Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 30, 2009

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

* Indonesian earthquake kills 75.

* A massive tsunami hit Samoa and American Samoa, killing at least 119.

* We knew this was coming: "The Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposed rule Wednesday to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions from thousands of power plants and large industrial facilities."

* On a related note, cap-and-trade finally gets unveiled in the Senate.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has scrapped the Senate's Columbus Day recess, so the chamber can work on health care reform. Good move.

* Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) isn't convinced the public option is dead.

* Encouraging vote: "The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday rejected a Republican proposal to tighten restrictions on abortion under a bill to overhaul the health care system."

* Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) constituents want to see her break party ranks on health care.

* Roll Call reports that the White House is still working on a possible health care bill. Robert Gibbs knocks it down.

* Another possible compromise on a public option?

* The efforts aren't working: "The number of homes lost to foreclosures rose about 17 percent in the second quarter of this year despite the launch of an extensive government program aimed at helping borrowers save their home, according to government data released Wednesday."

* Second quarter GDP was readjusted in a positive direction -- it was down 0.7%, not 1%.

* An expedited withdrawal timeline for Iraq? Maybe.

* NIH gets $5 billion in grants. Good.

* Despite yesterday's setback(s), the White House is not abandoning the public option.

* Why is Reagan's national security adviser lobbying on behalf of Sudan?

* How college students' brains work.

* When Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) called the president "an enemy of humanity," he apparently only meant part of humanity.

* It's hard to believe how badly three Hyatt hotels in Boston treated their housekeepers.

* House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized President Obama today for traveling abroad to ask for an American Olympics in 2016. Boehner said Obama should focus his attention on "the problems we have here at home." Dems reminded Boehner he took a two-week trip abroad just last month.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE NEXT STEP IN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION.... Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, wrote a web exclusive for the Washington Monthly's College Guide section on affirmative action, income, and socioeconomic diversity.

Critics of class-based affirmative action have long argued that programs that use economic admissions criteria do not produce as much racial diversity as programs that use race instead. Schools like U.C. Berkeley, for example, saw a decline in black and Hispanic enrollment after the ban on race-based affirmative action was put in place. But the data show that economic affirmative action can produce a positive racial dividend. According to a 2004 Century Foundation study by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, among the most selective 146 institutions in the country, using race-based affirmative action produced student bodies whose combined black and Latino representation was 12 percent. If students were admitted strictly based on grades and test scores, the combined proportion would decline to 4 percent, Carnevale and Rose found. But using economic affirmative action, defined by parents' income, education, and occupation, and high school quality, produced a black and Latino representation of 10 percent. Research suggests using wealth (assets) as an admissions factor could boost the racial dividend further. Class-based affirmative action, in other words, does improve racial diversity, though not as much as using race per se.

Carnevale and Rose also found that at these selective 146 institutions -- the vast majority of which use race-based affirmative action -- low income students were very scarce. Fully 74 percent of students came from the richest socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile. Carnevale and Rose found that race-based affirmative action roughly tripled the representation of blacks and Hispanics, but that low income students received no leg up. Likewise, William Bowen -- a strong supporter of race-based affirmative action -- found that at 19 selective institutions, being black, Latino or Native American increased one's chances of being admitted by 28 percentage points, but coming from a low-income family didn't help at all.

It's an interesting piece. Take a look.

Steve Benen 5:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WHITE HOUSE FACT-CHECKS BECK.... Like a variety of far-right activists, Fox News' Glenn Beck is attacking President Obama for his efforts to bring the 2016 Olympics to the United States (specifically, the president's adopted hometown of Chicago). On his program yesterday, Beck and his cohorts made a series of ridiculous claims, all of which were false, and all of which the White House felt compelled to knock down in a "reality check" item this afternoon.

Beck claimed, for example:

"Vancouver lost, how much was it? They lost a billion dollars when they had the Olympics."

In reality, Vancouver's Olympics won't begin until next year. Beck is so far gone, he apparently doesn't know what year it is.

Beck's guest, Fox News contributor Pat Caddell, said:

"[Obama] is going to go [to Copenhagen] with Valerie Jarrett who was last seen with the NEA pumping up their use of, you know, money."

This is apparently a reference to an August United We Serve/NEA conference call -- which Jarrett was not on.

Caddell added:

"Chicago is closing the government several days a week because they cannot afford to be open. They are going to go and reward -- this is the biggest scandal."

In reality, Chicago, like many cities, has looked to cut costs, and has had exactly one reduced-service day this year. It will have two more later this year -- the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

Beck asked, "Is it possible that [Valerie Jarrett] is going to benefit if the Olympics come to Chicago?" Caddell responded, "Well, that's the word. She has certainly had a lot of dealings going on in real estate."

In reality, the White House explained, Jarrett "divested all her investment real estate holdings upon entering government except for a single real estate holding that she was unable to sell. This single real estate investment has been determined by White House Counsel and the independent Office of Government Ethics to present no conflict of interest in performing her duties as a White House advisor. It has nothing to do with the Olympic bid."

This obviously tells us more than the obvious (that Glenn Beck is comfortable with misleading his audience). The fact that the White House published the reality-check item suggests the administration is taking the effort to win the Olympics for the United States quite seriously -- the piece called it "a source of pride and unity for the country" -- and knows that Beck's nonsense is often taken seriously enough that it warrants correction.

Update: An alert reader emails that I may have missed the key phrase. At the very end of the White House item, it reads, "For even more Fox lies..."

In other words, the White House is not only accusing Glenn Beck of lying (which is warranted), it's also accusing the Republican cable news network of repeated and deliberate falsehoods (which is also warranted).

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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MORE THAN AN 'UNPAID BLOGGER'.... Following up on an earlier item, John L. Perry's role at NewsMax is proving hard to dismiss.

To briefly recap, NewsMax, a right-wing news website, published a piece by Perry, speculating about a military overthrow of the elected leadership of the United States government. His piece encouraged NewsMax readers not to "dismiss" the notion of an American military coup as "unrealistic."

Earlier today, NewsMax yanked the column from its site, and a representative distanced the outlet from the writer. Perry, a Newsmax spokesperson said, "has no official relationship with Newsmax other than as an unpaid blogger."

The whole truth is more interesting.

That's not quite the wording on his Newsmax biography. There, Perry is described as an "award-winning newspaper editor and writer" who "contributes a regular column to Newsmax.com."

He's also a former senior editor for the site, working in that role from late 1999 until October 2001.

Perry has written for the site regularly -- nearly every single week -- since November 1999. Newsmax was founded in 1998.

Just an "unpaid blogger"? I don't think so.

On a related note, Dave Weigel notes that NewsMax is sponsored in part by the Republican National Committee.

Given the RNC's financial support of WorldNetDaily, this isn't a huge shock, though it does point to the motley crew the Republican National Committee is willing to work with in order to connect with the right-wing base.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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TAKING A STAND AGAINST SUFFRAGE.... I tend not to expect much from National Review's John Derbyshire. The conservative writer/columnist more or less jumped the shark when he expressed contempt for the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting massacre. (As he saw it, those who feared for their lives should have tried to physically confront the armed madman.)

But it seems Derbyshire continues to push the boundaries of good taste. His new book apparently includes a section against women's suffrage, and Alan Colmes explored the matter on his radio show this morning.

The National Review writer initially said "women lean hard to the left," which isn't necessarily true, and certainly isn't a rationale for denying women the right to participate in democracy. So, Colmes pressed further. Faiz Shakir posted a transcript:

DERBYSHIRE: Among the hopes that I do not realistically nurse is the hope that female suffrage will be repealed. But I'll say this -- if it were to be, I wouldn't lose a minute's sleep.

COLMES: We'd be a better country if women didn't vote?

DERBYSHIRE: Probably. Don't you think so?

COLMES: No, I do not think so whatsoever.

DERBYSHIRE: Come on Alan. Come clean here [laughing].

COLMES: We would be a better country? John Derbyshire making the statement, we would be a better country if women did not vote.

DERBYSHIRE: Yeah, probably.

He added that the United States "got along like that for 130 years," and added that the Civil Rights Act may also lack value because you "shouldn't try to force people to be good."

Just so we're clear, a leading conservative writer at one of the premier conservative political outlets, argued publicly against a woman's right to vote and against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It's extraordinary. Generally, conservative media figures try to maintain the pretense of sanity in public. I'm afraid that's no longer the case.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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RHETORICAL HANDCUFFS.... The NYT piece this morning on yesterday's Senate Finance Committee debate on the public option includes plenty of quotes from Republicans on why they oppose the measure. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), for example, called a public plan "a Trojan horse for a single-payer system." Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said a public option would "ultimately force private insurers out of business."

Noam Scheiber raises a very good point -- the left pushes back against GOP falsehoods, but doesn't actually fear the dire Republican warnings.

If, like me, you support the public option, your first instinct is to dismiss this stuff as typical GOP fear-mongering. But then you think about it and you're kind of like: "Well, yeah, if we got a public option, I kind of would hope it eventually put private insurers out of business and led to a single-payer system." Don't get me wrong -- I'm a big fan of the free market. (Okay, a fan.) But it happens to be a complete disaster when it comes to health insurance, owing to problems like adverse selection. (Left to themselves, only unhealthy people would tend to buy insurance, which would drive up costs, which would cause the healthier among them to ditch their insurance, which would drive costs up higher, etc., etc.)

Now, as Jonathan Cohn points out in his latest piece, it turns out you can deal with these problems in a private insurance system. But, as his Dutch example also demonstrates, doing so is incredibly convoluted and requires a ton of intrusive regulation. So, yeah, the idea of creating a public option as a Trojan Horse to end private insurance sounds pretty damn appealing. And I suspect most public-option proponents feel the same way -- even if many of them, especially the ones in public office, can't actually say so.

I've found that this is common, and is not at all limited to the public option.

Republicans, for example, will say, "Democratic reform plans would allow public subsidies for abortion." Progressive reform advocates respond, "That's a complete distortion -- though public funding for women's reproductive choices isn't such a bad idea."

Republicans will say, "Democratic reform plans might let illegal immigrants participate in health care exchange." Progressive reform advocates respond, "That's entirely misleading -- though there's an entirely reasonable case to be made that everyone in the country should get coverage."

And in Scheiber's example, Republicans argue that a public option will put private insurers out of business. Progressive reform advocates respond, "That's obviously not true -- though single-payer doesn't sound so bad."

In other words, Dems are generally steering clear of contentious proposals; Republicans are manufacturing scary-but-false scenarios; and some of us have to push back against accusations relating to ideas we actually like. It's an awkward rhetorical situation.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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REMEMBER ABDUL TAWALA IBN ALI ALISHTARI?.... Long-time readers may recall a 2007 controversy in which a generous Republican donor faced federal terrorism charges, but the National Republican Congressional Committee wanted to keep his campaign contributions.

The suspect pleaded guilty yesterday, to a wide variety of ugly charges.

A New York businessman accused of trying to funnel money to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of terrorism financing and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Abdul Tawala Ibn Ali Alishtari entered his plea before a federal judge in Manhattan. He could face up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced.

Alishtari, 56, of suburban Ardsley, had been accused of accepting an unspecified amount of money to transfer $152,000 that he believed was being sent to Pakistan and Afghanistan to support the camp. Prosecutors say Alishtari, also known as Michael Mixon, believed the money would be used to buy night vision goggles and other equipment.

He also pleaded guilty to stealing millions of dollars from victims through his fraudulent operation of a loan investment program.

Alishtari has also been a generous Republican donor, contributing more than $15,000 in the '02 and '04 cycles to the National Republican Congressional Committee, and having been named to the National Republican Senatorial Committee's "Inner Circle Leadership Committee."

When Alishtari was first arrested in 2007, the NRSC decided to donate the total of Alishtari's contributions to charity. Good move. NRCC officials, meanwhile, acknowledged that they took money from an accused terrorist financier, but decided they wanted to keep the money. Even far-right bloggers said, at the time, that this was a very bad idea.

That was two years ago. Maybe now the House Republican campaign committee will dump the $15,000? Apparently, not quite yet. The AP report noted today that an NRCC spokesperson "has said the committee will donate the money to charity if Alishtari is convicted."

The guilty plea to terrorism charges isn't enough?

I wonder, if the situation was reversed, and Alishtari were a DCCC donor, whether this would be a bigger story. Something tells me Fox News might run a story or two about the Dems and their terrorist-financier friend.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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FRIEDMAN'S ADMONITION.... The New York Times' Tom Friedman is one of many noticing some unhealthy signs in our political discourse.

...I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left. But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin] assassination. [...]

Obama is now having his legitimacy attacked by a concerted campaign from the right fringe. They are using everything from smears that he is a closet "socialist" to calling him a "liar" in the middle of a joint session of Congress to fabricating doubts about his birth in America and whether he is even a citizen. And these attacks are not just coming from the fringe. Now they come from Lou Dobbs on CNN and from members of the House of Representatives.

Again, hack away at the man's policies and even his character all you want. I know politics is a tough business. But if we destroy the legitimacy of another president to lead or to pull the country together for what most Americans want most right now -- nation-building at home -- we are in serious trouble. We can't go 24 years without a legitimate president -- not without being swamped by the problems that we will end up postponing because we can't address them rationally.

Asked to comment on Friedman's concerns, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told CNN this morning that Friedman is a "nut job" and the column's arguments are "just crazy." Steele said Friedman and people like him are "saying, because you disagree with the president on policy, that all of the sudden we're going to make this leap into, you know, assassinations and all this other stuff."

Steele, in keeping with his general approach to politics, seemed to be blasting a column he had not read. Friedman did not criticize those who disagree with the president on policy; Friedman said the opposite. Twice.

This is not to say I agreed with all of Friedman's column. Bob Somerby, for example, raised some compelling points about the columnist's -- and his employer's -- record on some of these issues.

That said, I found Friedman's broader point to be an entirely convincing -- the right is playing with fire and doesn't care. The result is understandable fear that our political system cannot "seriously discuss serious issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of the national interest."

Steele thinks these fears make Friedman a "nut job." The response only helps prove the point.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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THE FAMILIARITY OF GRAYSON'S RHETORIC.... It seems freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) has sparked something of a controversy with a speech on the House floor last night.

Republicans are pouncing on a late-night House floor speech from Rep. Alan Grayson, during which the freshman Florida Democrat said the Republican health care plan calls for sick people to "die quickly."

"It's a very simple plan," Grayson said in the speech Tuesday night. "Don't get sick. That's what the Republicans have in mind. And if you get sick America, the Republican health care plan is this: die quickly."

The after-hours speech, which included prominent banners behind the congressman to reinforce his point, drew immediate calls from some Republicans for an apology.

"That is about the most mean-spirited partisan statement that I've ever heard made on this floor, and I, for one, don't appreciate it," Tennessee Republican Rep. Jimmy Duncan told the Politico.

Conservatives are up in arms; GOP offices are going after Grayson with a vengeance; and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is introducing a House resolution to condemn the Florida Democrat, who has quickly developed a reputation for shooting from the hip.

Igor Volsky had a good piece on the substance of Grayson's remarks: "No Republican wants Americans to die, but the party's efforts to stonewall meaningful health care reform perpetuate a status quo in which 45,000 Americans die every year because they lack health care coverage and thousands more see their policies canceled or denied by private insurers that are beholden to Wall Street's profit expectations and not patient health. Grayson intentionally over-stated his case. It's not that Republicans want to kill people; it's that their opposition to meaningful health care reform and their "free market" alternatives would further deregulate insurers and allow companies to continue pushing individuals into high deductible policies that don't provide adequate coverage and actually harm Americans who can't afford their medical bills."

As for the politics, isn't it a little late in the game for congressional Republican to feign outrage about death-related rhetoric? Ryan Grim noted this morning, "[C]harges that the opposition's health care plan will kill people have been about as common on the House floor lately as resolutions naming post offices."

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) said Dem plans would tell seniors to "drop dead." Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said Democratic plans for a public option would "kill people." Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said Dems' proposals might "put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government." Plenty of other House Republicans have made similar remarks, and not one of them has every apologized. House Democrats haven't even asked.

Grayson may have been deliberately provocative to highlight a larger point, but if "die quickly" is beyond the pale, the GOP should probably start lining up now, asking for forgiveness for months of dishonest fear-mongering.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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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.

* A new Quinnipiac poll in New Jersey finds a gubernatorial race that keeps getting more competitive. A month ago, Quinnipiac found Chris Christie (R) leading Gov. Jon Corzine (D) by 10. Now, Christie's lead is down to four: 43% to 39%. Independent Chris Daggett is third with 12%.

* Speaking of competitive gubernatorial races, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Bob McDonnell's (R) lead over Creigh Deeds (D) down to five points, 48% to 43%.

* In New Jersey, the DNC has a new ad, highlighting an instance in which Christie cut off a cancer survivor when he got impatient with her question.

* California Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) has, as a practical matter, been running for governor for most of the year, but yesterday he formally launched an exploratory committee.

* A new Rasmussen poll shows Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) struggling in her re-election bid, trailing all of her would-be Republican challengers in hypothetical match-ups.

* Given that nearly all of the candidates have low name recognition, the race is very likely to change dramatically in the coming months, but a new Quinnipiac poll shows state Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) as the leading gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania's 2010 race.

* And in Minnesota, former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) is doing his part to help Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) raise money for her re-election fight.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THE OFFICE OF THE ATTENDING PHYSICIAN.... From time to time, we're reminded of the fact that members of Congress -- many of whom are fighting to kill health care reform -- give themselves pretty good coverage. Several weeks ago, the LA Times reported on the taxpayer-subsidized insurance federal lawmakers currently enjoy.

The piece noted that, while most Americans have to go with whatever their employer offers, members have a choice of 10 plans that offer access to a national network of doctors. "Lawmakers also get special treatment at Washington's federal medical facilities and, for a few hundred dollars a month, access to their own pharmacy and doctors, nurses and medical technicians standing by in an office conveniently located between the House and Senate chambers," the article added.

ABC News explores this conveniently located facility in more detail today. It sounds like a pretty sweet deal for lawmakers.

This fall while members of Congress toil in the U.S. Capitol, working to decide how or even whether to reform the country's health care system, one floor below them an elaborate Navy medical clinic -- described by those who have seen it as something akin to a modern community hospital -- will be standing by, on-call and ready to provide Congress with some of the country's best and most efficient government-run health care.

Formally called the Office of the Attending Physician, the clinic -- and at least six satellite offices -- bills its mission as one of emergency preparedness and public health. Each day, it stands ready to handle medical emergencies, biological attacks and the occasional fainting tourist visiting Capitol Hill.

Officially, the office acknowledges these types of services, including providing physicals to Capitol police officers and offering flu shots to congressional staffers. But what is rarely discussed outside the halls of Congress is the office's other role -- providing a wealth of primary care medical services to senators, representatives and Supreme Court justices.

Through interviews with former employees and members of Congress, as well as extensive document searches, ABC News has learned new details about the services offered by the Office of Attending Physician to members of Congress over the past few years, from regular visits by a consulting chiropractor to on-site physical therapy.

"A member walked in and was generally walked right back into a physician's office. They get good care. They are not rushed. They are examined thoroughly," said Eduardo Balbona, an internist in Jacksonville, Fa., who worked as a staff physician in the OAP from 1993 to 1995.

The Office of the Attending Physician includes at least four Navy doctors as well as at least a dozen medical and X-ray technicians, nurses, and a pharmacist. When a specialist is brought in, members pay no additional costs.

Indeed, lawmakers receive top-notch, wait-free care, and money is largely no object. Members pay a flat annual fee of $503, and it covers all expenses -- without submitting claim forms to their insurer. Despite soaring costs throughout the health care system, prices have been largely stagnant in the Office of the Attending Physician for 17 years.

Some lawmakers didn't pay the fee and still took advantage of OAP services.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear a member of Congress complaining about the nightmares of government-run, taxpayer-subsidized health care.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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NIKE LATEST TO REJECT USCOC ON CLIMATE CHANGE.... Following up on an item from yesterday, it appears that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's conservative line on global warming isn't done alienating its one-time supporters.

Nike will relinquish its spot on the board of directors at the Chamber of Commerce to protest the business lobby's opposition to climate-change legislation.

"We believe that on the issue of climate change the Chamber has not represented the diversity of perspective held by the board of directors," the company says in a statement obtained by POLITICO. "Therefore, we have decided to resign our board of directors position."

Nike has long been a strong advocate for government action to combat global warming and has said it "fundamentally disagrees" with the Chamber's position on the climate bill. The company helped found Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy, a coalition of businesses supporting congressional action to address climate and energy legislation.

The move comes on the heels of Exelon, Pacific Gas and Electric, and PNM Resources all quitting the Chamber over the group's efforts to derail energy reform. Nike is withdrawing from the COC's board, but will remain with the association, with the stated intention of "advocating for climate change legislation" from within the Chamber.

Either way, it's additional evidence that the business community is hardly united on the subject of climate change, and the Chamber of Commerce's reflexive, conservative line, premised on the rejection of scientific evidence, is proving to be unacceptable in several corporate circles.

What's more, Amanda Terkel highlighted a strong editorial on this from the New York Times today: "The United States Chamber of Commerce's Web site says the group supports 'a comprehensive legislative solution' to global warming. Yet no organization in this country has done more to undermine such legislation..... [Responsible chamber members] see a carbon-constrained world coming and want to get out ahead of the curve -- not behind it like the chamber."

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

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THROWING MONEY AT PROGRAMS THAT DON'T WORK.... President Obama proposed eliminating federal funding for abstinence-only education, apparently because of the overwhelming evidence that the programs have failed spectacularly everywhere they've been tried. The White House wanted to redirect those funds to broader teen pregnancy-reduction programs.

If there are two things conservative lawmakers love most, it's cutting government spending and eliminating wasteful programs, right? Wrong.

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday night approved an amendment providing tens of millions of dollars to fund abstinence education programs for teens.

The proposal, offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would provide $50 million per year through 2014 exclusively for abstinence education programs. The measure would effectively reinstate the controversial Title V program, which offered $50 million per year to states for abstinence education, but prohibited them from tapping the funds for other sex-ed subjects like contraception. The same prohibition would accompany the Hatch amendment. [...]

The vote was 12 to 11, with Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) voting with every Republican to secure passage of the measure.

Hatch, defending the truly ridiculous government spending, said, "Abstinence education works."

That's true, if you live in a fantasy world in which reality has no meaning.

The facts have been stubborn on this. The nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that abstinence programs do not affect teenager sexual behavior. A congressionally-mandated study, which was not only comprehensive but also included long-term follow-up, found the exact same thing. Researchers keep conducting studies, and the results are always the same.

This isn't complicated. Simply telling teenagers not to have sex doesn't affect behavior, doesn't prevent unwanted pregnancies, and doesn't stop the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Teens who receive comprehensive lessons of sexual health, with reliable, accurate information, are more likely to engage in safer, more responsible behavior.

And yet, every Republican -- you know, the guys who want to cut government spending -- insisted on throwing another $50 million -- of our money -- at programs we know produce the opposite of the desired result. The measure would have failed, were it not for two conservative Democrats who decided to help them.

The provision may eventually be scrapped as the bill progresses, but that it passed at all is an embarrassment.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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INCITEMENT RHETORIC GETS EVEN MORE DANGEROUS.... Just eight months into a Democratic administration, Newsmax is running a piece speculating about a military overthrow of the elected leadership of the United States government. Seriously.

Newsmax columnist John L. Perry encourages his right-wing readers not to "dismiss" the notion of an American military coup as "unrealistic."

America isn't the Third World. If a military coup does occur here it will be civilized. That it has never happened doesn't mean it wont [sic]. Describing what may be afoot is not to advocate it....

Imagine a bloodless coup to restore and defend the Constitution through an interim administration that would do the serious business of governing and defending the nation. Skilled, military-trained, nation-builders would replace accountability-challenged, radical-left commissars. Having bonded with his twin teleprompters, the president would be detailed for ceremonial speech-making.

Military intervention is what Obama's exponentially accelerating agenda for "fundamental change" toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America. A coup is not an ideal option, but Obama's radical ideal is not acceptable or reversible.

In April, a common Republican talking point was the notion that Democrats were creating some kind of "banana republic." In retrospect, the irony is rich.

There is an unmistakable trend in right-wing rhetoric in the direction of extremism and violence. It's not at all healthy, and it's a sign of conservative contingents gone stark raving mad.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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RETIRED OFFICERS WEIGH IN ON GITMO.... At this point, the White House (and common sense) can use some help like this.

A group of retired senior military officers on Tuesday backed the Obama administration's troubled effort to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, saying that those who oppose transferring detainees to the United States for trial are engaging in fear-mongering.

At a forum on Capitol Hill, the retired generals and admirals argued that shuttering the facility in Cuba is in the strategic interest of the United States because it will destroy a potent propaganda and recruitment tool used by terrorists.

But, they said, the president's goal has nearly been overwhelmed by fear and misinformation.

The military officers are also opposed to indefinite detention, arguing that detainees should face charges.

John Hutson, a retired Navy rear admiral and former judge advocate general, told the Post, "We believe the people going to be prosecuted are not warriors. They are criminals and thugs.... We ought to be using the criminal justice system."

Noting the nonsense from lawmakers on the issue, Hutson added, "We're trying to encourage more responsible leadership on this issue. But some don't want to hear it. They seem more comfortable with the politics of fear."

Of particular interest, retired Brig. Gen. James Cullen, a former chief judge of the Army's Court of Criminal Appeals, said, "It's up to all of us to say these arguments advanced by Cheney and his acolytes are nonsense and that really what they're doing is undermining our national security by delaying the date at which Guantanamo is closed.... We take a setback every time somebody, whether it's the vice president or his daughter comes out and says the things that they say."

Thank you, Brig. Gen. Cullen, for saying what usually goes unsaid.

And in an especially helpful reminder for policymakers, retired Army Gen. David Maddox highlighted my favorite argument: we already have international terrorists in U.S. prisons on U.S. soil, making the complaints absurd. "[Critics of the administration's policy] say they don't want them in my city," Maddox said. "Have they checked who's there now?"

As a rule, it shouldn't necessarily matter whether sound policy proposals are endorsed by retired generals and admirals. When debating a strategy on the merits, it's best to avoid an Endorsement Contest -- judging the policy based on competing lists of supporters and opponents.

But in politics, this often matters, and offers "cover" to those inclined to waver. President Obama's missile-defense policy, for example, was bolstered by the unanimous judgment of the Defense Secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And when it comes to Gitmo, we have the arguments of the RNC, the Cheneys, and Fox News on one side, and the considered judgment of more than two dozen retired military officers on the other.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE NATURE OF 'COMPROMISE'.... Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) chatted with Chris Matthews yesterday on MSNBC's "Hardball," and they had an interesting discussion.

The host asked whether there is any possible scenario in which the Republican senator would support health care reform. Hatch said it's possible. Matthews added, "Well, suppose they drop the public option and put in tort reform. Would you sign on? Right on that trade, right there. Get rid of the public option and go to tort reform."

Hatch was non-committal, so the host pressed further: "Well, would you be on the bill? Would you be on the bill then, or is it just a stupid negotiation? Are the Democrats negotiating with themselves? If no Republicans will join, why should they compromise with nobody?"

At that point, Hatch offered a nonsensical answer about "state laboratories" and the notion that Democrats "think everything can be solved by spending." In other words, when pressed on why Democrats should even bother negotiating with the GOP, Hatch didn't have an answer.

The discussion then turned to abortion funding, and Hatch's efforts to add additional restrictions. After the senator explained what he wants to do, Matthews added, "Except you still won't vote for the bill."

Which is, of course, true. The Senate is considering a variety of Republican-led changes to a bill that Republicans intend to reject anyway.

In the same interview, around the same time Hatch said health care reform is wrong for the country unless it gets "at least 70 votes," the Republican senator argued, "I have to tell you, the Democratic party has gone very far to the left.... and to be honest with you, I don't know many moderate Democrats."

First, if Dems had gone "very far to the left," they'd be pushing single-payer, instead of a public-private competition. Second, if Hatch considers Sens. Nelson, Bayh, Landrieu, Carper, Pryor, Lincoln, Baucus, and Conrad to be liberal, his perspective is more than a little twisted.

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September 29, 2009

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

* Iran: "One day after it said it test-fired missiles capable of striking targets 1,250 miles from its soil, Iran said Tuesday that it would soon offer a timetable for international inspectors to visit a hitherto secret nuclear enrichment facility, but that it was not prepared to renounce its nuclear program or debate its 'rights' to operate the previously undeclared plant."

* The U.S. has a different idea: "The Obama administration is laying plans to cut Iran's economic links to the rest of the world if talks this week over the country's nuclear ambitions founder, according to officials and outside experts familiar with the plans."

* President Obama met with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen today at the White House to explore a new strategy in Afghanistan. Rasmussen agreed that it's less important to discuss troop levels, and more important to figure out what the mission should be.

* The administration has cleared 75 of the remaining 223 Guantanamo prisoners for release.

* If you missed some of the "fun" of today's Senate Finance Committee hearing, the NYT and Tim Noah did some good live-blogging.

* This year's White House "Family Day" proclamation honored children of "same-sex couples" for the first time.

* Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) will join House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) tomorrow at event to promote public funding of private schools in D.C.

* In case there were any doubts, interim Sen. Paul Kirk (D-Mass.) supports a public option.

* Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is taking the lead on repealing retroactive immunity for telecoms that worked with the Bush administration's warrantless-wiretap program.

* Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) doesn't understand foreign policy.

* A.L. sets Mickey Kaus straight.

* I guess Republicans don't want Chicago to get the Olympics?

* It's one thing for far-right activists to lie on national television. It's another when the network doesn't correct the record for viewers.

* I wish O'Reilly would leave Vermont alone.

* The Washington Post is holding some kind of contest to hire a new op-ed columnist. I don't think Matt Yglesias is going to get the job.

* And Rob Kutner, a writer at "The Tonight Show," put together a good new video on health care reform.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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SILVER LINING.... Developments this afternoon in the Senate Finance Committee were hardly ideal -- after extensive debate, two separate amendments on the public option were defeated.

And yet, about an hour ago, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) declared, "The public option is on the march." Wishful thinking? Maybe, but it's worth taking a moment to acknowledge that the news today, while discouraging, was not all bad.

For one thing, it seems pretty clear that the Senate Finance Committee will, in all likelihood, pass a health care reform bill, almost certainly this week. That tells us that once the Baucus bill is merged with the Senate HELP Committee bill, reform legislation will be headed to the Senate floor for the first time. The goal of getting the entire initiative finished by Thanksgiving is still entirely attainable.

For another, given today's vote(s), reform advocates have two more supporters for a public option. Going into today, The Washington Independent's Public Option Scoreboard featured 47 supporters of a public option, 39 opponents, and 14 senators who are "on the fence." Two of those 14 -- Bill Nelson (D) of Florida and Tom Carper (D) of Delaware -- voted for the Schumer amendment.

Adding two to 47 obviously doesn't produce a majority, but Tom Harkin seems to think some of the remaining stragglers are on board, too.

The Senate has the votes to pass a healthcare reform bill including a public option, a key Senate chairman said Tuesday.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said that the Senate "comfortably" has a majority of votes to pass the public plan, and that he believes Democrats can muster 60 votes to break a filibuster.

"I have polled senators, and the vast majority of Democrats -- maybe approaching 50 -- support a public option," Harkin said told the liberal "Bill Press Radio Show." "So why shouldn't we have a public option? We have the votes.

"I believe we'll have the 60 votes, now that we have the new senator from Massachusetts, to at least get it on the Senate floor," Harkin later added. "But once we cross that hurdle, we only need 51 votes for the public option. And I believe there are, comfortably, 51 votes for a public option."

Now all reformers have to do is convince every senator in the Democratic caucus to let the Senate vote on a reform bill.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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FINANCE COMMITTEE VOTES ON PUBLIC OPTION.... The long-awaited Senate Finance Committee votes on a public option are underway this afternoon. Let's take them one at a time.

The Rockefeller Amendment

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) proposed a robust public option, with funding tied to Medicare rates. The final vote was not close -- every Republican on the panel voted against it, as did Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Tom Carper (Del.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), and Bill Nelson (Fla.). Of those, Carper's opposition came as something of a surprise, as did Nelson's vote.

The final vote, then, was eight to 15.

The Schumer Amendment

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was certainly on board with Rockefeller's proposal, offered a different plan, generally called the "level playing field" approach to the public option, similar to what the Senate HELP Committee already passed. Under this proposal, instead of tying the public option's rates to Medicare, HHS would negotiate with providers, just as private insurers do.

It's a more modest approach to the public option, which, in theory, should be more appealing to less-progressive members. That vote is coming up shortly. I'll update this post soon.

The committee just voted, and defeated Schumer's measure, 10 to 13. Two Dems who voted against the Rockefeller Amendment -- Bill Nelson and Tom Carper -- switched to support this approach, but Baucus, Conrad, and Lincoln still voted with the GOP.

Baucus, the committee chairman, argued that he opposed the public option because it doesn't have enough votes to pass. I have no idea what that means -- it might have a better chance of passing if Baucus voted for it.

Conard said he opposed the public option because he prefers his still-undefined co-op idea, though he suggested the Schumer approach gets "much closer" to a bill that can get 60 votes.

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BACK TO BASICS.... Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) quoted Ezra Klein, out of context, this morning on the public option. It prompted Ezra to raise an observation that's been common for months, but which hasn't been repeated enough lately.

Let's call this a back-to-basics moment. What do advocates of a public option think will happen if it's included in the system? Eligible consumers will a) be able to choose a cheaper, Medicare-like alternative to private insurance; b) private insurers will offer better coverage as a result of competition; and c) both.

But that confidence rests on a very simple premise: The public sector does a better job providing health-care coverage than the private sector. If that proves untrue -- and I would imagine most every conservative would confidently assume that that's untrue -- the plan will fail. The public option will not provide better coverage at better prices, and so it will not be chosen, and it will languish. Indeed, if it languishes, it will lack customers and thus lack bargaining power and economies of scale, and get worse even as the private insurers get better. In that scenario, the public option not only fails, but it discredits single-payer entirely.

The liberals are willing to bet that they're right. It's not a sneaky strategy: It's an up-front wager. The conservatives are not, however, willing to bet that they're wrong. They're willing to say the public option will fail, but not give consumers the chance to decide that for themselves.

Exactly. One of the common criticisms from the right is that a public option would offer awful coverage -- government-imposed rationing, long wait times, bureaucrats making treatment decisions, etc. But here's the angle that often goes overlooked: if that were true, no one would pick the public option, private insurers would be thrilled, and conservatives would have nothing to worry about. If people are given a choice, no one would pick the nightmarish option.

Except, of course, conservatives don't really believe that, or at a minimum, they aren't willing to take the risk.

The public-private competition is something for the right to fear, precisely because they're confident the private insurers would lose in a straight-up, level-playing-field fight. With this in mind, the goal is to protect insurance companies, even if it costs more, even if the treatments aren't as good, even if consumers might prefer a better alternative.

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DEPRESSING DEBATE.... As advertised, the Senate Finance Committee has spent the morning and early afternoon debating heath care reform, and for the first time, getting into the details of a public option. The problem isn't that the debate is going poorly -- it's long been expected that the provision would fall short at this stage -- it's that the arguments against the public option have been ridiculous.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has been repeating Lewin Group data that was debunked months ago. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has argued that socialized medicine costs less, which is a bad thing. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ken.) called a public option a "major step toward universal health care coverage." He meant it as criticism.

This is not the debate you want to watch if you're looking to be inspired by the grandeur of the American political system in action.

But Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) was especially interesting when he said the status quo in the United States does quite well on medical treatment, as compared to other countries, just so long as we don't count those injured by guns or car accidents.

"Are you aware that if you take out gun accidents and auto accidents, that the United States actually is better than those other countries?" Ensign said. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) had been citing the health care systems of France, Germany, Japan and Canada as more effective, but with lower costs.

Conrad responded that one can bend statistics in all sorts of ways.

"But that doesn't have anything to do with health care. Auto accidents don't have anything to do with h--," Ensign said, cutting himself off. "I mean we're just a much more mobile society. ... We drive our cars a lot more, they do public transportation. So you have to compare health care system with health care system."

A few thoughts here. First, Ensign seemed to be making the case for gun control and expanded investment in public transportation. He actually opposes both.

Second, Ensign also said the U.S. does better than European countries on cancer survival rates. That's not true.

And third, unless Ensign has a plan to eliminate shootings and car accidents, I'm not sure what he hopes to prove with his observation.

Update: And fourth, in case it wasn't clear, Ensign's wrong on the substance. As Matt Yglesias noted, "What Ensign is saying here -- that gun accidents and car accidents fully account for the life expectancy gap between the US and other countries -- isn't true."

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HOW MANY ELECTIONS UNTIL THEY HAVE CONSEQUENCES?.... Following up on an earlier item, there was something else Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said yesterday that deserves some attention.

In talking to constituents yesterday, the conservative Democrat suggested reform could be done in two parts. The first would find cost savings in the system, and be completed this year. The second would extend coverage to the tens of millions of Americans with no insurance, and Congress could debate this some other time -- perhaps in 2011, after another round of elections.

Voters should be able to evaluate "what's been done and what remains to be done" before they go to the polls, Nelson said.

"Public debate can occur in the context of an election," he added.

Look, I realize Nelson isn't exactly a "team player" when it comes to his party's legislative agenda, but voters already went to the polls. There was already an election. It just happened, 10 months ago.

President Obama ran for the White House and his signature domestic policy initiative was health care reform. Voters approved -- he won the highest percentage of the popular vote of any candidate in 20 years, and the highest for a Democratic candidate in 44 years.

Likewise, Democrats ran on a party platform that called for "affordable, quality health care coverage for all Americans." The platform called this coverage "a basic right," and positioned health care reform as the centerpiece of the Democratic domestic agenda. Voters, in turn, gave the party huge majorities in both chambers.

