The Presidency and Other Joking Matters

The first Barack Obama joke we ever heard was told to us during the ’08 primaries, and it went: “Why can’t Obama laugh at himself? Because that would be racist.” Since then we’ve heard remarkably few Barack Obama jokes.

So rare and newsworthy are Obama jokes, in fact, that when a handful of mild ones were cracked at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night it proved the biggest story of the weekend.

The paucity of jokes aimed at Obama is remarkable because presidents had previously been a traditional source of material for both amateur and professional comedians. We can recall a time when every lampshade-wearing cocktail party comic had an LBJ impression, which invariably began with “Mah fellow ‘mericans,” or a Richard Nixon impression, which eventually included an obligatory hump-shouldered “I am not a crook.” Jimmy Carter came in for much kidding, quite naturally, while Reagan was the butt of countless jokes, many of them told by himself, and George H.W. Bush single-handedly revived the tradition of the second-rate presidential impersonation. The comics would have preferred to have given Bill Clinton a pass, we suspect, but the Monica Lewinsky affair and assorted other scandals offered too much material that was impossible to resist.

When it comes to political jokes, George W. Bush warrants a paragraph of his own. Easily the most ridiculed president in memory, even without the benefit of Altoids, cigars, and zaftig interns, Bush was incessantly mocked with a sadistic glee in every nightclub, cable channel, and coffeehouse in the country. The gist of the jokes, generally, was that Bush was a Ivy League hayseed and a moronic evil genius, which never made much sense to us but always got a laugh from the more sophisticated audiences.

Since the election of Obama, however, the longstanding tradition of the presidential joke seems to have ended. If you’re on certain right wing e-mailing lists you’ll occasionally receive a joke aimed at Obama, but they’re almost always recycled material dating back several administrations, and they’re nowhere near so plentiful as the daily Bush barbs that were circulated during his administration. The professional comics will venture the infrequent Obama joke, but they’re usually no more than gentle joshing about some inconsequential characteristic, and the president’s critics are a far more common target.

Saturday’s much-ballyhooed performances at the correspondents’ shindig, which always features a comedian lampooning the president and the president lampooning himself, proves the point. The featured speakers were someone named Jimmy Kimmel, who hosts some sort of talk show on one or another of the networks at some well-past-primetime hour, and the President of the United States, a frequent guest on such talk shows. Both men were too in awe of their subject to make a serious joke, and wound up offering more flattery than satire.

Kimmel’s routing began promisingly when he turned to the president and said “Remember when the country rallied around you in hopes of a better tomorrow? That was hilarious.” It went downhill from there, however, and only a couple of his mostly unfunny gags were at all pointed. He made a reference to the Fast and Furious scandal, but it was more of an Eric Holder joke and seemed to go over the heads of an audience full of news people and entertainers, and he couldn’t have avoided a line about the recent Secret Service prostitution scandal, but it in no way implied that Obama bore any responsibility for the actions of his employees while they were on duty. Kimmel also made a joke suggesting that Obama has large ears, but devoted most of his very long time at the dais to attacking Mitt Romney and his failed Republican primary challengers

The president’s more steadfast defenders will insist that such deference is due to the office, and they’ll be right to some extent, but it should be noted that in the recent past the dinner has featured such aggressive fare as Stephen Colbert’s mean-spirited attack on Bush in 2005. The Obama-era speakers have also been unusually fawning, too, with the embittered comic Wanda Sykes using her time at the podium to crack up Obama by wishing that Rush Limbaugh would die of kidney failure.

Obama’s comedy routine opened with an offstage bit that began by poking fun at the “hot mic” incident that allowed the press to overhear him telling the Russian president that he planned to be more “flexible” in dealings during a second term, because there’s nothing funnier than nuclear appeasement, and ended with the surefire laugh-getting sound of a toilet flushing. The word “unpresidential” has been bandied about in the conservative press quite a bit lately, but we think it hardly does justice to the spectacle of Obama resorting to literal toilet humor for a cheap laugh. He also joked about his boyhood habit of eating dogs, the subject of yet another media brouhaha lately, and provided his own obligatory gag about the Secret Service’s penchant for whoring. The only genuinely funny moment in the routine came when he waxed serious about the heroic press, flatting his adoring audience with praise for their willing to “Ask the tough questions.”

