Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 31, 2009

MONDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has released his new assessment of the war. "The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort," General McChrystal said in a statement. The report does not call for additional U.S. troops, but that's likely to come soon.

* The era of one-party dominance in Japan has ended, and the center-left Democratic Party won a huge victory over the weekend against the Liberal Democratic Party.

* The forest fires in California are "still very much out of control."

* Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) announced today the special election to fill the Senate vacancy left by Ted Kennedy will be held on January 19. On September 9, however, state lawmakers will debate whether to change the law and allow Patrick to appoint an interim placeholder senator.

* Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who's pretending to work on health care reform, sent out a fundraising letter vowing to defeat "Obamacare." The conservative senator's office later said the appeal was referring only to the public option.

* Mike Huckabee made some pretty vile comments about reform and Ted Kennedy last week. Today, instead of apologizing, he doubled down.

* Speaking of vile reform-related rhetoric, say hello to Rep. Pete Olson (R) of Texas.

* Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) still thinks the health care status quo in the United States is fine.

* I neglected to note this strange WaPo piece over the weekend with an overtly Cheney-centric view on torture. Greenwald does the requisite response.

* Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) was involved in a serious boating accident in Montana on Friday, and is hospitalized in stable condition.

* For the first time that anyone can remember, Florida's population is shrinking.

* Michael Scheuer thinks Democrats are "pro-terrorist." What an odd man.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he hopes the paper goes out of business. The paper was not pleased. Reid later said he was kidding.

* Betsy McCaughey continues to be poison for the public discourse.

* Chris Wallace isn't even pretending to be anything but a torture apologist.

* I'm not at all pleased to see Disney is buying Marvel.

* How ugly has it become for conservative activists fighting against health care reform? When Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) hosted a town-hall meeting and requested 10 seconds of silence out of respect for Sen. Ted Kennedy's death, some of the conservatives shouted through it. Classy.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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DRAWING THE LINE.... A radical political website called WorldNetDaily is known for its bizarre commentary on current events, and its latest "story," pushed by Jerome Corsi, is that the Obama administration is considering Nazi-like concentration camps for dissidents.

Jon Henke, a prominent conservative blogger and Republican strategist, has seen enough.

In the 1960's, William F. Buckley denounced the John Birch Society leadership for being "so far removed from common sense" and later said "We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner."

The Birthers are the Birchers of our time, and WorldNetDaily is their pamphlet. The Right has mostly ignored these embarrassing people and organizations, but some people and organizations inexplicably choose to support WND through advertising and email list rental or other collaboration.... No respectable organization should support the kind of fringe idiocy that WND peddles. Those who do are not respectable.

I think it's time to find out what conservative/libertarian organizations support WND through advertising, list rental or other commercial collaboration (email me if you know of any), and boycott any of those organizations that will not renounce any further support for WorldNetDaily.

Good for Jon Henke. The more prominent conservatives say "Enough" to fringe trash, the better it will be for the political discourse and the American mainstream.

There is, however, a small catch. Henke argues that those who advertise on WorldNetDaily shouldn't be considered "respectable," and deserve to be boycotted. That's an entirely defensible position, but the Republican National Committee is one of the entities that does business with WorldNetDaily. Indeed, they partnered on a mailing as recently as last week.

Perhaps Henke's call will encourage the RNC to reconsider its relationship with "fringe idiocy"?

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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BECK SEES A 'COUP'.... It's certainly possible that Glenn Beck doesn't know what the word "coup" means. The poor guy does, after all, think "oligarhy" is a word.

In fact, confusion over the meaning of the word might actually make Beck's wild-eyed rants less incoherent. "Coup d'etat" is, after all, of French origins, and Beck probably hates the French enough to use their idioms incorrectly.

Nevertheless, Beck today told listeners of his radio show that President Obama is seizing power as part of a "coup." As the self-described "rodeo clown" insisted on the air, there is "a revolution going on, and it is coming." Beck believes "they" believe "they can get away with it quietly." He didn't identify who "they" are, but it's probably safe to assume it has something to do with ACORN. He doesn't like ACORN.

The "revolution" that "they" hope to launch may work, Beck said, because "they are so far ahead of us." He lamented, "Most of America doesn't have a clue as to what's going on." So true, so true.

Beck was kind enough to fill us in: "There is a stealing of America, and the way it is done, it has been done through the -- the guise of an election, but they lied to us the entire time. Some of us knew! Some of us we're shouting out, you were: 'This guy's a Marxist!' 'No, no, no, no, no, no. And they're gonna say, 'We did it democratically,' and they are going to grab power every way they can. And God help us in an emergency."

I'm still not quite sure what it is the administration has done that has Beck on the verge of hysteria. Chances are, he doesn't remember, either.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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ENZI GIVES UP ON GOOD-FAITH TALKS; WHITE HOUSE NOTICES.... Let no one say the White House was impatient. Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, ostensibly a member of the Finance Committee's farcical Gang of Six, kept trashing health care reform. President Obama and other Democratic leaders kept pretending Enzi was negotiating in good faith, reality notwithstanding.

This weekend, however, Enzi delivered the Republicans' weekly address, and he went too far. Enzi denounced the Democratic reform proposals, using painfully dishonest rhetoric, and even lending credence to the "death panel" garbage. It was an ugly display for anyone, but that the scripted remarks came from a Gang of Six member made Enzi's diatribe particularly ridiculous.

Apparently, the White House has seen and heard enough. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today that Enzi obviously is no longer committed to the process that the senator has been involved with for months.

"It appears that at least in Senator Enzi's case, he doesn't believe there's a pathway to get bipartisan support, and the president thinks that's wrong," Gibbs said. "I think Senator Enzi's clearly turned over his cards on bipartisanship and decided that it's time to walk away from the table."

Gibbs added, "The president is firmly committed to working with Democrats, Republicans, independents, anybody that wants to see progress on health care reform." That group, at long last, no longer seems to include Mike Enzi.

His role in the process won't be missed. The idea of including Enzi in the talks in the first place never made any sense. Krugman recently noted that negotiating with Enzi on reform is "the quest for bipartisanship gone stark raving mad."

If that quest is over, and I sincerely hope it is, it's a very positive development. The less Enzi is involved in the process, the better the chances of a quality bill becoming law.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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BARTON VOWS REFORM REPEAL.... It's hollow bravado, but it's nevertheless interesting hollow bravado. (Faiz Shakir has the video.)

The health bill is "dead on arrival" in Congress, said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce committee, said during an interview on Fox News.

"If they somehow manage to get the votes and get enough Democrats to walk the plank and commit suicide, in the next Congress, I'll be chairman Joe Barton of the Energy and Commerce committee, and we'll repeal it," Barton said.

The far-right congressman from ExxonMobil added that passing reform would push Democrats into the "political wilderness."

As a practical matter, Barton is clearly getting ahead of himself. If health care reform passes, and if voters disapprove, and if there's an enormous Republican surge and the GOP reclaims the House majority, then Barton would help repeal the historic legislation.

Unless Barton also has a plan to elect a Republican president in 2010 -- two years ahead of the next presidential election -- this vow won't amount to much no matter how many seats the GOP gains.

That said, it's a possible hint of what's to come. If Dems can get their act together -- by no means a foregone conclusion -- next year, expect to see some Republican candidates positioning themselves as leading opponents of consumer protections and coverage for the insured. "Vote GOP," they'll say, "for the return of the health care system that wasn't working."

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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MODERATES.... Bruce Bartlett, who has a habit of writing brilliant emails that get published elsewhere, shared some very interesting thoughts with David Frum the other day on why he no longer wants anything to do with the Republican Party. I intend to talk about the piece in more detail later, but something James Joyner said in response to the item caught my eye.

Bartlett argued, persuasively, that the modern GOP no longer welcomes moderates into positions of party leadership. Joyner considers it a problem for both parties, not one.

It's true that moderates have largely been driven from the leadership ranks of the Republican Party. But they've also been driven from the leadership ranks of the Democratic Party. The combination of gerrymandered districts and the permanent campaign have incentivized polarization.

I disagree. The leadership ranks of the Democratic Party have plenty of moderates. Comparing the two, the centrist-count isn't even close.

In the Senate, the Majority Leader is Harry Reid, a pro-life moderate from a traditionally "red" state. While the Majority Whip is Dick Durbin, whom I consider to be a solid progressive, there are four Deputy Whips including two clear moderates: Tom Carper and Bill Nelson.

Elsewhere in the Senate, Max Baucus is the Senate Finance Committee chairman, and he's moderate. Kent Conrad is the Budget Committee Chairman, and he's a moderate. Hell, Dems made Joe Lieberman the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, even though he's not a Democrat and even after he spent the last couple of years attacking Barack Obama.

Admittedly, the House Democratic leadership is more reliably liberal, but it's worth emphasizing that when it came time to choose the House Majority Leader, the job went to Steny Hoyer, who is clearly not from the party's progressive wing.

For that matter, I'd argue that both Barack Obama and Joe Biden embrace a generally-progressive agenda, but neither are Dems I'd call "liberals."

I can appreciate the fact that a word like "moderate" is somewhat subjective. One person's centrist is another person's idea of an American Fidel Castro.

But I think a fair assessment of the parties' leadership shows a qualitative difference. Is there any way in the world the Senate Republican caucus would make a pro-choice moderate from a traditionally "blue" state the Senate Majority Leader? Of course not; the idea is almost laughable.

One party not only tolerates moderates, it elevates them to leadership posts. One party doesn't.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE FAMILIAR TALE OF WILLIAM A. WIRT.... The LA Times' Michael Hiltzik had a terrific item yesterday on a footnote of history named William A. Wirt, who garnered some notoriety in 1934. His claim to fame? Wirt claimed he had "discovered" evidence of a plot within FDR's administration to launch a Bolshevik takeover of the United States.

As silly as this was, this was an era when Roosevelt's New Deal was blasted by the Teabaggers of the day as radical socialism. With that in mind, Wirt became a Republican cause celebre for a while, hooking up with right-wing astroturf groups of the day, garnering all kind of media attention, and even testifying before Congress about his evidence of a "concrete plan" for the overthrow of the U.S. government crafted by members of FDR's "Brain Trusters."

"Roosevelt is only the Kerensky of this revolution," he quoted them. (Kerensky was the provisional leader of Russia just before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.) The hoodwinked president would be permitted to stay in office, they said, "until we are ready to supplant him with a Stalin."

Those words caused an immediate sensation. Wirt hedged on naming the treasonous "Brain Trusters" -- which only intensified the public mania. Into the vacuum of information poured supposition masquerading as fact (certainly a familiar phenomenon today).

Wirt's provocative tale soon after fell apart; his "evidence" crumbled; and Republican leaders decided they didn't want anything to do with the guy. He quickly vanished from the public spotlight.

And that, of course, highlights a difference between then and now. William A. Wirt sounds quite a bit like Glenn Beck, Betsy McCaughey, Dick Armey, and assorted other right-wing personalities that litter the American landscape in the 21st century, spreading nonsense. Indeed, they're spreading almost identical nonsense, claiming to have evidence of President Obama launching a nefarious Nazi/Soviet/Marxist/Illuminati scheme.

But when their tales fall apart, there are no consequences.

Indeed, the main reason not to chuckle condescendingly at Wirt is the thought of what might happen were he to walk the Earth today.

Rather than being disowned in embarrassment, he'd be lionized as a purveyor of an alternate truth -- "Bill the teacher," perhaps -- given a gig on cable news and touted as a presidential contender for 2012. He'd have a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

In today's world, the more outlandish his accusations the better. For while America has made great strides since 1934 in science, civil rights and many other fields, our ability to recognize humbug for what it is seems to have gotten much, much worse.

Well said.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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BRADLEY EYES 'GRAND BIPARTISAN COMPROMISE'.... Former senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley believes "a grand bipartisan compromise is still possible with health care." Dems want universal health coverage; Republicans limits on lawsuits. As Bradley sees it, the "trade-off" is "obvious." If policymakers "combine universal coverage with malpractice tort reform in health care," both sides can come away with something they want.

When Bradley calls this "obvious," he's right. In fact, he's not the first one to come up with this -- last week the Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein presented his own compromise plan, which included "malpractice reform."

Now, Jonathan Zasloff makes the case that Republicans wouldn't accept this because, for all of their bluster, they're not really serious about "malpractice tort reform" anyway. It's a compelling point.

But there's another angle I can't quite get around: Republicans aren't asking for malpractice tort reform in exchange for support of health care reform. Indeed, they're not asking for anything.

If there were any Republicans, even one, saying, "If Dems were willing to drop the public option and add tort reform to the mix, the health bill would have plenty of support," then Bradley's argument would make a lot of sense. But that's not what we're dealing with.

There's a point a whole lot of well-intentioned people seem to miss, so let's repeat the magic six words once again: Republicans don't support health care reform. They're not looking for a deal, or concessions, or enticements. They're looking to kill the bill and capitalize on its failure. Period.

Indeed, GOP leaders aren't even pretending otherwise. Remember, when the White House signaled a willingness to scrap the public option, not one GOP lawmaker -- literally, not one -- responded by saying, "Well, if Obama is willing to drop the public option, we're ready to find some common ground." On the contrary, Republicans shot down the trial balloon by insisting no concessions would be enough -- the GOP will oppose reform no matter what.

It's so bad, Paul Krugman is longing for the days of Nixon.

[T]he Nixon era was a time in which leading figures in both parties were capable of speaking rationally about policy, and in which policy decisions weren't as warped by corporate cash as they are now. America is a better country in many ways than it was 35 years ago, but our political system's ability to deal with real problems has been degraded to such an extent that I sometimes wonder whether the country is still governable. [...]

So what happened to the days when a Republican president could sound so nonideological, and offer such a reasonable proposal?

Part of the answer is that the right-wing fringe, which has always been around -- as an article by the historian Rick Perlstein puts it, "crazy is a pre-existing condition" -- has now, in effect, taken over one of our two major parties. Moderate Republicans, the sort of people with whom one might have been able to negotiate a health care deal, have either been driven out of the party or intimidated into silence.

To reiterate a point from last week, Obama, Pelosi, and Reid could hold a press conference today, offering a reform package with no public option, no tax increases on the middle class, no "death panels" or "death books," no funding for abortion, no coverage of undocumented immigrants, no rationing, no additional debt, and some "malpractice reform" thrown in, and Republicans would immediately respond with, "It's not good enough."

Why? Because they don't support health care reform.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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PUTTING PRESSURE ON GRASSLEY.... To hear Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) tell it, he has no choice but to move away from health care reform because, he says, that's what Iowans have been telling him to do. "If town meetings are going to mean anything, if democracy is going to mean anything, then you listen to your people and you act accordingly," he said late last week.

This week, if Grassley turns on his television, he'll listen to someone else. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America are launching a new ad this week, encouraging the conservative Iowan senator to not only support reform, but also to back a public option.

The groups couldn't have found a better person for the ad. Instead of an outsider, the pro-reform message comes from Kevin Shilling of Greenfield, Iowa, who explains from the outset that he "voted for Reagan, Nixon, George W. Bush and Senator Chuck Grassley too." He's also a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army who says Iowans of both parties "want the public insurance option."

"I voted for Senator Grassley in the past," Shilling adds. "But when Grassley takes over $2 million from the big health and insurance industries that oppose reform and then says he won't give Iowans the choice of a public option, I have to ask: Senator, whose side are you on?"

The ad is slated to run 200 times in four Iowa markets and 100 times in DC this week, though DFA and the PCCC hope to keep it going longer.

It's bound to get Grassley's attention. Whether it changes his attitude is another matter. The senator made it overwhelmingly clear last week that he's inclined to listen to loud protestors precisely because they're loud protestors. Chances are, Kevin Shilling will be easier for him to overlook.

When Grassley says he feels compelled to "listen to his people," he means people who'll give him an excuse to do what he wants to do anyway.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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MONDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Who'll run to fill the Senate vacancy left by Ted Kennedy? Some of his Senate colleagues believe his widow, Vicky, deserves serious consideration.

* On a related note, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) is also very much a part of the mix.

* Last week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) picked his former chief of staff, George Lemieux, to serve in the Senate through the end of next year. The selection isn't going over especially well.

* Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) bid for a full term is likely to get a little more complicated if/when former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff challenges the appointed senator in a Democratic primary.

* I haven't seen anything about the methodology, but the Alabama Education Association has a poll showing Rep. Artur Davis (D) leading his likely Republican opponents in next year's gubernatorial race.

* Confirming earlier reports, Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) announced late last week that he will not take on Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) next year. Braley will, however, seek re-election to the House.

* And while the Republicans' 2012 presidential field remains very much in flux, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) isn't even thinking about it. "I wouldn't get out of my driveway without my wife shooting me in the back," DeMint said.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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HOW TO AVOID AN ELECTORAL CATASTROPHE.... It seems more than a little premature to start thinking seriously about win-loss ratios in the midterm elections. They're 14 months away, and no one has any idea what the national landscape will look like a year from now.

That said, if modern political history is any guide, it stands to reason that Democrats will lose some seats in Congress in the 2010 elections. A Politico piece today ponders what's realistic in terms of Republican gains.

After an August recess marked by raucous town halls, troubling polling data and widespread anecdotal evidence of a volatile electorate, the small universe of political analysts who closely follow House races is predicting moderate to heavy Democratic losses in 2010.

Some of the most prominent and respected handicappers can now envision an election in which Democrats suffer double-digit losses in the House -- not enough to provide the 40 seats necessary to return the GOP to power but enough to put them within striking distance.

Charlie Cook is talking about a 20-seat gain for the GOP in the House. Democratic officials expect the number to be around 10. David Wasserman puts the number between nine and 26. Nate Silver believes it could be anywhere from 20 to 50. Stuart Rothenberg thinks Republicans should "very happy" with a net gain of 12 to 15 seats.

All of this is subject to change, of course, because it's still very early. And for all the talk about 1994 redux, there are several reasons -- regional realignment, retirements -- that won't exist in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the result of the fight over health care reform will make a very big difference, and if Dem strategists are thinking about how to improve their chances, the reform fight offers a pretty big hint. Three words: motivate the base.

For all the talk in the Senate about scaling back reform, making the bill weaker, less effective, and less generous to middle class families, there's ample evidence that will only make matters far worse for Democratic candidates 14 months from now. Motivated conservatives will be furious either way, because even trying to bring about some reform has been deemed outrageous. The question is whether lawmakers will give progressive voters an incentive to head to the polls.

The political danger is not just that a failure on health-care reform will anger the electorate. It will also change the composition of the electorate. Dispirited Democrats will stay home. Energized Republicans will press their advantage. Add in that the wave of young voters who were energized by Obama's campaign probably aren't going to turn out for the midterm election anyway, and you're looking at a pretty unfriendly landscape.

That's why the midterms are dangerous for Democrats. Losing on health care and collapsing into recriminations and internal divisions pretty much guarantees that Democratic voters of all sorts are turned off. You don't just win elections by being popular. You win elections by making sure that the people who like you turn out to vote.

Voters who may be inclined to vote Democratic will need a reason. Policymakers need to give them one.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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TIME FOR THE NARRATIVE TO SWITCH BACK.... In June, health care reform was very likely to happen. It was one of those observations "everyone" knew to be true. In July, however, reform was in trouble, and "everyone" knew that, too. It's August, and now reform is practically dead. "Everyone" says so.

Of course, August is almost over, and those observations about the reform effort failing have become stale and uninteresting. September starts tomorrow and it's time for a new narrative. Maybe now would be a good time for "everyone" to start talking about reform is going to pass after all.

The NYT's John Harwood has a piece today on the "stronger prospects" for a health care reform bill this year.

If sentiment ever ruled the United States Senate, it does not now. Advocates of health care overhaul should not expect a big boost in memory of Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Yet other factors suggest that President Obama still has stronger prospects for achieving his health policy goals than surface impressions of the Congressional recess indicate. He lags behind his own timetable for action, but remains ahead of presidential predecessors who pursued the same objective.

As Harwood sees it, there's already widespread agreement on several key elements of reform; reconciliation is still very much an option; the Gang of Six nonsense is nearly complete; and "Democratic leaders believe" they might be able to break a filibuster with Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) support.

Former Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana told Harwood, "They'll get something done. It'll be a major step."

E.J. Dionne Jr. touched on a similar point in his column today: "Despite health care's summer of discontent, supporters of change are in better shape than the accounts of recent weeks would suggest."

And Kevin Drum emphasized the fact that as August comes to a close, the Tea Baggers and their tantrums haven't fundamentally changed much of anything: "[T]he Fox/FreedomWorks crowd has created some great political theater, but underneath it all not a lot has changed. If Democrats can just take a deep breath after the trauma of being yelled at all summer, they'll realize that the loons at their townhalls represented about one percent of their constituency; that the public still wants reform and will reward success; that the plans currently on the table are already pretty modest affairs; and then they'll stick together as a caucus and vote for them. And that will be that."

Health care reform could be the phoenix, rising from the ashes, if Democrats show some spine and roll up their sleeves. The elements are already in place, and the media narrative is ready to shift. It's not rocket science.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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BACKPEDALING JUST AS FAST AS HE CAN.... Tom Ridge, Bush's first Secretary of Homeland Security, certainly caused a ruckus two weeks ago when he confirmed what many of us assumed to be true -- the Bush administration based terrorist threat levels on political considerations.

As for the former DHS chief explained, Ashcroft and Rumsfeld pressured him to raise the threat level on the eve of the 2004 election, without strong evidence to do so. In his book, Ridge called it a "dramatic and inconceivable" event that "proved most troublesome" and reinforced his decision to resign from the administration after the election.

"There was absolutely no support for that position [raising the threat level] within our department. None," he writes. "I wondered, 'Is this about security or politics?' Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president's approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level."

Now, Ridge is walking the whole provocative idea back.

Former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, speaking for the first time about accusations made in his new book, says he did not mean to suggest that other top Bush administration officials were playing politics with the nation's security before the 2004 presidential election.

"I'm not second-guessing my colleagues," Ridge said in an interview about The Test of Our Times, which comes out Tuesday and recounts his experiences as head of the nation's homeland security efforts in the first several years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. [...]

Now, Ridge says he did not mean to suggest he was pressured to raise the threat level, and he is not accusing anyone of trying to boost Bush in the polls. "I was never pressured," Ridge said.

No, of course not. Why would we get that idea?

Probably because Ridge has been saying it for years. As far back as 2005, Ridge acknowledged that the Bush administration periodically put the United States on high alert for terrorist attacks based on flimsy evidence. "There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we [at the Department of Homeland Security] said, 'For that?'" Ridge told reporters.

Indeed, two weeks ago, Ashcroft and Rumsfeld leaned on Ridge hard enough that it contributed to his resignation. Now he wants us to know he was "never pressured."

It's literally unbelievable.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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MCDONNELL'S THESIS IN VIRGINIA.... For most of the year, Democrats in Virginia have hoped to characterize former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the Republican gubernatorial hopeful, as far more extreme in his ideology than he lets on. Dems haven't had much luck, though, and McDonnell leads in all available polls.

With about two months left until Election Day, the Democrats' efforts just got a little easier.

At age 34, two years before his first election and two decades before he would run for governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell submitted a master's thesis to the evangelical school he was attending in Virginia Beach in which he described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples. [...]

In his run for governor, McDonnell, 55, makes little mention of his conservative beliefs and has said throughout his campaign that he should be judged by what he has done in office, including efforts to lower taxes, stiffen criminal penalties and reform mental health laws. He reiterated that position Saturday in a statement responding to questions about his thesis.

McDonnell's master's thesis ran 93 pages, and was part of his post-grad work at Regent University -- an evangelical school in Virginia created by radical televangelist Pat Robertson. The paper went on to call for undermining the concept of church-state separation, public funding for private schools, and protections for parents who spank their children.

Now, in general, I'm inclined to cut candidates quite a bit of slack on the work they did as students. I don't doubt that when I was in grad school at age 22, I wrote some papers that I'd disagree with now, and I wouldn't want it to be held against me. McDonnell wrote some pretty radical stuff, but it was 20 years ago.

But the circumstances with McDonnell are a little different. For one thing, he was 34 when he wrote, among other things, that working women and feminists are "detrimental" to American families. It's harder to dismiss bizarre ideas as a youthful flight of fancy when the author is 34 years old.

More importantly, though, this was not just an academic exercise for a student at a TV preacher's college. McDonnell's thesis included a 15-point action plan he wanted to see Republicans follow. Soon after, McDonnell was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he "pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper."

Responding to questions about the thesis, McDonnell said his "views on many issues have changed" as he's "gotten older." He added that his criticism of women in the workplace "does not reflect my views."

That's the right response, I suppose, but given how offensive the paper was, it may require some further explanation. As for the larger campaign dynamic, Dems have been waiting for a chance to characterize McDonnell as part of the Robertson/Falwell wing of the GOP. Watch to see how aggressively they take advantage of this opportunity.

Postscript: By the way, did Democratic opposition researchers dig up this dirt on McDonnell? Nope -- the WaPo learned about the thesis when McDonnell brought it up during a recent interview.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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HURTING DICK CHENEY'S FEELINGS.... Dick Cheney offered quite a bit of nonsense on Fox News yesterday, but perhaps the most entertaining thing was hearing him talk about how the Obama White House has hurt his feelings. Apparently, the current president was supposed to seek out the former vice president for advice on national security matters.

"I guess the other thing that offends the hell out of me, frankly, Chris, is we had a track record now of eight years of defending the nation against any further mass casualty attacks from Al Qaeda. The approach of the Obama administration should be to come to those people who were involved in that policy and say, 'How did you do it? What were the keys to keeping this country safe over that period of time?'"

Got that? What Obama really ought to do, according to Dick Cheney, is seek out the former vice president's advice and follow it. After all, Cheney believes he's proven himself on the issue.

I seem to recall the Bush/Cheney era a little differently. Cheney thinks it was a sterling success when it came to national security and counter-terrorism. Perhaps there's something to this. After all, except for the catastrophic events of 9/11, and the anthrax attacks against Americans, and terrorist attacks against U.S. allies, and the terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Bush's inability to capture those responsible for 9/11, and waging an unnecessary war that inspired more terrorists, and the success terrorists had in exploiting Bush's international unpopularity, the Bush/Cheney record on counter-terrorism was awesome.

After the previous administration established a record like that, President Obama didn't ask Cheney for tips? The nerve.

I am curious about something, though. Terrorists first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, early on in President Clinton's first year in office. Six people were killed, hundreds more were injured. The Clinton administration caught those responsible, subjected them to the U.S. criminal justice system, and foreign terrorists did not strike again on U.S. soil during Clinton's terms in office.

So, at any point in 2001, did the Bush White House turn to Bill Clinton and Al Gore and ask, "How did you do it? What were the keys to keeping this country safe over that period of time?" I think we can probably guess the answer.

For that matter, did Al Gore find a sympathetic media personality in order to complain about how it "offends the hell" out of him that Bush/Cheney didn't seek the previous administration's guidance? After all, Clinton/Gore had a track record of eight years of defending the nation against any further attacks from foreign terrorists. The approach of the Bush/Cheney administration should have been to go to those people who were involved in that policy, right?

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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MORAL RELATIVISM, CONSERVATIVE STYLE.... Mid-way through the "Fox News Sunday" interview, host Chris Wallace asked Dick Cheney if he's comfortable with intelligence officials exceeding "legal authorization" to try to obtain information from a detainee. The former vice president said, "I am."

And that, in a nutshell, is all one really needs to know about Dick Cheney. The law should be followed, except when it shouldn't. And when the law isn't followed, the only real outrage would be an effort to hold alleged criminals responsible for their conduct. Think conservatism is about moral absolutes, and stark lines separating right from wrong? Think again.

Michael Scherer noted, "There is not much nuance there.... One CIA contractor, according to the CIA Inspector General, is alleged to have beaten an Afghan detainee to death with a large metal flashlight and his foot. Released criminal records show that another CIA employee was interrogating a detainee at Abu Ghraib prison in a stress position with a bag over his head, when the detainee died of asphyxiation. Assuming that Cheney did not misspeak, his statement to Wallace suggests that he believes these deaths are "OK' given the circumstances."

Asked, in the same interview, whether he would cooperate if sought out by federal investigators conducting a criminal investigation, Cheney said, "It will depend on the circumstances." (The former vice president may refuse to cooperate with the Justice Department?) Cheney also argued that the attorney general is a "political appointee," who should base prosecutorial decisions on the political wishes of the president. Seriously.

Aside from Cheney's crass partisanship and craven support for torture, why is he constantly in the public eye, making this case? I think publius had a good item on this.

To me, the goal of his recent charm offensive is simply to kick up enough dirt to force a "draw." That is, he wants to politicize the torture debate as much as possible -- to transform a profound debate about our country's values into just another everyday Republican/Democratic partisan squabble that makes people throw up their hands and despair of knowing "the truth."

If you've noticed, Cheney tends to pop up in the aftermath of damning evidence. We just (re)learned, for instance, that our CIA agents murdered detainees, choked them, and threatened to rape their wives. Normally, you would think these revelations would give pause to even the most ardent Cheney supporters.

But then Cheney comes along, and tries to reframe the whole story. His intended audience isn't the nation as a whole, but conservatives. He wants to make sure that they view these stories through partisan-tinted lenses. [...]

In short, Cheney wants to transform what should a broad consensus against torture into a "he said/she said" partisan squabble. And if most conservative blogs are any guide, he's probably been successful.

One last thought. Early on in the interview, Cheney insisted that the Justice Department's interest in illegal interrogation tactics is "clearly a political move." The former VP added, "I mean, there's no other rationale for why they're doing this."

"No other rationale"? How about the existence of evidence of criminal wrongdoing, brought to the attention of the Justice Department? Isn't that a "rationale" for a prosecutor?

I honestly don't get the "political move" argument. Indeed, it seems backwards. If Eric Holder had decided to go pursue Cheney, Yoo, Bybee, Addington, Gonzales, it'd be easier to understand the complaints. They'd be wrong, but the allegations would at least be coherent. In this case, though, the "political move" would be to ignore alleged crimes for the sake of political expedience.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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August 30, 2009

MOTIVATED REASONING.... To paraphrase Twain, right-wing health care talking points can travel the nation, while the truth is still getting its pants on. If the most frustrating aspect of the policy debate is the willingness of reform opponents to make stuff up, the most dejecting is the willingness of gullible people to believe nonsense.

And believe it they do. Just a couple of weeks ago, an NBC News poll found that most Americans have already come to believe a wide variety of transparently false claims, all of which have been pushed aggressively by the right.

Of particular interest, though, are those who are confronted with reality, but prefer to believe lies anyway. There's widespread confusion, to be sure, but there's also a large group who deliberately embrace the lies they've been told. Newsweek's Sharon Begley, for example, recently wrote a piece scrutinizing reform myths. She found, not surprisingly, that a wide variety of right-wing allegations are without foundation in fact.

For her trouble, Begley was blasted by conservatives for, ironically enough, having "lost touch with reality." Some far-right Newsweek readers even wished her dead for daring to write a piece that debunked claims they preferred to believe were true.

In a follow-up piece, Begley considers the thinking behind this bizarre trend. She spoke to sociologist Steven Hoffman who explained, "Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe." For the most part, he added, "people completely ignore contrary information" and are able to "develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information."

Which brings us back to health-care reform -- in particular, the apoplexy at town-hall meetings and the effectiveness of the lies being spread about health-care reform proposals. First of all, let's remember that 59,934,814 voters cast their ballot for John McCain, so we can assume that tens of millions of Americans believe the wrong guy is in the White House. To justify that belief, they need to find evidence that he's leading the country astray. What better evidence of that than to seize on the misinformation about Obama's health-care reform ideas and believe that he wants to insure illegal aliens, for example, and give the Feds electronic access to doctors' bank accounts?

Obama's opponents also need to find evidence that their reading of him back in November was correct. They therefore seize on "confirmation" that he wants to, for instance, redistribute the wealth, as in his "spread the wealth around" remark to Joe the Plumber -- finding such confirmation in the claims that health-care reform will do just that, redistributing health care from those who have it now to the 46 million currently uninsured. Similarly, they seize on anything that confirms the "socialist" label that got pinned on Obama during the campaign, or the pro-abortion label -- anything to comfort themselves that they made the right choice last November.

There are legitimate, fact-based reasons to oppose health-care reform. But some of the loudest opposition is the result of confirmatory bias, cognitive dissonance, and other examples of mental processes that have gone off the rails.

Of course, it's difficult to explain this to the enraged conservatives who are convinced that health care reform would destroy civilization. They like their delusions, thank you very much, and prefer that reality be kept at arm's length.

As for what to do about it, I'm open to suggestion. Ignorance seems to be spreading like a virus, which makes the discourse stupid and constructive debate nearly impossible.

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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MCCAIN ON THE TEEVEE.... When I saw that John McCain was going to be on "Face the Nation," I assumed it was simply to reflect on Ted Kennedy's legacy in the Senate. It wasn't.

Both Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif) emphasized on Face the Nation this morning that the Attorney General's new probe into the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation techniques is ill-timed and counter-productive.

Speaking first with host Bob Schieffer, McCain agreed with remarks made earlier in the day by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who told Fox News Sunday that the interrogation probe was a "terrible decision."

It's a very weak argument, but it nevertheless offers us another chance to ask why John McCain is making yet another Sunday morning show appearance.

For those keeping score at home, this is McCain's 12th Sunday morning appearance since President Obama's inauguration in January. That's 32 Sundays, for an average of a McCain appearance every 2.6 weeks.

Since the president took office, McCain has been on "Meet the Press" twice (July 12 and March 29), "Face the Nation" three times (August 30, April 26, and February 8), CNN's "State of the Union" twice (August 2 and February 15), "Fox News Sunday" three times (July 2, March 8, and January 25), and "This Week" twice (August 23 and May 10).

Now, this might be easier to understand if McCain played a key role in public policy right now, but he doesn't. He's just another conservative member of a 40-seat minority. McCain isn't playing a role in any important negotiations; he hasn't unveiled any significant pieces of legislation; he isn't being targeted as a swing vote on any major bills; and he's not a member of the GOP leadership. He's just another far-right senator, with precious little to say that couldn't have been predicted in advance.

Oh, and incidentally, he lost the last presidential election by a fairly wide margin. Nevertheless, McCain has still made 12 appearances in eight months.

Eric Boehlert recently checked and found that John Kerry, in the eight months after Bush's second inaugural, made three appearances on the Sunday morning shows. McCain's total, obviously, quadruples that number.

As Boehlert concluded, "[A]fter Kerry lost in November, the press walked away from him. After McCain lost in November, the press still crowds around him."

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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WAPO OMBUDSMAN POINTS TO 'MISSING INGREDIENT'.... It's a familiar problem. During a presidential campaign, reporters covering the candidates will invariably cover the horse race and ignore the substance. If a campaign unveils a national security policy, for example, coverage will focus on "what it means" -- whether the policy will position the candidate as "tough," whether it addresses a problem that's emerged in the polls, etc. -- not whether the policy is any good.

Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post's ombudsman, noted the same problem with coverage of the health care debate. He pointed to some quality journalism on the subject, before conceding the larger trend. Readers, Alexander explained, "want primers, not prognostications. And they're craving stories on what it means for ordinary folks and their families."

In my examination of roughly 80 A-section stories on health-care reform since July 1, all but about a dozen focused on political maneuvering or protests. The Pew Foundation's Project for Excellence in Journalism had a similar finding. Its recent month-long review of Post front pages found 72 percent of health-care stories were about politics, process or protests.

"The politics has been covered, but all of this is flying totally over the heads of people," said Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review, who has been tracking coverage by The Post and other news organizations. "They have not known from Day One what this was about."

It's not for lack of interest. About 45 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press recently said they have been following the health-care story more closely than any other.

But nearly half of those surveyed this month in a nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they are "confused" about reform plans.

Kaiser's president and CEO, Drew Altman, worries that the media have devoted too much attention to "accusation and refutation" stories instead of focusing on the "core questions about health-care reform that the public wants answered."

By "gravitating toward controversies" such as the recent boisterous town hall meetings on health care, he said, the media may "unwittingly" be allowing coverage to be shaped by evocative rhetoric and images.

I'm not sure if "unwittingly" is the right word here. For the media in general, I think there's a reliance on horse-race and he-said-she-said journalism because it's easy -- and because all of their colleagues and competitors are doing the same thing.

It leads to a superficiality that contributes to public confusion.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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AND THEN WHAT?.... On ABC's "This Week," it appears the question of the day is WWKD -- what would Kennedy do?

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told ABC's This Week that the late-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- who long supported the public option -- would compromise on health care before altogether abandoning the possibility for reform this year.

"Teddy would put the facts on the table, and the reality of life for many Americans on the table," Kerry told host George Stephanopoulos. "What Teddy would do is fight for the public option. He believed that the public option, like I do, would be the best option available ... But if he didn't see the ability to get it done ... he would not throw the baby out with the bathwater, he would not say no to anything."

"In every case he fought as hard as he could," Hatch added. "But when he recognized that he couldn't get everything he wanted, but could get a good bill, he [would compromise]."

I have no idea if this is true. I do know that "public, government-run health care was key to not one, but both of Kennedy's final health care initiatives." He helped shape the HELP Committee bill, which included a public option as its centerpiece. Kennedy also championed a Medicare for All bill, which never gained traction.

Given this, whether Kennedy would have been willing to scuttle a public option -- despite majority support among Americans, majority support in the House, and majority support in the Senate -- is open to some debate.

But I still think this is the wrong question, and it ignores the larger dynamic entirely.

I can imagine a set of circumstances in which Senate Republicans said, "Look, reform is important, but the public option is a bridge too far. If Dems were willing to drop that provision, we could have a broad, bipartisan consensus on a health care bill." But, newsflash, this isn't what's happening. Indeed, when the White House signaled a willingness to scuttle the public option, congressional Republicans insisted they'd still oppose health care reform.

Kerry and Hatch think Kennedy would have dropped the public plan to strike a deal. Maybe, maybe not. But the question badly misses the point -- what deal? Which Republicans are ready to support an ambitious reform package if Democrats agree to drop the public option?

The GOP expects Dems to get rid of one of the key provisions in the entire reform campaign. In exchange for what? Why is there even a discussion underway in which Dems negotiate with no one, giving up long-sought policies and get literally nothing in return?

We're hearing an awful lot about the "quid," with no talk about the "quo."

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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BEATS ME.... Kevin Drum recommends we take a moment to get "back to basics."

Let's recap: the United States spends about twice as much on healthcare as any other developed nation in the world and in return receives just about the worst care. Can someone remind me again why there's even a debate about whether we should put up with this?

Reading this, it reminded me just how challenging the right's sales pitch was going into the debate over reform. In some ways, conservatives couldn't possibly win the argument -- the status quo is ridiculous. We spend too much and get too little. Tens of millions of Americans go without coverage, and thousands die as a result of not having insurance. The existing private system screws over consumers, is a drag on the economy, and undercuts wage growth. The two groups of Americans best served by the status quo are seniors (in a Canadian-style, socialized system) and veterans (in a British-style, government-run system). Everyone else is in, at best, a precarious position.

Left unchecked, the dysfunctional, inefficient, patchwork health care system threatens to bankrupt the country. Reform was a no-brainer.

In this sense, Republicans, their allies, and their media partners had a seemingly impossible task. There are plenty of old sayings about the most effective sales professionals -- they can sell sand in the desert, they can sell ice to the Inuit, etc. The right's challenge was the opposite -- they had to tell a drowning country not to accept a life-preserver. That's an extremely difficult task.

They've pulled it off, so far, by telling almost comically-ridiculous lies, and managing to get scared, gullible people to believe them. It's no small feat. Indeed, it's almost impressive. Conservatives have managed to create a debate out of nothing but partisanship, paranoia, and greed.

If there's a Hall of Fame for political con jobs, this one's a first-ballot inductee.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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MAJORITY RULE.... The New York Times has a good editorial on the debate over health care policy today, which offers a compelling overview of the lay of the land -- where we are now. Long story short, reform efforts can't garner bipartisan support, largely because GOP lawmakers have become craven. Reform efforts can't overcome Republican obstructionism, because the Democratic caucus has "only" 59 members, and some of the 59 are both antsy and panicky.

That leaves the governing party in a bind, and makes the significance of "reconciliation" paramount.

Reconciliation bills are primarily intended to deal with budget items that affect the deficit, not with substantive legislation like health care reform. Senators could challenge as "extraneous" any provisions that do not change spending or revenues over the next five years, or would have a budget impact that is "merely incidental" to some broader policy purpose, or would increase the deficit in Year 6 and beyond.

So how much of the proposed health care reforms could plausibly fit into a reconciliation bill? The answer seems to be: quite a lot, though nobody knows for sure. [...]

Nobody knows how the Senate parliamentarian, an obscure official who advises the presiding officer, would rule on any of these complicated issues. But if he were to take a narrow view and eliminate important features, it could leave the reform package riddled with holes -- perhaps providing subsidies to buy insurance on exchanges that do not exist, for example. Thus there are plans afoot to use a second bill to pass whatever reforms will not fit under the rubric of reconciliation, but those would be subject to filibuster and would have to depend on their general popularity (insurance reforms are enormously popular) to win 60 votes for passage. [...]

Clearly the reconciliation approach is a risky and less desirable way to enact comprehensive health care reforms. The only worse approach would be to retreat to modest gestures in an effort to win Republican acquiescence. It is barely possible that the Senate Finance Committee might pull off a miracle and devise a comprehensive solution that could win broad support, or get one or more Republicans to vote to break a filibuster. If not, the Democrats need to push for as much reform as possible through majority vote.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said two weeks ago that Reid is prepared to pass health care reform "by any legislative means necessary." Forcing the Senate to give a bill and up-or-down vote -- majority rule -- would certainly fall under this umbrella.

I can appreciate the fact that the reconciliation process was not intended to be used this way. But whenever that point comes up, my response is always the same: the filibuster rule was not intended to be used this way, either. The idea that a bill that enjoys majority support in the House and majority support in the Senate is not allowed to pass is fundamentally at odds with the American political process, and yet, it's quietly become both accepted and routine.

Health care reform deserves a vote. If most senators oppose it, the bill will fail. If most senators support it, the bill should advance. If the only way to make that happen is reconciliation, so be it.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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August 29, 2009

SAYING GOODBYE TO TED KENNEDY.... As the AP reported, "President Barack Obama led the nation Saturday in mourning and remembering "the greatest legislator of our time," celebrating the indelible impact of Edward M. Kennedy as a senator for nearly a half-century and leader of America's most famous family during tragedy and triumph. Delivering an emotional, simple eulogy for Kennedy that capped a two-hour Roman Catholic funeral Mass, Obama employed humor, his own experiences and timeless anecdotes to memorialize the senator, who died Tuesday at 77 after battling brain cancer for more than a year."

Here's the first part of the president's eulogy:

And here's the second:

The full text is below.

Mrs. Kennedy, Kara, Edward, Patrick, Curran, Caroline, members of the Kennedy family, distinguished guests, and fellow citizens:

Today we say goodbye to the youngest child of Rose and Joseph Kennedy. The world will long remember their son Edward as the heir to a weighty legacy; a champion for those who had none; the soul of the Democratic Party; and the lion of the U.S. Senate - a man whose name graces nearly one thousand laws, and who penned more than three hundred himself.

But those of us who loved him, and ache with his passing, know Ted Kennedy by the other titles he held: Father. Brother. Husband. Uncle Teddy, or as he was often known to his younger nieces and nephews, "The Grand Fromage," or "The Big Cheese." I, like so many others in the city where he worked for nearly half a century, knew him as a colleague, a mentor, and above all, a friend.

Ted Kennedy was the baby of the family who became its patriarch; the restless dreamer who became its rock. He was the sunny, joyful child, who bore the brunt of his brothers' teasing, but learned quickly how to brush it off. When they tossed him off a boat because he didn't know what a jib was, six-year-old Teddy got back in and learned to sail. When a photographer asked the newly-elected Bobby to step back at a press conference because he was casting a shadow on his younger brother, Teddy quipped, "It'll be the same in Washington."

This spirit of resilience and good humor would see Ted Kennedy through more pain and tragedy than most of us will ever know. He lost two siblings by the age of sixteen. He saw two more taken violently from the country that loved them. He said goodbye to his beloved sister, Eunice, in the final days of his own life. He narrowly survived a plane crash, watched two children struggle with cancer, buried three nephews, and experienced personal failings and setbacks in the most public way possible.

It is a string of events that would have broken a lesser man. And it would have been easy for Teddy to let himself become bitter and hardened; to surrender to self-pity and regret; to retreat from public life and live out his years in peaceful quiet. No one would have blamed him for that.

But that was not Ted Kennedy. As he told us, "…[I]ndividual faults and frailties are no excuse to give in - and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves." Indeed, Ted was the "Happy Warrior" that the poet William Wordsworth spoke of when he wrote:

As tempted more; more able to endure,

As more exposed to suffering and distress;

Thence, also, more alive to tenderness.

Through his own suffering, Ted Kennedy became more alive to the plight and suffering of others - the sick child who could not see a doctor; the young soldier sent to battle without armor; the citizen denied her rights because of what she looks like or who she loves or where she comes from. The landmark laws that he championed -- the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, immigration reform, children's health care, the Family and Medical Leave Act -all have a running thread. Ted Kennedy's life's work was not to champion those with wealth or power or special connections. It was to give a voice to those who were not heard; to add a rung to the ladder of opportunity; to make real the dream of our founding. He was given the gift of time that his brothers were not, and he used that gift to touch as many lives and right as many wrongs as the years would allow.

We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers' rights or civil rights. And yet, while his causes became deeply personal, his disagreements never did. While he was seen by his fiercest critics as a partisan lightning rod, that is not the prism through which Ted Kennedy saw the world, nor was it the prism through which his colleagues saw him. He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect - a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots.

And that's how Ted Kennedy became the greatest legislator of our time. He did it by hewing to principle, but also by seeking compromise and common cause - not through deal-making and horse-trading alone, but through friendship, and kindness, and humor. There was the time he courted Orrin Hatch's support for the Children's Health Insurance Program by having his Chief of Staff serenade the Senator with a song Orrin had written himself; the time he delivered shamrock cookies on a china plate to sweeten up a crusty Republican colleague; and the famous story of how he won the support of a Texas Committee Chairman on an immigration bill. Teddy walked into a meeting with a plain manila envelope, and showed only the Chairman that it was filled with the Texan's favorite cigars. When the negotiations were going well, he would inch the envelope closer to the Chairman. When they weren't, he would pull it back. Before long, the deal was done.

It was only a few years ago, on St. Patrick's Day, when Teddy buttonholed me on the floor of the Senate for my support on a certain piece of legislation that was coming up for vote. I gave him my pledge, but expressed my skepticism that it would pass. But when the roll call was over, the bill garnered the votes it needed, and then some. I looked at Teddy with astonishment and asked how he had pulled it off. He just patted me on the back, and said "Luck of the Irish!"

Of course, luck had little to do with Ted Kennedy's legislative success, and he knew that. A few years ago, his father-in-law told him that he and Daniel Webster just might be the two greatest senators of all time. Without missing a beat, Teddy replied, "What did Webster do?"

But though it is Ted Kennedy's historic body of achievements we will remember, it is his giving heart that we will miss. It was the friend and colleague who was always the first to pick up the phone and say, "I'm sorry for your loss," or "I hope you feel better," or "What can I do to help?" It was the boss who was so adored by his staff that over five hundred spanning five decades showed up for his 75th birthday party. It was the man who sent birthday wishes and thank you notes and even his own paintings to so many who never imagined that a U.S. Senator would take the time to think about someone like them. I have one of those paintings in my private study - a Cape Cod seascape that was a gift to a freshman legislator who happened to admire it when Ted Kennedy welcomed him into his office the first week he arrived in Washington; by the way, that's my second favorite gift from Teddy and Vicki after our dog Bo. And it seems like everyone has one of those stories - the ones that often start with "You wouldn't believe who called me today."