Nelson, in seems, isn't convinced that constitutes an electoral mandate, and would prefer to wait until another election cycle goes by -- one in which Republicans are expected to make gains, undermining the chances of passing real reform.

These are the comments of someone who opposes health care reform. One can hope that Nelson was playing to the crowd, and is willing to be more constructive on the Hill, but at this point, I really wouldn't be surprised if Nelson, when push comes to shove, sided with Republicans on a filibuster.

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GOING OVER THE EDGE.... Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona has been moving fairly aggressively lately towards the edge of the right-wing cliff. By agreeing to appear at an extremist conference in St. Louis over the weekend, Franks further cemented his position as one of the caucus' most unhinged members.

But if there are any lingering doubts, consider the fact that the Arizona congressman labeled President Obama an "enemy of humanity" at the event.

"Obama's first act as president of any consequence, in the middle of a financial meltdown, was to send taxpayers' money overseas to pay for the killing of unborn children in other countries...there's almost nothing that you should be surprised at after that.

"We shouldn't be shocked that he does all these other insane things. A president that has lost his way that badly, that has no ability to see the image of God in these little fellow human beings, if he can't do that right, then he has no place in any station of government and we need to realize that he is an enemy of humanity."

Remember, he thinks the president is "insane."

At the same event, Franks said Obama "acts un-American," and "doesn't want people to see" his birth certificate.

Wow.

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MCCAUGHEY MANAGES TO LOOK EVEN WORSE.... And I here I thought former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey (R), whose propensity for misinformation is practically limitless, couldn't possibly appear any less credible. I stand corrected.

McCaughey, of course, has been a leading conservative opponent of health care reform in 2009, frequently straying from the truth (and reality) to trash Democratic proposals. She's also known for playing a similarly destructive role in 1994, when McCaughey positioned herself as "a scrupulous, impartial, independent scholar who, after leafing through the endless pages of the Clinton health proposals, had been shocked by what she found."

What we don't know until very recently is that McCaughey, when she wrote her infamous 1994 New Republic article that contributed to reform's defeat, she was working in secret with corporate interests who were lobbying against the Clinton plan.

Writing for Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson reports on documents obtained from a Philip Morris lobbyist

[W]hat has not been reported until now is that McCaughey's writing was influenced by Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, as part of a secret campaign to scuttle Clinton's health care reform. (The measure would have been funded by a huge increase in tobacco taxes.) In an internal company memo from March 1994, the tobacco giant detailed its strategy to derail Hillarycare through an alliance with conservative think tanks, front groups and media outlets. Integral to the company's strategy, the memo observed, was an effort to "work on the development of favorable pieces" with "friendly contacts in the media." The memo, prepared by a Philip Morris executive, mentions only one author by name:

"Worked off-the-record with Manhattan and writer Betsy McCaughey as part of the input to the three-part expose in The New Republic on what the Clinton plan means to you. The first part detailed specifics of the plan."

Media Matters added, "This latest disclosure, combined with a previously exposed conflict of interest, should destroy any remaining credibility she has with the media as an expert in health care reform acting in the public interest."

Indeed, it should. But will it? How soon until a major media outlet once again turns to McCaughey for "analysis" of health care policy?

Kevin Drum recently noted, "McCaughey is pure poison. She cares about nothing except making sure that no healthcare reform of any kind is ever adopted in the United States, and in that cause she's willing to say or do anything."

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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.

* With just five weeks until Election Day in Virginia's gubernatorial race, Creigh Deeds (D) has unveiled a new television ad, touting the support of Sen. Mark Warner (D). Warner, also a former governor, is easily the most popular political figure in the commonwealth.

* The special election in New York's 23rd got a little more interesting yesterday when the right-wing Club for Growth bypassed the moderate Republican candidate and threw its support to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. GOP leaders, who have backed Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava, are increasingly worried about the race.

* In Massachusetts, state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) is hosting a press conference today, pointing to the strong support her Senate campaign enjoys from a variety of women's groups and leaders.

* In California, the latest Rasmussen poll shows state Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) looking strong against all the likely Republican gubernatorial candidates. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) fares far less well, and trails the GOP hopefuls in hypothetical match-ups.

* Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is obviously moving towards a presidential campaign, but only 30% of his constituents want to see him run for the White House.

* And in Kentucky, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (D), a leading U.S. Senate candidate, has suffered a serious setback with the release of a profanity-laced recording. The tape, leaked yesterday, features Mongiardo trashing Gov. Steve Beshear (D), who endorsed him earlier this year. Mongiardo added that he's "close to saying f**k it all. I do not need this job. I do not need the U.S. Senate." Mongiardo is facing state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) in a competitive Democratic primary.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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THE ACORN CONNECTION THAT WASN'T.... A variety of conservatives are worked up this morning about a report from the American Spectator, which claims that White House political director Patrick Gaspard used to work for ACORN in New York. Right-wing blogs are aflutter with excitement.

Now, it's worth noting that if Gaspard had worked for ACORN, that wouldn't be evidence of anything nefarious or inappropriate. But as it turns out, the report itself is wrong. Ben Smith reports:

The Spectator (accurately) quotes ACORN founder Wade Rathke claiming that Gaspard was political director at the group's New York chapter at some point before 2003.

I covered New York politics at the time, and that was news to me; the also White House denies it. But just to be sure, I checked checked just now with Gaspard's former boss, whom he ultimately replaced as the political director of the giant New York SEIU local, 1199, Jennifer Cunningham. Cunningham confirmed to me that he'd worked for her starting in 1999; that he'd worked for a City Council member before that; and before that, for the Dinkins Administration.

The fact that Rathke got this wrong does provide more evidence of how totally decentralized and disorganized -- contrary to the claims of both fans and detractors -- the group is, but that's all it says.

The Spectator piece is a model of the sort of guilt-by-association Google work in which partisans of both sides specialize.

Pondering ACORN's non-existent role in staffing the Obama administration, the Spectator says it "boggles the mind." So does this right-wing brand of hatchet "journalism."

Of course, now that the New York Times and Washington Post are anxious to know what's generating buzz among conservatives online, here's hoping the nation's major dailies are paying close attention to the details here.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE.... Prominent Republican lawmakers spent much of the summer trying to move the goalposts on the kind of majority health care reform should get.

A simple majority (51 votes) isn't enough, because it would suggest plenty of Dems oppose the idea. A supermajority (60 votes) also isn't enough, because it would mean a "partisan" bill. A 61- or 62-vote majority doesn't count, either, because it would mean Dems only peeled off a couple of Republican votes. To be legitimate, GOP lawmakers said, reform needs all of the Dems and several Republican votes.

And now the Senate's most conservative Democrat is endorsing the Republican line.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) continues to be a scold to the liberals in his party. Before a crowd of over 200 gathered at a senior center in Nebraska, Nelson said health care reform ought to pass with 65 votes -- a feat which would require at least five Republicans to break with their party.

"I think anything less than that would challenge its legitimacy," he said.

Nelson didn't go so far as to say that he'd oppose a bill that had less than 64 other votes. But he did say he disagreed with the party's legislative approach to the issue.

Historically, legislation that enjoyed say, 57 votes in the Senate, reflected a pretty popular bill. But the political world has not yet come to grips with the unusually small Republican minority, so the expectations are skewed.

And that's what makes Nelson's public comments so foolish. By his logic, health care reform legislation isn't "legitimate" unless some opponents of health care reform vote for it. Nelson is deliberately creating an environment in which the biggest progressive policy achievement in a generation won't be impressive enough, because conservative Republicans didn't like it.

This is the same Ben Nelson who said yesterday that he wants to see the reform debate go even slower and see the public option get scrapped. Last week, Nelson also refused to commit to letting health care reform come for a vote on the Senate floor, holding out the possibility that he'll side with Republicans on a filibuster.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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COHEN'S PERSISTENT CONFUSION.... Richard Cohen's columns are getting increasingly difficult to read, and even more difficult to understand.

Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the president of the United States. As of yet, though, he does not act that way, appearing promiscuously on television and granting interviews like the presidential candidate he no longer is. The election has been held, but the campaign goes on and on. The candidate has yet to become commander in chief.

Take last week's Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh. There, the candidate-in-full commandeered the television networks and the leaders of Britain and France to give the Iranians a dramatic warning. Yet another of their secret nuclear facilities had been revealed and Obama, as anyone could see, was determined to do something about it -- just don't ask what.

As criticism goes, this is pretty odd. President Obama talking to television reporters about current events from the White House is, apparently, not "presidential." Why? Because Richard Cohen says so. The public disagrees -- recent polls show Americans entirely comfortable with the amount of time the president spends communicating through the media -- but that apparently doesn't matter.

But more important is the notion that Obama, standing alongside British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was also not presidential enough in publicly revealing the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear facility. The problem, as Cohen sees it, is that the Western leaders warned Iran, but were vague about potential consequences.

It's unclear why Cohen found this so offensive. Obama's goal was to give the U.S. leverage, and put Iran on the defensive, in advance of this week's talks in Geneva -- representatives of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Germany, and Iran will meet, and Obama, Brown, and Sarkozy added an increased "sense of urgency" to the discussions.

Indeed, President Obama seems to have played this very well. After achieving a victory on Thursday with the U.N. Security Council, his remarks on Friday had exactly the intended effect. Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said Obama "played Iran perfectly, to isolate Iran, unite all the other countries around him, with an open hand to Iran, and then he springs the trap." Even a Washington Times columnist noted, "Not only did the president look strong, he looked cunning."

So what is Cohen whining about?

The columnist added:

The trouble with Obama is that he gets into the moment and means what he says for that moment only. He meant what he said when he called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" -- and now is not necessarily so sure. He meant what he said about the public option in his health-care plan -- and then again maybe not. He would not prosecute CIA agents for getting rough with detainees -- and then again maybe he would.

Most tellingly, he gave Congress an August deadline for passage of health-care legislation -- "Now, if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town . . . " -- and then let it pass. It seemed not to occur to Obama that a deadline comes with a consequence -- meet it or else.

Obama lost credibility with his deadline-that-never-was, and now he threatens to lose some more with his posturing toward Iran.

When Obama called Afghanistan a "war of necessity," he was talking about the merits of launching the war, not with the value in sticking with an ineffective policy in the country. That's not a flip-flop or a lack of commitment; it reflects an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Obama has never wavered in his support for a public option. Obama's position on prosecuting torturers didn't shift at all, though the Justice Department had its own ideas.

Obama didn't "lose credibility" because Congress couldn't wrap up health care reform before August -- he gave lawmakers a target, which they missed. Nevertheless, the reform effort is further along than it's ever been, and that's due almost entirely to the president's efforts.

Cohen's entire piece sounds like he's trying too hard to complain about Obama for no particular reason. He wants Obama to "understand" he's the president and should act accordingly. I want Cohen to understand he's an influential media figure and should act accordingly, too.

Update: Tim Fernholz is thinking along the same lines.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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COMING SOON, TO A REMAINDER TABLE NEAR YOU.... Readers everywhere are burning with anticipation.

Sarah Palin's much-anticipated memoir now has a title and a new release date, two advisers to the former Alaska governor confirmed to CNN on Monday.

Palin's book will be called "Going Rogue: An American Life" -- a reference to the anonymous criticism directed at Palin by aides to Republican presidential nominee John McCain during the final days of last year's presidential race. [...]

The book's publisher, Harper, has ordered a substantial first printing of 1.5 million copies and moved up the release date to November 17 -- conveniently in time for the holiday shopping season. The memoir was originally slated for release in the spring of 2010.

Why was the release moved up? Apparently, Palin's book was completed faster than expected. The former governor's book deal was announced just four months ago, and the 400-page text is apparently already complete.

In January, when Palin first found a publishing agent, MSNBC's Chris Matthews raised a point that many are likely to wonder about: "The question is who, actually, will write the Palin book."

The answer, apparently, is Lynn Vincent, Palin's ghostwriter in San Diego, who has already signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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IN SEARCH OF THE GOP ALTERNATIVE.... Congressional Democrats have made an effort of late to point out the fact that congressional Republicans, despite their "guarantees," have not come up with their own health care plan. Indeed, it's been 104 days since the leadership promised to deliver one.

Yesterday, the Republican Study Committee tried once again to mount a defense.

[T]he Republican Study Committee has tossed this back on Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's lap [Monday], cutting and pasting the GOP alternative, HR 3400, which was introduced July 30. [...]

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the chairman of the RSC, says Hoyer is "making the certifiably false claim that Republicans have 'not only failed to produce legislation, but they have yet to offer any real solutions or ideas' for health care reform."

Here's a radical idea: maybe the RSC can pretend to be grown-ups about this?

Let's be clear. Have assorted groups of GOP lawmakers presented health care reform proposals? Sure. But when observers note there is no Republican alternative bill, we're talking about legislation embraced by the caucus and its leadership. Price and the Republican Study Committee surely know this, which makes their latest claims, to borrow a phrase, "certifiably false."

There are 177 House Republicans. At this point, 44 of them -- not quite one-fourth of the caucus -- have endorsed the RSC proposal. Of the 44, how many are part of the House Republican leadership? Zero.

"Last time I checked, the House Republican Conference does not have a proposal," Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Lundberg said. "When the RSC becomes the leadership of the Congressional Republicans, let us know."

What's more, there's a very good reason most of the House Republicans and all of their leaders have steered clear of the RSC plan: it's truly awful. The proposal is built around tort reform and ridiculously inadequate $5,000 tax credits. Democrats would love for this to be the House Republican plan, and use it as proof of just how little credibility the GOP has on the issue.

But it's not the House Republican plan because House Republicans don't have a plan. In mid-June, they "guaranteed" a bill of their own, but have failed to follow through. Tom Price's whining won't change this.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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USCOC LOSING FRIENDS FAST.... The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been one of the leading conservative opponents of climate change legislation, operating on the assumption that a looming environmental catastrophe isn't nearly as important as the short-term profit margins of some of its members.

It's a position that some Chamber of Commerce affiliates are no longer willing to accept.

Exelon, one of the country's largest utilities, said Monday that it would quit the United States Chamber of Commerce because of that group's stance on climate change. It was the latest in a string of companies to do so, perhaps a harbinger of how intense the fight over global warming legislation could become.

"The carbon-based free lunch is over," said John W. Rowe, Exelon's chief executive. "Breakthroughs on climate change and improving our society's energy efficiency are within reach."

A wave of departures from the chamber has been building for weeks. It was heralded Monday by some Congressional Democrats and environmentalists as a sign that the business community's opposition to global warming legislation is weakening. In their view, that improves the chances that a global warming bill that narrowly passed the House in June might also pass the Senate.

Last week, Pacific Gas and Electric and PNM Resources also quit the Chamber over the group's efforts to derail energy reform, but Exelon is an even bigger prize. "There will be significant vibrations from this," Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) said. "It's a bit of an earthquake."

One of the driving factors in the shift away from the Chamber is a recent announcement that the group wants a "Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" about the science of climate change. The remarks made clear that the Chamber of Commerce, even now, simply doesn't accept the scientific evidence.

It's important to note that Exelon, which sold many of its coal-fired plants in 2000, is the nation's biggest operator of nuclear power plants. It's hardly unreasonable to suspect the company's position on climate change legislation is motivated, at least in part, by business considerations.

But Exelon's move is nevertheless welcome, and comes at a fortuitous time for supporters of cap-and-trade legislation -- Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) intend to introduce a Senate version of the already-passed Waxman/Markey bill today.

A global climate crisis will invariably be bad for business. The more the business community acknowledges this fact, the more likely meaningful reform will pass.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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September 28, 2009

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

* Over the weekend, two suicide car bombs "killed 16 people and wounded about 150 others in separate attacks in northwestern Pakistan."

* More provocative steps from Iran: "Locked in a deepening dispute with the United States and its allies over its nuclear program, Iran said that its Revolutionary Guards test-fired missiles with sufficient range to strike Israel, parts of Europe and American bases in the Persian Gulf."

* While most Senate Democrats believe the health care reform debate is entering the home stretch, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) thinks it's just getting started. He also reiterated his opposition to a public option: "I don't see it happening."

* German Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed victory in her country's elections yesterday.

* President Obama will fly to Copenhagen at the end of the week to encourage the voting members of the International Olympic Committee to award Chicago the 2016 summer games. It's not unprecedented -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair went to Singapore to lobby in support of London winning the 2012 Olympics.

* An assassination survey on Facebook gets the Secret Service's attention.

* William Safire died yesterday at age 79.

* Jennifer Nix does a beautiful job explaining why she loves her socialist kidney.

* Last week, the Washington Post's Michael Gerson wrote another weak column. Soon after, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein respectfully noted some of the column's flaws. Apparently annoyed, Gerson wrote a cheap and insulting response. Spencer Ackerman weighed in with a defense of Ezra that I very much enjoyed.

* A leading executive of an Indiana-based insurance company sent a racist, anti-Obama email from his company account earlier this month. It has cost the insurer its account with the city of Bloomington.

* I wouldn't want to take a class taught by Peggy Noonan.

* A good item from David Broder on President Obama's national security team.

* Birthers are now running an infomercial in seven states.

* If Mike Huckabee's rhetoric is any indication, right-wing hatred for the United Nations remains strong.

* 50 helpful facts about health insurance reform.

* The right's interest in Bill Sparkman's death is taking some odd twists and turns.

* And finally, just in time for the holidays, it's the Michele Bachmann action figure. Seriously. (thanks to reader J.B. for the heads-up)

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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WHERE'S THE CONGRESSIONAL COUP CAUCUS NOW?.... In July, a variety of conservative Republican lawmakers were outraged by the official U.S. government opposition to the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Honduras. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) officially endorsed the military-backed coup, and a variety of House Republicans organized a "congressional coup caucus" in support of the new, unelected government.

Oddly enough, we're not hearing much from this GOP crowd anymore. I wonder why that is.

The de facto government that's in power in Honduras closed down television and radio stations Monday morning that are aligned with ousted President Manuel Zelaya. [...]

The moves by interim President Roberto Micheletti came hours after the government announced a decree suspending constitutional civil liberties, an attempt to keep supporters of Zelaya off the streets Monday.

When DeMint endorsed the coup, he heralded those responsible for ousting Zelaya as "guarantee[ing] freedom." House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ranking Member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) hosted a private meeting for her Republican colleagues to "discuss how the U.S. can now work to support the democratic institutions and rule of law in Honduras."

All of a sudden, these GOP lawmakers don't seem to be bashing the Obama administration's position anymore. Interesting.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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KELLER WEIGHS IN ON 'OPINION MEDIA' INTEREST.... Following up on an earlier item, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt lamented his paper's coverage of stories like ACORN and Van Jones. He spoke to Jill Abramson, the paper's managing editor for news, who agreed with Hoyt about the Times neglecting "the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio."

In his column on the subject, Hoyt reported that Abramson and NYT executive editor Bill Keller plan to "assign an editor to monitor opinion media and brief them frequently on bubbling controversies." In the larger context, this new editorial assignment seemed to be focused on the right -- the Times thinks it's missing stories important to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and is taking steps to keep apprised of right-wing interests.

It turns out, Hoyt's piece was incomplete. Greg Sargent talked to the NYT and found that it has something more ideologically diverse in mind. Through a spokesperson, Bill Keller said:

"We haven't assigned someone to be in charge of 'opinion media.' We've asked a colleague who happens to be a voracious consumer of online political buzz to help us (meaning me and Jill) informally, stay current with what issues are erupting, right and left. The responsibility for covering the subject still resides with the reporters on those beats, their editors, and ultimately me and Jill."

This seems a bit different than what Hoyt described yesterday. Indeed, Keller's comments make it seem as if someone who's already on staff, and who likes to keep up with online buzz, will let some of the leading editors know what's generating attention below the surface.

There's nothing especially wrong with this -- it might even be a good idea -- so long as the focus isn't exclusively on "the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio," the NYT doesn't consider something "news" just because Limbaugh is talking about it, and the paper is willing to help separate fact from fiction for its readers.

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FINEMAN REFLECTS ON OBAMA'S SENSE OF 'AURA'.... Newsweek's Howard Fineman criticizes President Obama in his latest column, but after reading all 766 words of it, I'm not entirely sure what it is Fineman is unhappy about.

It seems to have something to do with Fineman's desire to see less of the president on television and more bill-signing ceremonies. "He's a man with an endless, worthy to-do list ... but, as yet, no boxes checked 'done,'" the columnist argues.

That's not necessarily a ridiculous argument. Except the stimulus bill that prevented an economic collapse, the most progressive budget bill in a generation, banning torture, getting a Supreme Court nominee confirmed, lifting the ban on stem-cell research, expanding S-CHIP, passing a national service bill, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passing new regulations of the credit card industry, passing new regulation of the tobacco industry, and achieving some key counter-terrorism successes, President Obama hasn't been able to check many boxes "done" after just eight months in office.

But it's the way Fineman presents his case that's especially odd.

Obama can seem a mite too impressed with his own aura, as if his presence on the stage is the Answer. There is, at times, a self-referential (even self-reverential) tone in his big speeches. They are heavily salted with the words "I" and "my." (He used the former 11 times in the first few paragraphs of his address to the U.N. last week.) Obama is a historic figure, but that is the beginning, not the end, of the story.

I'm not sure what an "aura" is, and I haven't noticed the president expressing pride in his own.

More importantly, Eric Boehlert took a closer look at the U.N. speech that Fineman found annoying self-referential. The context for the words "I" and "my" make quite a difference.

I come before you humbled by the responsibility that the American people have placed upon me, mindful of the enormous challenges of our moment in history, and determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad. I have been in office for just nine months -- though some days it seems a lot longer. I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world. These expectations are not about me. Rather, they are rooted, I believe, in a discontent with a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by our differences, and outpaced by our problems.

Sounds to me like Obama was downplaying his personal significance, not touting the brilliance of his aura.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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RATIONING AND LONG WAIT TIMES.... In July, Bill Moyers sat down with Wendell Potter, a former executive at a major health insurance company, who's become a whistleblower, explaining the way the industry "put profits before patients" and is doing everything possible to block health care reform now.

Asked what prompted his change of heart, Potter said he visited a health care expedition in Wise, Virginia, in July 2007. "I just assumed that it would be, you know, like booths set up and people just getting their blood pressure checked and things like that," he said. "But what I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they'd erected tents, to care for people.... I've got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement. And I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care."

Potter added that families were there from "all over the region" because people had heard, "from word of mouth," about the possibility of being able to see a doctor without insurance. He asked himself, "What country am I in? It just didn't seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States."

If only the scene in Wise were somehow unusual. Zaid Jilani flags this story about families in Texas who attended what was described as the "largest free clinic ever held in the United States" to get care they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. Texas has the highest uninsured rates in the country -- it's been called an "epidemic" -- and more than 2,000 people showed up at a convention center in Houston for medical treatment.

"My foot was turned upside down," said patient Lillian Beverly. Beverly has had trouble walking since she took a bad fall three months ago. "I really don't have the money to keep going to doctors and doctors," she said.

Kevin Braggs is worried about his diabetes. "I've been without insurance for six months," said Braggs.

And Vicki Robinson wants to keep her son's asthma under control, but she says it's difficult. "My husband's lost his job. We've gone through our savings," said Robinson.

And nine-year-old Kempton knows it. "We can't afford medicine," he said.

I read this, and I think about the Wendell Potter quote: "What country am I in? It just didn't seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States."

One of the physicians who offered his services at the clinic added, "This is the largest health mobilization in Houston since Katrina. So a national disaster which brought out this kind of response is now paralleled by a national disaster, because this is just an average day in Houston, and there are thousands of people who need help."

It is, in other words, the norm. Thousands go without the care they need, and it's "just an average day."

We saw a similar scene in August near Los Angeles where thousands sought services, and hundreds of people were turned away. Families in need of assistance slept outside an arena, hoping for the chance to see a physician.

Remember, in some conservative circles, there's still a belief that health care reform isn't necessary. Last month, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) even boasted, "There are no Americans who don't have healthcare. Everybody in this country has access to healthcare."

I'd love to see Virginia Foxx head down to Houston, so she can deliver the message to those who attended the free clinic. While she's there, Foxx can let them know that health care reform might lead to "rationing" and "long wait times."

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE 'CHAMPIONS' OF MEDICARE.... It's hard to pick the single most frustrating aspect of the debate over health care reform, but listening to Republican officials and lawmakers pretend to care about Medicare has to be right up there.

After years of trying to cut Medicare spending, Republican lawmakers have emerged as champions of the program, accusing Democrats of trying to steal from the elderly to cover the cost of health reform.

It's a lonely battle. The hospital associations, AARP and other powerful interest groups that usually howl over Medicare cuts have also switched sides. [...]

With the Finance Committee set to resume deliberations Tuesday, cuts to government health programs are expected to account for at least half the funding for its health-care reform package. A competing bill drafted by House leaders would cut spending even more sharply.

AARP and other groups say the cuts are small enough to be absorbed without affecting services, and many health policy analysts tend to agree.

Tim Fernholz added, "If the GOP in Congress prioritized the substance of their beliefs, they would be all for curbing rising prices -- cutting spending is supposedly their raison d'etre.... A Republican in Congress who actually cared about spending but opposed health care reform on other principles would support these cuts, but not the whole bill. Instead, they are trying to scare seniors with false claims about benefit cuts (for example) and gain political traction with the issue, throwing their historical search for entitlement control to the winds of political expediency."

Right. It gets back to the "power vs. policy" argument -- for congressional Republicans, the goal isn't to pursue policy goals, it's to defeat Democrats.

The Medicare rhetoric is especially shameless. Most Republican lawmakers opposed the creation of Medicare; GOP lawmakers pushed for Medicare cuts in the '80s and '90s; and as recently as last year, the McCain/Palin platform called for significant cuts to the popular program. Some prominent GOP lawmakers continue to think Medicare is unconstitutional.

This year, 137 Republicans -- more than three-fourths of the caucus -- voted in support of a GOP alternative budget plan that called for "replacing the traditional Medicare program with subsidies to help retirees enroll in private health care plans." In other words, the same congressional Republicans trying to scare seniors now voted in April for a plan that would have killed Medicare as we know it, privatizing it out of existence.

"Emerged as champions of the program"? I don't think so.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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THE WRONG KIND OF OLYMPIC EXCITEMENT.... It seems the story of the day on conservative blogs deals with a Fox affiliate in Chicago, which ran a feature on some locals who don't want the city to host the 2016 summer Olympic games. Given their excitement, it's probably worth taking a moment to knock the "story" down.

Drudge is apparently responsible for getting the right all worked up. The site has a banner headline: "Fox-TV Chicago ordered not to run anti-Olympics story."

A local TV station that reported on Chicagoans NOT wanting the Olympics has been told NOT to run the report again, insiders tell the DRUDGE REPORT! The Chicago Olympic Committee told FOX Chicago that its broadcast 'would harm Chicago's chances' to be awarded the games. The station's news director ordered staff to hold fire after the report aired once last Thursday morning, claims a source.

As Alex Koppelman noted, "A report like this, exclusive or not, wouldn't normally merit prime placement on Drudge's site. But with Obama's involvement, it becomes a banner headline, because the newsman's implication is clear: The media's being told to back off from a story that could hurt the president, and because the press is in the White House's pocket, they're complying. Conservative bloggers are, of course, picking up the story and running with it in that direction."

Malkin got in on the fun this morning, telling readers, "Drudge reports that WFLD-TV has been ordered not to broadcast an anti-Olympics segment again."

Notice, right off the bat, the passive voice throughout all of this. The affiliate was "has been ordered." The station "has been told." Who's doing the ordering and the telling?

It's vague for a reason -- reality, in this case, isn't especially interesting. Last Thursday, the Fox affiliate in Chicago aired a 60-second report on some locals who don't want the Olympics. Officials at the Chicago Olympic Committee said the report might undermine the city's chances of winning the games -- those who award the games want host cities to actually welcome the Olympics. Public relations people discourage local news outlets like this all the time.

And based on Drudge's "report," the Fox affiliate apparently found the concerns compelling. The report already aired, but the station doesn't intend to re-run it.

That's it. That's the whole story. No heavy-handed government interference; no censorship; no evidence of political pressure. It's the lead story on Memeorandum this afternoon because ... well, I'm still not sure why.

It's a good thing the Washington Post and New York Times will be paying closer attention to the stories far-right blogs care about most. They might have missed this gem.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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STATE NULLIFICATION, STILL NOT AN OPTION.... If/when health care reform becomes law, there will still be plenty of hurdles before the changes are fully implemented. One of the problems will be conservative state lawmakers who think they can override federal law at the state level.

This isn't exactly the same as the Tenthers' "nullification" agenda -- effectively secession-lite -- which argues that all federal laws are necessarily unconstitutional. Rather, this is a related nullification effort, which focuses on individual mandates.

In more than a dozen statehouses across the country, a small but growing group of lawmakers are pressing for state constitutional amendments that would outlaw a crucial element of the health care plans under discussion in Washington: the requirement that everyone buy insurance or pay a penalty.

Approval of the measures, the lawmakers suggest, would set off a legal battle over the rights of states versus the reach of federal power -- an issue that is, for some, central to the current health care debate but also one that has tentacles stretching into a broad range of other matters, including education and drug policy.

Opponents of the measures and some constitutional scholars say the proposals are mostly symbolic, intended to send a message of political protest, and have little chance of succeeding in court over the long run. But they acknowledge the measures could create legal collisions that would be both costly and cause delays to health care changes, and could be a rallying point for opponents in the increasingly tense debate.

This has come up in 14 states, with varying degrees of progress. Proposals have been presented in 10 states, some of which have already rejected the idea of overriding federal law. Four more are poised to follow suit, with Arizona, where an amendment will be on the statewide ballot next year, the furthest along.

Some conservative lawyers think they have a shot at allowing states to block health care reform. They don't. Timothy Stoltzfus Jost, a health law expert at Washington & Lee University School of Law, told the NYT, "States can no more nullify a federal law like this than they could nullify the civil rights laws by adopting constitutional amendments."

Wake Forest law professor Mark Hall, who has studied the constitutionality of mandates that people buy health insurance, added, "There is no way this challenge will succeed in court."

But conservatives are excited about it anyway, and should reform become a reality, these efforts will likely keep some annoyed Justice Department attorneys busy for a while.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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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.

* Bob McDonnell, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, was pressed by Chris Wallace yesterday on the controversy surrounding his 1989 thesis. Wallace asked if the right-wing wish-list represented "a pretty radical agenda." McDonnell replied, "No."

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) isn't sure what kind of support he might receive from the White House next year, but he said on "Meet the Press" yesterday, "I'm running for governor."

* While most recent polls show Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D) looking fairly strong in his re-election bid next year, the latest Rasmussen poll shows him trailing former Rep. John Kasich (R) by one, 46% to 45%.

* The latest poll in Michigan's GOP gubernatorial primary shows state Attorney General Mike Cox with an early edge over his Republican challengers. On the other hand, Ann Arbor investor Rick Snyder (R) won a straw poll at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference over the weekend.

* Sen. John McCain (R) is going to seek re-election next year, and the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows him leading his potential Democratic challengers by wide margins.

* Conservative columnist George Will offered some hearty support to Marco Rubio's far-right Senate campaign in Florida over the weekend, despite the Republican establishment's backing of Gov. Charlie Crist (R). Will specifically complained about Crist's support for the economic recovery package and concerns over global warming.

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

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PUBLIC OPTION WATCH.... On Saturday, the New York Times ran a piece suggesting the public option in health care reform remains viable. In light of Republican obstinacy in the face of Democratic concessions, polls showing support for the measure, and the Democratic caucus reaching 60 votes, the landscape for ambitious, progressive reform looked more encouraging than it did just a few weeks ago.

Just two days later, the New York Times has another piece, this one suggesting the public option will inevitably be scuttled by the Senate.

Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, said the task of merging the two bills [Senate Finance Committee and Senate HELP Committee] would be "very challenging." Democrats are also mindful of the disaster that befell them in 1994 after the majority leader, George J. Mitchell of Maine, failed to pull together competing health care proposals.

To appeal to Ms. Snowe, as well as to centrist Democrats like Senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, the combined bill would not include a proposal for a government-run insurance plan, or public option, despite the clamoring of liberals who support it, senior Democratic Senate aides said.

The NYT didn't identify the "senior Democratic Senate aides," who they work for, or even how many of them agreed with the expectation. But, presumably, the Times knows the difference between those credible aides with inside knowledge of party strategy and those who don't.

The point of the article, by the way, is to highlight the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will "lean heavily on President Obama" in the coming weeks to "arbitrate a number of contentious issues that still threaten to divide liberal and centrist Democrats and derail a final bill."

If I had to guess, I'd say the push for a public option, if it happens, will have to come from the White House, not the Senate leadership.

Update: Greg Sargent talks to Reid's office, which denies that the Majority Leader is nixing the public option, and "strongly disputed the story."

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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ASKING FOR VOTES WITHOUT HAVING VOTED.... Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman launched a Republican gubernatorial campaign last week, and immediately ran into a problem. Chris Cillizza reports:

...Whitman's spotty record as a voter -- she was never registered before 2002, according to reporting by the Sacramento Bee -- has become a major issue as she seeks the Republican nomination for governor of California in 2010.

"This news is disqualifying to a candidate for governor, her campaign knows it, and they are on the defensive," concluded Jarrod Agen, communications director for California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner who is challenging Whitman for the GOP nod. Poizner's campaign has also released a 30-second video slamming Whitman for her missed votes; "Whitman didn't vote for one president, congressman, senator or governor," says the ad's narrator. "She didn't skip some votes, as she claimed, she skipped every one -- for 28 years."

Whitman, who told the Bee that she had been registered before 2002 and challenged reporters to "go find it," exacerbating what was already a very tenuous situation for her candidacy. "It is a big deal and her handling of it is making it worse," said one California Republican who is not affiliated with a candidate.

It's an embarrassing aspect of a candidate's background if he/she didn't take public affairs and civic duties seriously enough to vote. But is it "disqualifying"? Voters, obviously, will make that judgment, but it seems a little over the top.

Plenty of statewide candidates -- Jon Corzine, John Edwards, Bill Frist -- have overcome sparse voting records to win big elections. I wouldn't be surprised if voters weren't especially judgmental on the issue, since most of the country doesn't vote in every election, either.

On the other hand, Whitman's situation seems slightly worse than most. She didn't even register until 2002 -- when she was 46 years old -- and when asked recently about this, she insisted she was registered.

Is this the kind of thing that voters are likely to hold against her? I'm not sure, so I thought I'd open it up for a little discussion.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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TAKING THE WRONG MARCHING ORDERS (AGAIN).... A week ago, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander questioned whether enough attention is being paid to what conservative activists, Fox News, and right-wing talk radio consider important. He lamented the fact that his paper, while offering extensive coverage of important current events, neglected to invest energy into ACORN and Van Jones.

Yesterday, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt followed suit, expressing regret for the paper's coverage of -- you guessed it -- ACORN and Van Jones.

Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, agreed with me that the paper was "slow off the mark," and blamed "insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio." She and Bill Keller, the executive editor, said last week that they would now assign an editor to monitor opinion media and brief them frequently on bubbling controversies. Keller declined to identify the editor, saying he wanted to spare that person "a bombardment of e-mails and excoriation in the blogosphere."

In the larger context, the NYT's hereafter monitoring of "opinion media" seems to be focused on the right. Indeed, the stated goal is to take more of an interest in the "issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio," not Daily Kos and Air America.

What's more, the paper's interest is apparently expanding. Jamison Foser noted, "A few years ago, the New York Times created a conservative beat -- a reporter assigned full-time to reporting on the conservative movement (the paper didn't bother assigning anyone to cover the progressive movement.) Now, in response to right-wing whining, they're assigning an editor to brief them regularly on Glenn Beck's latest ravings. I'm sure that will make for some excellent journalism."

Josh Marshall also raised a good point about the larger context: "You may have seen that there's a new meme afoot in the news world which has it that the mainstream media either ignores or is insufficiently 'in touch' with the right wing noise machine of Fox, Drudge, Glenn Beck, etc. What's notable however is that the idea seems to be emanating from the folks at Politico whose founders' theory of the media is that its narratives are largely defined by Matt Drudge and who used Drudge as the key vector to build their national audience. I'm not sure how these two facts compute."

They don't.

Two other points to consider here. First, part of responsible journalism is separating fact from fiction, identifying which stories have genuine value, and which don't. Allowing Fox News and talk radio to become assignment editors for major, legitimate news organizations is backwards -- the vast majority of the time they're pursuing obvious nonsense.

Remember the politicized car dealership story? How about the "muzzled" EPA economist? Or the not-so-scandalous DHS report about potentially violent extremists? Or the outrage that President Obama encouraged children to do well in school? Or the unhinged apoplexy about birth certificates and death panels? Right-wing activists always have something to throw a fit over; that doesn't make it news and it certainly doesn't make it true. I'd like to think the boys who cried wolf would get less attention, not more.

Second, the NYT can assign an entire floor to do nothing but monitor what Limbaugh and Beck find important, and it won't stop conservatives from complaining about the Times. Foser reminds us, "These efforts to bend over backwards to appease the Right -- people who will never be appeased -- no matter how ridiculous their complaints, in which newspapers like the Times fret over the suspicion of bias regardless of the merits of the complaint, are exactly how the paper ends up handing a presidential election to George W. Bush -- and then handing him his Iraq war on a platter."

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

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TAX THE RICH.... A new 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll was released late yesterday, with a variety of quirky questions. CBS News described the poll as intended to be "topical, fun, amusing, illuminating and most importantly, interesting." Some of the queries were more compelling than others.

One result, however, stood out as politically relevant.

If the Obama administration proposed a tax of 50 percent or higher on the incomes of the very wealthiest millionaires, would you support it, or not?

A 51% majority endorsed the significantly higher rate, 45% did not.

