Kristof gets the shutdown right!


But also, four ludicrous letters: A lot of confusion surrounds the discussion of the so-called government shutdown. Example:

As Gail Collins jokes her way through the topic today, do you understand the highlighted point? Warning! Butch Otter joke:
COLLINS (10/3/13): So here we are. The Senate has passed a bill to keep the government running until Nov. 15. A majority in the House would probably go along, but the House leadership won’t let the bill come up for a vote. The fate of the nation now appears to be hinged on a couple dozen unhinged House Republicans who are demanding that government funding be coupled with Obamacare axing.

Public-spirited citizens are now forced to become acquainted with a whole new collection of characters who seem to be running the show, like Representative Raúl Labrador of Idaho. Actually, he is the easiest one to remember, since he once considered running for governor against the current incumbent, Butch Otter. I think I speak for us all when I say that Labrador versus Otter would have made 2014 worth waiting for.
If the whole west coast succumbed to bubonic plague, Collins would be joking about it in her very next column. In this instance, we’re forced to endure another “Butch Otter has a funny name” joke, for what is now the eighth time.

Ignore all that! In a chamber which has 435 members, do you understand how “a couple dozen unhinged House Republicans” could be ruling the fate of the nation?

We’re not sure we understand that either, and Collins doesn’t bother explaining. (We keep hearing different explanations.) And doggone it! Across the page in today’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof makes the same claim with a slightly larger number:
KRISTOF (10/3/13): The only reason for the government shutdown is that a small number of Republican hard-liners, around 40, insist on relitigating health care reform over and over. If Speaker John Boehner allowed an open vote on the budget, it would likely pass. But Boehner hasn’t done that.
Kristof says the number is forty. But in a chamber of 435 members; in a caucus of 234 Republicans; how can forty people keep Boehner from staging a vote?

Like Collins, Kristof doesn’t explain. But he does a great deal more in this morning’s column. He runs through four “excuses” being offered by Republicans for the ongoing shutdown. As he does, he bats them aside in clear, understandable ways.

A lot of confusion surrounds discussion of the shutdown. On TV, to cite one example, pundits and pols keep getting drawn into discussion of the merits of Obamacare.

We had that discussion for a year in 2009 and early 2010! Today, these reruns are constantly replacing discussion of the reasoning and the behavior of those who are causing the shutdown.

Kristof does an excellent job looking at the excuses they offer for their conduct. But good God! On the facing page, the New York Times has published five letters about this very same shutdown.

Who in the world selected these letters? We’d say that four of the five are either confused or utterly worthless. One of the letters says this:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (10/3/13): Who caused the government to shut down? You and I did by electing the wrong people to represent our interests in Washington. We made the mistake of believing the promises of professional politicians, both Democrats and Republicans.

What can we do to rectify our mistakes? Make better decisions about whom we elect to represent us in the future. Actions (of politicians) speak louder than (their) words.

D— R—
Dallas, Oct. 2, 2013
Could a letter be more pointless? It’s followed by a letter designed to stir the soul:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (10/3/13): As expensive, time-consuming, emotionally draining and senseless as the Congressional budget battle may seem, I am grateful to live in a country where a minority group with such strongly held opinions can act on its beliefs, exercising its rights in a peaceful way, within a democratic process, without fear of harm or retribution.

W— C—
Edina, Minn., Oct. 2, 2013
In Canada, those two dozen senseless people would almost surely get shot.

(Question: If those people are engaged in expensive, time-consuming and senseless behavior, wouldn't a minor bit of “retribution” possibly by a good thing?)

The New York Times must have received hundreds of letters about the shutdown. It’s amazing to review the bunch some editor chose to publish.

Again, a basic point:

It’s very hard to comprehend the low caliber of our upper-end press corps. Again, we’ll turn to The Kevin Drum Files for a possible explanation:

Was there too much lead in the air when these journalists were children? We’re thrashing around for a way to explain the work we find in the Times.


  1. OMB

    We look forward to a Columbia Journalism review article by a thirty something PhD student in a decade or so analyzing the content of Letters to the Editor and suggesting a new paradigm of intellectual categories of the persons who selected them.

