether it's coverage is nominally right-wing or nominally liberal. But this is hardly news and since corporate America isn't subject to a veto, it's not clear what he's achieving.

    8. Anon 9:30,

      You dismiss far too quickly the change in the broadcast news' political undercurrent since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (and similar legislation around that time). The networks gave FDR all the time in the world for his fireside chats to sell the New Deal. Murrow and Cronkite were hardly corporate stooges. In 1949, CBS covered the proceedings of the United Nations General Assembly. The big three's coverage of the Vietnam War was quite different than our current war coverage.

      Our government used to hold the broadcasters to the principle that with great power comes responsibility. Hopefully our culture will come to believe that yet again.

  5. Different anonymous here.

    Brother, what ridiculous nitpicking and self-serving misreadings. It's obvious Obama (who, BTW, was not a Constitutional law prof and has never claimed to be) was speaking generally, on broad principles, and in general there's nothing incorrect about his statement. And there's literally nothing in his statements that suggests he is unfamiliar with judicial review. You literally couldn't graduate from law school without knowing about the principle of judicial review.

    Where was this sort of criticism of Bush's quoted remark? Read his again: "Unfortunately, some judges give in to temptation and make law instead of interpreting it. Such judicial lawlessness is a threat to our democracy and it needs to stop."

    Now, I never took Bush's statement to suggest he really meant that he thought it was illegal for judges to strike down a law; it was routine politicking. But can anyone argue that it's Obama's statement that was the more extreme and dangerous-sounding? Jeez, move on.

    1. There are many who believe, with reasonable arguments, the the judicial branch should only decide if laws that are passed are valid or not, and not create law. I personally believe that there can be situations where it is the only way forward, but the strict reading may be closer to the framers' intent. However, how strong a majority passed a particular law is very flimsy ground, to say the least, to rule a law constitutional.

      Also, the post calls Tribe the law professor, and Obama his student.

    2. anonymous, i just realized i basically restated some of what you said. and you said it better in the first place.

    3. last anonymous was 'the scowler'... not my day.

    4. You can't blame judges in every case. Some laws are so poorly written they cannot cover all the possible permutations of violations they are intended to punish.
      A judge then has to divine the intent of the legislative and executive branches without having been present when the law was debated and finally passed.
      It is bad lawmaking that often forces judges to become mind readers, not necessarily an ideological bent or simple bias.

  6. both pres. obama and odonnel said or glossed over things which which were not accurate. but the point they were making more broadly was correct in my opinion.

    i think obamas goal was to jawbone against judicial overreach in overturning the laws passed by an elected congress. this was the aspect of his remarks which odonnel emphasised to the exclusion of the presidents errors.

    the president and odonnel are in good company in their apparent anti-judicial review stance.

    from 'the writings of thomas jefferson':

    “You seem ... to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions; a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so. They have, with others, the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps.... Their power [is] the more dangerous as they are in office for life, and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. It has more wisely made all the departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves.'

    also, lincolns first inauural addrress, 10th paragraph from the bottom:

    but mr. somerby appears uninterested in the bigger picture when theres a chance to nitpick his (ancestral?) enemies while falsely equating msnbc to fox.

    1. Be careful when painting with broad strokes about judicial activism, because I think you just used Jefferson and Lincoln to effectively argue against Roe v. Wade.

    2. Apples, meet Oranges. Roe v. Wade was not about "judicial activism." It was an extension of the privacy rights in the Griswold precedent, which held that the decision to take contraceptives rested between a doctor and his/her patient, not the government at any level.

      Even in this case, there is no argument that governments can compel by law every citizen to buy an insurance product at a prescribed minimum level. State governments do that already with auto insurance, and Romneycare in Massachusetts does it with health insurance.

      The argument in this case is whether there is sufficient compelling public interest that would permit the federal government to do it under the commerce clause. And I think that the evidence is pretty clear that there is.

    3. For the record, I do believe that Obamacare should be ruled constitutional. In Roe v. Wade, as I understand it, the part of the decision regarding trimesters was the Supremes creating law from the bench. That part has since been overturned.

      My main point was supposed to be that very often these larger philosophical legal stances are usually abstract enough that they are just used as flourishes to support one's current side of the debate. Even in Jefferson's and Lincoln's rhetoric. My apologies for lack of clarity.

  7. Yes, Bob, people did complain about Obama's sweeping statement and the notion of judicial review. O'Donnell's point was that those complaints were a ruse, and the real thing they objected to was being called out for their hypocrisy. That's why the statement O'Donnell highlights is different from the statement Obama critics kicked around -- because in his view their complaint was disingenuous.

  8. The "walking back" was minimal because the original statement by Obama was about 97% correct as a matter of Constitutional history. There is no good faith argument that the ACA, including the requirement that everyone carry a minimum level of insurance so no one free-rides on everyone else and the risk pool is maximized to keep inurance as inexpensive as possible, is not fully Constitutional under the Commerce Clause. The only good faith result is a 9-0 ruling upholding the law. This is not a close case. Any refusal to join in that result is purely political, and a Supreme Court justice has abolutely zero right under the Constitution to invalidate a law based on political views and not on the Constitution itself.

    It is also "unprecedented" for the entire modern history of the Supreme Court, since the days when everyone agrees a reactionary court was legislating against every intervention by Congress or the states to protect Americans from economic exploitation -- even against laws intended to keep young children out of mines for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. At worst that was a technical inconsistency.

    1. Wow. A mind-reader AND a constitutional scholar!

  9. What President Obama said was a disgrace, a complete disgrace, threatening to our democratic structure. No misspeaking but threatening the Supreme Court justices. Simply disgraceful.

    1. You know who else disgracefully threatened our democratic structure:

      President Warren G. Harding who criticized the Court's overturning of Child Labor Laws and President Reagan (twice) who criticized the court for its ruling on school prayer and abortion and George W. Bush who condemned "activist judges" who are "redefining marriage by court order."

  10. I have nothing insightful or informative to add. I just wanted to say that I think you've been writing great criticism recently, a notch above even your usual diligence. Keep up the good work!


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