Of course, the Obama administration intends to return the top rate to 39.6% -- the pre-Bush rate -- which is obviously nowhere close to the 50% (or higher) rate a whole lot of Americans seem to be comfortable with.

By the way, for most of Reagan's presidency, the top rate was 50%. As I recall, society functioned, people resisted the urge to "go Galt," and according to conservatives, the economy thrived.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THERE THEY GO AGAIN.... Having tired of the old fear-mongering regarding health care reform, the Washington Times' far-right editorial board has come up with a new line of attack.

In an editorial that ran over the weekend, the Times argues that the Baucus bill under consideration would punish physicians who use expensive medical treatments effectively. The editorial board insists that a doctors would have an incentive to "provide less care for his patients for fear of having his payments docked." The conservative paper added that physicians will be pressured to "withhold care, and withhold care again, and then withhold it some more."

The headline on the piece read, "Death Panels By Proxy."

Karen Tumulty wasn't impressed.

My question: Has anyone at the Washington Times actually talked to a doctor lately? Under the current system, lots and lots of people are showing up at physicians' offices with no insurance at all. And do you know what these medical heroes are doing? By and large, they are treating them anyway. Doctors I have spoken to tell me that it is not at all unusual for them to be writing off 10%, or 20% or even more of the care they give because their patients simply can't afford to pay their bills.

So now, the Washington Times would like us to believe that these very same doctors will suddenly start cutting their patients off, sending them out to die, simply to earn a little more money.

Yes, this provision is designed to encourage doctors to think a little more about what kind of treatment is most effective, and to cut back on the waste and overtreatment that experts say account for 30 cents out of every dollar that is spent on medical care in this country. But to call these "death panels by proxy" is simply fear-mongering.

What's more, the Times is wrong when it suggests the Finance Committee bill puts no focus on quality. In fact, it gives doctors incentives they don't have now, especially in the management of the chronic illnesses that have been such a factor in driving up health costs.... [It's] not as sexy as "death panels by proxy." But it does have the virtue of actually being true.

Given how the trajectory usually goes, the Times' argument will be a big topic of discussion today on Fox News and talk radio. Keep Tumulty's pushback in mind.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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FAMILIAR RHETORIC FROM FAMILIAR SOURCES.... Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) stopped short of calling for U.S. military intervention in Iran on "Meet the Press" yesterday, but by the time he insisted that "just the carrot approach does not work with these people," Kyl's rhetoric was sounding pretty familiar.

"[A]t a certain point talking is counterproductive rather than productive, because time it not on our side," the Republican Whip said. "All the Iranians need is time to develop their nuclear weaponry and, and their missiles. And as a result of that, at some point you have to say that the talk has to stop and solid action in the form of sanctions or some other way of stopping them is necessary.... I mean, what we're trying to do here eventually is to get a regime change with a group of people in there that are more representative of the Iranian people, who we really can talk with in a way that might end up with a good result."

On "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) used similar language: "We have to have strong sanctions, economic sanctions that can force either a regime change or the Ayatollahs to change their policy."

Ben Frumin noted, "For those keeping score at home, that's now no fewer than two Republican senators who called today for regime change in Iran."

In fairness, neither conservative senator specifically endorsed attacking Iran immediately, but phrases likes "regime change" and "time it not on our side" offer pretty big hints as to what Republican lawmakers have in mind.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a more reasoned approach on CNN yesterday morning.

"The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time," Gates said. "The estimates are one to three years or so. And the only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened.

"And so I think, as I say, while you don't take options off the table, I think there's still room left for diplomacy."

Gates said "a variety of options" remained available, including sanctions on banking and equipment and technology for Iran's oil and gas industry.

Here's hoping GOP lawmakers were listening.

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

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September 27, 2009

OUR POLITICS MUST SEEM STRANGE ABROAD.... Jake Tapper has this report from the president's CBC speech in Washington last night.

President Obama at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner last night, discussing false claims made about the health care reform bill, told a little anecdote.

"I was up at the G20 -- just a little aside -- I was up at the G20, and some of you saw those big flags and all the world leaders come in and Michelle and I are shaking hands with them," the president said. "One of the leaders -- I won't mention who it was -- he comes up to me. We take the picture, we go behind.

"He says, 'Barack, explain to me this health care debate.'

"He says, 'We don't understand it. You're trying to make sure everybody has health care and they're putting a Hitler mustache on you -- I don't -- that doesn't make sense to me. Explain that to me.'"

I haven't seen the whole text of the speech, so I'm not sure if the president talked about what he told the foreign leader in response to his question.

That's a shame, because it doesn't make sense to me, either.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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B. CLINTON ON THE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE.... Former President Clinton was on "Meet the Press" this morning, and David Gregory asked about the "vast, right-wing conspiracy" and whether it still exists, pursuing President Obama.

"Oh, you bet. Sure it is," Clinton said. "It's not as strong as it was because America has changed demographically. But it's as virulent as it was."

He added, "You know, it's like when they accused me of murder, and all that stuff they did. But it's not really good for the Republicans and the country, what's going on now. I mean, they may be hurting President Obama. They can take his numbers down. They can run his opposition up. But, fundamentally, he and his team have a positive agenda for America. Their agenda seems to be wanting him to fail. And that's not a prescription for a good America."

Sounds right to me. The "VRWC" talk was, to my mind, mocked unnecessarily. The phrase, when Hillary Clinton used it, always struck me as unambiguously true -- there was a network of conservative Republicans that invested time, energy, and resources into destroying the Clinton presidency. Similarly, there are scores of Republicans who wake up every morning with the same goal: undermining the Obama White House and its allies.

As for the midterm elections, Gregory asked Clinton whether he worries about a repeat of 1994. "There's no way they can make it that bad -- for several reasons," the former president replied. "Number one, the country is more diverse and more interested in positive action. Number two, they've seen this movie before, because they had eight years under President Bush when the Republicans finally had the whole government, and they know the results were bad. And number three, the Democrats haven't taken on the gun lobby like I did, and they took 15 of our members out.... [W]hatever happens, it'll be manageable for the president."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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ANOTHER EDITION OF 'HE'S NOT BUSH'.... Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appointed by George W. Bush, kept around by Barack Obama, offered some interesting praise for his boss this morning.

"He is very analytical," Gates told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King. "He is very deliberate about the way he goes through things. He wants to understand everything. He delves very deeply into these issues."

Gates, who previously worked for 27 years in the CIA under six presidents, was the first defense secretary to be asked to remain in office by a newly-elected president when Obama kept him on.

The Pentagon chief was diplomatic when comparing Obama to other former occupants of the Oval Office.

"I'm not going to get into comparing the different presidents, Gates said. "I very much enjoy working for this one."

In the same interview, however, Gates noted that things have changed with the shift in administrations. "I will tell you, I think that the strategy [President Obama] put forward in late March, is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s," the Pentagon chief said.

I'm reluctant to read too much into the comment, but it certainly seems as if Gates was arguing that Bush waged a war in Afghanistan for seven years without putting together a "real" strategy for U.S. policy in the country.

And I certainly don't recall Gates ever describing Bush as "very analytical," "very deliberate," with a desire "to understand everything" in depth.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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WHEN INARTICULATENESS PAYS OFF.... I have no way of knowing if every anecdote from Matt Latimer's "Speechless" is accurate. For that matter, it's certainly possible that some are true and some are less true.

But Eric Zimmermann highlighted a story that that certainly seems plausible. It's about a speech in which then-President George W. Bush decided to endorse a cap-and-trade policy in a high-profile speech, but no one could figure out exactly what he meant.

Connaughton, Bolten and others wanted the president to give a climate change speech. They thought that it would make our allies in Europe happy, and they were constantly pushing the president to the left on the issue. The small but merry band of conservatives in the White House -- who were suspicious of climate change and the movement behind it -- were opposed to any shift in our policy. They were adamantly against any speech supporting a cap-and-trade policy -- a mandate on business to curb their CO2 emissions.

At one point, the words cap and trade were put into the climate change speech, with the president expressing his support for the policy. Then somehow this leaked to the conservative press. Republicans on the outside of the White House sent furious objections, and the words were removed. But only those words. The rest of the speech endorsing that policy remained. After days and days of postponements and fights, the president finally gave the speech. Conservatives in the West Wing were deflated by their loss in the policy battle.

And then something miraculous happened. Because the speech had been so parsed and litigated, no one could quite understand what the president was saying. The press therefore assumed nothing had really changed. So the next day the media reported that the president had in fact come out against cap and trade. A White House spokesman even said that the words cap and trade had never been included in any drafts of the speech, which was flat-out false. The president marveled at his good fortune. He'd changed his policy to please one side, but since he seemed not to have changed a thing, he'd also pleased the other. Indecipherable speechwriting at its finest. [emphasis added throughout]

Again, I haven't seen independent confirmation of this, and I'm not even sure exactly what speech is at issue here. But this doesn't seem especially hard to believe.

For that matter, the notion that a conservative Republican president could come around to embracing a cap-and-trade proposal is a reminder that the right need not throw a fit about this. On the right, it's entirely too common to ignore evidence of global warming altogether, but for those willing to concede the need to limit emissions, cap and trade is a market-based mechanism, which has worked in the past, as compared to command-and-control directives.

Hell, even McCain and Palin offered at least tacit support for some kind of cap-and-trade mechanism last year.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THE CHANGING NATURE OF THE TERRORIST THREAT.... The Guardian had a report a couple of weeks ago on al Qaeda "finding it difficult to attract recruits or carry out spectacular operations in western countries." Counter-terrorism officials said the terrorist network "faced a crisis that was severely affecting its ability to find, inspire and train willing fighters."

The New York Times had a related report today, which explored the issue in more depth, but reached a similar conclusion: "[I]n important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline."

Emile Nakhleh, who headed the CIA's strategic analysis program on political Islam until 2006, noted that al Qaeda is "finding it harder to recruit" and "harder to raise money." Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National War College in Washington, added, "I think Al Qaeda is in the process of imploding. This is not necessarily the end. But the trends are in a good direction."

What's producing these encouraging results?

[S]ome government officials do take quiet, if wary, satisfaction in two developments that they say underlie the broad belief that Al Qaeda is on a downhill slope. One is the success of military Special Operations units, the C.I.A. and allies in killing prominent terrorists.

Three days apart in mid-September, American special forces in Somalia firing from helicopters killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a leader of a Somalian organization, Al Shabab, which is allied with Al Qaeda, and the police in Indonesia killed the most-wanted terrorist in Southeast Asia, Noordin Muhammad Top, in an assault on a house in Java.

In Pakistan, missile strikes from C.I.A. drone aircraft have taken a steady toll on Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies since the Bush administration accelerated these attacks last year, a policy reinforced by President Obama. A count of such strikes, compiled by the Center for American Progress in Washington, found a handful in 2006 and 2007, rising rapidly to 36 in 2008, and another 36 so far in 2009, nearly all in Pakistan's tribal areas.

In addition to thinning the ranks of potential plotters, the constant threat of attack from the air makes it far harder for terrorists to move, communicate, and plan, counterterrorism officials say. And while the officials say they worry about a public backlash in response to the civilians killed during the air attacks, those officials also say the strikes may be frightening away potential recruits for terrorism.

The second trend is older and probably more critical. The celebration in many Muslim countries that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has given way to broad disillusionment with mass killing and the ideology behind it, according to a number of polls.

Between 2002 and 2009, the view that suicide bombings are "often or sometimes justified" has declined, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, from 43 percent to 12 percent in Jordan; from 26 percent to 13 percent in Indonesia; and from 33 percent to 5 percent in Pakistan (excluding some sparsely populated, embattled areas). Positive ratings for Osama bin Laden have fallen by half or more in most of the countries Pew polled.

On that latter point, it seems many in the Middle East who may have initially been sympathetic to al Qaeda soon discovered the group had very little to offer in the way of practical solutions to everyday problems. And as terrorist attacks began killing civilians in counties like Jordan, regional support plummeted and al Qaeda appeared discredited. The "movement's pronounced decline has continued apace in recent years.

This is not to say the threat is gone, or will vanish soon. On the contrary, the Obama administration made some key arrests this week, apprehending those who allegedly intended to do considerable harm. It doesn't take a vast terrorist network to launch a devastating attack -- as the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995 helped demonstrate -- and copycat terrorism will remain a danger.

That said, the larger, global trends and counter-terrorism successes in the United States are heartening, to put it mildly.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE BLURRED LINES.... If you missed it, the National Review's Michael Ledeen had a rather remarkable item the other day, which speaks to a larger truth.

Is Obama Naive? I don't think so. I think that he rather likes tyrants and dislikes America. I think he'd like to be more powerful, I think he is trying to get control over as much of our lives as he can, so that he can put an end to the annoying tumult of our public life. As when he said (about health care) to the Congress, "Okay, you've talked enough, now it's time to do the right thing (my thing)." And he's trying to end American power in the outside world. He's saying "I'm going to stop us, before we kill again."

There is nothing unusual about elitist hatred of freedom. Back in the 18th century, when book publishing really got going, British authors were infuriated that they had to submit to the judgment of a marketplace. They didn't want to be judged by people who were obviously inferior to them, and there was a great rage among the intelligentsia, including some very famous men. And in modern times, we can all name famous intellectuals who fawned all over Mussolini, Stalin, Fidel, and even Hitler.

American politics are very fractious, and always have been. Leaders are constantly frustrated, and some of them come to yearn for an end to our freedom. They think they know best, they just want to tell us what to do and have us shut up and do it. I think Obama is one of them.

National Review's Andy McCarthy enthusiastically endorsed the argument, noting the president's "personal terrorist pals like Bill Ayers."

I'd like to think it goes without saying, but for the record, Ledeen's (and McCarthy's) observation is strikingly dumb. It's almost a parody of unhinged conservative apoplexy -- the president "likes tyrants," "dislikes America," "hates freedom," and wants to be an authoritarian tyrant. This is Glenn Beck-like derangement under the banner of National Review.

And that was the angle that stood out for me reading Ledeen's nonsense. To be sure, National Review's record of conservatism has at times been humiliating -- it's staunch opposition to civil rights, for example -- but in time, the magazine tried to position itself as a source of serious political commentary.

Now it's paying Michael Ledeen and Andy McCarthy.

The larger trend is hard to miss. Over the last couple of decades, the line between the GOP establishment/leadership and the unhinged GOP base has become blurred. At the same time, the line between the analysis offered by "serious" and "respectable" conservative voices and the unbalanced tirades put forward by the nutty conservative fringe has all but disappeared.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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'THE CONCERN-ADDRESSING STAGE'.... We rarely see or hear about the White House's aggressive lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill to secure support for health care reform, which makes this behind-the-scenes NYT report pretty interesting. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported, "After months of cutting deals and stroking drug makers, hospitals and doctors, the president's aides are laying the groundwork for a final round of Congressional arm-twisting, with Mr. Obama increasingly in a hands-on role."

Dan Pfeiffer, the White House deputy communications director, told her, "We are at the concern-addressing stage.... This is a political and policy challenge of epic proportions, and it takes a lot of effort and attention to achieve it."

Whether the operation the West Wing has put in place is effective remains to be seen, but it's nevertheless impressive. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel oversees two working groups: Nancy-Ann DeParle's policy group and Jim Messina's political group. Both spend their time "trying to learn who has problems with the legislation, what those problems are and what it will take to win each member's vote."

Everyone in the White House -- and the cabinet -- is levering every possible contact. When a lawmaker raises a concern about reform in a media interview, he or she gets a prompt response. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) expressed concerns about the effects of Medicaid expansion on her state's budget, DeParle showed up at the senator's home, charts in hand, for a three-hour chat.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who's been personally lobbied by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, told the Times that President Obama "is leaving no stone unturned."

That's largely true, though some stones are apparently being ignored.

Republicans who have been most outspoken about their opposition to the White House say they have been left out of the outreach effort, and some are irked. "The strategy seems to be like a shooting gallery at the state fair; if you hit one target, you win the prize," said Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Republican conference.

Alexander was referring to Maine's Olympia Snowe, though it's worth noting that Maine's other senator, Susan Collins, has also received considerable attention from the White House.

But these details aside, it seems awfully foolish for conservative GOP lawmakers to complain that the White House isn't reaching out to them. Why would Obama's team bother? Or more to the point, when has the White House's outreach to the Republican caucus ever produced positive results?

Congressional Republicans have spent months trashing reform through an often-vile misinformation campaign. Their goal is to defeat this effort by any means necessary.

That the president's team has decided not to bother talking to them reflects an encouraging level of common sense.

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

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September 26, 2009

WHY THE PUBLIC OPTION ISN'T DEAD.... This NYT piece is ostensibly about Democratic divisions over the details of health care reform -- headline: "For Democrats, Cracks in a United Front" -- which isn't especially interesting. The article, however, actually raises some interesting angles.

Most notable is the new-found optimism on the left about the prospects for a more ambitious reform bill. It's largely a foregone conclusion that the Senate Finance Committee will wrap up this upcoming week, approving a bill that generates no (or almost no) GOP support, but fails to meet liberals' expectations. But as the legislation moves to the floor, progressive lawmakers and their allies "expect to be able to shape the final product more than they had hoped just weeks ago."

What's changed? Having the caucus return to 60 members doesn't hurt, but the NYT's Jackie Calmes point to two other angles.

One is the failure of Senator Max Baucus of Montana, a more conservative Democrat who heads the Finance Committee, to get any Republicans to support his draft legislation, after months of trying. That doomed President Obama's goal of bipartisan backing for a health care overhaul, and now leaves party liberals arguing for a distinctly Democratic health plan.

"One of the strongest arguments against a public option has been that the Republicans will never go for it," [Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)] said. "Well, the Baucus bill doesn't have a public option, and they're still not for it in any way, with the possible exception of Olympia Snowe," a moderate Republican senator from Maine, who has not ruled out supporting the overhaul that Mr. Obama is seeking.

The second development that has encouraged liberals is recent polling, including some done for The New York Times and CBS News in the last week, that gives Democrats a clear edge over Republicans as the party favored to deal with health care issues. The same polls show significant support for a public option despite months of criticism from Republicans, who describe it as a government takeover of health insurance.

Congressional Democrats of all stripes have become more upbeat since returning to work after the August recess.... The sense that something will become law has only strengthened the resolve of liberals, inside the Congress and out, to fight with intensity as Democrats write the legislation this fall.

Like Greg Sargent, I found that Schumer quote of particular interest. Max Baucus bent over backwards to offer Republicans an insurance-industry-friendly bill, filled with concessions and ideas that Republicans had already embraced. Every single GOP senator balked anyway. I'd hoped it was obvious beforehand, but this apparently sent quite a signal to the Democratic caucus -- there's no point in watering down the bill to get bipartisan support if the minority is going to slap their hand away anyway.

I'm also glad to see the polls are having an effect, as they should. We're talking about a provision that would save taxpayers money, lower the costs of reform, and enjoys strong support from the public -- including Republicans. After months of constant whining about the perils of a "government takeover," the public option enjoys broad approval across the country.

That's not to say this is going to be easy going forward; just the opposite is true. But the landscape looks more favorable than it did as recently as a few weeks ago.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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KIMBERLY YOUNG.... What a very sad story.

Kimberly Young of Oxford, Ohio, died Wednesday morning a few days short of her 23rd birthday. Hospital officials have said she appeared to have the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu.

But here's why Young's death is news beyond her southwest Ohio community: people who knew her are saying she resisted treatment that could have saved her life -- because she didn't have health insurance.

And adding to the political resonance: Young's member of Congress is Rep. John Boehner, who as the House Republican leader has led the effort against reform.

Young, a previously healthy 2008 graduate of Miami University of Ohio who lived in Oxford, was diagnosed with swine flu and pneumonia. A few days later, her roommate's mother told a local news channel, she went to an urgent care center. But as her condition continued to worsen, she was reluctant to go to Oxford's McCullough-Hyde Hospital to get proper treatment.

A friend of Young's said, "That's the most tragic part about it. If she had insurance, she would have gone to the doctor."

Her roommate's mother said Young worked several jobs, none of which offered insurance. She eventually went to a public hospital's emergency room after showing signs of kidney failure and dehydration. In critical condition, she was soon after transferred to another facility, where she died.

Now, it's worth emphasizing that Young's illness may have been fatal whether she had insurance or not. Young's friends' observations have not yet been substantiated, and we don't know with certainty that Young did not seek medical treatment because of her lack of insurance.

But at this point, that's what it looks like. And as awful as Young's death is, her circumstances are hardly unique. Victor Zapanta added, "According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 30 percent of 19-24 year olds are uninsured, more than any other group. Despite the conservative argument that young people are voluntarily refusing health coverage in favor of extra spending money, the reality is that high costs on the individual market put coverage out of reach. As Suzy Khimm notes at Campus Progress, young people 'are far more likely to be working part-time or lower-paying jobs for employers who don't offer coverage.'"

Zachary Roth concluded, "[I]f Young's lack of insurance did contribute to her not seeking treatment sooner, it would be hard to find a starker or more compelling example of the need to fix our broken health insurance system. And the fact that she was a constituent of the man who's leading House Republicans' in their effort to block reform only underlines the point."

In every modern democracy on the planet, those who get sick don't have to put off treatment because they lack coverage. It's time the United States join them.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is an interesting trend in American religiosity -- or in this case, the lack thereof. U.S. News' Dan Gilgoff reported this week on the growing numbers of a group some call the "nones."

If current trends continue, a quarter of Americans are likely to claim "no religion" in 20 years, according to a survey out today by Trinity College. Americans who identify with no religious tradition currently comprise 15 percent of the country, representing the fastest growing segment of the national religious landscape.

While the numbers portend a dramatic change for the American religious scene -- "religious nones" accounted for just 8 percent of the population in 1990 -- the United States is not poised to adopt the anti-religious posture of much of secularized Europe.

That's because American religious nones tend to be religious skeptics as opposed to outright atheists. Fewer than 10 percent of those identifying with no religious tradition call themselves atheists or hold atheistic beliefs, according to the new study.

"American nones are kind of agnostic and deistic, so it's a very American kind of skepticism," says Barry Kosmin, director of Trinity's Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. "It's a kind of religious indifference that's not hostile to religion the way they are in France. Franklin and Jefferson would have recognized these people."

I tend to think "nones" won't stick as a label -- if for no other reason, it sounds like "nuns" -- but the trend is rather dramatic. And the impact on American politics is likely to be significant if we reach a point at which, in just one generation, a fourth of the U.S. population does not identify with any faith tradition.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Turnout at the "Islam on Capitol Hill" event was modest, with about 3,000 attendees. Some Christian protestors shouted at those praying, but the gathering was largely without incident and was considered a succcess by organizers.. "We wanted to bring people out to show you don't need to fear America," said Imam Ali Jaaber of Dar-ul-Islam mosque in Elizabeth N.J., the service's main organizer. At the same time, he said, he wanted to remind non-Muslims that "we are decent Muslims. We work; we pay taxes. We are Muslims who truly love this country."

* Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia chatted with the Brooklyn-based Orthodox Jewish newspaper Hamodia this week, and reiterated his opposition to the principle of government neutrality on religion. The conservative jurist said he believes the government should prefer religion to non-religion, state neutrality on religious matters, he said, "is not an accurate representation of what Americans believe." Scalia added, "I am not sure how Orthodox Jews feel about the Establishment Clause, but I assume they do not like driving God out of public life."

How would government staying neutral on matters of faith "drive God out of public life"? Scalia didn't say.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THE COMPANY THEY KEEP.... From time to time, if Democratic Party leaders/officials appear at a progressive event, there will be pushback from the right. Democratic VIPs, the argument goes, shouldn't associate themselves with the likes of MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, or Yearly Kos.

It's amusing, of course, because the left's agenda tends to be pretty mainstream, and there's no reason for Dems to keep the progressive base at arm's length. But it also raises a related point: it's exceedingly difficult for a conservative to be too crazy for the Republican Party.

Take the big right-wing gathering St. Louis today, for example.

For weeks now, we have been posting on the How To Take Back America Conference and the utter insanity that has long plagued the hosts of the conference, wondering why on earth Republican leaders like Mike Huckabee or Reps. Michele Bachmann, Steve King, Tom Price, Tom McClintock and Trent Franks are inexcusably lending credibility to this event and to its organizers.

To put this upcoming conference into perspective, let us put it this way: If you thought last week's Values Voter Summit -- where speakers called for public abortions, claimed that pornography turns you gay, proclaimed that gays and liberal Christians are enemies of God who deserve to be struck down, and announced that they had been chosen by God to stand for truth and suffer the consequences - was crazy ... well, you ain't seen nothing yet.

And so we have pulled together our years of monitoring of the people and organizations behind the upcoming How To Take Back America Conference and put it all together in our latest Right Wing Watch In Focus, entitled "Why Are GOP Officials Embracing Extremists at Upcoming 'How to Take Back America' Conference?"

Why, indeed. The radicals running the How To Take Back America Conference are so nutty, you'd think GOP lawmakers and leaders would want nothing to do with them.

Take Janet Folger Porter, for example, who's helping run the event. Porter, a leading right-wing activist and talk-show host, believes the United States is "cursed" for having elected President Obama, who took office as the result of a communist conspiracy. She's told her audience that the H1N1 flu vaccine is really a nefarious plot by the government to kill millions of Americans, and that the Obama administration is creating internment camps for conservatives.

Porter is just one of the truly unhinged conservatives who helped make this weekend's event a reality, along with other nutty activists like Phyllis Schlafly, Joseph Farah, Mat Staver, and Rick Scarborough.

Are Republicans keeping their distance? Some are, some aren't. Four sitting Republican members of Congress -- Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Steve King (Iowa), Tom Price (Ga.), and Tom McClintock (Calif.) -- will be addressing the conference today. Former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) will headline the event this evening.

And no one seems to think much of it. There's an odd expectation that Republican officials will hang out with obviously insane right-wing activists, so it's not at all controversial for members of Congress to show up at an event like this one. Indeed, it's entirely ignored by the media because it seems so routine.

The How To Take Back America Conference doesn't have a liberal equivalent, but I suspect if radicals on the left threw a shindig like this one, and four Democratic members of Congress and a Democratic presidential candidate showed up, it'd generate a little more interest.


***Rep. Bachman's name has been corrected. --Mod

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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CANTOR'S PREDICAMENT.... Just five days ago, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told a group of constituents that his caucus agrees with 80% of the Democrats' health care reform plans. Four days later, however, he returned to the old, standard talking points.

[L]et's reset the health care debate and start from scratch. I believe this would help Washington regain the public's trust and would produce real and substantive health care reform. It would be foolhardy for the majority to continue to sidestep this important obligation.

Remember, Cantor is supposed to be one of the sharper minds in the Republican caucus.

That said, the befuddled Minority Whip is in a tough spot. At the same event in which he expressed four-fifths support for health care reform, Cantor was confronted by a constituent. She noted that she has a close relative in her early 40s. The friend had a lucrative career and great insurance, right up until she recently lost her job. A couple of weeks ago, she was diagnosed with stomach tumors and needs an operation soon, but she's no longer covered.

Cantor encouraged her to look to "existing government programs," adding, "No one in this country, given who we are, should be sitting without an option to be addressed."

Except, whether Cantor realizes it or not, he and his caucus are opposed to "existing government programs," and are fighting like crazy to make sure Americans don't have quality, affordable options. It's impossible to reconcile the GOP leader's rhetoric and policy positions.

Kevin Drum explained Cantor's insurmountable hurdle, and why the Minority Whip isn't following through on his promises to produce a Republican reform alternative.

...Cantor's problem is obvious: He can't provide a full-scale Republican plan because it's simply not possible to provide universal coverage without the government taking a big role in things. So he's stuck.... [T]hat's where we are these days: an awful lot of our most pressing problems simply can't be solved unless you accept that the government has to be involved. So conservatives are stuck.

The idea of "starting from scratch" is absurd, but even if policymakers were to consider it, the circumstances wouldn't change -- policymakers would still realize that a government solution is needed to address a pressing national challenge, and Cantor & Co. -- who's ideological opposition to government action outweighs practical solutions and common sense -- would still balk at the idea for philosophical reasons.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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AN UNRIVALED EXPERT.... John McCain, via Twitter, around 3 p.m. yesterday:

We just learned of a third "undisclosed" nuclear facility in Iran...how many more are there?

John McCain, via Twitter, about a half-hour later:

opps - I meant two undisclosed nuclear sites NOT three...

Glenn Thrush added, "By 'opps' he meant 'oops,' I presume."

Remind me again why the producers of the Sunday morning shows consider McCain such an expert on foreign policy and national security?

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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FEMA EARNS PLAUDITS IN GEORGIA.... Many parts of Georgia have been devastated this week by what's been described as a "once in 500 years flood." It's affected 20 counties, killed at least nine people, and caused about $250 million in damages. Vice President Biden appeared alongside members of Congress and federal officials in an Atlanta suburb yesterday, where the American Red Cross had set up a shelter.

By all accounts, officials are responding effectively, and federal aid made available by the administration will be used for recovery programs, including temporary housing and low-cost loans. After a half-hour helicopter tour of the area, Biden vowed that there would be no "bureaucratic stalling and shuffling" as officials addressed the emergency.

I was also struck by the willingness of two very conservative Republican senators -- Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss -- to credit "the White House's quick response" and commend the administration's efforts.

Chambliss praised the Obama Administration for a response that was both "magnificent" and "quick." Isakson said he had spent last night on the phone with local officials, all of whom reported FEMA workers on the ground.

This is good to hear. I remember reports from 2006 about whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had experienced some very high-profile failures, would ever recover. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) described FEMA three years ago as a "shambles and beyond repair." The agency that was widely recognized as a model of efficiency in the 1990s had become an example of what was wrong with the federal government. There was widespread talk of simply scrapping the entire agency and starting anew.

It appears now, however, that FEMA is back on track, operating as it should. It's encouraging.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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BILL SPARKMAN'S GRUESOME DEATH.... As details emerge on the death of the slain Census worker in Kentucky, the story appears to be even more tragic than first reported.

Bill Sparkman juggled three part-time jobs and chemotherapy, and he was conscientious about keeping his schedule straight. So when he didn't show up for work at a day-care program Sept. 10, two days after he went out canvassing residents for the Census Bureau, a co-worker reported him missing.

Sparkman's body was found two days later beside a remote road near a small family cemetery in the Daniel Boone National Forest. His death initially garnered little attention, even in eastern Kentucky.

Then authorities revealed this week that a noose was found around his neck, and that he was hanging from a tree, his feet touching the ground. The word "Fed" was scrawled across the 51-year-old census taker's chest, according to the Clay County coroner.

Officials said Sparkman's body was found with his Census Bureau identification card taped to his head. An AP report added that he was "naked, gagged and had his hands and feet bound with duct tape."

As was the case earlier in the week, it's still worth emphasizing that this is an open investigation and additional information is needed before reaching any conclusions. Some of the earlier details have proven false -- Sparkman was not, for example, found hanging from a tree, as some initial reports suggested -- and our understanding of what actually happened may yet change again.

That said, what we've learned thus far is gruesome, and continues to raise the prospect of what may have been a politically-motivated slaying. Faiz Shakir added, "Regardless of what the motive for the killing may have been, why would a murderer(s) take such pains to so blatantly convey anger, fear, and vitriol towards a Census employee? Perhaps because some on the right have created an impression that Census employees are terrifying."

The record on that front is clear -- Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Glenn Beck, and Neal Boortz have invested considerable energy in trying to convince confused, right-wing activists that the Census and those who work for the Census Bureau are not to be trusted, and may even be dangerous.

Here's hoping that their reckless and irresponsible rhetoric did not have deadly consequences.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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September 25, 2009

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

* The G20 is about as efficient as Congress: "A year after the panic that brought the world's financial system to the brink of collapse, the Group of 20 nations will now assume the role of a permanent council on global economic cooperation. But there is still no global regulatory framework to prevent another major market meltdown."

* On a related note, get used the G20 becoming the new standard global forum. President Obama prefers it to the G8, which will focus more on national security than economic issues.

* Georgia struggles with a "once in 500 years flood."

* More evidence for Inhofe and the deniers to ignore: "Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world's leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges, a much faster and broader scale of change than forecast just two years ago."

* Remember the public-option fireworks planned for today? They've been delayed until Tuesday.

* The vaccine for H1N1 will be available in less than two weeks. "There will be enough vaccine for every American," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters at the White House.

* After being hospitalized briefly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is ready to get back to work.

* Zachary Roth has been doing a great job keeping up on the circumstances surrounding the death of Bill Sparkman, the census worker found dead in Kentucky. The local coroner has confirmed that the word "Fed" was, in fact, written on Sparkman's chest.

* The U.S. Chamber of Commerce loses another member over its right-wing approach to climate change. This time, it's New Mexico's largest utility, PNM.

* Water, water everywhere. Yesterday, Earth's Moon. Today, Mars.

* Mark Kleiman recommends calling the public option Medicare Part E. Sounds good to me.

* The chimera of student opposition to SAFRA.

* There were some important flaws in Michael Gerson's column today.

* A.L. takes on the ACORN "stings."

* Yesterday, there was a conference call between Vice President Biden and governors of U.S. states and territories. The only no-show? Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Given his love of the stimulus, it's odd that he was the only one who didn't make time.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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GOP CASE REJECTED, KIRK SWORN IN.... Massachusetts Republicans hoped an 11th-hour lawsuit might prevent Paul Kirk from joining the Senate. That didn't work out.

A Suffolk Superior Court judge today rejected a request by the state Republican Party to block the appointment of Paul G. Kirk Jr. as interim US senator, clearing the way for the Democrat to take the oath of office this afternoon in Washington.

Judge Thomas Connolly ruled that the Republicans' claim was legally inadequate, noting in his four-page decision that, "the Party does not cite any case law in support of its argument." The GOP had maintained that Democratic Governor Deval Patrick overstepped his authority by declaring an emergency so Kirk's appointment could be made immediately. Connolly ruled, however, that the state Constitution clearly gave the governor the power to call for the immediate implementation of a law by sending the secretary of state a letter. [emphasis added]

"This court finds that the Party has not shown that it has a chance to succeed on the merits and therefore, any risk of harm to the Party will not outweigh the risk of harm to the Governor and the Commonwealth," Connolly wrote after deliberating for more than four hours.

Democrats noted that Mitt Romney, as governor, used the emergency provision 14 times during just one term, "including to increase the boating speed limit in Charlton and to change the office of town moderator in Milton."

If Patrick wants to use it to fill a Senate vacancy, it's hardly outrageous. And with literally no support in the law to support their case, Republicans apparently saw no value in appealing.

Kirk arrived in Washington this afternoon, and before heading to the Hill, visited Ted Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Soon after, with John Kerry by his side, Kirk was sworn into office by Vice President Biden.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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ENSIGN PROMOTES TENTHER OPT-OUT.... You've no doubt heard about "Tenthers." They're the conservative Republicans, with a few too many adherents in Congress, who reject the federal government's authority to do much of anything based on a long-discredited, right-wing interpretation of the 10th Amendment.

Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada, the scandal-plagued conservative, apparently wants to look out for these Tenthers, who may get health coverage from Democrats' reform efforts. Ensign -- best known as the senator whose parents paid off his mistress -- made the case yesterday that Tenthers take constitutional law more seriously than sane people, and should therefore be excluded from individual mandates.

"We've allowed exceptions for religious and various other reasons. But some people hold the Constitution pretty high in their lives, and if they believe that this thing is unconstitutional, and they then say, 'I choose not to have health insurance, I'm not going to buy it,' we could be subjecting those very people who conscientiously -- because they believe in the U.S. Constitution -- we could be subjecting them to fines or the interpretation of a judge, potentially, all the way up to imprisonment. That seems to me to be a problem."

Ensign wasn't kidding. His basic pitch is that if you genuinely believe a law is unconstitutional, you should be exempt from following it, even if your genuine beliefs are ridiculous. Amanda Terkel did a nice job taking this absurd thinking apart, including a helpful reference to an Antonin Scalia ruling.

I'd only add that after three days of Senate Finance Committee hearings on reform, Ensign is proving himself to be hopelessly ridiculous. His big contribution to the debate yesterday was pushing an amendment that would force Nancy-Ann DeParle, the White House health reform director, from her job, unless the Senate voted specifically to let her advise the president on reform policy. DeParle, Ensign insisted, is a "czar," which is bad. Or something. (The committee rejected Ensign's proposal, but every Republican on the panel, including Olympia Snowe, supported it.)

Remember, as recently as last year, before his sex scandal, Ensign considered himself a likely presidential candidate in 2012.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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KING OF THE NUTJOBS.... In the ongoing contest to see which House Republican is the single nuttiest, Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa is making another run at the title.

The Madman from the Heartland has had quite a week. On Monday, King told The Hill that the best vote he ever cast was to deny emergency aid to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

On Tuesday, he appeared on a conservative talk show and said marriage equality is part of a broader "push for a socialist society." King added, "Not only is it a radical social idea, it is a purely socialist concept in the final analysis." I guess that means gay bureaucrats control the means of production?

He kept things going yesterday on the House floor, standing alongside Socialist Realist art to argue that President Obama is the leader of ACORN.

Today, however, was my personal favorite. King is apparently angry -- it's not clear why -- that President Obama is changing U.S. missile-defense policies in Europe. The White House is scrapping a Bush-era policy that didn't make sense, for a more effective anti-missile technology, with a better track record, and more flexibility, which will be implemented sooner. The move was endorsed by the Secretary of Defense and backed by the unanimous judgment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

King initially said the president is honoring the "Neville Chamberlain school of diplomacy or capitulation." The Iowa Republican added, "I was thinking about the situation of how it was that Hitler actually negotiated with the Russians for a while. It ended up with Poland being divided and a global war as a result."

So, as far as King is concerned, Obama is both Chamberlain and Hitler?

For that matter, if negotiating with Russia makes one Hitler-like, what does King have to say about Reagan holding talks with Russia -- when it was the Soviet Union?