Ted Kennedy was the father who looked after not only his own three children, but John's and Bobby's as well. He took them camping and taught them to sail. He laughed and danced with them at birthdays and weddings; cried and mourned with them through hardship and tragedy; and passed on that same sense of service and selflessness that his parents had instilled in him. Shortly after Ted walked Caroline down the aisle and gave her away at the altar, he received a note from Jackie that read, "On you the carefree youngest brother fell a burden a hero would have begged to be spared. We are all going to make it because you were always there with your love."

Not only did the Kennedy family make it because of Ted's love - he made it because of theirs; and especially because of the love and the life he found in Vicki. After so much loss and so much sorrow, it could not have been easy for Ted Kennedy to risk his heart again. That he did is a testament to how deeply he loved this remarkable woman from Louisiana. And she didn't just love him back. As Ted would often acknowledge, Vicki saved him. She gave him strength and purpose; joy and friendship; and stood by him always, especially in those last, hardest days.

We cannot know for certain how long we have here. We cannot foresee the trials or misfortunes that will test us along the way. We cannot know God's plan for us.

What we can do is to live out our lives as best we can with purpose, and love, and joy. We can use each day to show those who are closest to us how much we care about them, and treat others with the kindness and respect that we wish for ourselves. We can learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. And we can strive at all costs to make a better world, so that someday, if we are blessed with the chance to look back on our time here, we can know that we spent it well; that we made a difference; that our fleeting presence had a lasting impact on the lives of other human beings.

This is how Ted Kennedy lived. This is his legacy. He once said of his brother Bobby that he need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, and I imagine he would say the same about himself. The greatest expectations were placed upon Ted Kennedy's shoulders because of who he was, but he surpassed them all because of who he became. We do not weep for him today because of the prestige attached to his name or his office. We weep because we loved this kind and tender hero who persevered through pain and tragedy - not for the sake of ambition or vanity; not for wealth or power; but only for the people and the country he loved.

In the days after September 11th, Teddy made it a point to personally call each one of the 177 families of this state who lost a loved one in the attack. But he didn't stop there. He kept calling and checking up on them. He fought through red tape to get them assistance and grief counseling. He invited them sailing, played with their children, and would write each family a letter whenever the anniversary of that terrible day came along. To one widow, he wrote the following:

"As you know so well, the passage of time never really heals the tragic memory of such a great loss, but we carry on, because we have to, because our loved one would want us to, and because there is still light to guide us in the world from the love they gave us."

We carry on.

Ted Kennedy has gone home now, guided by his faith and by the light of those he has loved and lost. At last he is with them once more, leaving those of us who grieve his passing with the memories he gave, the good he did, the dream he kept alive, and a single, enduring image - the image of a man on a boat; white mane tousled; smiling broadly as he sails into the wind, ready for what storms may come, carrying on toward some new and wondrous place just beyond the horizon. May God Bless Ted Kennedy, and may he rest in eternal peace.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a new push from evangelical religious groups to kill health care reform.

Conservative Christian groups on Wednesday (Aug. 26) ramped up opposition to health care reform, saying the current system "has problems" but "it is working."

Members of the newly formed Freedom Federation, comprised of some of the largest conservative religious groups in the country, say they oppose taxpayer-supported abortion, rationed health care for the elderly and government control of personal health decisions.

Mathew Staver, who heads the legal group Liberty Counsel and is dean at Liberty University's law school, said the group agrees on certain core values.

And nothing, apparently, says "Christian values" to these groups and leaders like opposing the protections health care reform would provide to tens of millions of American families.

The Freedom Federation includes, among others, the American Family Association, the Church of God in Christ, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council Action, Liberty University and the Traditional Values Coalition. All of the groups, apparently, are led by right-wing activists who interpret the New Testament in a way that seems very hard to understand.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota recently talked about how faith relates to the health care reform debate. She said, for example, that we should "thank God" that Sarah Palin wrote about "death panels." Bachmann added that conservatives will win the fight to kill reform "on our knees in prayer and fasting."

* Arizona pastor Steven Anderson prayed publicly for President Obama's death a day before one of his parishioners brought an assault rifle to a presidential event. It appears that the Secret Service recently chatted with Anderson.

* Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) has "spent more than a tenth of his campaign's receipts on the church he founded, a tidy tithe totaling $152,777." While lawmakers routinely set up tax-exempt nonprofits, Rush's approach "is different because a church is his center of operations and he concentrates on social services. But what his approach has in common with those of other lawmakers is the earmarking of tax dollars -- Rush earmarked nearly $700,000 for two related social services entities he helped establish." (thanks to Tammy for the tip)

* Can atheists adopt a child? An interesting legal dispute is underway in New Jersey. [Update: Oops. Someone alerted me to this story the other day, but I didn't notice the date. In other words, never mind. For what it's worth, the atheists won the case -- several decades ago.]

* In the wake of 9/11, officials in Kentucky created a state Office of Homeland Security. State lawmakers required that training materials include information that the General Assembly stressed a "dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth." The same law mandated that the state's Emergency Operations Center feature a plaque that said "the safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God." This week, Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate found this unconstitutional.

* And finally, a local church in north Florida encouraged kids to wear shirts to the local public school that read "Islam is of the Devil." The children were sent home. The Dove World Outreach Center Pastor Terry Jones said spreading the church's message is more important than education.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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RATIONING.... Charles Krauthammer warns that rationing will be inevitable if health care reform passes. Ezra Klein explains that it's too late.

It is not a difference of opinion, or a conversation about semantics. We ration. We ration without discussion, remorse or concern. We ration health care the way we ration other goods: We make it too expensive for everyone to afford. [...]

Twenty-seven percent of Canadians wait more than four months for treatment, versus only four percent of Americans. Twenty-four percent of Americans can't afford medical care at all, versus only 6 percent of Canadians. And the American numbers are understated because if you can't afford your first appointment, you never learn you couldn't afford the medicine or test that the doctor would have prescribed.

We ration. And if the numbers and the surveys don't convince you of the point, this is what it looks like when we ration.

Perhaps the best I've seen on the subject came from the NYT's David Leonhardt in June, who explained that "the case against rationing isn't really a substantive argument. It's a clever set of buzzwords that tries to hide the fact that societies must make choices."

In truth, rationing is an inescapable part of economic life. It is the process of allocating scarce resources. Even in the United States, the richest society in human history, we are constantly rationing. We ration spots in good public high schools. We ration lakefront homes. We ration the best cuts of steak and wild-caught salmon.

Health care, I realize, seems as if it should be different. But it isn't. Already, we cannot afford every form of medical care that we might like. So we ration.

We spend billions of dollars on operations, tests and drugs that haven't been proved to make people healthier. Yet we have not spent the money to install computerized medical records -- and we suffer more medical errors than many other countries.

We underpay primary care doctors, relative to specialists, and they keep us stewing in waiting rooms while they try to see as many patients as possible. We don't reimburse different specialists for time spent collaborating with one another, and many hard-to-diagnose conditions go untreated. We don't pay nurses to counsel people on how to improve their diets or remember to take their pills, and manageable cases of diabetes and heart disease become fatal. [...]

The choice isn't between rationing and not rationing. It's between rationing well and rationing badly. Given that the United States devotes far more of its economy to health care than other rich countries, and gets worse results by many measures, it's hard to argue that we are now rationing very rationally.

It's a subject the country ought to be able to look at intelligently. It's not. We're stuck having a debate with the public discourse we have, not the public discourse we might want or wish to have at a later time.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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ENZI TRASHES HEALTH CARE REFORM.... Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming delivered the Republican address this morning, and not surprisingly, talked about health care reform. The message was unequivocal.

Democratic healthcare reform will drive up the deficit, discriminate against the elderly and do little to control costs, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) alleged in the weekly Republican radio address.

Enzi, ranking member of the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee and a member of the so-called "group of six" senators working for a bipartisan compromise, also accused Democrats of hurrying the legislative process.

"The Democrats are trying to rush a bill through the process that will actually make our nation's finances sicker without saving you money," Enzi said in the weekly GOP address. "The American people are growing increasingly concerned about out of control spending in Washington that's leaving us with trillions of dollars of debt."

Adopting one of the GOP's favored lines of attack, Enzi said the plan would particularly hurt the elderly.

""These bills also raid Medicare," Enzi said. "This will result in cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from the elderly to create new government programs."

These are garbage arguments, and Enzi knows it. No serious person should take them seriously. That Enzi made them the official party message of the week says a great deal about the ridiculous way in which the Republican Party is treating the debate. (Seriously, Dems are "rushing"? How much slower can this process go?)

But let's also note the larger context: Mike Enzi is one of just three Senate Republicans negotiating towards a "bipartisan compromise" on reform. This morning he sounded like a right-wing, talk-radio loudmouth, but he's nevertheless one of the key lawmakers Democrats expect to work with in good faith.

On Monday, Enzi told constituents he has no intention of compromising with Democrats, and is only engaged in negotiations with Democrats so he can force concessions on a deal he's likely to oppose anyway. And on Saturday, he's trashing the underlying basics of the reform package.

The majority is trying to find common ground on health care reform with someone who opposes health care reform. With each passing day, this gets slightly more insane.

As Krugman recently explained: "The central fact of the health care debate is that there is essentially no agreement on anything -- values, philosophy, vision of how the world works -- between the two sides. Progressives want universal coverage, and see an expanded government role as essential to getting there. Conservatives believe, in the face of all evidence, that free markets are the answer. And Enzi is very conservative. According to Vote View, my site for left-right rankings, Enzi was the 8th most conservative Senator in the last Congress -- almost in the same league as Inhofe or DeMint. This is the quest for bipartisanship gone stark raving mad."

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE SENIOR SENATOR FROM THE STATE OF MAINE.... For all the recent talk about trying to strike a "deal" on health care reform, the truth is, the outline of an agreement isn't hard to imagine.

As Kevin Drum noted yesterday, "In theory, a deal should be fairly easy. Keep the insurance reform stuff and the increased subsidies, dump the public option, add in a few other goodies here and there for both sides, and voila. Dinner is served. But who's going to join us at the table? Are there any Republicans left who will vote for any healthcare plan at all, regardless of what is or isn't in it?"

Put aside, at least for now, whether that seems like a worthwhile deal for Democrats, and whether the idea of pursuing a deal has merit. The point is, for all the efforts this year, the barebones of a deal are right in front of lawmakers. Kevin's question, then, deserves an answer: if there are going to be negotiations, who will join reformers at the table?

Eyes turn to the senior senator from Maine.

As Congress prepares to hit the restart button on the health care debate, Senator Olympia J. Snowe does not relish the prospect of becoming a Group of One.

"I certainly hope not," exclaimed Ms. Snowe, about the possibility that she could end up as the sole Republican willing to join Senate Democrats in moving ahead on a broad change in health care.

The arithmetic is obvious. There are three Senate Republicans talking about a bipartisan deal. Two of the three -- Iowa's Chuck Grassley and Wyoming's Mike Enzi -- have made it painfully clear that they oppose health care reform. Whether Snowe likes it or not, that leaves a Group of One.

The NYT's Carl Hulse added, "This has given Ms. Snowe a high degree of leverage as Democrats ask, What does Olympia Snowe want?"

To her credit, Snowe is nowhere close to Grassley's and Enzi's position. She believes the status quo really does represent a health care crisis, that the uninsured should be covered, and that those with insurance may not appreciate what's around the corner. "They may say they are satisfied now," Snowe told Hulse, "but it is going to get worse, given the skyrocketing increases that are only going to persist. Something needs to be done to remove the deep anxiety that people find themselves in because of the lack of health insurance."

She even sees the value in a public plan competing with private insurers, though Snowe prefers a "trigger" that would kick in later.

Snowe, in other words, supports some kind of health care reform -- which makes her unique in the Republican caucus. The Gang of Six charade has become farcical. If the goal is to strike a deal, the White House should probably go around it and invite her over for a detailed chat.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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REID'S MUDDLED SUPPORT FOR A PUBLIC OPTION.... On a conference call yesterday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) emphasized his support for a public option as part of health care reform. That support started sounding a little shaky, though, when the Democrats' Senate leader explained what he means by "public option."

"I've told people, whoever will listen, that I am in favor of the public option," Reid said in answer to a participant who asked why he hasn't been more vocal on his position. "We're working now to try to come up with a program that would allow that to take place."

Reid said a public option is essential to provide competition to private insurance companies that enjoy an exemption from federal anti-trust laws.

He added that "a lot of people misunderstand" the public option as "some government run program."

"But there are many ways we can do it," he said. "One would be to have an entity like Medicare. I really don't favor that. I think what we should have is a private entity that has direction from the federal government."

This comes as something of a surprise. Reid "really" doesn't "favor" a Medicare-like public option, which I thought was largely the point of the public option. The "private entity," rather, sounds like a co-op.

Reid's perspective on this is no small matter. As the Senate Majority Leader, if Reid balks on a real public option, and prefers co-ops, the chances of the final Senate bill including a genuine public option are remote. Reid's challenge of rallying support for a bill along the lines of the HELP Committee's legislation would be hard enough under the current circumstances. If he's announcing, "I really don't favor" a "government-run" plan, the hurdle becomes insurmountable.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley later told Brian Beutler, "The govt could contract w a private company to administer the public option. [Sen. Reid] is willing to consider a co-op if he is shown it works to make insurers honest."

That doesn't exactly clear up what it is Reid will be fighting for in September.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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DON'T HEART HUCKABEE.... Even among those who abhor his political ideology, there's a sense that Mike Huckabee is just a nice guy. He tells charming stories, jokes around with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and plays bass in a band. As right-wing preachers-turned-politicians go, Huckabee seems likable and non-threatening. The common joke among liberals is that they wouldn't vote for him for president, but they'd vote for him for neighbor.

So, let's be clear: there's a deeply ugly aspect of Mike Huckabee's personality, and it's rather twisted. Sam Stein reports:

Conservative media figures are blasting Democrats for trying to draw political gain from the death of Senator Ted Kennedy. But on Thursday, it was one of their own -- former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- who went there.

The 2008 Republican presidential candidate suggested during his radio show, "The Huckabee Report," on Thursday that, under President Obama's health care plan, Kennedy would have been told to "go home to take pain pills and die" during his last year of life.

"[I]t was President Obama himself who suggested that seniors who don't have as long to live might want to consider just taking a pain pill instead of getting an expensive operation to cure them," said Huckabee. "Yet when Sen. Kennedy was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at 77, did he give up on life and go home to take pain pills and die? Of course not. He freely did what most of us would do. He choose an expensive operation and painful follow up treatments. He saw his work as vitally important and so he fought for every minute he could stay on this earth doing it. He would be a very fortunate man if his heroic last few months were what future generations remember him most for."

These aren't the words of someone with a strong character. These are vicious, perverse remarks that tell us a great deal about who Huckabee really is.

The "substance" of his on-air comments is unusually stupid -- Obama did not "suggest" anything of the sort, and there's nothing in any Democratic proposal to bolster these insane attacks -- and the politics is nearly as bad. Huckabee probably hopes to impress the Tea Bagging crowd with this disgusting rhetoric, proving that Sarah Palin isn't the only crazy far-right voice who deserves their adoration in advance of 2012.

Ed Kilgore concluded, "This despicable rant should disqualify Mike Huckabee from any further liberal sympathy, no matter how much he tries to joke or rock-n-roll his way back into mainstream acceptability."

Ideally, it'd disqualify Huckabee for even more than that.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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August 28, 2009

FRIDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Consumer spending in the U.S. edges up, just a little.

* Iran really shouldn't stonewall nuclear watchdogs.

* The Taliban was driven from three Pashtun-dominated districts in northern Afghanistan in 2001, and the area has been considered safe for quite a while. Now, Taliban insurgents are back, and they're taking over.

* On a related note, the more there are accusations of fraud and voter coercion in Afghanistan's presidential election, the worse it is for the legitimacy of the Kabul government.

* When it comes to the health care debate, conservatives seem almost obsessed with "death."

* Apparently hoping to prove how truly crazy he's become, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) claims to have been just days away from filing a lawsuit challenging the president's citizenship.

* I'm glad to see Tom Coburn's remarks this week to a wife of a brain-injury victim start to get noticed. If Democrats were better organized and had a more favorable media environment, the video probably would be the single most important exchange of the summer.

* According to local officials, including some very conservative Republicans, the Obama White House is doing some terrific work on post-Katrina efforts in Louisiana.

* Newt Gingrich wants President Obama to fire Attorney General Eric Holder. Newt Gingrich isn't very bright.

* South Carolina's GOP lawmakers are moving forward with possible impeachment plans against Gov. Mark Sanford (R).

* On a related note, half of Sanford's constituents want him to go away.

* Greg Sargent keeps making Stephen Hayes look foolish. Hayes, for reasons I don't understand, keeps coming back for more, and Greg keeps making Hayes look worse.

* Nice piece today from Michael Tomasky on Drudge and Breitbart.

* I have no idea whether turnout for the next Tea Party events will be strong or not, but I've never seen events get this kind of publicity from an outlet pretending to be a "news" network.

* Michael Scheuer, still nutty.

* And finally, if you haven't already seen it, watch this mock cable-news debate: "Is Using A Minotaur To Gore Detainees A Form Of Torture?" It's painfully funny and painfully sad at the same time. Instant classic.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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REPLACING THE IRREPLACEABLE.... On CNN yesterday afternoon, reflecting on Ted Kennedy's legacy as one of the giants of the U.S. Senate, Wolf Blitzer pondered who might someday emerge as a legislative leader with Kennedy's stature and success.

"A lot of people think it might be someone else who sought the presidency, lost and decided, 'You know what, my life's work will now be a senator' and that is Senator McCain, who has been a very good friend to Senator Kennedy," Blitzer said. "We'll see if that becomes the passion that became the passion of Senator Kennedy after he lost to Jimmy Carter in that Democratic presidential nomination back in 1980."

What's more, as Faiz Shakir noted, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Cynthia Tucker also argued yesterday, "John McCain could be the Senate's new Ted Kennedy." Tucker said McCain, since last year's election, "has bowed to the harsh nihilism that seems to be all that Republicans represent these days," but said "McCain's reputation for a principled bipartisanship was intact" last year.

I guess I was watching a different presidential campaign last year. As I recall, McCain spent the year lying, flip-flopping, running cheap and ugly ads, and choosing a crazy person as his running mate.

But in some ways, that these observations are even being made tells an important story. The political media establishment has long adored McCain. Many wondered, after McCain's offensive conduct on the campaign trail last year, whether that same political media establishment would welcome him back with open arms once the presidential race ended. The answer now seems obvious. McCain hasn't done anything to earn their love, but that apparently doesn't matter.

As for the comparison itself, Kennedy was among the most accomplished lawmakers in the history of the United States Senate. McCain has an impressive personal background, but very few accomplishments to his name. Kennedy was principled, brilliant, and knowledgeable. McCain is inconsistent, easily confused, and has no patience for details. Kennedy was widely admired and respected by those who worked with him. McCain is known for screaming at his colleagues, even Republicans, who dare to disagree with him.

We knew Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy was a friend of ours. John McCain is no Ted Kennedy.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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SOCIAL SECURITY IS A GOVERNMENT PROGRAM.... For a while, so many conservative activists were convinced that Medicare isn't a government program that Tim Noah was able to start tracking it as a genuine meme. It was indicative of a discourse gone insane -- confused opponents of health care reform were sincerely, literally arguing, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."

Is Social Security next? Consider this anecdote from Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R) town-hall meeting in Lake Elmo, Minn., last night. (via Matt Corley)

At times tempers flared at the forum, with constituents shouting at one another.

LeRoy Schaffer, a St. Francis city council member, dressed in a tuxedo and top hat for the occasion. Shaffer got visibly emotional asking Bachmann about the future of health care and the role of special interests in Washington.

"I'll be danged if I am going to give up my Social Security because of socialism," Schaffer said, before being booed by the crowd.

Well, at least he was booed.

Update: Looks like the Roll Call report didn't include the relevant context. LeRoy Schaffer is actually a supporter of government safety-net programs. He said before the event, "I'm on Social Security and I've got Medicare. I have socialized medicine. I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world."

I suppose he was booed, then, because he's in favor of Social Security?

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... The good news is, nearly four-dozen advertisers have now pulled their sponsorship of Glenn Beck's deranged Fox News program. The bad news is, Beck's ratings have gone up, in part because he's acting like an even bigger lunatic than usual, and clowns doing funny dances tend to draw a crowd.

Yesterday was especially astounding. He argued on the air, for example, that President Obama intends to create a "civilian national security force," which will be similar to Hitler's SS and Saddam Hussein. Apparently, this has something to do with AmeriCorps, which Beck initially said has a $500 billion budget. (He corrected himself later in the show, though his guest didn't blink when he originally made the claim.)

Towards the end of the show, after scrawling on a variety of boards and pieces of paper, Beck summarized his key observation. On a chalkboard, Beck had written the words, "Obama," "Left Internationalist," "Graft," "ACORN Style Organizations," "Revolution," and "Hidden Agenda." If you circle some of the first letters of these important words, Beck says, it spells "OLIGARH." Beck told his viewers there's only one letter missing. If you're thinking that letter is "c," you're not medicated enough to understand Beck's show.

The missing letter is "y," because the word he hoped to spell is "OLIGARHY." No, that word doesn't exist in the English language, but that's probably because the dictionary was written by some communist community organizer who wants to keep Glenn Beck and his viewers down.

The quote of the day, however, came towards the end: "I'm tired of being a sheep. I'm tired of being a victim. I'm tired of being pushed around. You know what? The gloves come off."

Glenn Beck is a "victim"? Why is it that disturbed right-wing nuts always feel sorry for themselves? Beck is very well paid to say crazy things on television.

What's more, his minions take his insane tirades seriously. Whatever Beck says on Monday gets repeated by unhinged crazies on Wednesday.

Beck is getting worse. I can't help but worry that it's only a matter of time before he hurts someone.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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STILL WAITING FOR THAT GOP ALTERNATIVE.... Democratic health care reform proposals have become a little controversial, but if we put the politics aside for a moment, we see that the majority party has -- for good or ill -- grabbed a bull by the horns. The country has been waiting for policymakers to step up on health care for the better part of a century, and Democrats have put together a credible, affordable proposal(s) that expands coverage, offers consumer protections, tackles rising costs, and strengthens Medicare. It's a serious plan that makes hard choices. It's the kind of thing grown-up policymakers do.

I thought about this after seeing Jonathan Cohn's item today on the latest stupidity from the RNC on Medicare.

For all of the Republican talk about helping seniors, they have almost nothing in their policy arsenal that would actually, you know, help seniors. They're not, for example, proposing to fill in the donut hole -- the gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage that means high out-of-pocket costs for seniors with multiple conditions. Nor do they have any ideas for how to improve the program's financial footing -- except, of course, to cut it. Democrats are trying to do both, though you'd never know it from the way the health reform debate is unfolding.

It got me thinking. Cohn's right, the Republicans' policy on Medicare falls somewhere between incoherent and imaginary. But let's go one step further: weren't Republicans actually supposed to come up with a health care plan of their own, rather than just taking pathetic shots at the proposal on the table?

The last time I checked, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the House GOP Health Care Solutions Group, said House Republicans would not release a health care reform alternative. Republican lawmakers had promised -- publicly and repeatedly -- that they would not only come up with a reform plan, but that their plan would be vastly superior to the Democratic approach. Blunt was walking those assurances back.

A day later, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said GOP officials are "continuing to put the final touches on our bill." He added, "[W]e hope to see it soon."

Come to think of it, we'd all like to see it soon. Boehner's comments on this came 35 days ago. The "final touches" seem to be taking longer than expected.

So, where is it? Presumably, Republicans came up with a Health Care Solutions Group because it has some "solutions" in mind.

It's easy to take dishonest shots at the credible bill on the table, but to be taken seriously, Republicans -- who would like to be in the majority in 2011 -- should tell the country how they'd improve the failing system.

Talk is cheap. GOP leaders have said they have a plan, will present a plan, and can prove that their plan is the better way to go. I'm sure Americans would benefit from the opportunity to evaluate two competing approaches to the same crisis, seeing which plan is stronger.

Put-up-or-shut-up time.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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MAYBE WE SHOULD CALL IT THE 'FREE PONY OPTION'.... It's nearly September, and the most contentious aspect of the health care reform debate is still the public option. The debate might be more productive if the public had a clue what the public option is.

A new survey by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates for the AARP reveals widespread uncertainty about the nature of the "public option" -- a government-run health insurance policy that would be offered along with private policies in the newly-created health insurance exchanges. Just 37 percent of the poll's respondents correctly identified the public option from a list of three choices provided to them....

It is tempting to attribute these results to attempts by conservatives to blur the distinctions of the health care debate. And surely that is part of the story. But it may not be all that much of it. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to correctly identify the public option in this poll, but not by all that wide a margin -- 41 percent versus 34 percent. Meanwhile, 35 percent of Republicans thought the public option refers to "creating a national healthcare system like they have in Great Britain" -- but so did 23 percent of Democrats.

The poll specifically asked, "When politicians talk about including a 'public option' in healthcare reform, what do you think they mean?" Regardless of whether the respondents actually liked the idea or not, this simply sought to measure public understanding. The results found that just 37% realized that a public option would create a government-funded alternative to compete with private insurers; 26% thought a public option would create a British-style system; 13% thought a public option would create network of co-ops, and 23% simply had no idea.

As Nate Silver explained, if poll respondents had simply guessed at random, the percentage of those who got the question right wouldn't have been much different.

Josh Marshall added, "[T]he fact that 'public option' is so un-descriptive and opaque has only made it easier for Republicans to portray it as some sort of program for mass euthanasia. So I'm not sure what there is to say here or do but laugh because the only other thing to do is cry."

Well, one other alternative is to start calling the public option something else. I always thought it was rather simple and descriptive, but what do I know. At this point, perhaps it's better to emphasize its qualities? Call it the "competition option" or the "public choice option"?

Or perhaps just go straight for the emotional appeal and call it the "free pony option." People love ponies.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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THE PEARLSTEIN PLAN.... The Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein has written some pretty powerful columns on health care reform lately -- some of which I enthusiastically endorse, some of which I found less persuasive -- but today's piece is, in effect, the Pearlstein Plan. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist sees it, "there is a deal to be had here if only Democrats would be willing to take it." The Pearlstein Plan has nine elements, including:

* Universal coverage. Finally, a requirement that every American purchase a minimum, a basic health insurance plan.

* Insurance exchanges. Each state or region will set up government-supervised insurance exchanges through which private insurers can offer policies to the uninsured, the self-employed and small businesses. Coverage standards will be set nationally, and participating companies must agree to take all customers, regardless of pre-existing conditions, at rates that vary only slightly by age.

* Options. Among the options would be lower-cost, high-deductible plans long pushed by Republicans. Another: nonprofit insurance "cooperatives" set up by participating hospitals and physicians groups offering an alternative to traditional fee-for-service medicine.

* Low-income subsidies. Households with incomes up to 300 percent of the poverty line would be able to buy the average-priced basic plan through the exchanges for no more than 15 percent of pre-tax income, with the balance paid for by the government.

* Employer mandate. All businesses would be required to pay for at least half of the cost of a basic insurance policy for all workers and their immediate family, or pay the government a progressive tax on payrolls over $250,000, exempting the smallest businesses. While distasteful to Republicans, the mandate would level the competitive playing field among firms that now offer health insurance and those that don't, while generating revenue to pay for premium subsidies.

* Tax on extravagant health plans. A tax of 25 percent would be imposed on health plans with an actuarial value of $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for families, indexed to inflation. While distasteful to unions, the measure is designed to raise revenue for subsidies, make patients more cost-conscious and help force down insurance premiums.

The Pearlstein Plan, which would scuttle the public option altogether, would also include some "malpractice reform," cost-containment measures, and control on rationing.

Some of this approach seems fairly sound. Indeed, some of the Pearlstein Plan overlaps with what Democrats are already proposing.

I had one over-arching problem with the pitch. If there's "a deal to be had here," who is the deal with?

Pearlstein concedes the deal is not intended to win over Republican leaders on the Hill, because "they're determined to derail any health reform plan." That's clearly true. But Pearlstein goes on to say that his proposal would eventually win over "a sizeable number of Republicans who will come to realize that it's better for their careers to be on the right side of history than on the good side of the Republican leadership."

Really? I'd like to believe this is true, but I don't. Can anyone identify this "sizeable number of Republicans" who've expressed even the slightest hint of willingness to support reform? Remember, when the White House signaled a willingness to scrap the public option, not one GOP lawmaker -- literally, not one -- responded by saying, "Well, if Obama is willing to drop the public option, we're ready to find some common ground." On the contrary, Republicans shot down the trial balloon by insisting no concessions would be enough -- the GOP will oppose reform no matter what.

Pearlstein added that his compromise approach is also "necessary to win broad support from an American public wary of federal deficits, anxious about losing the health care it already has and fearful of radical change." Again, this sounds nice, but the Democratic plan already improves the deficit picture, let's people keep what they have, and steers clear of radical change.

What's more, even if Dems picked up on the Pearlstein Plan, the landscape wouldn't change. The "American public" is responding to baseless, ridiculous, and insane ideas from the likes of Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, Armey, and LaRouche cultists. Would these right-wing lunatics suddenly become more responsible if the Pearlstein Plan were on the table? Of course not -- reality has nothing to do with their attacks anyway.

Obama, Pelosi, and Reid could hold a press conference today, offering a reform package with no public option, no tax increases on the middle class, no "death panels" or "death books," no funding for abortion, no coverage of undocumented immigrants, no rationing, and some "malpractice reform" thrown in, and Republicans would immediately respond with, "It's not good enough."

Why? Because they don't support health care reform.

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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FRIDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has chosen his former chief of staff, George LeMieux, to replace Sen. Mel Martinez (R) through the end of next year. LeMieux is Crist's closest political advisor and serves as deputy state attorney general until 2006.

* To the widespread disappointment of Democrats everywhere, Mitt Romney will not run for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January.

* A Democracy Corps poll in New Jersey shows Chris Christie (R) leading incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine by just two points, 43% to 41%, with independent Chris Daggett with 7% support. In a head-to-head contest, Christie is up by three, 46% to 43%.

* Rex Rammell, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Idaho, joked this week about hunting President Obama. He later said he was kidding, and "would never support him being assassinated."

* As if Sen. David Vitter's (R-La.) re-election prospects weren't challenging enough -- he's facing a credible Democratic challenger and is burdened by a prostitution scandal -- he may soon face a primary challenge from Gen. Russell Honore.

* Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) will step down next year after four terms, but he will not run for president in 2012.

* On a related note, as much as I appreciate the kind emails, I will not be running to replace Douglas as governor next year.

* Theocrat Roy Moore (R), running for governor in Alabama next year, has secured an endorsement from actor Chuck Norris.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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PUBLIC OPTION WATCH.... Especially now that the Senate Democratic caucus has 59 members, and it's unclear whether any of its members would support a Republican filibuster of health care reform, it's helpful to know which Dems are on board with a public option, and which aren't.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana seemed to join Joe Lieberman in the group of caucus members opposed to an optional public plan. Asked under what circumstances she would support a public option, Landrieu said, "[V]ery few, if any. I'd prefer a private market-based approach to any health care reform that would extend coverage." She said covering the uninsured would be "nice," but said "but it would be immoral to bankrupt the country while doing so." (Since a public option would lower costs, Landrieu's argument doesn't make sense.)

Yesterday, meanwhile, Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia signaled support for a public option. His spokesperson made it seem as if Warner isn't an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, but unlike Landrieu and Lieberman, Warner would support a bill if it included the provision: "It's not a make or break thing -- he wants to see a health reform bill that contains costs, and if it includes a public option ... he would vote for it."

Sen. Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina has already supported a public option in the Senate HELP Committee bill, but she's signaled a willingness to negotiate it away.

As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) voted in favor of a health care reform bill with a public option. But she's also interested in a compromise that would scrap the public option in favor of system of private, state-based, non-profit health-care cooperatives. "Having been a state senator for 10 years," she said, "I think states can do a good job at that."

Kay Hagan's vote for the public option wasn't easily won, so it's little surprise that she's open to alternatives.

True, but here's hoping Hagan and her colleagues remember what Republican leaders have said about concessions -- whether reform advocates keep or scrap a public option and/or a co-op plan, the GOP will oppose the legislation.

When two competing sides have the same goal in mind -- reforming a broken system -- compromise is possible. When two competing sides have opposite goals in mind -- one wants to pass reform, one wants to kill it -- compromise isn't possible.

Hagan has already supported a public option, and I'm glad. But if she thinks flexibility on the issue may generate broader support for the larger goal, she's going to be disappointed by the Republican response.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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WHEN AN ARGUMENT REACHES THE PITTS.... Rep. Joe Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania hosted a town-hall meeting this week, and made a brief concession to reality: "One thing I think is being misrepresented by my side of the aisle is death panels. There are no death panels in this bill."

Sounds great, right? Here we have a very conservative lawmaker willing to note the truth in public. It's a pleasant and welcome surprise.

But he couldn't leave well enough alone.

"The danger here that is being raised, that some people are afraid of, is that seniors, when they get into a very vulnerable condition, and maybe even depression, can be pressured or feel vulnerable to being pressured to sign away certain medical treatments. There are not enough safeguards to make sure that doesn't happen."

I really don't know what this means. As David Weigel asked, "Who's pressuring the seniors, exactly?"

Pitts makes it sound as if government officials will be visiting individual seniors, encouraging them to forgo medical treatment. That's crazy.

But you know what? Fine. We need more "safeguards" to prevent an imaginary scenario from happening? No problem. If Joe Pitts wants to write up some protections to make sure depressed seniors aren't pressured by the government to sign away medical care, that'd be great. Will he consider supporting health care reform if Democrats add his "safeguards" to the bill?

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING.... You probably think I'm going out of my way to pick on Chuck Grassley. I'm not, but let's face it -- he deserves the criticism.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa indicated Thursday he was no longer sure whether negotiators can reach a bipartisan deal in September, citing mounting public concern about excessive government spending and soaring federal deficits.

Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee which is attempting to draft a bipartisan health care measure, said in a telephone interview from Iowa with Kaiser Health News, that he was struck by the intensity of Iowans' criticism of the health care proposals and "fear" of excessive federal spending during several weeks of town hall meetings throughout his state.

Asked whether he thought the six Democratic and Republican negotiators on the committee would be able to cut a deal when Congress returns from its summer recess next month, Grassley replied: "If you asked me that on Aug. 6, I would have said yes, I think so, September. But you're asking me on Aug. 27 and you've got the impact of democracy in America. Everybody's showing up at town meetings.... If town meetings are going to mean anything, if democracy is going to mean anything, then you listen to your people and you act accordingly."

A few things. First, the folks who are "showing up at town meetings," ranting and raving about reform, are angry because they don't know what they're talking about. They've been filled with rage, lies, and paranoia. Killing a necessary reform bill to placate ridiculous cries from gullible people is politics at its most inane. Responsible lawmakers do the right thing, even when misguided mobs whine about it. Letting temper tantrums, motivated by stupidity, dictate public policy only encourages more stupid temper tantrums.

Second, Grassley has a confused sense of who "everybody" is. Grassley has 3 million constituents. Let's say, hypothetically, Grassley has heard angry right-wing screams from, say, 3,000 Iowans at town-hall events. That would mean the senator had heard strenuous opposition to reform from exactly 0.1% of his constituents. If he's heard far-right town-hall enmity from 30,000 Iowans -- a farfetched claim, to be sure -- that would still only be 1% of the people Grassley represents.

He's concerned about "democracy meaning something"? A clear majority of Americans -- and a clear majority of Iowans -- elected Barack Obama as president. His signature domestic issue was health care reform. "You listen to your people and you act accordingly."

Grassley doesn't give a damn about the deficit or screaming Teabaggers or government spending. He wants to kill health care reform. The only question now is whether congressional Democrats are prepared to help him with this goal.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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SUPPORT FOR ENERGY REFORM (FOR NOW).... At some point in the next few months, federal policymakers will again shift their attention to energy policy. Despite the complaints about the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), also known as Waxman-Markey, public support for these efforts looks fairly strong, at least for now.

Most Americans approve of the way President Obama is handling energy issues and support efforts by him and Democrats in Congress to overhaul energy policy -- including the controversial cap-and-trade approach to limiting greenhouse gas emissions, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Even as public support has slipped for Obama's health-care proposals, support for ambitious changes in energy policy has been steady. Although the issue of health care arouses more intense feelings than energy policy does, those who do feel strongly about energy and climate policy tend to tilt toward the administration's position and a broad majority of people echo Democratic lawmakers' views on the benefits of proposed changes.

Nearly six in 10 of those polled support the proposed changes to U.S. energy policy being developed by Congress and the administration. Fifty-five percent of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling the issue, compared with 30 percent who do not. A narrower majority, 52 to 43 percent, back a cap-and-trade system; that margin is unchanged since June.

The appetite for change has low thresholds. If the plan to reduce greenhouse emissions cost an extra $10 a month, 58% of Americans are comfortable with that. If it cost an extra $25 a month, support drops to $39%. (Proposals backed by Democrats are expected to cost less than $10 a month.)

That said, the public's instincts seem to be on the right track: "Fewer than one in five say that the reform efforts would lead to job losses; more than twice as many see added jobs."

Support for government action to develop more solar and wind power is up to 91%, and federal efforts to develop electric car technology is 82%. Asked about "requiring more energy conservation by businesses and industries," 78% support government action, 62% of them "strongly."

So, this is all pretty encouraging, right? For now, yes. What happens, though, when the coal industry and Fox News decide that energy reform will require child sacrifices and human cannibalism? What happens when the Council on American Goodness runs ads saying that President Obama's energy policies will make it illegal for families to use the bathroom?

I'm delighted support for Democratic energy policies is strong. I'm concerned, however, that the support could disappear, now that right-wing and corporate activists have learned how to shake up the policy landscape.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE WORDS OF A REFORM OPPONENT.... If I didn't know better, I might think Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) -- ostensibly the leading GOP negotiators on health care reform -- doesn't really want a bill.

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, one of three Senate Republicans negotiating on health care, said the soaring federal budget deficit "puts a stake in the heart" of $1 trillion measures being considered by lawmakers.

Grassley, the top Republican on the finance committee, said a bipartisan plan being discussed by panel members will have to be scaled back to have any chance of passing in the wake of new deficit projections released this week. [...]

"It's going to have a big impact on whether I'll even support something," he said at a town-hall meeting Aug. 26 in Le Mars, Iowa.

This doesn't make any sense. Literally, none. It's possible that Grassley, after nearly three decades in the Senate, doesn't understand the basics of budgets and public policy, but I think it's more likely that he opposes health care reform and is looking for an excuse. After all, as a substantive matter, Grassley has the entire situation backwards -- reform wouldn't add to the deficit, and if long-term debt were his top concern, he'd be an enthusiastic proponent of the Democratic proposal.

Grassley's comments aren't the words of someone worried about deficit projections. Grassley's comments are the words of someone who wants to kill health care reform.

I'm tempted to ask Max Baucus to write 100 times on the chalkboard, "Chuck Grassley does not support health care reform. Chuck Grassley does not support health care reform. Chuck Grassley does not support health care reform."

What more would the guy have to do? Grassley wants to drive a stake into the heart of the reform bill, for reasons that defy common sense. He doesn't think he can reach an agreement with the administration. If he thinks the bill is "imperfect," he won't vote for it. He's prepared to vote against his own compromise bill, and as of this week, it's doubtful he'll "even support something."

What more is there to talk about with Chuck Grassley?

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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MAKING THE PUBLIC OPTION OPTIONAL.... Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas has been one of the leading right-wing agitators against health care reform. It was a little odd, then, to see Armey accidentally tell The Economist that the public option may be a good idea.

"If you in fact freely choose to enroll in Medicare that's a wonderful gift, it's a charity, it's something I applaud. But when they force you in, that's tyranny."

The Economist added, "In arguing against the Democrats' plan, he says that Medicare is a form of tyranny, and that citizens should be able to choose to enroll in the program. This choice, between a public plan and private ones, is precisely what the Democrats propose in a public option."

Right. No one is proposing a public option that Americans would be "forced" into. That's why it's called an "option." It denotes something "optional." Eligible Americans would be able to choose whether to "opt" in or out. "Optional" and "mandatory," in the English language, are opposites.

And yet, this seems to come up all the time. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dog point-man on health care, said last week he would not vote for a plan that would "force government-run healthcare on anyone. Period." He added that the public plan would be "strictly ... an option." The fact that he had to make the not-so-bold declaration in the first place suggests he's been running into some folks who believe they would be forced into a public plan.

With that in mind, I have two suggestions going forward. First, reform proponents should probably start telling the public that even Dick Armey thinks the idea of a public option sounds like "a wonderful gift."

And second, Democrats should declare, publicly and loudly, that in response to popular demand, they've decided to make the public plan purely optional. Conservatives drive a hard bargain, but reform proponents are not above compromise. As this item, posted by Josh Marshall, put it, "I think Obama should use all the fictional friction points as bargaining chips. You want us to give up the tyranny of compulsory coverage? You win, Dick Armey. Will you support the bill now?"

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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August 27, 2009

THURDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation issues another grim report card: "The agency reported that the banking industry lost $3.7 billion in the second quarter amid a surge in bad loans made to home builders, commercial real estate developers, and small and midsize businesses. Its deposit insurance fund dropped 20 percent, to $10.4 billion, in the second quarter, its lowest level in nearly 16 years."

* The revised GDP numbers from the second quarter showed the economy shrank at a 1% annual rate. The previous estimate was a 1.5% decline.

* House Committee on Energy and Commerce put together a terrific resource, measuring the impact of health care reform on every congressional district in the country.

* Ted Kennedy's body arrived in Boston this afternoon, after traveling a 70-mile route, with spectators lining the streets.

* The RNC conceded today its claim that the government may discriminate against Republican voters for medical treatment isn't true. As an RNC spokesperson put it, the claim was "inartfully worded."

* A man who brought an assault rifle and a handgun to a presidential event in Arizona last week had attended church services the day before. His pastor told the congregation that he was going to "pray for Barack Obama to die and go to hell."

* A federal investigation prevented New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) from joining the Obama cabinet, but it looks like Richardson is in the clear.

* Blue Dog Democrats sure do get a lot of money from the pharmaceutical, health care. and health insurance industries.

* I'm glad to see Wendell Potter's efforts get some more attention. I still think his should be a household name by now. Is anyone's perspective more relevant in the health care debate?

* Adam Serwer 1, Andy McCarthy 0.

* Looks like Beck and O'Reilly have made Van Jones the man they love to hate.

* Remember when there was talk that John McCain might revert to his 2001 form after the presidential campaign was over? So much for that idea.

* It's good to see "Matthew Alexander" join VetVoice.

* I'm young and healthy, and plan to be around for a very long time. But if something horrible ever happens to me, by all means, politicize my death.

* I'm not entirely sure who Andrew Breitbart is, but his attacks on Ted Kennedy yesterday were vile.

* Limbaugh is, of course, attacking Kennedy, too.

* Digby asks an interesting question: "How long is everyone going to deny just how fu**ing crazy mainstream Republicanism has become? And when are people going to start asking seriously where this is headed?"

* And reader A.K. let me know about this insightful piece from Michael Seitzman, who shares a suggestion about how to deal with the crazies: "Stop trying to get these people to realize how wrong they are and how right you are. Stop trying to apply reason to the profoundly unreasonable. Stop trying to mitigate or explain their collective temper tantrum. Stop trying to curry their favor, their votes, their attention. They don't care about truth, right and wrong, good or bad. They care about stomping feet, crying victim, and pointing fingers."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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PART D.... At a recent town-hall event, President Obama was asked about how to pay for health care reform without adding to the debt. "It's a great question," the presidents said. "First of all, I said I won't sign a bill that adds to the deficit or the national debt. Okay? So this will have to be paid for."

Obama then proceeded to take a stroll down memory lane. "That, by the way, is in contrast to the prescription drug bill that was passed that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, by the previous administration and previous Congress, that was not paid for at all, and that was a major contributor to our current national debt. That's why you will forgive me if sometimes I chuckle a little bit when I hear all these folks saying, 'oh, big-spending Obama' -- when I'm proposing something that will be paid for and they signed into law something that wasn't, and they had no problem with it. Same people, same folks. And they say with a straight face how we've got to be fiscally responsible."

It's a point that's gone largely overlooked of late. Just six years ago, Karl Rove thought he could lock up that "permanent Republican majority" by adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Seniors -- at least the one who didn't get caught in the dreaded "donut hole" -- would be so impressed they'd vote GOP forever. All Republican policymakers had to do was approve a poorly-written bill that expanded government involvement in health care while adding trillions of dollars to long-term debt.

It has a certain relevance to the ongoing policy debate of the day.

Matt Yglesias does good service by reminding us of the 2003 Senate vote on Medicare Part D, the budget-busting prescription drugs for seniors bill that passed the Senate 54-44, even though it wasn't paid for (it adds trillions to the deficit over time). Here's the vote: it is interesting to note that the two Gang of Six members who are the most prominent naysayers and budget hawks on the Senate Finance Committee now, Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi, voted for the bill. As did assorted other noisy conservatives like Sam Brownback, John Cornyn and John Kyl. What irresponsible spendthrifts!

Republicans who actually are deficit hawks -- John McCain (usually) and Lindsey Graham, for example -- voted against it. Many Democrats -- Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, Hillary Clinton -- also voted against it, mostly because they didn't think it provided sufficient coverage (and let the drug companies off the hook).

But the headline remain grousers like Grassley, who oppose the alleged expense of the Obama plan now (even though the President has vowed not to sign a bill that isn't, more or less, paid for). It should be noted that Max Baucus -- who has also made non-stop noises about fiscal responsibility -- voted for it, too.

The bill even included a provision on end-of-life counseling -- hey, look, GOP-approved "death panels" -- that the Tea Baggers of the day didn't seem to notice or care about. Indeed, at the time, conservative activists had nothing but good things to say about expanding an entitlement program by hundreds of billions of dollars, expanding the government's role in health care, and handing the tab to future generations. Where were the angry patriots comparing Bush to Hitler, and accusing Republican lawmakers of trying to turn the United States into Soviet Russia?

For that matter, somehow, Baucus and Grassley were on board with Bush's Medicare boondoggle, which included nothing to "bend the curve" and only added heavily to the debt. It's funny how standards change when there's a Democratic president.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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HOW HATCH PERCEIVES THE SENATE.... Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah appeared on MSNBC this morning, ostensibly to reflect on the career of his friend Ted Kennedy, but he also talked about the polarization of the political parties.

"You [used to have] at least 12 conservatives that you could call conservatives on the Democratic side," Hatch said. "We probably had about 12 liberals on our side, and it was much more balanced."

"Today, there's only one moderate, as I see it, real moderate, in the Democratic United States senate," Hatch continued, "and on the Republican side we've gone pretty conservative, we only have two liberals on the Republican side, as I can see it now."

Hatch's office later added that the senator was referring to Nebraska's Ben Nelson as the only "moderate" Democrat, and Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe as the Republican "liberals."

Now, Hatch isn't a centrist, so his views are skewed by his ideology, but it seems to me the Senate Democratic caucus is filled with moderates. For goodness sakes, the party elected Harry Reid the Senate Majority Leader, and he's not even pro-choice.

Granted, Ben Nelson is the least liberal Dem in the chamber. But if "there's only one moderate" among Democrats, I guess that means Hatch considers Baucus, Landrieu, Bayh, Conrad, Lieberman, Lincoln, Specter, and Pryor to be "liberals"?

I wonder just how conservative a Senate Dem has to be in order to qualify as a "moderate."

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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INHOFE RAISES PROSPECT OF 'REVOLUTION'.... One of these days, it sure would be nice if Republicans felt the need to denounce this kind of radical, vile rhetoric.

At a town hall Wednesday night, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) told constituents, "We're almost reaching a revolution in this country."

Inhofe also said he doesn't need to know what's in a health care reform bill to vote against it.

"I don't have to read it, or know what's in it. I'm going to oppose it anyways," he said at the event in Chickasha, Okla.

The senator was in good company, with most of the audience agreeing with him and expressing their disdain for big government and Democrats. One man said, "No more compromise. We're losing our country."

