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lunatic fringe

The “lunatic fringe” is the wing of a political or social group that holds more extreme views than the rest of that group.  The lunatic fringe tends to hold stronger opinions, as well as more fanatical views.

Merriam Webster notes that the phrase was first used in 1913 and is generally used as a pejorative term. Politicians from both parties like to warn the public that their opponent is being controlled by the “lunatic fringe.”

In 2020, President Donald Trump told audiences that his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, was a puppet of the radical left and that he was being controlled by extremists. “He’s a candidate that will destroy this country, Trump said. “And he may not do it himself. He will be run by a radical fringe group of lunatics that will destroy our country.”

A few years earlier, when Barack Obama was president, some analysts on the right called the president’s nuclear policy “lunatic fringe” stuff. Speaking to the right wing publication Newsmax, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy slammed Obama’s plan to drastically cut America’s nuclear arsenal. He said,

“The American people, I trust, believe, pray, have enough common sense to realize this is nuts. This is lunatic, fringe, leftist stuff and it’s likely to make the world a much more dangerous place, rather than less … Exercising his responsibilities as commander in chief, taken to its logical, or illogical, extreme, he could disarm the United States entirely.”

On the left, meanwhile, pundits claimed that a “lunatic fringe” in the Republican party hated President Obama with so much fervor that they had managed to infect the rest of their party. Progressives warned that the lunatic fringe must be reined in – or else the country would suffer:

In a country with our history of assassinations, this mostly subterranean sense of rage in a nation awash with guns and with more than its share of deranged souls is scary, dangerous stuff. Worse still, few of the “mainstream” conservatives have raised their voices against the lunatic fringe while some have even abetted it….the climate that has been created by those who compare Obama with Hitler, wave provocative signs, or show up at presidential events brandishing weapons is more than worrisome. This nation has been traumatized by too many tragedies to sit back and allow such sentiments to be whipped up by fanatics and lunatics. It’s time to demand that responsible Republicans denounce such tactics.

“Lunatic fringe” is one of the rare political words which is used just as often by ordinary people as it is by professional commentators. Letters to the editor often mention the “lunatic fringe.” This one, for example, denounces the entire Democratic Party as one big lunatic fringe:

The lunatic fringe, also known as Democrats, has been asleep at the wheel since Donald Trump’s election. Instead of planning for a pandemic, they were out of sight and out of their minds. Their two biggest fantasies, Russian collusion and the impeachment fiasco, were an effort in futility.

loneliest job in the world

The “loneliest job in the world” is a reference to the presidency of the United States, supposedly a supremely lonely and isolating job because of the enormous responsibility that it entails.

William Howard Taft, upon handing over power to Woodrow Wilson, warned the newly-elected president that the job would leave him feeling isolated. “This is the loneliest place in the world,” Taft said, referring to the White House. The warning, apparently, didn’t quite hit home; Wilson said later that he had been taken by surprise by the feeling of aloneness. “I never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible,” Wilson went on to write. 

A few decades later, then-president Harry Truman was asked whether he agreed with Taft’s assessment of the White House. Truman said that he did, and went on to describe all the work involved in the presidency. His day, he said, began at dawn and went on until midnight:

“I get up at 5:30 in the morning and get to that desk at 6 o’clock, and I stay there until eight. Then I come over here and sit at this desk until one o’clock or so, go over there and have lunch with the family – if they are at home – and go bcack up there and transact some business, and try my best to take a thirty minute nap if I can. I get back over here at 3 o’clock and stay here until the business is wound up…” 

The phrase is also closely associated with a 1961 photo of John F. Kennedy by the New York Times photographer George Tames. The photo shows JFK, just months after coming into office, standing at his desk in the Oval Office with his head bowed. The photo’s caption originally read, “Awaiting the arrival of French Ambassador Herve Alphand, the President ‘as is his habit’ snatches a moment to read an official document, leaning over the table.”

Writing in LawFare, Quinta Jurecic argued that the view of the presidency as lonely grew naturally out of the “Hamiltonian” view of the office, which stressed the importance of an energetic, determined president in order to keep the country running on track. Hamilton wrote, “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks. . . . A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”

Jurecic noted that then-president Barack Obama was almost over-playing his experience of loneliness and responsibility, something which she contrasted with then-candidate Donald Trump — but added that this may have been inevitable:

This Hamiltonian vision of the presidency lends itself well to Obama’s public expressions of anguish and moral seriousness. After all, if Hamilton is right about the presidency, Obama should feel that he, and he alone, is responsible. He should feel deeply the weight of his terrible burden. Perhaps the nature of the office as “the loneliest job” is intrinsic to the singular structure of the presidency itself.

little tin box

“Little Tin Box” is the title of a song in the 1959 musical, “Fiorello,” which told the story of one of New York City’s most famous mayors. Fiorello LaGuardia, a progressive politician who was a strong supporter of the New Deal, was mayor of New York for three terms, serving from 1933 to 1945.