Look out, Michele Bachmann. Steve King has his eyes on your crown.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE FEDS WHO CRIED 'WOLF'.... Michael Crowley noted this morning, "It's a little weird that there hasn't been more alarm surrounding the apparently major Denver-based terror plot busted up by the feds in the past few days. Last night, ABC News reported that authorities believe Najibullah Zazi's may have co-plotters who are still at large."

We obviously need quite a bit more information about the Zazi case, but given what we know, it's a fair point. There are reports that this alleged terrorist plot may be "the most serious in years." If the allegations are true, "Zazi, a legal immigrant from Afghanistan, had carefully prepared for a terrorist attack. He attended a Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, received training in explosives and stored in his laptop computer nine pages of instructions for making bombs from the same kind of chemicals he had bought."

So, where's the freak-out? Jason Zengerle offers a compelling explanation.

Part of it is the crying wolf phenomenon: After so many supposedly big-deal domestic terrorism arrests turned out to be what NYU law school's Karen J. Greenberg calls "fantasy terrorism cases" (Padilla, the Liberty City Six, the Lackawanna Six, etc.), I think a lot of people have just become inured to this sort of thing, not to mention skeptical.

Right. I used to maintain a list of the "thwarted" Bush-era terrorist plots that, as additional information came to light, were not even close to what they appeared to be initially. The plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be. Jose Padilla was not actually prepared to detonate a dirty bomb in DC. The plot by the "Seas of David" cult in Miami -- billed by Dick Cheney as being "a very real threat" -- wasn't a very real threat. The facts of the British hijacking plot didn't stand up well to scrutiny, while the plot to attack Los Angeles' Library Tower turned out to be far less serious than we'd been led to believe. Eventually, I gave up -- there were just too many.

Periodically, the Bush administration would, to significant fanfare, claim to have made a major counter-terrorism breakthrough. They'd hold press conferences, and pat one another on the back. Invariably, the claims crumbled upon scrutiny, which only fueled cynicism.

When there is a significant story, we're understandably hesitant.

I should add, of course, that it's certainly possible that the Zazi case may, in time, fall into the same category. The facts appear horrifying -- the suspect is believed to have the intent, training, and materials to launch a serious attack -- but time will tell. Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University law school, said, the Zazi case "actually looks like the case the government kept claiming it had but never did." She added that "the ingredients here are quite scary."

But unlike the Bush era, the Obama team has skipped "the bombast and exaggeration" that was the standard operating procedure of the previous administration.

It's nice having grown-ups running the place for a change.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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IF COSTS ARE THE MAIN CONCERN.... Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), the co-chair of the Blue Dog caucus, has been trying to determine the specific priorities of the other center-right Democrats. She's found that the public option isn't at the top of the list. "I understand the media's focus on the public option, but for the Blue Dogs right now it's much more on cost," Herseth Sandlin said.

I'm glad to hear that. Because as Ezra Klein noted, the Congressional Budget Office has found that adding a public option to the health care system, and paying Medicare reimbursement rates, "will save even more money than originally thought." Congress Daily reported, "In total, a public plan based on Medicare rates would save $110 billion over 10 years," $20 billion more than earlier estimates.

Ezra added, "In other words, the conservatives want to spend $85 billion more than the liberals do."

Kevin Drum highlighted ancillary benefits throughout the system:

[A] public option would save anywhere between $2 billion and $11 billion per year depending on whether or not it's based on Medicare rates. That's savings to the government, and it's based on the fact that the public option would lower the cost of insurance and the feds would therefore have to pay lower subsidies to low-income households buying coverage under the individual mandate. However, if the private plans lower their prices to compete with the public option, then everyone buying insurance would save money, not just low-income families, and the total cost savings to consumers would be much higher.

For those who believe holding down costs and fiscal responsibility are key, it seems like the public option should be a no-brainer.

Also note that while poll numbers are always in flux, support for the public option remains quite strong. The NYT/CBS poll released today found 65% support a public health insurance option -- up five points from the last NYT/CBS poll -- and more people would oppose a health care plan without a public option than favor, 40% to 38%.

For that matter, a plurality of self-identified Republicans also expressed their support for the public option, and support among independents was better than two to one. And that's after months of conservatives trashing the idea on a daily basis.

As the debate heats up, we're learning that most of the public supports the same provision that would save all of us money. Maybe Congress should pass it.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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STABENOW 1, KYL 0.... As a rule, if a senator is pushing back against a colleague's rhetoric, and references the other senator's mother, it would be a fairly dramatic breach of protocol. But that's not always the case.

Igor Volsky reports today that Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has been pushing an amendment to "prohibit the government from defining which benefits should be included in a standard benefit package." Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) noted that basic maternity care ought to be required.

"I don't need maternity care," Kyl replied. "So requiring that on my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive."

Interrupting him, Stabenow added, "I think your mom probably did."

It generated laughter in the hearing room, and with good reason, but it's worth emphasizing why Kyl's argument is worthy of derision. In the hopes of making insurance cheaper, Kyl is comfortable with not covering basic maternity care. The status quo -- only 21 states require insurers to provide maternity care benefits -- is just fine with the #2 senator in the GOP leadership. If discriminatory practices boost industry profits, it's just the free market working as it should.

Kyl's measure was defeated, 14 to 9. That nine Republicans voted for it says a great deal about how the GOP is approaching the reform debate.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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AND THEY DIDN'T EVEN HAVE TO USE TORTURE.... A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto insisted that President Obama prefers a "see-no-evil approach," has decided not to "worry so much about terrorism."

It was, at the time, an unusually foolish observation, but given the Obama administration's recent success stories on counter-terrorism, Taranto's inane criticism continues to look even worse.

We learned of another success story this morning out of Dallas. (via Blue Girl)

A 19-year-old Jordanian citizen is expected to make an appearance before a federal magistrate in Dallas this morning after authorities accused him of attempting to blow up a downtown Dallas skyscraper.

Hosam Maher Husein Smadi was arrested Thursday after he parked a vehicle laden with government-supplied fake explosives in the underground parking garage of Fountain Place, a 60-story tower in the 1400 block of Ross Avenue at North Field Street, authorities said.

The arrest was part of an FBI sting operation that began after an agent monitoring an online extremist Web site discovered Smadi espousing jihad against the U.S. more than six months ago.

As more undercover Arabic-speaking agents engaged him, Smadi, living illegally in the U.S. in the small town of Italy, about 45 miles south of Dallas, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and expressed a desire to kill Americans, authorities said.

In conversations with agents posing as members of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, Smadi said he came to the U.S. to wage jihad, or holy war. He told agents he wanted to target military recruitment centers, but eventually settled on financial institutions.

Remember, Republicans openly mock those who believe intelligence gathering and law enforcement are the keys to counter-terrorism.

The story out of Dallas coincides with new reports out of Denver on the Najibullah Zazi case: "The accumulating evidence against a Denver airport shuttle driver suggests he may be different, with some investigators calling his case the most serious in years.... If government allegations are to be believed, Mr. Zazi, a legal immigrant from Afghanistan, had carefully prepared for a terrorist attack. He attended a Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, received training in explosives and stored in his laptop computer nine pages of instructions for making bombs from the same kind of chemicals he had bought."

These stories come the same week as the arrest of Michael C. Finton, also known as Talib Islam, who was apprehended "attempting to detonate what he thought was a bomb inside a van outside a federal courthouse in the Illinois capital of Springfield."

And of all this comes on the heels of U.S. forces taking out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in Somalia, and Baitullah Mehsud, the top leader of the Taliban in Pakistan and a key al Qaeda ally.

To reiterate a point from a couple of weeks ago, if all of these developments had occurred in 2008, I suspect the White House would be releasing photos of Dick Cheney and Bill Kristol chest-bumping each other on the South Lawn.

Steve M. added, "Odd that this is all happening while we supposedly have a president who loves our enemies and hates America.... Isn't it high time we demanded an explanation of this apparent contradiction from those who literally believe Obama is a treasonous America-hater?"

And Adam Serwer tweeted, "Somehow, the government foiled several terrorist plots this week without waterboarding anyone."

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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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.

* A new InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research poll shows Bob McDonnell's (R) lead over Creigh Deeds in Virginia's gubernatorial race down to just 4 points, 51% to 47%.

* A Democracy Corps poll shows Chris Christie's (R) lead over New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) down to just one point, 40% to 39%, with independent Chris Daggett third with 11%.

* In a setback for Deeds' campaign in Virginia, former Gov. Douglas Wilder (D) is ignoring a direct request from President Obama and declining to back the Democratic nominee.

* A new Rasmussen poll in California shows incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) with 10-point leads over her top GOP challengers. Boxer is, however, below the 50% threshold.

* Speaking of California, Meg Whitman's (R) gubernatorial campaign is getting off to a rough start, in light of revelations that she's hardly ever voted in her adult life.

* A couple of new polls show former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) as a credible challenger for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) next year.

* Speaking of New York, a Marist College poll shows most voters want to see Gov. David Paterson (D) skip next year's election, but they also don't want the White House to pressure him.

* While most recent polls showed Democratic candidates faring well in next year's Senate race in Ohio, a new Rasmussen poll shows former Bush budget director Rod Portman (R) with narrow leads over the top Dems.

* Massachusetts voters are still down on Gov. Deval Patrick (D), but they're not exactly ready to vote for a Republican, either.

* The upcoming special election in New York's 23rd may be a three-way contest between a moderate Dem, a moderate Republican, and a far-right Republican with backing from the Club for Growth.

* In Illinois' Senate race, Alexi Giannoulias (D) has earned the SEIU's endorsement.

* And speaking of Illinois, former state GOP chairman Andy McKenna is now running for governor.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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100 DAYS ALREADY?.... In the latest New York Times poll, respondents were asked, "So you think the Republicans have clearly explained their plans for changing the health care system? The vast majority -- 76% -- said they have not, while 14% said they have.

I have no idea what those in the 14% minority were thinking.

As regular readers know, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters in July that GOP lawmakers were putting "the final touches on our bill," which, he said, would hopefully be available "soon." That was 64 days ago.

As it turns out, Dems on the Hill have been using a different baseline, and consider today a milestone.

House Democrats are marking today as the 100-day anniversary of House Republicans promising to produce their own alternative health reform bill as part of their larger effort to shed the Party of No label.

"I guarantee you we will provide you with a bill," said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), the point man on the alternative plan, on June 17.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) tells POLITICO, "It's been 100 days since they promised they would unveil their own proposals -- where are they?... What positive alternatives have they come up with?"

Well, actually none. Their "guarantees" are about as reliable as their policy prescriptions.

Asked for an explanation, a spokesperson for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) blasted Van Hollen, but didn't answer the question. Two weeks ago, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked where the Republican plan is, and he dodged it, too.

That said, on Monday, Cantor said a GOP reform alternative is on the way. If you believe that, I have some death panels I'd love to sell you.

To be sure, I don't necessarily blame Republicans for refusing to unveil an alternative health care plan. Producing a GOP reform proposal would not only give Democrats a target, it would offer people a chance to compare the two approaches. In a side-by-side match-up, it's hardly a stretch to think the Dems would come out on top.

What's more, the Republican track record on alternative solutions is truly abysmal. The GOP budget alternative was a humiliating failure (you may recall, it lacked numbers). The GOP stimulus alternative -- tax cuts and a five-years spending freeze -- was so ridiculous, even some conservatives labeled it "insane." With this in mind, there's no need for the party to humiliate itself with a health care plan.

But this route is not without costs. For one thing, it's now that much easier to characterize the minority as the "party of no."

For another, in light of the "guarantees" that Republicans would produce a bill, it's further evidence that the GOP isn't to be trusted to keep its word.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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A HARD PERCEPTION TO BREAK, REDUX.... The latest New York Times/CBS News poll offers quite a bit of discouraging news for Republicans hoping to defeat health care reform and undermine the Obama presidency. There's just one catch.

President Obama's approval rating remains quite strong at 56%, and his handling of health care has improved seven points since August. Nearly two-thirds of the country (65%) would like to see a public option as part of health care reform, which is up five points over the last month.

While the numbers for Democrats aren't as strong as they were, Republicans haven't been able to capitalize at all. For example, most respondents maintain a favorable impression of Democrats (47% favorable, 41% unfavorable), while the GOP fares far worse (30% favorable, 57% unfavorable). Asked who can be trusted to make the right decisions, President Obama's lead over congressional Republicans is nearly two to one (53% to 27%).

More than three out of four believe Republicans have not explained what they would do to improve the system, and while a clear majority believes President Obama has tried to work with the GOP, a clear majority believes the GOP has not done the same with the White House. What's more, 64% believe Republicans are fighting against health care reform for purely political reasons, not because of principle.

So, what's the catch? Americans don't like and don't trust the GOP, but they want to see Democrats work with them anyway.

The poll finds that an overwhelming majority of 64% think Republicans are opposing Obama's health care plans mostly for political reasons. But it also finds that an equally large number, 65%, say Democrats shouldn't pass a bill without Republicans -- even if they think it's right for the country -- and should instead compromise to win over some GOPers.

This shows, I think, that Democrats have convinced the public that the GOP wants Obama and Dems to fail at all costs. But they've failed to make the case to the public that GOP obstructionism may leave them no choice but to go it alone in order to realize reform.

This is the third major national poll to find the same result on this in the last couple of weeks.

It continues to put the majority in an awkward situation. Americans don't trust GOP lawmakers on the issue, and don't think Republicans have been acting in good faith, but the public can't quite shake the impression that good bills are "bipartisan" bills, and that legislative consensus may actually be more important than legislative quality.

My only advice to the governing majority? Ignore this. Americans are, for whatever reasons, predisposed to support bipartisan lawmaking. But this is an impossible task -- Republicans don't support reform and aren't willing to make concessions. If Dems make the bill worse, on purpose, just to pick up a few GOP votes, it's likely voters will be far less satisfied with reform when it's implemented.

Pass a good bill and let the policy speak for itself.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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U.S., ALLIES POINT TO SECRET IRANIAN NUKE FACILITY.... A big story out of Pittsburgh this morning.

President Obama and the leaders of Britain and France accused Iran on Friday of building a secret underground plant to manufacture nuclear fuel, saying the country hid the covert operation from international weapons inspectors for years.

The revelation, which the three leaders made before the opening of the Group of 20 economic summit here, adds urgency to the diplomatic confrontation with Iran over its suspected ambitions to build a nuclear weapons capacity. Mr. Obama, flanked by Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, demanded in a Friday morning news conference that Iran allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct an immediate inspection of the facility, which is said to be 100 miles southwest of Tehran.

"The existence of this facility underscores Iran's unwillingness to cooperate" with international rules governing peaceful nuclear development, Mr. Obama said. "The Iranian government must now demonstrate in deeds its peaceful intentions, or be held accountable," he said.

Brown added that Iran's "level of deception ... will shock and anger the whole international community."

The Iranian facility, built inside a mountain 100 miles southwest of Tehran, has been on American officials' radar for years, but is not yet in operation. Iranian officials realized this week that the secrecy surrounding the facility had been breached, so they quietly told the IAEA, in a brief and vague letter, about a "pilot plant" it's building. Iran insists its up-until-recently secret site has peaceful purposes; President Obama said this morning that its size and capabilities suggest otherwise.

This morning's remarks are intended, not only to press Iran and press the IAEA to act, but also to help lay the diplomatic groundwork for sanctions against Iran, which Ahmadinejad has made easier by getting caught lying.

Of particular interest is Russia, which has been more than a little reluctant to punish Iran. Obama spoke at length to President Dmitri Medvedev about Iran, and given Russia's new found satisfaction with the U.S. administration -- Obama's move away from the Bush-era missile-defense policy was extremely well received -- Russia's leadership is now reportedly far more open to sanctions against Iran. Indeed, Medvedev seems to consider sanctions "inevitable."

That's a significant shift from Russia's previous position, and suggests President Obama's strategy in improving relations with the country is paying valuable dividends.

As for the next step, the IAEA is demanding additional information. Just as important, next week in Geneva, representatives of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Germany, and Iran will meet, and Obama noted this morning that there's now an increased "sense of urgency" surrounding the discussions.

Update: A good item from Marc Lynch on the strategy behind this morning's announcement.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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RIGHT LIVID OVER 'ISLAM ON CAPITOL HILL' EVENT.... It's gone largely under the media radar, but in Washington today, tens of thousands of Muslim Americans are expected to gather to pray as part of the "Islam on Capitol Hill" event. To say that the religious right is concerned about this would be something of an understatement.

Staffers might hear something more than the usual buzzing and ringing as Members are called to votes Friday; they'll also hear the call to midday prayer as a large group of Muslims gathers to pray on the West Front of the Capitol.

Hassen Abdellah, a criminal lawyer who has served as president of the Dar-ul-Islam mosque in Elizabeth, N.J., since 1997, organized Muslims from around the country to pray peacefully outside the Capitol.

Organizers are planning for as many as 50,000 Muslims to gather on the West Front.

The event has no stated political agenda, and no elected officials are expected to attend. Abdellah has simply called on people to come to the Capitol to "pray for peace and understanding between America and its Muslim community."

So, what's the problem? In reality, there isn't one. But in the active imaginations of religious right leaders, the "Islam on Capitol Hill" gathering is grounds for quite a tantrum.

Right Wing Watch has been chronicling the reactions from Christian right leaders all week, and the panic has become more palpable as the week has progressed. The Family Research Council believes today's participants may "pray for shari'ah law to come to America," so Christians' efforts to convert Muslims should "accelerate." Wallbuilders' David Barton warned that today's event undermines Christianity's place at the top of the heap in America. The National Day of Prayer Task Force warned of "a dark spiritual intent and a coming day of great trouble to America." A group called Operation Save America intends to send members to the Hill to wage some kind of spiritual battle. A variety of religious right leaders quickly created The Ad Hoc Committee of Americans for Transparency and Honesty in Religion to demand that organizers of today's event denounce acts of terrorism.

"I don't understand. This is a simple event. All we want to do is pray," Abdellah said. "In America, name one event where Christians tried to pray and Muslims disrupted it."

That kind of reasonable thinking doesn't work when dealing with the religious right movement. It never has; it never will.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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BIG DAY FOR THE PUBLIC OPTION.... Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), two of the leading proponents of an ambitious and progressive health care reform effort, will be leading the charge today in the Senate Finance Committee on a public option. On a conference call yesterday, they sounded surprisingly optimistic.

"The health care bill that is signed into law by the President will have a good, strong, robust public option," Schumer said.

How that will happen remains an open question. But the Senators assured reporters on the call that we're all going to get a taste of their passion and persuasiveness on this issue at the ongoing Senate Finance Committee hearings on Friday.

"I think it's a great idea," Rockefeller said of the public option. "Chuck Schumer thinks it's a great idea. And we're going to be all over it tomorrow."

Schumer said there will be a "full-blown debate" and that "even though the public option might be the underdog in the Senate Finance Committee, don't count it out."

"Tomorrow is the opening day in our big fight," he said.

That sounds pretty exciting, but if I were a betting man, I wouldn't put money on the public option getting out of the Finance Committee. Rockefeller said there's a "good shot" that the panel will approve the measure. I'm not sure how -- Dems have a 13-10 margin on the committee, but at least two Dems (Conrad and Lincoln) oppose the provision, and even Chairman Max Baucus is likely to vote against it. Indeed, it's long been assumed that the public option has no shot in the committee, and would have to be considered later in the process.

Nevertheless, spirited support for the measure is welcome, and if/when it falls short today, we can expect Schumer and Rockefeller to push even more aggressively if/when the bill progresses.

What's more, they certainly won't be the only ones. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said on MSNBC yesterday that he, too, is optimistic about the public option's chances. "Not every Democrat right now would prefer the public option in the Senate," Brown told Ed Schultz, "but no Democrat in the end is going to vote against a procedural question to kill the health care bill." I wish I could say I share his confidence.

As for the House, the leadership is still in an awkward spot -- keep the public option and lose Blue Dogs, scrap the public option and lose the left. Ryan Grim had a very interesting report late yesterday on the Blue Dog whip count, which showed many center-right Democrats with higher priorities than this one provision.

"Blocking a public health insurance option is a relatively low priority for conservative Blue Dog Democrats, according to an ongoing survey of its members," Grim reported. "The fading House opposition could clear the way for the public option to move through the chamber."

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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HUMANA PULLS GOP LEADERSHIP'S STRINGS.... During yesterday's Senate Finance Committee debate on health care reform, a frustrated Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) noted that the private insurance industry is "running certain people" in the Senate.

It's demonstrably true. Consider this week's controversy surrounding Humana, one of the nation's leading private insurers. The company opposes policymakers finding cost savings though reducing unnecessary spending in Medicare Advantage -- it would undermine their profits -- so it began lobbying its customers with misleading propaganda. Because Humana receives a whole lot of public funds, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services instructed Humana to stop its taxpayer-subsidized misinformation campaign.

Republicans threw a fit on Tuesday, and ratcheted things up late yesterday.

The rhetorical war over an alleged attempt by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the Obama administration to "muzzle" insurance companies critical of their health care plan intensified Thursday, with Republicans accusing Democrats of violating federal guidelines and threatening to filibuster a host of executive branch nominations. [...]

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, top Senate Republicans demanded that HHS immediately lift the "gag order" and warned that they would filibuster any HHS nominees until she does so.

According to Roll Call, the administration has five pending HHS nominees awaiting Senate approval, and five more vacancies awaiting nominations. The entire Senate Republican leadership team wants to block any and all consideration of these nominees until Humana is allowed to start using tax dollars to mislead seniors again.

"This is pretty simple," a senior Democratic Senate aide said. "All the GOP spinning in the world can't hide the fact that Republicans continue to protect big insurance companies who mislead seniors. This latest attempt is bizarre and untrue pushback -- CMS has always said providers can communicate with their beneficiaries as long as it's done in an accurate and truthful way. The letter from Humana clearly wasn't -- it was both false and misleading. CMS did the right thing protecting seniors from these scare tactics."

GOP lawmakers generally avoid acting like they've been bought and paid for, which makes this week's tantrum in support of Humana propaganda so foolish. We're talking about an insurer, which has seen its annual profits soar nine-fold this decade, and which recently had to settle fraud and racketeering cases. McConnell & Co. are going to the wall to fight for its ability to engage in publicly-funded lying?

As of last night, the Obama administration said it's ignoring the Republican leadership's demands. Here's hoping officials stick to their guns on this.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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September 24, 2009

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

* Good start: "President Obama presided over the United Nations Security Council on Thursday as it unanimously passed a resolution aimed at shoring up the international commitment to limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, in particular halting the diversion of nuclear material for bomb development."

* I don't imagine this'll be the last word on the subject: "The Senate Finance Committee rejected a Democratic amendment to its healthcare bill that would have expanded prescription-drug coverage to people on Medicare."

* Najibullah Zazi gets indicted: "The Justice Department announced Thursday that a 24-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan has been indicted on a charge of conspiring to use "weapons of mass destruction" against targets in the United States, and federal prosecutors sought his indefinite detention without bail."

* What's the latest on the census worker found dead in Kentucky? Zachary Roth summarizes the latest.

* Predictable: "The Massachusetts Republican Party has gone to court in an attempt to stop the appointment of Paul Kirk to the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat."

* Let's put Speaker Pelosi down as a "no" on a public-option "trigger."

* HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebilius makes clear that flu vaccines will be voluntary. Don't believe anyone who says otherwise.

* Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) notices that some of his GOP colleagues are pawns of the health insurance industry.

* Gen. Stanley McChrystal says "there's no rift" with the White House and he isn't resigning.

* Better than it sounds: "The Obama administration has decided not to seek new legislation from Congress authorizing the indefinite detention of about 50 terrorism suspects being held without charges at at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, officials said Wednesday." Glenn Greenwald explains why this is good news.

* New optimism on an AIDS vaccine?

* Consequences of the missile-defense shift: "Hmm, Russian president Medvedev certainly sounds more open to sanctions against Iran than his foreign minister did a couple of weeks ago. I wonder what might explain that."

* ACORN heads to court.

* On a related note: "The community organizing group ACORN is under review by a Treasury Department inspector general as part of an investigation into the Internal Revenue Service's oversight of non-profit organizations."

* Journalism school enrollment is soaring even as the industry is tanking.

* Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) heads home from the hospital.

* Media Matters highlights RedState.org's "deep, shadowy connections with ACORN."

* Water on the moon. Cool.

* I'd encourage the White House to put Vice President Biden in front of more seniors, more often.

* Quote of the Day, from Matt Yglesias: "I was out on the Hamburg cocktail party circuit last night and mentioned to a German woman that an American Senator had been mentioning Germany as an example of a country where government doesn't run the health care system. Well, she laughed pretty hard at that idea. I tried to explain to her that he's a really important Senator, known for being sharper than some of his colleagues on the Finance Committee and then it turned into more one of those rueful laughs."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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BECK FACES BACKLASH -- FROM THE RIGHT.... As right-wing media personality Glenn Beck has grown in influence, conservative criticism has been, at best, muted.

In early August, Rep. Bob Inglis (R) of South Carolina, who isn't exactly a moderate, encouraged his constituents to "turn the TV off" and stop listening to Glenn Beck. The audience booed the conservative congressman relentlessly. A week later, David Frum, a conservative pundit and former Bush speechwriter, suggested Beck's rhetoric may be, quite literally, dangerous.

But these remarks were largely overlooked, and were not echoed by other conservatives. It seems, however, that we're starting to see a change.

On Tuesday, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough blasted Beck, and argued that the Fox News personality may be fomenting violence. "You cannot preach hatred," Scarborough said. "You cannot say the president is racist. You cannot say things that have very deadly consequences." He added, in an apparent reference to the Oklahoma City bombing, "I was in Congress in 1995. I know where this can end." Scarborough also called on Republican leaders to "call out" Becks' "hatred."

Right-wing radio host Mark Levin called Beck "pathetic." Rush Limbaugh referred to Beck's role in promoting conservative protests as "cheap and disingenuous." Peter Wehner said Beck's "interest in conspiracy theories is disquieting" and his daily attacks are "not good for the country." Wehner called Beck a "roiling mix of fear, resentment, and anger." Conservative columnists Kathleen Parker and David Brooks told Chris Matthews that Beck is "baiting" and "empowering" racists.

Today, Levin said of Beck:

"If you're not going to be politically sensible and have a strategy and have an end-game, you'll keep winding up on weekly magazines, you'll keep making a lot of money, but in the end you won't make a difference."

It's interesting to watch Beck's ideological cohorts (competitors?) trash the self-described "rodeo clown." In fact, it seems as if Beck may be marginalizing himself in a way that will, if we're all really lucky, make him permanently toxic to those who take politics seriously.

For that matter, it should send a signal to mainstream outlets: don't let Beck become your assignment editor. Even conservatives think he's nuts.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE EFFECTS OF JOB LOCK.... When making the case for health care reform, it's often hard to know where to start, and what to emphasize. To his credit, President Obama frequently tries to make the point about the ways in which the status quo undermines businesses and entrepreneurship.

In his address to a joint session a couple of weeks ago, for example, while emphasizing rising costs, the president reminded lawmakers, "It's why so many employers -- especially small businesses -- are forcing their employees to pay more for insurance, or are dropping their coverage entirely. It's why so many aspiring entrepreneurs cannot afford to open a business in the first place, and why American businesses that compete internationally -- like our automakers -- are at a huge disadvantage."

Andrew Sullivan heard from a reader who helped drive the entrepreneurship point home.

I'm an American who has also decided to leave the US ... because of my concerns over healthcare. You see, my European wife has a chronic disease that worsened soon after we moved to the U.S. two years ago. I have insurance, but with a sick wife and two children, our bills are quite high. Worse, should I ever change jobs, or get fired, I have no doubt our insurer would drop us, or at least dramatically increase our premiums.

I'm a senior exec in a software company. I've always wanted to run my own company, and I have an idea that I think will work.

But we'll move back to Europe before I take that risk. In the U.S., I just cannot be without healthcare for any length of time. I wonder how many other potential entrepreneurs are discouraged from striking out on their own for this very reason?

At the Washington Monthly, we wondered the same thing.

In May, we ran a great item on this from MIT economic professor Jonathan Gruber in a special feature on entrepreneurship. Gruber's piece detailed the problem of "job lock," the phenomenon that traps workers in a job that offers health coverage, and prevents many small businesses from even opening.

Over the past fifteen years, dozens of studies have documented the detrimental impact that job lock has on the economy. These studies typically compare the mobility of workers who are at firms with insurance but do not have an alternative source of coverage (such as spousal insurance or COBRA continuation coverage) to those who do have an alternative source of coverage should they leave the firm. The studies find that mobility is much higher when workers do not have to fear losing coverage; job-to-job mobility is estimated to increase by as much as 25 percent when alternative group coverage is available. [...]

There are fewer direct studies of the impact of job lock on entrepreneurship. But the most convincing research, by Alison Wellington, mirrors the findings of other job mobility studies: Americans who have an alternative source of health insurance, such as a spouse's coverage, are much more likely to be self-employed than those who don't. Wellington estimates that universal health care would therefore likely increase the share of workers who are self-employed (currently about 10 percent of the workforce) by another 2 percent or more. A system that provides universal access to health insurance coverage, then, is far more likely to promote entrepreneurship than one in which would-be innovators remain tied to corporate cubicles for fear of losing their family's access to affordable health care.

Ezra Klein, after noting Gruber's piece, also raised an important point: "It's also unclear how internalized this is: We may just have a culture in which people who care about health-care coverage don't think about becoming entrepreneurs, as they know perfectly well that they can't sacrifice the safety provided by a large employer. You've heard of learned helplessness? This is learned corporatism. A culture in which people didn't worry about health-care costs might also be a culture in which they were more willing to consider occupational risks."

From a purely political perspective, the Republican Party has tried to position itself as champions of small businesses and entrepreneurs. In this sense, they should be the leading champions of health care reform -- it's a hindrance on innovation and Americans' ability to compete on the global stage.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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STEPHANOPOULOS: 'NO APOLOGIES'.... Following up on an earlier item, ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" will feature yet another interview with John McCain on Sunday. It will be the failed presidential candidate's third appearance on "This Week" since early May, and his 13th Sunday show appearance since President Obama's inauguration.

Greg Sargent spoke to Stephanopoulos about this today, and the host presented his defense.

"Our show this week is focused on Afghanistan and foreign policy. Our lead guest is the President's Defense Secretary (after a week where the President was our only guest). McCain is the leading GOP voice on Afghanistan. We think it's important for our viewers to hear that perspective.... For a show focusing on Afghanistan, he is easily the right GOP guest. No apologies for inviting him."

Some of this is reasonable, some of it less so. I'm delighted "This Week" is focusing on Afghanistan and foreign policy, and it's to be expected that the show would balance the administration's Pentagon chief with a conservative Republican reaction. (It's tempting to argue that the conservative Republican perspective isn't entirely relevant right now, since McCain and his allies have been discredited, have been removed from power, and have no meaningful influence over the policy outcome, but let's put that aside.)

But there's no reason to assume that McCain is the "leading GOP voice on Afghanistan." Not only are there plenty of other Republicans who approach the issue with the same perspective, but McCain has never demonstrated any particular expertise on Afghanistan -- on the contrary, he has a record of confusion on the war. During the presidential campaign, for example, McCain was both for and against sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. His most noteworthy contribution to the debate was arguing in 2003 that "we may muddle through in Afghanistan," whatever that means.

If McCain is a "leading" voice on the conflict, it's only because the media keeps calling on him to talk about it. It's entirely self-fulfilling -- the media gives McCain the stage, and justifies the decision by pointing to how often he's on the stage.

Greg went on to ask Stephanopoulos whether, as a journalist, it's overkill for the Sunday morning shows to have McCain on 13 times in eight months. Stephanopoulos didn't want to answer, responding, "No comment on that."

Perhaps Stephanopoulos will be able to elaborate when he invites McCain back onto the program in October. And then again in December, and February, and....

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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CONRAD'S MESSAGE TO THE LEFT.... Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the Senate Budget Committee chairman and a member of the unsuccessful Gang of Six effort, raised a few eyebrows this week with a message for his "progressive friends."

Conrad, a consistent opponent of the public option, wanted liberals to know "government-run programs" aren't necessary to lower costs and expand access. He explained that he'd finished reading T.R. Reid's "The Healing of America" over the weekend, and learned Germany, Japan, Switzerland, France, and Belgium are doing just fine. "[A]ll of them contain costs, have universal coverage, have very high quality care and yet are not government-run systems," Conrad said.

It was an odd thing to say, and reflects some important confusion about these international systems. As Ezra Klein explained, "In France, for instance, the government provides all basic insurance coverage directly. In Germany, insurers aren't permitted to make a profit. In Japan, health insurance is publicly provided, and private insurance is available only to ease co-payments or cover services that the government leaves out."

Zaid Jilani added, "France has had a public insurance system that covers all of its citizens since 1945. Known as Securite Sociale (social security), their public insurance program accounts for nearly 75 percent of total health expenditures in France, and people have the option of buying complementary private health insurance if they'd like. In its most recent ranking of health care systems, the World Health Organization concluded that France has the best health care system in the world."

Matt Yglesias noted that in Germany, consumers are required to purchase coverage from one of many non-profit "sickness funds" that are regulated by the government. "It's true that this meets a technical definition of 'not government-run.'" Matt explained. "But the extent to which the Germany system isn't government run doesn't extend to dealing with any of the concerns of private industry. Which is fine by me, but nothing in Conrad's talk of co-ops and such has suggested that he's serious trying to put for-profit health insurance out of business, which is exactly what the German model does."

But I think Kevin Drum was perhaps the most succinct in summarizing the problem with the senator's remarks.

This has been sort of rattling around in my head ever since I saw it, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what I wanted to say about it. But then I figured it out: it's completely, 100% batshit crazy. I mean, is this actually breaking news to Conrad after (excuse me a moment while I google) 22 years in the Senate? WTF?

Believe me: Conrad's "progressive friends" would be punch drunk with ecstasy if the United States adopted the healthcare system of (take your pick) Japan, France or Germany. It would be beyond our wildest dreams. Does Conrad really not know this? Did he only find out this weekend that those other countries have terrific healthcare systems that contain costs, provide universal coverage, and boast very high-quality care?

Conrad's efforts to impress the blogosphere will have to wait for another day.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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TAKING POLICY SERIOUSLY.... There's been an odd trend in recent months in which mainstream media outlets criticize President Obama for caring too much about public policy. I tend to find it a refreshing change of pace after the Bush era to have a curious, intellectually engaged leader, but a surprising number of observers feel differently.

MSNBC's First Read, for example, recently suggested the president "knows too much" about health care policy. Soon after, the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman also complained that the president cares too much about policy details.

David Broder raises a similar point today, riffing off a piece from William Schambra in National Affairs. Broder, relying on a conservative writer, who works for a conservative think tank, and was published by a conservative journal, highlights "the 'sheer ambition' of Obama's legislative agenda."

[Schambra] traces the roots of this approach to the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.... The progressives believed that the cure lay in applying the new wisdom of the social sciences to the art of government, an approach in which facts would heal the clash of ideologies and narrow constituencies.

Obama -- a highly intelligent product of elite universities -- is far from the first Democratic president to subscribe to this approach. Jimmy Carter, and especially Bill Clinton, attempted to govern this way. But Obama has made it even more explicit, regularly proclaiming his determination to rely on rational analysis, rather than narrow decisions, on everything from missile defense to Afghanistan -- and all the big issues at home.

"In one policy area after another," Schambra writes, "from transportation to science, urban policy to auto policy, Obama's formulation is virtually identical: Selfishness or ideological rigidity has led us to look at the problem in isolated pieces . . . we must put aside parochialism to take the long systemic view; and when we finally formulate a uniform national policy supported by empirical and objective data rather than shallow, insular opinion, we will arrive at solutions that are not only more effective but less costly as well. This is the mantra of the policy presidency."

I'll concede that I have not yet read Schambra's original piece, and it's possible that Broder's column simply doesn't do it justice. But given Broder's argument, this is hardly compelling criticism.

The pitch, in a nutshell, is that the president cares far too much about facts, reason, and evidence. He insists on shaping policies based on their effectiveness. This White House, like the two other Democratic White House of the last 40 years, is convinced that problem-solving is possible through coherent policymaking.

And that's a mistake, Broder suggests, because politics is messy. It's better, the argument goes, to take policy matters far less seriously.

Joe Klein had a good response to this: "Yes, it is possible for liberals to go too utopian, to lose sight of the importance of private entrepreneuralism, to be deluded into believing that government can impose perfect justice and perfect order. But neither Clinton nor Obama -- moderate liberals, at best -- seem even vaguely utopian. The real question is this: if liberals are in favor of policy solutions to chronic societal problems, what are conservatives for? ... It's not liberals who have an existential problem right now. It is conservatives, who believe in nothing, it seems, but winning...and winning at all costs, even at the expense of truth, civility and honor."

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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TEA-STAINED FLAGS?.... Actor and right-wing activist Chuck Norris has an odd new pitch for the far-right Teaabggers: they're not supposed to use the American flag in their protests anymore. His latest column presents his game-plan.

...I suggest you fly some revolutionary flag in lieu of your 50-star flag over the next year. Post the 13-star Betsy Ross flag, Navy Jack or Gadsden flag ("Don't Tread on Me") or any representation that tells the story of Old Glory and makes a stand for our Founders' vision of America.

Of course, patriots know that the 50-star flag truly represents one nation under God and our Founders' republic, but modernists simply don't get it. So what do you say we make a statement by flying a different flag and educate our neighbors when they ask us, "Why are you flying that flag instead of the contemporary Stars and Stripes?" (If you insist on posting a modern USA flag, too, then get one that is tea-stained to show your solidarity with our Founders.)

