TPM Cafe: Opinion

Congressional party retreats are designed to pour oil on troubled waters and unite powerful egos and diverse perspectives around a consensus course of action. They generally accomplish that purpose, at least for a while.

So you have to wonder about last week’s House Republican retreat, which produced more confusion and division than was contained in its baggage from Washington to Cambridge, Maryland. Its much-heralded and heavily telegraped “principles on immigration,” written in codes and near-hieroglyphs, has created the largest and loudest row among Republicans on the subject since Marco Rubio helped Democrats build a super-majority for comprehensive reform in the Senate. The steely focus of Republicans on Obamacare is now being blurred by wrangling over alternatives. And the House GOP conference’s strategic decision on how to deal with an imminent debt limit measure has bogged down into arguments over what empty gesture to offer before surrender.

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SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum appeared on Israel’s Channel One this past Friday night to explain why his star, Scarlett Johansson, left Oxfam to keep her job as goodwill ambassador for his brand. (A major SodaStream plant — if you have been vacationing on Mars for the past few days — is located in an industrial park just outside of Maale Adumim, an Israeli settlement — actually a suburb of nearly 40,000 — plunk between Ramallah and Bethlehem; yesterday, Johansson’s pouty, strippy ad for the company woke up some younger Super Bowl fans.)

“She was sick of the bullying,” Birnbaum, affable and decent, told the delighted television panel of pundits. She is for two states and against the settlements, but she sees us creating a business based on “Israeli and Palestinian cooperation.” One pundit reinforced his case with characteristic Israeli pundit righteousness: “The Palestine Authority is not creating jobs this good!”—so what’s the problem?

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Abortion is an incredibly common experience. In the United States, one in three women will have an abortion by the time she turns 45. Despite how common this procedure is and its 41-year history of national legality, abortion remains mired in stigma, a secret often relegated to shameful shadows.

Because there are so few safe public spaces in which one can speak about abortion, the messages we are fed and stories we see in fictional media carry significant weight. That’s what helped drive a new study from the think tank Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH). Researchers Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport conducted an elaborate search to identify abortion-related plots in American film and television since 1916. During that time period, they found 310 plotlines related to abortion, with nearly 56 percent of the plotlines ultimately resulting in abortion. They also found that the number of abortion-related plotlines trended upward over time.

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Over Chinese food at the fabulous Lao Sze Chuan in Milford, Ct. I had the pleasure of reading Chris Christie’s 700-word-long attack on David Wildstein and the New York Times. This came moments after I opened a fortune cookie that advised me to “Enjoy yourself while you can.” (!)

I am trying to summon the requisite mood to seriously ponder the implications of the email that Governor Christie apparently sent to supporters/donors/ Politico/Beltway Republicans (as if there’s any… never mind). But I can’t. I just can’t.

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s finding that there’s plenty to like about being a political talisman. If he so much as eats a slice of pizza, he gets coverage from NPR and the Boston Globe. Media-appointed ideological standard-bearers never lack for attention. How do today’s progressives eat—or approach income inequality? Thanks to de Blasio, now we know.

The downside, of course, is simply the other side of that attention. In exchange, de Blasio can’t speak without inadvertently offering a lens for media analysis of the viability of capital-P Progressivism’s approach to pizza, nutrition, personal hygiene, snow removal, education, taxes and so forth.

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In the mid-1970s, a small number of economists and sociologists started noticing that academic skills were not all important. It sounded obvious, but in the rush to count and compare IQ and reading scores, this simple truth was easily forgotten. Over the next three decades, more and more studies showed that when it came to predicting which kids grew up to be thriving adults—who succeeded in life and in their jobs—cognitive abilities only went so far.

Something else mattered just as much, and sometimes more, to kids’ life chances. This other dark matter had more to do with attitude than the ability to solve a calculus problem. In one study of U.S. eighth graders, for example, the best predictor of academic performance was not the children’s IQ scores—but their self-discipline.

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In 1997, when Mirosław Handke became Poland’s minister of education, he was an outsider. A chemist with a white mustache and dramatic, black-slash eyebrows, he looked like an Eastern Bloc version of Sean Connery. Handke was accomplished in his own world at AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków. He’d published more than eighty papers on the obscure properties of minerals and become the head of the university, one of Poland’s best. However, he knew next to nothing about education policy or politics. His cluelessness would serve him well, at least for a little while.

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Imagine, for a moment, that Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll were to go on ESPN with an unusual announcement about Sunday's Super Bowl. He says his team will refuse to kick off to the Broncos unless the Broncos spot them a field goal in exchange.

"We're not just going to give the other team the ball unless we get something significant in return," imagine Carroll declaring. "It would be irresponsible for us to just give in to their request for the ball without getting at least three points attached to it." Carroll says that unless the condition is met, the Seahawks aren't even going to bother playing the game. They insist that if the Broncos won't sit down and negotiate, it'll be their own fault if the Super Bowl gets canceled.

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In minute three of his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama called up a vintage line about our global competitiveness: “The United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.”

It was the kind of rhetoric you’d hear 20 years ago and not think twice. (In fact, President Bill Clinton used the exact same line in a 1995 speech, right after he praised this wonderful thing call the Internet.) But at this particular moment in time, that bold claim did make me think twice. Is Obama right?

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I met Korea’s education minister, Lee Ju-Ho, at his office in Seoul. He had a boyish cowlick and a default expression of mild amusement, both of which artfully masked the ambition that had powered his career up to this point.

Lee was a product of the Korean pressure cooker. He had attended an elite high school and Seoul National University, one of the country’s top three universities. Then he’d earned his PhD in economics at Cornell. He’d risen swiftly up the Korean hierarchy, becoming a professor, then a politician. But when he became the Minister of Education, he did so with the goal of dismantling the pressure cooker, piece by piece.

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Want to contribute to TPM Cafe? Email ideas for your pieces to us at talk@talkingpointsmemo.com

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