    In the meantime, in cyberspace we wonder if these are really "letters" in the traditional sense. Clearly any fifteen year old with matematical reasoning skill would know a letter written, stamped and mailed on October 2, 2013 in Edina, Minn. could not have reached NY, NY on the same day even if all the letter handlers in the US Post office were place in 12 x 12 cubicles in a line from Point A to Point B.


    1. Do you suppose that a letter could be a letter even if it isn't written on letter paper? Do you suppose that the Times accepts such missives via email?


    2. I never base things on supposestition when a constitutionally based principle like U.S. mail delivery is involved.

      I do suppose one day a fourth wave feminist history text might be written about the Tweets and e-mail of Sarah Palin.


  2. No, in Canada these two dozen senseless people would almost surely get nothing more than polite disdain.

    No, "retribution," even a minor bit, wouldn't possibly be a good thing, assuming you take the word, as the letter-writer did, in a literal, not a metaphorical, sense.

    Kristof is probably counting the number of boneheads in the House by using the size of the Teahadist Caucus. Wikipedia says the caucus has 49 members in the 113th Congress. (It lists 46 names.)

    Do I understand how “a couple dozen unhinged House Republicans” could be ruling the fate of the nation? Of course. The Rules Committee has nine Republicans and four Democrats. If Committee refuses to let a bill come to the floor, it takes a majority of the House to intercede. As long as Republicans have more loyalty to their party than to the country, that won't happen.

    I hope that clears up some things.

    1. Actually in Canada those people would be active members of a right-wing majority government, and probably have cabinet positions. In a first-past-the-post Parliamentary system with 2 parties splitting the center-left vote, Conservatives form a majority in Parliament with less than half the voting public voting for them, and with the nutters making up a solid core of their support.So the nutters - the PM is one of them - actually run the show. With iron-clad party discipline, an appointed Senate, and a symbolic (and appointed) head-of-state the Prime Minister is virtually unrestrained in what he can do legislatively and administratively. Canada is a lot of things, but representative democracy (at least as Americans understand it) isn't one of them.

    2. Why couldn't one of these columnists have explained how the rules committee bottlenecks bills? I didn't understand it and I have taken H.S. civics.

  3. The NY Times might select its letters based on representativeness rather than what the letter contributes to discussion. Each letter may appear because a large number of other people expressed that view, so it is typical of some segment of reaction among readers, not because it is intelligent, has new info, reveals a different perspective, adds clarity, or serves some other purpose. If that is the case and most people who read the Times don't think clearly, the letters won't reflect clear thinking. Then the broader question is whether journalism should be participatory.

    In college classes, letting students discuss a concept results in greater engagement with the class and students have more fun and are more interested in the topic. The things they say are not necessarily astute, nor are they a systematic exploration of the topic, and can even be flat wrong. Should professors hold such discussions during class time? Many do, even though it may not be the best use of the time for purposes of communicating accurate info and good ideas. Just as education has become dominated by participatory approaches, so perhaps has journalism.

    1. You are getting perilously close to showing disdain for the consensus building that allowed #Occupy to reform America for the ever lasting benefit of the 99%.


  4. Lindy,

    I don't think the college seminar qualifies as a newfangled "participatory approach," although I share some of your reservations about the usefulness of unstructured classroom discussions. (Well-structured discussions are a different matter.)

  5. Bob says, "Like Collins, Kristof doesn't explain." But a link in the online version of his column (at the words "a small number of Republican hard-liners") leads to a transcript of a conversation between Ezra Klein and Robert Costa that does offer an explanation:

    EK: A few dozen unhappy members is an annoyance, but how is it a threat? Wouldn't Boehner be better off just facing them down and then moving on with his speakership?

    RC: So there are 30 to 40 true hardliners. But there’s another group of maybe 50 to 60 members who are very much pressured by the hardliners. So he may have the votes on paper. But he'd create chaos. It'd be like fiscal cliff level chaos. You could make the argument that if he brought a clean CR [continuing resolution] to the floor he might have 100-plus with him on the idea. But could they stand firm when pressured by the 30 or 40 hardliners and the outside groups?

  6. Thoughtful and insightful. Thank you for protecting the privacy of these letter writers through redaction. Given the tribalism you so boldly identify
    the caution in removing their names is noteworthy.