This will be described as “self-deprecating” in most news stories, but the overall effect was more self-serving. Delivered with characteristic cockiness, the basic comic premise of the president’s routine was that he’s so darned awesome it’s funny. Such hubris should be the stuff of classic satire, especially when contrasted with such humble results, but apparently that would be racist.

— Bud Norman

Air Guitar Politics

Of all the strange things we kept hearing about Barack Obama back in 2008, by far the most perplexing was the frequent description of him as a “rock star.” The term connotes to us an egomaniacal, sexually perverted, drug-abusing, oddly-dressed flash-in-the-pan, which are hardly the qualities one desires in a president, but the people saying it always seemed to mean it as a compliment.

Presumably they meant Obama had some ineffable appeal to young people that enabled him to fill stadiums with worshipful admirers, which is yet another quality that we don’t necessarily desire in a president, but in any case they always seemed to believe that Obama is possessed of that special something that the kids call “cool.” The kids have been calling it that for at least the past 60 years, so perhaps the quotation marks are no longer necessary, but it should be made clear that they mean “cool” not as a synonym for calm and dispassionate but rather in the beatnik sense of being one hip daddy-o. We always found Obama rather snooty and sanctimonious and boring, but coolness is subjectively measured, and there’s no denying that an overwhelming majority of America’s 18-to-24-year-olds thought that voting for Obama in 2008 was the cool thing to do.

There seems to be some concern on the part of the Obama re-election campaign, however, that the youngsters won’t be voting for him by the same decisive margin this year. For some time now Obama has been giving his speeches almost exclusively at college campuses, and lately he’s even been taking his act to the late night talk shows that cater to the young insomniacs.

The reasons for concern are obvious. The continuing high rate of unemployment has disproportionately affected younger people, and the more attentive youths will find numerous other complaints with the Obama agenda. Surely at least some of Obama’s past voters will realize that the $5 trillion he added to the national debt during his first term will weigh most heavily on the younger generations, for instance, and they might even take a look at how various other Obama policies have disproportionately affected the young.

The effectiveness of Obama’s tactics to revive his past popularity with young America is less obvious. Half of the students at the colleges where Obama is giving speeches to will soon be either unemployed or working in a low-wage job requiring only a high school diploma, which explains why he’s playing smaller halls than he did during the last tour, and doing the rounds on the talk shows is better suited to pitching a new movie than another presidential term.

Most critics of Obama’s late night comedy act have argued that it is unpresidential, which is true, but the more pressing problem for him is that’s so very un-rock star. Back in the rock star heyday of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s no self-respecting would ever deign to sit and schmooze with some suit-and-tie-clad talk show host. In the era of three networks the talk shows were seeking a broader audience and wouldn’t have booked a rock band, anyway, but that was all the more reason for a rock star to avoid such squares. We’re told that the current crop of late night talk shows are hipper fare than what Johnny, Joey, and Dick used to offer, but over-exposure on even the hippest of them is bound to reduce the most celestial rock stars to mere celebrity status.

There are many star-struck young people out there who will be persuaded to vote for Obama because they regard his late night talk show schmoozing as cool, and we’ve endured futile conversations with more than a few, but it’s hard to imagine there will be nearly so many as the last time around. We have to believe, lest we forfeit all hope in the future, that at least some of the young people in America will now realize that there are more important requirements for the job of president than being cool. After being promised more hope and change than the president has been able to deliver, we hope that a crucial segment of the youth vote will recall the lyrics of The Who from back when rock stars were rock stars and vow that “We won’t be fooled again.”

— Bud Norman

Of Immigration, the Law, and Donuts

Wednesday began, as so many days do around here, with a short drive to the local barrio to pick up a couple of donuts at a favorite Mexican bakery. The donuts — or donas, as they prefer to call them — are delicious and reasonably priced, and if they happen to have run out there’s always a wide variety of exotic cookies, cakes, rolls, and other tasty baked goods to choose from. Nice folks there, too, especially the lovely young woman at the counter who always greets us with a mellifluous “Buenos dias, Senor” and then smiles nicely when we respond with “And good morning to you, ma’am.”

As we brewed a couple of cups of coffee to round out breakfast, we turned on the radio and heard that the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments about the Arizona law designed to crack down on illegal immigration from Mexico. By all accounts the federal government’s famously inarticulate Solicitor General, the same Donald Verrilli who got such horrible reviews for his defense of Obamacare, was having another bad day as he tried to explain why Arizona shouldn’t be allowed to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. Even Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an arch-liberal appointed to the Court specifically because she’s Hispanic, was telling Verrilli that “You can see it’s not selling very well.”

