There are three “scandals” supposedly “rocking” the White House this week.  Really, I think it just goes to show how silly we all are.

The first, and oldest, of these scandals is Benghazi.  Four Americans were killed, including the Ambassador to Libya, when an Al Qaeda affiliate attacked a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya in September, 2012.  Since then, the conservative media has been pushing two separate lines of inquiry, seemingly in the hopes of embarrassing the president.  The first, and the legitimate one, is whether or not those lives could have been saved.  There have been numerous hearings on this, focusing on why various troops or planes were not called into Benghazi to assist that outpost during the attack; and while questions remain, it seems that the worst story that can be told is one of a lack of communication between the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon.

The second line of inquiry regarding Benghazi, and this one is just plain silly, is about the evolution of a set of talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice and others used in the days after the attacks to describe what was happening in public interviews to the American people.  The first version of those talking points speculated that while there might have been some connection to the ongoing protests in Cairo and Yemen over an anti-Muslim YouTube video, that it was likely that the attack in Benghazi was carried out by an Al Qaeda affiliate.  By the 12th and final version, all mention of Al Qaeda had been dropped–but not the mention of the ongoing protests.  And of course, it eventually turned out that the Cairo protests had nothing to do with it, and that Al Qaeda had been planning the attack for months–which means that Susan Rice and others gave wrong information in those first few post-attack interviews.

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Apparently I have something in common with the nation’s latest terrorist; we both love going to the Midwest Grill, a Brazilian BBQ Restaurant in my (our?) neighborhood.  We were also both captains of our respective high school wrestling teams and members of the National Honor Society.  His friends from high school talked about him going out of his way to help out, giving rides home, and coming back to his high school to help out for wrestling practice after he had graduated–all things I can relate to.  For all those reasons–not to mention the fact that he only lived about a quarter mile from me–it’s really hard for me not to relate to him.

Which makes the events of the last week all that much more baffling for me.  How could this kid get so twisted that he placed two bombs in a crowd of people, shot a police officer in cold blood, and hijacked a car at gun-point?

I have nothing but sympathy for the friends and families of the victims.  The eight year old boy whose life was ended just as it was beginning.  The graduate student from China who loved living in Boston.  The  restaurant manager from the suburbs who never missed a marathon.  And the MIT officer who was the consummate policeman.

But it’s the bomber, suspect number two, the one who was just arraigned on federal charges from a hospital room yesterday… he’s the one whose story seems most familiar to me.  And yet he’s the one who maybe I will never understand.  Because for all the similarity, how could I understand what drove him to commit such an act of evil–an act that is so viscerally repellent to me I have trouble even watching the footage of it?

Understanding is especially difficult because human motives are never easily understood.  They are never so simple as we would like them to be.  It would be nice if there were a simple, clean, explanation for why he did it.  His evil brother made him do it.  His felt abandoned by his family.  He felt abandoned by his friends.  He fell in with a bad crowd.  He started listening to the wrong preachers.  He was depressed.  He was angry.  He was on drugs.  He was crazy.

But the truth is always more complicated.  The truth is some combination of some or all of those things–and more.  The truth is that human beings are extraordinarily intricate creatures who usually don’t fully know why we do what we do, and who rationalize our behavior after the fact to make ourselves feel better about what we’ve done.

The best we can do is to understand his actions and associations.  Did anyone help him or fund him or advise him?  What else were they planning on doing?  Did they commit any other crimes before the marathon?  Those are all important questions.

As for motive?  Why he did it?  As much as I would love to know… it’s a fool’s errand.

Finally, let me end by quoting Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese: “Forgiveness does not mean that we do not realize the heinousness of the crime.  But, in our hearts, when we are unable to forgive, we make ourselves a victim of our own hatred.”

 

In a blog post today, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen says that the problem with former Congressman Anthony Weiner is that he’s not more like Margaret Thatcher.  Actually, I would say he has that backwards; the problem with modern politics is that too many people want Margaret Thatcher, when they should want Anthony Weiner.

Weiner is the subject of a fascinating New York Times Magazine piece, along with his wife, Huma Abedin, who was Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman during her time as Secretary of State.  The piece describes Weiner’s fall from grace two years ago, which largely happened because he sent out pictures of his penis (mostly, but not entirely, clothed) to some women he “met” on Twitter.  In the piece, Weiner is clearly looking for some kind of public forgiveness and political redemption.

And, according to Cohen, this is a mistake.  Cohen clearly believes that politicians should be more like Margaret Thatcher, who was famous for not really caring what people thought about her.

Now, that picture of Thatcher is a caricature–of course she cared what people thought about her.  First, because she’s human and humans are social animals, whether we like to admit it or not.  And second, because you don’t win elections without trying to convince people that you are doing the right thing.  If you truly didn’t care about the public’s opinion, you wouldn’t bother campaigning–and Thatcher most certainly campaigned.

Still, the image of the politician who does what they think is best, public-opinion-be-damned, is a powerful one in American politics.  Many reporters and pundits hold it up as the ideal.

And I want nothing to do with it.  The heart of democracy is elections.  We are democratic because we hold regular, meaningful elections for the highest offices in the land.  Our leaders must stand for election–which means that they must strive to be liked by the public.