I'm rarely able to understand Norris' perspective, but this seems especially bizarre. Americans who claim to be patriotic should stop flying the American flag? If patriots insist on using the stars and stripes, Norris wants them to pour tea on the flag until it's deliberately stained?

Norris added that doing this would "make our Founders proud." I have no idea what this means.

Christopher Orr added, "Now, a more cynical person than myself might suggest that this presents a perfect opportunity for the Democrats to take a page out of the GOP playbook and put Mr. Norris and his ilk on their heels by passing an anti-flag-desecration resolution of some kind. But, like most liberals, I support the speech rights even of those who disagree with me. So, do what you will, Mr. Norris. Wrap a bushel of Darjeeling in Old Glory and dunk it in a scalding tub if it will make you happy. All you're doing is revealing just how pinched and provisional your vaunted love of country truly is."

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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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.

* Gov. Jon Corzine's (D) campaign released a very aggressive new ad yesterday, going after Chris Christie (R) for throwing "his weight around" as a U.S. attorney to gain special treatment.

* Will Northern Virginia dictate another statewide race? With just six weeks left in Virginia's gubernatorial campaign, Mark Blumenthal takes a closer look.

* Republicans' scorched-earth efforts throughout August helped generate a wildly successful fundraising month for the RNC.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) conceded that he would not seek another term if he thinks his candidacy would hurt his party.

* In Arizona, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows state Attorney General Terry Goddard with comfortable leads in next year's gubernatorial race over all of her his likely GOP challengers, including incumbent Gov. Jan Brewer. Brewer, who took office after Janet Napolitano (D) joined the Obama cabinet, has an approval rating of just 26%.

* In Iowa, a new Rasmussen poll shows former Gov. Terry Branstad (R) looking very strong, if he decides to seek his old job. In a hypothetical match-up, Branstad leads incumbent Gov. Chet Culver (D) by 20 points, 54% to 34%.

* Speaking of Iowa, Rasmussen also shows Sen. Charles Grassley (R) with a huge lead over his likely Democratic challenger Bob Krause, 56% to 30%. Krause, who served in the state and had a 20-year career with the state's Department of Transportation, is not widely known.

* And the Ron Paul fundraising machine continues to be effective, as evidenced by Rand Paul's $1 million in contributions. Rand, the Texas Republican's son, is an ophthalmologist running for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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MEET THE NEW SENATOR.... This morning, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), acting on a new law approved this week by the state legislature, appointed Paul G. Kirk Jr. to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by Ted Kennedy's death a month ago.

Patrick's decision reflects the expressed wishes of the Kennedy family. Indeed, there were reports this week that Victoria Kennedy, Edward Kennedy Jr., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy all encouraged the governor to select Kirk for the seat.

Kirk's ties to Ted Kennedy were strong and extended back many years. The newly-appointed senator served as a close aide to Kennedy in the 1970s, and became chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the late 1980s. Kirk, who is 71, is currently serving as the the chairman of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation board of directors.

In the 100-seat body, Kirk will be the sixth appointed senator, joining Sens. George Lemieux (R-Fla.), Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

The NYT noted this morning, "Democrats in Washington and Massachusetts expressed enthusiasm for his candidacy, saying Mr. Kirk was familiar enough with Capitol Hill and Mr. Kennedy's priorities to seamlessly pick up where the senator left off."

It's a safe, smart pick, adding a seasoned voice to the Senate who, while lacking Kennedy's obvious influence, will vote as his old friend would have if he were still serving.

Kirk, who expects to be sworn in tomorrow, will remain in the Senate until January. Massachusetts will hold a special election on Jan. 19, at which point voters will elect a senator to fill the remaining years on Kennedy's term. Kirk made clear this morning that he will not be a candidate in that race.

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

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KURTZ GETS MANDATES.... The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz notices the right's shift on individual mandates, and summarizes the situation nicely.

I'm not taking sides, but let's be clear. There is no health insurance reform without a mandate. Everybody wants to stop the insurance companies from barring people for preexisting conditions. Without a mandate, healthy people would get a free ride with no insurance and sign up the moment they get sick. Massachusetts has a mandate, passed under a Republican governor, Mitt Romney. So when exactly did this become a lousy idea?

I am taking sides, and if we're being honest about what's transpired, it became a lousy idea right around the time Republican lawmakers decided to defeat health care reform at all costs.

While the GOP is trashing the idea of individual mandates now -- Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) called the idea a "stunning assault on liberty" -- some of these same Republicans have already endorsed the idea. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he recognizes the need for the mandate. Mitt Romney and Bill Frist have said the same thing. Six current Republican Senators - Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Bob Bennett (Utah), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) -- are all on record co-sponsoring a reform measure that includes an individual mandate.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said, this year, that there isn't "anything wrong" with mandates even if some may view them "as an infringement upon individual freedom."

This is the exact same Chuck Grassley who said this week that consumers forced to buy insurance will be losing their -- you guessed it -- "freedom."

And here's the real kicker: if Democrats were to announce immediately that they were dropping the idea of an individual mandate, Republicans would either a) say they hate the bill anyway; or b) decide they actually love the individual mandate and can't believe Democrats abandoned the idea.

I guess this doesn't get repeated often enough, so let's briefly re-state the obvious: Republicans aren't negotiating in good faith. They don't support reform, and their efforts are motivated entirely by a desire to kill this initiative and deny Democrats a victory.

There's nothing especially outrageous about that -- the opposition party is supposed to oppose the majority's agenda -- but recognizing this reality helps highlight the futility of "bipartisan" negotiations and the media expectations that President Obama is "failing" if he can't convince the GOP to support reform.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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LOOK WHO'LL BE ON THE TEEVEE (AGAIN).... ABC News announced the guest list for Sunday's episode of "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," and you'll never guess who's going to be on. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will go first, followed by the guy who didn't win last year's presidential election.

Then, an EXCLUSIVE interview with Republican Senator John McCain, who is leading the call to send more troops to Afghanistan. Senator McCain has been supportive of the President's Afghanistan policy, but lately he's expressed concern about the current strategic review and says now is not the time to pull back.

Really, an exclusive interview with John McCain? What a rare occurrence!

Or not. For those keeping score at home, this will be McCain's 13th Sunday morning appearance since President Obama's inauguration in January. That's 36 Sundays, for an average of a McCain appearance every 2.7 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), and "Fox News Sunday" three times (July 2, March 8, and January 25). His appearance on "This Week" on Sunday will be his third visit in five months (September 27, August 23, and May 10).

I can appreciate the fact that Stephanopoulos may perceive McCain as having a unique perspective and/or expertise on Afghanistan, but he doesn't. For one thing, there are plenty of other congressional Republicans who've supported the president's policy, but are worried about a shift in direction. For another, when it comes to U.S. policy in Afghanistan, McCain is frequently confused.

But it's the Sunday shows' obsession with McCain that continues to be so absurd. The Arizona Republican, after a wildly unsuccessful presidential campaign, is 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. Indeed, we already know exactly what he's going to say this week.

And yet, the networks can't seem to help themselves.

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, more than 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 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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INHOFE ASSEMBLES 'SQUAD' TO UNDERMINE U.S. POLICY.... Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma sure is on a roll when it comes to attacking the White House. Last month, he raised the specter of a "revolution." A couple of weeks ago, he told constituents President Obama is "obsessed with turning terrorists loose in America."

Now the right-wing senator intends to undermine the administration's international efforts.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) has announced to National Review that he will be personally leading a "truth squad" to the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, where he will make it clear to international leaders not to believe that the United States will pass legislation to deal with the issue.

"Now, I want to make sure that those attending the Copenhagen conference know what is really happening in the United States Senate," said Inhofe. "Some people, like Senator Barbara Boxer, will tell the conference, with Waxman-Markey having passed in the House, that they can anticipate that some kind of bill will pass EPW."

It's nice to see how seriously foreign policy is taken these days -- when a member of the political minority will send his own delegation to an international conference, in order to undermine the government and tell other countries that they can't work with the United States.

Mori Dinauer added yesterday, "Has a sitting Senator ever led a delegation to a international conference with the explicit intent to undermine the official position of the United States on an international matter? ... The president has always had the widest latitude in international affairs, with the Senate limited to treaty ratification and funding war. Inhofe is throwing that basic institutional relationship out the window because of the conspiracies in his fevered mind."

They know no limits; they have no shame.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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WALKING, CHEWING GUM.... The White House and military leaders are exploring possible changes to U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and conservative lawmakers want President Obama to decide immediately to send additional troops into combat. The administration doesn't seem to care what conservative lawmakers want.

A new talking point, however, seems to be emerging among Republicans. The president hasn't decided on a new U.S. policy, the argument goes, because lawmakers are debating a health care reform policy. Or something.

Right-wing Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina made the case to ABC News yesterday.

"The problem is, the war in Afghanistan and our economy are our two biggest issues. But he's working on other issues such as health care and he's putting off the decision on Afghanistan which I think puts our troops at risk. So he needs to focus on priorities right now and not try to ram so many things down our throat here in Congress. He needs to address the issue of Afghanistan quickly."

It's not just DeMint. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters yesterday, "With all the attention there is on health care, the attention that needs to be paid to what is happening in Afghanistan isn't happening."

None of this makes any sense. It's a complex policy landscape, and competent policymakers need to be able to keep up, addressing more than one challenge simultaneously. Functioning democracies can walk and chew gum at the same time.

President Obama, for example, isn't "putting off" shaping a U.S. policy on Afghanistan because he's "working on other issues such as health care"; he's able to work on both. DeMint may not realize this, but the president has a variety of policy advisors and experts, and has several meetings through the course of the day. He can, believe it or not, talk to leaders on the Hill about progress on health care reform in the morning, and then talk to military leaders and national security advisors in the afternoon. The president has both an HHS secretary and a Defense secretary.

All available evidence suggests Afghanistan is a major topic of discussion in the West Wing, and Obama is overseeing a deliberate, thorough review of the future of U.S. policy. If there was no debate over health care reform, the exact same thing would be happening.

Jim DeMint thinks deliberation "puts our troops at risk." Jim DeMint isn't very bright.

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CENSUS WORKER FOUND HANGED IN KENTUCKY.... It's a deeply disturbing story no matter what the circumstances were, but let's hope it's not an example of anti-government violence.

A part-time Census Bureau field worker was found hanged in Kentucky Sept. 12 with the word "fed" scrawled across his chest, according to a law enforcement source. Bill Sparkman, 51 was found in a remote patch of the Daniel Boone National Forest in rural southeast Kentucky, the Associated Press first reported Wednesday night.

The FBI is assisting state and local police with their investigation, the law enforcement source told The Post's Spencer S. Hsu. The law enforcement source was unsure of the cause of death.

It is a federal crime to attack a federal worker during or because of his federal job. Sparkman was an Eagle scout who moved to southeast Kentucky to be a local director for the Boy Scouts of America, his mother told the AP. He later became a substitute teacher in Laurel County and earned extra money as a Census field worker.

Commerce Department officials have extended their condolences to the Sparkman family, but have not commented on the still unknown motivations behind the hanging.

There are, obviously, far more questions than answers, and it's best not to jump to any conclusions. The reporting, thus far, is based on unnamed law enforcement source, and some of what we've learned may be incorrect.

But as Alex Koppelman noted, if these early reports are accurate, they raise the prospect of what may have been a politically-motivated slaying: "There are always people who have some sort of paranoia about the federal government and the census, but things might be worse this time around. There's been a lot of talk on the right about the connection (always very tenuous, and now severed) between the census and ACORN, a group that's been conservatives' favorite bogeyman of late. And Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has been spreading her own fears about the census, at one point even suggesting a link between the census and Japanese internment during World War II -- a frightening parallel for modern conspiracy theorists who fear that the government is setting up similar camps for them now."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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September 23, 2009

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

* The president was well received at the U.N. today: "The United States is ready to begin a new era of engagement with the world, President Obama said Wednesday in a sweeping address to the United Nations General Assembly in which he sought to clearly delineate differences between his administration and that of former President George W. Bush. 'We have re-engaged the United Nations,' Mr. Obama said, to cheers from world leaders and delegates in the cavernous hall of the General Assembly."

* The next speech went less well: "Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, took the lectern at the United Nations on Wednesday morning for his first address at the General Assembly and delivered a long and rambling diatribe -- far exceeding the 15-minute limit on speeches -- against the Security Council and a host of other perceived enemies, while urging the world to welcome President Obama, referring to him as 'our son.'"

* Guess which part of that paragraph Fox News found important.

* The Massachusetts Legislature gave final approval this afternoon to a bill that will allow Gov. Deval Patrick to fill the state's U.S. Senate vacancy. Patrick will have to declare an emergency in order to legally appoint the interim senator.

* The Fed continues to sound optimistic notes about the economy.

* The White House is exploring multiple alternatives in Afghanistan, "including a plan advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan."

* The House easily extended unemployment benefits yesterday; the Senate intends to do the same soon.

* The White House gets impatient with Republicans' lies about Medicare, issues hard-hitting response.

* New U.S. policy on state secrets.

* The IRS is backing away from ACORN, too.

* The Washington Post hosted a lengthy Q&A today exclusively on ACORN. How very sad.

* The American Association of Justice starts rallying opposition to medical malpractice reform.

* How discouraging can Blue Dogs be? Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) argued that Medicare is part of a Soviet-style system. Seriously.

* So long, flavored cigarettes.

* Salon's multi-part series on Glenn Beck has been infinitely more informative than that recent Time cover story.

* PG&E has no use for the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce's global warming denials.

* Glenn Thrush extends an important apology to Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), after running a very misleading transcript provided by the NRCC.

* Bill Clinton has some compelling thoughts on higher ed.

* Glenn Beck hates the 14th Amendment.

* Electric and hybrid cars may be so quiet "that they pose a threat to pedestrians."

* Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) thinks marriage equality is evidence of "socialism." What a clown.

* Quote of the Day: "Many Republican politicians keep a little box filled with government programs that they break open in the event that they run into actual human beings with real problems."

* And finally, there's great symbolism in Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) sleeping during yesterday's health care reform hearing.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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GRASSLEY EYES ANOTHER BIPARTISAN GROUP.... The bipartisan Gang of Six was a rather spectacular failure, thanks almost entirely to the antics of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa. Today, however, the conservative senator told some home-state reporters that he's beginning to work on another bipartisan group that could host inter-party negotiations.

"I've had discussions with senators that aren't on the committee that could possibly work with us to try to get back into a bipartisan mold," Grassley said. "I think, though, that it'd be very helpful for people who aren't on the Finance committee or even the HELP committee...would kind of take the bull by the horns themselves and try to coalesce around something that could eventually become more bipartisan."

In order for this new effort at a "bipartisan" compromise to work, Grassley said, members of the Senate Democratic caucus would have to tell Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that they would support a Republican filibuster of a Democratic reform bill.

You don't say.

There are two relevant angles here. The first is why anyone in the Senate would be prepared to negotiate in good faith with Chuck Grassley at this point. Max Baucus bent over backwards to give Grassley an insurance-industry-friendly bill, filled with concessions and ideas that Grassley had already embraced, but he still walked away. Worse, he refused to take a serious, honorable approach to the talks as they dragged on for months.

The second is why Grassley would even bother. He obviously doesn't support health care reform, and has made a series of efforts to kill it. Why go through the motions again, immediately after spiking the Gang of Six talks?

Perhaps because Grassley realizes his conduct recently has hurt him at home. Nate Silver had an item yesterday noting the 18-point drop in the senator's approval rating in Iowa since the start of the year. The decline has come from Democrats and Independents, who apparently haven't been impressed with Grassley's antics of late.

Grassley is probably a safe bet for re-election anyway, but he's up next year in a state that's been trending "bluer" in recent years. Acting like a partisan GOP hack and undermining reform efforts isn't helping him back home, so he has to keep up appearances and pretend to be committed to a "bipartisan" negotiation process.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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A SHIFT IN CONVERSATION.... Over at TPM Cafe, Jim Sleeper has a thought-provoking piece.

Two events this month suggest a transition from one conversation about the American republic to another.

The old conversation -- often little better than a shouting match or a dance of snarky repartees -- is petering out with the passing, at 89, of Irving Kristol, the "godfather" of neo-conservatism.

A different conversation is renewing itself in a voice coming from the center of the old republic, thanks to Nicholas Thompson's gripping, stirring new book, The Hawk and the Dove. Writing about the half-century-long rivalry and friendship of arms-race "hawk" Paul Nitze and Cold War strategic "dove" George Kennan, Thompson shows that even bitter antagonists can remain friends if they care more about the civic-republican spirit that is the secret of this country's true strength than they do about themselves or their grand strategies.

Jim's thoughts on Thompson's book dovetail nicely with Gregg Herken's review of The Hawk and the Dove in the new issue of the Monthly.

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OH, NOW THEY'RE THINKING ABOUT THE PARTY-UNITY STRATEGY.... Sam Stein reports this afternoon that Senate Democratic leaders are taking a renewed interest in pushing the caucus on party unity. Dems and those who caucus with the party can certainly vote up or down on reform, but they should "at least commit to blocking a Republican filibuster."

Proponents of the strategy say it is being actively discussed both on Capitol Hill and within the White House -- "every day," said one Democrat who is actively involved with both branches when it comes to passing health care legislation. "That's the whole conversation. At the end of the day we don't need them to vote for the bill. We need to get them to get to cloture to end the debate."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-VT) has pushed the strategy on the Hill, and senior aides say he has the backing of the party's leadership.

It doesn't really matter how any of the centrist and center-right Democrats vote on reform -- what matters is whether they'll let the Senate vote on the bill or join with Republicans in blocking a vote from occurring. Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Bayh, Lieberman, et al can take a firm stand against reform legislation, just so long as they agree to support cloture first.

If Massachusetts' vacancy is filled, it's the solution that solves the problem. Reconciliation won't be a factor if members of the Democratic caucus agree to let the Senate vote on the bill. Stein added that party strategists agree that "getting all caucusing members to back cloture may be the most promising legislative path forward."

Of course it is. I'm sure readers are getting sick of seeing me talk about this all the time, but it shouldn't even be controversial -- to be a member of the caucus means letting the Senate vote on landmark Democratic legislation. It doesn't mean every Dem has to vote for every Democratic bill; it means they at least have to let the vote happen.

My only real complaint here is that I would have preferred to see this under active discussion "every day" over the summer. Throughout the month of August, every Democratic senator could have been confronted with a simple, direct message: "Let the Senate vote on reform."

Most of the country probably doesn't even realize this is a problem. For the typical American, it's probably foolish to think that the Senate could vote on a reform bill, the final vote could be 57 to 43, and the 43 would win. It's the beauty of the "Let the Senate vote on reform" message -- opponents would encourage lawmakers to vote against the bill, and supporters would do the opposite. Either way, the notion that a vote would happen should be a foregone conclusion.

We'll see if this renewed effort goes anywhere, but I wish it had started weeks ago.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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STANDING ATHWART HISTORY.... There are plenty of discouraging poll numbers for Democrats that have been released lately, but there's little evidence that Republicans are capitalizing in any meaningful way. The party is still less popular than the Democratic majority, and the GOP is still less trusted on most of the major issues of the day.

On health care, for example, the new NBC/WSJ poll shows 45% of Americans approving of President Obama's handling of the issue. For the Republican Party, the number was 21%. The GOP has done wonders raising doubts about Democratic reform plans, but it's not exactly persuading anyone that Republicans offer a superior alternative.

With that in mind, Ezra Klein had a good summary of the bigger picture.

The Republican Party's strategy against health-care reform has been something of a kamikaze mission: destroy the bill through a strategy that also destroys the party, at least in the short-term. The hope is that if they win the war, they'll be in better shape come the 2010 midterms. Maybe that'll work. Maybe it won't.

But if it does work, it won't leave them in a better position to govern. What Republicans -- and, when they're out of power, Democrats -- are doing is essentially discrediting the political process. Piece by piece, bill by bill. The argument, essentially, is that politicians are untrustworthy and Congress is corrupt and interest groups are trying to do horrible things to you and problems are not being solved.

All these thing might be true, but they're being said, in this case, by politicians who want to take back Congress and start negotiating with interest groups to solve problems. That's not going to work terribly well, and for obvious reasons. Republicans may think they've found a clever strategy in making it hard for Democrats to govern, but what they're really doing is making it nearly impossible for anyone to govern. American politics is trapped in a cycle of minority obstruction, and though that's good for whomever the minority is at the moment, it's not particularly good for making progress on pressing issues.

I think this is almost entirely right, except for one point -- Ezra described congressional Republicans as "politicians who want to take back Congress and start negotiating with interest groups to solve problems." I don't mean to be cute here, but I think that gives the GOP too much credit.

In fact, I'm not sure Republicans are interested in problem-solving at all. They want to take back Congress for the express purpose of stopping the White House from passing a progressive policy agenda. GOP leaders don't want to govern or "make progress on pressing issues"; they want to stop the process of governing and let the status quo linger.

To be sure, I think Ezra's entirely right about the consequences of Republican tactics -- they paralyze our system of government. The key, though, is that the GOP is almost certainly okay with that.

Put it this way: when was the last time the Republican Party, on the national level, had a coherent policy agenda? It wasn't 2002 ("9/11, 9/11, 9/11"); it wasn't 2004 (the bulk of George W. Bush's stump speech was about John Kerry); it wasn't 2006 ("9/11?, 9/11?, 9/11?"); and it wasn't 2008 ("maverick" is not a plan).

The same will be true in 2010 -- there's nothing in particular the GOP wants to do with government, other than to say "no" to those who do have an agenda. And with that in mind, making it impossible for anyone to govern suits Republicans just fine.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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ROBERTS LOOKING OUT FOR LOBBYISTS' NEEDS.... As the Senate Finance Committee continues to work on health care reform, Sen. Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky pushed for an amendment that would have required a final CBO score on the bill before holding a vote. Baucus has signaled an intention to vote on a bill as early as this week, and Bunning's measure would have pushed off a vote until October.

As it turns out, Bunning's measure was narrowly defeated -- though Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) supported it -- but the committee will wait for preliminary CBO analysis, which will likely delay a vote until next week.

What was especially interesting, though, was hearing Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas explain why he supports a slow-down in consideration of the bill. Faiz Shakir flagged this gem, and has the video:

"[T]he thing I'm trying to point is we would have at least 72 hours for the people that the providers have hired to keep up with all of the legislation that we pass around here, and the regulations that we pass around here, to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Have you considered this?'" [emphasis added]

Generally speaking, lawmakers don't like to admit it when they're going out of their way to help corporate lobbyists who are trying to kill a bill. In this sense, Roberts' candor was a pleasant change of pace.

But it's also further evidence of the ridiculous way in which the congressional GOP is approaching this debate. Roberts has a staff that analyzes legislation. There's also a Republican committee staff. If the senator wants to give experts a chance to go through the bill in detail, there are plenty of people on the payroll ready to do just that.

For Roberts, however, that's not quite good enough. The committee, the bill, and the process should just cool their heels, the conservative Kansan said, while insurance company lobbyists have a chance to tell senators what they think about the bill.

Faiz added, "According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Roberts has received over $172,000 in political contribution from insurance companies over the last five years. Unsurprisingly, Roberts opposes a public option because, he claims, 'it won't work.' Presumably, that's because that's what health insurance lobbyists have told him."

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NOT GOOD, BUT NOT QUITE AS BAD AS '95.... Following up on an item from Monday, Gallup conducted a national poll, asking whether people would prefer the government do more to "solve our country's problems" or whether more should be left to "individuals and businesses." The results were discouraging -- the percentage of Americans who believe "government is trying to do too much" is the highest it's been since the days of Speaker Gingrich.

govactivism.png

The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal had a similar question in its poll, but found different results (pdf). Respondents were asked whether government "should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people" or government "is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals."

A narrow plurality preferred the latter, 49% to 45%, but the 49% is the highest anti-government-activism rating in several years. Note, however, that there was only a four-point gap between the two -- in the Gallup poll, it was a 19-point gap between those who think government is doing too much, and those who want it do more.

What's more, while the demand for government activism has clearly declined, this poll suggests we're not close to the public attitudes of 1995, when it was nearly two-to-one in conservatives' favor.

As for improving this trend, all of the arguments from Monday still apply. First, those who think government is doing too much often don't mean it ("Keep government out of Medicare"). Second, Dems can help prove critics wrong by using the powers of the state effectively, including passing a strong health care reform bill. And third, President Obama, among others, can continue to promote the idea of government activism.

That said, Steve M. also raised a good point on Monday, which Dems would be wise to consider: "Every few years, our side gets the message out and persuades more people to vote Democratic. We don't get a message out that persuades more people to think in a genuinely progressive way. We never do that, and we desperately need to. We need to make more liberals, not just more Democrats. Otherwise, this is the result: shock and horror when Democrats do (or even seem to do) Democratic things."

* Note: Yes, this is another home-made chart, based on the NBC/WSJ data.

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THOUGHT EXPERIMENT OF THE DAY.... Putting aside the relative merits of the health care reform framework unveiled last week by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), he clearly went to great lengths to make it appealing to Republican lawmakers.

In the hopes of picking up at least some GOP support, the Finance Committee chairman presented a rather conservative plan that insurance companies loved -- no public option, interstate competition, high-risk pools, verification of citizenship, no public funds for abortion, high-deductible policies, no deficit spending, and featuring an individual mandate and Medicare reductions many Republicans, including conservatives, had already endorsed. All with a modest price tag, too.

We now know, of course, that the GOP wouldn't take "yes" for an answer, and rejected the Baucus pitch en masse. Over the last week, Baucus has made his framework more liberal, not less, to gain favor with committee Dems.

Jonathan Chait ponders a provocative point: what if Republicans had gotten on board with Baucus' proposal last week?

They could have announced their support on the condition that the bill not be changed at any point in the process -- or even insisted on nudging it even further rightward. Moderate Democrats, who are desperate for GOP cover, would have lunged at that deal. It would have acquired the sheen of bipartisanship and probably become an unstoppable force, even at the cost of infuriating liberals. Instead, President Obama is probably going to sign a more liberal health care reform plan.

Now, I understand the reasons for the GOP's behavior. Republicans are acting in their individual and collective political self-interest. Individually, Republicans realize that their base is convinced that Obamacare equals socialism plus death panels, and thus any Republican who signs on would kiss away his political future and quite likely face a primary challenge. Collectively, the party has put all its chips on defeating health care reform, or, as a fallback, withholding support and rendering reform a "partisan" exercise that can be used against red state Democrats in 2010.

It's a smart political strategy. But the health care plan that Obama signs is going to be around for a very long time. Republicans might one day come to wonder if picking up some seats in 2010 were worth forgoing a chance to help put their imprint on the U.S. health care system.

It's speculation, obviously. What's more, it's far too late. But Chait's analysis sounds about right to me -- had Republicans embraced Baucus' offer, Dems like Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Lieberman, and Bayh probably would been more than happy to join them. It would have set up a huge fight with the House, where Blue Dogs would have immediately endorsed the Baucus/GOP plan.

And the media would have loved it. Broder would start chiseling a statue in Baucus' honor, and his plan would quickly be called the "consensus, biparitsan" approach to reform.

I'm delighted Republicans balked, but it's interesting to ponder what the White House and the Democratic leadership might have done if the GOP had latched onto the Baucus bill.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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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.

* A new Rasmussen poll shows Chris Christie (R) leading incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine (D) in New Jersey's gubernatorial race by seven, 48% to 41%. Earlier this month, Christie's lead was eight, but Corzine is running short on time -- Election Day is six weeks away.

* Former eBay executive Meg Whitman launched her Republican gubernatorial campaign in California yesterday. In her kick-off speech, she complained about taxes, spending, and regulations.

* Speaking of California, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina is moving closer to launching her Republican senatorial campaign. To help get the word out, Fiorina's team has unveiled a rather dreadful website, and a head-shaking new slogan: "Carlyfornia dreamin."

* Former Rep. Rick Lazio (R) formally launched his gubernatorial campaign in New York yesterday.

* Retired baseball player Curt Schilling announced yesterday that he will not run for the Senate in Massachusetts' upcoming special election.

* A new Rasmussen poll shows a very competitive Senate race in Missouri next year, with Rep. Roy Blunt (R) and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) tied at 46% each.

* And in case there were any lingering doubts about whether Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is running for president in 2012, the increasingly right-wing governor launched a new political action committee yesterday. He's calling it the "Freedom First" PAC.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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ECONOMIC GROWTH VS. DEFICIT REDUCTION.... In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, respondents were asked to prioritize from a list of issues the federal government may address. "Job creation and economic growth" was easily the top priority (pdf), though it's down a bit from July, and "health care" was second. Coming in third was "the deficit and government spending."

But later in the poll, we find this:

Which of the following two statements comes closer to your point of view?

Statement A: The President and the Congress should worry more about boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits now and in the future.

Statement B: The President and the Congress should worry more about keeping the budget deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover.

Given the seriousness of the economic crisis, and the demand for an improved job market, it stands to reason the first statement would draw much higher numbers. Indeed, when given an open-ended choice in the exact same poll, "job creation and economic growth" was a much higher priority than the budget deficit.

Except, the results weren't even close -- in the other direction. A 62% majority said policymakers should focus on deficit reduction, even if it means delaying economic growth, which is more than double the 30% who said it's better to boost the economy. In June, prioritizing deficit reduction over economic growth also had a clear majority, but the margin is getting bigger not smaller.

Once in a while, policymakers have to be responsible enough to ignore polls and do the right thing. If these results are accurate, people care more about the deficit than the economy. But that's crazy. Imagine politicians telling a person who's lost her job and benefits, and who's struggling to stay afloat, "Yeah, but at least I've helped lower the deficit by a fraction of a percent in relation to the GDP!"

If the poll is right, the majority is wrong. Following this line of thinking is a recipe for a double-dip recession.

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

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PELOSI'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES MOVES.... There's a sizable portion of the House Democratic caucus that won't support reform if they consider it too liberal. There's another contingent, which is at least as big, that won't support reform if they consider it insufficiently liberal.

The Hill reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reaching a conclusion as to how best to proceed.

Speaker Pelosi is backing away from a deal she cut with centrists to advance health reform, said a source familiar with talks.

Pelosi's decision to move away from the agreement that was made with a group of Blue Dogs to get the bill out of committee would steer the healthcare legislation back to the left as she prepares for a floor vote.... But a Pelosi aide said nothing is final, and the proposal to revert to the more left-leaning version of the language would be vetted before the entire Democratic Caucus.

It doesn't seem quite right to say that Pelosi is "moving away" from the leadership's deal with Blue Dogs. In July, in order to get a reform bill out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and the leadership negotiated with Rep. Mike Ross (D) of Arkansas, the Blue Dog caucus' point-man on health care, and other center-right Dems. They agreed to a fairly progressive bill, which included a public option, and Ross and other Blue Dogs voted to send the measure to the floor.

Two months later, Ross returned from the August recess, scrapped the agreement, and said he would not vote for a reform bill with a public option -- despite the fact that he already had at the committee level, and had endorsed a public option just two weeks prior.

In other words, Pelosi didn't "move away" from the agreement, Ross did. Now, the Speaker is left to pursue a different course, because Ross hasn't left her with much of a choice.

In some circles, House passage of reform is a foregone conclusion, but it's worth remembering that Pelosi's task is far from easy. To pass reform with no Republican votes, the Democratic caucus can afford to lose no more than 38 votes. There are more than 38 Blue Dogs looking for a more conservative bill, and there are more than 38 progressives looking for a more liberal bill.

Brian Beutler reported this morning, "[B]ehind the scenes and in public, Pelosi continues to make the case that health care reform should include a public option, and that the public option should be more robust. And according to Roll Call, she'd like the bill the House votes on to be completed and ready for a CBO score by the end of this week, ahead, she hopes, of a mid-October vote. Pelosi has a tough needle to thread particularly given the Senate's aversion to endorsing a public option. And though her public adamancy has softened, she's clearly working the inside game."

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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NBC/WSJ POLL.... Some interesting tidbits from the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll:

* Presidential approval: President Obama's approval rating stands at 51%, the same as last month's NBC/WSJ poll. His handling of the economy is up just a little to 50%, and his handling of health care is up five points to 46%. A combined 77% of Americans say they like the president personally.

* Uptick for reform plan: While a plurality of respondents still oppose the Democrats health care proposals, 39% believe the plan is a good idea. That's up three points from August, and is the highest percentage since the beginning of the reform debate.

* GOP not capitalizing: Just 21% approve of the Republican Party's handling of health care, less than half of Obama's support. Overall, 28% have a positive impression of the GOP, while 43% have a negative impression. (Democrats have 41%-39% positive/negative score.) Nevertheless, on a generic congressional ballot, Democrats only lead by three, 43% to 40%.

* Public option: The good news is, a 48% plurality believes it's "extremely important" to "give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance." That's up seven points since June. When another portion of the sample, however, was 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?" 48% said they're opposed; 46% said they're in favor. 26% said a public option must be part of reform; 24% said it must not.

* Blame Game: If health care reform falls apart, and nothing passes, most Americans are prepared to blame Republicans. The poll found that a 37% plurality believes congressional Republicans will be "most to blame" if the bill fails. Only 10% said President Obama would deserve the blame.

* Over exposure: The media seems awfully excited about the notion that the president is on television too much. In this poll, a 54% majority said Obama is making the right amount of media appearances.

* Economic optimism: In easily the best results of the year, the number of people who are satisfied with the state of the economy has jumped 20 points since July. Those who think the economy will get better over the next year has increased nine points since April.

* Afghanistan: A 51% majority does not want to see more U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan, and 59% are less confident about the future of the conflict. On the other hand, 55% oppose a pullout.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THE GOP REVERSAL ON INDIVIDUAL MANDATES.... In many cases, Republican lawmakers asked Democratic leaders to make specific concessions on health care reform. When Dems like Max Baucus agreed, the GOP balked anyway.

But there are other areas in which Democrats simply embrace policy ideas endorsed, or even created by, the right. For quite a while, conservatives liked the idea of giving an Independent Medicare Advisory Council more power to determine what the program should pay for. It's a straightforward, money-saving measure. When the Obama administration agreed, Republicans decided they didn't like their own idea anymore.

The same thing is happening with an individual mandate, which Republicans trashed during the first day of Senate Finance Committee debate yesterday.

Advocates of a coverage mandate say it is needed to ensure that young, healthy people get insurance and contribute to the system. They say this will ease costs associated with an influx of less-healthy people who are expected to get coverage under the Baucus legislation.

Republicans, who are trying to slow Democratic efforts to pass a health overhaul by the end of the year, rushed to criticize the proposal.

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the Finance Committee's senior Republican, said the mandate is among the reasons that he couldn't support the bill despite months of negotiations with Mr. Baucus. "Individuals should maintain their freedom to chose health-care coverage, or not," he said.

"This bill is a stunning assault on liberty," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate's second-ranking Republican.

That's pretty strong rhetoric under any circumstances, but it's especially striking since the GOP used to think individual mandates were fine. Indeed, Sam Stein noted yesterday that the idea was "once considered so non-controversial that it was endorsed by several major Republican officials."

As recently as a month ago, Chuck Grassley, the same senator bashing the idea of a mandate yesterday, announced that the way to get universal coverage is "through an individual mandate." He told Nightly Business report, "That's individual responsibility, and even Republicans believe in individual responsibility." Earlier this year, Grassley told Fox News that there wasn't "anything wrong" with mandates even if some may view them "as an infringement upon individual freedom."

Now, apparently, he disagrees with himself. There's a lot of that going around.

Congressional Republicans could probably save themselves a lot of trouble by simply saying, "Whatever Democrats are for, we're against," in response to every question.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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HUMANA VS. BAUCUS/CMS.... Humana, among the nation's leading private insurers, is not at all pleased that policymakers intend to pay for health care reform by reducing unnecessary spending in Medicare Advantage. Humana, after all, makes an enormous amount of money through the program.

So, the company, which has already spent $1.2 million on lobbying on health care, initiated a new mobilization campaign, contacting its customers with frightening and misleading letters to try to scare them about reform, and creating a website to send form emails to lawmakers. (The emails identify the sender as Medicare Advantage members, whether they are or not.) This came to the attention of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which began investigating Humana's lobbying efforts.

More importantly, at the request of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the CMS asked Humana to stop the misleading mailings and shut down the form-email website. The agency has authority on the matter, given all the taxpayer money Humana accepts, and the marketing limits Humana accepted as part of the program.

Republicans aren't happy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents Humana's home state of Kentucky, and has received tens of thousands of dollars from the company over the years, called the CMS actions a "gag order" -- a characterization that has been echoed by House Minority Leader John Boehner and Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) -- ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee -- who fired off an angry letter to CMS acting administrator Charlene Frizzera.

"In light of CMS' seemingly uneven and potentially politically-motivated use of its regulatory authority," Camp writes, "I therefore request that...CMS immediately suspend this virtual gag order on efforts by an MA plan to let its enrollees know how they could be hurt by the health reforms plans being pushed by President.

Just so we're clear, Republican politicians, some of whom get plenty of money from Humana, are defending an insurer misleading Medicare recipients with taxpayer-subsidized communications.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said he's only looking out for free-speech rights. "You don't lose your rights because you happen to sell insurance for heaven's sake," he said.

That is, of course, a foolish argument. The government is paying the bills here. Humana accepted lobbying and marketing limits when it started collecting tax dollars. As Ryan Grim noted, "Communication between the private Medicare Advantage providers and beneficiaries is strictly regulated because the private companies are using public dollars."

Republicans shouldn't decry the attached strings simply because Humana and the GOP have the same goal -- attacking health care reform.

In the meantime, Democrats on the Hill were quick to note the background of the company Republicans were desperate to defend: "Humana was recently featured in a HuffPost story for denying health care due to lack of an enema. In 2005, it settled a racketeering suit for $40 million. It settled a fraud lawsuit in 2000 for $14.5 million. Since 2000, its profits have soared from $90 million to $834 million."