In Verrilli’s defense, something he apparently cannot muster for himself, he’s been charged with making some very hard-to-make arguments. There are lots of nice people in Arizona who have grown weary of the serious crimes, high governmental costs, and various other problems associated with mass illegal immigration, so it’s tough enough to explain why the federal government isn’t doing anything about it without having to justify preventing the Arizona state government from responding according to the law and its citizens’ wishes. The only plausible reason is that mass illegal immigration combined with lax enforcement of the voting laws might further the political interests of the Democratic party, and poor Verrilli is obviously handicapped by his inability to come right out and say that.

Even that political rationale might be less compelling now, as the massive decades-long migration of potential Democrats from Mexico has apparently slowed to a virtual halt. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center, at any rate, and it’s corroborated by our own observations of the local Hispanic neighborhoods. The reasons given for the slowdown are a sluggish American economy, which makes sense given that the construction jobs which once attracted so many illegal immigrants have been especially scarce for the past few years, as well as the law enforcement efforts by Arizona and the several states with laws similar to the one being challenged at the Supreme Court. Most Americans will regard a significant decline in illegal immigration as the sort of good news, something that an administration would ordinarily be boasting about, but neither of the reasons for it reflect well on Obama’s policies.

The great migration from Mexico that occurred over the past decades has had mixed results, as most things do. It’s caused the sorts of problems that Arizona was forced to address, but it’s also brought in a lot of hard-working, resourceful people who have made valuable contributions to the communities they’ve joined. Our morning donuts are but one of many diverse examples we can point to in Wichita, and we don’t doubt that the citizens in every American town and city can do the same. This country should be able to craft a sensible immigration policy that allows such people in on a path to citizenship, however, without swinging the doors wide open to the more troublesome immigrants. Why the administration has not sought to do so, rather trying to prevent states from protecting their citizens by enforcing existing laws, is question that should be asked during the upcoming campaign.

Perhaps the administration has concluded that if we did somehow restrict immigration to only the most self-reliant newcomers, it might not benefit the right party.

— Bud Norman

The most underplayed story of the week, at least thus far, is that the war on terror is over.

One might expect the administration to be loudly proclaiming such a major development, but instead the only announcement seems to be buried in a story by Michael Hirsh in the National Journal that asks “Can Obama Safely Embrace Islamists?” Therein an unnamed senior State Department official matter-of-factly declares that “The war on terror is over.”

Apparently it’s not over in the sense that all our troops are safely back from Afghanistan and various other hot spots, living the easy-going life of a peacetime military while their erstwhile enemies beat their suicide belts into plowshares, but the unnamed senior State Department official suggests that it is over in the sense that the terrorists won’t be bothering us anymore. He helpfully explains that “Now that we have killed most of al Qaida, now that people have come to see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into al Qaida see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism.”

Which might explain why the war’s end has been so quietly declared. Although the National Journal’s Hirsh and his unnamed senior State Department official seem unaccountably upbeat about things, they describe what appears to us a rather desultory ending to the war on terror. The part about killing most of al Qaida seems like something to crow about, even if it might strike some in the White House as embarrassingly Bushian to do so, especially after driving around for eight years with “We’re Creating Terrorists Faster Than We Can Kill Them” bumper stickers on their environmentally-friendly cars, but the part about the would-have-been-terrorists finding legitimate means to promote a legitimate Islamism doesn’t sound promising at all.

The National Journal’s answer to its article’s titular question seems to be that Obama can indeed safely embrace Islamism, and that he really doesn’t have much choice in the matter in any case. Hirsh believes that there will be a period of chaos in the Middle East, and seems to lament that “it won’t play well in the seven months between now and election day,” but he also apparently shares the unnamed senior State Department official’s view that the Islamists will eventually be so busy running the many countries they’re rapidly going power over that they won’t have time for terrorism.

