YouCut, Hawaii birther bill

David Weigel
David Weigel

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David Weigel
Washington Post Blogger
Thursday, May 13, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post blogger David Weigel (Right Now) was online Thursday, May 13, at Noon ET to discuss the do-it-yourself Web site set up by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) that lets activists vote on what programs they want Republicans to defund and the signing by Gov. Linda Lingle (R-Hawaii) into law of a bill that protects state employees from having to answer harassing requests about President Barack Obama's citizenship.

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David Weigel: Thanks for coming, everyone. Let's get started with your questions.

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YouCut version 2.0: Would the next iteration be: Text messaging with the proceedings going to the RNC? I mean, really, budgeting, American Idol-style isn't the way to go, Republic-style government issues aside, let alone the meagerness of the cuts.

David Weigel: Cantor says that the items on the list will change from week to week, vote to vote. His spokesman tells me it's about "transforming the culture of Washington from one of spending to one of saving." So I'd definitely suggest you send him this idea.

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Seattle, Wash.: Is "Hawaiian Birther Bill" accurate? Isn't "Hawaiian Anti-Birther Bill" more accurate? How about "Hawaiian He-Was-Born-Here-You-Lost-Back-Off Bill"?

David Weigel: Blame the God of short headlines! It's been casually referred to as the "birther bill," which I think demonstrates how this conspiracy theory is widespread enough now that media folks and legislators can refer to it with slang.

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Folsom, Calif.: If Eric Cantor were actually serious about knowing what Americans want to cut from the federal budget, wouldn't he ask us what government programs from which we personally benefit would we be willing to give up to reduce the deficit? What about massive subsidies to profitable industries like oil and agriculture to produce things that are bad for the planet? Military spending?

David Weigel: That's a great question. It is much easier to target silly-sounding programs than to voluntarily give up, say, Social Security payments. Since the goal is to inspire House bills I don't think you'll see Republicans propose such politically toxic ideas for open votes, but ask a batch of tea partiers and several will take that into consideration, if it'll cut the deficit.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a couple questions about birthers. Has anyone ever asked them where they think Joe Biden was born? Does the state of Delaware get a lot of requests for his birth certificate?

David Weigel: Not that I'm aware of, although if we're throwing out possibilities, Delaware is closer to, say, Haiti than Hawaii is to Kenya.

One thing a lot of people forget about birtherism is that it has safety valves in case the "he might have been born outside the US" case sputters. Orly Taitz likes to argue (wrongly) that Obama can't be president because his father was a citizen of the British Empire. Not something you could say about Biden, unless you find a missing comma in the Paris Peace Treaty or something.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: In this chat and on the Post's website, you are identified as a "conservative blogger". Do you consider yourself conservative or do you just blog about conservative "bigots," to use your word?

David Weigel: No, I'm a registered Republican and libertarian. I don't think and have never said that "conservatives" are bigots. I did go too far in talking about anti-gay marriage groups, but I wasn't even suggesting that all people who oppose gay marriage have some sort of hate in their hearts for gays.

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San Diego, Calif.: Why is it okay to protect Hawaii state employees from having to answer harassing requests about Obama's birthplace but it's not okay to protect Alaska state employees from having to answer harassing requests about Palin's wardrobe?

David Weigel: Remember, Hawaii dawdled a bit over this because it wanted a narrowly tailored law that would not prevent citizens from asking any other questions. So Alaska could debate such a law. The difference, obviously, is that people who dog Palin about her record as governor are doing just that -- asking questions about how a public official used the public's time and money. There's no such question with Obama's citizenship.

That said, I find the quest for details of how much Palin spent on her house and so on really, really boring.

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San Diego, Calif.: Once we reach 50 percent of Americans having doubts about Obama's birthplace, will you finally stop referring to it as the "fringe"?

David Weigel: No, because it will still be factual junk. This raises a good question about when to and when not to write about this stuff. I don't jump on every story of "birthers" acting up. But if it's significant enough for Hawaii to protect employees from frivolous requests, that's a story. And if the Secretary of State in South Dakota, who could wind up in Congress next year, believes this stuff, that's a story.

