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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the September attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Hillary Clinton's tearful moment on Benghazi: Will it help or hurt?

By Correspondent / 01.23.13

There were a number of tense, even fiery moments in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on what went wrong in Benghazi. But like many, we were struck in particular by a different display of emotion: In her opening remarks, Secretary Clinton notably teared up while discussing the murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

"For me, this is not just a matter of policy," she said. "It’s personal. I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children."

Her voice cracked with emotion. For a brief moment it seemed she might actually break down, though she pulled it together and continued on.

As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California later put it: "You were heartbroken by those losses in Benghazi. We saw it in your face many times – today as well. You were heartbroken, personally and professionally."

We aren't questioning the authenticity of Clinton's display (though we're sure some more cynical observers may do so). But when a public figure is on the hot seat for a massive – and in this case tragic – failure, a brief show of emotion can go a long way toward defusing attacks and generating some sympathy.     

Indeed, while tears were once seen as political suicide – famously dooming Democrat Ed Muskie's presidential campaign back in 1972 – for public figures these days, crying has become the ultimate way to demonstrate genuineness. It's a visible and powerful reminder that they are human beings, too, a way to connect with a public that often tends to see politicians as a lower life form. 

The famously self-contained President Obama cried on the eve of his election in 2008 when talking about his grandmother, who had passed on that day. He also was caught on video tearing up while thanking campaign workers after the 2012 election. 

More recently, Mr. Obama appeared to cry while delivering a statement about the Newtown shootings – pausing for several seconds, as if trying to compose himself, and wiping his eyes. That moment, more than anything else, has given weight to the argument that Obama's push for gun-control legislation is heartfelt, something that he feels personally compelled to do, regardless of the politics. 

On the other side of the aisle, House Speaker John Boehner cries so frequently in public it's become something of a joke. He famously broke down during an interview on "60 Minutes," and during his 2011 swearing-in on the House floor he wound up weeping into a handkerchief.

Ironically, Clinton herself may be partly responsible for the trend. 

During the 2008 Democratic primary, after she lost the Iowa caucuses, Clinton's high-profile moment of tears while answering a question about the personal toll of the campaign drew more commentary and analysis than almost anything else. Despite much hand-wringing about whether it might be seen as a sign of weakness, the general conclusion was that it helped her – since she went on to win the New Hampshire primary.

Clinton may or may not run for president in 2016. And if she does take the plunge, it's pretty clear that Benghazi will continue to be a line of attack for her opponents.

But her teary testimony on the matter certainly won't hurt – and, as with other "human" moments she's shown in recent years, will probably prove helpful.

Beyoncé sings the national anthem at the ceremonial swearing-in at the Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Beyoncé lip-sync: Did she sing national anthem after all? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.23.13

Is it possible that Beyoncé sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" live at President Obama’s inauguration, after all? Or that she sang some of it live and let a prerecorded tape carry the rest?

This comes up because the Marine Band has backed off a statement that the ex-Destiny’s Child singer lip-synced the song all the way through. Right now the situation seems to be this: The sound of the Marine Band under the national anthem was a prerecorded track. Musicians did not have enough time to practice with Beyoncé before the inauguration to do otherwise.

But the Marine Band has no idea what Beyoncé herself did.

“Regarding Ms. Knowles-Carter’s vocal performance, no one in the Marine Band is in a position to assess whether it was live or pre-recorded,” said a statement from Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Gregory Wolf.

Read carefully, this does not say she didn’t lip-sync, of course. So previous reports that she did just that may be right. It simply unconfirms something that the journalists and the Twitterverse at large had been treating as established fact. Beyoncé herself has yet to weigh in on the matter.

Still, the debate rages on whether it matters if she did mouth “O say can you see” instead of sing it. In some ways, it’s a clash of cultures. On one side is a political world in which authenticity is seen as important and the inauguration is a ritual as important as any America has, while on the other is show business, where surface is everything and singers routinely auto-tune and/or lip-sync their performances.

Music legend Aretha Franklin expressed both sides of this equation Wednesday, saying she “laughed” when she heard about the controversy. She sang live at the 2009 Obama inaugural, despite the cold. “I wanted to give people the real thing,” she told ABC News.