We certainly hope this proves correct, but we wouldn’t wager on it. It’s been 33 years since the Islamists in Iran gained power and began to promote what they considered a legitimate Islamism, and yet they still find time to sponsor terrorism and pursue weapons for their genocidal ambitions. If there’s any reason to believe that the like-minded Islamists currently taking control of Egypt will be any more content to restrict themselves to destroying life in their own country, neither Hirsh nor his sources can convincingly argue what it is. As the Islamists themselves are constantly trying to explain to their Western enablers, any Islamism that isn’t at war with the infidels isn’t a legitimate Islamism.

The war on terror might be over, at least as far as some of the people on our side are concerned, but we’re not looking forward to might come next.

— Bud Norman

A Trial and a Mystery

There’s no accounting for the apparent lack of interest in the trial of John Edwards.

Monday’s opening arguments received some attention, with the major networks and the last of the big time newspapers duly in attendance, but no broadcast led with the trial and it didn’t dominate the front pages. The coverage was conspicuously low-key, with no mention of it made during the hourly radio news updates, even though the story has all of the necessary elements for a full-blown media frenzy.

It’s a trial, for one thing, and reporters love nothing better than a trial. Trials have an inherently dramatic quality, which is why so many dramatists also love them, and even the dullest reporters can usually wring a fairly riveting lead paragraph out of a day’s testimony. Trials are easy journalistic duty, too, as reporters get to sit in air-conditioned comfort on a special front row seat with everything laid out for them in the simplest language that lawyers can manage. That’s why there have been so many Trials of the Century over the past 100 years or so.

This particular trial also features illicit sex, heart-breaking betrayals, media cover-ups, a prominent public figure exposed as a craven hypocrite, and all the other spicy ingredients found in a typical soap opera. The charges of one count of conspiracy, four counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions and one count of making false statements sound rather dull, but the underlying allegation is that he conspired to accept the contributions in order to keep secret the fact that he had impregnated his mistress while campaigning with a tear-jerking stump speech about how he had stood by his cancer-stricken wife. Far less lurid tales involving zaftig ex-Playboy models, rowdy ice skating queens, and low-level White House staffers who didn’t expose Valerie Plame as a CIA agent have been hyped to a far greater extent by the now quiet news media.

Some will argue that Edwards is just a failed vice-presidential candidate, after all, but we can think of another recent failed vice-presidential candidate who had reporters searching through the garbage cans of Wasilla, Alaska, in search of anything slightly embarrassing, much less something so astoundingly sordid as what Edwards already admits to having done. Besides, had it not been for a couple of hundred voters baffled by the butterfly ballot used in one Florida county back in 2000, America would have been treated to the sorry spectacle of a sitting vice-president forced to admit that he fathered a child out of wedlock while his wife was dying of cancer, something the press would have been hard-pressed to ignore no matter how ardently they might have wished to do so.

Instead of the usual gleeful kicking at the corpse of Edwards’ reputation, though, we get more-in-pity-than-scorn pieces from the likes of The Washington Post, where the reporters lament that the trial is nothing more than “A Final Public Flogging,” and note with sad certainty that Edwards “is now left searching for some strands of redemption, or, at least, forgiveness.” Even the Post isn’t empowered to confer redemption, but they seem quite willing to dole out the forgiveness.

Certain sorts of cynics will suggest that Edwards’ party affiliation has something to do with the strange restraint of the major media, but we can’t be sure. Neither the Washington Post piece nor ABC’s report made any mention of which party Edwards has represented.

— Bud Norman

Doing Injury to Insult

Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, recently used an internet account to feature one of his supporters calling Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney a very vulgar name.

The epithet doesn’t bear repeating here, so the curious will have to follow the link, but suffice to say that we found the incident troubling. It’s not that the offending word is especially obscene by today’s lowered standards, although it’s bad enough that it doesn’t bear repeating here. Nor is it the blatant hypocrisy of the word be bandied about by a man who recently was demanding civility of his political opponents, although that also rankles. What’s most worrisome, rather, is that the insult is so lame. It’s the sort of thing that the more inarticulate sixth-graders say to one another on a playground, or that you might hear a drunken redneck shouting at passersby in a Denny’s parking lot after the bars have closed.

Politics ain’t bean bag, as the old saying puts it, and the vituperative political insult is by no means a recent phenomenon, but it used to be that politicians would at least put some effort into casting aspersions. Indeed, there was a time not so long ago when citizens of the democratic countries could expect that their tax dollars were funding only the most carefully-phrased, lovingly rendered put-downs.