Republicans often pick the wrong friends, don't they?

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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CANTOR'S SUPPORT FOR HEALTH CARE OPTIONS.... At a forum this week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) heard from a constituent about a serious health care dilemma. Her question was sad but common, and Cantor's response was illustrative.

The constituent noted that she has a close relative in her early 40s. She had a lucrative career and great insurance, right up until she recently lost her job. A couple of weeks ago, she was diagnosed with stomach tumors and needs an operation soon, but she's no longer covered.

Cantot encouraged her to look to "existing government programs," or perhaps "charitable organizations." He added, "No one in this country, given who we are, should be sitting without an option to be addressed."

That's worded rather awkwardly, but it's a sentiment I can agree with. Americans who need care should have "options." There should be "government programs" to provide coverage to those who don't have it.

The problem, which Cantor fails to appreciate, is that he and his colleagues are opposed both to giving Americans "options" and creating "government programs." If he meant what he said, Cantor wouldn't be leading the charge against health care reform.

Indeed, the follow-up question is obvious: what is Eric Cantor doing to help provide "options" and strengthen "government programs" for those Americans who need help?

As for relying on charities and the kindness of strangers to save those facing life-threatening illnesses, what Cantor may not realize is that these charities, through no fault of their own, necessarily have to ration care and force patients to endure long wait times -- there are fewer resources than patients.

In other words, Cantor's warnings about the perils of a reformed system are already a reality.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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September 22, 2009

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

* The Massachusetts state Senate passed a bill to empower Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to fill the Senate vacancy. Expect the legislation to be signed as early as tomorrow, with an interim senator to be named before the week's end.

* Keep expectations low: "President Obama on Tuesday chided the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority for not doing more to move peace talks forward but announced no breakthrough after meeting here privately with both men."

* Busy day at Turtle Bay: "Some 100 heads of state gathered at the United Nations on Tuesday for an unprecedented daylong conference on combating climate change, with leaders like Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao of China acknowledging that agreement is an important goal, but also stressing their own needs. Negotiators have been struggling to hammer out a deal to cut global emissions by December in Copenhagen, and the United Nations organizers are hoping that gathering the leaders will give the talks new political momentum."

* After falling at his home, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has been hospitalized.

* The counter-terror probe expands: "Investigators are looking for about a dozen more people in connection with a wide-ranging terror investigation that has already netted arrests in Colorado and New York City, a source familiar with the investigation said Tuesday."

* The recession is having a real, practical impact on the everyday lives of Americans.

* President Obama's chat with David Letterman seemed to go well last night.

* Reflecting on the president's media-blitz, the Washington Post assembled a misguided panel of observers.

* These guys are nothing if not responsive to criticism: "An August 10, 2009 National Endowment for the Arts conference call in which artists were asked to help support President Obama's agenda -- a call that at least one good government group called 'inappropriate' -- has prompted the White House to issue new guidelines to prevent such a call from ever happening again."

* Fox News' Megyn Kelly doesn't realize that the "stars and bars" is not used to describe the flag of the United States.

* It's a real shame to see what's become of Michael Barone.

* The one vote Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is most proud of is rejecting aid to areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

* Jonathan Cohn starts giving "Truman scores" to various health care proposals.

* Many of the year's funniest protest signs had me chuckling. (thanks to A.K. for the tip)

* Speaking of funny, "We're #37!" (thanks to F.B. for the tip)

* And in still more comedic news, be sure to check out Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, and others in their fake PSA that looks out for the poor health insurance executives. "[W]hy is Obama trying to reform health care when insurance companies are doing just fine making billions of dollars in profit?" Ferrell asks.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE SAMMON MEMO.... Over the weekend, an interesting video emerged of a Fox News producer rallying a right-wing crowd for the cameras at the 9/12 event in D.C. Viewers at home, of course, were not told that a Fox News producer was encouraging the protestors to make some noise specifically for the viewing audience.

The footage has been embraced by other networks as evidence of the not-so-shocking fact that Fox News isn't actually a journalistic outlet with professional standards. The video has apparently been so embarrassing to the network that Fox News managing editor Bill Sammon published a memo yesterday, sent to the network's team.

The reminder to the Fox News staff was quite amusing, in an unintentional way. Sammon wrote that Fox News' "journalists ... must always be careful to cover the story without becoming part of the story. At news events, we're supposed to function as dispassionate observers, not active participants." Fortunately, this was in an email, so there was no way for anyone to watch Sammon struggle to keep a straight face while writing it.

The memo went on to say that Fox News must ask questions in a "fair, impartial matter." Fox News, which was practically a co-sponsor of Tea Party rallies, must not "cheerlead for one cause or another." Sammon added, "We do not rile up a crowd. If a crowd happens to be boisterous when we show it on TV, so be it. If it happens to be quiet, that's fine, too. It's not our job to affect the crowd's behavior one way or the other. Again, we're journalists, not participants -- and certainly not performers."

Sammon concluded that Fox News' "legitimate journalistic role as detached eyewitnesses" must be protected. If the Republican network strays from being "honest brokers," Fox News will have violated its "sacred trust."

Ben Dimiero published an annotated, corrected version of the Sammon memo that's worth checking out.

Media Matters also put together this video, which cleverly matched up Sammon's reminders with actual Fox News broadcasts.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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CAUGHT IN THE ACORN NET.... It no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time. Republican lawmakers intended to stop federal funds that might go to ACORN, wrote a measure that blocked expenditures for "any organization that has filed a fraudulent form with any Federal or State regulatory agency."

Because ACORN has experienced problems with voter-registration efforts, proponents found it an easy way to block funding for the group without being explicit about the intended target. The problem, as Ryan Grim reports, is that the provision also applies to entities Republican lawmakers want to give federal funds to.

The congressional legislation intended to defund ACORN, passed with broad bipartisan support, is written so broadly that it applies to "any organization" that has been charged with breaking federal or state election laws, lobbying disclosure laws, campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent paperwork with any federal or state agency. It also applies to any of the employees, contractors or other folks affiliated with a group charged with any of those things.

In other words, the bill could plausibly defund the entire military-industrial complex. Whoops.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) picked up on the legislative overreach and asked the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) to sift through its database to find which contractors might be caught in the ACORN net.

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Gumman both popped up quickly, with 20 fraud cases between them, and the longer list is a Who's Who of weapons manufacturers and defense contractors.

Oops.

The next question, of course, is why ACORN's problems with voter-registration materials are extremely important, while Lockheed Martin's and Northrop Gumman's bad habits are not only considered uninteresting -- to conservatives, to lawmakers, to news outlets -- but largely verboten as a topic of conversation.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THE DYSFUNCTIONAL NOMINATING PROCESS, CONT'D.... John McHugh's nomination to be Secretary of the Army was held up for foolish reasons. So was Robert Perciasepe's nomination to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And David Hayes' nomination to be deputy secretary of the Interior Department. Harold Koh's, Dawn Johnsen's, and Thomas Perez's nominations have also all been held up for petty, partisan reasons.

And now we can add Alan Solomont's name to the list.

Byron York reports that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is blocking the all-important nomination of Alan Solomont, the president's nominee for ambassador to Spain. The reason: "retaliation for what Grassley says is the administration's stonewalling of Congress over documents relating to the firing of AmeriCorps inspector general Gerald Walpin."

York sums up the Walpin case in his article; the gist is that Walpin, a Bush appointee, was fired after recommending action against the Democratic mayor of Sacramento. AmericaCorps claims Walpin was failing to perform his job; Grassley has demanded proof that the firing wasn't political. And so as he performs a pivotal role in health care negotiations, Grassley is shooting overhead at the administration.

For crying out loud, Grassley's still hung up on the Walpin story? Wasn't this thoroughly debunked back in July?

Zachary Roth noted at the time, "You've got to assume that this mass of evidence has put to rest once and for all the line that this was a politicized firing -- and indeed, the conservative outrage seems to have receded recently."

It receded, of course, because the "story," which was all the rage in conservative circles for a short while, was found to be completely baseless, and White House detractors were forced to move on.

And yet, Grassley won't even let the Senate vote on a would-be ambassador to Spain over this?

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LOOK WHO'S MR. BILINGUAL.... Newt Gingrich apparently assumes Latino communities have very short memories.

The former speaker of the house, and all-around conservative idea-smith, has launched a news website for Hispanic Americans, the rapidly growing segment of swing voters. It's called The Americano, and it is the bilingual brainchild of Sylvia Garcia, a longtime employee of Gingrich Communications, the former speaker's consulting business. [...]

And so, conservative-minded Hispanics will find an opinion piece about how voter identification efforts are damaging the GOP brand among Latinos, a "History of U.S. Elections as Seen By Hispanics," and a piece about how the embattled non-profit ACORN was caught in a sting that involved a false claim about 14 El Salvadoran prostitutes.

The new website, which will seek to make a profit from advertising, comes at a time when Republican strategists, and conservative activists, are expressing clear concern over Republican popularity among the Latino electorate, a swing vote in recent presidential contests.

And why are Republican strategists and conservative activists concerned about the party's popularity among the Latino electorate? It might have something to do with Newt Gingrich.

It was, after all, the former House Speaker who, in giving a speech to a Republican group in 2007, described bilingual education as teaching "the language of living in a ghetto." He's also mocked the idea of printing government documents in anything but English, and promoted English-only measures.

In 1995, Gingrich said bilingualism poses "long-term dangers to the fabric of our nation" and that "allowing bilingualism to continue to grow is very dangerous."

And earlier this year, it was Gingrich who blasted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as a "racist," who should be "forced to withdraw" from consideration for the high court. He added that Sotomayor had to be rejected "if Civil War, suffrage, and Civil Rights are to mean anything."

But now that Republicans are worried about losing the Latino vote for the indefinite future, Gingrich is going to help bring the GOP message to the Latino community? Good luck with that.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CAREY ON NPR.... Kevin Carey, the policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, will be on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" this afternoon, starting around 3 p.m. (eastern).

He'll be talking about his piece in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, "College for $99 a Month," on the next generation of online education. It's a really interesting look at how online courses pose a credible threat to traditional, brick-and-mortar institutions.

Tune in or listen online. Definitely worth checking out.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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FILLING IN THE BLANKS.... The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out a letter to supporters this week, over Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) signature, with a variety of creative claims about health care reform. As far as the NRSC is concerned, President Obama's agenda may, for example, lead to a "'lottery' system of determining who will get priority treatment." If the agenda becomes law, the government may also discriminate against patients "on the basis of race or age." The government, the letter added, may even pick your doctor for you -- it's described as an idea that's "up for debate."

Now, in Grown-Up Land, the claims in the NSRC letter were not only ridiculous, but an embarrassment to American discourse. Time's Michael Scherer had a good item, criticizing both the NRSC correspondence and the political culture that tolerates such nonsense.

"In a just, fully functioning Democratic debate, there would be consequences for such fearmongering by a major political party," Scherer said. "Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who signs the direct mail piece, would actually be forced to either defend the document, by backing up the claims with actual evidence that these claims are in any way relevant to the current discussion, or he would be discredited as someone willing to fool people -- not to mention the elderly -- for political advantage. But this is not a fully functioning Democratic system."

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the NSRC, rejected the criticism and defended the Cornyn letter.

Walsh ... defended the mailer, not as a description of any of the Democratic plans, but rather as an open-ended musing on possible health care reform ideas. "It simply poses questions," said Walsh. "In looking at it, it doesn't say definitely what the president's health care plan is." Walsh added that no one knows what the final Obama health care legislation might contain. "He has not put forward legislative text," he said. "We have no idea what the Democratic bill is going to look like."

So in other words, Walsh is maintaining that the most alarming parts of the faux poll do not describe anything that Democrats or Obama has proposed, but rather describe things that could still be proposed at some point in the future to surprise everybody. Needless to say, it is rather unlikely -- call it completely inconceivable -- that Obama or Democratic leaders would introduce an 11th-hour amendment to deny health care to Americans based on race.

I see. Democratic reform proposals are still taking shape, and the White House hasn't introduced formal language, so as far as the National Republican Senatorial Committee is concerned, quite literally anything is possible. Got it.

Of course, it's also worth noting that GOP leaders have promised to unveil an alternative Republican reform plan "soon." They have not put forward legislative text, and we have no idea what the Republican bill is going to look like.

With that in mind, it's entirely plausible that the Republican Party's health care agenda may require child sacrifice in some kind of cultish ritual. What's more, the GOP plan may include mandates that physicians hit patients in the face with a baseball bat. If the Republican proposals become law, it's possible that only Southerners will be allowed to call 911 in an emergency. Perhaps most alarmingly, the GOP agenda might make it illegal to go to the bathroom.

I'm not describing the details of the still-hidden Republican plans; I'm just musing on the open-ended possibilities. This isn't a definite description of what the GOP plan is, but rather, a possible scenario that the minority party might pursue.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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MIKE ROSS' REAL ESTATE PROBLEM.... Rep. Mike Ross (D) of Arkansas, the Blue Dog caucus' point-man on health care policy, sold some commercial property in 2007 for a lot more money that it's worth. That, coupled with the pharmacy chain that bought it, makes this a potentially problematic story.

Ross sold Holly's Health Mart in Prescott, Ark., to USA Drug for $420,000 -- an eye-popping price for real estate in a tiny train and lumber town about 100 miles southwest of Little Rock.

"You can buy half the town for $420,000," said Adam Guthrie, chairman of the county Board of Equalization and the only licensed real estate appraiser in Prescott.

But the $420,000 that USA Drug paid for the pharmacy's building and land was just the beginning of what Ross and his wife, Holly, made from the sale of Holly's Health Mart. USA Drug owner Stephen L. LaFrance Sr. also paid the Rosses $500,000 to $1 million for the pharmacy's assets and paid Holly Ross an additional $100,000 to $250,000 for signing a noncompete agreement. Those numbers, which Mike Ross listed on the financial disclosure reports he files as a member of Congress, bring the total value of the transaction to between $1 million and $1.67 million.

And that's not counting the $2,300 campaign contribution Ross received from LaFrance two weeks after the sale closed.

Ross, who recently reversed course on the Democratic reform plan after having already voted for it in committee, is a member of the Congressional Community Pharmacy Coalition. Trade associations have recently thanked the conservative Democrat for approving measures favorable to the industry.

There may be an innocent explanation for the matter. I'm just not sure what it might be.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THEY'RE LAUGHING AT HIM, NOT WITH HIM.... We've seen plenty of examples of health care reform opponents trying to mislead the public at town-hall events. We haven't, however, seen many examples of these opponents getting mocked by their audiences.

In this video, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), who is currently running for the Senate, warned his Kansas constituents that Democratic reform proposals would cap physicians' wages. Specifically, the far-right lawmaker claims, "[T]hey're gonna set up a committee to determine what every doctor in America will make. They will set that fee, every doctor will make the same."

As a factual matter, this is hopelessly ridiculous. Tiahrt must know he's telling an over-the-top lie, but he obviously doesn't care.

But the key here is noticing the audience's reaction -- they recognized the claim as nonsense, and began groaning at Tiahrt's dishonesty.

Chris Harris added, "Kansas is a very conservative state home to some of President Obama's more fervent critics. Had Rep. Tiahrt stuck to some of the more common fear-mongering falsehoods surrounding the health care debate, he probably would have gotten away with it. However, he decided to swing for the fences by making up one of the most ridiculous claims to surface in the health care debate -- and the crowd didn't buy it."

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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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.

* The White House is taking "an increasingly direct role in contests across the country," as evidenced by the interest in New York's gubernatorial campaign.

* On a related note, a new Siena College poll in New York shows more bad news for Gov. David Paterson (D). Only 18% of New Yorkers think the governor is doing a good or excellent job in office. The poll added that Democrats, "by a significant margin," believe Paterson is well-intentioned but ineffective, bad on fiscal issues, and lacking leadership skills.

* With many Virginians still learning about the controversy surrounding Bob McDonnell's right-wing thesis, Creigh Deeds (D) is hitting the Republican gubernatorial hopeful even harder on the issue in a new television ad.

* Former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin (R), a close Karl Rove ally and a key figure in the U.S. Attorney purge scandal, has announced he's running against Rep. Vic Snyder (D) in Arkansas next year.

* Jeb Bush argued yesterday that the national Republican Party shouldn't intervene in the Republican primary for Florida's Senate race. Bush said he'd like to see Marco Rubio, the far-right former state House speaker, "be given a chance" against Gov. Charlie Crist (R).

* Pennsylvania's crowded 2010 gubernatorial primary has yet another candidate, with former Rep. Joseph Hoeffel (D) throwing his hat into the ring.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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MIXED MESSAGES.... For the most part, congressional Republicans haven't played a constructive role in the debate over health care reform, but they've been impressive when it comes to message discipline. Their attacks have been dishonest, ridiculous, and occasionally both, but they've had a clear line and they've stuck to it.

It's why the sudden lapses seem so odd.

For example, since July, GOP leaders have consistently said Democratic reform plans were a complete mess, unworthy of consideration. Every Republican official within earshot of a reporter used phrases like "hit the reset button," "start from scratch," "scrap and start over," etc. Recently, however, two House Republican leaders have said they're on board with 80% of what Democrats have in mind. It makes the reset-button tack seem rather silly.

Similarly, GOP officials and their allies would have Americans believe Democratic reform proposals exclude any and all ideas from Republicans. Except, they're not sticking to that line, either.

Even if no GOP votes materialize, [Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus] has cleared the way for Democrats to claim that Republicans had a fair shot at shaping what could become the biggest government-led expansion of health coverage since Medicare was created in 1965.

"This bill, except for the five to 10 things that weren't resolved, has been put together with some Republican input," Grassley said.

That's ... absolutely true. But it's not at all the message Republicans want to push right now.

As Greg Sargent, who called Grassley's comments "very significant," explained, this is an admission that "will make it tougher for Republicans to claim Dems didn't opt for a bipartisan approach on health care."

Grassley is, Greg added, "openly acknowledging that the GOP has had 'input' into the bill, which Dems can point to in order to argue that they pursued bipartisanship in good faith, even if they were unable to reach bipartisan agreement."

Expect to hear of this in the coming weeks. The White House has been pondering for some time now how to spin the lack of Republican votes, and still claim that the bill is broad and bipartisan. The rare, honest concession from Grassley will make the rhetorical sales pitch easier.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WILL, WHETHER, AND HOW #60 CHANGES THE EQUATION.... State senators in Massachusetts will begin debate today on allowing Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to appoint an interim senator to fill Ted Kennedy's vacancy until January. Republicans, who delayed consideration of the measure last week, are prepared to let the debate begin in earnest this morning.

A vote on the bill may come as early as today. If it passes, Patrick can sign it tomorrow and an interim U.S. senator can be sworn in before the week's end. It would, obviously, bring the total of senators in the Democratic caucus from 59 back to 60.

All of this has Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reevaluating how Democrats are going to pursue health care reform. Roll Call reports today that a 60-vote caucus makes the need for reconciliation process, wrought with hurdles and complications, a lot less pressing.

Reid noted that Baucus' gambit, while unsuccessful, was an attempt to avoid using strict budget reconciliation rules that would limit Reid's ability to achieve all the reforms Democrats are seeking, even though those rules would obviate the need for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority. [...]

Reid said he is hopeful the Massachusetts Legislature will soon vote to allow the governor to appoint a replacement for Kennedy so he will again be able to call on 60 Senators, but he said that has not stopped Democrats from pursuing one of the few Republicans seen as open to bipartisan compromise -- Snowe.

"They're working on a Senator up in Massachusetts," Reid said. "There are different ways we can get to 60 votes. It's not just dependent totally on her. I hope we can [get Snowe's vote]. She's a good legislator."

But he said he is doing everything he can to avoid using reconciliation to pass health care reform.

"I would rather do a bill that we can get 60 votes on, either on a bipartisan basis or a partisan basis," he said.

Of course, just to focus that a little, Reid wouldn't need 60 votes to pass a reform bill; he'd need 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

And at that point, the main hurdle between passage and less-attractive alternatives is a commitment from the caucus that members -- whether they're prepared to vote for the final bill or not -- will not support a Republican filibuster.

It gets back to a point I've been harping on a lot lately. As Ed Kilgore recently argued, "That Democrats could be against health reform is disappointing. That they'd deny a vote on it is unacceptable.... [T]he time has come -- and in fact, it is long overdue -- for them to begin forcefully making the case that being a member in good standing of the party's Senate caucus means supporting cloture motions on key legislation even if a given senator intends to vote against it."

This shouldn't even be controversial -- to be a member of the caucus means letting the Senate vote on Democratic bills. It doesn't mean every Dem has to vote for every Democratic idea; it means they at least have to let the vote happen.

Jon Chait recently said he has hard time envisioning a member of the Senate Democratic caucus casting a "vote to filibuster health care reform to death." It's just hard to imagine, he said, a Dem taking "the active step of killing what has been the centerpiece of the Democratic agenda for sixty years."

I'm not nearly as confident, but if the party-unity approach holds, Olympia Snowe will no longer be the most important politician in the country, and passage of an ambitious reform package appears much more likely.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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BIDEN WARNS OF 'THE END OF THE ROAD' FOR AGENDA.... Vice President Biden was in Delaware yesterday, and raised a few eyebrows with a warning about next year's midterm elections.

Vice President Joe Biden said today that if Democrats were to lose 35 House seats they currently hold in traditionally Republican districts, it would mean doomsday for President Obama's agenda.

Biden said Republicans are pinning their political strategy on flipping these seats.

"If they take them back, this the end of the road for what Barack and I are trying to do," the vice president said at a fundraiser for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) today in Greenville, Delaware.

Republicans would need to win 41 House seats to reclaim the majority they lost in 2006, and the GOP has its eyes on 49 districts represented by Democrats, which McCain/Palin won last year.

Biden added that a poor GOP showing next November would produce a more functional political process. "All the hidden Republicans that don't have the courage to vote the way they want to vote because of pressure from the party," Biden said, "it will break the dam and you will see bipartisanship."

The RNC and a variety of conservative bloggers seemed delighted to hear about Biden's comments, because it suggests the White House is at least aware of the possibility that the GOP could make significant gains next year. If the vice president is talking about it, that means Democrats are worried about it.

But is it really that surprising? Of course Democratic leaders are concerned about Republicans reclaiming power. The White House and its allies have a lot of work to do, cleaning up messes left from GOP rule during the Bush era, and a shift in congressional leadership would make progress impossible.

The point of Biden's comments probably wasn't to signal fear to rank-and-file Republicans; it was to give rank-and-file Democrats a reason to feel motivated about the midterms. There's already an enthusiasm gap, and Biden is trying to narrow it, effectively telling Dems, "Everything we care about will come crashing down if you don't get in the game."

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THERE'S THAT 80% FIGURE AGAIN.... House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D) got together yesterday for a forum on health care policy in their home state of Virginia. By all accounts, it was a civil gathering in Richmond.

Cantor was pressed, however, on a couple areas of interest.

Richmond resident Ben Ragsdale demanded to know how Republicans were going to expand access to healthcare if they have only a four-page list of bullet-points as their plan.

"What is your substantive proposal to meet these real everyday problems that people have? Where's the beef?" Ragsdale asked, triggering applause from the crowd.

The telegenic GOP lawmaker said Republicans and Democrats agree on 80 percent of fixing the nation's healthcare system, but could not show the crowd a detailed plan that has been endorsed by House Republicans.

Cantor earlier this year said House Republican leaders would release an alternative healthcare plan, but have not done so yet.

There are two interesting angles here. The first is the constituent's very good point -- there's still no Republican health care plan. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters in July that GOP lawmakers were putting "the final touches on our bill," which, he said, would hopefully be available "soon." That was 61 days ago, and no one's heard a peep about their bill since.

Cantor said yesterday that a bill is on the way. I seriously doubt that.

The second, though, is Cantor's claim that Republicans already agree with 80% of the Democratic reform proposals. That's exactly the same line Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany (R), the Republican who delivered the official GOP response to President Obama's speech on health care reform, took a couple of weeks ago.

The standard Republican talking point is that Democrats need to scrap all of their work, start over, and make GOP lawmakers happy from now on. But the next question remains obvious: if Republicans are already on board with four-fifths of what Democrats have in mind, and four-fifths of the congressional committees have already approved reform measures, why in the world should Democratic policymakers "start from scratch" or "hit the reset button"?

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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BECK THE BAILOUT BOOSTER.... When it comes to right-wing populism, last year's bailout of the financial industry holds a unique place in the panoply of conservative complaints. Despite having come from a conservative Republican president and his conservative Republican Treasury secretary, the idea of throwing $700 billion at banks that nearly collapsed the global economy draws the intense ire of the Tea Party crowd.

The trick, then, is for conservative leaders to ride the wave of anger effectively. We talked yesterday about Mitt Romney, who said earlier in the year that "bailing out banks was "necessary to prevent a cascade of bank collapses," but who's since changed his mind.

But a Romney flip-flop is about as common as the sunrise. Of greater interest is Glenn Beck's reversal.

Yesterday, in an apparent attempt at bipartisanship, Beck targeted TARP. "[Obama] will say that Bush started us down the path toward socialism, and he'd be right by that," Beck told his Fox News audience. "Bush started the crazy spending. He would be right again. Bush started the bailouts. Yes, he did -- [I] hated him for it."

And while this rhetoric is no doubt applauded by Teabaggers, Beck had a very different message last fall. Indeed, exactly one year ago today, Beck publicly endorsed the bank bailouts.

"[W]e are in the middle of an all-out financial emergency, and emergencies have a way of really testing people.

"In normal times, under normal circumstances, if you tune in to me, you know me as somebody who would tell the federal government exactly where to take their bailout plans and shove it right up their you-know-what. But these are anything but normal times.

"I thought about it an awful lot this weekend, and while it takes me -- it takes everything in me to say this, I think the bailout is the right thing do.

"The 'Real Story' is: The $700 billion that you're hearing about now is not only, I believe, necessary, it is also not nearly enough, and all of the weasels in Washington know it."

Beck probably doesn't remember calling the bailout "necessary" and the "right thing to do," and he probably hopes his followers don't remember it either. But that's what he said.

D-Day added, "Beck saw a movement stirring on the furthest reaches of the right and got out in front of it. Before that he was pretty firmly behind his President in bailing out the top banks. The difference is that now, the political energy on the right is with the teabaggers, and it makes sense to Beck to capitalize on that energy. But he has nothing approaching a coherent worldview. Whatever gets the most eyeballs."

I'll look forward to Glenn Beck '09 denouncing Glenn Beck '08 as a socialistic sell-out who doesn't care about our freedoms.

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SENATE FINANCE COMMITTEE GETS TO WORK.... It's several months later than expected, but the Senate Finance Committee will get together this morning and start actually doing the heavy lifting on crafting a health care reform bill.

To help grease the skids, Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) made some improvements to his bill late yesterday, in the hopes of securing additional support from Democrats who'd been locked out of Baucus-led negotiations all summer.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, said Monday that he would modify his health care bill to provide more assistance to moderate-income Americans to help them buy insurance. Mr. Baucus also said he would make changes to reduce the impact of a proposed tax on high-end health insurance policies. [...]

Mr. Baucus said he believed the changes would "help smooth the way for passage" of the bill in the Finance Committee, where he will try to navigate through critics on the left and the right.

The devil, of course, is still in the details, but Baucus at least seems like he's moving in the right direction. He didn't say specifically how much he would, for example, improve subsidy levels for the middle class, but Baucus conceded the subsidies "will clearly be more generous." The NYT added, "He said he wanted to reduce the maximum amount that moderate-income Americans would have to pay in premiums under the legislation to less than 12 percent of income." Baucus' framework from last week eyed 13%, which suggests his improvement is slight, but progress is progress.

Baucus still isn't going for a public option, though he expressed renewed interest yesterday in the Snowe "trigger" idea. Baucus also signaled a willingness to reduce penalties for those who refuse to get insurance.

Time's Karen Tumulty had a helpful overview of what to look out for as the Finance Committee rolls up its sleeves on Baucus' proposal: "It faces hundreds of amendments, promising a tug of war between the left and the right that will be the best test yet of whether this legislation has any chance of ever reaching the President's desk."

Tumulty added that Baucus is "moving with uncharacteristic speed." In terms of the calendar, that's heartening -- the chairman thinks it's possible an amended version of the reform bill could be approved as early as this week. At that point, the Senate leadership would begin merging it with the Senate HELP bill that passed in July.

A spokesperson for the Senate Majority Leader said a bill could be on the Senate floor in early October. In other words, in just two weeks, for the first time in history, the Senate could be debating a health care reform bill.

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

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September 21, 2009

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

* Baucus, Take Two: "The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus, said Monday that he would modify his health care bill to provide more generous assistance to moderate-income Americans, to help them buy insurance. In addition, Mr. Baucus said he would make changes to reduce the impact of a proposed tax on high-end health insurance policies."

* The consequences of the missile defense shift: "Russia said Saturday it will scrap a plan to deploy missiles near Poland since Washington has dropped plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin also harshly criticized Iran's president for new comments denying the Holocaust."

* Multiple arrests: "Federal agents have charged a 24-year-old Colorado resident, his father and another man with making false statements as part of an extensive terror investigation that stretches to Pakistan. Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan national, and his father, Mohammed Wali Zazi, were arrested Saturday night in the Denver suburb of Aurora."

* Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) still wants a "trigger," but is it any good?

* ThinkProgress catches up with Fox News hatchet-man Jesse Watters.

* Bill O'Reilly apparently felt shy at the Values Voter Summit.

* There have been plenty of awful responses to the House passing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), but Rep. Lee Terry's (DR-Neb.) reaction was one of the dumbest.

* John McHugh is finally the Secretary of the Army.

* LGF and PowerLine's falling out speaks to a larger schism among conservatives -- those who are sane are being shunned.

* Joe Wilson's (R-S.C.) recent behavior has helped push a Rhode Island state lawmaker out of the Republican Party.

* Anonymous Liberal tackles an NEA "scandal" that far-right blogs are worked up about today.

* Republican lawmakers sure do love "Fox Nation."

* Who, exactly, has seen Joe Biden's birth certificate?

* And finally, "Kids in the Hall" saw Glenn Beck coming years ago.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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NET NEUTRALITY.... Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, brought some hope to a whole lot of consumers today, while annoying telecoms, articulating an ambitious vision for the future of the Internet.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution in D.C., Genachowski presented a series of open-access principles, emphasizing, among other things, net neutrality. There was an accompanying blog post highlighting what Genachowski has in mind.

All the right people sound delighted.

The fight for Net Neutrality took a big step forward on Monday with the chair of the Federal Communications Commission announcing plans to expand the rules to protect a free and open Internet.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Julius Genachowski said the FCC must be a "smart cop on the beat" preserving Net Neutrality against increased efforts by providers to block services and applications over both wired and wireless connections.

Genachowski's speech comes as a breath of fresh air in a Washington policy environment that has long stagnated under the influence of a powerful phone and cable lobby.

"If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late," Genachowski said citing a number of recent examples where network providers have acted as gatekeepers.

Speaker Pelosi sounds thrilled, as does Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the co-author of net neutrality legislation.

Atrios added, "Elections have consequences, and one consequence is hopefully better rulemaking and regulatory oversight by the various agencies. Moving towards codifying net neutrality principles is good news." Publius added, "It's a good day for the Internets. Rejoice and be glad."

The usual suspects are already complaining about the dreaded Obama administration wanting "government regulation of the Internet" -- that the government helped create the Internet is a point often lost on conservatives -- which I find oddly reassuring. Genachowski has already challenged the talking point: "This is not about government regulation of the Internet. It's about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet."

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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DOES HE HAVE TO POLITICIZE YOM KIPPUR, TOO?.... Here's a quick tip for Glenn Beck: Judaism's high holy days are not part of your crazed political crusade.

This afternoon, Beck wrote a Twitter message that read, "Sept. 28. Lets make it a day of Fast and Prayer for the Republic. Spread the word.Let us walk in the founders steps." [Grammatical problems in the original]

Soon after, on his radio show, Beck added, "By the way, I just thought I would put this out there, and what you do with it is your own business. But, this weekend, I put out a tweet on Twitter that September 28th is the Day of Atonement for the Jewish faith, and I thought it would be a good day for all of us to fast and pray, you know. And I got this idea from Thomas Jefferson. After they put together the Continental Congress, the first thing they did was put together a day -- a national day of fast and prayer, and I thought the Day of Atonement would be a good day to do it."

Two angles to keep in mind here. First, Beck's understanding of history is incomplete -- Jefferson was a staunch opponent of proclamations related to days of prayer and fasting. Jefferson even wrote brilliant letters about why he objected to the practice. If Beck is going to use Jefferson as an inspiration, he should at least try to understand what Jefferson was all about.

Second, and more important, Yom Kippur should not be used as an excuse for Glenn Beck to push his nonsense. "Yom Kippur is a day of atonement, prayer and fasting," Media Matters' Ari Rabin-Havt said. "Glenn Beck's attempt to politicize this holiest of days with his far right agenda is not only disgusting, but shows a profound disrespect for the Jewish people."

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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THE GOP AND THEIR 'SURVEY' QUESTIONS.... About a month ago, the Republican National Committee sent out a "survey" (read: fundraising gimmick), telling supporters that it's "possible" that health care reform would lead to "GOP voters" being "discriminated against for medical treatment."

The RNC later walked it back, conceding that the claim was "inartfully worded."

And yet rank-and-file Republicans continue to hear related claims.

Senate Republicans are mailing out a "survey" insinuating that the president's health care reform agenda includes the creation of a lottery system to determine who gets medical treatment and a quota system that based on race and age.

Written under the vague and non-partisan title of "U.S. Senate Health Care Task Force," the mailing, which includes a fundraising letter, was commissioned by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and passed to the Huffington Post by a Democratic source.

The latter, written over Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) signature, suggests health care reform may lead to a "'lottery' system of determining who will get priority treatment." No such idea exists in reality. The same "survey" suggests there may be a "'quota' system" in which Americans' treatment may be limited "on the basis of race or age."

Cornyn's correspondence also warns that the federal government may pick who is "eligible" to receive certain medical procedures, pick your doctor for you, and penalize you for "choosing to see a private doctor."

Why are conservatives so terrified of government action? Why has it become so impossible to have an intelligent policy debate? Because we have letters like this one from people like John Cornyn.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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THEIR POWER IS NOT 'UNKNOWN'.... Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post characterizing White House "czars" as an outrageous and unconstitutional abuse. It was filled with errors of fact and judgment, including the notion that having 32 "czars" is "unprecedented" (Bush had 36).

But of particular interest was Hutchison's argument that White House "czars ... hold unknown levels of power over broad swaths of policy," which makes their offices constitutionally dubious.

Over the weekend, David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, veterans of the Reagan and H.W. Bush Justice Departments, explained that Hutchison is flat wrong.

The White House czars are presidential assistants charged with responsibility for given policy areas. As such, they are among the president's closest advisers. In many respects, they are equivalent to the personal staff of a member of Congress. To subject the qualifications of such assistants to congressional scrutiny -- the regular confirmation process -- would trench upon the president's inherent right, as the head of an independent and equal branch of the federal government, to seek advice and counsel where he sees fit. [...]

Historically, presidents have turned to special advisers. However much the czars may drive the policymaking process at the White House, they cannot -- despite their grandiose (and frankly ridiculous) appellation -- determine what that policy will be.

Right. The powers of "czars" over "broad swaths of policy" is not "unknown" -- it's practically non-existent.

Carol Browner, for example, is the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. Some have decided to call her the "Energy and Environment Czar," whatever that means. Browner, in reality, is a top advisor to the president on environmental policy, but her power rests in her ability to influence her boss and officials -- her office cannot make, shape, or dictate policy. Browner has no regulatory and/or legal authority.

This is true of practically all "czars." The exceptions -- notwithstanding the difficulty of knowing who counts as a "czar" and who doesn't, since the title doesn't literally exist -- are congressionally created offices, led by officials whose powers, again, are not "unknown," but rather, dictated by statute.

In effect, we're dealing with a "controversy" over the president assembling a team of specialized-but-powerless policy advisors. If we were to rank the manufactured outrages of the last eight months, this would have to be among the dumbest.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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'GOVERNMENT' STILL NOT POPULAR.... The need for bold, government action probably hasn't been as strong in decades as it is now. The government needed to intervene to prevent an economic collapse. It needs to intervene to prevent an environmental catastrophe. Government is needed to repair a broken health care system, repair financial regulations, improve access to education, and combat terrorism.

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And yet, distrust of government is soaring, at precisely the worst time. After the excruciating failures of the Bush era, it was tempting to think the electorate might finally be prepared for an activist government , addressing crises that conservative policymakers preferred to ignore and neglect. That, alas, is not the case.

A new Gallup poll reports, "Americans are more likely today than in the recent past to believe that government is taking on too much responsibility for solving the nation's problems and is over-regulating business. New Gallup data show that 57% of Americans say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals, and 45% say there is too much government regulation of business. Both reflect the highest such readings in more than a decade."

The results are more than a little discouraging. In a time of widespread fires, a whole lot of Americans have been convinced not to trust the fire department. After deregulation helped create a global economic collapse, a plurality of Americans think "there is too much regulation of business." That's kind of nutty, but it's also the highest number on this question in a generation. The percentage of Americans who believe "government is trying to do too much" is the highest it's been since the days of Speaker Gingrich.

Reflecting on the Gallup data, Greg Sargent noted, "[A]ny chance President Obama may have had to permanently shift the paradigm against government-is-bad theology is fast passing him by."

Perhaps. But I'm not prepared to give up hope on a possible paradigm shift.

First, the poll's questions were fairly generic, and if you ask Americans about whether the government should be "doing more to solve the nation's problems," a generic opposition can kick in.