Still, as a professional she can understand why Beyoncé lip-synced. If that’s what she did.

“The weather down there was about 46 or 44 degrees, and for most singers that is just not good singing weather,” Ms. Franklin told ABC.

Given the historic nature of inaugurations, many people appeared outraged that Beyoncé had presented something as a live performance that may not have been. The New York Daily News headline may have best expressed this point of view: “Star Spangled Scammer.”

The Daily News story quoted one disappointed fan as saying, “It’s like when I found out that Santa Claus isn’t real.”

Well, we can understand this, up to a certain point. Beyoncé was focusing on making herself look good on a day when she really was performing in a supporting role.

But we’ve got a couple of points here. One: The inauguration itself was kind of lip-synced. Remember, Mr. Obama was sworn in privately on Sunday, since that was the day his second term legally began. Monday’s swearing-in was a reenactment.

Yes, that was announced ahead of time, so in that sense it was different. But how many people watching at home thought the moment of truth was when Obama raised his right hand in Monday’s cold? We’d bet a majority.

Here’s our second point: Congress does it, too. They have a mass swearing-in for new members at the start of each congressional session. Senators are sworn in by fours.

But all those touching pictures in local media that show the local member, surrounded by his family and friends, taking the oath from the speaker? Those are fake. It’s an official reenactment for the cameras that allows the moment to appear more personal.

Oh, and the Bibles that members place their hands upon? Those are props. There is nothing in law that requires them to swear upon anything. They are simply allowed to hold items of personal importance in their left hands while they raise their right.

“Some Senators [and Representatives] have held nothing, and nothing is required,” says a Congressional Research Service guide to the first day of a new Congress.

So before we get all huffy about Beyoncé potentially defiling a sacred ceremony, let’s remember that artifice and politics go together like Simon and Garfunkel, Loggins and Messina, or Peaches and Herb.

Beyonce sings the National Anthem at the ceremonial swearing-in for President Obama during the 57th Presidential Inauguration at the Capitol Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Beyoncé lip sync on national anthem: Does it matter? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.22.13

Lots of people thought Beyoncé did a great job singing the “Star Spangled Banner” to close out President Obama’s second inaugural ceremony. She performed it straight, navigating the song’s famously difficult range of notes with aplomb. There was just the right amount of soul injected into the critical line “proof through the night that our flag was still there," and then her voice went up into the ending, “home of the brave,” and held it for emphasis just long enough, and not a moment longer.

Bette Midler, who should know, said Beyoncé was fantastic.

“The hardest song in any repertoire, the national anthem. She had to remove the in-ear monitor. It’s a bear. She sang beautifully,” Ms. Midler tweeted after the performance.

But it turns out Beyoncé wasn’t singing after all. She was lip-synching. She removed her earpiece because ... well, because it was superfluous to pretend to hear herself when she was moving her lips but nothing was really coming out.

You’re shocked and crushed by this revelation, I know. But it was reported earlier today by the Times of London and confirmed later by CNN. Washingtonian Magazine has a good summary of developments, including the fact that reporters close to the ceremony suspected this to be the case because members of the Marine Band appeared to be mimicking use of their instruments. That’s pretty obvious when your instrument is a tuba.

“It was evident the band wasn’t actually playing during the song,” writes Washingtonian’s Sophie Gilbert.

Does this matter? After all, it’s not unprecedented. It was so cold during Obama’s 2008 inaugural that cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman didn’t risk playing their valuable stringed instruments.

Nor did anyone attempt a coverup, once the question was raised. A Marine Band spokeswoman confirmed to CNN that Beyoncé apparently opted to use a version of the song that the band and she had recorded the day before.

“We don’t know why the decision was made,” said Marine spokeswoman Kristen DuBois, adding that use of pre-recorded stuff “isn’t that unusual” in such circumstances.

Yes, maybe. But by not saying this in advance, Beyoncé has given the voracious 24-minute news cycle of the Internet world an analogy with which to play. Most folks took it light-heartedly – joking that it was OK, she’d privately sung the anthem the day before (that’s a reference to Obama’s Sunday private swearing-in) or that it’s too bad, but federal law now requires her to be punished by rejoining Destiny’s Child.