I can't begin to understand why Inhofe and his like-minded extremists are so angry. But for an elected member of the United States Senate to speak publicly about the possibility of a "revolution" is deeply frightening.

What's more, let's not forget that Inhofe isn't the only one throwing around insane rhetoric like this. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has encouraged her supporters to "rise up" and be "armed and dangerous." Several GOP lawmakers are talking up the idea of "nullification," which is effectively secession-lite. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's former press secretary recently wrote about "the coming revolution," which he suggested might be similar to "Project Mayhem" from the movie "Fight Club." (In the film, "Project Mayhem" involved militarizing terrorist cells that blew up banks.)

Inhofe is a U.S. senator, and he's decided to fan the flames.

I'm reminded of something Josh Marshall wrote a few weeks ago: "[L]et's all collectively throw a little cold water on our faces and just realize that this is some really crazy stuff. The health care debate is now being driven by a perverse nonsense feedback loop in which the Palin/Limbaugh crowd says all sorts of completely insane lies, gets a lot of ... how shall we put it, impressionable people totally jacked up over a bunch of complete nonsense."

It's getting worse, the perverse nonsense feedback loop is getting louder, and elected members of Congress are dues-paying members the Palin/Limbaugh crowd.

It was just a couple of years ago when prominent conservatives told us criticism of the president and the United States government in the midst of a crisis was borderline, if not outright, treason. The love-it-or-leave-it crowd, after just seven months of a Democratic administration, has reached a very different conclusion about standards of patriotism in the 21st century.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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DEFICITS AND HEALTH CARE REFORM.... After an eight-year hiatus, deficit reduction matters to Republicans again. Why the party that turned a quarter-trillion dollar surplus into a $1.2 trillion deficit thinks it has credibility on the subject is a mystery. That the party that put two wars and Medicare expansion on future generations' tab pretends to care about fiscal responsibility at all is rather comical.

But pretend they do. This week, for example, Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, responded to the mid-session budget review by insisting, "[I]f the House Democrats' unaffordable $1 trillion health care bill wasn't dead before, it should be now."

That, of course, doesn't make sense. Unlike the Republican policies of the Bush-era, the Democratic health care bill would be paid for, not added to the debt. What's more, as Ezra Klein explained, "Camp's argument boils down to the idea that big deficits mean we can't spend money. But he's not saying that 'if the $541.1 billion the military has requested in 2009 wasn't dead before, it should be now.' Nor is he saying that 'if the extension of President Bush's tax cuts wasn't dead before, it should be now.' Both of those comments would actually make more sense, as neither expenditure is revenue neutral. But Camp's comment isn't about the deficit. It's about killing health-care reform."

But if Camp's comment were about the deficit, he'd nevertheless have it backwards. Tim Fernholz argues this week that if policymakers are serious about improving the budget outlook, health care reform is the solution.

[Budget expert Stan Collender] is right that a deficit-neutral health-care bill will, by definition, have no direct effect on future government deficits and debt. But look more closely, and it becomes apparent that health-care reform will have major effects on decreasing deficits over the long term, when spending discipline is actually important....

The people standing directly in the way of health-care reform are conservative Democrats who claim to be deficit hawks, like Max Baucus and Kent Conrad in the Senate and the Blue Dogs caucus in the House. Of late, however, their interest in cutting the deficit has been eclipsed by political cowardice in the face of unified Republican obstruction to any and all reform efforts. The stumbling efforts of these supposed paragons of fiscal responsibility to maneuver the politics of health-care reform have decreased the chances of a bill that would reduce the deficit over the long term.

So get it straight: If the latest budget projections are keeping you up at night, the best way to ease your troubled mind is to support health-care reform. Otherwise, costs will keep rising, and deficits along with them. Opportunities to improve health care only come along once in a while -- the last major effort was 15 years ago. Fifteen years from now, it's possible that nearly one-quarter of every dollar spent in the U.S. will be spent on health care -- much of that coming, directly or indirectly, from the government. That sounds fiscally responsible, doesn't it?

Something for Dave Camp and his cohorts to keep in mind.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WHY WOULD DEMS WANT THAT?.... OK, so the Republican National Committee wants people to believe there may a plan out there to impose a health care "rationing system" in which Republican voters would be "discriminated against." What else is in the "2009 Future of American Health Survey"? David Weigel posted the whole thing.

Among the questions that stood out:

* Do you believe your health care decisions should be made by you and your doctor, and not government bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.?

* Rationing of health care in countries with socialized medicine had led to patients dying because they were forced to wait too long to receive treatment. Are you concerned that this would be inevitable in the U.S. under the Democrats' plan?

* Do you believe it is right for the government to use age and life expectancy as criteria for determining access to health care?

Now, it's hardly a secret why the RNC would lie to its own supporters. The "2009 Future of American Health Survey" isn't even a survey -- it's a fundraising gimmick. No one will be tallying the responses to the made-up questions.

But reading over these specific lies, and thinking about them in relation to the other insane attacks we've seen as part of the health care reform "debate," it occurs to me to ask right-wing opponents of reform a simple question: "Why would Dems want that?"

And by "that," I mean any of the various nightmares that insurance companies and GOP hacks have come up with. Why would Democrats want "death panels"? Why would they support widespread "rationing"? Why would they try to force bureaucrats between patients and their doctors? What possible incentive could they have?

They're politicians. They want to do well, but they also want to keep their jobs (i.e., win re-election). It's in their interests to pass legislation that would benefit the country, and which voters will like. Does it make any sense to think Democrats would take this rare opportunity to approve legislation that would kill off seniors, while making things drastically worse for tens of millions of people? Why would Dems want that?

Obviously, reason and rationality stopped being relevant quite a while ago. I get that. But I'd like to encourage well-intentioned folks who hear ridiculous claims about reform to ask themselves this basic question: does that sound like something a politician who wants to be popular would support?

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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PALIN'S CRACKER-JACK OPERATION.... If these circumstances sound familiar, it's because we've heard this story before.

Organizers of an Anchorage event that has been billing Sarah Palin for weeks as a star speaker were left scrambling Wednesday after learning that the former governor won't be there for tonight's event and claims to have never been asked.

It would be at least the fourth time in recent months that an anticipated Palin speech has fallen through after Palin and her camp disputed they had ever confirmed it. That includes the brouhaha over whether she'd speak at the annual congressional Republican fundraising dinner in Washington, D.C., this summer.

This time it's an event promoting an Alaska ballot measure aimed at making it illegal for teens to get an abortion without telling their parents. The Alaska Family Council has been advertising that Palin would give a speech and become the first official signer of the ballot petition tonight at ChangePoint, the Anchorage megachurch.

Alaska Family Council President Jim Minnery and his group have been promoting the event, and Palin's appearance, after having been in contact with the former governor's aides. Palin's spokesperson said yesterday, however, that "this is the first we have ever heard of a speech."

"All we can do is take people at their word that we've worked with in the past," Minnery said. "We've been working for several weeks on the event, promoting it very heavily. It would be a grave disappointment if she doesn't show up but the show will still go on."

She's not showing up. Palin's spokesperson said Palin will not even be in Alaska when the event is held.

Now, in general, a mix-up between a far-right group and a far-right politician over scheduling issues wouldn't be especially noteworthy. But what's interesting about this is that it keeps happening. This is, as the Anchorage Daily News noted, the fourth time some members of Palin's team committed to an event that other members of Palin's team never agreed to.

I'm reminded of an item Greg Sargent wrote in June

...Palin almost was a heartbeat away from the presidency last year, and she harbors ambitions to be less than a heartbeat away from it come 2012. If you want to be the most powerful person in the world, your ability to pick and manage a good staff matters a bit.

Yet reporters and Washington Republicans routinely joke about the quality of her staff, lamenting calls that go unreturned for days, mixed signals, and spasms of general incompetence.

That was nearly three months ago. Palin's operation apparently hasn't improved.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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'IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED' BY WHOM?.... The Republican National Committee has sent out a "2009 Future of American Health Survey." Question #4 reads:

"It has been suggested that the government could use voter registration to determine a person's political affiliation, prompting fears that GOP voters might be discriminated against for medical treatment in a Democrat-imposed health care rationing system. Does this possibility concern you?"

Two quick thoughts. First, this is hopelessly insane.

Second, I was foolish enough to believe the RNC was incapable of surprising me. Live and learn.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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THURSDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* A new Rasmussen poll in New Jersey finds that former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R) now leads incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D), 47% to 36%. The 11-point margin is slightly less than Christie's 13-point lead a few weeks ago. When leaners are pushed into choose one of the candidates, though, Christie's lead shrinks from 13 points three weeks ago, to eight points now.

* In Virginia's gubernatorial race, the Republican Governors Association launched a new attack ad against Creigh Deeds (D), accusing him of being a "big spender."

* On a related note, Deeds has a new radio ad, which refers to the candidate as "that underdog guy." The spot tells voters Deeds is "a little more Mark Warner and a lot less George Bush."

* In a surprise announcement, three-term Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) announced this morning that he will not seek re-election next year. Douglas added that he won't run for any other statewide office in 2010, but he will serve until the end of his current term.

* As expected, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) of Louisiana announced this morning that he will take on Sen. David Vitter (R) next year. In light of Vitter's prostitution scandal, the race is expected to be competitive.

* Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is expected to win the Democratic primary fight in next year's Senate race, but the field of primary opponents is growing. Yesterday, Chicago's Inspector General, David Hoffman, stepped down from his post to launch a Senate campaign.

* Last year, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) barely held onto his seat. Next year, he'll face another tough challenge -- state Rep. Harry Crawford (D), a DCCC favorite, announced yesterday he'll take on the controversial congressman.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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PREDICTING POLITICIZATION.... It looks like word went out yesterday about what leading conservative voices should say about Ted Kennedy's death: complain about the memorial service that hasn't happened yet.

Hannity on Kennedy's death: "a lot of this was the politicizing of -- remember Paul Wellstone's death?" Discussing Kennedy's death during his radio program, Sean Hannity asserted, "We've got The Wall Street Journal reporting -- and by the way, a lot of this was the politicizing of -- remember Paul Wellstone's death? You know, 'Let's do everything for Paul.' And we're now being implored to get behind Obamacare because it's what Ted Kennedy would have wanted." [The Sean Hannity Show, 8/26/09]

Lopez on Kennedy's death: Wellstone service "turned into a political rally." The National Review Online's Kathyrn Jean Lopez wrote in an August 26 post to the blog The Corner titled "Re: The Politics of Ted Kennedy's Passing": "All politicos need to remember the Wellstone funeral when a well-known politician dies. Instead of memorializing his life, his service turned into a political rally. Some of the MSNBC coverage today I'm catching looks like a [sic] Obamacare convocation. Human life is about more than politics. And politics isn't American Idol. Or, even, The Lion of the Senate."

Allahpundit "sure" Kennedy "eulogies won't be politicized at all." Hot Air blogger Allahpundit wrote in an August 26 tweet: "Looking forward to the Democratic line-up at TK's memorial service. I'm sure the eulogies won't be politicized at all."

Instapundit: "A Wellstone Memorial on steroids?" An August 26 post on Instapundit.com linked to a post by JammieWearingFool with the headline "A Wellstone Memorial on steroids? And how did that work out?" JammieWearingFool asserted in the post, written the same day, "While we have no doubt the Democrats will do all they can to exploit his death and will probably have a Wellstone memorial on steroids, we'll stay above that." The link on the words "Wellstone memorial" were to an October 30, 2002, Slate.com article describing Wellstone's memorial services as a "pep rally."

All of this came the same day Kennedy's death was announced. In other words, one of the foremost concerns conservatives had yesterday was over a memorial service that hasn't happened, eulogies that haven't been delivered, and possible similarities to a Wellstone event that didn't happen the way they think it did.

There may be a genuine fear on the right that Kennedy's passing may inspire Democrats to complete his unfinished work, and give the left new resolve. A stirring memorial service with inspirational eulogies may have political consequences, so conservatives have apparently decided to try to crush that spirit now, before anyone starts to feel motivated to honor Kennedy's legacy.

Indeed, they're just laying the groundwork. Far-right bloggers and Fox News personalities may feel tempted to condemn Kennedy-related services when they occur, so they're letting everyone know now, "We'll be watching closely, waiting for rhetoric we don't like."

Hold services for a progressive champion that meets the demands of right-wing activists, or face their wrath.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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MICHAEL STEELE ISN'T VERY BRIGHT.... Let this be a lesson to all of us -- when major political parties are looking for a chairman or chairwoman, it's not a good idea to pick someone conspicuously unintelligent. It's an even worse idea to have that person pretend to understand the basics of public policy.

This week, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele argued that Medicare is a) a great government program that Democrats are trying to undermine and the GOP is trying to protect; and b) a terrible program that doesn't work and should probably be privatized. The shift happened within 24 hours.

Steele spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep this morning, and the host tried to get a better understanding of what Steele is thinking. Amanda Terkel posted the audio and a transcript, which are both worth checking out. Steele isn't very bright, and he made a fool out of himself on the air.

It started when Steele endorsed increased government regulation of the private insurance market.

INSKEEP: Wait, wait -- you would trust the government to look into that?

STEELE: No, I'm talking about the private -- I'm talking about citizens. I'm talking about -- (CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: Who is it you -- you said it is something that should be looked into. Who is it that you think should look into that?

STEELE: Well, who regulates the insurance markets?

INSKEEP: That would be the government, I believe.

STEELE: Well, and so what. Now wait a minute. Hold up. You're doing a wonderful little dance here and you're trying to be cute. But the reality of this is very simple. I'm not saying the government doesn't have a role to play. I've never said that. The government does have a role to play; it has a very limited role to play.

INSKEEP: Mr. Chairman, I respect that you think I'm doing a dance here. I just want you to know that as a citizen, I'm a little confused by the positions you take because you're giving me a very nice nuanced position here --

STEELE: It's not nice and nuanced. I'm being very clear.

As David Kurtz concluded, "Hard to believe this guy really is the head of a major American political party."

There were several candidates seeking the RNC chairmanship this year. The party chose the most ridiculous, least qualified, most confused one. That Steele reflects poorly on the party, its agenda, and its ability to be serious about public policy is a dramatic understatement.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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THE GOP'S LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STIMULUS.... It's a bit like listening to Gollum talk about his precious ring. Bobby Jindal hates the recovery package; Bobby Jindal loves the recovery package. Mitch McConnell hates the recovery package; Mitch McConnell loves the recovery package. Eric Cantor hates the recovery package; Eric Cantor loves the recovery package.

There's a lot of this going around.

Georgia's Republican senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, voted against the $787 billion economic stimulus package, blasting the bill as a bloated government giveaway.

But their disdain didn't stop them from later asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates to steer $50 million in stimulus money to a constituent's bio-energy project.

Gates didn't do it, but Chambliss, Isakson and other Republican opponents of the stimulus aren't going empty-handed.

Billions of dollars worth of Defense Department stimulus money is paying for repairs and construction at military installations in areas represented by lawmakers who said "no" to the legislation, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

The request from Chambliss and Isakson isn't the only one Gates and other top defense officials received before and after President Barack Obama signed the stimulus law in February. Their pitch stands out, though, because of the GOP's staunch opposition.

It's a familiar pattern. Republicans aggressively opposed the stimulus proposal earlier this year, insisting that it was a wasteful effort that couldn't possibly improve the economy (as opposed to, say, a five-year spending freeze, which would have worked wonders). Ever since, however, the conservative lawmakers who trashed the recovery bill are the same conservative lawmakers who think the economy in their area could really use some of those recovery funds.

This started within a couple of weeks of the stimulus package passing, and it's only become more common since.

The DCCC has even come up with a "Hypocrisy Hall of Fame" for recovery critics who are "celebrating the benefits of President Obama's economic recovery bill in their districts."

The campaign committee probably ought to save room for a lot of inductees.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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ROMNEY FOR SENATE?.... Whether Massachusetts law is changed or not, the state will host a special election in January to fill the vacancy left by Sen. Edward Kennedy. It's likely that Massachusetts will elect a Democrat, but it's also likely that Republicans will at least field a candidate.

And who might that candidate be? U.S. News' Peter Roff has a former one-term governor in mind.

Surprisingly enough, this brings things back full circle to [Mitt] Romney, who up to now has been busy laying the groundwork for another presidential bid in 2012. It would be an intriguing thing if, after waiting a day or two out of respect for the late senator, Romney were to downshift and announce he will be a candidate in the upcoming election to fill Kennedy's vacant Senate seat.

Such an announcement would likely be embraced immediately by the Republicans, who would like almost nothing more than to deny Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada his new, hard-won, 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority. As a self-funding candidate who has already been elected once statewide, Romney has nearly 100 percent name ID. And, in an environment where President Obama seems to be dragging the Democrats down, he would be a serious threat to the Democratic hegemony in Massachusetts's congressional delegation. Meaning Romney likely would win.

In Roff's fantasy scenario, Romney could serve a couple of years, dazzle Republicans with his ideas, and then parlay his Senate service into the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. It's not just Roff -- National Review's Lisa Schiffren likes the idea, too.

This is certainly an ... what's the word ... imaginative proposal. But I don't think it's especially realistic.

First, Romney ran for governor in Massachusetts as a center-left, pro-choice, tolerant New England Republican. He left office after just one term as a conservative with an approval rating in the 30s. Which version of Romney would run for Kennedy's seat? He couldn't run to the right; he'd lose. He couldn't run to the left; it would ruin his presidential ambitions.

Second, Roff may have missed it, but while President Obama's approval ratings aren't as strong as they were, he maintains a 73% approval rating in Massachusetts. It doesn't look as if the Bay State would be anxious to replace Ted Kennedy with a harsh, reflexive opponent of the White House.

And third, by all appearances, Mitt Romney isn't actually a resident of Massachusetts.

Other than these minor details, though, it's a great idea. Run, Mittster, run.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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LOOKING FOR A 'GREAT WHITE HOPE'.... Let's call this another setback for the Republican Party's outreach to minority communities.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins offered encouragement to conservatives at a town hall forum that the Republican Party would embrace a "great white hope" capable of thwarting the political agenda endorsed by Democrats who control Congress and President Barack Obama.

Jenkins, a Topeka Republican in her first term in Congress, shared thoughts about the GOP's political future during an Aug. 19 forum at Fisher Community Center in the northeast Kansas community of Hiawatha.

At the event, an attendee asked Jenkins about whether the Republican Party might put together a policy blueprint, along the lines of the Contract with America. "Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope," Jenkins responded. "I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington." She proceeded to single out Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). All three are white, as is Jenkins.

The Topeka Capital-Journal noted the historical context: "The phrase 'great white hope' is frequently tied to racist attitudes permeating the United States when heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson fought in the early 1900s. Reaction to the first black man to reign as champion was intense enough to build support for a campaign to find a white fighter capable of reclaiming the title from Johnson."

Hmm, I wonder why that might be relevant right now.

A spokesperson for the freshman GOP Kansan said "great white hope" was not intended to express a preference for any "race, creed or any background." A statement from the lawmaker's office said Jenkins "apologizes for her choice of words."

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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DON'T APPLAUD SELF-DESCRIBED 'TERRORISTS'.... Rep. Wally Herger (R) of California, a right-wing back-bencher who rarely generates national attention, held a town-hall event last week, in which he described health care reform as a "threat to our democracy."

But what turned out to be the most newsworthy aspect of the event was a comment from one of the attendees, who declared, "I am a proud right-wing terrorist." The Republican congressman said with a broad smile, "Amen, God bless you. There is a great American."

There's now a video of the remarks. For those of you who can't watch clips from your work computers, the man, whose name is apparently Bert Stead, sounds like a mild-mannered Tea Bagger, repeating fairly predictable nonsense. Government is bad, health care reform is bad, Obama is bad, birth certificates are good, yada, yada, yada. He comes across as the pleasant-but-annoying right-wing relative who sends a bunch of weird emails to his family members.

But he also says, to great applause, that he considers himself a "proud right-wing terrorist." And Wally Herger thought that was great.

In my heart of hearts, do I really think Bert Stead is a violent lunatic? No. Is he likely to encourage others to commit acts of political violence? I seriously doubt it. The guy probably called himself a "terrorist" because he's bought into the nonsense he's been fed about the Department of Homeland Security report(s) on extremists.

But there's a larger context to consider. The threat of political violence is real. Right-wing activists are showing up at presidential events with assault rifles; they're making death threats against members of Congress; and they're painting swastikas on lawmakers' signs. By one count, threats against the president are up 400%.

Conservative David Frum recently went so far as to accuse the "reckless right" of courting violence, imploring the right to "tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric."

And it's against this backdrop that Republican lawmakers are hearing dangerous rhetoric from their own constituents. In Iowa the other day, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) heard from one town-hall attendee, "The president of the United States, that's who you should be concerned about. Because he's acting like a little Hitler. I'd take a gun to Washington if enough of you would go with me."

Around the same time, Bert Stead boasted about labeling himself a terrorist. The appropriate response for a reasonable elected official is not to cheer the guy on.

Abraham Lincoln Ella Wheeler Wilcox* once said, "To sit in silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men." Wally Herger is Exhibit A.

Update: Herger doubles down, reiterating his praise.

Second Update: I was fairly sure the quote was Lincoln's, but Mark Kleiman emails with proof it's from Wilcox.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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August 26, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* In a bit of a surprise, new U.S. home sales jumped 9.6% in July, beating analysts' expectations for the fourth straight month.

* The Cash for Clunkers program wrapped up this week, and led to nearly 700,000 new car sales. The program, which most have deemed a success, came in under its $3 billion budget.

* South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's (R) troubles got worse today when Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (R) urged Sanford to resign, and vowed not to seek another term if the governor would finally step down. Sanford said he would not be "railroaded" out of office.

* If Massachusetts lawmakers are still willing to change the process for replacing U.S. senators, Gov. Deval Patrick (D) would sign a bill into law.

* Funeral arrangements were announced today for Edward Kennedy. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, just 95 feet south of the area where his older brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, were laid to rest.

* Vice President Biden delivered a heartfelt tribute to Kennedy today. The two served together for nearly four decades.

* The Vietnam Veterans of America, a national advocacy group, is not at all impressed with the vile, right-wing "death book" attacks.

* Betsy McCaughey continues to be poison for the political discourse.

* Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh are no better.

* In light of President Obama's decision to re-nominate Ben Bernanke at the Fed, James K. Galbraith's piece in the new issue of the Monthly is all the more significant.

* You know that attack on the Colorado Democratic Party Headquarters? The initial reports suggested it was the work of enraged right-wing activists. There may be more to it than that.

* It looks like Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is going for the full "birther" after all.

* And, as the anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster approaches, right-wing radio host Neal Boortz today referred to the victims of the story as human "debris." You stay classy, conservatives.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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DON'T USE KENNEDY AS AN EXCUSE FOR FAILURE.... It started in earnest several days ago, before we knew the state of Ted Kennedy's condition. Conservative senators like Orrin Hatch and John McCain said Kennedy's absence from the Senate this year made bipartisan health care reform less likely. As the argument goes, Kennedy didn't mind reaching out to the GOP and compromising on his principles, unlike these other Democrats. Kennedy, they say, could have gotten a deal done.

It's a weak, and borderline offensive, argument. For one thing, characterizing Kennedy as the kind of leader who sold out liberal ideals for the sake of routine compromise is just wrong. For another, Senate Dems have reached out to Republicans, and the party has made it clear it opposes reform. For conservatives to suggest Kennedy could have persuaded them to embrace the opposite position is a cheap and cowardly cop-out.

Indeed, Edward Kennedy was in the Senate for nearly five decades, and passing health care reform was the cause of his life. If senators like Hatch and McCain were seriously open to the idea of passing reform, and Kennedy really had the ability to persuade conservative lawmakers to embrace a progressive policy, it would have produced a bipartisan reform plan a long time ago. That never happened.

But as today has progressed, Republicans have been slowly but deliberately using Kennedy's passing as an excuse for failure. Reform could have passed this year, they say, if only Kennedy had been up to it.

National Journal's John Mercurio wrote today:

Worried that they'll ultimately be viewed as the party that blocked meaningful reform, [Republicans] are using Kennedy as a convenient foil. If only he had been here, they say, Kennedy would have used his magic touch to reach a meaningful compromise, bringing us on board. That sounds awfully nice, but it's still hard to believe that Republicans, 47 percent of whom believe the Democratic bill includes "death panels," would somehow roll over and obey the man they publicly demonized for decades.

Jamison Foser took this a little further.

According to McCain, had Kennedy been active in Senate negotiations, he would have made "the right concessions." And what is the key concession Republicans like McCain have been demanding? The elimination of a public option. By McCain's telling, there is no health care agreement because Senate Democrats haven't dropped the public plan like Kennedy would have.

Hatch made much the same claim on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, saying of Kennedy "the first thing he would have done would have been to call me and say, 'Let's work this out.' And we would work it out so that the best of both worlds would work" -- then adding "I would never go to a federal government program. If we do that, we'll bankrupt the country."

So Hatch, like McCain, claims that Kennedy would have gotten an agreement done by dropping the public plan.

Republicans may be, as Mecurio says, using Kennedy's absence to "humanize themselves" -- but they're also using it to subtly bash Senate Democrats for not dropping the public plan, as they claim Kennedy would have done. Whether that is accurate, fair, or in good taste is for others to decide. But it is the clear meaning of their statements.

For the record, Kennedy supported the public option. Indeed, there's no great mystery here -- he helped write the bill that was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. If anyone wants to throw their backing to what Kennedy supported, there's his bill. It currently enjoys exactly zero GOP supporters in either chamber.

Would he have traded away the public option to garner broader support? I have no idea. But let's not ignore what we've seen -- a member of the Senate Republican leadership has said, publicly and on the record, that Democrats could produce a deficit-neutral reform bill with no public option and the GOP would still oppose it. Kennedy would have made "the right concessions"? The White House has already signaled a willingness to give away the store, and Republicans slapped the president's hand away anyway.

Republicans oppose health care reform. That's their right. They shouldn't blame Ted Kennedy's absence and death for their obstinacy.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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STEELE, PEARLSTEIN, AND DECIDING NOT TO SUFFER FOOLS GLADLY.... It usually goes unsaid, but one of the more common frustrations felt by supporters of health care reform is the sheer idiocy of so many of the effort's critics. It's fairly routine to hear proponents, in unguarded moments, sigh with a touch of indignation, "My God, we're surrounded by liars and fools.*"

Earlier this month, for example, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Steven Pearlstein, unable to contain his disgust, explained, "The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems. "

That was on August 6; the discourse has deteriorated further since, and the capacity of our political system to maintain a half-way reasonable debate has all but fallen apart. As evidence, consider RNC Chairman Michael Steele's truly vile efforts this week. Pearlstein went over Steele's Medicare arguments in detail and seemed amazed by how ridiculous they are.

After reading his broadside, one is left wondering exactly what health reform plan Steele thought he was attacking. At one point, Steele claims that Democrats would prevent Americans from keeping their doctors or an insurance plan they like. Later, he warns that government will soon be setting caps on how many heart surgeries could be performed in the United States each year. Where is he getting this stuff? Has the chairman of the Republican Party somehow gotten hold of a top-secret plan for a government takeover of the health-care system that GOP operatives snatched during a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters?

If all that sounds spurious and unsubstantiated, it is. And like many of the overstated claims in this column, its purpose is to highlight the lies, distortions and political scare tactics that Steele and other Republicans have used to poison the national debate over health reform.

Have you no shame, sir? Have you no shame?

Steven, I feel your pain.

* edited for clarity

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WAITING PATIENTLY FOR SANITY.... It's hard not to watch a clip like this and think that Fox News' Glenn Beck really is deranged.

Here we have a highly-paid, self-described "rodeo clown" scrawling nonsense on a chalk board, concocting bizarre conspiracy theories. Watching the clip, it's tempting to feel kind of sorry for Beck, the same way one might feel sympathy for a man shouting bizarre conspiracy theories on a street corner, scrawling nonsense on a cardboard box.

But here's the kicker: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has seen Beck's lunacy, and she's extremely impressed, lauding the Fox News lunatic for doing an "extraordinary job" this week.

"FOX News' Glenn Beck is doing an extraordinary job this week walking America behind the scenes of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and outlining who is actually running the White House," Palin wrote on Facebook. The strange former governor proceeded to encourage "all my friends to watch" Beck's show.

That's right -- Sarah Palin has begun doing promotional work for a deranged television personality.

I so desperately wish Republicans could become sensible again. As Joe Klein asks, "How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists?"

Or as Michelle Cottle recently wrote, "I have given up hope for a loyal opposition. I'd settle for a sane one."

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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MISTAKE OF THE DAY.... Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah argued yesterday that the discouraging long-term deficit figures are a serious problem -- that shouldn't be blamed on a certain former president. "It's not George W. Bush's fault," Chaffetz said, adding that "this 'credit card Congress' bears responsibility."

bushdeficits.jpg

That's one way to look at it, but let's also note reality. The Center for American Progress' Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden took a closer look at the mid-season review and explains that the "real story is ... fairly obvious."

From their report: "The policies of the Bush administration, which included tax cuts during a time of war and a floundering economy, are clearly the primary source of the current deficits. The Obama administration policies that are beginning to give the economy a needed jumpstart -- the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in particular -- place a distant third in contributing to the 2009 and 2010 deficit numbers."

Even Chaffetz should be able to understand this. Bush approved tax cuts, but didn't pay for them. Bush expanded Medicare, but didn't pay for it. Bush launched two expensive wars, but didn't pay for them. Bush took a quarter-trillion-dollar surplus, and then handed off a $1.3 trillion deficit to his successor. "It's not George W. Bush's fault"? C'mon.

The Ettlinger/Linden analysis found that 40% of the fiscal deterioration we're seeing -- the single largest contributing factor -- can be attributed to Bush policies. Another 12% comes from Bush's financial rescues, while 20% are the result of the economic crisis.

What's President Obama's share? Just 16% of the total, most of which is the result of new spending that was necessary to prevent a depression.

Chaffetz wants to make sure Bush isn't held responsible for the budget mess. He's a shallow partisan, so that's predictable. But if Bush isn't to blame, I suppose Chaffetz would have us believe that lawmakers who backed Bush's policies are to blame?

Chaffetz, in other words, is pinning the budget mess on his Republican colleagues. He probably hasn't thought this one through.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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ENZI EXPLAINS HIS APPROACH TO NEGOTIATIONS.... Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming, one of the Senate Finance Committee's Gang of Six, hosted a town-hall meeting on Monday in which most of his constituents urged him to drop out of the negotiations.

One constituent said he was bothered by President Obama's praise of Enzi, and said the far-right senator has a duty to terminate discussions on reform. Enzi responded by explaining his approach to the negotiations.

"If I hadn't been involved in this process as long as I have and to the depth as I have, you would already have national health care," he said.

"Someone has to be at the table asking questions," Enzi said, showing a flash of passion.

He later quoted a favorite saying: "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

"It's not where I get them to compromise, it's what I get them to leave out," Enzi said.

This comes less than a week after Enzi told Roll Call that he's prepared to vote against his own compromise bill, if that's what the Republican Party wants.

Ryan Grim interpreted Enzi's remarks by concluding that the senator "told a Wyoming town hall crowd that he had no plans to compromise with Democrats and was merely trying to extract concessions." That seems like a reasonable reading of the remarks. Sure, Enzi may have been playing to the right-wing crowd a bit, but he nevertheless conceded publicly that his principle goal in the Gang of Six talks is to weaken the bill and force concessions from Democrats.

In order for negotiations to make any sense, participants have to be willing to engage in good faith. Is there anyone in their right mind who sitll thinks Enzi is committed to finding a bipartisan solution to health care reform?

As Krugman recently explained: "The central fact of the health care debate is that there is essentially no agreement on anything -- values, philosophy, vision of how the world works -- between the two sides. Progressives want universal coverage, and see an expanded government role as essential to getting there. Conservatives believe, in the face of all evidence, that free markets are the answer. And Enzi is very conservative. According to Vote View, my site for left-right rankings, Enzi was the 8th most conservative Senator in the last Congress -- almost in the same league as Inhofe or DeMint. This is the quest for bipartisanship gone stark raving mad."

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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BYRD RECOMMENDS RENAMING HEALTH CARE BILL.... Seems like a no-brainer.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the only senator to have served longer than the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), mourned his friend Wednesday, saying his "heart and soul weeps."

Byrd said he hoped healthcare reform legislation in the Senate would be renamed in memoriam of Kennedy.

"I had hoped and prayed that this day would never come," Byrd said in a statement. "My heart and soul weeps at the lost of my best friend in the Senate, my beloved friend, Ted Kennedy."

Byrd's wistful statement focused on the work accomplished with Kennedy during decades together in the Senate, and called on the healthcare bill before Congress to be renamed in honor of Kennedy.

"In his honor and as a tribute to his commitment to his ideals, let us stop the shouting and name calling and have a civilized debate on health care reform which I hope, when legislation has been signed into law, will bear his name for his commitment to insuring the health of every American," Byrd said.

I don't imagine changing the name of the bill to honor Kennedy will necessarily change the equation, but it would be a gracious gesture.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Even by the standards of a House Republican, this is a strange argument.

While Americans should honor the legacy of the Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Republicans won't allow healthcare reform to proceed in the late senator's honor, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) said Wednesday.

"Certainly people honor Sen. Ted Kennedy for all of his work," Hensarling, a top House Republican, said during an appearance on CNBC. "But at the end of the day, this is a democracy, and I think the voice of the people have [sic] been heard quite loudly in the month of August."

Hensarling said health care reform should die "if anybody's listening to the American people."

I can find some of this compelling. "This is a democracy." That's a fair observation. In fact, those four words should be on the minds of all lawmakers as the debate continues. Americans voted in November, electing a large Democratic majority in the House, a large Democratic majority in the Senate, and handing a Democratic president a large mandate. With that in mind, if a majority of the House wants health care reform, a majority of the Senate wants reform, and the president wants to sign a reform bill, reform should pass. After all, "at the end of the day, this is a democracy." The "voice of the people" was heard loud and clear on Election Day. If majority rule should carry the day, then health care reform advocates are in good shape.

Hensarling would have us believe that we can't really hear the "voice of the people" by way of national elections. If policymakers are going to follow the latest whims of shifting public attitudes, he argued, they should listen primarily to Tea Baggers and LaRouche cultists. They're a loud minority, and that's what counts.

I suppose it comes down to what kind of "democracy" we're talking about -- the one in which the people's representatives do what they promised voters to do, or the one in which he who throws the biggest temper tantrum wins.

Hensarling prefers the latter. I respectfully disagree.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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WEDNESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* While the right is targeting House Democrats who supported cap-and-trade legislation in June, four independent groups -- the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, MoveOn and Americans United for Change -- are targeting five House Republicans for opposing the same bill.

* Speaking of ads, the DNC is launching a new radio ad campaign, applauding 13 House Dems for supporting the stimulus package and S-CHIP.

* Last week, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) seemed to suggest that racial bias in the media has played in a role in the criticism of administration. Yesterday, he walked it back.

* Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Creigh Deeds (D) is launching a new radio ad, intended to bolster Deeds' support among African-American voters. The minute-long spot, called "Fired Up," features President Obama's praise for the state senator.

* In California, two new polls show San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom trailing state Attorney General Jerry Brown in the Democratic gubernatorial primary by wide margins. Of particular interest were results showing Newsom trailing Brown in San Francisco, which should be the mayor's strongest area.

* And in Connecticut, Joe Lieberman responded to the possibility that actor Alec Baldwin might run against him in 2012. Lieberman taunted Baldwin on CNN, saying, "Make my day." In a statement, the actor said he has no plans to run for office, but added, "Part of me would hate to see Lieberman go.... There are so few moderate Republicans left in the Senate today."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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THE RIGHT REACTS.... It's hard to know what to expect in the way of conservative reactions to Sen. Edward Kennedy's death. The Senate's Lion was something of a boogeyman, but it's safe to assume higher-profile voices on the right would show restraint, at least this morning.

Michelle Malkin, for example, wrote, "There is a time and place for political analysis and criticism. Not now." That seems fair and respectful. She warned, however, about "crass calls to pass the health care takeover to memorialize his death."

Now, I'd argue there's nothing "crass" about honoring the cause of Kennedy's life by passing the bill he helped create, but opinions may vary.

I was more intrigued, however, by this item on National Review's "The Corner," from John J. Pitney Jr. (thanks to reader M.J. for the heads-up)

Ted Kennedy did not go gentle into that good night. He fought for his beliefs as long as he could, and he struggled to stay alive when others might have given up. He and the other Kennedys loved one another and looked out for one another. There was no cost-benefit analysis in their family life, no sense that age, illness, injury, or disability would diminish their value. [emphasis added]

At 7:53 a.m., Kennedy's death elicited a vague reference to death-panel talking points? Seriously?

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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'ONE OF THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED AMERICANS EVER TO SERVE OUR DEMOCRACY'.... The White House issued a statement on Sen. Edward Kennedy's death overnight, but President Obama also spoke this morning in more detail.

"I wanted to say a few words this morning about the passing of an extraordinary leader, Senator Edward Kennedy," the president said. "Over the past several years, I've had the honor to call Teddy a colleague, a counselor, and a friend. And even though we have known this day was coming for some time now, we awaited it with no small amount of dread.

"Since Teddy's diagnosis last year, we've seen the courage with which he battled his illness. And while these months have no doubt been difficult for him, they've also let him hear from people in every corner of our nation and from around the world just how much he meant to all of us. His fight has given us the opportunity we were denied when his brothers John and Robert were taken from us: the blessing of time to say thank you -- and goodbye.

"The outpouring of love, gratitude, and fond memories to which we've all borne witness is a testament to the way this singular figure in American history touched so many lives. His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives -- in seniors who know new dignity, in families that know new opportunity, in children who know education's promise, and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just -- including myself.

"The Kennedy name is synonymous with the Democratic Party. And at times, Ted was the target of partisan campaign attacks. But in the United States Senate, I can think of no one who engendered greater respect or affection from members of both sides of the aisle. His seriousness of purpose was perpetually matched by humility, warmth, and good cheer. He could passionately battle others and do so peerlessly on the Senate floor for the causes that he held dear, and yet still maintain warm friendships across party lines.

"And that's one reason he became not only one of the greatest senators of our time, but one of the most accomplished Americans ever to serve our democracy.

"His extraordinary life on this earth has come to an end. And the extraordinary good that he did lives on. For his family, he was a guardian. For America, he was the defender of a dream.

"I spoke earlier this morning to Senator Kennedy's beloved wife, Vicki, who was to the end such a wonderful source of encouragement and strength. Our thoughts and prayers are with her, his children Kara, Edward, and Patrick; his stepchildren Curran and Caroline; the entire Kennedy family; decades' worth of his staff; the people of Massachusetts; and all Americans who, like us, loved Ted Kennedy."

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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MCCAIN FORGETS THAT THE GROUNDWORK HAS BEEN LAID.... Yesterday, John McCain told a town-hall gathering in Arizona -- and viewers of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, which collectively aired road-block coverage -- about his fears of reconciliation. The conservative senator said he's "unalterably opposed" to health care reform passing under reconciliation, calling it a "drastic change."

Faiz Shakir flagged this clip of Fox News' Shep Smith who noted that Republicans used reconciliation many times when they were in the majority. Smith read a Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) quote from 2005: "Reconciliation is a rule of the Senate (that) has been used before for purposes exactly like this on numerous occasions... Is there something wrong with majority rules? I don't think so... The point, of course, is this: If you have 51 votes for your position, you win."

Smith added if the Senate Democratic majority decided to pursue reform under reconciliation, "they could do that."

I would just add that while McCain is "unalterably opposed" this "drastic change," he said something very different in March. Speaking at a conservative think tank, McCain acknowledged Republicans' use of reconciliation, and conceded it might come back to haunt them now.

"I fully recognize that Republicans have in the past engaged in using reconciliation to further the party's agenda," McCain said. "I wish it had not been done then, and I hope it will not be done now that the groundwork has been laid."

Reconciliation has been applied to everything from health insurance portability (COBRA) to nursing home standards, Medicaid eligibility to the EITC, welfare reform to S-CHIP, tax cuts to student loans. When the Senate parliamentarian disagreed with Republicans' use of reconciliation, the GOP caucus fired him. When another parliamentarian got in the way, he was fired, too.

With the Senate Democratic caucus now at 59 seats -- a total that will likely remain unchanged until mid-January -- Republicans shouldn't be too surprised to see the new majority walking through the door the old majority opened.

Update: Last night, McCain was on Fox News and said use of reconciliation would set a "terrible precedent" that would "blow up" the Senate. He added, "I think it would fundamentally change the way the institution functions."

Funny, McCain didn't feel that way at all in March -- or when he was in the majority.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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KENNEDY'S UNFINISHED WORK.... Obviously, under the circumstances, much of the political world will honor Sen. Edward Kennedy today, and mourn his passing. It's unlikely we'll hear politicians or people in positions of authority openly speculating on the implications of the Senate's greatest lawmaker passing before the cause of his life could be completed.

But it won't be long before talk of Kennedy's unrivaled legacy shifts to Kennedy's unfinished work. Greg Sargent noted this morning, "It's tempting to imagine that his death could prod the Senate into action on health care reform. It would be an extraordinary, and perhaps fitting, historical irony if Kennedy's death provided the final moral impetus to accomplish one of the primary causes to which he dedicated his life."

It's tempting, indeed. Noam Scheiber wrote over the weekend, before any of us knew any details about the senator's condition, about the likely political consequences of the Liberal Lion's passing.

...If Kennedy were to pass away in the next few months, the Senate math on any health care vote would almost certainly get easier, not harder. For one thing, it would single-handedly make the magic number 51 votes, not 60, since it would be suicidal for the GOP to filibuster the culmination of the last Kennedy brother's lifelong crusade. Beyond that, I suspect the coverage of Kennedy's death would silence healthcare reform critics and boost proponents in a way that netted at least a couple of wavering moderates -- so clearing the 51-vote threshold wouldn't be a problem. Heck, you might even see Utah Republican (and longtime Kennedy friend) Orrin Hatch back in the reformist camp.

So all the maneuvering around Kennedy's hypothetical replacement strikes me as unnecessary at best and possibly even counterproductive, since it could only detract from what would otherwise be a powerful (and authentic) emotional outpouring in the event of Kennedy's passing.

I would love to believe this is correct. Honestly, I would. And it's possible that honorable lawmakers are capable of more humanity than I give them credit for.

Time will tell.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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FILLING THE KENNEDY VACANCY.... Replacing Sen. Edward Kennedy is, to a certain extent, impossible. Nevertheless, his death leaves a vacancy in the Senate.

Just last week, Kennedy encouraged lawmakers in Massachusetts to change state law and empower Gov. Deval Patrick to immediately name an interim senator until a special election could be held. With so much on the line, Kennedy, like everyone else, realized the dangers of leaving the Senate Democratic caucus with 59 votes for five months.

What's going to happen? The prospects are discouraging.

In the week before his death, reaction to his request on Beacon Hill ranged from muted to hostile. The state's Democrats found themselves in the awkward position of being asked to reverse their own 2004 initiative calling for special elections in such instances.

Until that year, Massachusetts law called for the governor to appoint a temporary replacement if a Senate seat became vacant. But when Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, was running for president in 2004, the Democratic-controlled state legislature wanted to deny the governor at the time -- Mitt Romney, a Republican -- the power to name a successor if Mr. Kerry won. The resulting law requires a special election within 145 to 160 days after the vacancy occurs. [...]

Even if Mr. Kennedy's death prompts a change of heart, the state legislature is not set to return until after Labor Day.

Politico reported this morning, "[I]t appears for now that Massachusetts will be without a second senator until a special election can be held early next year.... Under the 2004 law, the governor must set a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat between 145 and 160 days after the vacancy occurs - meaning, in this case, that a special election would be held in the second half of January 2010."

All of this is of the utmost importance, of course, because of a possible vote this year on health care reform, a fight Kennedy described as "the cause of my life." The prospects of overcoming Republican obstructionism were difficult enough, but with 59 votes in the Democratic caucus, defeating a GOP filibuster may prove impossible, which in turn makes the reconciliation option more appealing.

One alternative is that Republicans could allow the Senate to vote on health care reform, and let majority rule dictate the outcome (the way the Senate operated for generations). Another alternative is that just one or two of Kennedy's close, personal friends in the Senate's GOP caucus could honor his memory, put dignity above partisanship, vote for cloture, and not let Kennedy's death kill the cause of his life.

The chances of either of these alternatives occurring are remote.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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KENNEDY.... Sen. Edward Kennedy died late last night at the age of 77. The greatest legislator of his generation, and one of the giants of Senate history, Kennedy will be remembered for an unrivaled legacy that has touched the lives of the nation and the world.

The White House issued a statement from President Obama this morning.

"Michelle and I were heartbroken to learn this morning of the death of our dear friend, Senator Ted Kennedy.

"For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts.

"I valued his wise counsel in the Senate, where, regardless of the swirl of events, he always had time for a new colleague. I cherished his confidence and momentous support in my race for the Presidency. And even as he waged a valiant struggle with a mortal illness, I've profited as President from his encouragement and wisdom.

"An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time."

In the New York Times report on Kennedy's passing, John Broder wrote, "[H]e was more than a legislator. He was a living legend."

Exactly one year ago yesterday, Kennedy delivered one last national address, making a surprise appearance at the Democratic National Convention. Despite his ailments, Kennedy's voice still boomed: "There is a new wave of change all around us, and if we set our compass true, we will reach our destination -- not merely victory for our party, but renewal for our nation. And this November, the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans. So with Barack Obama, and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on."

A leader, a statesman, and a hero, the irreplaceable Ted Kennedy will be missed.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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August 25, 2009

TUESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Afghanistan: "Five car bombs detonated in a single simultaneous blast Tuesday in Afghanistan's largest southern city, flattening of buildings and killing at least 41 people, officials said. In other violence, four U.S. servicemen were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, making 2009 the deadliest year for the growing contingent of foreign troops since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001."

* Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) sounds very discouraged about health care reform's prospects: "We're headed in the direction of doing absolutely nothing, and I think that's unfortunate."

* Consumer confidence is looking a little better.

* On the CIA Inspector General Report, read Glenn, publius, and Michael Scherer.

* Is half a torture investigation better than none at all? Dahlia Lithwick ponders.

* John McCain today told supportive constituents today that President Obama supports the Constitution. The senator was roundly booed for the comment.

* On a related note, McCain's discussion with constituents was aired live on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. I don't know why.

* Obama's FCC will enforce net neutrality and vowed to go after companies that violate its tenets.

* South Carolina Republicans continue to weigh impeachment against Gov. Mark Sanford (R).

* The result of our public discourse: "A 'vandalism spree' hit the Colorado Democratic Party headquarters in Denver today, where the 'vandal allegedly used a hammer to smash' 11 windows."

* Rush Limbaugh thinks the president might be after his genitalia.

* Utah State Sen. Chris Buttars (R) sure does seem to hate gay people.

* Sean Hannity invited a guest onto his program last night to complain about comparisons between right-wing activists and "brown shirts." The guest proceeded to compare the Democratic agenda to "National Socialism" and accuse administration officials of having swastikas on their arms.

* When it comes to ratings, Fox News is a great success. Fox Business Network is, at least for now, a colossal failure.

* And finally, there was a lengthy discussion yesterday on "Fox & Friends" about whether the Republican effort to sink health care reform is a "conspiracy theory." I'm fairly certain they weren't kidding.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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BINGAMAN ENDORSES PROSPECT OF RECONCILIATION.... Of all the members of the Finance Committee's Gang of Six, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico seems to be saying the least. While we've heard plenty of erratic and antagonistic remarks from the likes of Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi, Bingaman has kept an extremely low profile.

Ryan Grim reports that Bingaman raised a few eyebrows when he conceded he would support using reconciliation, if necessary, to pass health care reform.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has been one of three Democrats participating in the widely-watched Finance Committee negotiations. His willingness to consider reconciliation is another sign that a genuine bipartisan deal may be impossible.

"We made a provision in the budget resolution [earlier this year] that it could be used to try to enact health care provisions related to health care reform," Bingaman said. "There are restrictions to what you can include in that...but I would support it if that's the only way."