What matters more, however, are the specifics. Let's remember, much of the public doesn't even understand what is and isn't a government program. It's been surprisingly common of late to hear people say they hate government but love their Medicare. Americans say they want government to do less, but if pressed on the details, these same Americans look to policymakers to do more -- indeed, far more -- on everything from health care to education, infrastructure to energy policy.

Note, for example, that despite all of the ferocious attacks against health care reform in recent months, the public option still polls very, very well. People who claim they want government to do less are the same people who like the idea of a government-run plan that competes with private insurers. That's a fundamentally liberal idea that challenges the government-is-bad paradigm, and conservative criticisms aren't working.

This is especially true as it relates to the economic crisis. Are American really hoping that the finance and banking sector are regulated even less? Maybe some see a value in that, but they're hopelessly confused.

Second, the best way to change public perceptions is to prove their fears wrong. The White House and its allies in Congress are using government to intervene in a variety of areas at a time of considerable unrest and near-panic. Resistance to change and bold government action is almost reflexive. Real, meaningful change is hard.

But those numbers can shift back with proof. If policymakers can use government to improve the economy, fix the broken health care system, prevent terrorism, make college more accessible and affordable, restore some common sense oversight on Wall Street, Americans' attitudes will change.

And third, the president deserves at least some credit for, during his first eight months in office, challenging the prevailing paradigm. Bill Clinton famously said the "era of big government is over," but Barack Obama has deliberately tried to move the needle in the other direction.

* In January, Obama offered a rather explicit defense of government: "It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy...."

* In February, in his first address to Congress, Obama did the same thing. E. J. Dionne Jr. noted at the time, "President Obama's message to the nation Tuesday night was plain and unequivocal: The era of bashing government is over.... [Obama] has sought, subtly but unmistakably, to alter the nation's political assumptions, its attitudes toward collective action and its view of government. Obama's rhetoric is soothing and his approach is inclusive. But he is proposing nothing less than an ideological transformation."

* In his joint-session speech on health care, Obama again defended the very idea of government action, standing up for the "belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise." He warned against the "perils" of government doing "too little."

Changing attitudes about government is even more difficult than changing a dysfunctional health care system. But President Obama is making a deliberate effort, despite the headwinds.

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SHIFTING WITH THE WIND.... Of all the nation's prominent political players, Mitt Romney should be more careful than most about "flip-flopping." It's not entirely fair to hold Romney to a different standard than everyone else, but that's the price Romney pays for completely reinventing himself. When one goes from moderate, blue-state pragmatist to right-wing, neo-con culture warrior in short order, observers get a little more sensitive about 180-degree turns.

So, for example, these Romney remarks from Saturday morning stood out.

"When government is trying to take over health care, buying car companies, bailing out banks, and giving half the White House staff the title of czar -- we have every good reason to be alarmed and to speak our mind!"

Most of this is garden-variety nonsense/pandering. It's not exactly shocking to learn that Romney is more than willing to play the role of hack to impress the Republican Party's base.

But Romney, in February*, said bailing out banks was "necessary to prevent a cascade of bank collapses. For free markets to work, there has to be a currency and a functioning financial system."

Perhaps he's changed his mind. Perhaps he's been unimpressed with the ways in which the banking system has been stabilized.

Or, more likely, Romney thinks this is what right-wing activists want to hear, so he'll disregard his own beliefs and previous statements to score a few points with the Teabagging crowd.

Andrew Sullivan added, "There's something quite refreshing about his open refusal to have any principles, or even to worry about the slightest consistency between one statement and the next."

I'm not sure if "refreshing" is the right word, but Romney is certainly in a league of his own. Some lead and some change course whenever the winds shift -- Romney is in the latter category.

No one can say with any certainty who Mitt Romney will be tomorrow, and when he might shift back in the other direction should it suit his ambitions.

*Corrected

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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.

* President Obama has reportedly signaled to New York Gov. David Paterson (D) that he should skip next year's gubernatorial race. Paterson has said publicly he intends to run anyway, but the NYT reports today that Paterson is "mulling his options" and is "open to the possibility of withdrawing."

* A Washington Post poll published over the weekend shows Bob McDonnell's (R) lead in Virginia's gubernatorial race slipping to just four points, 51% to 47%. McDonnell had lead Creigh Deeds (D) by as much as 15 points a month ago.

* Speaking of Virginia, former Gov. Doug Wilder (D) has not yet thrown his support to Deeds, so President Obama has gotten in touch with Wilder to express the White House's expectations.

* In one of the first big endorsements in Massachusetts' special election, Rep. Barney Frank (D) has announced his support for Rep. Mike Capuano (D).

* In Iowa, former Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who has expressed a strong interest in seeking his former job, fares very well in a new Des Moines Register poll. Current Gov. Chet Culver (D) has been considered a fairly safe bet for re-election, but Branstad would obviously change the equation considerably.

* On a related note, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa has seen his standing falter in recent months in his home state. His approval rating is still a strong 57%, it was nearly 20 points higher earlier this year.

* And the religious right's Values Voter Summit held an unscientific 2012 straw poll on Saturday, and Mike Huckabee came out on top with 28% support. He was followed by Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, and Mike Pence.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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TAKING THE WRONG MARCHING ORDERS.... It's a crowded news landscape right now, and running through the choices for "major stories of the day" produces quite a list. Obviously, health care reform, the recession, Afghanistan, energy policy, financial reform, missile defense, and counter-terrorism efforts are major stories.

That is, unless you're a conservative activist. The Tea Party crowd believes what's really important is ACORN (an obscure community group), Van Jones (a former official in an obscure government office), and assorted conspiracy theories.

Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander questioned whether enough attention is being paid to what the right considers important.

Conservative bloggers and commentators know how to turn up the heat on mainstream media. Glenn Beck did it one day last week on his Fox News program. Theatrically unhinged, he directed viewers to call their local newspaper and demand coverage of ACORN, the national community action group targeted in an embarrassing hidden video sting.

"Right now, get off the couch. While I'm talking, you pick up the phone. You call the newspaper," he commanded. If ACORN hasn't been on the front page, or if the paper isn't investigating the group's local activities, "then what the hell are they good for?"

Shortly, The Post and other papers were flooded with angry calls and e-mails. [...]

With ACORN, The Post wrote about it two days after the first of several explosive hidden-camera videos were aired showing the group's employees giving tax advice to young conservative activists posing as a prostitute and her pimp. Three days passed before The Post ran a short Associated Press story about the Senate halting Housing and Urban Development grants to ACORN, which operates in 110 cities. But by that time, the Census Bureau had severed ties with ACORN. State and city investigations had been launched. It wasn't until late in the week that The Post weighed in with two solid pieces.

Why the tardiness?

Alexander's report suggested right-wing complaints are slow to be picked up, and aren't heard as often in newsrooms. The executive editor of the Post has "pressed the National desk this week to provide more ACORN coverage."

All of this seems hopelessly backwards. Every right-wing complaint this year has generated considerable media interest, regardless of merit. Pressing the Post to do more ACORN stories, because paranoid activists believe it's important, is foolish.

Part of responsible journalism is separating fact from fiction, identifying which stories have genuine value, and which don't. Beck and his minions need not be assignment editors for major news outlets.

Media Matters' response to Alexander's piece was quite thorough, but like DougJ, I want to emphasize one related point. Last week, we learned that alleged Interior Department corruption, with financial consequences in the billions of dollars, has even led to a criminal investigation of a former Bush cabinet secretary.

The Washington Post published "two solid pieces" about ACORN. How many Post articles were written about the criminal probe of a former cabinet secretary? Zero.

Worse, Alexander's report makes it clear political coverage will likely go even further to the right, with journalists pressured to care even more what right-wing activists find important.

As DougJ concluded, "Alexander and his ilk are so afraid of being labeled as liberal that they're willing to push whatever story Glenn Beck feeds them. I guess that's what 40 years of attacks from the right-wing does to people who weren't very tough to begin with. You end up like a dog that's been beat too much til you spend half your life just covering up."

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SKOUSEN'S INFLUENCE.... At the Values Voter Summit over the weekend, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) mentioned his reading habits. "Lately," Perry said, "I've found myself going back to a book that's titled 'The 5000 Year Leap.'" As Dave Weigel noted, "There were head nods and noises of approval from many members of the audience."

Perry added that the once-obscure book's author, hyper-conservative theorist W. Cleon Skousen, "shares his views of the foundational elements of our nation, placing a special emphasis in faith in God-I think undeniably a source of America's remarkable success. He asserts that natural law, God's law, is the basis of our nation's laws."

Skousen's name probably isn't familiar to most Americans, but his work has recently captured the imaginations of some prominent right-wing voices. That's not an encouraging development.

In a fascinating item last week, Alexander Zaitchick explained that Skousen is Glenn Beck's favorite writer, and the man who changed the Fox News personality's life.

A once-famous anti-communist "historian," Skousen was too extreme even for the conservative activists of the Goldwater era, but Glenn Beck has now rescued him from the remainder pile of history, and introduced him to a receptive new audience.

Anyone who has followed Beck will recognize the book's title. Beck has been furiously promoting "The 5,000 Year Leap" for the past year, a push that peaked in March when he launched the 912 Project. That month, a new edition of "The 5,000 Year Leap," complete with a laudatory new foreword by none other than Glenn Beck, came out of nowhere to hit No. 1 on Amazon. It remained in the top 15 all summer, holding the No. 1 spot in the government category for months. The book tops Beck's 912 Project "required reading" list, and is routinely sold at 912 Project meetings where guest speakers often use it as their primary source material. [...]

What has Beck been pushing on his legions? "Leap," first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. "Leap" argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs -- based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith -- that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined. The book reads exactly like what it was until Glenn Beck dragged it out of Mormon obscurity: a textbook full of aggressively selective quotations intended for conservative religious schools like Utah's George Wythe University, where it has been part of the core freshman curriculum for decades (and where Beck spoke at this year's annual fundraiser).

Skousen, a fringe activist considered dangerous by the FBI, was eventually kept at arm's length by his own Mormon church, but not before he became a leading defender of the John Birch Society. Even the National Review referred to him as an "all-around nutjob."

And yet, Skousen's book is a huge success with the Teabagging crowd, and is now being touted, not only by Beck, but also by Republican governors.

As Ed Kilgore noted recently, "Next time someone tells you the Tea Party movement is composed of average Americans who are simply worried at the terrible things Barack Obama's trying to do to their country, keep in mind they are being influenced by the works of someone who thought America was being plunged into socialist tyranny by the Eisenhower administration."

And as Zaitchick concluded, Skousen's popularity with Beck and his audience "suggests that the modern base of the Republican Party is headed to a very strange place."

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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MCCHRYSTAL WANTS MORE TROOPS.... The Washington Post and New York Times report today on a leaked "confidential" report prepared by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The revelations are not altogether unexpected: McChrystal wants more troops and a more aggressive counterinsurgency strategy. Without them, he said, the conflict "will likely result in failure," and within a year, defeating an Afghan insurgency will "no longer [be] possible."

In addition to the reports themselves, there's the story behind the story -- confidential reports like these are leaked to the nation's two largest newspapers for a reason. In this case, military leaders want to put President Obama in a position in which he can't deny McChrystal's request without serious political consequences.

Obviously, the substance of the appeal for additional ground forces is what matters most here, and on that front, McChrystal has a high hurdle to clear -- how many more troops would be needed to secure a country that's largely controlled by the Taliban? Is it realistic to think stability and security can be brought to Afghanistan in 12 months? The president appears skeptical, and for good reason.

But there's also the issue of the White House's relationship with the brass. On the one hand, the president and his team won't be rushed or pressured...

The president, one adviser said, is "taking a very deliberate, rational approach, starting at the top" of what he called a "logic chain" that begins with setting objectives, followed by determining a methodology to achieve them. Only when the first two steps are completed, he said, can the third step -- a determination of resources -- be taken.

"Who's to say we need more troops?" this official said. "McChrystal is not responsible for assessing how we're doing against al-Qaeda."

...and on the other, military leaders are getting impatient.

...Obama's deliberative pace -- he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal's report so far -- is a source of growing consternation within the military. "Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let's have a discussion," one Pentagon official said. "Will you read it and tell us what you think?" Within the military, this official said, "there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration."

As Michael Crowley explained, "It's an awfully uncomfortable spot for Obama to be in. During the campaign he spoke often -- albeit usually in the context of Iraq -- about heeding the advice of his commanders on the ground. Now he's in a position where he may not want to accept it.... That said, what the generals want is not the only consideration here. Their job is to tell Obama how the war can be won. Obama's job is to decide whether, in the context of America's myriad priorities at home and abroad, it's worth the projected cost."

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THEY STILL HATE PORN, TOO.... Over the years, the priorities of the religious right have shifted, which makes sense. The culture and political landscape have changed considerably since the Moral Majority first started influencing politics, so it stands to reason the movement's wish-list would adapt to evolving circumstances.

But some of the golden oldies still matter to this crowd. Michael Schwartz, a long-time right-wing activist who's served as Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.) chief of staff since 2005, spoke at a breakout session at the Values Voter Summit on Saturday, and attacked pornography.

"Pornography is a blight," Schwartz told an audience in a crowded room of the Omni Shoreham hotel. "It is a disaster. It is one of those silent diseases in our society that we haven't been able to overcome very well. Now, I may be getting politically incorrect here. And it's been a few years, but not that many, since I was closely associated with pre-adolescent boys, boys around 10 years of age. But it is my observation that boys of that age have less tolerance for homosexuality than just about any other class of people. They speak badly about homosexuality. And that's because they don't want to be that way. They don't want to fall into it."

Schwartz told the crowd about Jim Johnson, a friend of his who turned an old hotel into a hospice for gay men dying of AIDS. "One of the things he said to me," said Schwartz, "that I think is an astonishingly insightful remark… he said 'All pornography is homosexual pornography, because all pornography turns your sexual drive inwards."

There were murmurs and gasps from the crowd. "Now, think about that," said Schwartz. "And if you tell an 11-year-old boy about that, do you think he's going to want to get a copy of Playboy? I'm pretty sure he'll lose interest. That's the last thing he wants! You know, that's a good comment, it's a good point, and it's a good thing to teach young people."

Um, yeah. Tell young boys that looking at pictures of naked women might make them gay. That's a great strategy.

If you're not familiar with Michael Schwartz's work, he's quite a character. In 2005, he spoke at a right-wing theocratic conference and rejected the idea that the Supreme Court can deem unconstitutional laws passed by Congress. In other words, he's against judicial review -- a concept decided over two centuries ago in Marbury v. Madison.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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BOEHNER (SORT OF) REJECTS 'SOCIALIST' TALK.... House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared on "Meet the Press" yesterday, and argued that Americans are "scared to death" of the Democrats' domestic agenda. He noted, in particular, "the Treasury Department said" a cap-and-trade system "will cost the average family $1,700 per year." Boehner was, of course, blatantly lying.

Following up, host David Gregory asked whether Americans are "scared" in part because of over-the-top nonsense from the likes of RNC Chairman Michael Steele. "[D]on't they get even more scared when you got the head of the Republican Party sending out an e-mail that, you know, to challenge the president and Democratic leaders for a 'socialist power grab?'" Gregory asked. "I mean, is that appropriate conversation? Is this, did you really think the president's a socialist?"

Boehner initially hedged, saying, "Listen, when you begin to look at how much they want to grow government, you can call it whatever you want." Gregory pressed further, asking, "Do you think the president's a socialist?" The Minority Leader said, "No," as if the question itself was foolish.

Gregory added, "OK, but the head of the Republican Party is, is calling him that." Boehner replied, "Well, listen, I didn't call him that and I'm not going to call him that."

What a delightful breakthrough for our civil discourse. A member of the congressional leadership is willing, on national television, to reject the idea that the president of the United States is a "socialist." The bar for reasonable GOP rhetoric has fallen so low, this seems like a real leap forward.

If only Boehner meant it. Amanda Terkel reminds us that earlier this year, Boehner stood before a large right-wing audience and argued, "[T]he stimulus, the omnibus, the budget -- it's all one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment.... All of these bills seek to replace our economic freedom with the whims and mandates of politicians and bureaucrats."

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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OBAMA: PUBLIC OPTION NOT DEAD.... Most, but not all, of the talk in the political world is that the public option in health care reform is in some trouble. President Obama presented a defense of the proposal during his joint-session speech two weeks ago, and polls continue to show national support for the idea, but for a few too many lawmakers in the Senate, it's out of the question.

We learned yesterday, however, that the president, at least publicly, does not think the provision is dead.

Obama maintained that while the centerpiece of his healthcare reform effort, a public (or "government-run") option, is absolutely not dead, it also is not the "silver bullet" that would instantaneously repair the nation's healthcare system.

"I absolutely do not believe that it's dead," Obama told Univision's "Al Punto" of the public option's fate. "I think that it's something that we can still include as part of a comprehensive reform effort."

But the president still signaled that the public option, a key reform for which he has pushed for months, would not serve as a panacea for healthcare problems.

"What I've said is the public option, I think, should be a part of this but we shouldn't think that, somehow, that's the silver bullet that solves healthcare," Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press" with David Gregory, rejecting the idea that he'd effectively told liberals that the public option will not be included in reform.

I'd just add that the president has been fairly consistent on this since his big health care speech on Sept. 9. Obama talked up the public option in Pittsburgh last Tuesday, and promoted the idea again in College Park, Maryland, on Thursday.

Time will tell what's possible in the Senate, but talk that the White House would abandon the public option when things got tough has not come to fruition, at least not yet.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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September 20, 2009

LIKE A STEELE TRAP.... It's hardly a secret that New York Gov. David Paterson (D) does not look like a strong candidate for re-election. Just this week, a poll showed 70% of New Yorkers hope that Paterson, who took office after Eliot Spitzer's (D) resignation, does not seek another term.

With that in mind, it's hardly a surprise that the White House hopes that Paterson decides not to run next year. What is a surprise is that Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele apparently wants voters to think President Obama doesn't like black people.

Michael Steele said it was "curious" on why the White House would ask New York Gov. David Paterson (D) not to run for reelection in 2010.

"I found that to be stunning, that the White House would send word to one of only two black governors in the country not to run for reelection," Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), said on CBS's Face The Nation.

Steele added, "It raises a curious point for me. I think Gov. Paterson's numbers are about the same as [New Jersey] Gov. [Jon] Corzine's. The president is with Gov. Corzine."

A few thoughts here. First, Corzine and Paterson are not exactly in the same boat, and the comparison is silly. Corzine is running this year; polls show him trailing but closing the gap; and there wasn't a stronger candidate last year, waiting in the wings. Paterson is up next year; polls show him with almost comically low approval ratings; and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) is strongly favored by voters, both among Democrats and among voters in general.

Second, for Steele, who spends a fair amount of time complaining about others playing the "race card," to suggest on national television that President Obama is somehow racist against an African-American governor might be one of the all-time dumbest things the RNC chairman has ever said. And with his track record, that's no small feat.

It is, to borrow Steele's word, "stunning."

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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IMPROVING A PRESIDENT'S GAME.... There's a famous story about JFK's first meeting with Khrushchev in 1961, just five months after Kennedy took office. It didn't go well for the young president, and JFK later conceded that the Soviet leader "just beat the hell out of" him.

On ABC's "This Week," George Stephanopoulos asked President Obama if he's had a similar experience since taking office, inquiring if there's been a moment at which the president told himself, "Man, I need to step up my game."

OBAMA: You know, it's an interesting question. I -- I mean I don't mean to be immodest here, but I don't think I've had that moment with a -- with a world leader, where I said gee, you know -- you know, we've got to really tighten things up.

I think there have been times where I have said I've got to step up my game in terms of talking to the American people about issues like health care. I mean I think during this whole health care debate, I've -- there have been times where I've said...

STEPHANOPOULOS: You lost control?

OBAMA: Well, not so much lost control, but where I've said to myself, somehow I'm not breaking through. And -- and it's not -- you know, I know my critics would just say well, it's because you -- you know, the plan is just, you know, the -- the wrong one.

But it's -- it -- that's not so much it. It's -- this has been a sufficiently tough, complicated issue with so many moving parts that, you know, no matter how much I've -- I've tried to keep it digestible, you know, it's very hard for people to get their -- their whole arms around it. And that's been a case where I have been humbled and I just keep on trying harder, because I -- I really think it's the right thing to do for the country.

I think that's a pretty strong answer to the question. That said, just once I would have loved to see someone in the media ask George W. Bush, at any point during his eight years in office, if there'd been a moment at which he told himself, "Man, I need to step up my game."

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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OBAMA SCHOOLS STEPHANOPOULOS ON INDIVIDUAL MANDATES.... This was one of the livelier exchanges between President Obama and George Stephanopoulos on today's ABC News' "This Week."

The host argued that an individual mandate would force people to spend money, which necessarily makes the idea "a tax." The president disagreed -- strongly.

OBAMA: Well, hold on a second, George. Here -- here's what's happening. You and I are both paying $900, on average -- our families -- in higher premiums because of uncompensated care. Now what I've said is that if you can't afford health insurance, you certainly shouldn't be punished for that. That's just piling on. If, on the other hand, we're giving tax credits, we've set up an exchange, you are now part of a big pool, we've driven down the costs, we've done everything we can and you actually can afford health insurance, but you've just decided, you know what, I want to take my chances. And then you get hit by a bus and you and I have to pay for the emergency room care, that's...

STEPHANOPOULOS: That may be, but it's still a tax increase.

OBAMA: No. That's not true, George. The -- for us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase. People say to themselves, that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I'm not covering all the costs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it may be fair, it may be good public policy...

OBAMA: No, but -- but, George, you -- you can't just make up that language and decide that that's called a tax increase.... What if I say that right now your premiums are going to be going up by 5 or 8 or 10 percent next year and you say well, that's not a tax increase; but, on the other hand, if I say that I don't want to have to pay for you not carrying coverage even after I give you tax credits that make it affordable, then...

At that point, Stephanopoulos referenced Merriam Webster's, to try to nail down a precise definition of a "tax." The president responded, "George, the fact that you looked up Merriam's Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you're stretching a little bit right now. Otherwise, you wouldn't have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition."

The host added, "But your critics say it is a tax increase."

Obama replied, "My critics say everything is a tax increase."

And here endeth the lesson.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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GATES MAKES THE CASE FOR SHIFT IN MISSILE-DEFENSE POLICY.... When President Obama scrapped Bush's plans for ground-based interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic, the decision was the culmination of a six-month review process. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that a shift in America's missile-defense plans made sense.

The right, of course, isn't happy. Some of the pushback is coming from neo-cons, upset about the "signal" it sends when the U.S. bases foreign policy decisions on common sense, and some is coming from partisans who find it entertaining to throw around the word "appeasement" for no apparent reason.

As part of an effort to set the record straight, Gates has an op-ed in the NYT today, which does a nice job of setting the record straight.

For one thing, conservative criticism makes it seem as if strategic missile defense in Europe is somehow being gutted. In reality, it's currently non-existent. Bush's plan was to introduce missile defense to region, probably by 2017, perhaps later. Under Obama's plan, the U.S. will bring missile defense technology to Europe by 2011

In the first phase, to be completed by 2011, we will deploy proven, sea-based SM-3 interceptor missiles -- weapons that are growing in capability -- in the areas where we see the greatest threat to Europe.

The second phase, which will become operational around 2015, will involve putting upgraded SM-3s on the ground in Southern and Central Europe. All told, every phase of this plan will include scores of SM-3 missiles, as opposed to the old plan of just 10 ground-based interceptors. This will be a far more effective defense should an enemy fire many missiles simultaneously -- the kind of attack most likely to occur as Iran continues to build and deploy numerous short- and medium-range weapons. At the same time, plans to defend virtually all of Europe and enhance the missile defense of the United States will continue on about the same schedule as the earlier plan as we build this system over time, creating an increasingly greater zone of protection.

Steady technological advances in our missile defense program -- from kill vehicles to the abilities to network radars and sensors -- give us confidence in this plan. The SM-3 has had eight successful tests since 2007, and we will continue to develop it to give it the capacity to intercept long-range missiles like ICBMs. It is now more than able to deal with the threat from multiple short- and medium-range missiles -- a very real threat to our allies and some 80,000 American troops based in Europe that was not addressed by the previous plan. Even so, our military will continue research and development on a two-stage ground-based interceptor, the kind that was planned to be put in Poland, as a back-up.

Moreover, a fixed radar site like the one previously envisioned for the Czech Republic would be far less adaptable than the airborne, space- and ground-based sensors we now plan to use. These systems provide much more accurate data, offer more early warning and tracking options, and have stronger networking capacity -- a key factor in any system that relies on partner countries. This system can also better use radars that are already operating across the globe, like updated cold war-era installations, our newer arrays based on high-powered X-band radar, allied systems and possibly even Russian radars.

A more effective anti-missile technology, with a better track record, and more flexibility, implemented sooner.

"Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting what we are doing," Gates added.

It need not be an either/or situation.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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STILL NOT JOURNALISM.... Fox News spent months promoting last weekend's right-wing protests in Washington, encouraging viewers to go register their outrage. And during the event itself, the Republican news network went a step further, encouraging the crowd to get louder once the cameras were on.

As Danny Shea reported this morning, Fox News producer Heidi Noonan rallied the crowd during an on-air segment in which Glenn Beck chatted with activist Griff Jenkins. Viewers at home, of course, were not told that a Fox News producer was encouraging the protestors to make some noise for the cameras.

A network spokesperson told the Huffington Post, "The employee is a young, relatively inexperienced associate producer who realizes she made a mistake and has been disciplined."

Sure she has. I'm sure Fox News is all broken up about this.

Here's the video that viewers saw at home. The cheerleading producer, obviously, is out of camera range.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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PERRY DOESN'T FEEL YOUR PAIN.... It's understandable that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) would want to argue that his economic policies have been effective -- he's seeking re-election next year, and he's facing a very difficult primary challenge.

But he hasn't thought his strategy through. This week, Perry told the Houston Chamber of Commerce that Texas, under his leadership, is "recession-proof." He noted an unidentified report claiming that Texas would be the first to come out of the recession. Perry said he responded to the report by asking, "We're in one?"

So, in the midst of a brutal recession, Perry not only isn't concerned, he thinks Texas' economy is just fine. Texas Monthly's Paul Burka noted the potential political consequences of such a remark: "This gaffe is going to stick.... You cannot be callous and cavalier when people are losing their jobs and their homes. I don't care how ideological the Republican base is. Unemployment in Texas just reached the 8% mark. Everybody knows someone who is suffering in these times. Everybody has lost part of their life savings. It could cost him the race."

Politics aside, if Perry sincerely doesn't even recognize the economic downturn, he must be living in an impenetrable bubble. Texas has been very hard hit by the recession, and the state's most vulnerable families have struggled to keep their heads above water. Texas is the worst state in the country for residents without health care coverage, and is among the worst for poverty rates.

What's more, Lee Fang reminds us, "Texas would have a much higher unemployment rate if it were not for President Obama's stimulus program, which has provided billions in investments and over 70,000 jobs so far. Nonetheless, Perry not only considered rejecting the stimulus, but has called it a 'burden.'"

If there's any justice, this will be a tough one for Perry to live down.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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September 19, 2009

A STRIKING LIE-TO-CLAIM RATIO.... Rep. Sue Myrick (R) from North Carolina delivered the weekly Republican address this morning, and while these addresses are largely meaningless, I was struck by how many falsehoods she was able to fit into a 369-word speech.

" Nine years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew something was wrong with my body -- but it took six doctors, three mammograms and one ultrasound before they finally they found my cancer. This process took only a few weeks.

"Under the government-run healthcare system they have in Canada and the United Kingdom, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to get those tests so quickly.... When it comes to life-threatening diseases like cancer, delay could mean death."

In our reality, no one is proposing a Canadian or British-style system. Myrick, a member of Congress engaged in the debate, should probably be trying to keep up on these pesky details before delivering an address on health care policy on behalf of her party.

More importantly, Myrick's argument is absurd to the point of insult. Her emphasis on breast cancer is admirable, but her regard for the facts is not -- in our current system, millions of women without coverage are less likely to even receive mammograms. Those with breast cancer and no insurance receive late diagnoses, require more extensive treatment, and die sooner. There are lengthy delays for women without coverage, which, to borrow the congresswoman's words, often means death.

As Harold Pollack recently explained, "Women in other industrial democracies do not go bankrupt because they have breast cancer. That's an everyday occurrence across America -- among both insured and uninsured citizens. Democratic health reform bills will not create 'nationalized healthcare' or a single-payer system. The current bills are surely imperfect. They would provide every woman the opportunity to buy affordable and decent insurance that covers diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer."

Myrick added:

"Replacing your current healthcare with a government-run system is not the answer.

"These so-called healthcare reform bills have different names: a public option, a co-op, a trigger. Make no mistake, these are all gateways to government-run healthcare."

She keeps using the phrase "government-run," but it doesn't mean what she thinks it means. Until Myrick is prepared to denounce Medicare and the VA, this is just rhetorical nonsense. As for a public option and co-ops being the same thing, it's good to be reminded that under no circumstances does the GOP want any competition for private insurers at all.

Myrick went on to say:

"For small business owners, these proposals mean higher taxes at a time when unemployment is nearing 10% and analysts are predicting that any kind of recovery will be a jobless one.

As a former small-business owner, I can tell you from experience, that this is the worst possible time to be imposing new, job-killing taxes."

None of this makes any factual sense. Health care reform wouldn't punish small businesses, and no one is talking about raising taxes during the recession. It's as if Myrick has no idea what's going on in this debate.

"And for seniors, expect massive cuts to Medicare; which is unacceptable under any circumstances."

Really, "any circumstances"? Because Myrick was in Congress in 1995 and 1996, and she supported the proposed Gingrich cuts to Medicare. I guess she's changed her mind.

"All of this comes at a price tag of roughly $1 trillion in the midst of a year in which the government continues to set new records for red ink."

"In the midst of a year" makes it sound as if we'd spend $1 trillion in 2010. In reality, the costs would likely be less than $1 trillion, they'd be spread out over a decade, they wouldn't start for quite a while, and they wouldn't add to the deficit.

Sue Myrick, in other words, in a very brief weekly address, included several claims, all of which are completely wrong. Not kinda sorta wrong, but demonstrably false. They're the kind of things someone who doesn't know anything about health care reform might say.

It is, I'm afraid, the most frustrating aspect of the debate -- one side keeps lying. We can't get to a meaningful discussion of provisions and consequences, because we're stuck arguing about manufactured nonsense.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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THE BROAD DEFINITION OF 'PRE-EXISTING CONDITION'.... In general, when we think about Americans who can't get health care coverage due to a pre-existing condition, we tend to think of someone with a debilitating disease.

From time to time, it's important to remember that a much broader understanding of the phrase is more accurate.

A proposal to make preexisting health conditions irrelevant in the sale of insurance policies could help not just the seriously ill but also people who might consider themselves healthy, documents released Friday by a California-based advocacy group illustrate.

Health insurers have issued guidelines saying they could deny coverage to people suffering from such conditions as acne, hemorrhoids and bunions.

One big insurer refused to issue individual policies to police officers and firefighters, along with people in other hazardous occupations.

Some treated pregnancy or the intention to adopt as a reason for rejection.

As Congress and President Obama work on legislation to overhaul the nation's health-care system, one of their main objectives is to stop insurers from denying coverage on the basis of health status. Proposed legislation would prohibit insurers from denying coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions or charging them higher premiums because of their medical history -- practices known as medical underwriting.

One of the documents released yesterday was published in 2003 by an insurer called PacifiCare, which has since been bought by United Healthcare, which mandated "automatic rejection" for all kinds of interesting reasons, including being an "expectant father." There was also this more general disqualifier: "currently experiencing/experienced within the last 12 months symptoms for which a physician has not been consulted."

A spokesperson for the parent company said the materials are "outdated." Asked to provide current underwriting documents, United Healthcare refused. Imagine that.

Also released were materials from a different insurer that denied coverage or charged higher premiums if someone received treatment for toenail fungus. Blue Cross of California guidelines from 2004 included "varicose veins" as a possible disqualifier for insurance.

Remember, as far as opponents of ambitious health care reform are concerned, protecting these insurers is a key and unyielding priority. Subjecting them to competition is deemed outrageous.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... The big story at the intersection of religion and politics this week is obviously the Values Voters Summit in Washington, which will wrap up this weekend. This is the fourth year for the Family Research Council's event, now the largest religious right gathering in the country, and by most estimates, this year's convention was the largest to date.

Republican leaders, including several likely presidential candidates and Fox News personalities, have lined up to show deference to the movement, but the size of the audience seems to be the result of a right-wing, vaguely-theocratic base that feels put upon after GOP defeats in the most recent elections.

Dave Weigel had a good report on the first day of the event. What I found especially interesting is the shift in the religious right's attitudes, away from the traditional issues (hating gays, promoting school prayer and the Ten Commandments, banning abortion) and towards a more generic Tea Party-like platform.

Attendees were not overly concerned with any particular social issue. They felt attacked on all fronts. There were some warnings of the threat of gay marriage -- mostly from Carrie Prejean, the Miss California who lost her bid to become Miss USA after saying she opposed same-sex unions -- but angst about a social issue that had riveted conservatives for most of this decade was buried by worries about the other threats to American values. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.), a likely 2012 Republican presidential hopeful, drew only measured applause when he mentioned "defending traditional marriage." It was when he mentioned, specifically, the victory of anti-gay marriage forces in California, the applause picked up. Telling activists of a mounting threat was one thing -- reminding them that the threat has been identified and met in the streets and at polls was what they wanted to hear.

"This is not politically incorrect!" said Pawlenty. "This is not politically offensive! This is what our founding fathers believed."

A friend of mine who's covering the event added, "I survived day one of the 'Values Voter Summit.' Three things they do not like: Obama, liberals and health-care reform. Three things they do like: guns, Jesus and Jesus with guns."

Also from the God Machine this weekL

* Former Southern Baptist Convention President Frank Page agreed to join President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships earlier this year, but he's considering stepping down. Page told U.S. News' Dan Gilgoff, "I wouldn't go out huffing and puffing but saying, 'Have I made any positive contribution?" Within the next month or so I will be able to understand if my own time is well spent there."

* Rosh Hashanah began last night, and President Obama delivered a video message in honor of the holiday. He included a specific message about his foreign policy relating to Israel: "Let us work to achieve lasting peace and security for the state of Israel so that the Jewish state is fully accepted by its neighbors. And its children can live their dreams free from fear. That's why my administration has actively pursuing a lasting peace that has eluded Israel and its neighbors for so long."

* Should a right-wing church, featuring a Birther message out front, be a polling place for voters? Locals in North Richland Hills, near Dallas, are debating the matter.

* Johnny Piper, the mayor of Clarksville, Tenn., is outraged that the U.S. Postal Service offers a stamp that commemorates Eid, an Islamic holiday. Piper has begun forwarding an anti-Muslim email on the subject, blaming President Obama for ordering the stamp's creation. In reality, the first Eid stamp was issued in 2001 -- during the Bush administration -- and has been reissued five times since.

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BLUNT'S CHOICE OF ALLEGORIES.... I try not to be overly sensitive about rhetoric like this, but I'm not sure what Roy Blunt is talking about.

Representative Roy Blunt, the former Republican whip who is giving up his House seat in Missouri to run for the Senate, offered his take on life these days in the nation's capital to those gathered at the conservative Values Voter Summit on Friday.

He told a tale about British soldiers who had built a golf course in India and had to adapt to the game in a whole new way. They didn't anticipate that they'd be joined on the course by monkeys, who would swoop out of the nearby jungle, grab the golf balls and toss them around, he explained.

The golfers had to establish a firm rule. "You have to play the ball where the monkey throws it. And that is the rule in Washington all the time."

Maybe it's just me, but I don't see the relevance of the monkey/golf allegory here. As Blunt described the British golfers' predicament, he noted that the players "tried to eliminate the monkey problem, but they never got it done." Instead, they had to adapt to the monkeys' ball-throwing habits.

Mike Madden added, "Blunt, who's running for Senate in Missouri next year, didn't explain precisely why he chose an analogy about monkeys to illustrate the difficulties posed by the party that opposes the country's first black president. (They both like to screw up the white man's golf game?) Perhaps it was just a really, really stupid parable to choose."

Perhaps. Listening to the audio, though, it's worth noting that the right-wing crowd thought this was hilarious.

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THE MEDIA PICKS ITS PREFERRED STORY.... President Obama is making the rounds tomorrow, hitting every mainstream network's Sunday public affairs show, with the obvious goal of promoting health care reform. If the media coverage this morning is any indication, news outlets have a different story they prefer to emphasize.

New York Times: "Obama Rejects Race as Lead Cause of Criticism"

President Obama said Friday that he did not believe his race was the cause of fierce criticism aimed at his administration in the contentious national debate over health care, but rather that the cause was a sense of suspicion and distrust many Americans have in their government.

LA Times: "In media blitz, Obama says vitriol isn't racism-based"

Fear of "big changes" and of the growing role of government -- not racism -- are behind much of the criticism that the White House faces, President Obama said during a sweeping series of television interviews to air Sunday.

Lead story of Time's "The Page" this morning: "Obama: Health Care Anger Not Motivated by Race"

The president tells NBC News the health care criticism is driven by an intense debate over the proper role of government -- and not by racism.

CNN: "Obama: Race not 'overriding issue' in criticism"

In an interview with CNN's John King airing on "State of the Union with John King" this Sunday, Obama acknowledged that racism plays a role in some of the criticism against him, but added that race is "not the overriding issue."

Keep in mind, race is an issue the White House isn't talking about, and would prefer to avoid. The talk is entirely the result of reporters' questions, and this morning, it's the angle news outlets have decided is the most important element of the debate.

Now, in fairness, I can appreciate the fact that the media wants to lead with something provocative. After months of debate, none of these outlets want to run with "Obama: still no death panels" as a headline.

But it seems as if the media has decided that the intersection of race and health care is too exciting to ignore, and they're going to exploit it for all it's worth.