But a few administration critics took this as an easy way to hit the White House for what they perceive as its overall falsity. And others appeared genuinely unmoored by the revelation.

“The truth is this: It feels like a lie. When luminaries have gathered together in the flesh for an epic, historic event – the inauguration as the first black president serves a second term and swears on a bible – you expect truth,” writes Dodai Stewart on Jezebel.com.

And, if nothing else, this will just solidify the Star-Spangled Banner’s reputation as a jinx of a song. It’s hard to sing. Everybody is standing up and watching. Next thing you know, the words have just gone right out of your head and you’re scatting along with “o’er the hams of the freeze and the loam of the cave” or something like that.

We figure that’s what happened to Christina Aguilera when she flubbed it at the Super Bowl in 2011, right?

The late Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl rendition of the national anthem in 1991 remains perhaps the definitive performance of the song. It was perfect, no funny stuff on the build-up, and then just Houston’s powerful voice carrying the song over the top at the end.

Of course, she was lip-synching, according to the New York Daily News. But lo those many years ago, nobody in the crowd appeared to care.

Abortion rights advocates shout during a rally in Capitol Square in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 22, marking the 40th anniversary Tuesday of the landmark US Supreme Court ruling on abortion known as Roe v. Wade. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

Roe v. Wade at 40: a new surge in support for abortion rights

By Correspondent / 01.22.13

As if to further bolster the argument that liberalism is having a resurgence in the United States, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans – 54 percent – now believe abortion should be legal all or most of the time. Even more broadly, a full 70 percent believe that Roe v. Wade – the controversial decision that, 40 years ago, guaranteed a woman's right to an abortion, at least in the first trimester of pregnancy – should not be overturned.

This is historic: Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey along with Democratic pollster Peter Hart, told NBC's First Read that the results represent "profound changes." He credited, in part, the 2012 presidential campaign, in which women's issues were heavily promoted by the Obama campaign, and a number of Republican Senate candidates unintentionally brought them to the fore with ill-considered comments about abortion and rape.

But ironically, another reason for the overall shift in favor of abortion rights may be the legislative successes of anti-abortion advocates, which have led to a record number of restrictions being placed on abortion at the state level over the past few years.

According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 42 anti-abortion measures were enacted in the states in 2012 – including bans on abortion after 20 weeks, bans on state funding for Planned Parenthood, and ultrasound requirements for those seeking abortions. By contrast, only eight measures supporting abortion rights were enacted.

Some of those anti-abortion measures received a lot of national media attention – you may recall the furious discussions last spring of "transvaginal probes," an ultrasound method originally considered as part of Virginia's new law, though that requirement was ultimately discarded in favor of less-invasive methods.

Less widely discussed, but perhaps even more striking, is the diminishing number of abortion clinics now operating in many states. At least four states are down to just a single clinic, and Mississippi could soon become the first state with no abortion provider at all.

Taken together, these state-level victories for the anti-abortion side, and the heavy publicity they received during the 2012 campaign cycle, may have actually undercut support for overturning Roe v. Wade, by giving those who saw themselves as in the middle on the issue – perhaps wanting some restrictions on abortion, but not an outright ban – a sense that things had gone far enough. And for those already supporting abortion rights, but in a lukewarm kind of way, it may have constituted a wake-up call.  

Last month, when NARAL's president, Nancy Keenan,   announced that she was stepping down, she specifically cited the need to bring more young women into the movement, saying that while the so-called "Millennial generation" tends to be pro-choice, abortion "isn't on the top of their list of issues that they're concerned about." Keenan specifically cited an "intensity gap," with the minority that opposes abortion much more likely to see it as a "very important" issue.

Polling indicates there's been an education gap, as well: According to a recent Pew survey, only 44 percent of those under the age of 30 knew that Roe v. Wade was about abortion. And writing in The Nation, Katha Pollitt notes that while recent polling has shown that more people prefer to call themselves "pro-life" than "pro-choice," research has also found that some 35 percent of those choosing the "pro-life" label say they support Roe v. Wade.