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Reston, Va.: You recently wrote about the guy who was booed at CPAC being interview by CNN for a documentary on conservatives. As a conservative, I'm annoyed that CNN and others give him a platform. Do you think he really represents the average conservative?

David Weigel: That's Ryan Sorba. And I know he doesn't represent the average conservative, because the people at CPAC found him truly embarrassing. I don't like to second-guess what other reporters are doing, and CNN was murky on this when I asked, but if Sorba is portrayed as a punchy, mouthy activist who makes a lot of enemies while winning over some activists, it'll be accurate.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you define the term "small government" for me? I keep hearing conservatives say they are in favor of it but never define what it would look like. Every economist I have heard on the issue agrees that the only way to really cut the deficit is to cut social security, Medicare/Medicaid/and/or defense. They make up 60 percent of the federal budget. If cutting these programs is what "small government" needs to look like, conservatives should be honest about it and stop lying to people by leading them to believe that there is a bunch of "wasteful" entitlement spending out there that can be cut.

David Weigel: I'd point you to Reagan's first inaugural or the work of Robert Nozick. Basically, the role of government is to provide for the common defense, and anything else is an expansion into something that could be better done in the private sector. I agree -- conservatives should say that real small government means deep entitlement cuts. You've got people like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) who admit that, but they compete with a party apparatus that sees temporary gains in, say, criticizing Democrats for wanting to cut Medicare.

The flip side of what you're saying is that Democrats should be honest and admit they want higher taxes.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Much of your job seems to be finding what you deem examples of conservative hypocrisy or pointing out flaws in conservative efforts. Can you identify any Washington Post blog (or blogger) that is tasked with pointing out similar antics done by liberals?

David Weigel: Democrats run the country, so most of the rest of the site, and the paper, are about them. And I stand by everything the Post's reporters have written about the federal government -- read Dana Milbank's sketches for a taste of that.

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Libertarian "trust" poll: As someone who self-identifies as a libertarian, what's your take on the recent polling that shows a strong Republican distrust for libertarian(ism)?

David Weigel: You're talking about the Pew poll, which confirmed what my friends at Cato and Reason and other libertarian institutions often roll their eyes about -- too many conservatives think that "libertarian" means "anti-war, pro-drugs, pro-free love." They get, accurately, that libertarians do not believe that the state should enforce "traditional" social morality. So they sit uneasily beside them. I would say that the presidency of Barack Obama has erased most of the tension between conservatives and libertarians, but you still see fissures like the Kentucky Senate primary, where conservatives are bashing Rand Paul for, among other things, not wanting a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. (He wants it banned state by state.)

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Miami, Fla.: Crist continues to be an overwhelmingly popular governor. Why is this never mentioned in articles about his run for senator?

It seems in a state that has a very large independent voting block that this would be a big factor especially given his $7.9 million campaign chest.

David Weigel: Actually, Crist's approval has sunk to the low 50s since the start of the recession, but you're right that he's in better shape than governors of other states with similar problems - California, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina. I'm not sure if he can pull this off, especially because I don't know where the extra money for his war chest will come from. But I am one of the few journalists, apparently, not blown away by Marco Rubio. He's a very good candidate, but I am not yet convinced his hardcore conservatism and Obama-bashing can beat Crist if the governor looks like he's focused on results and hates partisanship. Crist won't get 50% of the vote, but can he eke out a win in a race like that? I would not be shocked.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: I am tired of hearing the term real Americans (Palin et al) used to describe only people in areas that vote predominantly and securely Republican. Why do they like to use this nomenclature that turns off so many Americans? Isn't this just further entrenching the GOP as a regional party?

David Weigel: Remember, when Palin rolled that line out in North Carolina in 2008, it backfired, and she became part of the first GOP ticket to lose the state in a generation. When the McCain campaign called non-northern Virginia "real Virginia," it was in the process of losing the state. The Republicans who win these areas don't play this rhetorical game.

Why do other Republicans use it? Because they believe it. They see northeastern, Ivy-educated elitists trying to wreck their lifestyle and force them to abandon their values. You're seeing that with the opposition to Elena Kagan -- Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) pretty explicitly said this week that her elite education was proof she didn't understand how real Americans lived.