Non-budget-related items typically can't be passed using reconciliation, but Democrats are eying ways that would allow them to include those provisions, as well. Reconciliation would be a difficult legislative path to walk, but it raises pressure on Republicans who are considering supporting the Democratic effort. If Democrats go it alone, those Republicans, such as Maine's Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins, would be left out of the process.

Bingaman's support of reconciliation was first reported by the New Mexico Independent and can be seen at the one hour mark here.

In the larger context, Bingaman's comments point to more trouble for the Gang of Six talks. Last week, two of the three Republicans in the group said they're prepared to vote against their own compromise if their party disapproves of it. This week, one of the Democrats reiterated his support for a public option, and another signaled his support for reconciliation if/when Gang of Six negotiations fail.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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HOUSE REPUBLICAN QUESTIONS AG'S PATRIOTISM.... Attorney General Eric Holder was confronted with evidence of criminal wrongdoing from CIA interrogators who went beyond the legal guidance provided by the Bush administration. Any hopes that conservatives might be pleased by the limited scope of the probe appear to be dashed.

Take, for example, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, who appears to be in the midst of a wild-eyed, hair-on-fire temper tantrum.

"It's bulls***. It's disgraceful. You wonder which side they're on," he said of the Attorney General's move, which he described as a "declaration of war against the CIA, and against common sense."

"It's a total breach of faith, and either the president is intentionally caving to the left wing of his party or he's lost control of his administration," said King, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security and a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. [...]

"You will have thousands of lives that will be lost and the blood will be on Eric Holder's hands," he said.

Asked about officials who allegedly broke the law, King said it doesn't matter because he doesn't think the Geneva Convention "applies to terrorists," and that the line between permissible and impermissible interrogation tactics was "a distinction without a difference" in the Bush era.

Obviously, King isn't especially coherent on the matter. I've read through his comments a few times, trying to understand what on earth he's talking about. It appears that King believes torture isn't torture, the rule of law was on hiatus from 2001 to 2008, accountability and due process are dangerous concepts, and if you disagree with him, you might be un-American.

This is, by the way, the same Peter King who believes authors of torture memos deserve "a medal," and that the United States has "too many mosques."

Remember, House Republicans want this guy to be chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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GRASSLEY GIVING UP ON WHITE HOUSE TALKS?.... Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) hosted a conference call with Iowa reports today, and was kind enough to post a transcript of the discussion online. As Chris Harris noted, there was one especially important exchange.

"Senator, I was wondering if you see any light at the end of the tunnel in terms of any type of compromise on health care reform?" a reporter asked. "Do you anticipate there will be some way that you can work that measure out with the administration?" The conservative senator replied:

"I don't think it's going to be possible to work it out with the administration because they're all over the field -- all over the ball park, I guess, as we say.

"And, you know, one weekend, the secretary of HHS is saying you don't have to have a public option. The next day, the administration gets hit from the left, so the Obama says public option is still very, very important to them.

"And you know what public option is? It leads to single-payer, completely government-run health care system and no choice. And we want to preserve choice for our people -- and so, from that standpoint.

"But, yes, I do believe it's possible to reach an agreement. But I have to confess to you to be a little more cautious when I say that now, because I've been out here listening to my constituents." [emphasis added]

Let's put aside the fact that Grassley, after months of negotiations, still doesn't really understand what the public option is all about. Instead, note that Grassley said he doesn't think it's "possible to work it out with the administration," and then he also thinks it is "possible to reach an agreement."

And his complaint is that the White House is "all over the field"?

Chris Harris added, "If the Senator controlling bipartisan negotiations cannot even agree with what he said a mere 15 seconds earlier, how can he be trusted to earnestly work toward a constructive long-term solution for our broken health care system?"

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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THE CHENEYS, THE MEDIA, AND THE LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY.... For months, Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney were practically everywhere, insisting that there were documents proving the efficacy of Bush-era torture, and demanding that they be declassified and released. Yesterday we saw the materials, and not surprisingly, they don't support the Cheney claims.

Zachary Roth noted this morning, "It's hardly news that Dick Cheney is a liar. But yesterday offered yet another exhibit in the case."

But Greg Sargent does a nice job taking this a little further. Major news outlets -- not just Fox News, but actual, legitimate outlets -- hyped the Cheneys' claims, giving both of them high-profile platforms on a nearly daily basis for several weeks. Will the media be equally aggressive now?

Have the big news orgs really decided that Dick Cheney's previous claims that CIA docs proved torture worked were more newsworthy than what the documents themselves actually do prove?

So far the answer is Yes. While Cheney's original assertions that the docs would prove torture worked garnered reams of stand-alone print and TV coverage, the fact that the docs themselves don't actually prove Cheney's claims was either not covered at all, buried deep in stories, or described in highly hedged language. [...]

To be fair, there was tons of news yesterday. Maybe the news orgs will get around to doing big takeouts on this. But come on, Cheney and his daughter Liz were granted tons of print space and air time to claim for weeks that these docs would prove torture worked. Seems fair to expect aggressive, stand alone stories about what they do -- and don't -- prove in the real world.

As of this morning, the only major outlet to do a stand-alone story on this was ABC News.

This afternoon, Politico ran a piece, but screwed it up by accepting Cheney's baseless spin. CNN also had an item, but ran into the exact same problem.

It's frustrating enough when bogus claims get vastly more attention than the truth, but it's even worse when the facts come out and major outlets are still getting it wrong.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CLASSIC COBURN.... We're probably past the point at which one concerned American asking one question at a single town-hall forum can change the nature of the larger health care debate. But this clip, posted by Zaid Jilani, struck me as both powerful and illustrative.

For those of you who can't watch clips from your work computers, CNN's Rick Sanchez aired an exchange yesterday between a woman desperate for health care assistance and Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma. The woman in the clip struggles to even speak through her tears, but she explains to her right-wing senator that her husband has traumatic brain injuries. Their family's private insurer, she said, won't cover some of his treatments. "We left the nursing home," she said, "and they told us we are on our own." She breaks down, pleading for help.

Coburn's response was fascinating. "Well, I think, first of all, yes, we will help," the senator said. "The first thing we will do is see what we can do individually to help you through our office. But the other thing that's missing in this debate is us as neighbors helping people that need our help."

When that generated some applause, the Oklahoman added, "The idea that the government is the solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement."

This struck me as interesting for a few reasons. The first, which Rick Sanchez noted to viewers, is that Coburn said his office would try to help this woman's family, right before saying government isn't the answer. Sanchez asked, "Isn't he the government?"

Second, the idea of "neighbors helping people" sounds very nice, and it's always heartening to see neighbors lend a hand to struggling families. But there are tens of millions of Americans with no health care coverage, and millions more, including this family in Oklahoma, who are under-insured or who will lose their insurance when they need it most. The vast majority of them don't have neighbors who are oncologists, surgeons, nurses, obstetricians, or rehabilitation experts who would be willing to work for free.

Coburn's answer represents mindless, reflexive opposition to government, for opposition's sake. It's a worldview that's as shallow as it is destructive.

Is government intervention always the answer to every societal problem? Of course not. But health care is critically important -- literally, a life-or-death issue -- for just about every single person and family in the country. It's a basic public service -- not unlike police protection, fire departments, roads, or schools -- that every industrialized democracy manages to provide its citizens, expect us, thanks to "leaders" like Coburn and those who share his ideology.

Government, in this case, is obviously the solution. We've left it to the private free market, and it's failed spectacularly, producing a nightmarish system that costs too much and covers too few. The most effective parts of the U.S. health care system -- the VA and Medicare -- just happen to be the two parts intertwined with the government.

I'll never understand the right's obsession with hating the government, but for Coburn to lecture that woman in dire straits about the evils of government intervention in the health care system is callous, cruel, and exactly the kind of twisted thinking policymakers will have to reject to pass real reform.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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GRASSLEY DEMANDS PERFECTION.... The Wall Street Journal reports on Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, and the man some Democrats are counting on as the key to "bipartisan" health care reform.

"Government is not a competitor, it's a predator," he said of the public option that has been embraced by key congressional Democrats. "We'd have 120 million people opt out [of private insurance], then pretty soon everyone is in health care under the government and there's no competitor." [...]

In an interview, he vowed not to vote for an "imperfect bill" that includes a public option or gives the government too much control over end-of-life issues.

Now, the claim about a public option moving 120 million people out of the private market is patently false. Grassley's lying, he can't support that claim, and he knows it. That he's going around publicly, calling government a "predator," and repeating obviously false right-wing talking points says a great deal about his commitment to meaningful bipartisan compromise.

But it's that other point that really stands out. Admittedly, it's a partial quote, but the WSJ reported that Grassley "vowed" to oppose "imperfect" legislation. And in this case, "imperfection" means a public option that would compete with private plans and government "control over end-of-life issues."

In what universe is the government seeking "control over end-of-life issues"? The one Grassley is using as a baseless excuse to oppose health care reform.

This "imperfect" line, if accurate, has become par for the course. Liberal Democrats may be in the majority, but if they vow not to vote for an "imperfect bill" -- one that excludes a public option, for example -- they're being stubborn ideologues who are unwilling to compromise. If Chuck Grassley makes the same vow from a different direction, he's a serious lawmaker who can be trusted to negotiate in good faith.

The longer Democrats continue to engage Grassley about reform, the greater the chances of failure. It's as simple as that. This isn't complicated -- Grassley, like his caucus, opposes reform, and based on what he's saying publicly, Grassley is practically begging to be dropped from the negotiating process. At this point, there's no reason to keep bagging one's head against the Iowan's wall.

The Finance Committee has the votes to pass a good bill -- the kind of bill its chairman supported as recently as April. When lawmakers return to the Hill, it will be time to do just that.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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STEELE REDISCOVERS HIS OPPOSITION TO MEDICARE.... I really don't understand how Michael Steele is in a position to head a major political party.

Yesterday, the confused RNC chairman wrote an op-ed insisting that Democrats are trying to undermine Medicare. The piece was a disaster for Steele -- not only was every claim in the piece both false and craven, but it offered his detractors a chance to remind folks that Steele personally endorsed Medicare cuts as a statewide candidate in 2006.

It wasn't necessarily surprising -- Steele has already conceded he doesn't know anything about health care policy -- but it was humiliating.

Not quite sharp enough to know how to quit while he's behind, Steele went back to the well today. On Tuesday, the RNC chairman said policymakers must ensure that "we are not cutting the Medicare program." On Wednesday, the same RNC chairman said policymakers must realize that Medicare is "bankrupt" and an example of what not to do with health care.

"The reality of it is, this single-payer program known as Medicare is a very good example of what we should not have happen with all of our health care," said Steele. "The reality of it is, how many times have we been at the trough of bankruptcy and no money for the Medicare program, where Congress is running around like chickens with their head cut off, trying to figure out how to fix a program that they've already mismanaged?

"So now you want to do that, congressman, on a larger scale? You want to include all of us. You're talking about taking our senior population, and expanding it to all of the population? Government cannot run a health care system. they've already shown that. Trust the private markets to do it the right way."

The lights are on, but nobody's home. The same clown who attacked Democrats yesterday for trying to improve Medicare financing just told a national television audience that he disapproves of Medicare and would prefer to "trust the private markets" -- the same private markets that left seniors without coverage, and which made Medicare necessary in the first place.

The GOP's record on Medicare is clearly embarrassing to the party. In the 1960s, Republicans fought against Medicare's existence. In the 1990s, Republicans shut down the federal government because a Democratic president wouldn't tolerate proposed GOP cuts to Medicare. In 2008, the Republican presidential ticket ran on a platform of cutting Medicare.

And in 2009, the chairman of the Republican National Committee has decided, over the course of 24 hours, he's both for and against the Medicare program, for and against Medicare cuts, and for and against privatization.

From there, Steele talked up the ridiculous "death book" lie, either unaware of or unconcerned with reality.

The mind reels.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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TUESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Despite the humiliations of his presidential campaign, Rudy Giuliani is moving closer to launching a gubernatorial campaign in New York.

* In a bit of a surprise, former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) announced that he will not challenge Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in Colorado next year.

* In South Carolina, state Attorney General Henry McMaster (R) kicked off his gubernatorial campaign yesterday. In his announcement, McMaster took a not-so-subtle shot at South Carolina's current governor: "There's been too much dishonesty and too many scandals."

* As if the prospect of a primary challenge weren't enough, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) is now facing a new round of criticism from the Club for Growth, which is accusing Bennett of not being nearly right-wing enough.

* There's already a large field of Arkansas Republicans anxious to take on Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) next year. But might she also face a Democratic primary challenger?

* Confirming earlier reports, former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton (D) said he's sticking with his plans to take on Rep. Steve Cohen (D) in a primary next year.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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BERNANKE GETS FOUR MORE YEARS.... A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Drum hosted a panel discussion at Netroots Nation, and asked progressive participants if they were opposed to reappointing Ben Bernanke for another term as the Fed chairman. No one spoke up. Kevin concluded, "This suggests to me that Bernanke is a shoo-in for winning a second term. If you can't even get a bunch of liberals at Netroots Nation to oppose him, what are the odds that anyone else is going to lead the fight?"

And with that in mind, President Obama interrupted his vacation this morning to announce that he would, in fact, nominate Bernanke for a second term. The NYT noted that the president is "seeking to keep an air of stability in the financial markets as the nation inches toward an economic recovery."

"As an expert on the causes of the Great Depression, I'm sure Ben never imagined that he would be part of a team responsible for preventing another," Mr. Obama said. "But because of his background, his temperament, his courage, and his creativity, that's exactly what he has helped to achieve."

The president interrupted his weeklong vacation to Martha's Vineyard to disclose his decision, which was timed to coincide with the opening of the American financial markets on Tuesday morning. The announcement also came just before the White House released a new projection that the deficit would reach $9 trillion over 10 years.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and speculate that this wasn't a coincidence. Bernanke's first term doesn't end until January, and there was no chance he might pull a Palin and walk away early. So why make the announcement on a slow Tuesday morning? Because the administration didn't want the markets freaking out about discouraging deficit projections (more on that later).

Bernanke will, of course, face another round of Senate confirmation hearings. I don't have especially strong feelings about Bernanke getting a second term, and it's probably safe to assume he'll be confirmed with relative ease, but there are some fairly important questions he should be prepared to answer.

That said, Noam Scheiber makes a compelling case for continuity, and argued, "Bernanke has been creative, even highly unorthodox, at precisely the moment when the economy demanded these qualities from the Fed, and when a conservative, by-the-book approach would have likely sent us into a depression."

Tim Fernholz also has a good item this morning: "Ultimately, this is a good short-term pick for today, certainly, as well as the next six months or so of crisis management and the short-term reassurance of the bond markets. Whether or not Bernanke will gain the confidence of Congress and be able to make the tricky calls required to manage monetary policy in a transition to recovery without being held hostage by a single class of investors remains to be seen, but he cannot forget that the decisions he makes about interest rates and his extraordinary lending programs will affect the entire swath of the American economy and particularly unemployment. It's clear that, after whatever conversations the two have had, Obama has confidence that Bernanke is his man."

Update: On a related note, be sure to check out James K. Galbraith's piece in the new issue of the Monthly, "Did Ben Bernanke really save America's financial system?"

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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THEY REALLY THINK YOU'RE STUPID.... The right's "death panel" attack was thoroughly and completely debunked. It didn't matter -- lots of Americans believed the lie anyway. It has, however, started to lose some of its salience, which means it's time for the new health care reform lie.

We talked over the weekend about the "death books" nonsense. The right-wing claim is that the Department of Veterans Affairs is pushing an end-of-life planning document that encourages vets to pursue death. The claim is completely ridiculous.

But it doesn't matter. The disgusting attack worked its way from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal to CNN. Right-wing hacks are pushing this aggressively, and this morning, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said, "If you want an example of bad public policy, just look at the situation with our veterans when you have a manual out there telling our veterans stuff like 'are you really of value to your community?' You know, encouraging them to commit suicide. I mean, this is crazy coming from the government."

"Crazy" is the operative word here.

We're all accustomed to a certain baseline of dishonesty among opponents of health care reform, but this truly vile. These clowns lost their dignity quite a while ago, but this "death book" stupidity is beneath contempt.

For what it's worth, Olbermann broke down the smear last night, and the Obama administration published a detailed rebuttal to the lurid claim this morning.

Whether the pushback is sufficient remains to be seen. For the right, it's the kitchen-sink strategy -- come up with as many lies as possible, and throw them all at health care reform. When one piece of garbage starts to lose its punch, throw another. Even if it's promptly debunked, plenty of gullible suckers will believe it, and news outlets won't dare say, "Right-wing opponents of reform lie a lot." Indeed, there are no adverse consequences for conservative con artistss at all.

Our political discourse is just so ridiculous, it's sometimes surprising the political system functions at all.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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IS THE REFORM BILL TOO LONG?.... The right has come up with plenty of criticisms of health care reform proposals, some more substantive than others. One of the weaker complaints: the legislation is long, and conservatives don't want to read the whole thing.

This is a surprisingly common complaint. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), for example, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard alum, said last week, "I have a fundamental problem with any 1,000-page bills." A wide variety of his cohorts have raised the same concern.

The usual retort is that bill length is irrelevant to bill quality. The "Harry Potter" books are apparently pretty long, and those who say, "I have a fundamental problem with any 700-page books" come across as kind of silly.

That said, is there anything to these complaints? Is the reform bill unusually long? Not really. Christopher Beam had a good piece on this the other day.

[M]ajor spending bills frequently run more than 1,000. This year's stimulus bill was 1,100 pages. The climate bill that the House passed in June was 1,200 pages. Bill Clinton's 1993 health care plan was famously 1,342 pages long. Budget bills can run even longer: In 2007, President Bush's ran to 1,482 pages.

Over the last several decades, the number of bills passed by Congress has declined: In 1948, Congress passed 906 bills. In 2006, it passed only 482. At the same time, the total number of pages of legislation has gone up from slightly more than 2,000 pages in 1948 to more than 7,000 pages in 2006. (The average bill length increased over the same period from 2.5 pages to 15.2 pages.)

Bills are getting longer because they're getting harder to pass. Increased partisanship over the years has meant that the minority party is willing to do anything it can to block legislation -- adding amendments, filibustering, or otherwise stalling the lawmaking process. As a result, the majority party feels the need to pack as much meat into a bill as it can -- otherwise, the provisions might never get through.

What's more, if you've ever seen the physical page of a bill in Congress, you know that it doesn't look like a traditional printed page. As one of Matt's readers noted yesterday, "Nobody ever mentions that bills have very few words on each page. They're double spaced, there are huge margins, every line is numbered -- it ends up working out to only 150 words a page or so. The HC bill may be long, but it's the equivalent of a 300 or 400-page book, tops."

I suppose there's a reasonable case to be made that shorter bills might be more accessible to the general public, and the typical American won't bother with a 1,000-page bill. Perhaps. But legislation isn't really prepared for a lay audience anyway -- it's often filled with technical and legal jargon, which is necessary for it to be implemented as intended.

Something to keep in mind the next time someone starts whining about the size of the reform bill. There are legitimate concerns about the legislation. This isn't one of them.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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CHENEY'S CLAIMS PUT TO THE TEST.... For much of the Spring, Dick Cheney received more than his share of media attention, insisting that there were documents proving the efficacy of Bush-era torture. For the most part, the claims were largely irrelevant -- torture is illegal, it undermines our national security interests, intelligence can be gleaned through legitimate methods, and President Obama disavowed its use.

But Cheney kept pushing, insisting that the administration should declassify pro-torture materials, which would prove that "enhanced interrogations" produced life-saving intelligence. His political allies and a variety of media figures endorsed his demands. Yesterday, the documents were published for the first time, and the former vice president was delighted. Should he have been?

Spencer Ackerman took a closer look.

Strikingly, [the documents] provide little evidence for Cheney's claims that the "enhanced interrogation" program run by the CIA provided valuable information. In fact, throughout both documents, many passages -- though several are incomplete and circumstantial, actually suggest the opposite of Cheney's contention: that non-abusive techniques actually helped elicit some of the most important information the documents cite in defending the value of the CIA's interrogations. [...]

[P]erhaps the blacked-out lines of the memos specifically claim and document that torture and only torture yielded this information. But what's released within them does not remotely make that case. Cheney's public account of these documents have conflated the difference between information acquired from detainees, which the documents present, and information acquired from detainees through the enhanced interrogation program, which they don't.

In a statement, Tom Parker, the policy director of Amnesty International's American branch, said, "Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Vice President Cheney's track record, the two CIA memos released today are hardly the slam dunk we had been led to expect. There is little or no supporting evidence in either memo to give substance to the specific claims about impending attacks made by Khaled Shaik Mohammed in highly coercive circumstances."

Patrick Appel has more, including this conclusion: "The documents are heavily redacted, but nothing we can read refers to torture techniques providing solid information.... It's worth repeating that no one denies torture produces information. It produces loads of information, most of it bad. The same or better information can be collected through other techniques and, again, nothing in these documents compares and contrasts these methods."

Dick Cheney's claims haven't stood up well to scrutiny. Imagine that.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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'DESECRATING' 9/11?.... As the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, the White House has designated Sept. 11, 2009 as a "National Day of Service." It seems like an appropriate way to honor the tragedy.

But not to everyone. Matthew Vadum has a piece in the far-right American Spectator, arguing that President Obama's service proclamation is part of a plan to "desecrate" 9/11. In all sincerity, this is not a parody:

The Obama White House is behind a cynical, coldly calculated political effort to erase the meaning of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks from the American psyche and convert Sept. 11 into a day of leftist celebration and statist idolatry.

This effort to reshape the American psyche has nothing to do with healing the nation and everything to do with easing the nation along in the ongoing radical transformation of America that President Obama promised during last year's election campaign. The president signed into law a measure in April that designated Sept. 11 as a National Day of Service, but it's not likely many lawmakers thought this meant that day was going to be turned into a celebration of ethanol, carbon emission controls, and radical community organizing. [...]

The plan is to turn a "day of fear" that helps Republicans into a day of activism called the National Day of Service that helps the left. In other words, nihilistic liberals are planning to drain 9/11 of all meaning.

"They think it needs to be taken back from the right," said the source. "They're taking that day and they're breaking it because it gives Republicans an advantage. To them, that day is a fearful day." [...]

With the help of the Obama administration, the coalition is launching a public relations campaign under the radar of the mainstream media -- which remains almost uniformly terrified of criticizing the nation's first black president -- to try to change 9/11 from a day of reflection and remembrance to a day of activism, food banks, and community gardens.

It's hard to know where to start with something like this. There's crazy, and then there's this crazy.

But let's just note a few relevant details. First, George W. Bush called for community volunteer work on the anniversary of 9/11, and the right didn't find it controversial. Second, victims' families have recommended making 9/11 a national day of service for years. Third, Alex Koppelman explained, "Check out the official Web site set up for the day: They're asking people to come up with their own events. So if you don't want to help out at anti-American places like food banks and community gardens, you can organize your own event."

What's more, while the Vadum piece is obviously bizarre, it's also worth remembering that these disturbed ideas were quickly embraced by other far-right bloggers, including Michelle Malkin and another site that argued the president is calling for "mandatory civilian service" as part of Obama's drive to build "his civilian army."

Conservative bloggers pick the strangest things to get excited about.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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LIEBERMAN, GOP PREFER TO 'KEEP WALKING'.... It's tempting to think conservative lawmakers would be thrilled with the limited scope of Attorney General Eric Holder's investigation into Bush-era torture. The Justice Department is only looking into about a dozen cases, and will not review the legality of the torture memos or the conduct of anyone who wrote, approved, or followed them.

As investigations go, this one couldn't be much narrower. Indeed, conservatives should, in a sense, be delighted. Holder has evidence pointing to possible criminal wrongdoing, but the investigation will only hold a very small number of people accountable -- none of whom are conservatives' political allies. It's one of the reasons leading Democratic lawmakers are disappointed with the announced probe; the investigation just doesn't go far enough.

Joe Lieberman, who has already publicly endorsed torture policies, doesn't see it that way.

"I respectfully regret this decision by Attorney General Holder and fear our country will come to regret it too because an open ended criminal investigation of past CIA activity, which has already been condemned and prohibited, will have a chilling effect on the men and women agents of our intelligence community whose uninhibited bravery and skill we depend on every day to protect our homeland from the next terrorist attack. [...]

"We cannot take for granted the fact that our homeland has not been attacked since September 11, 2001. That has occurred only because of the constant vigilance and unflinching efforts by those brave individuals in our military, civilian homeland security and counterterrorism agencies, and the intelligence community. These public servants must of course live within the law but they must also be free to do their dangerous and critical jobs without worrying that years from now a future Attorney General will authorize a criminal investigation of them for behavior that a previous Attorney General concluded was authorized and legal."

Any sentence that starts, 'Officials must of course live within the law but..." isn't going to end well.

The complaints went well beyond Lieberman. If the Justice Department pursues evidence of criminal wrongdoing, leading Republican senators and representatives said, "CIA terror fighters" may not be able to do their jobs effectively. Oh, and 9/11, 9/11, 9/11.

It's better, apparently, to have officials break the law and then have the Justice Department ignore the evidence.

I'm reminded of the argument Peggy Noonan made in April against this investigation: "Sometimes in life you want to just keep walking... Sometimes, I think, just keep walking.... Some of life just has to be mysterious."

Notice, there's no real defense for Bush-era actions, either from Noonan or the conservative lawmakers. No one's willing to say that crimes are acceptable. They're only willing to say that accountability for crimes is a problem.

Why? It apparently has something to do with walking.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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August 24, 2009

MONDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Hot off the presses: "The Obama administration on Monday released additional portions of a long-classified CIA report on the agency's interrogation of high-level Qaeda detainees. The document contains new allegations of detainee abuse at secret prisons around the world and seems likely to prolong a debate about the legality and effectiveness of employing coercive methods to elicit intelligence from terrorist suspects.... The report, presciently, noted that 'the agency faces potentially serious long-term political and legal challenges as a result of the . . . program, particularly its use of [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] and the inability of the U.S. Government to decide what it will ultimately do with terrorists detained by the agency.'"

* Afghanistan's Finance Minister, with unofficial results, said President Hamid Karzai has won re-election with 68% support.

* The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group: "President Obama has approved the creation of an elite team of interrogators to question key terrorism suspects, part of a broader effort to revamp U.S. policy on detention and interrogation, senior administration officials said Sunday." The CIA seems rather pleased with the development.

* The Obama administration has decided to break with Bush-era rules and will notify the International Committee of the Red Cross about the names of detainees held by U.S. Special Operations forces.

* The H1H1 flu vaccination campaign will be "unprecedented in its scope." Preparations include "more than 2,800 local health departments have begun recruiting pediatricians, obstetricians, nurses, pharmacists, paramedics and even dentists, along with a small army of volunteers from churches and other groups."

* Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) says he really does support a public option.

* New twist: health care reform supporter shows up at a public event with a gun.

* On a related note: "Chris Broughton, the man who brought an assault rifle to an Obama event in Arizona earlier this week, and William Kostric, who protested outside a presidential forum in New Hampshire armed with a handgun last week, are both listed as "team members" of the Arizona chapter of the We The People organization."

* A spokesperson for Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said he will not file a lawsuit challenging the president's citizenship, but the right-wing lawmaker thinks it's "ridiculous" that the president hasn't "produced" his birth certificate. (Franks isn't the sharpest tool in the shed.)

* Michael Tomasky on health care reform and the left: "[L]iberals have to fight hard for something they're not terribly excited about. A health bill will likely have a very weak public option or it won't have one at all. But liberals will have to battle for that bill as if it's life and death (which in fact it will be for thousands of Americans), because its defeat would constitute a historic victory for the birthers and the gun-toters and the Hitler analogists. In the coming weeks, building toward a possible congressional vote in November, progressives will have to get out in force to show middle America that there's support for reform as well as opposition, even though they may find the final bill disappointing."

* How anyone could consider Fred Barnes anything but a sad joke is beyond me.

* The addition of Laura Rozen has instantly made the Politico a stronger publication.

* I'm actually going to miss Slate's "Today's Papers" feature, and think the magazine is making a big mistake by getting rid of it.

* As of this morning, Glenn Beck has lost 33 advertisers.

* Fox News probably shouldn't promote right-wing activist gatherings quite this much. It's almost as if it weren't really a "news" network at all....

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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PREVENTING A CRISIS VS. FIXING A CRISIS.... In most of his recent public speeches and town-hall events, President Obama talks a great deal about health care, but not before setting the stage a bit with some talk about the economy.

"This is obviously a tough time for families all across America," the president tends to say. "Six months ago, we were in the middle of the worst recession of our lifetimes. I want you to remember what things were like in January and February. We were losing about 700,000 jobs per month. And economists of all stripes feared a second-coming of the Great Depression. That was only six months ago. That's why we acted as fast as we could to pass a Recovery Act that would stop the freefall...."

Now, from there, Obama talks up his strategy that prevented an economic catastrophe, before transitioning to the importance of laying a new foundation for future growth -- starting with health care reform. But the implicit message of these introductory remarks always strikes me the same way: the president wants us to know he saved the United States from catastrophic economic consequences, and he'd probably like a little credit for it.

E.J. Dionne Jr. noted today that it's not an easy pitch to make.

The hardest slogan to sell in politics is: "Things could have been a whole lot worse." No wonder President Obama is having trouble defending his stimulus plan.

If governments around the world, including our own, had not acted aggressively -- and had not spent piles of money -- a very bad economic situation would have become cataclysmic.

But because the cataclysm was avoided, this is an invisible achievement. Many whose bacon was saved, particularly in the banking and corporate sectors, do not want to admit how important the actions of government were. Antigovernment ideologues try to pretend that no serious intervention was required.

So everyone goes back to complaining about high deficits and the shortcomings of government as if nothing had happened.

But something did -- we were on the cliff, partially hanging over. The possibility of a full-blown depression was very real. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Dionne, "This is a case study in bringing the world back from the brink, and it was American leadership from President Obama that was the key to that."

Ezra Klein added, "[T]he Obama administration made the mistake of effectively managing the financial emergency when they entered office. They faced a serious threat, but they never let it become a serious crisis. As such, the normal laws of political gravity never lifted, and everything went on pretty much as normal.... That's to the Obama administration's credit. Serious crises are bad things. It's one of the system's more perverse incentives that you don't get political capital from preventing them so much as pulling the country out of them."

I haven't spoken to anyone at the White House directly about this, but I imagine there are probably a few folks in the West Wing who, in their weaker moments, might admit, "Our guy just prevent Great Depression II! His approval ratings should be huge. The Republicans who voted against the stimulus -- and recommended a five-year spending freeze instead -- ought to be laughed at when appearing in public. After steering the ship away from the abyss, health care reform should be easy."

Alas, it doesn't exactly work that way. The default of the American political system is institutional resistance to change. Cataclysmic disasters open the door wide to systemic change; averted cataclysmic disasters apparently don't.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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HOLDER TO APPOINT PROSECUTOR ON BUSH-ERA TORTURE.... We learned in July that Attorney General Eric Holder was leaning towards appointing a special prosecutor to investigate "brutal interrogation practices" from the Bush-era. Today, Holder did exactly that.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has decided to appoint a prosecutor to examine nearly a dozen cases in which CIA interrogators and contractors may have violated anti-torture laws and other statutes when they allegedly threatened terrorism suspects, according to two sources familiar with the move.

Holder is poised to name John Durham, a career Justice Department prosecutor from Connecticut, to lead the inquiry, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process is not complete.

Durham's mandate, the sources added, will be relatively narrow: to look at whether there is enough evidence to launch a full-scale criminal investigation of current and former CIA personnel who may have broken the law in their dealings with detainees. Many of the harshest CIA interrogation techniques have not been employed against terrorism suspects for four years or more.

"Narrow" mandate continues to be the key here. Based on this afternoon's reports, the probe will exclude those who wrote and followed the Bush administration's torture memos. The focus, in other words, will not be on people like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Addington, and Yoo, but rather, lower-level officials. This isn't about whether Bush-era torture memos were legal; this is about whether those who went beyond Bush-era torture memos committed crimes.

Interrogators who worked within the "four corners" of the torture memos will apparently face no scrutiny; those who worked outside of the memos have some explaining to do.

As for Durham, if his name sounds familiar, there's a good reason -- in January 2008, then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed him to investigate whether CIA officials broke the law when interrogation videos of two al Qaeda suspects were destroyed. Based on his c.v., Holder seems like a credible, veteran prosecutor.

Holder's office issued a statement on today's announcement, which appears in full below.

"The Office of Professional Responsibility has now submitted to me its report regarding the Office of Legal Counsel memoranda related to so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. I hope to be able to make as much of that report available as possible after it undergoes a declassification review and other steps. Among other findings, the report recommends that the Department reexamine previous decisions to decline prosecution in several cases related to the interrogation of certain detainees.

"I have reviewed the OPR report in depth. Moreover, I have closely examined the full, still-classified version of the 2004 CIA Inspector General's report, as well as other relevant information available to the Department. As a result of my analysis of all of this material, I have concluded that the information known to me warrants opening a preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas locations. The Department regularly uses preliminary reviews to gather information to determine whether there is sufficient predication to warrant a full investigation of a matter. I want to emphasize that neither the opening of a preliminary review nor, if evidence warrants it, the commencement of a full investigation, means that charges will necessarily follow.

"Assistant United States Attorney John Durham was appointed in 2008 by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the destruction of CIA videotapes of detainee interrogations. During the course of that investigation, Mr. Durham has gained great familiarity with much of the information that is relevant to the matter at hand. Accordingly, I have decided to expand his mandate to encompass this related review. Mr. Durham, who is a career prosecutor with the Department of Justice and who has assembled a strong investigative team of experienced professionals, will recommend to me whether there is sufficient predication for a full investigation into whether the law was violated in connection with the interrogation of certain detainees.

"There are those who will use my decision to open a preliminary review as a means of broadly criticizing the work of our nation's intelligence community. I could not disagree more with that view. The men and women in our intelligence community perform an incredibly important service to our nation, and they often do so under difficult and dangerous circumstances. They deserve our respect and gratitude for the work they do. Further, they need to be protected from legal jeopardy when they act in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance. That is why I have made it clear in the past that the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees. I want to reiterate that point today, and to underscore the fact that this preliminary review will not focus on those individuals.

"I share the President's conviction that as a nation, we must, to the extent possible, look forward and not backward when it comes to issues such as these. While this Department will follow its obligation to take this preliminary step to examine possible violations of law, we will not allow our important work of keeping the American people safe to be sidetracked.

"I fully realize that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial. As Attorney General, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law. In this case, given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take."

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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AUGUST BAUCUS VS. APRIL BAUCUS.... Do you want to get really depressed about the debate over health care reform? Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Max Baucus, chairmen of the Senate HELP and Finance Committees, respectively, sent this letter (pdf) to President Obama in April:

"For nearly a year, we have been working together toward the shared goal of significant reforms to our health care system. We must act swiftly, because the cost of inaction is too high for individuals, families, businesses, state and federal governments. Comprehensive health care reform legislation will responsibly contain costs, improve quality, enhance disease prevention, and provide coverage to all Americans. We are committed to working with you, and with our colleagues in Congress, to enact legislation to achieve these long-overdue reforms without delay. We are writing to you today to let you know of the schedule for committee action that we intend to follow to meet this goal.

"Since our committees share jurisdiction over health care reform legislation in the Senate, we have jointly laid out an aggressive schedule to accomplish our goal. Both committees plan to mark-up legislation in early June. Our intention is for that legislation to be very similar, and to reflect a shared approach to reform, so that the measures that our two committees report can be quickly merged into a single bill for consideration on the Senate floor.

"The unprecedented level of funding devoted to health care reform in your budget this year leaves no doubt about your commitment to the goals of expanding coverage, reducing costs, and improving health and health care. We have a moral duty to ensure that every American can get quality health care. We must act to contain the growth of health care costs to ensure our economic stability; to help American businesses deal with the health care challenge; and to make sure that we are getting our money's worth. With your continued leadership and commitment, and working together, we remain certain that our goal of enacting comprehensive health care reform can be accomplished with the urgency that the American people rightly demand." [emphasis added throughout]

Max Baucus really did sign his name to this letter. Indeed, it's often overlooked, but the original plan was to have the Finance Committee bill done first, with swift action immediately thereafter -- which would be easy since the HELP Committee would be on the same page.

It was sent to the White House just four months ago.

Of course, we now know that Baucus' committee a) is going last, if it goes at all; b) barely tried to meet its June deadline; and c) has veered sharply to the right, away from the HELP bill, thanks to the efforts of the Gang of Six, which has placed Republican support for reform above all else.

And while Baucus agreed in April that lawmakers must "act swiftly," "without delay," and "with swift action," Baucus now believes that his own Sept. 15 deadline for his committee -- already three months past the original target date he set for himself -- should be ignored.

Worse, in November, Baucus talked in some detail about the kind of reform bill he wanted to see. His vision included a Health Insurance Exchange, universal coverage, an individual mandate, a public option, and subsidies up to 400% of the poverty line. And he was prepared to deliver it -- after all, as he noted in his letter, he'd been working on it with Kennedy for a year. Baucus, at the time, supported the same kind of reform progressive Democrats now want, but which Baucus' committee won't support due to opposition from the Republican minority.

So, what happened? Kennedy, obviously, fell ill and was unable to complete his work, but Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) capably picked up the slack and delivered an excellent bill, right on time. Baucus, meanwhile, proceeded to take a far different direction in order to work on finding a "bipartisan" solution with conservative members of the discredited minority that doesn't support health care reform.

Can we trade the August Baucus for the April Baucus? Just ask Baucus to recommit himself to the work he'd done before "bipartisanship" became the most important thing?

If so, we'd have a very good shot at a very good bill.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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SCHUMER'S THINKING AHEAD.... Time will tell if a good health care reform bill actually becomes law this year, but if it does, I'll be inclined to give Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) a lot of credit. He's been pretty consistent in championing progressive goals; he's been aggressive in speaking out against watering the bill down; he's reminded his colleagues that policy matters more than process; he's been effective on television; and he's been focusing on strategy behind the scenes.

Senator Chuck Schumer is privately urging fellow Dem Senators to aggressively argue in the media that the GOP is wholly committed to blocking reform, in order to lay the political groundwork should Dems have to do reform alone, senior Senate aides confirm to me. [...]

Schumer has also told colleagues he believes political work has to be done in advance to sell "reconciliation" by persuading voters that the GOP is wholly opposed to reform of any kind, aides say. So he's now urging fellow Senators to make the case about GOP obstructionism in a concerted way.

This may seem like common sense, but part of an effective pitch is coordinating a message and laying the rhetorical groundwork. Schumer seems to get this better than most.

Better yet, GOP leaders -- Kyl, Grassley, Enzi -- have given Dems a lot to work with in demonstrating the fact that a bipartisan bill is effectively impossible right now. Greg Sargent's talked to a senior Senate aide who added, "[Schumer] is urging colleagues to emphasize the GOP's role in spreading false myths -- like death panels and illegal immigrants being covered -- and to emphasize GOP statements like Kyl saying he wants ZERO votes for health care."

I can't speak to Schumer's motivations, but whatever is driving him, I'm glad to see him step up the way he has.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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SHEEPISH JINDAL SLINKS AWAY FROM HSR FUNDS.... The list of embarrassed conservative critics of the stimulus package is already pretty long, but Gov. Bobby Jindal holds a special place at the top. No one has condemned and accepted recovery funds with quite as much shameless flair as the Louisiana Republican.

Jindal, you'll recall, delivered a widely-ridiculed national address in February, rejecting the very idea of recovery efforts, and telling Americans that government is incapable of "rescu[ing] us from the economic storms raging all around us." He mocked the stimulus for being "larded with wasteful spending," including funding "for high-speed rail projects."

Over the summer, however, Jindal has been touring his home state, handing out checks -- featuring his name -- with money he received from the stimulus package he loathes.

But the hilarity really kicked in when Jindal took steps to apply for even more federal stimulus aid for -- you guessed it -- high-speed rail projects. Transportation officials from Jindal's administration had already sent federal officials the pre-application paperwork with the intention of building HSR linking Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

As news of Jindal's request made the rounds, the far-right Louisianan again became the subject of ridicule. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, for example, singled the governor out as one of the worst people in the world. Just 48 hours later, Jindal reversed course.

Two days after a national commentator mocked Gov. Bobby Jindal for possibly requesting federal stimulus money to build a light rail system between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the governor's transportation secretary wrote to President Barack Obama's administration saying Louisiana isn't interested.

"Please be advised that the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will not be applying for the High Speed AARA funds," state transportation chief William Ankner wrote to his federal counterpart, Secretary Ray LaHood. Ankner was referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. [...]

The news came as a surprise to business leaders who backed the idea and had participated in preliminary discussions with Ankner.

I continue to think Jindal is going about this the wrong way. The governor should just be upfront about this, apologize for trashing the stimulus bill, acknowledge he was wrong, and explain how important recovery efforts are to states like his. I'm sure the White House would be gracious about the whole thing. At that point, Jindal could apply for grants like these without looking like a comical, shameless hypocrite.

Wouldn't that be easier than all of this embarrassment?

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BIRTHER NONSENSE FINDS A NEW CHAMPION?.... With right-wing activists investing so much time and energy in misleading the country about health care reform, they haven't had nearly as much time to invest in misleading the country about President Obama's place of birth. It's been quite nice, actually, to see "birthers" fade from public attention.

The stupidity may be poised for a comeback, thanks to a far-right congressman from Arizona.

About a month ago, Mike Stark asked several Republican lawmakers in D.C. if they believe the president is natural-born U.S. citizen. The vast majority of GOP members avoided answering the question -- some going to comical lengths to avoid Stark's easy inquiry. Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona, however, gave "a correct and clear answer." Good for him.

That background, however, makes this local news report from Franks' district all the more curious. (via David Weigel)

The other main issue dealt with numerous speakers questioning Obama's birth certificate and why there wasn't an investigation into whether he is a naturalized citizen. One woman said a newspaper announcement of his birth in Hawaii was not sufficient. Another asked how he could have a passport without a birth certificate.

Franks said there was not enough evidence that Obama is not an American citizen. He did say there was a lot of conflicting evidence of Obama's citizenship and that he was considering filing a lawsuit, the only congressman to do so. Franks asked why the president did not simply produce a birth certificate. [emphasis added]

One speaker, a pre-school teacher, tearfully said Obama denounced the country as a Christian nation and warned he should learn a civics lesson. Franks agreed with her saying he was offended that Obama denigrated the country on an overseas trip and the president should speak in favor of the country when abroad.

First, just for the record, the "Christian nation" claim is absurd.

Second, and more important, is the notion that Franks might challenge the president's citizenship in court? I realize he's a right-wing lawmaker, but is he that mad?

I suppose we'll see. Franks is not a co-sponsor of the crazy birther bill in the House, and the news account did not include any exact quotes. It's certainly possible the article is mistaken.

As far as I can tell, no video of the event has been published online, but Franks' office has also not yet issued a statement in response to the article.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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SPECULATION BASED ON NOTHING.... OK, just one more item about Michael Steele's health care op-ed. This argument helps capture the seriousness with which the RNC chairman is approach the reform debate:

[W]e need to prevent government from dictating the terms of end-of-life care. Many of the most significant costs of care come in the last six months of a patient's life, and every American household must consider how to treat their loved ones. Obama's government-run health "reform" would pay for seniors' meetings with a doctor to discuss end-of-life care. While nonthreatening at first, something that is quite normal for a family to do becomes troublesome when the government gets involved.... The government should simply butt out of conversations about end-of-life care and leave them to seniors, their families and their doctors.

A month ago, at a press conference, Steele struggled to even understand the basics of health care reform. Asked about basic details, Steele replied, "I don't do policy." He should have stuck to his instincts.

We talked earlier about the errors of fact and judgment in Steele's op-ed, but this argument about end-of-life care is a special kind of nonsense.

Steele concedes that reimbursing seniors who voluntarily choose to speak to their doctor about end-of-life care is fine. He adds, however, that this could become "troublesome." How could reimbursements become "troublesome"? Steele doesn't know. What in the bill leads him to think it might be "troublesome"? Steele doesn't know. It's just ridiculous speculation based on nothing.

The kicker is the irony. Steele wants the government to "butt out" of these issues, leaving end-of-life care matters "to seniors, their families and their doctors." But the surest way to have the government "butt out" is for seniors to have these end-of-life discussions in the first place. Reimbursements help guarantee that government won't needlessly intervene.

As Sen. Johnny Isakson, a conservative Republican from Georgia, recently explained, having an end-of-life directives or a living will "empowers you to be able to make decisions at a difficult time rather than having the government making them for you."

Steele has been struggling with this issue for a while. Last week, the RNC chairman said he doesn't regret "death panel" lies because the confusion is "out there in the grassroots of America." Asked if the imaginary provision actually exists in the legislation, Steele said, "It may or may not be. I don't know.... I think that's a legitimate point. You don't have to call it death panels if you don't want to. You can call it a panel. I call it rationing."

In August 2009, the chairman of a major American political party understands health care policy about as well as a small child. It says quite a bit about the quality of the debate.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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MONDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* In a surprise development, RNC Chairman Michael Steele appeared on a radio program last week, and seemed to agree with a radio talk-show host who blasted House GOP leaders John Boehner and Roy Blunt. With the latter running for the Senate next year in Missouri, the remarks are likely to be widely circulated.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) appears to be struggling badly in his re-election bid in Nevada next year. The latest Mason-Dixon poll shows Reid trailing both real estate lawyer Danny Tarkanian and state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden in hypothetical match-ups.

* And speaking of Nevada, if scandal-plagued Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) seeks re-election, he'll likely lose badly in a GOP primary.

* If California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is moving forward with her Republican gubernatorial campaign, but she's declining invitations to debate her GOP primary rivals. Her refusals are raising questions about Whitman's readiness for prime time.

* In New York, a new Siena Poll shows Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D) re-election prospects looking shaky, in part because of weak name i.d. (Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate seat after Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State). The poll found 24% of New Yorkers who said Gillibrand deserves to win a full term next year, 35% who prefer someone else, and 41% who are unsure.

* And in Georgia, the latest Rasmussen poll shows former Gov. Roy Barnes leading the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary, well out in front of state Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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MICHAEL STEELE, COMEDIAN.... A.L. wrote nine words this morning that literally made me laugh: "GOP now promising to protect seniors' Medicare from Dems."

As silly as that sounds, this is the point we've reached. In the 1960s, Republicans opposed the creation of Medicare. In the 1990s, Republicans shut down the federal government because a Democratic president wouldn't tolerate proposed GOP cuts to Medicare. In 2008, the Republican presidential ticket ran on a platform of cutting Medicare.

And in 2009, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has the chutzpah to write a Washington Post op-ed, accusing Democrats of trying to undermine Medicare.

Republicans want reform that should, first, do no harm, especially to our seniors. That is why Republicans support a Seniors' Health Care Bill of Rights, which we are introducing today, to ensure that our greatest generation will receive access to quality health care. [...]

[Obama] and congressional Democrats are planning to raid, not aid, Medicare by cutting $500 billion from the program to fund his health-care experiment. [...]

[W]e need to prohibit government from getting between seniors and their doctors. The government-run health-care experiment that Obama and the Democrats propose will give seniors less power to control their own medical decisions and create government boards that would decide what treatments would or would not be funded. Republicans oppose any new government entity overruling a doctor's decision about how to treat his or her patient.

Steele says Medicare faces long-term shortfalls, but he opposes efforts to address them. He condemns boards that could deny Medicare financing for some treatments, but fails to note that such boards already exist and have for years.

If one sifts through the nonsense, looking for something substantive, what we're left with is Steele's uninformed opposition to the creation of an Independent Medicare Advisory Council (IMAC). The idea is to have appointed IMAC members -- physicians and medical experts, appointed by the White House and confirmed by the Senate -- who would have some added authority to help control what Medicare pays doctors and hospitals. The panel would probably help lower costs more effectively than Congress, which isn't especially good at these technical, medicinal, and scientific questions.

The idea was originally proposed by conservatives, embraced by Democrats, and would serve as part of a larger effort to save money and take political considerations out of the process.