LaGuardia was known for his pro-labor, anti-monopoly stance and for his reformist agenda. During his tenure as New York’s mayor, he created a new city charter, overhauled the city’s police and fire departments, expanded welfare services, and carried out programs aimed at revitalizing the slums. He was also known for public works, notably LaGuardia Airport.

LaGuardia was loved for his quirks, too. During a city-wide strike in which newspapers were not being delivered, the mayor complained that the city’s children were being deprived of their usual comic strips. So, he took to the radio and read each day’s “funnies” out loud.

The musical “Fiorello” won a Pulitzer prize for drama in 1960; it won a number of Tony awards in the same year, including Best Musical and Best Director of a Musical. The musical’s writers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, are probably better known today for writing Fiddler on the Roof. Like “Fiddler,” “Fiorello” is concerned with the lives of ordinary people. The musical depicts LaGuardia as a tireless friend of the underdog, who rises from obscurity to become a Congressman, and then mayor of New York.

The Guide to Musical Theater sums it up this way:

Fiorello joins the workers of Nifty Shirtwaists, who are on strike, and convinces them to desert their picket lines and join him at his headquarters to discuss election tactics. There he gives a rousing lecture on the deplorable social conditions of the city among the working classes – sweat shop labour, tyrannical bosses, long hours, low wages, etc. He promises them legal backing should their protests result in arrest.

Running for office, LaGuardia pursues a vigorous campaign by going to all the different ethnic groups that make up the city. He speaks to them in their own language so they are left in no doubt of his resolve to better their conditions. He succeeds in creating an electoral upset when he becomes the first Republican the district has ever sent to Washington.

The best-known song in the musical is “Little Tin Box,” which skewers the corrupt politicians who dominated New York politics when LaGuardia was running for office. The setting is a trial, in which the politicians are depicted as corrupt, dishonest, and endlessly greedy, as the lyrics reveal.

The “little tin box” — like the deduct box — is the piggy bank where the corrupt politicians claim they have been saving their pennies so that they can buy luxuries:

Mr. X, may we ask you a question?
It’s amazing, is it not,
That the city pays you slightly less than fifty bucks a week,
Yet you’ve purchased a private yacht?”
“I am positive your Honor must be joking!
Any working man can do what I have done.
For a month or two I simply gave up smoking,
And I put my extra pennies one by one
“Into a little tin box,
A little tin box
That a little tin key unlocks.
There is nothing unorthodox
About a little tin box.

little old ladies in tennis shoes

little old ladies in tennis shoes

“Little old ladies in tennis shoes” is a derisive reference to members of the John Birch society.

In 1961, the California Attorney General’s offices investigated the ultra-conservative John Birch society and determined that the group was paranoid and authoritarian but, ultimately, not dangerous to American society. The report called the Birch society “pathetic” and described its members as being chiefly governed by fear:

The cadre of the John Birch society seems to be formed primarily of wealthy businessmen, retired military officers and little old ladies in tennis shoes. They are bound together by an obsessive fear of ‘communism,’ a word which they define to include any ideal differing from their own, even though these ideas may differ even more markedly with the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Khrushchev. In response to this fear they are willing to give up a large measure of the freedoms guaranteed them by the United States constitution in favor of accepting the dictates of their “Founder.” They seek, by fair means or foul, to force the rest of us to follow their example. They are pathetic.

In fact, by the early 1960s the Birch Society had a membership of at least 100,000 Americans with an annual budget of several millions of dollars. The group was well-known enough that Bob Dylan wrote a song about it, “John Birch Paranoid Blues.” The organization was founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, a retired candy maker from Boston. Welch wanted the group to fight back against what he saw as the Communist threat to infiltrate American society. He named the group after John Birch, a missionary who was killed while living in China; Welch saw Birch as the first American casualty of global communism. 

The Birch Society says that its mission is to “bring about less government, more responsibility, and – with God’s help – a better world by providing leadership, education, and organized volunteer action in accordance with moral and Constitutional principles.” The group opposes US membership in the United Nations and is strongly opposed to the Federal Reserve; the Birch Society also opposes illegal immigration and amnesty programs. 