If every Republican talked like this, it would make voters in blue states back away. But the Republicans who win there, from Scott Brown to Olympia Snowe, do not really indulge this. It's a long-standing conservative worry that is strongest in the South and West.

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Chicago, Ill.: I really appreciate your even-handed, even sympathetic coverage of the right wing. It's absolutely necessary journalism.

But I wonder if you ever (apart from the gay-marriage faux pas) admit to impatience or worse with your subjects? For example, the chat last week with the so-called Tea Party leader on this site was so filled with ignorance, hatred and irresponsibility that it's impossible to take the guy seriously anymore... who do you write off? And when?

David Weigel: I never write anyone off, with the exception of really dangerous conspiracy types. I keep talking to people. The point I was trying to making last week that even when I disagree with someone I'm interviewing, I respect why they believe that, where that belief comes from. But ever since Massachusetts legalized gay marriage and the state didn't sink into the Ocean, I've had a little trouble figuring out why gay marriage opponents are so adamant about stopping the practice. But if the same activist tells me that, say, a new speech law will punish him/her for expressing this belief, I am 100% on his/her side.

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Tucson, Ariz.: I noticed that Sarah Palin gave an unqualified endorsement for our state's new immigration policy. Why was not this headlines like other features the paper covers? It seems odd given that this is an important topic and she is certainly a Republican thought leader. She can help build support.

David Weigel: I disagree -- I don't think anything Palin says lacks for media coverage. I mentioned this.

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Anonymous: How would a true libertarian feel about the constitutional amendment limiting states to recognizing marriage between a man and a woman? On a local level, how do they feel on laws prohibiting mistreatment of animals?

David Weigel: I'd point you to the brilliant Jonathan Rauch on gay marriage. On animal cruelty, you've brought up a still-burning debate -- there was a lot of discussion of this after the Supreme Court ruled that "animal crushing" videos were protected speech. Basically, you find few libertarians who oppose anti-cruelty laws, but few who can explain why.

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Rockville, Md.: What is the "common defense"? Defense against terrorism or other similar intrusion is a given. What about defense against harmful food (and no, I'm not talking about salt content), drugs, and medical devices? Environmental hazards?

David Weigel: I don't think there's a libertarian argument against prosecuting someone whose product causes wrongful death. But the argument would be that those laws, coupled with the free market's reward for companies that produce safe goods and punishment of companies that don't, is more than enough.

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Taxes: "The flip side of what you're saying is that Democrats should be honest and admit they want higher taxes."

Are you saying that you think Democrats want to raise taxes for the sake of higher taxes? Or is this shorthand for a slightly different analysis?

David Weigel: No, they want higher taxes to pay for more services. They're not altogether secretive on this -- the Bush tax cuts are set to expire in 7 months for this reason.

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Washington, D.C.: It seems Republicans have essentially ruled out tax increases as part of the budget solution (and Democrats have ruled out cuts in entitlements). I'll quote The Economist in their belief that you can't tax your way into a balanced budget, and you can't cut your way to a balanced budget either. Nothing should be off the table if we are to get serious.

David Weigel: But where do you begin the discussion? If it starts with "cutting the deficit," conservatives believe they've got the disadvantage -- that could easily lead to "sensible" tax increases. If you start with "cutting spending," then you're doing just that, and assuming some spending is illegitimate.

Plenty of conservatives distrust the president's reform commission for that first reason. They consider it a backdoor way to get tax increases on the table.

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Kagan vs. Justice Thomas: With all the talk and the chatter about Kagan, why am I not seeing this comparison more often? Thomas worked in largely executive offices before a very brief stint as a judge to round out his resume for the Supreme Court. Same deal with Kagan, it seems.

David Weigel: You're right, Thomas was only on the lower court for a year, and many people assumed that Kagan's appointment as Solicitor General was a resume-builder for the SCOTUS job that liberals have long wanted her to have.

I'm interested in the way Republicans are using the "lack of experience" argument to get at Kagan's records from the Clinton administration. And I'm interested in the 180 degree flip from Democrats, who held up Sotomayor's bench experience as the best reason to confirm her. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told reporters this week, sort of cheekily, that Sotomayor was able to use her experience to prove she didn't believe the controversial things attributed to her... and that Kagan can't run that play.