And now Michael Steele wants seniors to think big bad Democrats are trying to undermine Medicare.

What an embarrassment.

Update: Steele personally endorsed the prospect of Medicare cuts during his unsuccessful 2006 Senate campaign.

Second Update: Media Matters fact-checks Steele's piece, point by point.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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KENT CONRAD AND 'SIGNIFICANTLY LESS'.... There's one thing conservative Democratic senators seem to agree on when it comes to health care reform. Despite the big Democratic majorities on the Hill and the Democratic president, they see the need for a bill that's much weaker, less comprehensive, and less effective than what the Democratic mainstream has in mind.

The Gang of Six members made this much clear late last week, and Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, one of the six negotiators and a long-time opponent of a public option, reiterated the point yesterday. Reform is "going to have to be significantly less than what we've heard talked about," Conrad said.

In terms of "what we've heard talked about," the center-right Democrat was almost certainly referring to Democratic proposals that have already passed the House Education and Labor Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. These efforts, apparently, don't meet Conrad's standards. Americans and their failing health care system, Conrad insists, need less.

It's likely that means legislation that costs "significantly" less and does "significantly" less.

Jonathan Cohn explains that the reform bill that's already passed four of the five relevant committees were already scaled back to satisfy the demands of less-progressive lawmakers.

In order to keep the price tag at or below $1 trillion over ten years, Democrats had to write bills that would roll out reforms slowly, over several years, so that a new system was not fully in place until 2013 or later. That's a long time to wait for change, particularly if you're one of the unlucky souls who ends up without insurance -- or with inadequate insurance -- when illness strikes.

The saving grace of those four bills was that the consumer protections and financial assistance in them remained reasonably strong. If reform ends up looking like those four bills, then financial assistance would be available to people earning up to four times the poverty rate -- or around $88,000 a year in family income. (Subsidies would be available on a sliding scale, so that a family making $70,000 would get very little, a family making $60,000 would get more, and so on.) Such a measure would also limit out-of-pocket expenses to $10,000 a year per family, while providing other crucial protections. And, of course, it would include a real public insurance option.

If Conrad and his supporters get their way, the new health care system won't be nearly as generous -- or protective. They've made clear they want a package that costs less than $1 trillion. A lot less.

As a practical matter, that means "significantly less" help for the uninsured, and based on the research of the Center on Budget and Policy, many middle-class families that wouldn't receive any subsidies for coverage at all.

Atrios noted this morning that when all is said and done, Americans will actually have to like the health care bill if/when it comes law. Conrad, whose role is inexplicably critical to the process, insists reform has to offer fewer protections, less coverage, and fewer benefits, especially to the middle class. It wouldn't only be a lost once-in-a-generation opportunity, it would be a solution that almost no one likes.

Cohn concluded, "You can imagine why Republicans might think this is a dandy idea. But why on earth would Democrats agree?" Sen. Conrad, that's not a rhetorical question.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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WHEN POLITICIANS ARE AFRAID TO TELL THE TRUTH.... I've never sought public office, so I can't relate to how difficult it must be to deal with sincere-but-ridiculous questions. Barney Frank offers an example of one style of response, but not everyone can pull it off as well as he does.

But at least Frank didn't pander to nonsense. A couple of weeks ago, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa hosted a town-hall event and was asked "death panels." Instead of explaining reality, Grassley knowingly misled his audience, telling constituents, "[Y]ou have every right to fear.... We should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma."

It was one of Grassley's lowest points of late -- Time's Joe Klein called the comments "sheer idiocy" -- which the conservative senator has struggled to explain. Yesterday, on "Face the Nation," Grassley conceded he knew the "death panel" claim wasn't true, but wasn't comfortable telling his constituents the facts.

"I said that because -- two reasons. Number one, I was responding to a question at my town meetings. I let my constituents set the agenda. A person that asked me that question was reading from language that they got off of the Internet. It scared my constituents. And the specific language I used was language that the president had used at Portsmouth, and I thought that it was -- if he used the language , then if I responded exactly the same way, that I had an opposite concern about not using end-of-life counseling for saving money, then I was answering -- [...]

"You would get into the issue of saving money, and put these three things together and you are scaring a lot of people when I know the Pelosi bill doesn't intend to do that, but that's where it leads people to."

Grassley, in other words, is comfortable letting confused constituents stay confused because they're "scared." Because right-wing lies have caused widespread confusion, he added, the provision "ought to be dropped."

But that's crazy. The sensible solution is to have Americans' elected leaders tell them the truth and alleviate their unfounded fears, not let panic-stricken, gullible people "set the agenda" and kill common-sense measures that up until recently enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

As for Grassley's claim that he used "exactly" the same language as President Obama -- "pull the plug on grandma" -- the Iowa senator again has it backwards. The president was mocking the "death panel" nonsense, explaining what wouldn't happen. Grassley's town-hall answer made it sound as if the bogus claim had merit.

Paul Krugman concluded, "We talk a lot about ideology, we talk a lot about the influence of moneyed interests, and all that is relevant. But we should not ignore the sheer personal cowardice of many politicians. Here we have Grassley saying, in effect, that he was afraid to tell a constituent that she was wrong -- then trying to blame President Obama for his failure to tell the truth."

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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CHRIS MATTHEWS PONDERS FACT-CHECKING.... Over the weekend, on "The Chris Matthews Show," the host and his panel pondered the importance of journalistic fact-checking. It led to this exchange between Matthews, Gloria Borger, and Joe Klein.

Matthews: Who's going to fact check for you?

Borger: We fact check, our editors...

Matthews: Online who's going to fact check?

Borger: There are still, it depends.

Matthews: The bloggers don't fact check.

Klein: Nobody fact checks. We still do, the print magazine and Time Magazine still has elaborate fact checkers...

Borger: We fact check.

Klein: ...but Time.com, no.

Jamison Foser noted that Chris Matthews "is the poster child for the punditocracy's habit of endlessly repeating falsehoods that happen to mesh with their worldview.... Is a television reporter who is wrong so often he has to admit 'I keep saying it, and I keep being wrong on this' really in any position to complain about anyone else's fact-checking?"

It is an odd complaint for Matthews to raise. How often do either of Matthews' shows -- "Hardball" or "The Chris Matthews Show" -- run corrections? Or even clarifications? Is there anyone -- outside the blogs, that is -- who checks the accuracy of Matthews' work?

Indeed, as Matt Corley explained, "It's ironic that a cable news host such as Chris Matthews would attack bloggers for supposedly not checking their facts, considering the amount of falsehoods and factually inaccurate statements he regularly utters on the air -- which have all been fact-checked by bloggers."

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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HATCH GETS A SECOND BITE AT THE APPLE.... Last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) appeared on ABC's "This Week," and raised a number of arguments that proved Hatch doesn't understand health care reform. He argued, for example, that reform would force "up to 119 million people into Medicaid," which isn't even remotely accurate. He added that members of an Independent Medicare Advisory Council will determine "what kind of health care you're going to have," which is just crazy.

Seven days later, "Meet the Press" decided to reward Hatch for his performance by having him address health care again. This time, he argued that the Congressional Budget Office concluded that "tens of millions of people" would lose their private insurance, go with the public option, and "destroy the private health industry."

David Gregory, to his credit, had his facts straight and intervened. "Well, wait a minute, Senator Hatch, that's not right. The Congressional Budget Office did not say that.... The CBO said that, in fact, those enrolled in private insurance plans would go up by three million, and they estimate that about 10 million people, only 10 million people go into a public plan. 'Tens of millions,' that's different than 10 million."

Hatch, undeterred by reality, responded, "Well, that's plenty. Others are saying up to 119 million people."

The "119 million" number is the same bogus claim Hatch repeated last week, which is still completely wrong.

And that's what brings me back to the thought I always have when I see interviews like these. Hatch appeared on "This Week" and made claims about health care reform that weren't true. Seven days later, he appeared on "Meet the Press" and made claims about health care reform that weren't true, some of which were debunked on the air during last week's appearance.

Will Hatch's misstatements of fact discourage producers from booking him again in the future? Of course not; that isn't how the game is played. It's why Hatch doesn't feel the need to tell the truth -- the falsehoods serve his agenda, and he'll get invited back onto the air whether he's honest or not.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LIEBERMAN COWERS IN THE FACE OF CRISIS.... The conventional wisdom is that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut is willing to stand with the Democratic caucus on everything except national security issues. He continues to prove, however, that this isn't true at all.

Yesterday, appearing on CNN, Lieberman said comprehensive health care reform would be nice, but when it comes to coverage to the tens of millions of Americans with no insurance, he'd like to push the issue off -- until some undetermined point in the future.

"[W]e're in a recession. People are very worried about their jobs, about the economic future. They've watched us add to the debt of this country.... Let's talk about how to change the way health care is delivered. Let's talk about protecting people from not getting insurance because of preexisting illness. Let's take off the caps on the amount of insurance coverage you can get over the years. Let's pay for preventive services for health from the first dollar. Here's the tough one. We morally, every one of us, would like to cover every American with health insurance. But that's where you spend most of the $1 trillion plus, a little less that is estimated, the estimate said this health care plan will cost.

"And I'm afraid we've got to think about putting a lot of that off until the economy's out of recession. There's no reason we have to do it all now, but we do have to get started. And I think the place to start is cost health delivery reform and insurance market reforms."

In other words, lawmakers can pass popular consumer protections for those who already have insurance. But if you have no coverage, and your family is one serious illness away from financial ruin, Lieberman wants you to be patient. The politicians will get to you eventually. Maybe after premiums continue to soar and the ranks of the uninsured swell even more, the economy will improve and Lieberman will discover his spine.

I kept waiting for Lieberman to explain why the recession necessarily means the tens of millions of Americans with no coverage should have to wait. He didn't. Apparently it has something to do with the deficit, which he misstated by $200 billion, and which doesn't make sense since reform must be deficit neutral anyway.

Lieberman did add, however, that if Senate Democrats tried to pass reform through reconciliation, it would be a "real mistake," for "the system" and "the Obama presidency."

And why would it be a "real mistake" for legislation to pass, simply because a majority of the Senate voted for it? Lieberman didn't say.

Over the weekend, President Obama said, "[I]f we pass health insurance reform, we will look back many years from now and say, this was the moment we summoned what's best in each of us to make life better for all of us.... This was the moment we earned our place alongside the greatest generations. And that is what our generation of Americans is called to do right now."

For some, that call is louder than for others.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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August 23, 2009

PLAYING WITH FIRE.... A week ago, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) appeared on "Meet the Press" and was asked about threats of "violence against the government" by right-wing extremists. Coburn blamed U.S. officials: "Well, I'm troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government, but we've earned it."

It led the NYT's Frank Rich to argue that the right is playing with fire.

I have been writing about the simmering undertone of violence in our politics since October, when Sarah Palin, the vice-presidential candidate of a major political party, said nothing to condemn Obama haters shrieking "Treason!," "Terrorist!" and "Off with his head!" at her rallies. As vacation beckons, I'd like to drop the subject, but the atmosphere keeps getting darker.

Coburn's implicit rationalization for far-right fanatics bearing arms at presidential events -- the government makes them do it! -- cannot stand. He's not a radio or Fox News bloviator paid a fortune to be outrageous; he's a card-carrying member of the United States Senate. On Monday -- the day after he gave a pass to those threatening violence -- a dozen provocateurs with guns, at least two of them bearing assault weapons, showed up for Obama's V.F.W. speech in Phoenix. Within hours, another member of Congress -- Phil Gingrey of Georgia -- was telling Chris Matthews on MSNBC that as long as brandishing guns is legal, he, too, saw no reason to discourage Americans from showing up armed at public meetings.

In April the Department of Homeland Security issued a report, originally commissioned by the Bush administration, on the rising threat of violent right-wing extremism. It was ridiculed by conservatives, including the Republican chairman, Michael Steele, who called it "the height of insult." Since then, a neo-Nazi who subscribed to the anti-Obama "birther" movement has murdered a guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington, and an anti-abortion zealot has gunned down a doctor in a church in Wichita, Kan.

This month the Southern Poverty Law Center, the same organization that warned of the alarming rise in extremist groups before the Oklahoma City bombing, issued its own report. A federal law enforcement agent told the center that he hadn't seen growth this steep among such groups in 10 to 12 years. "All it's lacking is a spark," he said.

Rich's pieces comes on the heels of a column from conservative David Frum, who accused the "reckless right" of courting violence. "Nobody has been hurt so far. We can all hope that nobody will be," Frum said. "But firearms and politics never mix well. They mix especially badly with a third ingredient: the increasingly angry tone of incitement being heard from right-of-center broadcasters.... We have to tone down the militant and accusatory rhetoric. If Barack Obama really were a fascist, really were a Nazi, really did plan death panels to kill the old and infirm, really did contemplate overthrowing the American constitutional republic -- if he were those things, somebody should shoot him. But he is not."

Steve Benen 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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MCCAIN DEFENDS BOGUS 'DEATH PANEL' ARGUMENT.... How far gone is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)? He isn't even willing to reject the "death panel" nonsense pushed by his former running mate.

As promised, McCain appeared on ABC News' "This Week" and George Stephanopoulos asked whether he could defend Sarah Palin's most infamous and scurrilous attack on health care reform. Would the self-described "maverick" take a stand in support of reality? Take a wild guess.

Asked about the "death panel" lie, McCain said he doesn't endorse the phrase, but argued the government, under reform measures, would "have groups that actually advise people as these decisions are made later in life." When Stephanopoulos noted the phrase of the month -- "That's not in the bill" -- McCain said the language in the legislation "made it a little bit ambiguous." To his credit, Stephanopoulos pressed further.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I don't think that's correct, Senator. The bill, all it said was that, if a patient wanted to have a Medicare consultation about end-of-life issues, they could have it at their request and the doctor would get reimbursed for it, no panel.

MCCAIN: There was a provision in the bill that talks about a board that would decide the most effective measures to provide health care for people, OK? Now, we had amendments, we republican have said that in no way would that affect the decisions that the patients would make and their families. That was rejected by the Democrats and the health committee.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that's not a death panel.

MCCAIN: So what does -- what does that lead to? Doesn't that lead to a possibility, at least opens the door to a possibility of rationing and decisions made such are made in other countries?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, every single independent group that looked at it said it just wasn't true.

It's a good thing McCain was invited back onto another Sunday morning public affairs show -- his 11th appearance since January, and his second on "This Week" since May -- or we may have missed insightful policy analysis like this.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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FROM 'DEATH PANELS' TO ' DEATH BOOKS'.... The far-right campaign against health care reform started with the routine, predictable falsehoods anyone could have seen coming a mile away. Bogus claims about covering illegal immigrants, paying for abortion, and "socialized medicine" were obvious.

But the right does not lack for creativity. Concerned that the more traditional lies may not be sufficient, we soon heard about "death panels." When the gullible started believing that, the right made the transition to "health-care racism" and "mandatory home inspections," both of which are imaginary, limited to the minds of right-wing activists and their leaders.

The new one is "death books."

On Wednesday, James Towey, the former head of Bush's faith-based initiative, wrote a WSJ op-ed arguing that the Department of Veterans Affairs is pushing an end-of-life planning document, called "Your Life, Your Choices," that he insisted would give veterans a "hurry-up-and-die message" that is "clear and unconscionable." Towey imagined "a soldier surviving the war in Iraq and returning without all of his limbs only to encounter a veteran's health-care system that seems intent on his surrender." The Wall Street Journal's headline read: "The Death Book for Veterans."

A certain former half-term governor of Alaska found this important, and wouldn't you know it, RNC Chairman Michael Steele and Fox News' Sean Hannity started talking it up late in the week.

Marcus Baram looked into this, and explained why the Republican activists are wrong.

They failed to mention that the so-called "death book" contains the same advance-care planning required of all health care organizations under federal law, has been in use since 1997 and was developed with the input of interfaith ministers. [...]

The VA's policy is in accordance with the 1990 Patient Self Determination Act, which requires all institutions receiving Medicare funds to provide information to patients regarding end of life, living will and other advance directives. During the Bush administration, the VA changed its regulation to extend the act to cover all VA facilities.

In 2007, after Towey complained that the so-called "death book," "Your Life, Your Choices - Planning for Future Medical Decisions," was biased against the right-to-life viewpoint, the VA convened an outside panel of experts to assess and update the booklet.

In his op-ed, Towey stated that this panel did not include any representatives of faith groups or disability rights advocates. In fact, according to the VA, the panel included a priest, a rabbi, a renowned disability rights advocate, and the president of the organization that produces "Five Wishes," the alternative advance care planning document that Towey is promoting and selling.

The panel supported the use of the "Your Life, Your Choices" booklet but included some suggestions for revising its content. The plans to update and release the booklet were developed under the Bush administration and it is due for release in 2010.

There's also the question of Towey's conflict of interest. He's like to see the VA replace "Your Life, Your Choices" by purchasing booklets published by a non-profit group he founded.

It prompted VetVoice's Richard Smith to write, "After reading this, it's apparent that Jim Towey is nothing more than a Sarah Palin wannabe. Except not as smart. Here is my suggestion to Mr. Towey: When Veterans want advice on their care from someone who has never served in the military, nor received care from the Veterans' Health Administration, we'll call you."

Ouch.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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REPORT POINTS TO END OF BIPARTISAN OUTREACH.... This week, the New York Times reported that Democratic policymakers "now say they see little chance of the minority's cooperation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks." A Politico piece added that White House officials realize they will "probably will have to pass health reform with Democratic votes alone."

And yesterday, Bloomberg News reported something similar.

President Barack Obama is likely in September to end Democratic efforts to work with Republicans on health-care legislation and press for a party-line vote if the stalemate on the issue in the U.S. Senate persists, a person close to the White House said.

The president and his advisers have started devising a strategy to pass a measure by relying only on the Democratic majority in each house of Congress, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It's hard to say how seriously we should take the remarks of someone "close to the White House," but at a minimum, it's more evidence to suggest Democratic leaders have run out of patience.

Former Senate Majority Leader and HHS nominee Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) told Bloomberg, after meeting with President Obama, "He's waited and waited. He has indicated, much to the chagrin of people in his party, that virtually everything's on the table. And he's gotten almost nothing in return for it."

Daschle added that Obama hasn't made a firm decision to abandon a bipartisan approach, "it's important to put policy ahead of process. And at some point he has to make that decision."

The sooner, the better. It's not like opponents of reform are going to suddenly change their minds -- GOP leaders have already said the party will oppose reform no matter how many concessions Democrats make, and two of the three Republican negotiators are prepared to vote against their own compromise.

What more would it take?

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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CALIFORNIA REP CALLS REFORM A 'THREAT TO DEMOCRACY'.... Ideally, in the face on enraged right-wing activists, acting on little but misinformation and paranoia, we'd see responsible members of Congress trying to lower the temperature a bit. Even opponents of health care reform could, in theory, make substantive arguments against Democratic proposals, rather than hand torches to angry mobs.

Rep. Wally Herger (R) of California prefers a different tack.

Republican Congressman Wally Herger held a health care town hall meeting Aug. 18 at Simpson University in Redding, where a partisan crowd of over 2,000 people loudly cheered Herger's position that a public option was "unacceptable." [...]

"Our democracy has never been threatened as much as it is today," Herger said to a loud standing ovation.

Asked about cap-and-trade policy, Herger added, "Health care is not the only threat to our democracy."

One of the attendees, who claimed he could trace his ancestors back to the Mayflower, declared to Herger, "I am a proud right-wing terrorist."

The Republican congressman said with a broad smile, "Amen, God bless you. There is a great American."

The Party of Nihilists strikes again.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THERE'S NO NEED TO 'CHANGE THE RULES'.... It recently became clear that the Senate's reconciliation process may play a role in health care reform. And the moment it did, word apparently went out to the media that reconciliation is something radical, abusive, and dangerous.

While Republicans and political reporters started labeling reconciliation the "nuclear option" this week, Fox News went just a little further yesterday.

Fox News anchor Jamie Colby falsely characterized Senate Democrats passing health care reform legislation with a simple majority through a process known as reconciliation as "potentially changing the rules with the nuclear option."

Yes, if senators follow Senate rules, they're now changing Senate rules.

Labeling reconciliation the "nuclear option" is itself ridiculous, but to argue to a national television audience that using the process would be "changing the rules" is insane.

This would be a perfectly fair description of the actual "nuclear option." In 2005, Senate Republicans, outraged by Democratic efforts to block some of Bush's far-right judicial nominees, came up with a scheme to change the rules in the middle of the game. The Senate can change its rules with 67 votes, but Trent Lott & Co. thought they'd try it with 51 votes. Senate Dems, at the time, threatened all-out political war over this, which is why Lott referred to his underhanded scheme as the "nuclear option." (It was never executed, and the Gang of 14 struck a deal that let conservative judicial nominees get confirmed.)

Reconciliation, in contrast, is part of the existing Senate rules. No one's talking about changing anything -- just following the process that's already in place. It's a process that Republicans have used and endorsed many times.

Nevertheless, the "nuclear option" nonsense is catching on. In addition to just about every Fox News personality with access to a microphone, it's being used on CNN, and yesterday, MSNBC.

The right can't govern, but when it comes to message dissemination, they're Propagandists Extraordinaire.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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ENZI JOINS GRASSLEY, MAY REJECT HIS OWN COMPROMISE.... The largest hurdle for moving health care reform on the Hill is the Senate Finance Committee's Gang of Six, featuring three Democrats and three Republicans. This week, two of three GOP members of the group said they're prepared to vote against their own compromise.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa acknowledged this on Monday, and Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming told Roll Call the same thing.

Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), a key GOP health care negotiator, probably didn't intend to signal that Democrats and Republicans will ultimately fail to compromise on a comprehensive reform bill when Congress resumes its work after the August recess.

But in a lengthy interview conducted with Enzi this week via e-mail, the Finance Committee negotiator and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel indicated his support for health care reform is predicated partly on its ability to garner the support of 75 to 80 Senators. That condition is shared by fellow Finance negotiator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel's ranking member.

Given the wide philosophical and political chasm dividing the two parties, the prospect of crafting a bill that can attract nearly all 60 Senate Democrats and at least 25 Republicans is doubtful -- and increasingly so.

"I hope that reports that the White House is pursuing a go-it-alone strategy are incorrect, because we need to get a bill that 75 or 80 Senators can support," Enzi said Thursday in a written response to questions posed by Roll Call.

Roll Call's arithmetic was a little off -- Enzi is looking for a bill that can attract 60 Senate Dems and at least 15 Senate Republicans -- but the point is the same. Like Grassley, Enzi is prepared to oppose his own compromise -- if the Gang of Six ever get around to finding one -- unless about half the GOP caucus supports it.

Enzi, in other words, can help craft what he thinks is a good bill, but if his caucus -- whose leadership has said it will reject a bill no matter how many concessions Democrats make -- doesn't like it, he'll reject it.

This is, of course, backwards. Enzi, like Grassley, starts with the premise that conservative opponents of reform have to like the reform bill. The substance of the bill isn't as important as support from the small, discredited Senate minority that is actively opposed to the very idea of health care reform.

It's farcical.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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August 22, 2009

THE PROBLEM WITH THE NIHILIST PARTY.... I didn't agree with every observation in the piece, but Time's Joe Klein raises a very reasonable question this week.

How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? And another question: How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark? [...] Hyperbole and distortion certainly exist on the left, but they are a minor chord in the Democratic Party. It is a very different story among Republicans. [...]

This may tell us something about the actual state of play on health care: the nutters are a tiny minority; the Republicans are curling themselves into a tight, white, extremist bubble -- but there may be enough of them raising dust to render creative public policy impossible. Some righteous anger seems called for, but that's not Obama's style. He will have to come up with something, though -- and he will have to do it without the tiniest scintilla of help from the Republican Party.

Right. A lot of this may seem obvious, but given Klein's background, I'm pleased to see it anyway. As Michelle Cottle recently wrote, "I have given up hope for a loyal opposition. I'd settle for a sane one." Regrettably, the opposition seems neither loyal nor sane, and conditions seem to be deteriorating.

Kevin Drum had an interesting response on Klein's piece.

Both parties have their extreme wings, but the GOP's is not only way deeper into crazy land ("death panels" for them vs a public option for the most liberal Dems), but it's virtually all they have left. Michele Bachman is pretty much the modal Republican now, not just a fringe nutball. Conversely, Dennis Kucinich, who's far to the left but perfectly sane and coherent, barely gets the time of day from the mainstream core of the Democratic Party.

I don't actually mind if most or all Republicans vote against healthcare reform. They're Republicans! They're opposed to expanded government programs and private sector regulation and new entitlements. But the death panels and the home nursing inanity and the "healthcare racism" and the town hall screeching and all the rest are the mark of a party that's gone completely off the rails. They're doomed until they figure out a way to extricate themselves from the Beck/Limbaugh/Fox News axis of hysteria.

That last observation is the only part of the argument that concerns me.

I'd argue that the Republican Party started losing its institutional mind and soul somewhere around 1993, but at the time, there were still some moderates in the party. Sixteen years later, the proverbial inmates are running the asylum, and the "axis of hysteria" has become the norm.

The Republican "mainstream" is so far to the right, it would have been hard to imagine what's become of the party, say, two decades ago. The median GOP House member in 2003 was 73% more conservative than the median GOP member of the early '70s -- and Republicans have gotten more conservative since 2003.

Klein mentioned that it was a Republican lawyer who "delivered the coup de grace to Senator [Joe] McCarthy when he said, 'Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?' Where is the Republican who would dare say that to Rush Limbaugh, who has compared the President of the United States to Adolf Hitler?"

This is only part of a very long list worthy of Joseph Welch moments. This year, Republicans have become the party of "birthers." And unfounded fears of "death panels," "enemies lists," and the "Fairness Doctrine." We've heard wild-eyed nonsense about ACORN, "re-education camps," Gestapo-like security forces, and Census-related conspiracy theories. Rage and paranoia are not an attractive combination, but they're driving the GOP talking points and the larger political discourse.

And then there are the policy positions. This is a party that honestly thought a five-year spending freeze was a wise approach to the economic crisis. The same party proceeded to make truly ridiculous arguments about everything from taxes to energy policy, Iran to health care. In each instance, GOP claims were proven false, only to be repeated anyway.

When a member of the Republican leadership talked about the GOP emulating the Taliban, no one in the party deemed this controversial. Republicans compare U.S. leaders to Germany in the 1930s with some regularity, and the party mainstream barely bats an eye. Prominent GOP lawmakers this week openly discussed the prospect of state nullification of federal laws, and no one in the Republican ranks stepped up to say, "Good Lord, these people are mad."

The question of how our democracy is supposed to function when of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists is not at all rhetorical.

But to Kevin's point, are Republicans doomed until party leaders throw some water on their face and rejoin reality? I wish I could say I'm as confident about this. I'm not. GOP poll numbers aren't improving, at least not yet, but if enough motivated voters are just angry enough about the status quo, and the left is disillusioned and feeling let down, the "axis of hysteria" may not be enough to prevent significant Republican gains in 2010 and 2012. GOP lawmakers can act like confused children while embracing the exact same policies that forced them into the minority in the first place, and it won't make any difference.

Speaker Pelosi was recently talking to some children visiting Capitol Hill, and one youngster asked why Pelosi joined "them" (Democrats), instead of "us" (Republicans). The Speaker replied, "I'm delighted that you associate yourself with a political party. I wish more people would, and I hope that the next generation will take back the Republican Party for the grand old party that it used to be. It is important for us to have a strong Republican Party,"

I agree, but I'm not sure we can wait that long for the GOP to grow up.

Peggy Noonan argued in July that we're in an era in which the nation needs "conservative leaders who know how to think" and a Republican Party that is "serious, as serious as the age, because that is what a grown-up, responsible party -- a party that deserves to lead -- would do."

We're waiting.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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APPEALING TO PEOPLE'S PATRIOTISM?.... President Obama's weekly address was, not surprisingly, devoted to health care reform. And as we've come to expect, he spent a lot of time on defense.

The bulk of the address dealt with "debunking some of the more outrageous myths circulating on the internet, on cable TV, and repeated at some town halls." The president called for "an honest debate, not one dominated by willful misrepresentations and outright distortions, spread by the very folks who would benefit the most by keeping things exactly as they are."

While the public option was left out of last week's address, Obama defended it today, though he stopped well short of saying it has to be a feature of the final bill.

But I also noticed that the president seemed to appeal to his audience's sense of patriotism. "It has never been easy, moving this nation forward," Obama said. "There are always those who oppose it, and those who use fear to block change. But what has always distinguished America is that when all the arguments have been heard, and all the concerns have been voiced, and the time comes to do what must be done, we rise above our differences, grasp each others' hands, and march forward as one nation and one people, some of us Democrats, some of us Republicans, all of us Americans.

"This is our chance to march forward. I cannot promise you that the reforms we seek will be perfect or make a difference overnight. But I can promise you this: if we pass health insurance reform, we will look back many years from now and say, this was the moment we summoned what's best in each of us to make life better for all of us. This was the moment when we built a health care system worthy of the nation and the people we love. This was the moment we earned our place alongside the greatest generations. And that is what our generation of Americans is called to do right now."

That's some nice rhetoric. In fact, I think it's probably true. But I also think summoning "what's best in each of us" is a lot more difficult than the White House anticipated. Playing on people's fears and appealing to their worst instincts is awfully easy, and as it turns out, effective.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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REMEMBER THE LAST TIME MCCAUGHEY LIED?.... I've been thinking a lot this week about a dust-up from February. It's been largely forgotten, but that, in and of itself, is kind of important.

On Monday, February 9, Bloomberg News ran a piece from Betsy McCaughey, which attacked President Obama's stimulus plan. Specifically, McCaughey insisted that the policy would create a "new bureaucracy" called the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, which will "monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost effective." McCaughey said the federal government would then "'guide' your doctor's decisions," adding, "Keeping doctors informed of the newest medical findings is important, but enforcing uniformity goes too far."

Was any of this true? Not even a little. The National Coordinator for Health Information Technology wasn't "new"; it was created by George W. Bush five years ago. More importantly, the measure dealt with medical records, not limiting physicians' treatments. McCaughey threw a fit about comparative effectiveness research, but there was nothing to the attacks.

More important than the lie, however, is the path the lie traveled -- and what policymakers did about it.

Step One: Rush Limbaugh told his minions audience on [Feb. 9] about McCaughey's piece, insisting that a "national coordinator of health information technology will monitor treatments that your doctor gives you to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost-effective."

Step Two: By late Monday, Drudge was trumpeting McCaughey's mistake with this headline: "'National Coordinator of Health Information Technology' Slipped in to Stimulus..."

Step Three: Fox News and members of the Wall Street Journal editorial board got in on the act on Tuesday morning [Feb. 10], arguing that the government will "essentially dictate treatments," thanks to the "secret" provisions in the stimulus bill. Fox News' Megan Kelly said the non-existent language "sounds dangerously like socialized medicine," while FNC's Bill Hemmer said the recovery plan includes "new rules guiding decisions your doctor can make about your health care." All of this, of course, was patently and demonstrably false.

Step Four: Limbaugh took a bow [Feb. 11], taking credit for the misinformation campaign, and telling listeners that his show "uncovered" all of this. "I found it," Limbaugh said. "I detailed it for you, and now it's all over mainstream media."

That last Limbaugh claim was partially true. It was, in fact, all over the mainstream media. It was also, of course, patently false. If this sounds familiar, it's because right-wing health-care lies have followed a nearly identical trajectory this summer -- from McCaughey to radio to Drudge to Fox News to the Wall Street Journal editorial page to traditional news outlets.

But here's the kicker: what happened to the provision in the stimulus bill? Nothing. Democrats added the measure, conservatives started lying about it, the right got hysterical, but policymakers ignored the cries and left the common-sense provision in the legislation anyway. It passed, and now it's law.

And now, no one -- McCaughey, Limbaugh, Drudge, Bill Hemmer, or Megan Kelly -- even mentions it anymore. They've just moved on to new nonsense.

The moral of the story? There are a few. First, the right lies a lot, especially when trying to scare people about health care. Second, when Democrats ignore ridiculous far-right claims, good ideas become law. And third, in time, the hysterical find new things to get excited about, so there's no point in caving to conservative demands every time they throw a fit.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... The cup from the God Machine runneth over this week, so let's get right to it. First up is President Obama's efforts this week to connect health care reform and religious values in an event organized by and for progressive faith leaders and activists.

...Obama spent much of Wednesday taking a new tact in his fight for health reform: He reached for the stars.

In a conference call with faith leaders, organized through a largely progressive umbrella group, 40 Days For Health Reform, Obama spoke of the legislation that has bogged down in Congress as if it were a message from above. The president described the need to tackle health reform as a "moral conviction" that "no one in America should be denied basic health care because he or she lacks health insurance." He paraphrased Genesis, saying that reform would address "what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation that we look out for one another, that I am my brother's keeper and I am my sister's keeper." He said reform was about the fight to "promote justice" and called the current debate a "battle between hope and fear." For some opponents, he had a biblical condemnation, saying there were those who were "frankly bearing false witness" about the facts of health reform. [...]

As soon as he was finished, the moderator of the call told participants, "God has given us a spirit of love, justice and action. Let's put it to work."

Earlier in the morning, Obama had participated in a similar call with rabbis around the country. Though that call was not open to the public, some quotes have been relayed, via Twitter of course, to the public. According to Jack Moline, a participant, Obama said, "I am going to need your help in accomplishing necessary reform" and "We are God's partners in matters of life and death." (It is not clear from the Twitter entry if either are exact quotes from the president.)

Aside from attacks on reform proposals by the religious right, there hasn't been much of a religious angle to the debate over reform. We'll see if this week's event -- sponsored by the PICO National Network, Faith in Public Life, Faithful America, Sojourners, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good -- changes that equation in the coming weeks and months.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The NYT's Laurie Goodstein reported this week that the "prosperity gospel" movement, despite the deep and lingering recession, is drawing "sizable, adoring audiences." Preachers of the "prosperity gospel" tell followers that they should donate generously -- even more than their families can afford -- so that God will reward them by multiplying their offerings.

* Mike Huckabee, back from a trip to Israel where he bashed U.S. policy in the region, told Pat Robertson's television network that Evangelical Christians tend to be "so much more supportive of Israel than the American Jewish community." Josh Marshall ponders the implications of the argument.

* President Obama filmed a video greeting to Muslims this week, in honor of Ramadan. Tim Fernholz noted, "Good for the White House to continue its outreach to the Muslim world in the face of continuing rumors about the president's origins and religion. It speaks to a kind of confidence that I'd love to see Obama demonstrate in domestic policy."

* The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., voted yesterday "to allow gay men and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as members of the clergy." The denomination already allows gay men and lesbians to be ordained, so long as they remain celibate, making yesterday's move a step forward. A close vote -- delegates were split 559 to 451 -- came after a heated and emotional debate, which may ultimately prompt a schism within the denomination.

* And finally, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said a prayer before a town-hall meeting this week. Because the meeting was held after-hours in a public school, an attendee told Scott he "broke a federal law" when he prayed. Scott replied, "[W]ell I can tell you this, ma'am, David Scott's gonna pray wherever I want to." The response generated applause, but it's worth noting that there is no federal law prohibiting Scott or anyone else from praying in a public school.

Steve Benen 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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MESSING WITH TEXAS' TEXTBOOKS.... When we last checked in with the Texas Board of Education, conservatives were working on downplaying the contributions of civil rights leaders in social studies curricula. In particular, an evangelical minister tapped as an "expert" for state officials, questioned whether former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall should be presented to Texas students as an important historical figure.

Officials did, however, want to add instruction on the "motivational role the Bible and the Christian faith played in the settling of the original colonies."

By way of Lee Fang, it seems the board is still hard at work, and moving in the wrong direction.

Texas high school students would learn about such significant individuals and milestones of conservative politics as Newt Gingrich and the rise of the Moral Majority -- but nothing about liberals -- under the first draft of new standards for public school history textbooks. [...]

The first draft for proposed standards in United States History Studies Since Reconstruction says students should be expected "to identify significant conservative advocacy organizations and individuals, such as Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority."

A Democratic state lawmaker said, as it stands, Texas students would get "one-sided, right wing ideology." He added, "We ought to be focusing on historical significance and historical figures. It's important that whatever course they take, that it portray a complete view of our history and not a jaded view to suit one's partisan agenda or one's partisan philosophy."

That certainly sounds reasonable, but this is the Texas Board of Education we're talking about.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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QUESTIONS ONLY FNC WOULD ASK..... As regular readers know, most national polls from major news outlets are interesting for their results. Fox News polls are interesting for their questions. Most reputable news outlets try to maintain a degree of seriousness with their poll questions. Fox News prefers to add a little panache to their surveys.

The network's latest includes all kinds of gems, including a question about President Obama possibly creating an "enemies list," and another asking whether Americans want to see the Pledge of Allegiance go back to the pre-'50s era version without the words "under God."

But the really entertaining questions were about North Korea. Fox News first asked respondents whether Bill Clinton's recent trip to North Korea will improve U.S. relations with the country. Nearly a third said relations will improve, but a majority believe the hostilities will continue.

The poll then asked this doozy:

"Do you think former President Bill Clinton's meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and securing the release of the two American journalists will encourage kidnapping of more Americans or not?"

Fortunately, 72% of respondents believe Clinton's humanitarian mission will not encourage more kidnappings. That said, the results among Republicans weren't quite as one-sided -- 30% of self-identified Republicans said Clinton's visit to North Korea will, in fact, make kidnapping s worse.

As David Weigel noted, "That 72-19 'no' margin is pretty massive, but it's good to know that 30 percent of Republicans worry that Clinton might have put more people in danger."

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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MORE POLITICAL ACTIVISM FROM THE HOLLYWOOD ELITE.... Conservatives are supposed to loathe Hollywood celebrities who get involved in politics. Why, we're told, should anyone care what actors and entertainers think about political news of the day?

The question doesn't seem to apply to Republican Hollywood celebrities. Take Jon Voight, for example, who by all appearances, has gone completely over the edge.

Voight was an enthusiastic Giuliani cheerleader in early 2008 (at one event in St. Petersburg, 120 people showed up at a Giuliani event, and Voight compared it to traveling with the Beatles), before campaigning for McCain. Since the inauguration, Voight has been an unhinged right-wing activist, attacking President Obama as a "false prophet" and headlining Republican fundraisers.

This week, Voight started accusing the president of "creating a civil war."

"We are witnessing a slow, steady takeover of our true freedoms. We are becoming a socialist nation, and whoever can't see this is probably hoping it isn't true. [...]

"Do not let the Obama administration fool you with all their cunning Alinsky methods.... The real truth is that the Obama administration is professional at bullying, as we have witnessed with ACORN at work during the presidential campaign. It seems to me they are sending down their bullies to create fist fights among average American citizens who don't want a government-run health care plan forced upon them. So I ask again: Is President Obama creating a civil war in our own country?"

This awfully nutty stuff, especially for a high-profile actor.

But the amusing part is how the right picks and chooses which celebrities are allowed to engage in political activism and which should remain silent. Sean Hannity has bashed Hollywood entertainers who get involved in public affairs, but Hannity has now asked Voight to travel with him to participate in a series of "Freedom Concerts."

So, for the record, Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie should remain silent about politics, because they're the Hollywood Elite. Jon Voight, Craig T. Nelson, Chuck Norris, and Fred Thompson should be prominent political players, no matter how radical their rhetoric, despite being members of the Hollywood Elite.

Got it.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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CRIST, HURRICANES, AND DIVINE INTERVENTION.... During his strange 1988 presidential campaign, TV preacher Pat Robertson claimed to be able to deflect hurricanes from Virginia's east coast through the powers of his prayers. This week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), currently the frontrunner in the state's open U.S. Senate race next year, made a similar argument.

Town Hall reports that Crist was speaking to a group of real estate agents, and credited prayer notes in the Western Wall in Jerusalem with preventing his state from being hit by hurricanes during his time as governor.

Crist told of how he visited the Wall in 2007, and placed a note saying: "Dear God, please protect our Florida from storms and other difficulties. Charlie."

"Time goes on -- May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December -- no hurricanes," Crist said. "Thank God."

Crist has also had other people place notes in the Wall in 2008 and 2009.

Crist made it clear that's he's not personally taking credit for Florida having been spared from hurricanes. "I give that to God," Crist said. "But it's nice."

Paul Campos responded, "This kind of thing seems like a real insult to genuine religious believers with an IQ over 87, so I guess that's not his target demographic."

No, I suspect not. Crist is facing off against a very conservative primary opponent, so it stands to reason that he hopes to curry favor with the religious right base of Florida's Republican Party. Since far-right activists have never been especially pleased with Crist anyway, these are the kind of remarks that are probably intended to help him connect.

But they are nevertheless strikingly silly. The hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean runs from June through November. Crist took office in January 2007, meaning that his tenure as Florida's chief executive has spanned exactly two full hurricane seasons. Obviously, it's wonderful that the Sunshine State hasn't been hit by a serious hurricane since 2005, but for Crist to suggest his religious activities may have been involved in this good fortune seems a little nutty.

Indeed, it makes me wonder what Crist thinks about the 486 recorded storms that have already hit Florida, not to mention those that may strike in the future. Here's hoping Crist doesn't think they're divine retribution for something.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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KRISTOL SLIPS FURTHER FROM REALITY.... At this point, most informed political observers have come to a certain realization about those who make the "death panel" argument: they're fools, charlatans, or both. Even news outlets that prefer to present coverage in a he-said/she-said fashion seem to realize that the argument is without merit. (They'll usually say something like, "Every independent fact-check of this claim says it's false.")

And yet, here we have the new column from the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, who argues this week that Republicans and conservatives have acted in an exemplary fashion throughout the health care debate. Seriously.

Conservative policy wonks helped to explode the false budgetary and health-improvement claims made on behalf of Obamacare. Conservative polemicists pointed out how Obamacare -- conceived in the spirit of budget chief Peter we-spend-too-much-as-a-nation-on-health-care Orszag and adviser Ezekiel we-need-to-stop-wasting-money-on-extending-low-quality-lives Emanuel -- means, in effect, death panels.

So good for them. And it's a sign of Obama's desperation that he seems unwilling to debate the substance of his own health care proposal....

Now, anyone familiar with Kristol's work shouldn't be surprised with this cheap and petty nonsense. He's a partisan hack; it's his job. He's paid handsomely to make arguments like these. Kristol has been making the case against health care reform for quite some time -- it was Kristol who urged GOP lawmakers to kill Clinton's effort, because it was more important to help his party than the country -- and his arguments have a habit of being "the opposite of true."

It's tempting to think, though, that his decision to push "death panel" stupidity might jeopardize his popularity with the political establishment, which knows full well that this is a garbage argument. But there are no consequences, which is one of the reasons Kristol lies with impunity. He remains the charming right-wing nut who wears nice suits and speaks in sober tones, and is no doubt a delightful companion at cocktail parties.

Does Kristol actually believe his own drivel? I'm inclined to think so, but as Jon Chait explained a couple of years ago, it may not matter. "Kristol's good standing in the Washington establishment depends on the wink-and-nod awareness that he's too smart to believe his own agitprop. Perhaps so. But, in the end, a fake thug is not much better than the real thing."

And so we're left with Kristol columns like this one, which argues, "The Republican party and the conservative movement are behaving in a way that can make Republicans and conservatives proud."

One wonders what the weather is like in Kristol Land.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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CRAZY LIKE A FOXX.... Rep. Virginia Foxx (R) of North Carolina has already contributed so much to the health care debate. It was Foxx, after all, who argued a month ago, "There are no Americans who don't have healthcare. Everybody in this country has access to healthcare." She added that reform would "give the government control of our lives."

A week later, Foxx insisted that health care reform would "put seniors in a position" in which they may be "put to death by their government."

And Thursday, Foxx was at it again, this time making a constitutional argument.

"The Constitution doesn't grant a right to health care, and most of us are living as much by the Constitution as we can. It also doesn't give the federal government the authority to deal with health care. As you may know, the 10th amendment, it says if it isn't mentioned in the Constitution to be done by the federal government, it's left to the states or the people."

Obviously, facts haven't played much of a role in the right's opposition to reform, so this kind of nonsense isn't surprising. But in case anyone's tempted to take this seriously, the Constitution empowers Congress to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises," to "provide for" the "general welfare" of the United States, and to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof." As Matthew DeLong recently noted, "I'm no constitutional scholar, but enacting laws to reform the health care system to help provide insurance to the roughly 45 million Americans currently going without sounds like it might be covered under a reasonable reading of the 'general welfare' clause."

Ian Millhiser summarized the larger context nicely: "It's important to note just how radical Bachmann's theory of the Constitution is. If Congress does not have the power to create a modest public option which competes with private health plans in the marketplace, then it certainly does not have the authority to create Medicare. Similarly, Congress' power to spend money to benefit the general welfare is the basis for Social Security, federal education funding, Medicaid, and veterans benefits such as the VA health system and the GI Bill."

That said, I'd like to encourage Foxx to pursue her beliefs sincerely. If she believes her own rhetoric, Foxx should use her role as a federal lawmaker to pursue the dictates of her constitutional scholarship. In other words, it's incumbent on Foxx to file legislation to dismantle Medicare and Social Security. That, or she should assemble a legal team and challenge the programs' constitutionality in federal court. Go big or go home. Put up or shut up.

If Foxx means what she says, and she takes constitutional law seriously, this is the obvious course of action. If she doesn't mean what she says, Foxx probably ought to stick to the usual right-wing nonsense and skip the 10th Amendment argument.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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August 21, 2009

FRIDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered "his most hopeful assessment in more than a year" today, asserting that "the prospects for a return to growth in the near term appear good."

* No results yet from Afghanistan's presidential race, but incumbent Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah both claimed to be positioned to win. More likely, the two will compete in a run-off election.

* U.S. home sales rose in July, the fourth consecutive rise.

* Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said health care reform has to feature a public option. Today, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, "I'm for a public option, but I'm also for passing a bill." The Maryland Democrat added, "We believe the public option is a necessary, useful and very important aspect of this. But, you know, we'll have to see, because there are many other important aspects of the bill, as well."

* World Health Organization officials expect the H1N1 virus to generate an "explosion" of cases in the coming months. The WHO's Western Pacific director said some countries could see the number of cases double every three to four days for months.

* Good news and bad news from a South Dakota judge on the state's anti-abortion laws.

* As of today, President Obama is on vacation.

* Sen. Ted Kennedy would like to see state lawmakers change the law on Senate replacements. State lawmakers do not appear anxious to act on his request.

* Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who clearly isn't well, believes the United States is on track to be like Iran. "Why don't Americans see what we're doing?" the right-wing senator asked on a talk-radio show yesterday.

* Given last week's ratings, perhaps "Meet the Press" should have invited Rachel Maddow on sooner.

* James Fallows reflects on last night's "Daily Show": "I have been far too soft on Betsy McCaughey. Even when conferring on her the title of 'most destructive effect on public discourse by a single person' for the 1990s. She is way less responsible and tethered to the world of 'normal' facts and discourse than I had imagined."

* On a related note, McCaughey resigned today from her position as a director of Cantel Medical Corp.

* When the American Medical Association was skeptical about health care reform, Fox News approved of the group. Now that the AMA supports reform, the Republican network is far less fond of the organization.

* And finally, Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida is one of the chamber's most conservative Democrats. He was, for example, the only House Dem to support Bush's effort to privatize Social Security. He was, however, hosting a town-hall event in his district this week, when someone suggested that health care reform would force Americans to give the government access to their bank accounts. "That's not true," Boyd responded. "When someone sends you something on the Internet that sounds crazy, how about just checking it a little bit?" Good advice.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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CROSSTABS OFFER THE WHITE HOUSE GUIDANCE.... We talked earlier about the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, which shows President Obama's approval rating staying strong, but a drop off in support for health care reform and the president's handling of the issue.

Specifically, the poll showed 46% of Americans approving of Obama on health care, with 50% disapproving. In general, this isn't an especially helpful measurement -- it's too broad. The group that rejects the president's handling of the issue includes ardent supporters of single-payer, those who like the Democratic approach but don't like Obama's political strategy, Tea Baggers who think reform is tantamount to the Nazi Holocaust, etc. Simple "disapproval" lumps together people who may strongly disagree with one another.