The question is whether the growing restrictions placed on abortion in recent years have had the unintentional effect of pushing voters in the other direction. In the 40 years since Roe v. Wade was decided, the political momentum has often seemed to be on the side of anti-abortion activists, who were able to characterize their efforts as trying to rein in what they saw as the Supreme Court's overreach. But lately, with so many legislative victories on their side, it's the abortion-rights folks who've been able to argue the pendulum needs to swing back toward the middle. And that may be having an impact.

Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio listens as President Obama delivers his inaugural address at the ceremonial swearing-in during the 57th presidential inauguration at the Capitol on Monday. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Republicans call Obama inaugural speech too partisan. Right or wrong? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.22.13

On the first working day of President Obama’s second term, many conservatives are complaining that Mr. Obama’s inaugural address was a paean to liberalism and big government that presages four more years of Washington partisan warfare.

The right charges that Obama’s speech was all about the limits of individual action and the virtue of “collectivism" and that it ignored the biggest problem in US public life: the growing national debt.

“[Obama] hopes to reorient the American mainstream and locate conservatives outside it,” writes Rich Lowry at National Review Online. “He wants to take the Founders from the Right and baptize the unreconstructed entitlement state and the progressive agenda in the American creed.”

Republican lawmakers were generally more circumspect but expressed disappointment that Obama’s speech didn’t contain more talk about reaching out and working with the other side.

“I was more hopeful that you’d hear more bipartisanship,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) of California, House majority whip, in a Tuesday interview on CBS.

What phrases is the right worried about here? Many Democrats were thrilled by Obama’s second inaugural address. They saw it as an unvarnished defense of liberalism and the role of government in American society.

Well, many conservatives did not like Obama’s direct and positive references to gay marriage, equal-pay legislation, and possible amnesty for illegal immigrants. They see these as liberal touchstones and possible wedge issues that might split the Republican Party.

Climate-change legislation is similarly low on the GOP agenda, yet Obama talked at some length about what he sees as the need to take action on this issue.

Obama defended Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as things that strengthen the nation. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great,” the president said.

Yet he said nothing about how he would fund these costly entitlement programs going forward, conservatives said.

“In celebrating the power of the government to lead the nation forward, Obama breezed past the costs of an ever-growing public sector and made only passing mention of the country’s most urgent problem as he took the oath to lead it: debt,” wrote Stephen F. Hayes at the right-leaning Weekly Standard.

In the short run, this may mean that in the coming months it is unlikely fiscal negotiations will produce any sort of grand bargain in which the White House accepts trims in exchange for GOP concessions.

That’s because he offered up few sweeteners to Republicans, writes Fred Barnes in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

“The highly partisan theme was a departure from recent second inaugural addresses,” according to Mr. Barnes.

In the longer run, Obama’s perceived tilt leftward will endanger red-state or swing-state Democrats, other conservative commentators claim.

There are eight such senators up for reelection in 2014: Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Max Baucus of Montana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mark Udall of Colorado.

These incumbents “will have nothing to gain by taking tough votes on Obama’s left-wing ideas,” writes Jennifer Rubin on her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post.

That may be true. But Obama’s pivot to a more partisan stance in his inaugural address is simply recognition of political reality, others say.

Voters like to hear references to the need for Washington to work together, and politicians like to believe they can surmount partisan turmoil to get things done. But voters and the two big US political parties have been gradually becoming more polarized for decades, as former Democrats in the South turn Republican and moderate Republicans disappear or turn to the other side, writes George Washington University associate professor of political science John Sides in The Huffington Post.

“My purpose is not to decide which party deserves more blame. It is to point out that polarization and partisanship have deep roots and cannot easily be changed by a single political leader, even the president. This is why Obama’s promise as a post-partisan would never last long,” writes Mr. Sides.

Austin Ehlinger helps hold a banner during a Guns Across America rally at the state capitol Saturday in Austin, Texas. Gun-rights advocates rallied across the US Saturday in response to the president's push for new gun-control laws. (Eric Gay/AP)

Why Republicans defy public opinion in gun-control fight (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.20.13

To the surprise of precisely no one within the Beltway, the Senate's top Republican on Saturday told people across his home state of Kentucky that – if he has his way – President Obama's gun-control proposals won't go anywhere.   

