As those of you who read a lot of blogs undoubtedly know by now, there’s been a firestorm in every corner of the blogosphere this week over the hiring by washingtonpost.com of a prominent young conservative blogger, Ben Domenech, one of the founders of redstate.org (where his handle has been Augustine), to do a new blog called Red America. At first the furor was over (1) why the Post site (independent of the newspaper, BTW) felt the need to set up an abrasive conservative blog, without at least creating a progressive counterpart, (2) various aspects of Domenech’s background as the scion of a well-connected conservative family, and (3) several dumb and offensive things he’s said, such as calling Coretta Scott King “a communist” the day after her death. In this early phase of the controversy, it was a classic left-right battle. But almost effortlessly, several progressive bloggers came up with an ever-escalating series of examples of plagiarism by Domenech going back to college newspaper work, but continuing with pieces for professional organizations like National Review Online. Conservative bloggers quickly split between some who defended Domenech, and others who distanced themselves. And the fracas ended today with Domenech’s resignation from washingtonpost.com, and a statement by the site’s managing editor wishing him good riddance and apologizing for the fiasco. Considering how long it took for earlier plagiarism scandals at major newspapers to come to light and bite the perpetrators and enablers in the butt, the lightning speed of the whole affair was impressive. To the extent you care about exposing plagiarists, it’s a good argument for the value of a wide-open blogosphere that can often serve as the enforcer of journalistic ethics, not just as a rules-free zone. As for Domenech’s underlying sin, I generally dislike getting too self-righteous about other people’s destructive habits, especially after they are exposed, since the Good Lord has a strong tendency to punish first-stone-throwers. But I have to say, plagiarism–like, say, upper-class kleptomania–is one sin I really have a hard time accepting. It combines sloth, avarice, and pride–three of the Seven Deadly Sins, no less–and is especially incomprehensible for someone who, like Mr. Domenech, does not seem to have been under any kind of extreme deadline pressure. Plagiarism, of course, is a lot easier than it was back in the day. For Old Folks like me who learned the writing craft on a Selectric II typewriter, and had to go to an actual library to do research, plagiarism would have been entirely too much work. Why not just write the thing yourself? (The parallel sin Old Folks tend to commit is self-plagiarism, which is the literary equivalent of telling your friends, family and colleagues the same damn stories over and over again). The ease of cutting-and-pasting, and the vast candy-store of online stuff to steal, has to increase the temptation. But technology giveth, and technology taketh away, and as Ben Domenech has now discovered, it’s real easy to search your online writing, pick out a few passages, google the words, and see if anything identical or very similar pops up. If it does, and it was published earlier–kaboom!Whatever it means for Domenech, for washingtonpost.com, or for a large number of disappointed and embarassed conservatives, this fiasco will probably result in a sharp drop in new incidents of plagiarism, at least among those bloggers and/or journalists who invite scrutiny.
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.