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Kagan's previous nomination as a judge: Why hasn't there been more talk about Kagan's nomination to the bench that was blocked and delayed by Republicans back in the 90s? I would think this is prime material to ask Republican senators about, since they were seemingly instrumental in making sure that she has no judicial record.

David Weigel: Fun fact - do you know who got the job Kagan was nominated for? John Roberts.

I don't know how Democrats make an issue of that without sounding snippy and sore-loserish, but it's the kind of thing you may hear them talk about as they try to confirm more lower bench nominees.

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Re: Coryn on Kagan: Wait, did I read that correctly? Did a Republican senator criticize a Supreme Court nominee for lacking empathy?

David Weigel: One might make that argument.

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Washington, D.C.: First, thank you for your reporting. You skewer the whack jobs without holding them out as representative of everyone -- or even the preponderance of people -- on the Right.

I am concerned, however, that your reporting is the exception within mainstream journalism, and even within the greater public discourse. Is there a way to bring a greater civility, a more elevated dialogue to politics and political journalism, or are we stuck with what we've got?

By the way, I'm not bemoaning the imaginary "loss of civility." Politics through the ages has been coarse. I'm just sick to death of it.

David Weigel: I grapple with this all the time. Basically, we are always in campaign mode. An attack on some gaffe, or some fringe association, that you might associate with the hot days of a presidential race, is now the kind of thing that reporters and groups like Media Matters and the Media Research Center look for every day. So there's a hunt for the most fringe stuff, and little interest in understanding it. For example, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a devoutly pro-life member of Congress who really thinks that abortion is adversely affecting African-Americans, is constantly generating "controversy" when he points this out or compares it to the damage of slavery. I think that's silly.

There's another issue -- how do we avoid simply promoting what the "whack jobs" say? I try and wait until I see politicians or powerful political groups indulging them.

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"lack of experience": The last Supreme Court Judge to be appointed without judgeship experience was appointed by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. So what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

David Weigel: Yeah, I really think this is a phony issue. Democrats have had a lot of fun nailing Republicans who, in 2005, gritted their teeth and said Harriet Miers's lack of experience on the bench was a plus for her. But even if they were wrong about her, they were not wrong on the issue. There's no great reason why the Supreme Court should consist only of people with X amount of time on the bench.

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Chicago, Ill.: Why do non-Fox, non-right wing radio continue to call the GOP the fiscally responsible party? Every time they have held power since Nixon, deficits have exploded and government has grown. If the Dems are labeled as tax and spend why isn't the GOP labeled borrow and spend?

David Weigel: I don't think the media does this. Certainly, by the end of the Bush years, we didn't. But Republicans have a better case to make, right now, that Democrats are a "borrow and spend" party.

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Montana: Why do you think the press has been ignoring or downplaying the public's strong support for Arizona's immigration law?

Broad Approval For New Arizona Immigration Law (Pew Center)

David Weigel: That should be part of the conversation, but in general whether or not a law polls well is not a great determination of whether a law is good. Ever seen one of the polls on how popular elements of the Bill of Rights are? It'll keep you up at night.

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harassing requests about Palin's wardrobe: Harassing questions about Palin's wardrobe (yes, they occurred) went to the RNC, not the state of Alaska.

David Weigel: Right, but Palin's reasons for leaving office, according to her, including frivolous requests for information on details of her governorship.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'll believe that YouCut and other promises to cut federal "pork" spending will happen as quickly as I believe that Obama was going to mend the bridges and get everyone to work together in Washington. Same old campaign fodder -- it ain't going to happen!

David Weigel: As a political tactic, though, it's very clever. Republicans have the ability to introduce amendments and privileged resolutions forcing Democrats to vote on whether or not they support politically unpleasant things. And now Republicans can do saying that they've got however many thousands of people behind them. Credit to Cantor and his office for a smart gimmick -- there are a lot of gimmicks and politics, but most of them don't work.

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David Weigel: My hour is up and I don't have any more quarters to feed the meter. Thanks to everyone for sending in questions. And please feel free to continue the conversation at Right Now!

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washingtonpost.com: Right Now

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