Ultimately, that’s the public’s only leash on our leadership.  If our leaders stop care about being liked–if they truly stop care about whether the public will support them or not–then there is nothing to stop our leaders from enacting whatever outrageous policies they want to.  There is nothing to stop them from openly taking bribes or ordering their subordinates to have sex with them at every opportunity.

Democracy works in large part because our leaders want to be liked.  It’s that desire to be liked–to want to run in future elections, and win those elections–that keeps our politicians in line.  When politicians lose that fear–that’s when they get dangerous.

So if I have a choice between an Anothony Weiner-type, who cares what the people think, or a Margaret Thatcher-type, who doesn’t–well, give me the Anthony Weiner every time.  Because as a voter, I can control the Weiner-type politician.  The Thatcher-type politician may have “political courage”, but I have no control over them once they are in office.   And as a country, we’re all better off if the voters remain in control.

 

People have already started pondering who will run for president in 2016.  And why not?  It’s a great parlor game.  But any game needs rules; and in this case, history has provided us with a lot ton of precedent to determine who actually has a legitimate shot at becoming the next commander-in-chief, and who is just a much-ballyhooed pretender.  So what are those rules?

Rule #1: You don’t become president if you’ve completed a full term in the senate.  Only one man has ever done it: LBJ, and he had to become Vice President, and then only became president because JFK was assassinated.  A few have served less than a full term: Obama and JFK most recently.  But complete that first term, and you’re done for.  Many, many, many have tried.  None have succeeded.  Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Rob Portman will all be finishing up their first term in 2016; if any of them actually wins election, they will be the longest serving Senator to ever be directly elected from the Senate to the presidency, although only by a couple of years so it’s not completely out of the question.  Still, it’s doubtful.  This rule also casts serious doubt on both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden on the Democratic side: both have completed full terms, but one could argue that since both have more recently served in the administration that perhaps they are more like LBJ than John McCain, John Kerry or Bob Dole, just to name the last three senators to win their party nomination and lose the presidency.  Of course, serving in the administration didn’t help Walter Mondale in 1984, so I wouldn’t bet the house on either of them.

Rule #2: It’s good to be from a Big State, or a Democrat from the South.  Obama is from the 5th most populous state (Illinois). The Bushes were from Texas, which moved from third to second during W.’s tenure, as was LBJ.  Clinton and Carter were the Southern Democrats (and LBJ, of course).  Reagan and Nixon were from California, the most populous state.  Ford was from Michigan, which was a top 5 most populous state at the time.  You have to go all the way back to JFK to find an exception to this rule.  This rule favors people like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and anyone that the Democrats can find with a southern accent.

Rule #3: Don’t nominate people from Massachusetts or Minnesota.  People from Massachusetts or Minnesota who won the nomination but lost the election since JFK: Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey.  And that’s not counting the many people from both of those states who never made it through the primary process (including Ted Kennedy and Tim Pawlenty).   None of the current contenders are from either of those states, but I thought it bore repeating.

Rule #4: It’s good to be governor or Vice President.  Obama came from the Senate.  Before him?  George W. was Governor of Texas.  Clinton was Governor of Arkansas.  Bush the Elder was VP.  Reagan was Governor of California.  Carter was Governor of Georgia.  Ford was VP.  Nixon was VP.  LBJ was VP.  JFK was Senator.  Truman was VP.  FDR was Governor of New York.  You get the idea.  (Yes, I skipped Eisenhower: if you win a World War, you get to be president without being governor or Vice President.)  The list of surviving former VPs seems a little thin: Joe Biden might want the job; Dick Cheney is about about as popular a root canal; Al Gore seems out of politics for good, and Dan Quayle… uh, yeah, right.  So if I were a betting man, I’d start looking around at the governor’s offices for our next president.  Or maybe former governors.

Put it all together?  Of all the candidates people have talked about, there’s only one that I can think of who fits all of the rules: a former governor from a big state that isn’t Massachusetts or Minnesota and he’s never served a day in the Senate.  That would be Jeb Bush of Florida.  At least until someone else comes along.

 

One of the problems with the social sciences is that just because you know what something is, doesn’t mean that you can count it.  The classic case of this is pornography: we all know what pornography is, but defining it precisely enough to legislate it or to measure it is extremely difficult.  Which is why a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography that, while it may be hard to define,  ”I know it when I see it.”

It’s not just pornography.  Justice, democracy, freedom, oppression, tyranny, war, peace, violence, ethnicity… we know on some level what all of those things are, but they are extremely difficult to define precisely enough to measure.  And yet measuring them is often critical to understanding how the world works.

To get around this problem, social scientists talk about two different kinds of definitions.  The theoretical definition tries to capture the intuition behind a concept.  In most cases, the theoretical definition is either uncontroversial, or is debated at length only by philosophers.  As important as they are, most social scientists prefer not to get bogged down in those debates–which is one reason why philosophers tend to look down their noses at social scientists. Instead, social scientists are usually interested in the operational definition.  The operational definition attempts to boil down the theoretical definition into something that can be measured.

To understand why operational definitions are important–and why they are so hotly contested–read today’s NYTimes.com, specifically Thomas Edsall’s discussion of the problem of counting the poor.  We all have some idea of what poverty is.  So a theoretical definition isn’t too hard: poverty is the difficulty or inability in acquiring basic necessities of life because of a lack of money.  I’m sure some people will have minor qualms with that definition, and we can get into the details of that sometime if you want, but the basic gist is correct. Continue reading »

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