In a taped phone call sent to Kentucky gun owners, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) said: “Know that I will be doing everything in my power as Senate Republican leader, fighting tooth and nail, to protect your Second Amendment rights, so that law-abiding citizens such as yourself can properly and adequately protect yourself, your family, and your country.” 

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama unveiled three proposals that he urged Congress to pass: mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, a ban on assault weapons, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

National public opinion polls show majority support for all three measures. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 85 percent support for background checks, 55 percent support a ban on assault weapons, and 54 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Perhaps surprisingly, these numbers hold even in red states. A Georgia poll by Atlanta TV station WXIA, for example, mirrored the Pew poll almost exactly.

But don't expect a backlash against Senator McConnell if he blocks Obama's plans. After all, those aren't the numbers that he will be looking at.

He will note that only 44 percent of Republicans back a ban on assault weapons, and Republicans similarly line up against the magazine ban. He will also note that, among those who say protecting gun rights is more important than controlling guns, nearly one-quarter have contributed to a gun-rights group. Among those who think gun control is more important, only 5 percent have contributed to gun-control groups.

In other words, the gun-rights folks are far more engaged. And that will matter tremendously to McConnell, in particular.

He faces reelection in 2014. Turnout is generally low in a midterm cycle, meaning McConnell will want to woo the most engaged voters – and gun-rights supporters fit that bill. Moreover, in red-state Kentucky, McConnell likely has more to fear from a right-wing challenger in the Republican primary than from a Democrat in the general election (even if Ashley Judd does join the race). That's why he'll tack to the right – as moderate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is doing in South Carolina.

Indeed, the savvy senator's robocall flirted with the deep fears that drive gun owners – that Obama's laws are a only a first step toward gutting the Second Amendment and taking away Americans' guns – to stoke their motivation. 

“President Obama and his team are doing everything in their power to restrict your constitutional right to keep and bear arms,” McConnell said in the call. “Their efforts to restrict your rights, invading your personal privacy and overstepping their bounds with executive orders, is just plain wrong.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the call came on the same day as a Guns Across America rally in state capitals – a nationwide backlash by gun owners against the president's proposals.

McConnell's efforts recall those of George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, which used gay marriage as a "wedge issue," as the Monitor's Liz Marlantes noted earlier this week. By compelling states to put gay-marriage initiatives on the ballot, the campaign succeeded in wooing more conservatives to the polls – who, of course, mostly voted for Mr. Bush. Gun control could work the same way in 2014.

But the general statements in McConnell's robocall don't lock him into striking down all gun-control measures. Polls show that even Republicans strongly favor a provision for background checks on all weapons purchases. (Currently, there is no mandate for background checks on private sales.)

That, congressional sources have said, is the most likely point of compromise for gun control on Capitol Hill.  

Inauguration 2013: what to see and when. (Don’t wait ‘til Monday.)

By Monitor Staff / 01.19.13

If you wait until Monday to turn on your TV to watch all the pomp and ceremony of Inauguration Day – and there will be plenty to see – you will have already missed the actual, constitutionally ordained moment that President Obama is sworn in for a second term in office.

But fear not, you can see that too.

Thanks to a quirk of the calendar, the day mandated by the Constitution for one presidential term to expire and another to begin, Jan. 20, falls this year on a Sunday, the one day of the week Washington doesn’t do inaugurals.

So Mr. Obama, as well as Vice President Biden, will take their respective official oaths of office in private swearing-in ceremonies on Sunday, Mr. Biden at 8:55 in the morning at the Naval Observatory and Obama in the White House Blue Room at 11:55. (The last president to have such a private swearing-in was Ronald Reagan in 1985.)

But “private” is a relative term, and mostly means no bands, no singing, no speeches, and no cast-of-thousands hoopla. That’s Monday.

On Sunday, however, TV cameras will also be there, so you can watch live as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath to Obama on all the major broadcast and cable networks. In the earlier ceremony, Biden will be sworn in by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Both justices will be pressed back into duty on Monday for the bigger show, which will feature, as its centerpiece, Obama's Inaugural Address.

As to Monday’s more public festivities, TV coverage begins in the morning, with morning news shows segueing into exclusive inaugural coverage, the precise times varying by network, and ends in mid-afternoon. It’ll be hard to miss.