Membership in the Birch Society declined after its heyday in the 1960s; however, some reports say that the group has been on the rise in recent years. In 2017, a Birch Society spokesperson also told Politico that the organization was seeing its membership rise, although he declined to give specific figures. “There definitely is an increase in [our] activity, particularly in Texas, because Americans are seeking answers, but they can’t quite put their finger on what some of the real problems are,” the spokesperson said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which described the organization’s members as “conspiracy theory-loving, U.N.-hating, federal government-despising, Ron Paul-supporting, environmentalist-bashing, Glenn Beck-watching true believers,” also said that some “Bircher” ideas had made it into mainstream Republican thought. The SPLC, citing a long-time researcher named Chip Barlet, argued that those ideas include

the belief that big government leads to collectivism which leads to tyranny; that liberal elites are treacherous; that the U.S. has become a nation of producers versus parasites; that the U.S. is losing its sovereignty to global treaties; that the “New World Order” is an actual plan by secret elites promoting globalization; and that multiculturalism is a conspiracy of “cultural Marxism.”

little group of willful men

“Little group of willful men” is a reference to President Woodrow Wilson’s dispute with a group of anti-war congressmen in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War Two.

The dispute led to the introduction of a cloture rule in the US Senate.

In early 1917, American sentiment was increasingly in favor of entering the war in Europe. A bill which would arm American merchant ships was making its way through Congress; the law would give the ships the power to defend themselves against German submarine attacks. The bill easily passed the House, but when it reached the Senate it was blocked by a small group opposed to the war.

The group was led by Senator Robert La Follette, of Wisconsin, and by Senator George Norris, of Nebraska. On March 4, 1917, those senators organized a filibuster so that the bill could not come up for a vote. That’s when President Wilson spoke up. Angered, the president said that the “Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”

Wilson closed his statement by urging the Senate to adopt a cloture rule, which would set a limit on the length of debate so that bills could not be blocked indefinitely by filibuster. Wilson said, “the only remedy is that the rules of the Senate shall be so altered that it can act. The country can be relied upon to draw the moral. I believe that the Senate can be relied on to supply the means of action and save the country from disaster.”

Days later, on March 8, 1917, Congress met in a special session and agreed to a compromise — a rule that would preserve debate but would allow for cloture in the case of a super majority. The rule allowed the Senate to end debate only when a two thirds majority agreed to do so. It continues to be rare for the Senate to invoke cloture, although it has become far more common in the 21st century. The rules on cloture have also changed so that only 60 Senators are required in order to end debate.

The practice of filibustering dates back at least as far as ancient Rome. The Roman senator Cato the Younger famously spoke until the sun went down in order to stall votes on issues he opposed – notably, Cato filibustered a vote that would have allowed Julius Caesar to return to Rome in 60 BC.

Writing in the Atlantic, Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni argued that the Founding Fathers were aware of the Roman filibuster and that they saw it as a threat; for them, the filibuster was yet another way for a minority to dominate a majority. Goodman and Soni wrote,

“when the filibuster starts to become the rule, rather than the exception, the minority may find itself with more and more power in a Congress that matters less and less. Minority rule will ultimately mean more power for the presidency, the lawyers who draft executive orders, unelected judges, and the federal bureaucracy. Placing limits on the filibuster is the wisest course for any senator who cares about the institution’s future.” 

limousine liberal

A pejorative for wealthy liberals who do not want to bear the cost of the liberal policies they support. It is typically used by populists to criticize the rich members of the Democratic Party.

Examples of a limousine liberal include Democrats who champion distribution of wealth but pay their workers minimum wage, or those who claim to support environmental regulation but have a large carbon footprint.

According to Time, the term comes from the 1969 NYC Mayoral race, where it was first used by candidate Mario Procaccino to attack his wealthy opponent:

[Limousine liberals] were, according to Procaccino, who was then the city’s comptroller, insulated from any real contact with poverty, crime, and the everyday struggle to get by, living in their exclusive neighborhoods, sending their children to private prep schools, sheltering their capital gains and dividends from the tax man, and getting around town in limousines, not subway cars. Not about to change the way they lived, they wanted everybody else to change, to have their kids bused to school far from home, to shoulder the tax burden of an expanding welfare system, to watch the racial and social makeup of their neighborhoods turned upside down.

lid

A “lid” is what White House press secretaries use to indicate that there will be no news coming out of the White House that day. It can also be called a “Full Lid.”

A lid is typically called when the White House does not want to release any information about a key topic. They call a lid to give notice to journalists that no questions will be answered.

Although the term has been around for decades, it was popularized by fictional Press Secretary C.J. Cregg on TV show The West Wing.

Kelly O’Donnell: “The White House has again called a ‘lid’ meaning no other news is expected tonight.”

leak

A leak in politics is the spread of secret, often unfavorable, news about a politician to the media by someone in his or her inner circle.