When Henry Clay famously remarked that “I’d rather be right than president,” his nemesis Thomas Reed famously replied that “The gentleman need not trouble himself. He’ll never be either.” We doubt that Reed would have earned himself such an honorable footnote in history if he’d replied, ala Ellison, “Yeah? Well, so’s your momma.” Better that Ellison should emulate such eloquent insulters as James G. Blaine, who described Benjamin Franklin Butler as “A lamentably successful cross between a fox and a hog,” or Ulysses S. Grant, who took care to be taxonomically specific when he said that successor James Garfield “has shown that he is not possessed of the backbone of angleworm.” The well-crafted insult can nick even the most admirable targets, such as Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s observation that Thomas Dewey “looked like the little man on the wedding cake,” or William Cobbett’s description of Benjamin Franklin as “A crafty and lecherous old hypocrite whose very statue seems to gloat on the wenches as they walk the States House yard.”

Our English cousins have long been masters of the political insult, honing their barbs to a politely elegant edge rarely achieved on this side of the pond. Lord Eversley was a mere child when he pointed to Charles James Fox orating on the floor of the House of Commons and asked “What is that fat man in such a passion about?” The epic political battles between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli were peppered with an anthology’s worth of memorable insults, such as the latter’s remark that the former “was essentially a prig, and among prigs there is a freemasonry which never fails. All the prigs spoke of him as the coming man.” Winston Churchill could have supplied several more anthologies with his quotable insults, and was so prolifically insulting that F.E. Smith was reported to say “Winston has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches.” John Montagu tried to insult John Wilkes by alleging that “I do not know whether your will die on the gallows or of the pox,” and found himself hit back by Wilkes’ “That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your wife.”

Ah, but those were the good old days. Today’s political culture has become so thoroughly degraded that sitting congressmen are reduced to schoolyard taunts when attacking an opponent. That’s bad enough by itself, but it also explains a great deal about the bad policies that Washington is making when our leaders can’t even come up with better put-downs than Ellison employs.

Then again, Ellison is an ass.

— Bud Norman

Free Speech Blues

Being ever vigilant about the right to free speech, our eyes were drawn to two particular stories in the news this week.

One involves the veteran rock ‘n’ roll guitarist Ted Nugent, whose name ordinarily would not appear in this space. Although we still enjoy a recording of “Baby, Please Don’t Go” that he made way back in his days with the Amboy Dukes, a band whose performances at the Orpheum Theater in the early ‘70s left many of our classmates prematurely deaf, we’re not huge fans.

An avid outdoorsman and one of the few outspokenly conservative performers in the rock ‘n’ roll field, Nugent gave a rather fiery speech last weekend at a meeting of the National Rifle Association. In a long rant about the Obama administration, Nugent went so far as to say “We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off,” and he predicted that he would soon be “dead or in jail” if Obama were re-elected.

There’s no denying that the language about chopping heads off was overwrought, as one might expect from the self-proclaimed “Motor City Wild Man,” but the prediction he offered seems a little less paranoid after Nugent received a visit from the Secret Service. No arrest was made nor any charges filed, and Nugent later described the interrogation as a “good, solid, professional meeting concluding that I have never made any threats of violence toward anyone,” but there’s still something unsettling about the news that an American citizen is forced to explain his public remarks to law enforcement officials. Perhaps it was just a hyper-sensitivity to threats on the part of the Secret Service, which is no doubt eager to demonstrate that it’s doing something other than consorting with prostitutes, but we suspect that if it had happened to one of the countless entertainers that made similarly outrageous statements during the Bush administration it would be considered a deliberate attempt to deter criticism.

Far more frightening was the speech given Thursday by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, wherein she endorsed amending the First Amendment to allow for regulation of political speech. Still fuming about the Citizens United decision that upheld the free speech rights of people who have joined together as corporations, Pelosi said her party has “a clear agenda in this regard: Disclose, reform the system reducing the role of money in campaigns, and amend the Constitution to rid it of this ability for special interests to use secret, unlimited, huge amounts of money flowing to campaigns.”