The main spectacle, of course, is the public swearing-in ceremony that begins on the western steps of the US Capitol at 11:30 a.m. This will be followed at 1 p.m. by an inaugural luncheon hosted by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies and at 2:30 by the Inaugural Parade.

Among the musical highlights of the inaugural ceremonies are performances by the United States Marine Band, PS 22 of Staten Island, N.Y., the Lee University Festival Choir from Cleveland, Tenn., and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.

James Taylor will offer a rendition of “America the Beautiful” after Biden takes the oath of office.

The president then takes the oath of office (Obama’s fourth if you count the famous re-do in 2009) after which he delivers his Inaugural Address, the content of which is still secret.

After Obama concludes, pop rock singer Kelly Clarkson, of “American Idol” fame, will sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

She is followed by Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco, and Rev. Luis Leon of St. John's Church, pastor of the Episcopal church known as “the church of the presidents,” who will offer a benediction.

The ceremony winds up with a performance by the day’s biggest musical name, Beyoncé, a prominent supporter of Obama’s during his reelection campaign, who will sing the national anthem.

If, instead of watching all this from the comfort of your home, you are planning to be among the estimated 800,000 Washington visitors and residents expected to fill the Mall and line the route for the Inaugural Parade, dress warmly.

Early morning temperatures on the mostly cloudy day are expected to be in the 20s, climbing to the mid-30s by noon. A passing flurry is possible in the afternoon.

Lance Armstrong listens as he is interviewed by talk show host Oprah Winfrey during taping for the show 'Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive' in Austin, Texas, Monday. (Courtesy of Harpo Studios, Inc., George Burns/AP)

Lessons from Lance Armstrong: Comebacks are easier for politicians

By Correspondent / 01.18.13

On "The Tonight Show" Thursday night, Jay Leno had this reaction to cyclist Lance Armstrong's much-anticipated confession that he'd used performance-enhancing drugs: "The guy’s a liar, a cheat, a hypocrite, a fraud. Where’s he going to find work? OK, besides Congress. I mean, besides Congress, there are not a lot of options."

It's a funny quip, of course – but it also happens to have more than a grain of truth to it. For public figures who have experienced humiliating falls from grace – often involving confessions of wrongdoing and tearful apologies – there may be no more forgiving profession than politics. 

Just this week, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) – whose infamous 2009 Appalachian Trail trip turned out to be a visit to his Argentine mistress – announced he will attempt to return to Congress, where he served from 1995 to 2001, by seeking the seat vacated by now-Sen. Tim Scott (R). 

“We all hope for redemption, we all hope for second chances,” Mr. Sanford told a local TV station in an interview. “Whether or not I’m granted one, time will tell. But what I would say is, it’s a fresh start in that, you know, after you have failed at something, I think you see life through a different prism. So the prism I have is maybe with a little bit greater humility and a little bit more reserve, but it is to say, ‘Well, can I take what I learned on the way up and on the way down; can I take what I learned in Congress and the governorship and apply it?’ ”

If Sanford succeeds, he'll join a long list of men who've resurrected their political careers after highly publicized (most often extramarital and usually not illegal) missteps. 

To name just a few of the most prominent: There are former President Clinton (survived an affair with an intern and impeachment proceedings; is now about to receive a "father of the year" award, with approval ratings at an all-time high of 69 percent); Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana (won reelection handily after overcoming a prostitution scandal); former Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts (held a long and distinguished career in the House after it was revealed his gay lover was running an escort ring out of his house; is now a leading contender to fill an interim Senate post in Massachusetts); and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (was a presidential hopeful in 2012 – and won the South Carolina primary – after he'd left the House admitting to infidelity and having been formally disciplined on ethics charges).

It was even reported this week that former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York (who resigned after it was revealed he'd been sending risqué pictures of himself via Twitter to women who were not his wife) has reserved the domain name AnthonyWeiner2013.com and continues to maintain office space in New York City for a possible mayoral campaign. So far, however, Mr. Weiner has not indicated any intention to run.

We confess, we're not entirely sure what to make of this phenomenon. Much has been written over the years about how the American people are unusually forgiving and, indeed, often seem to root for "second chances." Others have pointed out that, in this age of 24/7 news, the spotlight's glare can be intense and cruel when a scandal breaks, but it also moves on quickly – and the public can have a relatively short memory. 