More important is who is shifting from support to disapproval. Greg Sargent talked to WaPo polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta, who found in the crosstabs that the White House is slipping with its base.

The numbers tell the story: In three key cases where Obama has dropped significantly, he's also dropped by sizable margins among Dems and liberals. Let's take the major findings driving the discussion today, and compare them with his drop among Dems and libs.

The president's slip isn't entirely the result of frustrated liberals and Democrats, but their aggravation is clearly having an effect. The number of liberals who are confident that Obama will make the right decision, for example, has dropped from 90% to 78%. Liberals who approve of the president's handling of health care has dropped from 81% to 70%.

These almost certainly aren't people expressing disapproval because they're watching Fox News or buying into McCaughey's lies -- these are progressive supporters who disapprove of unhelpful concessions to conservatives and overly-cautious centrists.

I can imagine that some of the president's aides may find this dynamic frustrating. Some on the right think Obama is too far to the left. Some on the left think Obama is too far to the right.

That said, if the White House political office wants to see these numbers improve, these poll results offer a pretty big hint. It's not complicated -- take a firm stand in support of the already-articulated principles, stand up to obstructionist Republicans, and tell centrists that the days of slow-walking reform are over.

Get a good bill through Congress, and the polls will look far more encouraging for the administration. This isn't rocket science.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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TRY THINGS THE LBJ WAY?.... Matt Yglesias shares a story today about Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, a far-right Democrat back in the Dixiecrat era, that I hadn't heard in a while. It's has quite a bit of relevance to current events.

Eastland's chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee obviously made passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 impossible. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and President Lyndon Johnson dealt with this by just . . . not letting the bill get bottled up in committee and bringing it to the floor instead. The sky didn't fall! Leading politicians decided that justice was more important that the dead hand of Senate procedure and they brought the bill to the floor where it was voted on.

Imagine that. Four-and-a-half decades later, this procedural detail is a tidbit of trivia. I suspect, at the time, Eastland and his allies characterized this as an outrageous power-grab. Had the phrase existed, "nuclear option" probably would have been thrown around casually. If Fox News were around, Mansfield and LBJ would have been labeled authoritarian dictators, ramming controversial legislation down the throat of lawmakers.

Indeed, in a contemporary context, Mansfield and LBJ would be expected to wait patiently, while Eastland tried to negotiate a "compromise" with opponents of the Civil Rights Act that could win support from the left and right. There'd be demands that lawmakers "take their time" to "get it right," eschewing "arbitrary deadlines." The David Broders would say landmark bills like these demand broad consensus. Lawmakers confronted with angry cries from conservative activists would be seen as proof that Mansfield and LBJ should "slow down" and temper their ambitions, while Eastland waters down the bill.

Instead, Mansfield and LBJ decided to skip the committee and pass the bill anyway. There was talk from the far-right about "nullification," but in time, the hysterical found something new to focus their attention on. Now, no one even remembers the process, but everyone remembers the policy.

As this relates to health care reform in 2009, it's not even clear what more the Gang of Six have to talk about. They've been looking at the same proposals, the same numbers, and the same budget for months. They wanted to work over August, but instead, they had one telephone chat last night, and agreed to talk again in two weeks. At that point, they'll look at the same proposals, the same numbers, and the same budget some more.

There's been a Sept. 15 deadline hanging over their heads for a while, but the Gang of Six no longer cares. In fact, the gang's members have decided to ignore the deadline, so they can stare at the same proposals, the same numbers, and the same budget indefinitely.

Mansfield and LBJ wouldn't put the policy goal at risk for the sake of process. Reid and Obama have every reason to follow their precedent.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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NULLIFICATION TALK FROM CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS.... Right-wing lawmakers like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) make interesting comments all the time. Yesterday, though, was extra special.

Some of the nuttiness was fairly routine. Bachmann told Sean Hannity, for example, that she will never "give the government control over my body." For the staunch opponent of abortion rights, it seemed like an odd thing to say. Likewise, DeMint explained that he's against health care reform that would give government control of the "most personal" aspect of Americans' lives. For the staunch supporter of anti-gay constitutional amendments, this, too, seemed like an odd thing to say.

But the two wacky Republicans actually teamed up last night to participate in a tele-town-hall event (a meeting over the phone) organized by Americans for Prosperity, a far-right lobbying group opposed to health care reform.

During the call, DeMint and Bachmann didn't use the word "nullification," but they seemed to offer some support for the idea.

A caller asked DeMint what the states could do in order to stop unconstitutional action by the federal government on health care. DeMint replied, "I think the key to pushing back against the federal government is some governors and state legislators who champion individual freedom."

DeMint said he would love to see states go to court to invoke the Tenth Amendment: "If we had some states come together and say the only way to save this country is to push back." He also added: "I think you'll see some states say no more, we're not going down with the federal government."

Bachmann added that governors should take collective action. "We'd have to see some fairly revolutionary action taken by the these states, and it's question of whether these governors would do that," she said.

Given her track record, when Bachmann starts talking about "revolutionary action," it's unclear if she means "revolutionary" in the ground-breaking sense or the overthrow-the-U.S.-government sense.

Also note, this truly insane talk is already percolating among right-wing GOP officials at the state level, most notably in Florida and Texas.

If you're new to this argument, Josh Marshall explained today, "Nullification, the constitutional theory that states can block enforcement of federal laws they find objectionable, was crackpot from the start and hasn't been seriously entertained anywhere in the county since the Civil War (with the exception of feigned attempts in the South during the Civil Right Era)."

It's why it's all the more unnerving to hear two sitting members of Congress talking like this in public -- in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, it's something to keep an eye on, since a) the fight with conservatives can continue long after reform passes (if it passes); and b) these efforts are a reminder of just how far off the ideological cliff some contingents of the GOP have gone.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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COMPARING COSTS.... At the town-hall forum at the DNC yesterday, an Organizing for America volunteer asked President Obama about the costs of health care reform. He responded:

"Now, one thing that's very important to remind people, because you notice there's been a talking point from opponents -- 'trillion-dollar health care bill' -- they love repeating that. 'Trillion-dollar health care bill.'

"First of all, it's important to remind people that when they say 'trillion dollars,' they're talking about over 10 years. So this -- we're talking about $100 billion a year -- which is still a significant amount of money. But just to give you a sense of perspective, I mean, the amount of money that we're spending in Iraq and Afghanistan is -- what's the latest figure, Debbie? You figure $8 billion to $9 billion a month, right?

"So for about the same cost per year as we've been spending over the last five to six years, we could have funded this health care reform proposal, just to give you a sense of perspective."

I don't recall hearing the president make this argument before, and it's an interesting one.

There are limits to how one can use these cost comparisons, but as a rhetorical matter, it raises a compelling point. Conservatives have said they're entirely comfortable with spending at least $100 billion a year on wars in the Middle East. Indeed, these same conservatives have said price is no object when it comes to military conflicts. How much of that money is added to the national debt, to be paid for by future generations? Every single penny. This, according to the right, makes perfect sense, fiscally and strategically.

In contrast, the idea of spending $100 billion a year on health care is, according to these same conservatives, outrageous. For many Americans, health coverage is also a matter of life or death, but the price tag has nevertheless been deemed offensive. Indeed, according to the center-right members of the Gang of Six -- who have had very little to say about debt-financed funding for Iraq and Afghanistan -- the principal focus now has to be on making health care reform even cheaper.

If reform does cost as much as $100 billion a year for 10 years, how much of that money is added to the national debt, to be paid for by future generations? According to Democratic policymakers, not one cent. This is, of course, the exact oppose of the approach the Bush/Cheney administration embraced for the wars in the Middle East, not to mention the Bush/Cheney Medicare expansion that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, all of which was added to future generations' tab.

That Republicans claim the high ground on fiscal responsibility and debt reduction continues to be a source of great comedy.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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HOW TIMES CHANGE... The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb had an item yesterday, emphasizing the fact that when FDR and LBJ proposed landmark legislation, they "got Republican votes."

President Obama might not be aware of this but FDR passed Social Security with massive Republican support -- 81 Republicans voted in favor of the measure in the House and only 15 against while 16 Republicans voted in favor in the Senate and just 5 against. Johnson's Medicare package was only marginally more contentious. Just 13 Republicans voted in favor of Medicare in the Senate to 17 against, but in the House, more Republicans (70) voted for Johnson's Medicare plan than against (68).

Maybe President Obama should stop wee-weeing and start trying to get some Republican support for his bill -- as both Johnson and FDR successfully did. Getting a bill like this is not, in fact, always messy. Rather, there is clearly something particular about Obama's approach that has created this mess.

What total nonsense. "Obama's approach" has been to compromise, negotiate, and concede, repeatedly, in the hopes of improving the bill's chances. It's an "approach" that would work if the Republican Party hadn't shifted so far to the right.

Michael Goldfarb might not be aware of this but FDR and LBJ led during a time when moderate and center-left Republicans were still fairly common. Neither Democratic president had trouble finding sensible GOP lawmakers who were anxious to work on progressive policy goals. Obama, however, is stuck trying to find common ground with a right-wing reactionary party.

Harold Meyerson recently explained the history and the larger dynamic very well.

[B]ipartisanship ain't what it used to be, and for one fundamental reason: Republicans ain't what they used to be. It's true that there was considerable Republican congressional support, back in the day, for Social Security and Medicare. But in the '30s, there were progressive Republicans who stood to the left of the Democrats.... Today, no such Republicans exist. [...]

Nationally, the party is dominated by Southern neo-Dixiecrats. In their book "Off Center," political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson compared congressional Republicans of different eras and concluded that a Republican House member in 2003 with a voting record that placed him at the median of his party was 73 percent more conservative than the median GOP member of the early '70s.

Max Baucus, then, isn't negotiating universal coverage with the party of Everett Dirksen, in which many members supported Medicare. He's negotiating it with the party of Barry Goldwater, who was dead set against Medicare. It's a fool's errand that is creating a plan that's a marvel of ineffectuality and self-negation -- a latter-day Missouri Compromise that reconciles opposites at the cost of good policy.

That Goldfarb doesn't understand this is predictable, but nevertheless sad. Nicholas Beaudrot explained, "[I]t's simply not meaningful to compare the preset circumstances to those faced by Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to bipartisanship.... Barack Obama faces partisan polarization not seen since Woodrow Wilson was President."

Goldfarb makes it sound as if President Obama deserves the blame for the Republican Party excising moderates from their ranks. Like it or not, it's not the Democrats' fault Republicans have become too conservative.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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'I LIKE YOU, BUT I DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW YOUR BRAIN WORKS'.... When I first heard that Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey was going to be on "The Daily Show," I was a little concerned. McCaughey doesn't need the publicity, and she has a nasty habit of making demonstrably ridiculous claims about health care reform. Indeed, much of the widely-believed right-wing nonsense about reform can be traced back to McCaughey.

She started lying about the administration's health policies in February, and she's been on a tear since.

But my concerns were unfounded. Jon Stewart didn't invite McCaughey on to offer a platform for her nonsense; he invited her on to make her appear ridiculous. As David Kurtz noted, "As funny as he is, Jon Stewart is often at his best when he drops the comedian schtick and just goes with his whip-smart 40-something Jew routine, like he did last night with GOP whackadoodle Betsy McCaughey."

As Alex Koppelman added:

McCaughey's latest falsehoods have taken hold with a disturbingly large portion of the American public. But she couldn't get them past "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, who had her on his show Thursday night and subjected her to one of his better interviews, meticulously picking her points apart and demonstrating their inaccuracy, leaving her stumbling and stammering in an attempt to defend her position. By the end of it, he told her, "I like you -- but I don't understand how your brain works."

McCaughey tried, repeatedly, to ingratiate herself to Stewart and his audience. She talked about how much she loved the show, how much she enjoys Stewart, and that she actually loves the idea of health care reform.

Stewart was unmoved, calling her ridiculous rhetoric "hyperbolic" and "dangerous," and mocking her and other "doomsayers." Under the circumstances, the criticism was mild compared to the extent of the damage McCaughey has done to the national discourse.

The interview went way over the allotted time, and ran online in multiple parts. I've included them below, though I should note that the clips are uncensored and include some language that may be NSFW.

Part I:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Betsy McCaughey Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests


Part II:


The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Betsy McCaughey Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Part III:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Betsy McCaughey Extended Interview Pt. 2
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests
Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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FRIDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Creigh Deeds, the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful in Virginia, has a new strategy in mind to go after frontrunner Bob McDonnell (R). A source close to the candidate told Chris Cillizza that Deeds "will cast the race as a choice between the policies put in place by popular Democratic Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and those of former president George W. Bush."

* DNC fundraising outpaced RNC fundraising in July, $9 million to $6 million. The prior was no doubt helped by a major fundraiser President Obama held for the DNC in Chicago last month.

* As for the campaign committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee edged out its Democratic counterpart in July, $2.75 million to just over $2 million.

* Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio's Senate campaign is struggling, facing Gov. Charlie Crist in a Republican primary. Rubio does enjoy the support of the party's far-right base, however, as evidenced by the new cover story from the National Review.

* Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter's (D) re-election efforts are looking shaky at this point, with a new survey from Public Policy Polling showing the incumbent trailing former Rep. Scott McInnis (R) in a hypothetical general election match-up, 46% to 38%. Ritter's biggest hurdle right now is weak support from Colorado's Democrats. Party leaders fear a tough gubernatorial race will also have down-ballot consequences, especially for Sen. Michael Bennet (D).

* Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson is expected to be the Republicans' Senate candidate next year, but a new poll shows Ron Paul's son, ophthalmologist Rand Paul, creeping up on the party establishment's pick.

* And in Utah, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) continues to flirt with the idea of taking on Sen. Bob Bennett in a Republican primary next year. Chaffetz has already reserved ChaffetzForSenate.com, though he said it was a precautionary move -- he didn't want someone else taking it while he weighs his options.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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OBAMA SUPPORT STILL SLIPPING, GOP STILL NOT CAPITALIZING.... Consistent with what we've seen in other polls, the latest survey from the Washington Post/ABC News offers some discouraging numbers for the White House. The news wasn't all bad -- the poll showed President Obama with a 57% approval rating, which is still quite high -- but other key numbers have fallen off, especially when it comes to public confidence.

Public confidence in President Obama's leadership has declined sharply over the summer, amid intensifying opposition to health-care reform that threatens to undercut his attempt to enact major changes to the system, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Among all Americans, 49 percent now express confidence that Obama will make the right decisions for the country, down from 60 percent at the 100-day mark in his presidency. Forty-nine percent now say they think he will be able to spearhead significant improvements in the system, down nearly 20 percentage points from before he took office.

As challenges to Obama's initiatives have mounted over the summer, pessimism in the nation's direction has risen: Fifty-five percent see things as pretty seriously on the wrong track, up from 48 percent in April.

There are some hints of optimism -- half the country expects the recession to be over within the year, nearly double the number from February -- but in general, the poll points to a public in a sour mood.

Specifically on health care, the public doesn't like the president's handling of the issue, and opponents of the Democratic plan(s) outnumber supporters. Perhaps more important, the Post noted, "Intensity is on the side of the detractors: Forty percent of all Americans strongly oppose the plans, while 27 percent are solidly behind them."

As for the public option, the poll asked, "Would you support or oppose having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans?" Despite the right's best efforts, a 52% majority still supports a public option, though the number is down from 62% in June. (The question did not indicate that the government-run plan would be optional.)

But despite the drop off in support for the administration, Republicans still aren't capitalizing. Poll respondents were asked "how much confidence" they have in the various players "to make the right decisions for the country's future." For the president, the number was 49%. For congressional Democrats, it was 35%. And for congressional Republicans, just 21% expressed confidence in them. For those saying they have "a great deal of confidence," Obama led GOP lawmakers, 28% to 4%. (That's not a typo -- only 4% have a lot of confidence in Republicans on the Hill.)

What's more, while the president's numbers have dropped -- 60% confidence in April to 49% in August -- Republican numbers haven't improved at all. Confidence in the GOP is almost identical to where it was in April, with the only noticeable change coming with an uptick among those who have "no confidence at all."

Efforts to undermine the president and his agenda are having an effect. At this point, however, it has not translated into improved standing for the Republican Party.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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OBAMA NOTICES FORCED NEUTRALITY IN MEDIA.... President Obama appeared at a town-hall forum at the DNC yesterday, talking to Organizing for America volunteers and party supporters at an event that was broadcast online. The discussion covered a lot of ground, but there was something the president said about the media that stood out for me.

An activist in Arizona noted in a question via Twitter that there are "too many lies about health insurance reform," and she asked, "Where are these lies from?"

The president, smiling, said, "[W]e know where these lies are coming from. I mean, I don't think it's any secret. If you just flick channels and then stop on certain ones, then you'll see who's propagating this stuff." The audience laughed, because there wasn't any doubt as to which "channel" Obama was referring to.

More importantly, though, this led the president to talk a little about the flaw in so much of American political journalism. Specifically with regards to the "death panel" nonsense, Obama explained:

"...I have to say, part of the reason it spreads is the way reporting is done today. If somebody puts out misinformation, 'Obama's Creating Death Panels,' then the way the news report comes across is: 'Today such-and-such accused President Obama of putting forward death panels. The White House responded that that wasn't true.' And then they go on to the next story. And what they don't say is, 'In fact, it isn't true.'

"You know, it's fine to have a debate back and forth -- he said, she said -- except when somebody else is just not even telling remotely the truth. Then you should say in your reports, 'Oh, and by the way, that's just not true.'

"But that doesn't happen often enough."

That's true, it doesn't. I don't doubt many reporters heard this and cringed -- Obama is trying to tell them how to do their jobs? -- but the problem of "forced neutrality" in political reporting deserves all the attention it can get.

Usually, it's bloggers saying things like this. It was nice to hear a president making the same argument.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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REMEMBER, HE LOST.... Chris Cillizza let readers know this morning about what to watch on Sunday morning.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spends the hour (or most of it) with George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" on Sunday. McCain has laid low over the last few months as the debate over health care has raged. He's made clear he would like to play a bigger part in the negotiations but, to date, has been on the outside looking in. How hard a line against the plan does McCain take? Does he leave any wiggle room in hopes of emerging as the broker of a grand compromise?

Cillizza described McCain's appearance as "Must Watch TV." I have no idea why.

First, let's note that John McCain is not a key senator right now. He's not a member of the Republican leadership, and he's not on the Senate Finance Committee. McCain hasn't unveiled any relevant or important pieces of legislation, and he's not being targeted as a possible swing vote on any major bills. Indeed, CQ ran an interesting analysis this week, noting that McCain's "maverick" reputation has disappeared -- he's voting with the Republican Party more this year than at any point in his 23-year career.

McCain is, in other words, just another conservative Republican senator, with no real influence, and nothing new to say, who just happens to be invited onto national television all the time, including another lengthy chat on "This Week" in a few days. (What might he say? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess he'll spend most of the time bashing the president.)

Second, for a candidate who lost a presidential election last year, the Sunday morning show producers seem obsessed with the guy. Just this year, McCain has been on "Meet the Press" twice (July 12 and March 29), "Face the Nation" twice (April 26 and February 8), CNN's "State of the Union" twice (August 2 and February 15), and "Fox News Sunday" three times (July 2, March 8, and January 25). And on Sunday, McCain will make his another appearance on "This Week," after having just been on the same show on May 10.

These are, of course, just the Sunday-show appearances -- not including more routine appearances -- for a politician in the minority, with no real sway over current events, and who was rejected in large numbers by the electorate last year.

Just once, I'd love to hear producers/hosts explain why McCain has to be on one at least one of the Sunday shows 11 times* in eight months. Refresh my memory: was there this much interest in John Kerry's take on current events in 2005?

* corrected

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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GOP REDISCOVERS ITS OBJECTIONS TO RECONCILIATION.... RNC Chairman Michael Steele told Fox News' Sean Hannity last night how outrageous it is to see Democratic lawmakers consider the Senate reconciliation process for health care reform. Except, of course, he didn't use the word "reconciliation."

"If it means the nuclear option, it's going to be the nuclear option," Steele said. "And so my attitude, quite frankly, is, 'Bring it on.'"

We talked yesterday about how ridiculous it is to describe reconciliation this way. The "nuclear option" phrase was in reference to a Senate Republican scheme to change institutional rules. Now they're using the phrase to denounce playing by the institutional rules.

But what's interesting is to note the evolution of the GOP's thinking on this.

Here's Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in March:

"I fully recognize that Republicans have in the past engaged in using reconciliation to further the party's agenda."

And here's Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in April:

"[Democrats] have the votes with reconciliation," said Ryan. "They nailed down the process so that they can make sure they have the votes and that they can get this thing through really fast. It is their right. It is what they can do."

And here's former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in June:

"[Reconciliation is] legal, it's ethical, you can do it. And it has been suggested and accepted by the administration, pretty directly that if it came down to it, they're going to drive this thing through a fifty-vote door."

Obviously, looking for some kind of intellectual consistency here is foolish, but I get the sense that some Republican official woke up sometime this week, and announced to the GOP world, "Never mind what we said before, let's start calling reconciliation the 'nuclear option.'"

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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GANG OF SIX LOOKING FOR SCISSORS.... For most of the early summer, the political world waited on six members of the Senate Finance Committee -- centrists and center-right members from rural states -- to approve a bill. They couldn't. Members wanted more time, and got more time. It didn't matter. Hopes that the Senate might pass a measure before the August recess were dashed because the so-called Gang of Six wanted to negotiate some more.

Three weeks into August, have they made progress? No, members of the gang haven't gotten together for a chat. They'd talked about the possibility of a meeting, but Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) scrapped the plans, citing a busy summer schedule.

Late yesterday, the Gang of Six managed to connect over the phone. They reportedly raised the idea of moving the reform legislation even further to the right.

In a conference call, the three Democratic and three Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee agreed to redouble their efforts to craft a less costly alternative to the trillion-dollar initiatives so far put forward in Congress. They discussed the possibility of also reining in the scope of their package, the sources said. [...]

Before leaving for the month-long recess, Baucus had pegged the cost of the negotiators' ideas at less than $900 billion over the next decade. Thursday's discussions focused on driving that cost lower, the sources said.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, note that the only reason to "rein in the scope" of reform, and try to make the efforts much cheaper, would be to satisfy the demands of conservative Republicans -- the conservative Republicans who oppose health care reform, and who intend to vote against the bill anyway.

This is madness.

Also note, before the recess, the Gang of Six was given a Sept. 15 deadline. At that point, Senate leaders have said, the legislative process will just have continue on without them. According to the WaPo account, the six "rejected the idea of imposing a deadline on their negotiations," and said they'd chat again in two weeks.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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KYL DOUBLES DOWN: NO GOP SUPPORT FOR REFORM.... This week, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said "almost all Republicans" are likely to oppose health care reform, no matter how many concessions Democrats make, even if it's the result of a bipartisan compromise.

Any chance Kyl might try to walk these remarks back? Apparently not. Reader V.S. alerted me to this interview yesterday, in which Kyl talked to Fox News' Neil Cavuto and doubled down. "For either the bill that passed the House Committee or the bill that passed the HELP committee in the Senate, I don't think a single Republican in the Senate would support either of those bills," Kyl said.

When the discussion turned to the possibility of splitting the bill in two -- one bill with popular consumer protections, another with more controversial elements -- Kyl added that Republicans will reject those bills, too. "That'll be no deal," he told Kyl.

It's worth noting that Kyl isn't just a member of the Republicans' Senate leadership, he's the Minority Whip. In other words, he's responsible for counting and rounding up votes for the party. If Kyl says there are no GOP votes for reform bills, it's likely there are no GOP votes for reform.

He went on to say that Democratic reform efforts are intended to "totally change the entire system of health care delivery and insurance in the country," which further helps demonstrate the fact that Kyl doesn't really understand what he's talking about.

Kyl didn't address specific concessions he'd like to see, but he did say that to get Republican support, Democrats would have to throw away the entire health care reform bill.

I'm not sure what more it'll take to prove Republican lawmakers aren't interested in passing reform legislation.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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August 20, 2009

THURSDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Despite threats from the Taliban, Afghans voted today in a national election. Vote-counting is underway.

* The Cash-for-Clunkers program will wrap up on Monday at 8 p.m.

* Scottish authorities freed Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted in the Pan Am 103 bombing, today. The Obama administration was not pleased with the move.

* Speaker Pelosi believes the only way to pass health care reform in the House is to include a public option in the bill.

* In 2004, the CIA contracted with Blackwater to target al Qaeda operatives. The program was canceled before being implemented.

* American support for the war in Afghanistan continues to fall. A majority now see the conflict as not worth fighting, only one-in-four want to see more U.S. troops sent to the country.

* Confusion about health care reform among rank-and-file Republicans keeps getting worse.

* The conservative approach to health care reform in a nutshell: "Limbaugh tells caller who can't afford $6,000 to treat broken wrist: 'Well, you shouldn't have broken your wrist.'"

* If Rick Scott insists on lying about reform, the least he could do is come up with more plausible nonsense.

* E.J. Dionne urges Americans attending public policy debates to leave their guns at home. That seems reasonable.

* Harold Meyerson explains why negotiating with Republicans on health care reform is folly.

* Media Matters documents the "myths and falsehoods about health care reform." Clip and save.

* Corrupt-politician-turned-TV-dancer Tom DeLay wants Chris Matthews to ask the president to "show me his gift certificate." Maybe the poor guy has spent a little too much time around bug spray?

* Michael J.W. Stickings weighs in with a hearty defense of Ontario's health care system. (Hint: conservatives are wrong.)

* I have no idea why President Obama's choice in neckwear, or lack thereof, is of any interest to anyone.

* I have no idea why the length of First Lady Michelle Obama's pants is of any interest to anyone.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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OBAMA AND SMERCONISH.... President Obama sat down this morning with conservative radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish, who broadcast his show live from the White House today, for a substantive and interesting discussion. One exchange, in particular, stood out for me.

A caller from Philadelphia, who said he "worked hard" in support of the Obama campaign last year said he's "getting a little ticked off," because he's afraid the president's "knees are buckling a little bit" on health care. "It's very frustrating to watch you try and compromise with a lot of these people who aren't willing to compromise with you," the caller said. Obama responded:

"Well, look, I guarantee you, Joe, we are going to get health care reform done. And I know that there are a lot of people out there who have been hand-wringing, and folks in the press are following every little twist and turn of the legislative process. You know, passing a big bill like this is always messy. FDR was called a socialist when he passed Social Security. JFK and Lyndon Johnson, they were both accused of a government takeover of health care when they passed Medicare. This is the process that we go through -- because, understandably, the American people have a long tradition of being suspicious of government, until the government actually does something that helps them, and then they don't want anybody messing with whatever gets set up.

"And I'm confident we're going to get it done, and as far as negotiations with Republicans, my attitude has always been, let's see if we can get this done with some consensus. I would love to have more Republicans engaged and involved in this process. I think early on a decision was made by the Republican leadership that said, 'Look, let's not give them a victory and maybe we can have a replay of 1993-94 when Clinton came in; he failed on health care and then we won in the midterm elections and we got the majority.' And I think there's some folks who are taking a page out of that playbook.

"But this shouldn't be a political issue. This is a issue for the American people. There are a bunch of Republicans out there who have been working very constructively. One of them, Olympia Snowe in Maine, she's been dedicated on this. Chuck Grassley, Mike Enzi, others -- they've been meeting in the Senate Finance Committee. I want to give them a chance to work through these processes.

"And we're happy to make sensible compromises. What we're not willing to do is give up on the core principle that Americans who don't have health insurance should get it; that Americans who do have health insurance should get a better deal from insurance companies and have consumer protections. We've got to reduce health care inflation so that everybody can keep the health care that they have. That's going to be my priorities, and I think we can get it done."

This was an interesting response -- to a great question -- for a few reasons. First, I don't think I've heard the president say he "guarantees" that health care reform will get done before this. Second, the more he reminds folks about how the right has consistently been hysterical about Democratic reform ideas, the better.

But the part about Republicans also seemed new -- he said some GOP officials are opposing reform simply to help the Republicans' chances in the 2010 midterms. That's obviously true, but as Greg Sargent noted, "I'm pretty sure Obama has not gone this far before."

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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CHOICE AND A PUBLIC OPTION.... It seems some of the opposition to a public option in health care reform has to do with a misconception: that it would be mandatory.

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dog point-man on health care, said yesterday he would not vote for a plan that would "force government-run healthcare on anyone. Period." But he added that the House contained a public plan that is "strictly ... an option."

Given the name -- "public option" has the word "option" in it -- I'd hoped that was obvious. It's not. When pollsters ask about a public option, lately, there's been a lot of opposition. When pollsters ask about the policy and ask if people want the choice, the results are far more encouraging.

More than three out of every four Americans feel it is important to have a "choice" between a government-run health care insurance option and private coverage, according to a public opinion poll released on Thursday.

A new study by SurveyUSA puts support for a public option at a robust 77 percent, one percentage point higher than where it stood in June.

This comes on the heels of an NBC poll. In June, the poll asked respondents if they thought it was important to "give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance." A total of 76% thought it was important. When NBC changed the wording, and dropped the concept of choice, support for the public option plummeted to 43%.

This should offer reformers a pretty big hint about how to frame the pitch: reform would offer Americans a choice between private insurers or a voluntary public option, which would compete to help lower costs.

Dems should also be prepared to press opponents on this. "I think consumers should have a choice between competing private and public plans. Why don't you want American families to have a chioce?"

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BARON HILL CALLS A LIE A LIE.... As Blue Dogs go, there isn't a liberal bone in Baron Hill's body. The Indiana congressman rarely endorses the Democratic agenda and just doesn't stick to the Democratic message. Ever. When counting votes for health care reform, Rep. Hill isn't exactly a lock.

And even he's sick of the conservative attacks on reform. Eric Zimmermann reports on a town-hall event Hill held in his district yesterday.

"You'll have choices, regardless of what the detractors tell you," Hill said. "They are lying. That's a strong word, but it's true."

Thank you, Baron Hill. When Blue Dogs get sick of conservative misinformation, you know it's getting out of hand.

As for what got Hill going, this exchange seemed to set him off.

"I'm not a Democrat or a Republican," the man said. "I consider myself a political atheist. But from what I've heard about the plan on TV, there's a lot about it that I disagree with."

"What part do you not like?" Hill asked.

"Well, just some of the stuff they have been talking about on TV," the man responded.

"OK, and what was that?" Hill asked.

But the person couldn't come up with an example of what he disagreed with.


Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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'BIPARTISAN' GOALPOSTS ARE ON THE MOVE.... You might think that legislation with Democratic votes and Republican votes is "bipartisan." Throw in some independents, and we might even have "tripartisan."

But when it comes to health care reform, the bar is apparently on the move. It started about a month ago when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he thinks reform ought to get 80 votes in the Senate.

Apparently, this is starting to catch on.

Speaking on Fox News last night, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) claimed that health care reform should not happen because it doesn't enjoy "bipartisan" support, adding that a bill cannot be bipartisan unless it garners "somewhere between 75 and 80 votes." [...]

Hatch is hardly the only conservative senator to float a 75-80 vote supermajority requirement for health reform. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who is currently blocking attempts to fix the health care system, told the Washington Post that "[w]e ought to be focusing on getting 80 votes." Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) demanded "a bill that 75 or 80 senators can support."

There are a few angles to keep in mind here. First, it's fascinating to hear partisan Republicans suggest it's incumbent on Democrats to aim for 80-vote majorities on major pieces of legislation. Funny, Hatch, Grassley, and Enzi didn't feel this way when they were in charge.

Second, I can't help but wonder if Hatch, Grassley, and Enzi, among others, believe that when push comes to shove, and reform heads to the House and Senate floors, a few Republicans -- Snowe in the Senate, Coh in the House -- will break ranks and vote with Democrats. This sounds like pre-emptive spin: "It was a bipartisan majority, but it wasn't really a bipartisan majority based on our standards, so this doesn't count."

And third, aiming for 75 or 80 votes is obviously ridiculous. Republicans don't support health care reform. They never have. Grassley says he's likely to vote against his own compromise; Kyl says the party won't accept a bill no matter how many concessions Dems make; Voinovich says half the GOP caucus opposes reform for purely partisan reasons; Inhofe says Republicans have to look at reform while keeping the 2010 midterms in mind; and DeMint wants to make reform the president's "Waterloo," so he can "break" Obama.

I don't blame Republicans for trying to move the goalposts here, but where, pray tell, are Dems supposed to find these other 20 votes in a Republican caucus with two relative moderates?

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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KENNEDY EYES NEW PROCESS FOR SUCCESSOR.... Sen. Ted Kennedy's (D-Mass.) commitment to health care reform is unrivaled, but brain cancer is preventing the Liberal Lion from participating in the debate. Worse, there's a question as to whether Kennedy will even be able to vote for reform if/when it reaches the Senate floor.

Kennedy is now thinking about setting the stage for his successor.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in a poignant acknowledgment of his mortality at a critical time in the national health care debate, has privately asked the governor and legislative leaders to change the succession law to guarantee that Massachusetts will not lack a Senate vote when his seat becomes vacant.

In a personal, sometimes wistful letter sent Tuesday to Governor Deval L. Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Kennedy asks that Patrick be given authority to appoint someone to the seat temporarily before voters choose a new senator in a special election.

Although Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, does not specifically mention his illness or the health care debate raging in Washington, the implication of his letter is clear: He is trying to make sure that the leading cause in his life, better health coverage for all, advances in the event of his death.

In 2004, state lawmakers were worried about Mitt Romney choosing John Kerry's replacement, in the event of Kerry presidential victory. They passed a measure to leave Senate vacancies empty until a special election is held within five months. Kennedy would now like to see that law changed -- empowering Deval Patrick (D) to fill a vacancy immediately with an interim senator, with a special election to follow soon after.

As Kennedy sees it, Patrick would get an "explicit personal commitment'' that the interim senator not run in the special election, so no candidate would have an advantage.

In general, tinkering with these laws, based on specific circumstances, strikes me as a bad idea, but the mistake seems to be the 2004 change. Like Jason Zengerle, I think what Kennedy is urging seems entirely reasonable. It's unclear, however, whether state lawmakers are willing to revisit the 2004 law.

If Kennedy is unable to serve if/when reform comes to the floor, the Democratic caucus will have 59 votes. Of course, the Senate is all about collegiality and relationships, and Kennedy has many close, personal friendships with long-time Republican senators.

Ezra ponders whether someone like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), out of respect for Kennedy's career and their decades of friendship, might do the honorable thing and vote for reform in Kennedy's place, "to make sure that [Kennedy's] death doesn't kill the work of his life."

Alas, Hatch seems to have already ruled out the possibility.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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IT'S NOT ABOUT THE UNINSURED?.... Just for a moment, let's put aside the important discussions of specific provisions -- public option, co-ops, mandates -- of the health care reform debate. Instead, let's consider why reform is worthwhile in the first place.

Why do reformers want reform? Painting with the broadest possible brush, there are two main reasons: (1) there are tens of millions of uninsured Americans who have no coverage, a moral outrage in the wealthiest nation in the world; and (2) there are tens of millions who have been, could be, or will be screwed over by insurance companies, and they need some protections.

Whether you like the various proposals or not, this is why health care reform is on the table. It's what reform is all about. This is what it's always been about.

If only the leading Blue Dog on health care agreed.

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) said on Wednesday that providing healthcare to uninsured Americans is "not what this healthcare reform debate is about."

In making his comments, Ross, who is the centrist Blue Dogs' health reform point man, questioned one of the primary healthcare goals of the White House and Democratic leaders.

"That is a side benefit to healthcare reform and an important one," Ross told the Arkansas Educational Television Network. Instead, the fifth-term congressman said the bill should focus on "cost containment."

We're the only industrialized democracy on the planet that doesn't guarantee health care coverage for all of its citizens. Tens of millions of Americans have no coverage, and half of all bankruptcies in the United States stem from health care expenses that destroy families financially.

Addressing this is a "side benefit"?

For what it's worth, Ross identified specific provisions that would prevent him from voting for reform -- forcing Americans who want a private insurer to take the public option, taxpayer subsidies for abortions, coverage for illegal immigrants, rationing, and deficit increases.

Depending on whether Ross is prepared to use Republican-friendly definitions of some of these phrases, it sounds like he should be able to support the Democratic proposal.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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RIDGE CONFIRMS FEARS ABOUT POLITICIZED ALERTS.... In 2005, former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge acknowledged that the Bush administration periodically put the United States on high alert for terrorist attacks based on flimsy evidence. "There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'" Ridge told reporters.

While Republicans used to insist that it was cynical of Bush's detractors to question these alerts -- what kind of monstrous president would politicize threats of terrorism on American soil? -- it was hardly a stretch to think the then-president saw advantages to scaring the bejesus out of the public. The alerts did, after all, give Bush's campaign for a second term a boost, while helping the Bush administration acquire more unchecked power.

We were told, at the time, that only deranged liberals could take these accusations seriously. No president, the political establishment said, would do such a thing.

It looks like the deranged liberals may have been right. Paul Bedard reports this week that Ridge, hoping to shake up "public complacency," is dishing the dirt in his new book.

[T]o do that, well, he needs to tell all. Especially about the infighting he saw that frustrated his attempts to build a smooth-running department. Among the headlines promoted by publisher Thomas Dunne Books: Ridge was never invited to sit in on National Security Council meetings; was "blindsided" by the FBI in morning Oval Office meetings because the agency withheld critical information from him; found his urgings to block Michael Brown from being named head of the emergency agency blamed for the Hurricane Katrina disaster ignored; and was pushed to raise the security alert on the eve of President Bush's re-election, something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over. [emphasis added]

Now, this is a paraphrase of Ridge's perspective in a book that hasn't been published. It'll be interesting to see exactly what he has to say on this subject.

At this point, based on the publisher's teaser, it looks like another serious black eye for the Bush/Cheney team.

As for Ridge, I also look forward to seeing his explanation for why he didn't resign. If, in 2004, he saw first-hand instances of Bushies toying with public fears, manipulating terrorist alerts for political reasons, and said nothing, Ridge is just as responsible as the rest of the former president's team, if not more so. If he knew this was happening, but stayed on the job and waited five years to tell the truth, Ridge has some explaining to do.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THURSDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Club for Growth, a right-wing lobbying organization, is launching an ad campaign in Iowa, Maine, and Wyoming, hoping to convince the Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee's Gang of Six "not to cave in to the liberals on health care."

* A new Quinnipiac poll shows state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) ahead in Florida's 2010 gubernatorial race. The poll finds McCollum leading state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (D) by four, 38% to 34%. Both candidates have relatively low name-ID, suggesting that fundraising and advertising will make a big difference.

* There's a good reason the Republican establishment was desperate to see Sen. Jim Bunning (R) resign. A new SurveyUSA poll in Kentucky shows Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) leading state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo (D) in hypothetical match-ups by about six points. Either Dem was expected to beat Bunning.

* Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) had been recruited to run against Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) next year, but Etheridge withdrew from consideration. This week, he's apparently giving the race another look.

* Rep. Mark Kirk (R) hoped his Senate campaign in Illinois wouldn't have to deal with a primary challenge. That isn't quite working out as planned -- conservative lawyer and real estate developer Pat Hughes has launched his own campaign, joining at least six other Republicans who've filed paperwork for the GOP primary.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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THE MISGUIDED EVOLUTION OF THE 'NUCLEAR OPTION'.... Fox News' Mike Emanuel, reporting from the White House this morning, told viewers that Democrats are "considering the nuclear option" to pass health care reform. He was referring to the reconciliation process, subjecting at least part of reform to an up-or-down vote.

It was an odd choice of words, but it's become increasingly common. Josh Marshall noted yesterday, "Seems like only a few years ago the 'nuclear option' was abolishing the filibuster. Now it's just pushing through a health care bill without Chuck Grassley?"

That's about the gist of it. On Monday, CNN's Anderson Cooper called reconciliation the "nuclear option." CNN's Kiran Chetry used the identical phrase yesterday morning. Fox News' Bill Sammon, Dick Morris, and Sean Hannity all described reconciliation as the "nuclear option" earlier this week.

It's a rather dramatic rhetorical escalation. Just a couple of months ago, former Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist said Senate Dems can certainly pass health care reform through the reconciliation process. He told radio host Bill Bennett, "[Reconciliation is] legal, it's ethical, you can do it." Indeed, Republicans, when they were in the majority, used reconciliation with some regularity.

But that was then. Now, Republicans and political reporters are describing reconciliation as the "nuclear option" as a way to make it seem as if reconciliation is some kind of outrageous abuse of the legislative process. It's meant to remind political observers of the time Republicans planned to eliminate judicial filibusters through an outrageous abuse of the legislative process.

They're actually opposites. When Senate Republicans crafted the real "nuclear option" in 2005, the idea was to change the rules in the middle of the game. The Senate can change its rules with 67 votes, but Trent Lott & Co. thought they'd try it with 51 votes. Senate Dems, at the time, threatened all-out political war over this, which is why Lott referred to his underhanded scheme as the "nuclear option."

Reconciliation, in contrast, is part of the existing Senate rules. No one's talking about changing anything -- just following the process that's already in place.

Thomas Mann, Norm Ornstein, and Molly Reynolds -- hardly reflexive partisans -- recently said it would be "perfectly reasonable for Democrats to use the process for health care reform that both parties have used regularly for other major initiatives." Given that many recent uses of reconciliation have come from Republicans, it's hardly an unjust conclusion.

There's nothing "nuclear" about it.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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OBAMA MAKES PROGRESS ON GITMO.... For most of the year, there's been very little progress on transferring prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The biggest hurdle, of course, has been members of Congress -- from both parties -- who balk at the idea of having suspected terrorists on American soil (where we already detain plenty of terrorists).

The Obama administration has turned to international allies to do what American lawmakers will not. The president seems to be making progress.

The Obama administration has secured commitments from nearly a dozen countries willing to accept detainees from Guantanamo Bay and is increasingly confident about its ability to transfer a large majority of the prisoners who have been cleared for release, according to U.S. and foreign officials.

Six European Union countries -- Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain -- have accepted or publicly agreed to take detainees. Four E.U. countries have privately told the administration that they are committed to resettling detainees, and five other E.U. nations are considering taking some, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Two E.U. countries will soon send delegations to the U.S. military prison in Cuba to assess detainees held there.

The administration's progress in resettling the approximately 80 detainees cleared for release so far could ease the politics and logistics of moving terrorism suspects to American soil.

Well, one would hope. By working with international allies to transfer most of the Gitmo detainees to foreign soil, Obama should find it easier to tell lawmakers, "If our friends around the world can step up on this, you can suck it up a little."

For a while, the fear was that U.S. allies would be willing to "share the burden," but only if Congress stopped saying, "Anywhere but here." It appears, however, that this has proven less problematic than originally feared.

"Obama has a lot of political capital. Countries want to do something for him, and that allows us to say, 'This is it, this is what we want you to do,' " said a senior administration official. "This is going a lot better than we might have thought."

It occasionally pays to have a U.S. president with stature and credibility on the global stage.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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SHE'S NOT A CONSTITUTIONAL SCHOLAR, EITHER.... Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has come to the conclusion that health care reform, in addition to being a bad idea, is literally unconstitutional. She made the case on Monday night to Fox News' Sean Hannity.

"[I]t is not within our power as members of Congress, it's not within the enumerated powers of the Constitution for us to design and create a national takeover of health care. Nor is it within our ability to be able to delegate that responsibility to the executive."

It's hard to know where to start with this. My first thought was that reform doesn't represent "a national takeover of health care." My second was that I'll look forward to Bachmann's lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Medicare. I suspect, however, that such litigation is unlikely.

On a more substantive note, the Constitution empowers Congress to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises," to "provide for" the "general welfare" of the United States, and to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof."

As Matthew DeLong noted, "I'm no constitutional scholar, but enacting laws to reform the health care system to help provide insurance to the roughly 45 million Americans currently going without sounds like it might be covered under a reasonable reading of the 'general welfare' clause."

Ian Millhiser summarized the larger context nicely: "It's important to note just how radical Bachmann's theory of the Constitution is. If Congress does not have the power to create a modest public option which competes with private health plans in the marketplace, then it certainly does not have the authority to create Medicare. Similarly, Congress' power to spend money to benefit the general welfare is the basis for Social Security, federal education funding, Medicaid, and veterans benefits such as the VA health system and the GI Bill. All of these programs would cease to exist in Michele Bachmann's America."

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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PALIN STILL STRUGGLING WITH POLICY DETAILS.... It's fairly routine for conservative bloggers to write dubious posts about misleading Wall Street Journal editorials. It's a little less common when former governors and candidates for national office do it.

The WSJ ran an editorial yesterday on the U.S. Export-Import Bank extending a $2 billion loan to Petrobras, a Brazilian oil company, which wants to expand its offshore drilling in South America. The Journal found it ironic that the U.S. would make it easier to drill for oil off the shores of another country.

The editorial prompted Sarah Palin to head back to Facebook to share some thoughts on the matter.

[W]hy is it that during these tough times, when we have great needs at home, the Obama White House is prepared to send more than two billion of your hard-earned tax dollars to Brazil so that the nation's state-owned oil company, Petrobras, can drill off shore and create jobs developing its own resources? [...]

[Obama] chooses to use American dollars in Brazil that will help to pay the salaries and benefits for Brazilians to drill for resources when the need and desire is great in America.

Sarah Palin seems to be confused. Again.

In this case, Palin apparently doesn't know what the U.S. Export-Import Bank does. A spokesperson for the bank told Ben Smith yesterday that the loans are used to help foreign companies purchase American goods and services.

The spokesperson, Phil Cogan, noted that Palin wants American resources to be used to create jobs in the United States, and that's precisely what this loan would do -- financing U.S. engineering services, sales of ships to service oil platforms, or drilling equipment.

"This is the government doing what it's supposed to do: Create jobs and make sure that Americans get a fair shot at selling goods and services -- not the British or the French or anyone else -- and to help American workers compete on a level playing field," Cogan added.

An Obama administration official said, "This is like her and her death panels. This is one more example of, 'Let's take a situation with a kernel of truth and blow it up and not let the facts ruin a good story.'"

There was at least a possibility that Palin, after quitting her day job, would use her free time to read up on public policy. I'm afraid she's off to a weak start.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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LETTING THE LOUDEST VOICE WIN.... Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, the leading Republican negotiator on health care reform, claims to be working on some kind of bipartisan solution to the systemic crisis. He told the Washington Post yesterday, however, that right-wing activists have convinced him to abandon ambitious, bold, comprehensive policies, and instead embrace smaller, weaker, and more timid policymaking.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a key Republican negotiator in the quest for bipartisan health-care reform, said Wednesday that the outpouring of anger at town hall meetings this month has fundamentally altered the nature of the debate and convinced him that lawmakers should consider drastically scaling back the scope of the effort.

After being besieged by protesters at meetings across his home state of Iowa, Grassley said he has concluded that the public has rejected the far-reaching proposals Democrats have put on the table, viewing them as overly expensive precursors to "a government takeover of health care."

Because he's heard from so many angry conservatives, the Republican senator said, negotiators should scale back any and all efforts at reform. He added that while senators have been looking at a "comprehensive" approach to helping tens of millions of uninsured families, those efforts should be reconsidered because of the right-wing shouting at "the town hall meetings."

Calls for reform are "not quite as loud as people that say we ought to slow down or don't do anything," Grassley said. "And I've got to listen to my people."

Grassley has become increasingly incoherent in recent weeks, but these remarks are among the most foolish to date. As Daniel Politi put it, the Iowa senator is arguing "he makes his governing decisions based on who screams the loudest."

That sounds absurd, but it's precisely what Grassley is saying. He has 3 million constituents. Let's say, hypothetically, Grassley has heard angry right-wing screams from, say, 3,000 Iowans at town-hall events. That would mean the senator had heard strenuous opposition to reform from exactly 0.1% of his constituents. If he's heard far-right town-hall enmity from 30,000 Iowans -- a farfetched claim, to be sure -- that would still only be 1% of the people Grassley represents.