It might be assumed that Pelosi’s amendment to the First Amendment would not affect the free speech rights of such corporations as Hollywood movie studios, newspaper chains and broadcast networks, or any industry that can plausibly claim to be “green,” but that could change if they stop behaving properly according to the notions of the Democrats. We gladly support the right of corporations to state their case to the public as well as the public’s right to hear them, and are suspicious of any party that claims it can revive the economy while flouting its contempt for such businesses, but we also worry who might be next on the censors’ list. Every time some strip club, pornographer, or “performance artist” is in any way restrained, even if only by the public’s opprobrium, the left assures us that such a restraint will inevitably lead to the regulation of political speech, but when the left’s own leaders openly call for the regulation of political speech they never seem worried that it might lead to constraints on any other kind of free expression.

— Bud Norman

Dog Days of the Campaign

The latest flap in the presidential campaign is a dog meat story. Not in the sense that it’s a stupid and pointless story, although it is, but in the sense that it’s about dog meat.

It all started with the confirmation of an old rumor that on a 1983 Romney family vacation the Romney family dog rode along in a kennel cage strapped atop the Romney family car. Many commentators quickly offered the incident as proof that Romney is a dog-torturing cad who can’t wait to lock the entire middle class into a similar cage and strap them atop his gas-guzzling limousine as he speeds down the highway toward the car elevator in his palatial home, cackling with a villainous glee along the way. David Axelrod, Obama’s senior campaign strategist, piled on with a “tweet” that contrasted Romney’s raw cruelty with a photo of Obama traveling in his own gas-guzzling limousine with the First Dog comfortably seated inside, adding the tweet-sized caption of “How loving owners transport their dogs.”

The Romney campaign fired back just as quickly. After one of the wags over at the Daily Caller pointed out that in Obama’s own memoir he fondly recalled eating dogs and other strange delicacies during his childhood days in Indonesia, the man-bites-dog story fanned out through the internet and conservative talk radio. Romney strategist Eric Fehrstrom then went tweet-for-tweet his counterpoint, writing “In hindsight, a chilling photo.”

More charges and counter-charges followed, but it was all a meaningless distraction. We’ve seen enough dogs being happily transported in pick-up truck beds, motorcycle sidecars, bicycle baskets, and other conveyances to have noted that the species travels well, so the Romney method seems no more inhumane than the very routine matter of packing a similar kennel cage into the luggage compartment of a jetliner. Neither does the old revelation about Obama’s past dietary habit seem troubling, as we believe in the old adage that when in Indonesia do as the Indonesians do. In any case, none of it is as important as the stagnant economy, a national debt heading to catastrophic territory, a deteriorating international situation, or several other real issues that the news people aren’t talking about while they mull over the dog meat story.

Although the incident is likely to be soon forgotten, it does point to a few oproblems that will likely dog the Obama campaign between now and Election Day. One is the tendency for the Obama campaign’s manufactured media brouhahas to backfire on them, and another is the way Romney’s steadily efficient campaign is reacting fast and effectively to everything that comes up.

More importantly, it points out the difficulty that Obama will have in portraying Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy who can’t possibly understand the concerns of the average American. While Romney is certainly rich and arguably out of touch, the dog-on-the-roof scandal has the effect of reminding Americans that he’s at least a regular enough guy to have been packing the wife and kids into a station wagon for a family vacation at some point in his life. Obama, on the other hand, wrote two memoirs stressing his original campaign theme of how very exotic and international he is, his own lavish and publicly-funded vacations are now widely known and much resented, and even the pictures that his campaign strategist is tweeting show him treating a dog to a luxurious limo ride.

Given a choice between two out-of-touch rich guys, voters might just decide they prefer the one who got rich in a free market economy and has some idea about how it works.

— Bud Norman,/p>

A Taxing Time of Year

The only things certain in life are death and taxes, according to a well-worn adage, and only one of the two came due for us on Tuesday. All in all, then, yesterday can be considered a pretty good Tuesday.

Tax Day always brings a spate of annoying tax-related news stories, of course, and this election year was certainly no exception. One matter that kept popping up through the past week was the so-called Buffett Rule bill, named for the famously wealthy investor Warren Buffett and his now equally famous if far less wealthy secretary, which failed to get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate on Monday. So named as a reference to the widely reported fact that Buffett pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary, the Buffett Rule would have imposed a minimum tax of 30 percent on anyone making more than $1 million a year regardless of how the money was acquired.