Either way, the ease with which many have been able to mount political comebacks after a scandal is pretty striking when you consider that elective office, unlike other careers, requires a literal vote of confidence from vast numbers of constituents. 

There do seem to be some rules, though, for mounting a successful political comeback. As a prerequisite, you must own up to what you did and show genuine remorse. But, paradoxically, you also can't seem too overcome by shame: You need to indicate that you've moved on and that you expect others to, as well. 

The nature of the scandal also clearly makes a difference. Scandals involving homosexual activity have proved far more difficult to overcome, particularly for Republicans (see former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, among others). Former California Rep. Gary Condit (D) was cleared in the death of intern Chandra Levy, for which another man was convicted – but the murder of a young woman, with whom he'd apparently had an inappropriate relationship, still proved impossible for him to get beyond.

And it is certainly harder – though not impossible – for elected officials to get past illegal activity (on the local level, former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry – who went to jail on drug charges, was subsequently reelected as mayor, and now sits on the city council – comes to mind). 

Finally, there do seem to be some "moral decency" limits as to what the public is willing to forgive. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D) may be off the hook, legally, for his affair with a videographer working for his presidential campaign. But the deep public sympathy for his late wife, Elizabeth, who was fighting cancer while the extramarital affair was taking place, seems likely to prohibit any sort of political comeback for him.

You never know, though. 

In this image, first lady Michelle Obama greets David Hall, one of eight citizen co-chairs for the Inauguration, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday. The White House announced that Mrs. Obama had launched a second Twitter account, @FLOTUS, on Thursday. (Lawrence Jackson, The White House/AP)

Why does Michelle Obama need two Twitter accounts? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.18.13

Michelle Obama is on Twitter! That was big news on Thursday, the first lady’s birthday. The White House announced that Mrs. Obama had launched a new Twitter account, @FLOTUS, and lots of folks chimed in with messages welcoming her to the world of micro-blogging social media.

But hold it – wasn’t she already on Twitter? We’ve been following @MichelleObama since the beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign. Is this a reboot, a dual account, or what? Is it the equivalent of the grand opening of a store that’s been in business for months?

Sort of, yes. Except it’s a retail establishment that has two branches kept separate for legal reasons.

The invaluable Mashable has the full story here. The @MichelleObama feed is paid for and run by the Obama/Biden political campaign machinery. That’s why it was so active during the summer and fall, as it exhorted everybody to get out and vote, and in general pushed the fortunes of the incumbent presidential ticket. It’s an overtly political use of social media.

The first lady’s Pinterest site is run the same way. Most of those photos of her and her family, and favorite recipes (grilled peaches with yogurt and pistachios?), and exhortations about “why we vote” were put up by campaign staff.

Mrs. Obama’s new @FLOTUS handle reflects her official White House duties, however. It’s run by people from her office who are executive branch (and hence official US government) employees.

Legally speaking, @FLOTUS tweets will have to be stuff that deals with her official duties and the nation as a whole, as opposed to President Obama’s political fortunes. Thus on Thursday she tweeted “Join me and Barack for #MLK Day of Service” after thanking everyone for sending birthday wishes.

Hmm. @FLOTUS has sent three tweets, and it’s got more than 78,000 followers. That’s a pretty good tweet-to-listener ratio.

Most of this social media stuff is done by staff, of course. The few that she sends herself are supposed to be signed “-mo.”

Is the White House actually good at social media? We think that question can be answered definitively only by someone more versed in the dark electronic arts than we are. But from our point of view, it's a pretty shrewd operator. Take the White House petition site. You can put up a petition on anything, and if it reaches a certain signature level in a certain period of time, the White House will respond with its point of view.

Most of the coverage of this “We the People” effort has focused on the weird stuff: petitions for Texas to secede, to deport CNN's Piers Morgan, and so forth. And responding to them has to be a pain for staff. Mother Jones has a piece on Friday in which anonymous staffers gripe about having to spend time actually writing about why the US won’t build a Death Star, and things like that.