Some leaks by politicians are intentional, also called a trial balloon, so that they can judge the reaction to a proposed policy change before publicly committing to the new position.

lettermarking

Lettermarking is when lawmakers send letters to government agencies in an attempt to direct money to projects in their home districts.

Jacob Sullum: “While none of these requests is legally binding, agencies are loath to antagonize the legislators who approve their budgets, especially when they have added extra money with a specific project in mind. And unlike official earmarks, these indirect allocations are not explicitly tied to particular lawmakers in the text of legislation.”

The New York Times notes that lettermarking, “which takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process, is one of the many ways that legislators who support a ban on earmarks try to direct money back home.” Evidence of lawmakers using the process can only be obtained through time-consuming requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

logrolling

logrolling

Logrolling refers to a quid pro quo exchange of favors. In politics, “logrolling” generally refers to vote-trading by lawmakers to ensure that each legislator’s favored provisions have a higher chance of passing.

Specifically, logrolling means combining several provisions into one bill. Each of the provisions in the bill is supported by just a few members of Congress, and would not be able to pass through Congress on its own. But when the provisions are combined, or rolled together, they can secure a majority vote.

The term grew out of an old American custom in which neighbors helped each other to roll logs into piles for burning. Logrolling is also an obscure sport in which contestants balance on a log in water and try to make each other fall off.

In politics, logrolling usually comes into play when legislators need votes on a bill that would help out their home districts. Projects like Federally funded bridges, highways, and hospitals, which benefit people in the district but might be funded by federal taxes, are often pushed through thanks to logrolling.

Logrolling has a long history in the United States. It can be traced back as far as 1790, when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson presided over a deal known as the “Compromise of 1790.” Politicians at the time were struggling to decide how the debts incurred during the Revolutionary War would be paid off. At the same time, they were trying to reach a deal about where the nation’s capital should be. Finally, at a dinner party hosted by Thomas Jefferson, Virginia representative James Madison agreed to Alexander Hamilton’s request that the Federal government should take responsibility for the war debt, in exchange for putting the nation’s capital on the Potomac.

President Lyndon Johnson is often described as a master of logrolling and of political deal-making. Johnson was a consummate politician who prided himself on knowing where every lawmaker’s interests were. He was famous for taking to the telephone or buttonholing Congressmembers in person in order to trade votes and get his favored legislation through Congress.

Logrolling, earmarking, and “pork barrel” spending all tend to be criticized by good-government groups and by watchdogs. The conservative-libertarian group Freedom Works, for example, is sharply critical of logrolling by both political parties.

But some pundits argue that logrolling is just the simplest way to push big, complicated laws through Congress. They argue that, by its nature, logrolling forces politicians to compromise and to make deals, abandoning more extremist positions in order to find a middle ground.

In 2014, a study found that “backroom deals” and political methods like earmarking and logrolling could actually be beneficial to government. The study found that such practices lead to greater understanding among political parties, by forcing them to interact with each other for prolonged periods of time. The study also found that closed-door meetings lead to more compromise, while increased transparency can lead to political rigidity and posturing.

leader time

Leader time is the ten minute time allotted to majority and minority leaders at the start of the daily session.

Leaders use the time to discuss any important issues or the day’s legislative agenda. All or part of the leader time may be reserved for use later in the day.

lay on the table

To “lay on the table” is to make motion for the permanent disposal of a bill, resolution, amendment, appeal, or motion.

One of the most widely used parliamentary procedures, tabling can be effected through unanimous consent — where the Chair states: “without objection, the matter is laid upon the table” — or put to a vote. However, tabling a resolution can be controversial because it permanently ends debate on an issue.

“Lay on the table” should not be confused with the same term used in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries where “tabling” refers to beginning consideration of a resolution or issue.

lame duck session

When the House or Senate reconvenes in an even-numbered year following the November general elections to consider various items of business. Some lawmakers who return for this session will not be in the next Congress. Hence, they are informally called “lame duck” Members participating in a “lame duck” session.

live pair

A “live pair” is an informal voluntary agreement between lawmakers which is not specifically recognized by House or Senate rules.

Live pairs are agreements which Members employ to nullify the effect of absences on the outcome of recorded votes. If a Member expects to be absent for a vote, he or he may “pair off” with another Member who will be present and who would vote on the other side of the question, but who agrees not to vote.

The Member in attendance states that he has a live pair, announces how he and the paired Member would have voted, and then votes “present.” In this way, the other Member can be absent without affecting the outcome of the vote. Because pairs are informal and unofficial arrangements, they are not counted in vote totals; however paired Members’ positions do appear in the Congressional Record.