Distaff, I learned, is a device used in making cloth, which as we all know is women's work. See Norma Jean. It has also been used as an adjective to describe something as feminine. Up til now. Maureen has nominalized distaff as her very own esoteric reference to women. Good for her!
Passing strange is riskier territory. Moe is not talking about the rock band. Passing strange refers to folks, usually African-Americans, who "pass" as a race different than the one assigned to them by their state. Maureen uses it differently, or metaphorically, to point out the difference between Obama's election base of women, blacks, and Latinos and his senior appointments of white, male establishment types. I'm not sure if she thinks Obama belongs among the former group while trying to pass as a member of the latter, or the other way around. The bottom line is that she doesn't like it one bit.
BTW, Maureen capitalizes "Latino" but not "black" or "women." Why is that? Apparently this is an ongoing debate among style manuals. Now that's exciting word news!
"High toned" is next. OMG! I really cannot believe that she used it. Does she think it helps her liberal and feminist cause? If so, I expect she is wrong. Of course, high toned indicates moral superiority, or at least a tone of moral superiority, or something that's just classy as hell.
But, and this is a big but, it is a loaded term in reference to African-Americans, referring either to black people with light skin color, or slaves who accepted their masters' values and were dutifully loyal. Or just black folks who are classy as hell.
Just for good measure, Dowd also tosses in "kerfuffle" and "oldfangled."
On the serious side of the page we find gloomy Paul Krugman explaining why the world can't get out of the recession. Blah blah blah. He ascribes our political leaders' stupendous incompetence to a "dismal orthodoxy." Hah! As you all know, economics is known as the dismal science. Love it!
Good old naive Paul Krugman. He still believes that if politicians knew the right answer they would act accordingly. He just cannot accept that they simply don't care.