What's more, we're not just talking about a small fraction of a larger population, but also a small group enraged by right-wing lies, and organized by right-wing groups and private insurers that do not represent the American mainstream.

So why would Chuck Grassley say Congress and the White House should follow the demands of these unhinged activists? Because he's a surprisingly irresponsible senator, looking for an excuse to oppose reform.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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TWO BILLS, BETTER THAN ONE?.... When it comes to health care reform, a huge chunk of the bill is hardly controversial at all. Consumer protections -- forbidding insurers from deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, for example -- are popular and would likely pass with large, probably even bipartisan, support. It's the other part -- financing, public option, subsidies, reimbursement rates -- that's contentious.

Apparently, Democrats are starting to see the value in separating the votes. The popular part would come to the floor, and probably overcome a filibuster. The second part would be done through reconciliation, and could pass with 51 votes.

The Wall Street Journal has a front-page piece today explaining that Senate Democratic leaders are considering just such a plan. "Privately," the WSJ reported, "those involved in the talks now say there is a 60% chance the split-bill tactic will be used."

Jonathan Cohn fleshed this out in more detail.

[The first bill] would include changes to Medicare and Medicaid, new taxes on individuals or employers, subsidies for people buying insurance, and (maybe) even a public plan. Because all of these affect federal outlays, positively or negatively, this bill could go through the reconciliation process, passing with just 50 votes.

The second bill would include the other elements -- the insurance regulations, the requirement that everybody get coverage, and so on. These are the pieces of reform the parliamentarian likely wouldn't allow to go through reconciliation. As a result, it would still need 60 votes. But that's not so farfetched, since these happen to be the parts of reform on which there is the most wide-ranging consensus. Plenty of Republicans support these ideas, at least in principle.

All of this is theoretical, of course. Republicans might not support that second bill if it meant handing the Democrats a victory. At the very least, they'd fight Democrats on the details. Nor is it clear Democrats themselves have enough unity to get fifty votes for the controversial elements of reform. And all of that is assuming the parliamentarian lets those controversial elements go through reconciliation in the first place That's hardly a sure thing; it will really come down to his interpretation of the rules. But even the theoretical possibility of Democrats passing reform on their own would change the dynamics in Congress, by giving Republicans new incentives to negotiate in good faith -- and giving Democrats a way to enact legislation in case the GOP remains as obstructionist as it is now.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that Reid is prepared to pass health care reform "by any legislative means necessary."

I'm beginning to think he might mean it.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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August 19, 2009

WEDNESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Devastating attacks in Iraq: "A string of attacks in Baghdad, including two bombings near prominent government buildings, killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 530 Wednesday morning in the bloodiest day in the capital since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from cities.... The two deadliest bombings targeted the finance and foreign ministries, which are among the most heavily guarded buildings in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said."

* Afghans head to the polls tomorrow, and the country is on edge.

* Two North Korean officials head to Santa Fe to chat with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). The North Koreans reportedly requested the meeting, and the State Department approved.

* On a related note, former President Bill Clinton briefed President Obama and his team on North Korea in the Situation Room yesterday (the real one, not that CNN thing).

* Israel: "Several officials said Tuesday that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Housing Minister Ariel Atias had quietly agreed to suspend all government tenders to build new Jewish housing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem at least until the start of next year."

* This ought to be interesting: "The Swiss banking giant UBS on Wednesday reached a final deal with the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service in which it will ultimately disclose names and account details for more than 4,450 wealthy Americans suspected of tax evasion."

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is prepared to pass health care reform "by any legislative means necessary."

* Some talking points never change: "Top Senate Republicans warned [Attorney General Eric Holder] on Wednesday not to name a special prosecutor to investigate Bush policies allowing brutal techniques on terrorism suspects, saying that doing so would drive a wedge between the Justice Department and the CIA and 'leave us more vulnerable to attack.'"

* UnitedHealth Group claims to be an insurance company that wants health care reform. If that's true, why is it directing its employees to attend right-wing, anti-reform Tea Parties?

* Good: "An Oklahoma judge on Tuesday overturned a state law that required women seeking an abortion to receive an ultrasound and a doctor's description of the fetus."

* How big a hack is Dick Armey? He's trying to politicize the H1N1 virus.

* Limbaugh cheers on the lunatic from Barney Frank's town hall, while Steve Doocy, in an apparent attempt to be even more ridiculous than usual, thinks the congressman was mean to the nutty protestor.

* Steven Pearlstein dismisses the significance of the public option: "It is not the be-all and end-all of health-care reform." He added it's "a political non-starter that threatens the entire reform effort. It's time to let it go." Ezra responds.

* Families USA does a nice job with this: "10 Reasons to Support The Health Care Reform Bills."

* As if the anti-Semitism from anti-health reform protesters weren't disgusting enough, if keeps getting worse.

* Fox News comes up with a new way to source its brand of "journalism."

* Glenn Beck loses yet another advertiser.

* R.I.P., Don Hewitt.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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CALLING ON BIDEN.... In theory, one of the advantages of having a president move from the Senate to the White House is his/her ability to leverage a legislative career to advance his/her agenda. That doesn't work quite the same way with President Obama -- he came from the Senate, but he wasn't actually of the Senate. Members include his former colleagues, but Obama doesn't necessarily have long-standing bonds that he can use to his advantage now.

Joe Biden, however, is a different story.

The LA Times had a good piece yesterday, noting that the vice president "appears to be solidifying his relationship with his boss and accumulating more assignments central to the administration's agenda."

Sam Stein reports today that the White House is poised to include health care arm-twisting to Biden's to-do list.

[T]he assets he brings to the debate are of increasing importance and White House aides say he will be deployed by the president in a more strategic matter -- primarily as a bridge between the administration and those recalcitrant Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans critical to reform's passage.

"He has pretty substantial relationships with most members of the Senate who didn't come in this year," said one administration official. "He knows [Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max] Baucus (D-Mont.) well, he knows [Sen. Chuck] Grassley (R-Iowa). He knows [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid (D-Nev.). It is going to depend on what the issues are and who he needs to talk to but there is no one who is currently playing a major role that he doesn't have a long relationship with."

Jay Carney, a chief spokesman for Biden, noted that the vice president is set to hold a roundtable discussion with health care professionals and Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius this Friday in Chicago. In addition, Carney said, the vice president has been advising Obama privately on the matter over the past few months.

"He serves the president as a confidential adviser who brings a lot of perspective and experience," Carney said. "Because of his years in the Senate and his relationships there, he is also in frequent contact with his former colleagues on the issue. I'm sure that will continue as the process moves forward in Congress."

Biden could also play an important role beyond Capitol Hill. Part of the reason he was chosen as vice president was for his appeal to elderly and white working class communities -- two major constituencies that have soured on the White House's approach to the health care debate.

But it's the Hill, where Biden spent nearly the last four decades, where the V.P. can have the greatest impact. It doesn't generate headlines, but he frequently invites senators to his residence to help keep his friendships intact, and the LAT noted the Biden is "hanging on to his locker at the Senate gym."

If someone's going to be twisting some arms, Biden seems like the right guy to do it.

Steve Benen 5:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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GIBBS QUESTIONS GOP SERIOUSNESS ON REFORM.... This morning, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the administration would still love to see bipartisan support for health care reform. That wasn't exactly surprising; it's what Gibbs has to say.

But White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the NYT yesterday, "The Republican leadership has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama's health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day." Gibbs was asked this afternoon about the quote.

Specifically, Fox News' White House correspondent asked whether the president agrees with Emanuel. "Let's just say I haven't seen anything that would persuade me otherwise," Gibbs replied.

Brian Beutler explained, "The implication -- that President Obama believes the Republican party isn't serious about bipartisan health care reform -- is significant for obvious reasons. When Congress returns to session at the end of August recess, four of five House and Senate committees will have passed party line health care bills. One -- the Senate Finance Committee -- will still be mired in rocky bipartisan health care negotiations over legislation that, according to Republican party leaders, won't win over many Republicans at all.... Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus better prepare to change course or pull off some kind of miracle or else be rolled."

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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DEFINE 'STEADY PROGRESS'.... In light of multiple reports pointing to the end of bipartisan outreach to congressional Republicans on health care reform, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) issued a statement today defending his efforts.

"The Finance Committee is on track to reach a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive health care reform that can pass the Senate," Baucus said, adding how "confident" he is that the Gang of Six "will continue our steady progress."

I have to wonder, where is this "steady progress" hiding?

The members of the Gang of Six haven't met at all over the August recess. There were plans for the senators to get together, but Chuck Grassley scrapped them, citing a busy schedule. Grassley, of course, is the same conservative Republican who acknowledged this week that he's likely to vote against his own compromise bill. It came the same time another member of the Gang of Six suggested breaking up the reform bill into pieces, and another member talking about keeping the talks going indefinitely, regardless of deadlines.

The Finance Committee is "on track"? Members are making "steady progress? Huh?

Ezra Klein had a good item yesterday, pondering what on earth Baucus is thinking. He and Grassley have worked together on many key pieces of legislation, but the two take separate paths all the time.

There's no scenario in which I can imagine the Gang of Six negotiations producing a more secure product. The White House cannot credibly claim to preserve its compromise against the wishes of other Democrats in the Finance Committee, the HELP Committee, the Senate and the House. As such, there's no plausible endgame here. Chuck Grassley can't, and won't, support the final bill. He has said as much. Baucus saw him defect on stimulus, and Baucus, in recent years, has repeatedly had to abandon Grassley on much less controversial health-care reforms than this one.

Yet Baucus has put himself completely on the line to preserve Grassley's role in the process. He's taking an enormous amount of fire for prizing bipartisanship over speed. He's increasingly loathed by liberals and facing an enormous amount of anger from the other members of his committee. There's even talk of reforms meant to deprive him of his chairmanship. And Grassley, for his part, is raging against the bill in public and doing nothing to provide cover for his friend or inspire confidence in the process.

I want to offer a clean conclusion here. I want a neat theory of what the Gang of Six is attempting, or how they see this playing out. But I don't have one. It's the single part of the process I really and truly do not understand.

I'm at a loss myself. I don't know why Baucus insists on keeping this going, and why he continues to think his negotiations -- with senators who plan to vote against reform anyway -- are "on track."

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE SOURCE OF THE CONFUSION.... The new NBC News poll found a frustrating amount of public confusion about health care reform. Reality notwithstanding, 55% believe illegal immigrants will get coverage; 54% believe there will be a "government takeover" of the health care system; 50% expect to see taxpayer-financed abortions, and 45% believe reform will "allow government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." None of these claims is true.

As it turns out, Fox News viewers are throwing off the curve.

Here's another way to look at the misinformation: In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.

That's pretty amazing. Americans who get their news from more legitimate sources were also confused, but not nearly to this extent.

Matt Corley added, "As ThinkProgress has pointed out, Fox News regularly distorts the truth about health care reform. Last week, Media Matters found that over a two day period opponents of health care reform outnumbered supporters by a 6-to-1 margin on Fox."

Let's also not forget that this is consistent with recent history -- in the midst of national policy debates, Fox News viewers routinely get key details wrong more often than the rest of the public. Six months into the war in Iraq, for example, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland released a report on Americans' understanding of the basics. PIPA found that those who relied on the Republican network were "three times more likely than the next nearest network to hold all three misperceptions -- about WMD in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, and foreign support for the U.S. position on the war in Iraq."

Fox News viewers would have done better, statistically speaking, if they had received no news at all and simply guessed whether the claims were accurate. Matters have clearly not improved.

It would take an unlikely twist of self-reflection, but at a certain point, Fox News and its audience might take a moment to ponder why these viewers are so wrong, so often, about so much. That almost certainly won't happen, of course, since they're not quite well informed enough to realize they're uninformed, but it'd be interesting to see what they came up with.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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GRASSLEY WANTS DEMS, GOP TO WORK TOGETHER.... You've got to be kidding me.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the powerful Republican who has spent weeks working on a healthcare reform compromise, is urging Democrats not to abandon bipartisan talks despite growing pressure from liberal activists and White House officials. Grassley reacted Wednesday to news reports of growing sentiment among White House officials that Democrats should pass a partisan healthcare reform package, relying entirely on Democratic votes.

"I've said all year that something as big and important as health care legislation should have broad-based support," Grassley said in a statement to The Hill.

"So far, no one has developed that kind of support, either in Congress or at the White House. That doesn't mean we should quit. It means we should keep working until we can put something together that gets that widespread support."

This would be hilarious if it weren't so sad. The more Democrats offer Republicans concessions and compromises, the more the GOP says, "We don't care." The more Dems try to find "broad-based support," the more obvious it is Republicans don't support health care reform. Policymakers "should keep working"? If the 60-vote caucus wants reform, the 40-vote minority doesn't, and reform can pass without GOP obstructionism, there's no point in keeping the charade going.

This is especially rich coming from Grassley. He's defended the "death panel" garbage; he's prepared to vote against his own compromise legislation, no matter what's in it; and he's pulled common-sense measures with bipartisan support from the negotiating table. That's just from the last six days.

And perhaps most importantly, while Grassley wants lawmakers to keep looking for something that can get "widespread support," a member of his own leadership -- Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) -- said yesterday that "almost all Republicans" are likely to oppose reform, even if it's the result of a bipartisan compromise.

Grassley's comments today are foolish, and he knows it.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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THEY'RE NOT DEMS.... Last week, the Weekly Standard's John McCormack noted the activists showing up at health care events with signs featuring swastikas, Nazi "SS" lettering, and images comparing the president to Hitler. McCormack described the activists as "Democrats."

It's part of a twisted kind of logic. As McCormack sees it, the extremists are Lyndon LaRouche cultists. LaRouche ran a ridiculous presidential campaign as a Democrat years ago. Therefore, swastika-waving activists are Democratic activists. It is, of course, a cheap and lazy argument, even for the Weekly Standard. Tom Schaller made the strong case that McCormack "ought to take down that post, and then apologize to his readers publicly."

Instead, McCormack is doubling down. Today, he noted the lunatic who confronted Barney Frank last night was a LaRouche cultist, but McCormack blasted CNN for failing to identify her as a "Lyndon LaRouche Democrat."

No one disputes that LaRouchites are on the fringe -- but it's indisputable that they are fringe Democrats. They oppose Obamacare because they want a single-payer plan.

McCormack has to realize how wrong this is. As David Weigel explained, "This is misleading. The LaRouche cultists oppose Obama's plan because they think he's trying to euthanize old people and the infirm. They oppose it for one of the reasons that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) oppose it, and they're providing a lot of the 'research' for this smear. Instead of grappling with this or rebutting the smear, McCormack smears Democrats, who have repeatedly purged these conspiracy theorists from their party."

It's tempting to ignore the substance of McCormack's comparison altogether, but it's probably worth noting that having some fringe nut run on a party ticket does not reflect any meaning on the party itself. In Indiana last year, a neo-Nazi ran for Congress as a Republican. The party, of course, wanted nothing to do with him. It would be unfair and insulting for anyone to say, "No one disputes that neo-Nazis are on the fringe -- but it's indisputable that they are fringe Republicans."

I can appreciate McCormack's dual goals here. On the one hand, he's probably uncomfortable with the fact that right-wing activists and LaRouche crazies are singing from the same hymnal. On the other hand, McCormack wants to bash Democrats. This silly argument lets him do both.

But that doesn't change the fact that McCormack's playing an offensive game.

Update: For more background on Lyndon LaRouche and his followers, Avi Klein's article from 2007 is a must-read.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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'ACTUAL DETAILS'.... In the new NBC News poll, people were asked, "From what you have heard about Barack Obama's health care plan, do you think his plan is a good idea or a bad idea?" Just 36% think it's a good idea; 42% think it's a bad idea. The numbers are exactly the same as they were a month ago.

The problem, as we discussed this morning, is that Americans oppose the idea because they've bought into several right-wing lies that are demonstrably false. Chuck Todd raised an important point this morning: "According to our poll, when [Americans] hear the facts, it's another story. After being read a statement that include actual details of the Obama health care plan, a majority -- 53 percent -- say they are in favor of it."

"Actual details" may be my new favorite phrase.

The lesson here is important. The conventional wisdom keeps insisting that Americans don't like the health care reform proposal. That's not quite right. They don't like the proposal as it's been described by Republican critics, their allies, and their cable news network.

This may not matter -- we've all heard the adage about "perception is reality" in politics -- but the results suggest most of the country approves of the plan Democrats have put together.

What's more, Michael Scherer argues, persuasively, that the poll numbers point to a landscape that isn't changing. Reform supporters launched a big push; reform opponents did the same. Most Americans like the Democratic plan(s); most Americans dislike the caricature of the Democratic plan(s). The proverbial needle isn't moving, suggesting, as Scherer put it, August "does not matter." It reinforces a point I raised a week ago: "[T]here's plenty of screaming left to do, but it seems likely that when the congressional recess ends in September, we'll see the same political landscape that existed at the end of July."

Postscript: Several Republicans seem encouraged by the fact that only 41% of poll respondents approve of the way President Obama is handling health care reform. But let's not overlook the next question: "Do you generally approve or disapprove of the way that Republicans in Congress are handling the issue of health care reform?" Just 21% approve, 62% disapprove.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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WEDNESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* Two new polls shows Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's (R) Senate campaign looking strong against his far-right primary opponent, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. Quinnipiac shows Crist ahead by 29 points (55% to 26%), while Rasmussen shows Crist up by 22 points (53% to 31%).

* Businessman Chris Kennedy had expressed quite a bit of interest in running for the Senate in Illinois as a Democrat, but he announced yesterday that he will not run.

* Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina took the first step towards a Republican Senate campaign against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) yesterday. Fiorina is perhaps best known to the political world as an advisor/surrogate for the McCain/Palin presidential campaign.

* A SurveyUSA poll in Kentucky shows Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo ahead in the Democratic primary for the open Senate seat next year. He leads state Attorney General Jack Conway in the poll by eight, 39% to 31%.

* The latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) looking rather weak in his bid for a full term next year. He leads a couple of his lesser-known Republican rivals, but trails former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) by three, 42% to 39%.

* Labor leader Richard Trumka wants Democratic lawmakers to know that if they vote against a public option, union support is on the line when they seek re-election.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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BLAME GAME GETS UNDERWAY.... Republican opponents of health care reform don't mind killing the bill. They do mind getting blamed. If reform efforts fall apart because Democratic lawmakers couldn't get their act together, it's a win for the GOP. If the process unravels because Republicans are perceived as putting partisan considerations before the needs of the nation, it's a loss.

And with the bipartisan approach to reform falling apart quickly, Republicans are scrambling to point the finger at Democrats. A spokesperson for the NRCC said this morning, "If bipartisanship is dead its [sic] because Rahm Emanuel led the charge to kill it." Soon after, House Minority Leader John Boehner's office issued a statement premised on the notion that we're all suffering from short-term memory loss.

"It's a shame that the White House and their liberal allies are now trying re-write history. From the beginning of this debate, Republicans have tried to work with the President and Democrats on real health care reform that reduces cost and expands access for the American people. Instead, Democrats played the old Washington game, bribing and log-rolling special interests to produce a plan that will cost at least a trillion dollars and just won't work."

The Senate's #2 Republican said publicly yesterday that the GOP would oppose reform, no matter what concessions Democrats were willing to make. The top Republican negotiator on reform said he'll likely oppose his own compromise. When talk of scrapping the public option emerged, Republicans said it wasn't good enough. Even the long-awaited, official House Republican Reform Plan was never released, despite promises to the contrary.

Democratic policymakers seemed poised to move forward with a health care reform proposal with no public option, no end-of-life counseling reimbursements, no middle-class tax increases, and no increase to the deficit ... and Republicans said they weren't even open to the possibility. Whatever Dems were for, the GOP was against.

Rahm Emanuel "led the charge to kill" bipartisanship? Please.

Of course, reality hasn't been especially significant lately, and it's certainly possible GOP spin, no matter how ridiculous, may work. It'll depend largely on how the media plays it. If talking heads start saying that Dems "chose partisanship over compromise," the majority will get the blame, facts notwithstanding.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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HOW IT'S DONE.... This is quickly making the rounds, but if you haven't seen it, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) held a town-hall event last night, and was confronted with a nut, carrying a picture of the president to make him look like Hitler, who asked why Frank would support a "Nazi policy."

For those of you who can't watch video from your work computers, Frank responded, "When you ask me that question, I'm going to revert to my ethnic heritage and ask you a question: On what planet do you spend most of your time?" He added, "It is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated.... Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it."

There was no defensiveness, and no anger, just someone who knows what he's talking about making someone who doesn't look like a fool.

Matt Yglesias raised a terrific point: "Voters don't have a great deal of knowledge about the issues, or a great deal of interest in acquiring knowledge about the issues. But they are human beings, equipped with our species' excellent ability to read the emotional states of other human beings. If they see a politician acting defensive about his 'side' in an argument, they conclude that this critics are probably on to something. If they see a politicians acting outraged and hitting back fearlessly, they're likely to conclude that he has nothing to apologize for."

Quite right. A low-information voter, with only a passing familiarity with current events, might catch an exchange like this one. Which of the two people in this clip -- the crazy person or Barney Frank -- comes across as credible?

I realize that Frank has the benefit of serving in a safe Democratic seat, in a highly-educated area. Vulnerable Democratic lawmakers may not feel comfortable openly ridiculing random lunatics who ask stupid questions like Frank did.

But the point is, reform advocates can show this kind of confidence and certainty that nonsensical beliefs are nonsensical beliefs.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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CREATING A STRONG INCENTIVE TO LIE.... Following up on the earlier item about the new NBC News poll, the results generally point to widespread "doubts" about health care reform. But the closer one looks, the more it's apparent the doubts are driven by confusion and gullibility.

One of the reasons why it has become tougher is due to misperceptions about the president's plans for reform.

Majorities in the poll believe the plans would give health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants; would lead to a government takeover of the health system; and would use taxpayer dollars to pay for women to have abortions -- all claims that nonpartisan fact-checkers say are untrue about the legislation that has emerged so far from Congress.

Forty-five percent think the reform proposals would allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care for the elderly.

That also is untrue: The provision in the House legislation that critics have seized on -- raising the specter of "death panels" or euthanasia -- would simply allow Medicare to pay doctors for end-of-life counseling, if the patient wishes.

It's hard to overstate how difficult, if not impossible, it is to have a meaningful national policy discussion when one side launches an aggressive misinformation campaign, and the public struggles to separate fact from fiction.

In this case, 55% believe illegal immigrants will get coverage; 54% believe there will be a "government takeover" of the health care system; 50% expect to see taxpayer-financed abortions, and 45% believe reform will "allow government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly."

That last one is especially jarring. If the poll is accurate, nearly half the country seriously believes government officials seek the authority to pull the plug on grandma. That's insane, and it points to a political discourse that's badly broken.

But more than anything, it creates an enormous incentive to lie, blatantly and repeatedly, to the public. There are no real penalties, and the number of Americans who'll believe nonsense skews the debate in the liars' direction.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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LIGHTING A FIRE, INTENTIONALLY OR NOT.... Perhaps the White House intended to signal a willingness to drop the public option, perhaps not. I've seen compelling arguments in both directions. Either way, whether intended or not, they sparked a furious response from liberals who saw more compromising than they are willing to accept.

Noam Scheiber argues, persuasively, that the aggressive pushback from the left is great news. The two dominant forces in the larger debate of late have been a malleable White House, looking for a moderate, cautious reform package, and a hysterical right, screaming about euthanasia and Nazis. This week, progressives got back in the game.

Around the conference table at TNR, we've been saying for weeks that what Obama really needed was a group of equally vocal, equally zealous critics on the left, pulling the debate's center of gravity in the other direction. And, wouldn't you know, that's exactly what's happened over the last 48 hours. We've now got a pole on the left to match the intensity of the pole on the right. (Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting a moral equivalence between the two. As far as I'm concerned, the critics on the left are basically right and the critics on the right are either insane or deeply cynical.) From a sheer tactical perspective, I think the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress have dramatically improved their position.

The benefits arise both in the broader national debate and in the congressional negotiations. In the national debate, Obama now looks like the centrist voice of reason instead of an over-ambitious lefty (I'm caricaturing, of course, in the spirit of the cable-news coverage). Inside Congress, Obama may not get a public option, but if he doesn't, he was never going to get it. And now he can extract a ton of concessions in return, because he can point to a left-wing of his party that's ready to eat him alive for failing to deliver on it (whereas that left-wing outrage was largely hypothetical before now). That kind of leverage is extremely helpful.

It is, indeed.

Once in a while, when something like this happens, I'll get emails from Obama supporters saying, "See? This guy's a ninja playing multi-dimensional chess! He's taking subtle steps, thinking several moves ahead! Looking at the trees, instead of the forest, obscures the genius of the larger strategy!"

To which I say, maybe. There are some pretty sharp folks in the West Wing, and it's possible they've crafted a clever plan that's coming together just as they'd hoped. But watching the developments of the last several days, I'm inclined to think it's often better to be lucky than good.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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PUBLIC OPTION LOSING PUBLIC SUPPORT?.... As recently as June, the public support for a public option as part of health care reform seemed very strong. An NYT poll found 72% of Americans -- including 50% of Republicans -- favoring such a plan. An NBC/WSJ poll found 76% of Americans believing that it's important to "give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance."

Over the last two months, right-wing attacks have changed the landscape considerably. A new NBC poll shows support for a public option falling behind opposition for the first time.

In the poll, 43 percent say they favor a public option, versus 47 percent who oppose it. That's a shift from last month's NBC/Journal poll, when 46 percent said they backed it and 44 percent were opposed.

There is, however, a catch -- NBC changed the wording of the question. Respondents were asked, "Would you favor or oppose creating a public health care plan administered by the federal government that would compete directly with private health insurance companies?" Opponents outnumbered supporters.

In June, the same poll asked, "In any health care proposal, how important do you feel it is to give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance -- extremely important, quite important, not that important, or not at all important?" In this case, 76% thought it was important to give people a choice.

The wording, then, makes all the difference. A Quinnipiac poll from two weeks ago asked, "Do you support or oppose giving people the option of being covered by a government health insurance plan that would compete with private plans?" A 62% majority supported the public option. An NYT poll from late July asked, "Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan -- something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get -- that would compete with private health insurance plans?" A 66% majority approved.

It's probably safe to assume the conservative attacks on reform have had an effect, and support for a public option has fallen in recent months. But I suspect we'll hear a lot of talk today about the NBC poll, with most of the commentary concluding that the public has soured on the idea. It's not quite that simple.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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TIPPING POINT.... By all appearances, Democrats have gone above and beyond in trying to secure at least some Republican support for health care reform. GOP leaders have gotten a lot of face time at the White House. Dems have signaled a willingness to make all kinds of concessions. When Republicans insisted the majority slow down, the process slowed to a crawl. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in late July, "Working with the Republicans, one of the things that they asked for was to have more time. I don't think it's unreasonable."

This week, however, we seem to have reached the tipping point. A variety of GOP leaders explained that Dems could drop the public option altogether, and it wouldn't make any difference. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who's become increasingly belligerent about the very idea of reform, said he's prepared to vote against his own compromise bill. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) announced that Republicans will reject reform no matter what's in the bill.

By late yesterday, it seems Democratic leaders had seen enough.

Given hardening Republican opposition to Congressional health care proposals, Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority's cooperation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks.

Top Democrats said Tuesday that their go-it-alone view was being shaped by what they saw as Republicans' purposely strident tone against health care legislation during this month's Congressional recess, as well as remarks by leading Republicans that current proposals were flawed beyond repair.

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the heated opposition was evidence that Republicans had made a political calculation to draw a line against any health care changes, the latest in a string of major administration proposals that Republicans have opposed.

"The Republican leadership," Mr. Emanuel said, "has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama's health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day."

That is painfully, obviously true. Negotiating health care reform with politicians who oppose health care reform doesn't make sense. Negotiating reform with politicians who've vowed to vote against reform under any circumstances is insane.

At this point, keep two angles in mind. First, should Dems follow through and go it alone, watch to see who gets blamed. I think the majority has a very compelling case: "We tried in good faith, to reach out and compromise, but the 'party of no' slapped away our outstretched hand." They'll be able to point to this week -- Grassely, Kyl, and the GOP reaction to scrapping the public option -- as the point at which bipartisan reform died.

Second, going for an all-Democratic bill won't necessarily make reform easy. Easier, sure, but not easy. In the House, there are a whole lot of Blue Dogs who, as you may recall, were ready to kill reform in July. In the Senate, there's a core group of about seven center-right Dems who support reform in theory, but have balked at many of the key provisions, including a public option.

That said, giving up on Republican outreach gives Democrats a historic opportunity to finally get the job done.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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August 18, 2009

TUESDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* Today's chat at the White House seemed to go well: "President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he saw 'movement in the right direction' on the crucial question of Israeli settlement construction in Palestinian areas, after Israeli officials described an apparent de facto slowdown there. Speaking following an Oval Office meeting with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Mr. Obama said that a climate had developed for 'positive steps' in the region."

* Afghanistan: "A suicide bomber blew up a car near a NATO convoy on the dusty outskirts of Kabul on Tuesday, and mortars or rockets struck near the presidential palace as the Afghan government moved to stop the media from reporting on violence during this week's presidential election."

* Thanks to unexpected demand, General Motors is bringing back 1,350 of its U.S. and Canadian auto workers.

* Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki now supports a referendum that could force U.S. troops out of the country ahead of schedule. The referendum still needs to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.

* Sen. Mike Enzi, (R-Wyo.), a member of the Finance Committee's Gang of Six, wants to break up health care reform into separate pieces.

* A man carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle outside a presidential event told fellow protestors, "We will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote."

* On a related note, Josh Marshall considers the recent history of political violence and the modern American right.

* Glenn Beck keeps losing advertisers.

* President Obama will host "a web- and phone-based meeting on Thursday for all supporters, according to a letter sent to the Organizing for America email list today."

* The Justice Department has hired a liaison to the gay community.

* Even Joe Scarborough realizes a public option is not a "government takeover."

* More astroturf letters emerge on cap-and-trade.

* The RNC's talking points on co-ops are factually wrong. Imagine that.

* Sen. Ben Nelson is surprisingly thin-skinned.

* Nicholas Beaudrot explains health care reform in a very helpful flowchart. It's far more coherent than that thing John Boehner's office came up with a while back.

* And finally, political reporter Robert Novak died today. The controversial columnist and pundit, who embraced the nickname "The Prince of Darkness" for his memoir, is perhaps best known for his column publicly identifying CIA operative Valerie Plame. Novak died at his home of a brain tumor. He was 78.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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A PARALYZING SYSTEM.... David Roberts notes that much of the left has been dispirited as much of President Obama's ambitions have "crash[ed] on the shoals of the status quo ... and the status quo isn't budging." Kevin Drum adds that conservatives were thinking the same thing not too long ago.

They wanted a revolution, but instead they got NCLB. And a wimpy stem cell compromise. And Sarbanes-Oxley. And McCain-Feingold. And a huge Medicare expansion. And complete gridlock on Social Security.

Not exactly what they signed up for. The tax cuts were great, of course, but what about abortion and gay marriage and entitlement reform and slashing the size of government and ANWR and the Endangered Species Act and everything else on the conservative wish list? They got most of what they wanted on the national security front (missile defense, big Pentagon budget increases, a couple of nice wars), but on the domestic front most of them felt like Bush ended up delivering almost nothing.

It wasn't quite that bad, of course. They did get the tax cuts, after all. And they got a new bankruptcy law and a bunch of right-wing judges. But for the most part, their domestic agenda crashed on the shoals of the status quo too. Washington DC is a tough place to get anything done.

It is, but I find the differences interesting. After all, Bush had a Republican Congress for most of his tenure, just as Obama has a Democratic Congress now. D.C. is tough place to get anything done, but it's a heckuva lot easier when a president is working with allies running the Hill.

So, what stood in Bush's way? There were, to be sure, some institutional hurdles. But more important was the realizations that Americans didn't really support the conservative agenda, and only voted GOP because national security dominated the landscape, and Republicans were perceived (incorrectly) as more trustworthy on the issue. Bush and his allies could have pushed harder for more of the conservative wish-list, but there was no mandate, no public demand, and the very real likelihood of a public backlash (which, as it turns out, happened anyway in the face of war, scandal, corruption, and almost comical incompetence.)

Obama is finding that D.C. is tough place to get anything done for entirely different reasons. The White House agenda is popular, but his obstacles are almost entirely institutional hurdles -- the Senate operating as if every bill demands a supermajority, the Kennedy/Byrd illnesses, and the prevalence of center-right Dems in both chambers who look askance at the progressive agenda and who the president has no real leverage over.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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WHITE HOUSE CHANGES EMAIL TIP LINE.... The "controversy" was mind-numbing from the start, but White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained that while flag@whitehouse.gov is no more, Americans can still get in touch with officials with questions about health care reform.

Gibbs ... said a White House effort to encourage people to provide examples of "misinformation" about health care reform has not ended but has instead been folded into a broader initiative to combat opposition to the Obama's health care proposals.

That information can now be provided to the "reality check" section of the White House Web site, Gibbs said.

"To better understand what new misinformation is bubbling up online or in other venues, we want your suggestions about topics to address through the Reality Check site," states a message posted Monday night on the White House Web site by White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips. "To consolidate the process, the e-mail address set up last week for this same purpose is now closed and all feedback should be sent through" an address on the "reality check" Web page, Phillips writes. "We also ask that you always refrain from submitting others' information without permission."

In other words, "We really, really don't want anyone's names or contact information. Seriously."

In the meantime, the Republican obsession continues.

Conservative media have baselessly suggested that people who reportedly claim to have received unsolicited email from White House adviser David Axelrod may have been added to a White House "enemies list" after emails they sent that were critical of the Obama administration were purportedly forwarded to flag@whitehouse.gov. These media figures have failed to provide any credible evidence in support of this conspiracy theory.

I've been told by reliable sources who watch the network that Fox News has emphasized this "story" on a near-constant basis over the last 24 hours.

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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'ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAS CHANGED'.... The Obama administration seems to be putting some effort into reiterating its support for a public option today. Indeed, given the uproar over the last 48 hours, the White House almost seems to be arguing, "What's everyone so excited about?"

The Obama administration is not backing away from its support for a public option as part of health-care reform, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stressed Tuesday.

"Here's the bottom line: Absolutely nothing has changed," Sebelius said.

"We continue to support the public option. That will help lower costs, give American consumers more choice and keep private insurers honest. If people have other ideas about how to accomplish these goals, we'll look at those, too. But the public option is a very good way to do this."

Sebelius' comments on Sunday -- she told CNN a public option is "not the essential element" of reform -- helped fuel speculation that the administration was willing to drop the measure from the legislation. Today, Sebelius told conference attendees, "All I can tell you is that Sunday must have been a very slow news day."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Democratic lawmakers, worried about a possible shift, overreacted to media reports. Gibbs added that this wasn't a trial balloon. "If it was a signal, it was a dog whistle we started blowing three months ago, and it just got picked up," he said. "It's crazy. It's not a signal."

I tend to think Sebelius' and Gibbs' remarks are a little coy. No one, including the president, voiced a shift in administration policy, but it was hard to miss the fact that several prominent White House voices all started talking publicly -- over the same weekend -- about the possibility of reform without a public option. "Absolutely nothing has changed"? I suspect that's true -- Obama and his team wanted a public option before and still want one now. But the key here is whether the president expects to see a public option if/when a bill reaches his desk, and how much effort he'll put into making that happen.

For what it's worth, the public option isn't dead, and the rather ferocious response from progressive Dems showed that its base of support remains enthusiastic about the idea. Ezra noted today, "It's a fairly safe bet that the House bill will include a public option and the Senate bill will have a weak public option or some version of a co-op plan. Then the two will meet. What happens then?"

A conference committee, where the president apparently intends to shape the bill the way he wants it.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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'LIBERAL UNILATERALISM'.... The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb raises an interesting argument: lefties like me endorse U.S. negotiations with foreign rivals, but balk at the idea of Democratic policy negotiations with Republicans. Goldfarb calls this "liberal unilateralism," and frames the point in a familiar metaphor.

Look around, the left has already tired of multilateralism, compromise, negotiation -- they want action, with or without the help of potential allies. The Huffington Post has a banner headline "Ignore This Man," a reference to this piece in the Hill about liberal activists pressuring Senate Democrats to move forward without Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley. "We are encouraging Finance Committee members and Senate Democrats to do their own bill and not compromise with a bunch of Republicans who are not going to vote with them anyway," Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, tells the paper. There was some talk like that on the right about a second security council resolution on Iraq prior to the invasion.

Washington Monthly blogger Steve Benen asks, "shouldn't this tell Democrats something about the utility of negotiations, and the futility of finding a bipartisan compromise?" Benen and other "progressives" support negotiation and compromise with Iran and North Korea, but Republicans? Forget about it.

This isn't an entirely unreasonable observation. It's wrong, overly simplistic, and easily dismissed, but it's not unreasonable.

So, let's flesh this out a bit. First, I'm actually supportive of both -- U.S. engagement with rival nations and Democratic engagement with Republicans. Spirited discussions, good-faith negotiations, honest search for common ground ... it's all good stuff. That said, in either situation, there's a reasonable limit on the efforts. In the case of Democratic talks with Republicans, we have one party that isn't interested in negotiating in good faith, and has rejected the very idea of common ground. After months of efforts, a party necessarily needs to cut its losses and recognize when an obstinate rival isn't interested in reaching a sensible solution. (Saddam letting in weapons inspectors is not evidence of a party disinterested in a sensible solution.)

Second, there's the question of consequences to consider. Pursuing talks with, say, Iran, strikes me as a wise move. The alternative is a likely military conflict, international instability, and a whole lot of deaths. Conversely, should Democrats give up on talks with congressional Republicans on health care reform, we'll have to endure John Boehner and Eric Cantor whining that the big bad White House hurt their feelings.

Perhaps most importantly, there's game theory. Responding to an unrelated story, Matt Yglesias recently explained, "In foreign policy, liberals often believe that disputes with foreign actors can and should be settled through negotiation and compromise. That's because international relations isn't a zero-sum affair. Conflict is costly to both parties, good relations bring benefits to both parties, so disagreement is generally amenable to compromise. Ideological disagreement isn't zero-sum either. Neither conservatives nor progressives are wedded to principles that require defense of wasteful Medicare spending. But partisan politics is zero-sum. A 'win' for the Democrats is a 'loss' for Republicans. And the predominant thinking in the Republican Party at the moment is that inflicting legislative defeats on Democrats will lead to electoral defeats for Democrats. That makes the GOP hard to bargain with."

It's the same dynamic that makes Iran, Cuba, and Syria easy to bargain with.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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SENATE'S #2 REPUBLICAN: NO GOP SUPPORT FOR REFORM.... I think Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the second highest ranking Republican in the Senate, said something really important this morning.

The Senate Republican whip, speaking to reporters on a conference call from his home state of Arizona, said that even if the Democrats do away with a government-run insurance option, the GOP most likely won't support the bill that's being written in the Senate.

"I think it's safe to say that there are a huge number of big issues that people have," Kyl said, referring to Republican senators. "There is no way that Republicans are going to support a trillion-dollar-plus bill."

Asked if he'd support a bill if it were deficit neutral, Kyl said Dems may find a way to pass reform without adding to the debt, "but that doesn't mean the Republicans will support it." Asked if he could tolerate a nonprofit insurance cooperative instead of a public option, Kyl added that a co-op is "a step towards government-run health care in this country." The Senate Minority Whip added that "almost all Republicans" are likely to oppose reform, even if it's the result of a bipartisan compromise.

So, bipartisan talks just officially died, right? There's no real ambiguity here -- a member of the Senate GOP leadership announced, publicly and on the record, that Republicans are going to oppose health care reform, no matter how many concessions Democrats make.

This strikes me as a very important development. For months, the Senate process has been slowed, stalled, and delayed while talks continued in search of a "bipartisan compromise." The goal -- embraced by Dems on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenie -- has been to try to find a package that members of both parties could embrace. Those negotiations continue, though the leading Republican in the talks said yesterday that he'll vote against his own compromise if his party isn't on board with reform.

And Jon Kyl just explained that the GOP is going to oppose reform.

By any reasonable measure, Kyl's remarks should be the death knell of bipartisan negotiations. The left has been saying for months, "No matter what, Republicans are going to oppose the final bill." And this morning, Kyl effectively said the left is correct.

Then, logically, there's simply no need for bipartisan talks. Short of Mitch McConnell hanging a banner outside his door reading, "Please stop trying to reach out to us," I don't think it can get any clearer.

Will Senate Democrats get the message?

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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SUPREME COURT INTERVENES IN TROY DAVIS CASE.... A rare and welcome move by the high court majority.

The Supreme Court on Monday took the rare step of ordering a federal judge to consider the innocence claims of condemned Georgia prisoner Troy Anthony Davis, who has mounted a global campaign to declare he was wrongfully convicted of murder and barred by federal law from presenting the evidence that would prove it.

The court interrupted its summer recess to order a new hearing to determine "whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes" Davis's innocence.

If you haven't followed the case, here's the story: 20 years ago, a late-night scuffle broke out in a Burger King parking lot in Savannah. When Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer, tried to intervene, someone pulled a gun and killed the officer. Soon after, Sylvester "Red" Coles, came to the police with a lawyer, accusing Troy Davis of the shooting.

Witnesses say it was Coles, not Davis, who killed MacPhail, but once the man-hunt began for Davis, law enforcement officials wanted to believe he was the man responsible for the slaying, and pressured witnesses accordingly. At this point, most of the witnesses who testified at trial have signed statements contradicting their identification of the gunman. Other witnesses who fingered Davis have said they made their stories up, facing police threats.

What we're left with is a case in which a man was sentenced to death despite no physical evidence, based on the word of witnesses who have since recanted or contradicted their testimony.

What about the witnesses who say Cole shot MacPhail? They're anxious to say so, but their testimony was blocked by federal courts, citing a provision in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Yesterday, in a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court took the highly unusual step of ordering the lower court to hear the new evidence.

In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued, "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent." Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in the court minority.

Justice John Paul Stevens responded, "Imagine a petitioner in Davis's situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man," Stevens wrote. "The dissent's reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless. The court correctly refuses to endorse such reasoning."

As for whether Scalia's argument is as crazy as it seems -- did he really say there's nothing unconstitutional about the state executing innocent Americans? -- publius ponders the possibilities.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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GRASSLEY CONTINUES TO BLAST DEM LEADERS.... Yesterday, MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan asked Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about "death panels." The conservative senator described it as "nothing more than a distortion coming from far-left." That, of course, didn't make any sense.

Today, Grassley expounded on the subject with Fox News.

Grassley said that attacks on him for having spoken about concerns on end-of-life care at a town hall meeting in Iowa last week were meant to distract from a "miserably poor" healthcare bill in the House.

"I think that there's a bigger goal that they have here -- a diversion away from what's wrong with the Pelosi bill," Grassley said during a phone interview on Fox News.

"I think that this is what a president or speaker of the House has to do when they have a miserably poor healthcare bill that's not being received well by the people," he added.

For context, Grassley told constituents they "have every right to fear" the "death panels" right-wing activists have been talking about. The Iowan added, "We should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma." Time's Joe Klein called the comments "sheer idiocy."

The Republican senator told Fox News this morning that the only reason his comments drew fire was because Democrats are trying to distract us from their "miserably poor" reform bill. He added that President Obama and Speaker Pelosi were "intellectually dishonest" to criticize Grassley's "pull-the-plug" remarks. (As far as I can tell, President Obama didn't criticize Grassley at all, which ironically makes his rhetoric this morning "intellectually dishonest.")

The Hill reported today that the left is pushing hard to see the end of all negotiations with Grassley. Honestly, at this point, I'm not sure what more Grassley would have to do. He's not only staunchly opposed to Democratic ideas, Grassley also conceded yesterday he's prepared to vote against his own compromise. Letting him dictate the process, when he's quite obviously refusing to work in good faith, is insane.

Something Matt Yglesias said yesterday rang true for me: "If you want to see reform enacted, [Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus] needs to just write a bill he likes, talk to Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe about what kind of special lobster subsidies they'd like to see in it, and then you pass the thing. This isn't brain surgery."

If the Senate Democratic caucus agrees to let the chamber vote up or down on the bill, the lobster subsidies wouldn't even be necessary.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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TUESDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* While Gov. Jon Corzine (D) and Chris Christie (R) battle it out in New Jersey's gubernatorial campaign, the Sierra Club weighed in on the race yesterday, endorsing independent Chris Daggett.

* Rep. Mark Kirk (R) starts his Senate campaign in Illinois in a reasonably strong position, leading state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in a hypothetical match-up, 41% to 38%, in the latest Rasmussen poll.

* There's a fair amount of speculation about who Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) will appoint to replace Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) until the end of next year, but Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) announced yesterday he does not want to be considered for the post.

* Speaking of Florida, the state's Chamber of Commerce released a poll yesterday showing state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) leading state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (D), 43% to 34%, in next year's gubernatorial race.

* Republicans in Colorado and D.C. haven't exactly been overwhelmed by their candidates poised to take on Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) next year. They've turned their attention to former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R), who is reportedly considering the race.

* And Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) will, by all appearances, seek re-election next year, but might she have higher ambitions? Bachmann told a right-wing website this week she would run for president if she felt "that's what the Lord was calling me to do."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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IT'S GOING TO BE UNPOPULAR; VOTE FOR IT ANYWAY.... Throughout the spring and summer, the operative word for opponents of health care reform was "delay." There was an obvious strategy behind the approach, and it's working.

With every week, and every month, that drags by, health-care reform becomes a bit less popular. At this point, disapproval of the president's plan -- if not of his plan's ideas -- outpolls approval. That's a function of the legislative process. Of stories about congressional infighting and of anti-change campaigns mounted by the opposition and of the risk aversion of members of Congress. Almost all major domestic legislation follows the same path of public approval giving way to public disapproval.

That makes it even easier for conservative Democrats and the mythical moderate Republicans to abandon the effort. And thus the effort gets abandoned. What usually happens next is that the opposition wins the following election and reformers spend the next 15 years lamenting all the deals they didn't take, and the country ends up with 10 million more uninsured, and 100,000 more needlessly dead, and so on.

The polls, to be sure, have become more discouraging, for all of these reasons. But I'm reminded of something Jon Chait recently argued: the polls will likely shift if/when policymakers get something done.

People do not pay close attention to details. The broad message is likely to shape their ultimate view. And the biggest single driver of that opinion is whether health care reform passes. If it does, then it will have a Rose Garden ceremony, lots of commentary about the historical import, liberal celebrations and conservative apoplexy. If it fails, then the plan will be described as a "failure" -- a designation intended to describe the political prospects but which is certain to bleed into the public's estimation of the plan's substantive merits -- and produce endless commentary about liberal overreach, all of which will make people more prone to believe that the plan was a disaster.

Democrats simply have to accept that health care reform is going to be polling badly when they vote on it. There's no mechanism in the current media configuration that would allow them to convey the details of the plan in a positive way without getting overrun by negative process stories. It's just not possible. What they have to focus on is which alternative is likely to make them better off: reform passing or reform failing. It's an easy call, which is why I think reform will pass.

Now, that was a month ago, and Jon's optimism may have waned since. But the larger point still seems right to me. The often excruciating political process, in combination with an aggressive campaign of lies and misinformation from the right, is bound to weaken support for reform. And this becomes an excuse for more infighting, tinkering, and arguing, which in turn weakens support further. It's quite a vicious cycle.

I suspect policymakers will be pleasantly surprised by the shift in public attitudes if/when they pass a health care reform bill that Americans have sought for a few generations now.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THE CONTENTIOUSNESS OF CONRAD'S COUNT.... Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota told Fox News over the weekend that there's no point in pursuing a public option as part of health care reform because it doesn't have 60 votes. "The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for a public option. There never have been," Conrad added.

As we talked about on Sunday, that's almost certainly wrong. Conrad's probably right that a public option doesn't have 60 supporters right now, but that's not the right question. As a procedural matter, Conrad's point is largely wrong. If a reform bill reaches the floor, and every Democrat in the chamber agrees that the legislation should get an up-or-down vote, reform with a public option needs 50, not 60, votes.

Ryan Grim fleshed this out in more detail.