President Obama and other advocates of the bill argued that it was necessary to reduce the budget deficits they’re planning to keep at sky-high levels, but they must have had a difficult time keep a straight face as they did so. There aren’t many people making more than $1 million a year, as the advocates have surely learned on the fund-raising trail, so the Buffett Rule would have raised only $46.7 billion over 10 years. That’s assuming that the rule wouldn’t push the tax rates pass the point of diminishing returns on the ol’ Laffer Curve, and the likelihood is that it would have, meaning the rule would actually wind up costing the government money.

The Buffett Rule advocates also argued for the bill on the grounds of fairness, and they might have believed it. Obama memorably said in one of his primary debates back in ’08 that he’d like to raise the capital gains tax rate even though doing so would reduce revenues, in the name of fairness, and there’s no reason to believe he’d flinch at giving up the estimated $800 billion in revenues that the Buffett Rule would cost just to make life a little bit fairer for Warren Buffett’s beleaguered secretary. Why it is fair to deprive one person of the money he has earned without any benefit to anyone else remains unexplained by the Buffett Rule advocates, but a naked appeal to envy doesn’t require a rationale.

Exploiting the natural human suspicion that someone out there is doing a little well is a popular tactic this season, judging by the numerous stories popping up in the press about Mitt Romney’s taxes. The Obama campaign is calling for more than the usual amount of tax disclosure by the Romney campaign, and its surrogates in the news media are noting the lower rates he’s paid on money mostly derived from capital gains than less wealthy people often pay on their wages. They’re forced to admit that Romney has paid every cent that’s been legally required, and are happy to avoid a discussion about the sensible reasons that capital gains tax are where they are, but they’re confident that at the very least they can whip up a bit of resentment because Romney didn’t pay more than was legally required.

Alas, each Tax Day also brings news of the sitting President’s tax returns, and this year an embarrassed media was forced to report that it turns out that Obama didn’t pay any more than he had to, either. More embarrassingly, it was revealed that after taking advantage of everything that top tax lawyers and accountants can find, he wound up paying a lower rate than his secretary. The demands for Romney’s entire tax history might also backfire if the Romney campaign counter-demands the same standard be applied to Obama, and ask that he throw in his academic records in the process.

— Bud Norman

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Those who labor in the private sector tend to regard their public sector counterparts with a mix of envy and contempt. “Good enough for government work” is a popular cliché, and jokes about the lax standards, leisurely pace, and generous pensions of government workers abound.

Two recent stories in the news suggest that all the old stereotypes might have been understated.

One of the stories is the General Services Administration’s lavish party in Las Vegas back in 2010, which cost the taxpayers more than $822,571. The agency’s inspector general has found that the tab included $146,527.05 on catered food and beverages, including $44 breakfasts and a $95 per person dinner for all attendees, as well as $6,325 commemorative coins given to all conference participants as a reward for their swell work on Recovery Act projects. The latest chapter in this saga of Sybaritic excess has the regional executive who hosted the bash invoking his Fifth Amendment rights rather than answer any of a congressional investigating committee’s questions about possible kickbacks in the affair.

The hard partying workers at the General Services Administration seem a rather restrained bunch, though, when compared to the Secret Service. A dozen Secret Service agents have now been relieved of duty for various derelictions of duty during a presidential visit to Colombia, including the hiring of prostitutes. At least they seem not to be quite so profligate as their colleagues over at the GSA, as police were reportedly called to one hotel to settle a dispute with a woman who was complaining loudly to the hotel management that she hadn’t been paid.

These sordid but somehow unsurprising stories should have some small effect on the broader political debate.

The Obama administration has blamed the GSA fiasco on the Bush administration, naturally, even though the incident occurred two years after Bush left office and was funded by the infamously profligate Obama era budgets, and congressional Democrats have been just as loud as their Republican counterparts in expressing their indignation. There doesn’t seem to be a party line yet on the Secret Service’s revelry in Colombia, where even the Secretary of State was boogieing down with gusto, but of course it goes without saying in the press that it wasn’t at all the president’s fault. The president might very well avoid being blamed by the public, but it doesn’t seem a very inspiring campaign theme that the country’s chief executive can’t be held responsible for the actions of executive branch employees.

The incidents also provide two more juicy anecdotes for the traditional conservative arguments about the inherently unaccountable and uncontrollable nature of bureaucracies. Modern liberalism is mostly a program of ever more powerful and better-funded government, and one can hope that the public might be just a bit more skeptical about the kinds of people they’re handing all that power and money.

— Bud Norman