But to us, “We the People” really is a clever technique for harvesting e-mail addresses. When creating an account to sign stuff, you can check whether you want to receive missives from the White House. Most of the petitions are in fact about real policy – the need for more or less gun control, for instance. What the White House may get out of this is a continually growing list of voter contact information segmented by policy interest. To push the president’s new gun policies, for instance, they may send targeted e-mails to pro-control addresses, urging them to contact Congress.

We think this because media organizations do the same thing with interactive questionnaires and quizzes. We figure out who’s interested in what kind of stories and we direct those subjects their way.

Surprised? Don’t be. Building brand loyalty – everybody’s got whole new ways of approaching this old problem in today’s Internet age.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters voices his opinion on President Obama’s gun control plans during a news conference on Wednesday. From Oregon to Mississippi, President Obama's proposed ban on new assault weapons and large-capacity magazines struck a nerve among rural lawmen and lawmakers, many of whom vowed to ignore any restrictions, and even try to stop federal officials from enforcing gun policy in their jurisdictions. (Jamie Lusch/The Medford Mail Tribune/AP)

Could gun control be the new gay marriage?

By Correspondent / 01.17.13

Is gun control the new gay marriage? Or are the issues more like mirror images of one another?

Both could be categorized as hot-button topics that for years generated more political activism on the right than on the left. Both have also seen a recent shift in public opinion that, in the case of gay marriage, is upending the politics surrounding the issue, and in the case of gun control, has the potential to do so.

But there are big differences between the two, as well. Gun control has been around as an issue much longer than gay marriage, and public opinion on it has waxed and waned – with support often spiking after a high-profile shooting, only to fall again. Moreover, the long-term trend on gun control, unlike gay marriage, has been a rise in opposition. As recently as April, the Pew Research Center put out a report noting the divergent trends on the two issues, noting that "on gun control, Americans have become more conservative; on gay marriage, Americans have become more liberal."

Still, gun-control proponents including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been arguing vociferously that the issue is not nearly the political loser that Democrats have for years assumed it to be. And the dramatic change that's been occurring when it comes to public opinion on gay marriage – pulling politicians along with it – offers an intriguing model as to where the politics surrounding the gun issue could potentially be headed. 

Let's look first at gay marriage. As recently as 2004, President George W. Bush's campaign was able to use it as a "wedge issue" to drive up turnout among conservatives, helping him win reelection. That year, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, while just 31 percent favored it. Four years later, in 2008, those numbers had shifted – though the majority was still in opposition, with 51 percent opposing, and 38 percent in favor. 

By 2012, however, it was a completely different story: In July, Pew found just 41 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage, while a plurality of 48 percent favored it. Some of that shift was driven by generational changes, since young people tend to be more broadly in favor of gay marriage (though support has gone up among all age groups). The bigger change, though, was demographic: The electorate has become more Democratic, more urban, more educated, less religious, and less white – and the politics surrounding many cultural issues like gay marriage have shifted accordingly. 

So might those same demographic changes portend a similar shift to the left in public opinion on guns?

Well, in recent years, as previously noted, the trend has been in the opposite direction – with support for gun rights growing. In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, Pew found that 65 percent of Americans said it was more important to control guns, while just 30 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights. By contrast, in the wake of last summer's movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., just 47 percent said controlling guns should be the priority, compared with 46 percent preferring to protect gun rights. 

That shifted somewhat in the wake of Newtown. In a survey released this week, Pew found 51 percent saying it was more important to control gun ownership, while 45 percent were on the side of protecting gun rights. That puts support for gun control at its highest point in President Obama's tenure, yet still well below the levels of support found during the Clinton years.

But it's also worth noting that the rise in opposition to gun control has come about almost entirely because of a shift among Republicans, who have become much more strongly in favor of gun rights in recent years, while views among Democrats have remained relatively stable. 

And in many cases, those who currently say they favor protecting gun rights actually do support certain gun-control measures, such as universal background checks (favored by 85 percent overall) and preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns (80 percent support). Even more notable, 58 percent of Americans say they would favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Bottom line: It's too soon to tell where all this is heading. But while the overall trajectory of public opinion on gun control has not resembled the trajectory on gay marriage in recent years, it's also not crazy to think that it might start to, soon.

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