Conrad ... is presumably assuming that a bill containing a public option would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But even if that is the case, not a single member of the Democratic caucus -- including Conrad himself -- has actually announced that he or she would support such a filibuster. And a few Republicans -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- might not support it either.

"Senator Conrad should leave the vote counting to the leadership," a peeved Democratic leadership aide told the Huffington Post.

The fate of the public option may very well hinge on whether Senate Democrats support or reject a Republican filibuster. If the bill gets an up-or-down vote -- in other words, if Senate Democrats agree that the Senate should be able to cast a vote for or against health care reform -- it needs 50 votes. Conrad, Nelson, Landrieu, Bayh, Lieberman, and Lincoln could all vote against reform on the Senate floor, it would still pass with votes to spare.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told his colleagues in July, "Don't let the Republicans filibuster us into failure. We want to succeed, and to succeed, we need to stick together."

It's a simple concept. The electorate has given Democrats a chance to govern, and expect them to deliver. Members of the caucus "may vote against final passage on a bill," Durbin said, but Democratic colleagues should at least reject the idea of "allowing the filibuster to stop the whole Senate." He concluded, "We ought to control our own agenda."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont said something similar, arguing that senators in the Democratic caucus should feel free to vote for or against any bill, but being a member of the caucus should, at a minimum, mean opposition to Republican obstructionism: "I think the strategy should be that every Democrat, no matter whether or not they ultimately end up voting for the final bill, is to say we are going to vote together to stop a Republican filibuster."

If every member of the Senate Democratic caucus agrees that health care reform deserves an up-or-down vote, there's still a chance for meaningful reform.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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AN AWFULLY BIG 'FRINGE'.... There have always been at least two key angles to the right-wing attacks against health care reform: 1) the willingness of conservatives to lie; and 2) the willingness of the public to believe the lies. It's one thing for prominent far-right voices to talk up imaginary "death panels," for example, but who's going to believe such garbage? We're talking about a radical, isolated fringe, right?

Wrong. A Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos, in what I believe is the first national poll on the question, gauged public opinion on this. Respondents were asked whether the reform proposals under consideration would create "death panels" that would dictate medical care based on Americans' "productivity in society." Nearly three-fourths of the public (72%) said no, 11% said yes, and 17% weren't sure. But of greater interest were the partisan numbers.

Democrats and independents rejected the claim in large numbers, but here were the results for self-identified Republicans:

Yes: 26%
No: 43%
Not sure: 31%

There were similar results on related questions. Republicans, unlike Democrats and independents, also believe reform would "require elderly patients to meet with government officials to discuss 'end of life' options including euthanasia," and consider reform to be a government "takeover" of the health care system. Neither claim is true.

On a more comical note, Republicans were also far more likely to believe that Medicare is not a government program than anyone else. While only 7% of Democrats were confused about Medicare, the number of Republicans who believe Medicare isn't a government program was twice as high (14%).

But specifically on the "death panel" confusion, we're in the midst of a national debate in which a clear majority of rank-and-file Republicans either believe "death panels" are a serious proposal or aren't sure.

Greg Sargent, who called his "astonishing," added, "The key here is that the question was specifically worded to mirror Palin's assertion that Obama's death panel will evaluate a person's right to medical care based on whether they're productive in society. More than a quarter of Republicans believe this, and nearly a third are not sure."

It does offer some context for the angry right-wing protestors. Why would they fight so hard against a reform plan that would help their families? Because they've been lied to so often, they actually think Democrats literally might start killing people.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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MCCARTHY VS. HIS EMPLOYER.... National Review editor Rich Lowry recently had an item that argued, "The birthers have been denounced by every reputable conservative." That raised a few eyebrows because one of Lowry's employees, right-wing writer, Andy McCarthy, has used his National Review perch to argue the opposite.

This week, McCarthy and his employer are at it again.

The latest National Review editorial gently chides Sarah Palin and other far-right Republicans pushing the "death panel" nonsense. The magazine's editorial board concludes that the conservative accusation is a "leap across a logical canyon." The piece goes on to warn against "hysteria."

This prompted McCarthy to once again take issue with his own magazine's argument.

I happen to think that something like death panels is exactly what is desired by Obama -- who is an abortion extremist, who supported a form of infanticide when he was an Illinois state legislator, and who has wondered aloud about the value of end-of-life care provided for his own grandmother. [...]

The whole point of health-care "reform" is to enable something other than the combination of individual liberty and market forces -- namely, government bureaucrats -- to do the inevitable rationing.

McCarthy concludes that Palin was right, and that the common sense, bipartisan measure about reimbursing voluntary end-of-life counseling was "horrible."

I found A.L.'s response quite compelling.

So to sum up, McCarthy is livid about the (imaginary) evil death panels that Sarah Palin managed to save us from and believes that Obama wants to create such panels in order to cut off care for the elderly, thereby allowing them to "wither away prematurely" (which, apparently, Obama wanted to happen to his own grandmother). McCarthy, on the other hand, believes we should let "liberty and the market" take care of our elderly people, a suggestion that would demonstrably result in most elderly people not having access to health care.

This man -- this lunatic -- is writing for THE flagship conservative publication in this country.


Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THEY'RE AGAINST CO-OPS, TOO.... The NYT reports today, "The White House has indicated that it could accept a nonprofit health care cooperative as an alternative to a new government insurance plan, originally favored by President Obama. But the co-op idea is so ill defined that no one knows exactly what it would look like or how effectively it would compete with commercial insurers."

It's going to be tough to rally support for an idea when it's not altogether clear what it is, or how it would work. Ezra Klein had an item noting the differences between a co-op and a public option, and concluded, "As the situation stands, there's no existing model for co-ops to follow and no policy specifics on Conrad's idea, so it's impossible to say whether, or how, they will work. I could imagine very good co-ops or totally useless ones."

But let's focus, for now, on the political side of this. After all, the very idea of a nonprofit cooperative was itself a political invention -- adding palatable competition to the system without creating a public option. Indeed, for months, Republicans said a public option would mark the fall of civilization, but a co-op alternative is entirely palatable.

But in light of signals that a genuine public option is in trouble, the Republican Party that found co-ops reasonable has decided to change course. Now, they're against co-ops, too.

The very basic logic of the public option is this: Most Democrats support a strong public option, most Republicans oppose Democratic health care reform period, so perhaps Democrats can win over a few Republicans if they keep government out of the insurance industry and create a system of privately-held health-care co-operatives instead. Simple right?

Not if the RNC has anything to say about it.

They're out today with a new release, attacking the co-op idea.... As the RNC makes clear, in their eyes, "Public option by any other name is still government-run health care."

Last night, right-wing talk-show host Mark Steyn said on Fox News that co-ops aren't different enough from the public option, adding, "[T]he whole system is in fact a kind of death panel."

The death of American political discourse notwithstanding, let's be clear about the larger debate: no matter what Democrats propose, Republicans are going to reject it, even if they've already signaled support for the same idea. Consistency and honesty are irrelevant -- the goal is to defeat health care reform, no matter what's in the bill.

As John Cole explained last night, "At some point, these folks are going to learn that no matter what happens, the Republicans are not going to vote for anything. As soon as they kill off the public option, they will pick off co-ops. Think I'm kidding? They managed to convince people that voluntarily talks with your doctor about a living will was a death panel killing grandma."

John Harwood noted on MSNBC the other day, "I gotta tell you what a White House official told me today: 'Our problem right now is, if we tell some of the Republican opponents in the Senate, 'You can have everything you want in the bill,' they still won't vote for it.'"

Yep. Republicans don't support health care reform. Weakening the bill and scuttling good ideas to garner their support doesn't make sense, since they fully intend to vote against literally any bill. Yesterday, Chuck Grassley said he's likely to vote against his own compromise package.

Shouldn't this tell Democrats something about the utility of negotiations, and the futility of finding a bipartisan compromise?

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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SO MUCH FOR THE WATER'S EDGE.... Two weeks ago, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) traveled to Israel to criticize the Obama administration and undermine U.S. foreign policy. As The Hill noted at the time, "Cantor's comments leave the high-ranking Republican open to Democratic criticism for criticizing the president while on foreign soil."

Since Cantor faced no pushback whatsoever, Mike Huckabee felt comfortable doing the exact same thing yesterday, traveling to Israel to condemn the U.S. approach in Israel. Huckabee's traveling partner, a state lawmaker from New York, said, "Obama policy in Jerusalem ... has just been a horror."

Now, there's obviously room for debate when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. I think Obama's right; conservative Republicans like Huckabee and Cantor think he's wrong. Fine. The larger point, however, is that the right is supposed to abhor American politicians criticizing the United States on foreign soil.

Glenn Greenwald takes a stroll down memory lane.

Here's what happened in 2006 when Al Gore gave a speech at a conference in Saudi Arabia in which he criticized Bush policies towards the Muslim world -- as summarized by The New York Times' Chris Sullentrop:

"As House Democrats David Bonior and Jim McDermott may recall from their trip to Baghdad on the eve of the Iraq war, nothing sets conservative opinionmongers on edge like a speech made by a Democrat on foreign soil. Al Gore traveled to Saudi Arabia last week, and in a speech there on Sunday he criticized 'abuses' committed by the U.S. government against Arabs after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A burst of flabbergasted conservative blogging followed the Associated Press dispatch about the speech, with the most clever remark coming from Mark Steyn, who called the former vice president 'Sheikh al-Gore.' The editorial page of Investor's Business Daily accused Gore of 'supreme disloyalty to his country'. . . ."

TigerHawk does the best job of explaining why speeches like this get some people so worked up:

"There is simply no defense for what Gore has done here, for he is deliberately undermining the United States during a time of war, in a part of the world crucial to our success in that war, in front of an audience that does not vote in American elections. Gore's speech is both destructive and disloyal, not because of its content -- which is as silly as it is subversive -- but because of its location and its intended audience."

The Wall St. Journal's James Taranto accused Gore of "denouncing his own government on foreign soil" and quoted the above accusation of "disloyality." Commentary was abundant all but accusing Gore of treason for criticizing the U.S. in a foreign land.

Put aside the question of whether you believe the president is right or wrong about the Israeli settlement issue, because in this case, that's a secondary question.

The central issue here is whether elected officials should travel abroad to criticize and undermine the foreign policy of the American government. If Huckabee, Cantor, and their pals want to trash the U.S. approach on Fox News, from the floor of the House, or in a press release, that's merely annoying. But these are the exact same conservatives who said it was treasonous for an American to go to foreign soil and work against the sitting president.

It's almost as if there are two separate standards in place.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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August 17, 2009

MONDAY'S MINI-REPORT.... Today's edition of quick hits:

* At a presidential event in Arizona this afternoon, two civilians were seen carrying assault rifles. This is legal in the state.

* Suicide bombing in Russia, today: "At least 20 people were killed, and dozens were wounded when a suicide bomber rammed a truck filled with explosives into a police headquarters in Russia's tumultuous North Caucasus region on Monday, according to government officials, the latest episode in a spate of violence to hit the area in recent weeks."

* Suicide bombing in Afghanistan, over the weekend: "A massive car bomb apparently driven by a suicide bomber exploded outside the front gate of the headquarters of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan Saturday morning, sending a shock wave that could be heard across the city."

* Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) met with the military government of Burma on Saturday, and won the release of an American who'd been sentenced to seven years in prison for swimming to the house of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The mission "may open the door to further U.S. engagement" with Burmese authorities.

* Late Friday, Alabama's Colonial Bank failed. It was the biggest bank failure since Washington Mutual and the sixth largest bank failure in American history.

* Mir Hussein Moussavi launched the Green Way of Hope movement in Iran.

* Because our discourse is too often silly, it appears that flag@whitehouse.gov is no more.

* The bad news: the 2009 budget deficit will be $1.6 trillion. The good news: it had been projected to be $1.8 trillion.

* The stimulus package helped prevent another depression. Most Americans, apparently, aren't impressed.

* Kevin makes the case for a public option before concluding, "It's worth fighting for a public option. But it's not worth sinking healthcare reform over it. That would hurt too many real flesh-and-blood people who need this, and a second chance wouldn't come along for a long time. We've failed on the healthcare front too many times to accept failure again." Adam Serwer is thinking along the same lines.

* Glenn Beck loses another sponsor.

* Dick Armey parted ways with a major DC lobbying firm, in light of his role with FreedomWorks. The firm, DLA Piper, represents drug firms that support health care reform. FreedomWorks is organizing angry right-wing protests against health care reform.

* Shah Rukh Khan, one of Bollywood's most recognizable movie stars, was in the United States to promote his new film about the racial profiling of Muslims. Khan, a Muslim star in a largely Hindu country, was, ironically, recently detained at Newark's airport for no apparent reason. He was released after two hours of questioning.

* Conservative activists in Atlanta hoped to hold a rally at Centennial Olympic Park over the weekend in opposition to health care reform. The goal was to draw a crowd of 15,000. According to local reports, about 3,000 showed up.

* Will health care reform receive bipartisan support in the House? Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) seems inclined to vote for it.

* Sign of the Apocalypse: disgraced right-wing Texan Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader, will join the contestants on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" next season. Seriously.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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LOOKING FOR LEVERAGE.... There's been a widely held assumption that, when push comes to shove, liberal Democratic lawmakers want health care reform too much to balk -- whether the bill is as strong as it should be or not. That assumption is being tested in new ways.

Atrios noted today the extent to which the left is willing to show some muscle on this.

I don't know if the progressive House Dems will hold firm, but it's certainly a more plausible story than "Max Baucus creates compromise bill that Republicans will vote for." Yet it's the latter story which gets all the attention. Dem pundits should understand that there's pretty good chance that absent good public option, there will be no health care bill.

This came after Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) told CNBC that a health care bill lacking a public option could lose 100 of the 256 votes in the House Democratic caucus. Since House Republicans are likely to balk at any kind of reform, this would be more than enough to kill reform altogether.

Even if we take Republicans out of the equation, there's the question of Democrats like Ben Nelson. The crude overview is that center-right Dems won't support a plan with a public option, while progressive Dems won't support a plan without one. For the past couple of months, all the talk has been about how center-right Dems will kill reform unless the bill is moved to the right. Weiner & Co., especially today, are saying that they'll kill reform unless it starts moving back towards the left.

It's easy to imagine a game of chicken unfolding on the Hill in September.

I still think there's a leverage problem for the left. Reform advocates can call Ben Nelson & Co. and say, "Look, if you don't support the reform package, with a public option, reform will die; it'll be a generation before anyone tries again; the system will keep getting worse; it'll crush Obama's presidency; the progressive agenda will be devastated; and Republicans will probably win back Congress. Is the public option really that offensive?" It's not unrealistic to think the answer to that question, for center-right Dems, is "yes." They may not think that broader scenario sounds especially awful.

On the other hand, reform advocates can call progressives and say, "Look, if you don't support the reform package, even one without a public option, reform will die; it'll be a generation before anyone tries again; the system will keep getting worse; it'll crush Obama's presidency; the progressive agenda will be devastated; and Republicans will probably win back Congress. There's all kinds of good stuff still in the bill. Support this now, and we'll try to add on a public option in 2011." Will liberals respond, "No, I'd rather it let it die"? Maybe, maybe not.

Or put another way, which side -- center-right Dems or progressive Dems -- is more invested in seeing reform pass this year, and which wouldn't really care if the whole effort collapsed? The answer probably seems obvious, which is exactly why center-right Dems feel like they have the upper hand as the process continues. Too many conservatives would be satisfied with complete failure, and too many liberals are committed to making sure failure is not an option.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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OBAMA ADMIN SHIFTS GEARS ON DOMA.... In June, the Justice Department filed a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act against a legal challenge, despite the president's stated opposition against the law itself. Whether the administration was required to defend the law became the subject of some debate, as was the content of the brief itself, which was considered controversial among supporters of gay rights.

Today, the administration shifted gears on the matter.

President Obama hasn't changed his policy, but he is softening his tone. Today, the Department of Justice filed a response to a legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act for the second time since Obama took office.

When DOJ first did this, its brief was full of rhetoric that appeared to supporters to be over-the-top and anti-gay. The White House -- and the Justice Department -- seemed to have taken the criticisms to heart. Their challenge in this case defends the idea that the government must defend constitutional laws -- even wrong-headed ones, but notes that the Obama administration opposes the substance of the policy.

In an unusual and encouraging gesture, the White House issued a statement making the president's position on the larger issue clear. The statement, distributed to groups supporting gay rights and appearing above the president's name, said, "This brief makes clear, however, that my Administration believes that the Act is discriminatory and should be repealed by Congress. I have long held that DOMA prevents LGBT couples from being granted equal rights and benefits. While we work with Congress to repeal DOMA, my Administration will continue to examine and implement measures that will help extend rights and benefits to LGBT couples under existing law."

Justice Department lawyer Scott Simpson added the administration doesn't really have any choice in terms of the DOMA defense: "This Administration does not support DOMA as a matter of policy, believes that it is discriminatory, and supports its repeal. Consistent with the rule of law, however, the Department of Justice has long followed the practice of defending federal statutes as long as reasonable arguments can be made in support of their constitutionality, even if the Department disagrees with a particular statute as a policy matter, as it does here."

This unambiguous explanation of the president's position was not part of the June filing. What's more, Josh Gerstein noted that the new brief "explicitly rejected arguments put forward by conservative groups that the importance of marriage for child rearing is a legitimate justification for DOMA's ban on federal recognition of same-sex unions."

I think it's safe to say the White House got the message earlier this year.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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GRASSLEY'S NOT EVEN TRYING.... On MSNBC's "Morning Meeting" earlier, Dylan Ratigan asked Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about "death panels" as part of reform. "I see that as nothing more than a distortion coming from far-left with bringing up these end-of-life concerns," Grassley said, "which are not the issue that we ought to be talking about."

I have no idea what that means. The "far-left" is responsible for a bogus claim Grassley was touting as recently as last week?

Ezra Klein was on the same program, and noticed Grassley's striking approach to reform.

First, Grassley did not speak like Lindsey Graham or Olympia Snowe. He did not come onto the program determined to present a reasonable face and comfort liberals, conservatives and independents alike. Instead, he railed against "government-run health care" and the "Pelosi health-care bill." He talked about bureaucrats and exploding deficits. He sounded like a House conservative giving a stump speech. Grassley presumably leaves his stemwinders behind when he's with the Gang of Six. But this was not a comforting sign. This was not a unifying performance.

Second, Chuck Todd asked Grassley whether he'd vote for the bill if it was a good piece of policy that he'd crafted but that couldn't attract more than a handful of Republican votes. "Certainly not," replied Grassley. Todd tried again, clarifying that this was legislation Grassley liked, and thought would move the ball forward, but was getting bogged down due to partisanship. Grassley held firm. If a good bill cannot attract Republican support, then it is not a good bill, he argued.

Grassley, in other words, is working backward from the votes. If the Gang of Six reaches a compromise that the Senate Republicans don't support, Grassley will abandon that compromise, regardless of the fact that he's the guy who built it.

If President Obama pursues reform with Democratic votes, he's being "partisan." Grassley, meanwhile, will vote against his own compromise bill unless it has lots of Republican votes, but that's not "partisan" at all.

In order for negotiations to make sense, parties have to be willing to show some good faith, and a willingness to work towards a constructive goal. With this in mind, seeking a reasonable compromise with Chuck Grassley isn't just wrong, it's crazy.

Grassley has never demonstrated any sincere interest in genuine reform, but it seems over the last couple of weeks, the conservative Iowan has simply given up even trying to appear reasonable. He's talking up "death panel" nonsense. He's touting Glenn Beck's book. He's pulling common-sense measures with bipartisan support from the negotiating table. He's taking cheap and unnecessary shots at the president. He's making cheap and unnecessary arguments about "rationing" by exploiting Ted Kennedy's cancer.

The list is much longer, but these are just some of the developments from the last two weeks.

Perhaps, in private, Grassley is a different pol. Maybe, in one-on-one chats with the president or Max Baucus, he comes across as sincere and committed to reform. But out here in the public sphere, Grassley is acting like a man who wants to kill health care reform. Basing the entire initiative on satisfying his partisan, ever-changing demands is a recipe for abject failure.

Indeed, as I argued over the weekend, I can only assume that Grassley doesn't want to be part of reform negotiations anymore, and is working on getting himself kicked out of the talks. If he keeps moving further to the right, and Dems eventually decide to cut their losses with this guy, Grassley gets to have it both ways -- he'll tell moderates, "I invested months of time and energy in bipartisan reform negotiations," and he'll tell the right, "I stuck up for conservative principles and Democrats refused to listen."

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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A NEWS NETWORK OF THEIR OWN.... A new Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos asked respondents about their thoughts and viewing habits relating to the three major cable news networks. The results weren't altogether surprising, but the breakdowns offered some interesting insights.

The poll asked, "How often do you watch Fox News Channel; daily, at least once a week, a few times a month, rarely, or never?" One in four Republicans watches the network daily, and another 27% watch it weekly. The GOP network's numbers were strongest in the South, and among whites.

Numbers for CNN and MSNBC were, predictably, far different. CNN's numbers were stronger across the board, but weaker among self-identified Republicans and respondents in the South. MSNBC produced better numbers among self-identified Democrats.

The same poll also asked, "When it comes to accuracy and trustworthiness as a source of news would you say that Fox News Channel is extremely reliable, reliable, unreliable, or extremely unreliable?" Once again, the GOP network did very well among self-identified Republicans (a combined 65% of whom find Fox News reliable or extremely reliable) and among Southerners. CNN did far better with the overall national audience on the question of reliability, and did better with a more ethnically diverse audience, but struggled, again, with Republicans and in the South. MSNBC, in general, isn't watched by a large enough national audience to register clear numbers.

David Weigel picked up on the regional trend.

The biggest swing region in the poll? The South. In Southern states, 46 percent of viewers say that Fox News is "extremely reliable" or "reliable." Only 6 percent of them say that of MSNBC, compared to 26 percent who say it of CNN, a huge shift from the days when CNN was derided as the "Communist/Clinton News Network."

The partisan breakdown is about as stark -- 74% of Republicans "never" watch CNN; 89% of Republicans "never" watch MSNBC; but 59% watch Fox News at least once a month.

There's a very good reason for widespread confusion about current events.

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IT NEVER ENDS.... The right said a bipartisan, common-sense measure on end-of-life care was scandalous. It wasn't, but reality didn't matter -- conservatives believed it was true, and now it's apparently gone from the bill. The right said a public option would represent a Soviet-style takeover of the health care system. . It wasn't, but reality didn't matter -- conservatives believed it was true, and now the idea is in trouble.

Ideally, reform advocates would be able to see around the curve, predicting what the next ridiculous right-wing attack might be, and preparing a response in advance. But that's not easy; the Republican Attack Machine features a painful combination of creativity, paranoia, and pathological dishonesty.

For example, Amy Sullivan reports on the next conservative temper tantrum.

Now conservative opponents of health reform have found a new threat: home nurse visits to low-income parents. "We are setting up a situation where Obama will be invading parent's [sic] homes and taking away their children," one columnist warned on RightWingNews.com. That something as harmless as home nurse visits has become a target of conservative ire is surprising because of its longstanding popularity with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. But health reform advocates are scratching their heads at the attacks for another reason: funding for home nurse visits was largely included in health reform legislation to accommodate social conservatives. [...]

[H]ome nurse visits are exactly the kind of pro-family policy that social conservatives would embrace. And they have. The home visitation provision in health reform legislation was modeled on a bill authored by Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri. Bond went through a parenting education program in Missouri when his son was born three decades ago and has been a fan of the idea ever since. [...]

Home visits have been so popular with conservatives that the idea kept coming up during conversations White House aides hosted with pro-life advocates earlier this year in an effort to find common ground on abortion. And when Democratic Reps. Tim Ryan and Rosa DeLauro drafted the abortion reduction bill they introduced last month, they specifically included funding for home nurse visits as a way of accommodating pro-life preferences for policies that support women who decide to give birth instead of having abortions.

But that was before conservative anxiety over health reform reached its boiling point.

Now, prenatal counseling, according to the Heritage Foundation, Chuck Norris, and assorted right-wing voices, are "mandatory home inspections."

Will it matter that the idea was sought by the right? Almost certainly not, because intellectual consistency, honesty, and seriousness have had absolutely no role in the policy debate whatsoever.

Kevin Drum added, "It hasn't gotten a ton of attention yet, but that's only because the loonies have been obsessed with death panels instead. If that weren't in the bill, Sarah Palin would have dubbed the home nurse program as the Baby Brainwashing Brigades and everyone would be going nuts over that instead."

We know the drill. The right makes something up ... Fox News and Limbaugh say it's true ... Republican lawmakers start condemning the imaginary threat ... major mainstream news outlets report that "some say" the imaginary threat is real ... millions of Americans believe it ... Democrats point to reality, but it's too late ... and the worthwhile idea is dropped from the legislation.

The challenge in overcoming this is more than just overwhelming; it's also endless and unpredictable. Our political system just doesn't work the way it should.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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CONTEXT MATTERS, EVEN WITH REAGAN.... During last year's debate for the Vice Presidential candidates, Sarah Palin paraphrased a famous Reagan quote: "It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction.... We have to fight for it and protect it, and then hand it to them so that they shall do the same, or we're going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children's children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free."

The problem with the quote was that Reagan was, at the time, condemning the very idea of Medicare. In context, Reagan actually said, "[I]f you don't [stop Medicare] and I don't do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free." The line wasn't about "freedom," it was about a program to provide seniors with health care.

Apparently, conservatives still love the Reagan speech in which the line was delivered, but overlook pesky details, such as context.

Media Matters noticed that a whole host of prominent conservatives quoted the Reagan recording on Friday.

On August 14, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, and O'Reilly Factor guest host Laura Ingraham featured a recording of Ronald Reagan speaking in 1961 against "socialized medicine" for the American Medical Association's Operation Coffee Cup Campaign against Medicare. Neither Drudge, Limbaugh, nor Ingraham, however, noted that Reagan was speaking out against an early version of Medicare, which has become very popular since it was enacted 44 years ago, or that Reagan's dire predictions of curtailments of freedom were never realized.

Limbaugh aired portions of the Reagan recording from 1961 and, with Republican-mandated reverence, told listeners, "I tell you, I get chills up my back. I feel like I'm listening to my dad. My dad said the same thing to me: 'You boys are going to be slaves.'" After playing a clip from Reagan's recording, Ingraham added, "I have to believe that Ronald Reagan is smiling down on these town hall forums."

I realize for most of the right, Reagan is The Worshipped One Who Must Not Be Questioned, but they really ought to listen to the whole thing before praising it. Indeed, listening to the recording now, it's kind of embarrassing to hear how very wrong Reagan's attacks on Medicare were at the time.

According to Reagan, Medicare would lead federal officials to dictate where physicians could practice medicine, and open the door to government control over where Americans were allowed to live. In fact, Reagan warned that if Medicare became law, there was a real possibility that the federal government would control where Americans go and what they do for a living. The Tea Baggers of the day no doubt found this persuasive, but we now know these crazy warnings were completely wrong.

As Jon Chait recently explained:

You'd think conservatives would be embarrassed about this sort of talk. After all, can there be anybody who doesn't live in a militia compound who believes the passage of Medicare represented the death knell of that freedom in America? Does anybody think this business about the government dictating what city doctors live in has come true? Yet conservatives continue to trumpet it.

As for Reagan's warnings against "socialized medicine," which were demonstrably false, Reagan's misguided diatribe from 48 years ago also serves as a reminder that we hear the same arguments from conservatives, over and over again, every time real reform is on the table. It doesn't matter if it's true, it matters if Limbaugh and his followers "get chills" from the rhetoric.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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MONDAY'S CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP....Today's installment of campaign-related news items that wouldn't generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers.

* After being coy for months about his plans, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has decided not to seek a third term next year.

* As expected, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) officially kicks off her gubernatorial campaign in Texas today. She'll face incumbent Gov. Rick Perry in a very competitive GOP primary.

* A Washington Post poll released over the weekend shows Bob McDonnell (R) continuing to lead Creigh Deeds (D) in Virginia's gubernatorial race. Among all registered voters, McDonnell leads 47% to 40%. Among those who say they're certain to vote in November, McDonnell's lead grows to 15 points, 54% to 39%.

* The good news for New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D) is that a new Quinnipiac poll shows his approval rating up slightly. The bad news is, he's now up to 30%. In a hypothetical primary match-up against state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Paterson trails, 61% to 15%.

* There was a straw poll over the weekend at the Netroots Nation conference, held this year in Pittsburgh, on the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania. Rep. Joe Sestak apparently enjoys far more netroots support than Sen. Arlen Specter, leading 46% to 10%. A third of the straw-poll participants are undecided, and 7% disapprove of both candidates. Sestak and Specter appeared at the conference.

* In North Carolina, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall is moving forward with a possible Senate campaign against incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), but the DSCC is still keeping its recruiting options open. The latest buzz is focused on former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker (D), who's receiving encouragement from former Gov. Jim Hunt, among others.

* Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has long been worried about a challenge from the right next year, and it appears those concerns were justified. Conservative Bob Lang will reportedly run against Vitter, but will run as an independent.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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ALL THAT STANDS IN THE WAY.... Paul Krugman notes the various ways in which other industrialized countries provide health care coverage for their citizens -- the United States is the only one that doesn't -- and highlights the three main obstacles standing in the way of our reform efforts.

At this point, all that stands in the way of universal health care in America are the greed of the medical-industrial complex, the lies of the right-wing propaganda machine, and the gullibility of voters who believe those lies.

True. I'd add just one more: conservative Democrats.

To be sure, this fourth hurdle is intertwined with Krugman's three. Greedy insurers who profit off the status quo contribute heavily to conservative Democrats' campaigns. The right-wing propaganda machine is effective in conservative Democrats' districts/states. And gullible voters in these "red" areas believe the nonsense and pressure conservative Democrats to avoid progressive policy goals, whether it would benefit them or not.

But the group is nevertheless an obstacle that's proven nearly impossible to overcome. Given the Democratic majorities in both chambers, conservative Democrats are frequently the sole reason the progressive agenda hasn't moved forward.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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GOOD QUESTION, WRONG ANSWER.... On CNN yesterday, John King noted an email that's circulating in right-wing circles, which specifically cites legislative language -- that does not exist -- which "mandates" that the government "has a say in how your life ends." King noted that the claim is false, and explained to Rep. Tom Price (R) of Georgia that even many conservatives concede that the claims are wrong. King asked, "Does it hurt your cause when conservative critics are misleading people and are twisting the facts?"

"Well, I think this is symptomatic of the process that we've been through, and that is that it's been mostly in secret, that it hasn't been a bipartisan way, certainly in the House," Price responded. That doesn't make any sense. Price sees a partisan process, which rationalizes conservatives lying? It's almost as if Price didn't understand the question.

Price added that people can "go to that area of the bill and they see that the government will mandate, will dictate that the physician and the patient, who is eligible for Social Security, have that conversation at least once every five years." This is, of course, completely and totally wrong.

King responded, "Well, you say it 'mandates.' Others who read the bill, including our organizations, fact-checkers and other organizations' fact-checkers, says that it covers and recommends you have these conversations."

Now, that's almost a good response. The he-said/she-said dynamic is still there -- King could have simply said, "That's wrong" -- but at least there was a little pushback.

But what's striking to me is how the exchange played out. King noted a bogus claim and asked whether dishonesty hurts the conservative cause. A Republican member of Congress responded by ignoring the question and repeating the bogus claim.

There's a certain pathological quality to this.

On a related note, any chance news outlets will conclude that Price is obviously dishonest and shouldn't be invited back onto the air, where he prefers to mislead the public? Don't answer that; it's a rhetorical question.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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GRASSLEY WALKS BACK EUTHANASIA CLAIM?.... Last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the leading Republican lawmaker negotiating a "compromise" on health care reform, publicly defended the ridiculous right-wing "death panel" talk. At a town-hall meeting with constituents, Grassley said, "[Y]ou have every right to fear," adding, "We should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma."

It was a new low for the conservative Republican. As Joe Klein, who said the remarks represented "sheer idiocy," noted, Grassley "either (a) hasn't the vaguest notion of what's in the bill or (b) he is so intimidated by the ditto-head-brown-shirts that he is trying to fudge a response to keep them happy. Either way, he should be ashamed."

Grassley's office seems to have walked the comments back a bit.

Grassley says he opposes that counseling as written in the House version of the bill, but a spokesman said the senator does not think the House provision would in fact give the government such authority in deciding when and how people die. The House bill allows patients to decide for themselves if they would like such counseling.

Greg Sargent added:

Let's be clear: By clarifying that Grassley doesn't think the House bill would "give the government such authority in deciding when and how people die," his spokesperson completely repudiated his widely discussed claim. This goes much farther than Grassley did in a statement released Friday clarifying he'd never used the words "death panel" and was merely worried about "unintended consequences."

So, either Grassley made his claim about "grandma" to a crowd in his home state last week and didn't believe it; or he changed his mind since then.

Of the two choices, the prior seems far more likely. Indeed, it speaks to a larger truth -- the D.C. establishment considers Grassley a "moderate" precisely because of episodes like this one. The conservative Republican Iowan heads home and plays the role of far-right hack, while his spokesperson winks and nods, effectively telling the political establishment, "Don't worry; he didn't really mean it."

In this sense, there are two Chuck Grassleys. Alas, both are irresponsible and untrustworthy.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WHAT'S IN IT FOR THE WHITE HOUSE?.... As you may have noticed, there were more than a few signals from the administration yesterday that a public option as part of health care reform may be scuttled as part of the negotiating process. The White House made very little effort for most of the day to push back against the impression that a public option would be dropped, though by late in the day, there was some clarification that the president still supports a public option. His support, however, is not really at issue.

The NYT noted today, "For Mr. Obama, giving up on the public plan would have risks and rewards." I suppose so. There are, however, four groups of policymakers in the mix. If the administration is prepared to drop a public option, the four will have different reactions.

* Republicans: The GOP's principal complaint from the outset is that a public option amounts to a "government takeover of health care." That's absurd, but it was their lie and they were sticking to it. If there's no public option, Republicans obviously lose their favorite, and perhaps most effective, talking point. Does that mean the GOP will be more willing to support reform? No, it means they'll shift their complaints to something else. Why? Because the party doesn't support health care reform.

* Maine's Senate Delegation: Will Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins be more willing to support reform is there's no public option? It's possible, and if they're more willing, senators like Ben Nelson might be more inclined to go along.

* Centrist and Conservative Democrats: Will Nelson and his cohorts find reform more appealing now? Probably, but what are they willing to compromise on? Or, put another way, if Obama is willing to drop a public option, he's moving in their direction. Are they willing to perhaps move in his direction? If the answer is "no," then there's no real point in scuttling a public option in the first place.

* Progressive Democrats: As the process has unfolded this year, the public option went from being a liberal wish-list measure to becoming the liberal make-or-break measure. There's a real risk that the left will balk at the reform bill -- no matter what else is in it -- if there's no public option, and if liberals withhold their support, reform will die.

I suspect the phone lines in the West Wing and the congressional liaison office are going to be ringing quite a bit today.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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ORRIN HATCH, PAINFULLY CONFUSED.... It's frightening to think this guys was involved for months with the center-right negotiations in the Senate Finance Committee.

On ABC's "This Week" yesterday, Jake Tapper asked Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah a good question. Noting Sarah Palin's ridiculous "death panel" rhetoric, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) repudiation of the rhetoric, Tapper asked, "Senator Hatch, who's right, Governor Palin or Senator Murkowski?"

Hatch refused to answer the question, and instead launched into a truly absurd diatribe.

"[W]hat I do know is that the Democrats want a government plan, where the government will take over health care.... They want to move, according to the Lewin Group, up to 119 million people into Medicaid. If that happens, it would destroy the -- the health insurance programs throughout the country."

Asked about his own 2003 vote in support of a Medicare reform bill, which required a care management plan for a targeted beneficiary, Hatch again decided to ignore the question and launch into another absurd diatribe.

"[K]eep in mind, the Democrats want to have an IMAC. That's an Independent Medicare Advisory Council of five people appointed by the president who will determine what kind of health care you're going to have. And guess who they're going to have to ration? It's going to be senior citizens.... That's what this administration is suggesting. In all honesty, I don't want a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats setting health care for my -- for my aged citizens in Utah."

Now, Tapper, to his credit, pushed back on both of these points, noting, for example, that Lewin is owned by an insurance company. But let's flesh this out a little more, because Hatch's arguments reflect a man who either doesn't understand the basics of the reform debate or is spectacularly dishonest.

On the first point, Lewin simply didn't say what Hatch claims. Not even close. As Harold Pollack explained, on the very first page of the Lewin report in question, the authors "clearly indicate that this analysis is based on quite different provisions from what is proposed in the various Senate and House bills." For that matter, a public plan and Medicaid aren't the same thing, though Hatch said they are.

On the second point, members of an Independent Medicare Advisory Council (IMAC) will not determine "what kind of health care you're going to have." That's just crazy. The idea is to have a panel of physicians and medical experts who would have some added authority to help control what Medicare pays doctors and hospitals. The panel would ideally help lower costs more effectively than Congress. The idea originally came from conservatives, but has been embraced by the administration as part of a larger effort to save money and take political considerations out of the process.

IMAC wouldn't feature "a bunch of nameless, faceless bureaucrats" who would be "setting health care." Members of the council would be appointed by the White House, and confirmed by the Senate. They would be able to make recommendations, which the president could then approve or reject, and which Congress could override.

Hatch, in other words, despite having worked closely on this issue, doesn't have the foggiest idea what he's talking about. Either that, or he knows the truth, prefers to lie, and probably shouldn't be invited onto national television to repeat demonstrably false claims to the public.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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ARMEY'S STANDARDS, MEMORY LACKING.... On "Meet the Press" yesterday, David Gregory asked Dick Armey a reasonable question: "FreedomWorks, your advocacy organization is getting together a lot of folks, coordinating a lot of the efforts to get people out for the [health care] protests. Do you bear some responsibility for the tone of the debate?" Since some of Armey's buddies are now comparing the president to Hitler, it's a fair inquiry.

Armey said, "Not, not whatsoever." He immediately shared an unrelated, and patently false, anecdote: "[W]hen MoveOn.org ran those ads that compared President Bush with, with Adolf Hitler, I thought it was despicable." Rachel Maddow interjected, explaining that this never happened. Armey insisted it did, and seemed annoyed that Maddow wanted to include reality in the discussion.

As for the right-wing activists comparing health care reform to the Nazi Holocaust, Armey would only say, "There are always a lot of colorful people that show up with town hall meetings, a lot of people with a lot of colorful statements."

First, let's note the facts. Five years ago, MoveOn.org invited people to put together homemade television ads for the presidential campaign, and anyone could just post their idea to the group's site. Some unknown person put together an ad comparing Bush to Hitler, and put it on the MoveOn.org site without the group's knowledge. MoveOn pulled the submission. When Armey said MoveOn "ran those ads," he was lying.

Second, note the competing standards. If some anonymous liberal compares Bush to Hitler, Armey thinks it's "despicable." If Armey organizes far-right activists carrying placards comparing Obama to Hitler, he thinks they're "colorful."

And finally, now that it's obvious that Armey said things he knows are untrue on national television, any chance he'll be barred from returning? Will bookers conclude that Armey shouldn't be invited onto television news programs, since he's obviously willing to lie to the public? No, that's not how the game is played, which is why hacks like Armey feel comfortable lying in the first place -- there are no consequences.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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August 16, 2009

QUOTE OF THE DAY.... We haven't heard quite as much lately from center-right Blue Dog Democrats, but Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, the caucus leader on health care, spoke to CNN today about his take on the debate.

"I know that a lot of members of my party in the House don't want to hear this," said Ross, but "my guess is about 90 percent [of the final bill presented to the White House] will be reflected from what's in the Senate Finance Committee bill."

I see. Six centrists and conservatives from small rural states get together in secret to hammer out an agreement that ignores the majority's policy priorities. The negotiations include exactly zero of the Finance Committee's progressive members, but include one of the Senate's most conservative members and another Republican who doesn't want to admit negotiations are even happening. Why, with a Democratic president, and large Democratic majorities in both chambers, would the final bill reflect the wishes demands of these six? Because Mike Ross intends to help make it happen.

The Blue Dog added:

"I can tell you, I've laid down my set of principles, so I will not force government-run health care on anyone. If there ever is government-run health care, the first ones to sign up should be the president and every member of Congress, including myself. You should be able to keep the insurance you've got today, if you like it, and always choose your own doctor. No federal funding for illegal immigrants or for abortion, and no rationing of health care. I will never vote for a bill to kill old people, period." [emphasis added]

The leading Republican on health care walks around with Glenn Beck's book. The leading Blue Dog on health care tells a national television audience that he won't support a bill "to kill old people."

Their opinions will help guide whether we're able to reform the health care system.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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THE PENANCE HAS NOT BEEN PAID, PART II.... Yesterday, I published an email from Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations, about the Republican Party, to this day, to pretend it did nothing wrong over the last eight years. The media doesn't treat the GOP as if it's been discredited, Republicans don't take steps to correct their mistakes, and "those making the most outlandish charges are treated with deference and respect, while those that actually have credibility on the subject are treated as equals at best and often with deep skepticism."

The item generated some interesting discussion, here and elsewhere. Most notably, Atrios asked, "I'd be curious to hear what someone like Bartlett thinks about why the situation is as he describes."

Bruce responded to the question, and gave me permission to republish his thoughts on this:

"Like I said, I don't know why the media is so unwilling to exercise editorial judgment any more, but here are some thoughts.

"The expansion of television news from the traditional 30 minutes per night on just three networks to 24 hours a day on several cable channels. The talking head format fit nicely into segments between advertising breaks and it just caught on. But as time went by I think that knowledgeable, responsible commentators got tired of the format, decided it was a very poor way of getting their points across, and mostly stopped doing it. Also, scholars will tend to agree with each other too often to make good television. So they were replaced by political hacks who know that their only job is to get the talking points of the day across and do everything possible to discredit their opponent. This has led to a deterioration in discourse that benefits those most willing to be outrageous. At present this benefits the right because they are out of power and need not take responsibility for actions by the administration. But I don't think it inherently benefits the right. It's a cyclical thing.

"The rise of Fox News is very important. I do believe that from the 1950s through the 1990s there was a liberal bias in the media. Rupert Murdoch, to his credit, recognized that this created an opportunity for a network catering to conservatives. He was very clever about introducing it with the whole 'fair and balanced' thing, but now there is no balance at all. The Fox News channel is a pure conservative/Republican network that does not pretend to be anything else. Personally, I have no problem with that. The problem is that the rest of the media is no longer liberal. It has moved to the center across the board. This has created an imbalance that requires a Fox-like network that is as liberal as Fox is conservative. MSNBC seems to be trying to fill this role, but very half-heartedly for reasons I am unclear about.

"The rise of talk radio was the foundation. Rush Limbaugh deserves his millions and millions of dollars for figuring out that the abolition of the fairness doctrine created an opportunity for opinionated radio. And he was fortunate that at the moment he figured this out AM radio was dying. Its sound quality was poor and it couldn't compete with FM in broadcasting music. But it was perfect for talking. It also filled an important gap in terms of catering to conservatives who had long been ignored by the mainstream media. The problem is that people like Rush live in a cocoon where the only people they hear from are those who think they are gods. As time has gone by, these guys have gone from just representing their own opinions to representing the conservative movement to representing the Republican Party to thinking they actually speak for the American people as a whole. Power and vanity have led them to lose touch with reality

"The Internet completed the circle and provided for complete detachment of conservatives from the mainstream media. They could now get 100% of their news filtered through a conservative lens. They no longer had to confront any facts they deemed inconvenient or without a ready-made response that either refuted them or interpreted them in a way conservatives could rationalize. The result is that many conservatives live in a cocoon as well, completely insulated from any facts or opinions that are counter to their worldview. The left doesn't really have this. The reason I think gets back to liberal bias. Liberals have long been content with the mainstream media because it did largely reflect their values. It doesn't any more but liberals still treat the mainstream media as if it does. Thus as the mainstream media has declined, liberals have lost their primary sources of news and commentary and have not replaced them with those that are explicitly liberal in the same way that the right has created a fully-formed alternative media.

"Finally, the decline of the mainstream media because of the Internet and other economic forces has been critical to its loss of influence and standing. It no longer has the resources to pay reporters to look into things deeply and write about issues authoritatively. Reporters even at the best newspapers often seem like glorified bloggers who get their basic facts from the Internet instead of their own research, substitute speed for thoroughness and accuracy, and have no time to become experts on the subjects they cover because they are covering the waterfront. And since television news has always depended upon newspapers as their basic sources of material, the decline of newspaper reporting led inevitably to a decline in television reporting. All this has created a death spiral for the mainstream media that, as I said, liberals still largely depend on to represent their viewpoint.

"I don't think the genie can be put back in the bottle. The mainstream media will continue to decline and insofar as liberals depend upon it they will more and more lose out in competition with conservatives. I think they need to abandon the mainstream media and create their own alternative media just as conservatives have done. That will help redress the imbalance that now exists in the media which benefits conservatives."

I found most of this persuasive, though I disagree with the notion that there was a de facto liberal bias among major mainstream news outlets from the 1950s through the 1990s. The media's often ridiculous savaging of the Clinton presidency, I believe, proves otherwise.

But much of this is very compelling, most notably the rise of Fox News with no progressive counterpart. We talked earlier today about Rick Perlstein's "tree of crazy." Far-right conservatives of recent eras have been every bit as hysterical, irresponsible, and ridiculous as the one we see today, and as Rick noted, in recent generations, they were dismissed as "extremists" outside the American mainstream, and unworthy of serious thought.

Fox News, however, changes the game. If you're crazy, Fox News will have you on as a guest to spew nonsense. If you're really crazy, Fox News will give you a show of your own to spew nonsense all the time.

Nixon, after becoming Ike's vice president, said Republicans "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America" in the White House. Civil rights leaders were accused of being a Soviet plot. The Civil Rights Act was believed to be intended to "enslave" whites. A prominent right-wing radio host insisted that JFK was building a political prison in Alaska to detain critics of the administration. When FDR proposed Social Security, the conservatives of the era not only screamed about "socialism," but told the public Roosevelt would force Americans to wear dog tags.

These were all fringe, radical arguments at the time, and were ignored as insane by responsible journalists. No one in America would turn on the evening news or pick up the morning paper and read about pathetic right-wing conspiracy theories. If Fox News existed at the time, Sean Hannity would be doing special reports on each of these unhinged ideas, and Americans would be told that they were worthy of discussion.

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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WHERE THE CRAZY TREE BLOOMS.... The estimable Rick Perlstein has a terrific piece in the Washington Post today, providing some historical context for the right-wing rage we're seeing today. It's ugly and it's painful, but it's not new. Perlstein explained that the "crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy."

There are quite a few branches. Republicans of the 1950s described the FDR and Truman eras as "20 years of treason." Nixon, after becoming Ike's vice president, said Republicans "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America" in the White House. Civil rights leaders were accused of being a Soviet plot. The Civil Rights Act was believed to be intended to "enslave" whites.

A prominent right-wing radio host insisted that JFK was building a political prison in Alaska to detain critics of the administration. As the president noted yesterday, when FDR proposed Social Security, the conservatives of the era not only screamed about "socialism," but told the public Roosevelt would force Americans to wear dog tags.

So what's different?

Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers, getting inside the heads of editors and reporters, haunting them with the thought that maybe they are out-of-touch cosmopolitans and that their duty as tribunes of the people's voices means they should treat Obama's creation of "death panels" as just another justiciable political claim. If 1963 were 2009, the woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson would be getting time on cable news to explain herself. That, not the paranoia itself, makes our present moment uniquely disturbing.

It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to "debunk" claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president's program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn't adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of "conservative claims" to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as "extremist" -- out of bounds.

The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America's flora. Only now, it's being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills -- the one hysterics turned into the "death panel" canard -- is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of "complaints over the provision."

Good thing our leaders weren't so cowardly in 1964, or we would never have passed a civil rights bill -- because of complaints over the provisions in it that would enslave whites.


Steve Benen 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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