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PAWLENTY: ANYTHING YOU CAN DO, I CAN DO DUMBER.... President Obama's decision to scuttle Bush's European missile-defense plan made a lot of sense. Indeed, the decision, which enjoyed the unanimous support of the Defense Secretary and the Joint Chiefs, was one of the strongest and smartest national security moves the White House has made of late.

What's been interesting to watch, though, are the president's likely 2012 challengers, all of whom have a child-like understanding of international affairs, scramble to attack a decision they don't fully comprehend. The goal, apparently, is to not only attack the administration, but to be even more caustic than the others attacking the administration.

Mitt Romney, for example, called it a "dangerous and alarming decision," which is "wrong in every way." Rick Santorum, unimpressed by Romney's belligerence, tried to one-up the former governor, accusing the White House of trying to "appease" Russia and "turning our backs on our friends."

Not to be outdone, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who recently abandoned the pretense of sanity, decided to go even further than his likely competitors.

[Pawlenty] will raise the specter of appeasement in regards President Barack Obama's decision earlier this week to abandon a missile defense system in Europe, according to excerpts of remarks he will deliver at tonight's Value Voters Summit obtained by the Fix.

"The lessons of history are clear: Appeasement and weakness did not stop the Nazis, did not stop the Soviets, and did not stop the terrorists before 9/11," Pawlenty plans to say. "We must stand strong with allies like Israel and eastern Europe in the face of growing challenges to our national security."

Substantively, Pawlenty's argument is obvious nonsense. But note that Pawlenty clearly wins the Conservative Crazy Contest because his attack managed to incorporate Nazis, communists, and 9/11.

This is bound to get even worse. The goal for these presidential aspirants is to trash the president, but it's also to make their Republican rivals look like they're not doing enough to trash the president. The result will be a delighted right-wing base, feasting on all the red meat, while their so-called "leaders" cheapen our discourse and drag American politics into the gutter.

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September 18, 2009

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

* Iranians return to the streets: "Tens of thousands of green-clad protesters chanted and carried banners through the heart of Tehran and other Iranian cities on Friday, defying tear gas and truncheons as they turned large swaths of a government-organized anti-Israel march into the largest opposition rally in two months."

* Pakistan: "Scores of bloodied and bandaged victims filled hospital beds after a suicide car bomber destroyed a two-story hotel Friday in northwest Pakistan, killing 29 people and underscoring the relentless security threat to the region."

* A detail for best-system-in-the-world crowd to consider: "Nearly 45,000 people die in the United States each year -- one every 12 minutes -- in large part because they lack health insurance and cannot get good care, Harvard Medical School researchers found in an analysis released on Thursday."

* While reporting from the religious right's Values Voter Summit today, MSNBC reporter Brian Mooar was confronted and heckled by right-wing audience members.

* According to several reports, Najibullah Zazi, the Denver man at the center of an alleged New York bomb plot, has "admitted" his ties to al Qaeda and is "in negotiations to plead guilty to a terror charge."

* Good: "Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, plans to propose a new so-called net neutrality rule Monday that could prevent telecommunications, cable and wireless companies from blocking Internet applications, according to sources at the agency."

* Harold Hongju Koh was sworn in yesterday as the State Department's chief lawyer. It's about time.

* Fox News took out an ad in the Washington Post today, attacking the mainstream television networks for their coverage of last week's right-wing protests in D.C. The ad is patently false, and the other networks aren't happy about it.

* It's hard to imagine why anyone would take Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano's legal judgment seriously.

* I realize Drudge links to her stuff, but Camille Paglia really doesn't belong at Salon.

* South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), like all governors, had a high-ranking security clearance. Emphasis on "had."

* Did Bill O'Reilly really endorse a public option as part of health care reform? In the context of the larger discussion, perhaps not.

* Remember Ellen Sauerbrey? The failed Maryland politician who got an important diplomatic job in the Bush administration she was clearly unqualified for? Her Obama Derangement Syndrome is over the top.

* "Should universities and colleges include a up-front statement of [extra] expenses when advertising tuition costs to prospective and enrolled students?" Isn't the answer obvious?

* Irving Kristol, generally considered the father of neo-conservatism, died today. He was 89.

* J. Craig Venter to receive the National Medal of Science.

* And finally, SNL explains what happened before Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-S.C.) outburst during President Obama's recent speech on health care.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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JOE BARTON, ENVIRONMENTAL VISIONARY.... Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who apparently considers himself a Senate-caliber lawmaker, is generally recognized as the House's most pro-pollution member. Barton not only rejects practically all scientific evidence related to the environment, he also leads the way in creative rationalizing of ridiculous ideas.

Kate Sheppard reported today on some recent Barton comments about climate change and wind power.

"Wind is God's way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it's hotter to areas where it's cooler. That's what wind is. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I'm not saying that's going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can't transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It's just something to think about."

Something to think about, indeed.

Barton is, of course, the same lawmaker who recently suggested that humans will "adapt" to climate change because we can "get shade."

And as Matthew DeLong reminds us, Barton was, up until a couple of years ago, the lawmaker House Republicans made the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Update: A sharp reader emails, "I had doubts Barton could possibly be as stupid as that quote made him look, so I checked the hearing transcript and sure enough, he is that stupid."

If you have any doubts, here's the hearing transcript.

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THE DRIVE TO CUT OFF NON-EXISTENT FUNDING.... It looks like we're seeing the start of a new trend.

This week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) announced that he's ordered all state agencies to "stop all state funding" of ACORN. That wasn't exactly a bold decision -- ACORN doesn't get any state funding in Minnesota. Pawlenty was "stopping" something that never "started," almost certainly to score a few cheap points with right-wing activists.

A potential rival to Pawlenty for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has decided to do the exact same thing. (via Eric Kleefeld)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order to keep any state money from going to the controversy-wracked Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which has its national headquarters in New Orleans.

According to the state's Division of Administration, no state agencies have existing contracts with ACORN.

The Louisiana Republican Party's press release boasted that Jindal is "ending funding of ACORN."

Coming soon to a "red" state near you.

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A TAXPAYER-SUBSIDIZED CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE.... This criminal investigation probably isn't getting quite as much attention as it deserves.

The Justice Department is investigating whether former Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton illegally used her position to benefit Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the company that later hired her, according to officials in federal law enforcement and the Interior Department.

The criminal investigation centers on the Interior Department's 2006 decision to award three lucrative oil shale leases on federal land in Colorado to a Shell subsidiary. Over the years it would take to extract the oil, according to calculations from Shell and a Rand Corp. expert, the deal could net the company hundreds of billions of dollars.

The investigation's main focus is whether Norton violated a law that prohibits federal employees from discussing employment with a company if they are involved in dealings with the government that could benefit the firm, law enforcement and Interior officials said.

They said investigators also were trying to determine if Norton broke a broader federal "denial of honest services" law, which says a government official can be prosecuted for violating the public trust by, for example, steering government business to favored firms or friends.

The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General began the investigation during the waning months of the George W. Bush administration and more recently made a formal criminal referral to the Justice Department. Norton is the first Bush official at the Cabinet secretary level to be the subject of a formal political corruption investigation.

That emphasis on the first criminal investigation of a Bush official at the "Cabinet secretary level" is important, because there have been criminal probes of all kinds of Bush administration officials, just not usually this high-ranking.

But Norton's alleged crimes are of particular interest given what we know about her cabinet agency in the Bush era. As Tim Dickinson recently explained, "Under Bush, the Interior Department became a lawless bureaucracy that actively worked to enrich the nation's most powerful energy interests. Top-level officials secretly allowed oil companies to keep billions in royalties owed to taxpayers, opened up 26 million acres of federal land to oil and gas drilling, denied wilderness protection to another 220 million acres, rewrote scientific reports to eliminate safeguards for endangered species, and even snorted coke and had sex with the very oil interests they were supposed to be regulating."

That's not hyperbole; it's literally true. Indeed, Dickinson's description is soft-pedaling what was a spectacular national embarrassment.

Noting this, Atrios added, "Look over there! ACORN!"

Right. For all the uproar about ACORN, under Bush's leadership, the U.S. Interior Department was effectively a taxpayer-subsidized criminal enterprise. Why do you suppose conservatives consider this irrelevant, while ACORN is a national scandal?

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KRAUTHAMMER, POTS, AND KETTLES.... Charles Krauthammer devotes his column today to questioning President Obama's honesty. Given Krauthammer's track record, that's really not a good idea.

Most of the piece is predictable -- and ironically, deeply misleading -- but it's hard to overlook Krauthammer's complaints about proposed Medicare savings.

Obama said he would largely solve the insoluble cost problem of Obamacare by eliminating "hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud" from Medicare.

That's not a lie. That's not even deception. That's just an insult to our intelligence. Waste, fraud and abuse -- Meg Greenfield once called this phrase "the dread big three" -- as the all-purpose piggy bank for budget savings has been a joke since Jimmy Carter first used it in 1977.

Moreover, if half a trillion is waiting to be squeezed painlessly out of Medicare, why wait for health-care reform? If, as Obama repeatedly insists, Medicare overspending is breaking the budget, why hasn't he gotten started on the painless billions in "waste and fraud" savings?

To the extent that politicians like to target "waste, fraud, and abuse" in any system as a generic way to save costs, Krauthammer's right that it can be a hollow cliche. But the problem here is that Krauthammer hasn't been paying close enough attention to the debate -- the White House isn't just throwing around shallow rhetoric, it's identified specific areas within the Medicare system where the government can save an enormous amount of money, and subjected the claims to CBO scrutiny.

If Krauthammer wants to defend existing Medicare Advantage funding, for example, he should certainly feel free to do so. But that's not his point -- he's suggesting Obama refuses to offer details about cost savings. That's plainly false.

As for the notion that the White House shouldn't "wait for health-care reform" to start saving money, again, Krauthammer need to keep up. Jonathan Chait had a good item on this.

Why hasn't Obama gotten started? He has! He's been spending months and months trying to hammer these cuts out.... And the cuts are not exactly "painless" -- that's Krauthammer's embellishment, not Obama's. They're deeply painful to the health care and insurance industries. Obama is getting the industries to agree to these cuts in return for subsidized access to 30 million new customers, who in turn will enjoy greater health and economic security. It's an eminently sensible trade-off, one that would be a total no-brainer consensus issue if the world weren't filled with Charles Krauthammers trying to kill it off for partisan reasons.

If a columnist is going to write an entire piece attacking someone's honesty, he/she ought to be pretty cautious about making patently untrue claims. If only Krauthammer cared as much about accuracy as being an anti-Obama shill.

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A REGIONAL PARTY.... I was looking over the new results from the weekly Research 2000 poll conducted for Daily Kos. Most of the results are about what we've come to expect -- President Obama's ratings are more favorable than unfavorable (55% to 38%); neither congressional caucus is popular, though Dems are more than twice as popular as Republicans (39% to 18%), and the Democratic Party has a 41% favorable rating to the GOP's 23%.

R2K_GOP.png

But I also like looking at these numbers when broken down by region. I put together this chart, for example, showing Republican Party favorability in the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. While about a fourth of the country overall has a positive impression of the GOP, it's hard not to notice that the party's strength seems to rest in one specific part of the country.

In case anyone's having trouble reading the visual, the Republican Party's favorability is very weak in Northeast (7% to 87%), and only marginally better in the Midwest (13% to 78%) and West (14% to 75%). In the South, however, 50% have a favorable opinion of the GOP, and only 37% have an unfavorable view.

Time will tell how the electorate responds to changing economic circumstances, the debate over health care reform, etc., and I can very easily imagine Democrats taking a drubbing in the midterms. But it seems the Republican Party would be in a much more competitive position -- in the short and long term -- if its base wasn't centered in just one region.

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BAYH'S UNIQUE BRAND OF FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY.... Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) wants to encourage his party to take the lead on deficit reduction, so he took his message to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. If there's one piece of media real estate that connects with Democratic policymakers, it's the WSJ. (Presumably, Bayh intended to tout the message on Hannity, but couldn't get booked.)

Bayh recognizes that GOP lawmakers and the previous administration made a mess of things, and wants to see Democrats get the country's fiscal matters back on track.

Any serious effort to control the deficit must begin with spending restraint. Efficiency and frugality, common virtues in the private sector, must be incorporated into government. Congress should enact health-care reform that actually lowers the deficit. For the next fiscal year, assuming the economy has gathered sufficient momentum, we should freeze domestic discretionary spending, limit increases in defense spending to the rate of inflation, forgo pay raises for federal workers, and institute a federal hiring freeze.

Democrats would be wise to ignore this misguided advice.

For one thing, it'd be easier to lower the costs of health care, if only lawmakers like Bayh would support the public option and other cost-saving measures endorsed by the White House. For another, Bayh's ideas for cutbacks are a recipe for disaster. As Tim Fernholz noted, "Freezing domestic discretionary spending is insane during a recovery, as is a freezing federal hiring -- that's the recipe for a double-dip recession."

Bayh added:

Spending restraint will not come easily to the Democratic Party. Pent-up demand for investment in education, health care and the environment is understandable after the Bush years. But long-term progressive government can't be built on a foundation of debt and deficits. We cannot indefinitely share with the less-fortunate resources we do not possess.

I see. The "less-fortunate" -- including middle-class families who'd benefit from affordable health care and broader access to education -- will have to wait until the mountains of Republican-generated debt are addressed.

This might be slightly more credible from Bayh if he hadn't recently endorsed adding a quarter of a trillion dollars to the deficit for a tax cut that would exclusively benefit mutli-millionaires and billionaires.

Sure, senator, tell us again about the dangers of debt and deficits, and how working families should wait but Paris Hilton shouldn't.

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TAKING THE OFFENSIVE.... It's pretty obvious the Republican base is fired up about defeating health care reform. According to a Salon report, the DNC has a new television ad that signals a new effort to get the Democratic base excited, too.

Yesterday, President Obama spoke at the University of Maryland about the reform campaign, and today, the DNC uses footage from the event in a minute-long spot. The DNC's Brad Woodhouse told Salon, "It's meant to primarily signal our most ardent supporters and the base of the Democratic Party that we are with you -- and that we need you -- to get this done and accomplish the other big things this president has set out to do."

The ad will reportedly run nationally on cable and in the D.C. area, though, at 60 seconds, it would be an expensive ad buy, and it's unclear how much money the party plans to invest in the spot.

The launch of the Obama-focused ad aimed at the party base coincides with the launch of "Call 'Em Out," a new site devoted to highlighting Republican leaders who stray from the truth on reform. (I'm assuming the name comes from a line in Obama's recent speech to a joint session of Congress: "If you misrepresent what's in this plan, we will call you out.")

The first person to be called out is Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), for his "death panel" validation on MSNBC last week. Mike Allen said the site is "part of a larger, more aggressive approach taken by the White House through the DNC to push back against smears, distortions and misinformation."

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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.

* Virginia's gubernatorial race is getting more competitive, though how much more depends on which poll you rely on. Rasmussen shows Bob McDonnell (R) leading Creigh Deeds (D) by just two, 48% to 46%. Research 2000, however, shows McDonnell up by seven, 50% to 43%.

* Speaking of the McDonnell-Deeds contest, the two faced off in a heated debate in Northern Virginia yesterday. Deeds ran into more trouble after the event, giving seemingly contradictory answers on taxes.

* Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) hasn't officially launched a Senate campaign, but he nevertheless is running the first television ad of the race in advance of the January special election. The ad hopes to connect Capuano to Ted Kennedy's legacy.

* Also in Massachusetts, Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca (D) announced yesterday that he's joining the crowded Democratic field for the Senate, too.

* The GOP gubernatorial primary in Texas will likely be one of next year's most heated contests. The latest Rasmussen poll shows Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison leading incumbent Gov. Rick Perry by two, 40% to 38%.

* Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) yesterday became the second member of the Florida GOP delegation to endorse former state House Speaker Marco Rubio's (R) Senate campaign, instead of Gov. Charlie Crist (R). Brown-Waite's announcement further underscores the right-wing's dissatisfaction with Crist.

* As expected, the White House has announced that President Obama will support Sen. Michael Bennet's (D-Colo.) 2010 bid for a full term. Bennet, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year, will face former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in a Democratic primary.

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MEMORIES OF A BYGONE ERA... This argument comes up from time to time, and it's always frustrating to see. Megan McArdle is the latest, but by no means the first.

I'm reliably informed that the Democrats think they're better off doing this alone than not doing it at all, and so it has to pass. If so, it will be the first time in history that I can think of that a single party passed anything of this size -- certainly not a major new entitlement. Medicare and Social Security both had considerable Republican votes, something I don't see this time around.

About a month ago, Michael Goldfarb made the same argument -- landmark progressive legislation used to get Republican votes. "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," Goldfarb said.

For McArdle and Goldfarb, Republican hostility for reform points to a Democratic failure -- if the health care proposals had more merit, they'd have GOP supporters. After all, just look at all the moderate Republicans who backed Social Security and Medicare.

This is nonsense. Scott Lemieux had a good item on this yesterday.

Noting that Medicare and Social Security had significant Republican support is about is relevant as noting that prior to 1992 it was extremely unusual for a Democrat to win the White House without carrying Mississippi. The rather obvious difference with the current situation and the laws that McArdle cites is that parties have become aligned ideologically. Of course Medicare and Social Security had lots of Republican support: There were lots of northern liberal Republicans in Congress, whose support was often needed to counterbalance the reactionary segregationists in the Democratic caucus. In the current context, conversely, the liberal northern Republican is virtually extinct, and the few remaining ones are 1) subject to much stronger party discipline than was the case in 1937 or 1965, and 2) are more heterodox on social than fiscal matters. So thinking that the same kind of legislative coalition was viable would be silly.

Given how obvious this is, I cringe a little every time I read the complaint from the right. FDR and LBJ governed 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. President Obama, however, is stuck trying to find common ground with a right-wing reactionary party that not only opposes common-sense reform measures, but is running a scorched-earth campaign to destroy his presidency.

Harold Meyerson recently explained, "[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."

Nicholas Beaudrot put it this way: "[I]t's simply not meaningful to compare the present 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."

Stepping back, it's certainly possible that McArdle and Goldfarb are aware of this. Indeed, the talking point, such that it is, likely intends to put some kind of historical asterisk next to health care reform, should it ever pass. Sure, they'll say, Obama and Dems delivered, but it doesn't really count since Republicans voted against it. This is about undermining the historic victory, if it happens -- success isn't success unless it's bipartisan success.

I tend to think voters will know better. For the typical American family, reform would be judged on its efficacy, not on its ability to clear legislative procedural hurdles and satisfy the demands of opponents.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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MAKING THE BAUCUS BILL BETTER.... Paul Krugman notes today that Max Baucus' health care framework is, at present, "unworkable and unacceptable." But, he added, it's not as bad as some reform advocates feared, and it can be improved. "[T]his plan has to change," Krugman noted. "What matters now is the direction in which it changes."

Ezra Klein had several recommendations on how to make the Baucus proposal far more palatable, and Krugman has some specific suggestions in his column.

First, it bungles the so-called "employer mandate." Most reform plans include a provision requiring that large employers either provide their workers with health coverage or pay into a fund that would help workers who don't get insurance through their job buy coverage on their own. Mr. Baucus, however, gets too clever, trying to tie each employer's fees to the subsidies its own employees end up getting.

That's a terrible idea. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, it would make companies reluctant to hire workers from lower-income families -- and it would also create a bureaucratic nightmare. This provision has to go and be replaced with a simple pay-or-play rule.

Second, the plan is too stingy when it comes to financial aid. Lower-middle-class families, in particular, would end up paying much more in premiums than they do under the Massachusetts plan, suggesting that for many people insurance would not, in fact, be affordable. Fixing this means spending more than Mr. Baucus proposes.

Third, the plan doesn't create real competition in the insurance market. The right way to create competition is to offer a public option, a government-run insurance plan individuals can buy into as an alternative to private insurance. The Baucus plan instead proposes a fake alternative, nonprofit insurance cooperatives -- and it places so many restrictions on these cooperatives that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, they "seem unlikely to establish a significant market presence in many areas of the country."

Sounds good to me. The question going forward, though, is how the negotiations will proceed. Is Baucus open to significant improvements? Just as important, is he prepared to use his mark as the starting point for moving to the left, or to the right?

Time's Karen Tumulty talked to Baucus last night, and reported that he's "sounding open to making some changes" and will "iron out" differences with Democrats. That necessarily means a better bill. Most notably, Baucus vowed to "address" Democratic concerns about the size of middle-class subsidies, which seems encouraging. On the public option, he added that the provision is effectively off the table for him, but Baucus described the "trigger" idea, promoted by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, as a "live possibility."

And speaking of Snowe, it's also worth noting that Democrats aren't the only ones demanding that Baucus improve the subsidy rates. Snowe told the NYT, "[T]here would have to be more subsidies" in the proposal.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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CAP-AND-TRADE COSTS.... For the better part of the year, conservative critics of energy reform have said a cap-and-trade policy would place too high a burden on American consumers. Republican lawmakers, in particular, insisted that the proposal would, on average, cost the typical American home an additional $3,128 a year. The claim was demonstrably ridiculous. After it was debunked, GOP leaders kept repeating it anyway.

The good news is, the right has largely curtailed use of the $3,128 figure. The bad news is, conservatives have a new number, and it's wrong, too.

CNN's Lou Dobbs, for example, said yesterday that "crap-and-trade" -- that erudite Dobbs has a way with words -- would cost "almost $1,800 a year" per U.S. household. Around the same time, Fox News' Glenn Beck said there's proof of this higher cost in Treasury Department memos, but there's been a "cover-up." Declan McCullagh, a blogger for CBS News, helped get the media clowns worked up on this, arguing that the administration suppressed reports showing that energy reform would cost consumers "$1,761 a year."

It appears the House Republican Conference is responsible for creating this lie in the first place, pushing the bogus number on Wednesday. If the right is going to keep using the number, we might as well take a moment to acknowledge reality. And in this case, as Assistant Treasury Secretary Alan Krueger explained yesterday, the $1,761 figure is nonsense.

"The reporting on the Treasury analysis is flat out wrong. Treasury's analysis is consistent with public analyses by the EIA, EPA, and CBO, and the reporting and blogging on this issue ignores the fact that the revenue raised from emission permits would be returned to consumers under both administration and legislative proposals. It is time for an honest debate about how to solve a long-term challenge and deliver comprehensive energy reform - not for misrepresentations of the facts."

Media Matters also did some helpful fact-checking.

Numerous conservative media figures have seized on outdated Treasury Department memos obtained September 11 by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) to falsely suggest that the Obama administration estimates that cap-and-trade legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives would cost up to $200 billion per year or $1,761 per household, and that, in Sean Hannity's words, "they didn't tell you the truth." However, the Treasury memos do not address the current House climate change bill but, rather, a proposal that would auction 100 percent of the emissions allowances; the bill under consideration spends revenue created by the program to offset costs to households and businesses.

The numbers found in the Treasury memos scrutinize a specific proposal -- that bears no resemblance to the proposed legislation. The League of Conservation Voters' Navin Nayak argued this is like "pricing the health care bills currently in front of Congress based on a single-payer system."

So, if the conservative claims are patently false, what are the actual costs associated with the Democrats' cap-and-trade proposal? According to the Congressional Budget Office, which Republicans occasionally listens to, the average would be about $175 per household -- about the price of a postage stamp per day.

Dobbs, Beck, McCullagh, and the House Republican Conference, in other words, were only off by a factor of 10.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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REFUSING TO TAKE 'YES' FOR AN ANSWER.... As months of negotiations dragged on, Senate Finance Committee Max Baucus (D-Mont.) took quite a few steps to shape a health care reform bill conservative Republicans could like. For some of us, he took too many steps, ended up with an inadequate bill, and has precious little to show for it.

McClatchy ran this piece from the Kaiser Family Foundation's Eric Pianin and Julie Appleby, who noted that Republicans have rejected a proposal filled with Republican ideas.

The Senate Finance Committee bill that Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., unveiled Wednesday contains several provisions that were inspired by Republicans, including testing new ways to handle medical malpractice cases, creating avenues for consumers to cross state lines to buy insurance and immediately launching a high-risk pool that would cover people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Moreover, the bill's scope and cost have been whittled down. The Congressional Budget Office put the price tag at $774 billion over 10 years, less than other Democratic proposals that Republicans said were too expensive. Also, the plan doesn't include a public insurance option, a proposal that President Barack Obama and liberal lawmakers favor but that most Republicans and many conservative and moderate Democrats reject.

Igor Volsky had a very good item raising a similar point yesterday.

For months, Republicans have complained that Democrats were pushing a partisan government-takeover of health care that would only add to the deficit and bankrupt the nation. They insisted that any health care reform bill must exclude a public option, allow Americans to purchase coverage across state lines, exclude funding for abortion and ensure that illegal immigrants are not eligible for coverage.

But once presented with legislation that met many of these demands, the GOP demurred, refusing to meet Baucus half-way.

Republicans asked for a proposal with no public option, interstate competition, high-risk pools, verification of citizenship, no public funds for abortion, and high-deductible policies. Baucus agreed to all of these demands and still couldn't get a single Republican vote.

One hopes this makes clear to policymakers a truth that seemed obvious months ago: Republicans won't take "yes" for an answer. They don't support health care reform, they don't want to negotiate in good faith, and they have absolutely no incentive to help Democrats succeed.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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SNOWE: 'MY PARTY HAS CHANGED'.... It seems unlikely that Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, Congress' least-conservative Republican, would leave the GOP altogether. She's been with the party this long, and unlike Arlen Specter, Snowe has no reason to worry about the security of her seat.

Yesterday, however, she made some comments that are sure to raise eyebrows on the Hill. Snowe sat down with the New York Times' John Harwood, who asked a simple but provocative question: why are you a Republican?

Here's her answer, in its entirety: "Well, you know, it's -- I've always been a Republican for the traditional principles that have been associated with the Republican Party since I, you know, became a Republican when I registered to vote. And that is limited, you know, limited government, individual opportunities, fiscal responsibility, and a strong national defense. So I think that those principles have always been a part of the Republican Party heritage, and I believe that I, you know, reflect those views. And I haven't changed as a Republican, I think more that my party has changed."

I'm reluctant to read too much into this, and if I had to guess, Snowe will probably, at some point today, reiterate her commitment to her party. Dems have talked with Snowe in the past about taking that short walk across the aisle, and she's always politely declined.

That said, whenever lawmakers start talking publicly about how they haven't changed, but their party has changed, it tends to reflect some deep, fundamental misgivings. Snowe has consistently rebuffed Democratic overtures, but that was before the Republican Party became the right-wing, moderates-free party it is today.

And at the risk of over-interpreting her comments, also note that Snowe said "you know" four times in 40 seconds. Was that the result of nervousness?

Let's also not forget the larger context here. As we talked about yesterday, Snowe is the only Senate Republican willing to negotiate in good faith with Democrats on health care reform -- a move that has drawn considerable ire from the Senate Republican caucus.

Snowe didn't initiate yesterday's discussion about her party affiliation; Harwood did. But Snowe's answer sent a not-so-subtle signal about her dissatisfaction with the state of the GOP.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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BACK TO 60 BY NEXT WEEK?.... Ted Kennedy's death brought the Senate Democratic caucus down to 59 seats. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) would love to fill the vacancy, but can't, at least not yet.

To briefly recap, in 2004, state lawmakers, worried about Mitt Romney choosing John Kerry's replacement, passed a measure to leave Senate vacancies empty until a special election is held within five months. In August, Kennedy, aware of his limited time remaining, asked that the law be changed -- empowering Patrick to fill a vacancy immediately with an interim senator, with a special election to follow soon after.

State policymakers were reluctant to act, until Kennedy's passing made the matter extremely relevant, not only to the state, but to national affairs. Yesterday, the Massachusetts state House took a step towards remedying the problem.

House lawmakers approved legislation last night that gives Governor Deval Patrick the power to appoint a temporary successor to the late Edward M. Kennedy in the US Senate, putting Massachusetts on track to have a new senator in place by next week.

The passage of the bill, by a 95-to-58 vote, was a crucial step toward filling the seat left vacant by Kennedy's death last month and could carry major implications as Congress debates an overhaul of the nation's health care system.

Attention now shifts to the Massachusetts state Senate, where there is a strong Democratic majority, but where Republicans hope to use parliamentary maneuvers to delay the process. The Boston Globe reported that the GOP minority "would probably exhaust their options for stalling by the middle of next week," at which point the chamber could approve the bill.

If all goes according to plan, a bill may be on Deval Patrick's desk as early as Wednesday, and an interim senator could be named almost immediately.

The scuttlebutt in Boston seems to be over who Patrick will pick, not over whether the legislation will become law, but of even greater importance to officials in Washington is how the U.S. Senate landscape changes if/when the Democratic caucus goes from 59 to 60 again.

How would this affect health care reform negotiations? Would Olympia Snowe still be the Senate's most important member? Would center-right Dems consider joining with the GOP on a filibuster, even if Dems have a 60-vote majority?

Next week will be awfully interesting.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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September 17, 2009

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

* Afghanistan: "At least 16 people were killed, including international soldiers, and 55 were wounded when a car bomb rocked parts of Afghanistan's capital Thursday, authorities said. At least six Italian soldiers were killed and four others were wounded in the blast, Ignazio La Russa, Italy's defense minister said. Ten Afghan civilians were also killed, said Fareed Rayel, an Afghan Ministry of Public Health spokesman."

* The House approved the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) this afternoon. The final vote was 253 to 171.

* Hottest. August. Ever.

* The House voted to cut off ACORN from receiving any federal grants, 345 to 75.

* The Senate confirmed Gerard Lynch to fill a vacancy on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, the first Obama circuit-court nominee to win approval.

* Speaker Pelosi said the House really will pass a reform bill with a public option. I hope she's right.

* She's also deeply concerned, in general, about political violence.

* Bush's Interior Department sure was corrupt.

* Rush Limbaugh has concluded that segregated school busing in "Obama's America" may be a good idea.

* Good: "The Indiana Court of Appeals has struck down the state's voter ID law, saying it violates the state Constitution. The court ruled 3-0 Thursday that the law must be declared void because it regulates voters in a way that is not 'uniform and impartial.' The judges say the ID law treats in-person voters and mail-in voters differently."

* Oh my: "The South Carolina Supreme Court has ordered an insurance company to pay $10 million for wrongly revoking the insurance policy of a 17-year-old college student after he tested positive for HIV. The court called the 2002 decision by the insurance company 'reprehensible.'"

* A lot of media figures have done a very poor job with the "story" about "czars," but Greta Van Susteren seems to be worse than most.

* Joe Scarborough can't remember any instances in which Glenn Beck and/or Rush Limbaugh have said racist things on the air. Media Matters refreshes Scarborough's memory.

* It's hard to imagine, but in 2007, there were 139 colleges with six-year graduation rates below 10 percent.

* Media Matters Action Network launches SmearBuster.org.

* I shouldn't be, but I'm amazed CNN would run something this stupid: "Obama as witch doctor: Racist or satirical?"

* The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto is an exceedingly foolish person.

* Sean Hannity claimed that ACORN is "on schedule to get eight and a half trillion dollars of stimulus money." In other words, as far as Hannity is concerned, literally every single penny in the stimulus will go to ACORN -- plus another $100 billion. Wow.

* Happy Constitution Day.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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O'REILLY BACKS A PUBLIC OPTION?.... This exchange, from last night's episode of "The O'Reilly Factor," had to be some kind of mistake. It sounded like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly endorsed a public option as part of health care reform.

O'REILLY: The public option now is done. We discussed this, it's not going to happen. But you say that this little marketplace that they're going to set up, whereby the federal government would subsidize insurance for some Americans, that is, in your opinion, a public option?

OWCHARENKO: Well, it has massive new federal regulation. So you don't necessarily need a public option if the federal government is going to control and regulate the type of health insurance that Americans can buy.

O'REILLY: But you know, I want that, Ms. Owcharenko. I want that. I want, not for personally for me, but for working Americans, to have a option, that if they don't like their health insurance, if it's too expensive, they can't afford it, if the government can cobble together a cheaper insurance policy that gives the same benefits, I see that as a plus for the folks.

I guess he'll have to walk that back -- O'Reilly used to denounce a public option as "socialism" -- but the language seems to suggest something of a breakthrough.

Now, if only Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck would be willing to denounce O'Reilly as a communist sell-out, we'd really see some progress.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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RUMBLINGS ABOUT A BLUE DOG BETRAYAL.... Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) of Louisiana told a conservative talk-show host this morning that Blue Dogs Democrats have been quietly reaching out to conservative Republicans about a GOP-friendly health care reform plan.

"I'm having Democrats come to me, to speak to me as to what House Republicans are putting up," Cassidy told a conservative news radio program. "And when I mention our patient-centered plan...they want to have more conversations regarding that."

Cassidy was referencing the bill H.R. 3400, introduced by some House GOP lawmakers as an alternative to the bill favored by most Democrats.

"Some of my Democratic colleagues are approaching me now, saying we are not going to vote for H.R. 3200, can we talk about some of our ideas," Cassidy explained. "I'm very encouraged by this."

This isn't the first time this has come up, but it's gone almost entirely overlooked, in part because it seems hard to believe.

Last week, The Hill had a report, citing "GOP sources," claiming that Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the leading Blue Dog on health care policy, has been "keeping a back channel open" to Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) about a possible reform deal. The sources said Ross and Boustany have "secretively ... been in talks for weeks."

And as far back as July, Boustany claimed that Blue Dogs and conservative Republicans were having "conversations" about a center-right compromise that would effectively reject everything Democrats had proposed.

At this point, the only people talking about this publicly seem to be conservative Republicans. Whether there's anything to this is entirely unclear. Maybe this has to do with a negotiating ploy. It might even be little more than a psych-out.

But if Cassidy's comments this morning were accurate, Blue Dogs could be part of a rather massive betrayal. If the conservative Democrats decide, en masse, that they'll support a conservative Republican approach to reform -- premised on the notion that American families already have too much insurance -- but not a Democratic package, the consequences would be devastating.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THIS WAS THE GOP POINT-MAN ON HEALTH CARE REFORM?.... Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) argued this morning that the Gang of Six could definitely have come to a bipartisan agreement on health care reform, if only those mean ol' Democrats have given the negotiations more time. Grassley told CNBC that with "another couple weeks," lawmakers would have reached the perfect deal.

Five months of pointless talks produced exactly zero GOP votes. But five-and-a-half months would have delivered a bill that "would have gotten broad-based support." (As Ezra Klein joked, "I was totally getting ready to propose, baby, if you'd only waited a couple more weeks...")

But that's not all. Grassley also lashed out at the White House this morning.

Grassley blasted accusations made by White House aides that his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to work on a bipartisan healthcare bill with committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and others were insincere.

"I kind of resent that, when I've been very candid with the president of the United States" about his positions on contentious issues in healthcare reform, Grassley said.

Grassley also took direct aim at President Barack Obama, suggesting that he soured the chances for cooperation.

"I'll tell you, there's some things that the president has said since then that I took very personally," Grassley said. "He gave some speeches during August in which he was associating me with efforts to make this a political document."

Grassley singled out David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, for criticism. "We're accused by Axelrod of making political things and maybe not being serious in our negotiations," Grassley said. "You know, that's not a very good environment to carry on a conversation with the White House."

First of all, President Obama went to great lengths -- too many, in fact -- to praise Grassley publicly as someone who was sincere about negotiating in good faith. Why Grassley would take those comments "personally" is unclear.

Second of all, the reason the White House eventually gave up on Grassley is because administration officials are not insane. Why would anyone seriously believe Grassley was serious about reform after his conduct of the last several weeks?

Grassley has lashed out at the media with nonsensical whining; he said he wanted to undermine ambitious reform proposals because activists yelled at him in town-hall meetings; he vowed to defeat "Obamacare"; he nonsensically argued that the deficit "puts a stake in the heart" of Democratic proposals; he said, "I don't think it's going to be possible to work it out with the administration"; he promised not to vote for an "imperfect bill"; he validated "death panel" nonsense; and he said he was prepared to vote against his own compromise.

Grassley think he has grounds to be "resentful"? Everything would have been fine in "another couple weeks"? Please.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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POOR BOEHNER.... Some aspects of House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-Ohio) job are pretty easy. Now that moderates have been largely purged from the caucus, and voters have helped pare down the caucus to a trim 178 members, Boehner at least has ideological cohesion on his side.

But, Glenn Thrush reports, Boehner's job is not without its difficulties. (via Matt Corley)

Like a surfer riding the heavy waves before a hurricane, Boehner, a conservative with a penchant for compromise, has spent the past few months trying to harness the anger of the GOP base without allowing his conference to veer too far to the right. [...]

Long before the tea parties or Wilson's outburst, Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had struggled to moderate the rhetorical excesses of House conservatives hammering away on Obama's birth certificate, decrying the creation of "death panels" and ferreting out signs of creeping socialism.

Sources say they have been especially wary of the possible damage inflicted on the party's reputation by bomb-throwing Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who last fall called for an investigation into whether members of Congress are "pro-America or anti-America."

If Bachmann becomes the face of congressional Republicans, the GOP's numbers may shrink even more. But if Boehner takes steps to rein her in, and acknowledge her tenuous relationship with reality, the base will be livid.

I don't imagine Boehner would turn to me for advice, but I suspect one thing the Republican leadership might consider is exercising some control over the caucus' media work. One recent analysis of Bachmann's "surging national media exposure" found the right-wing Minnesotan appears on national television every nine days. Boehner could very easily say, "Michele, we'd like to give some vulnerable incumbents a chance to have some airtime."

As for Democrats, word that GOP leaders are "wary" of Bachmann's antics should point to a valuable weakness for the minority. Every time Bachmann comes up with some crazy thought, the push should be the same: what does John Boehner have to say about that? Does he agree? Is he willing to concede she's gone too far?

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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DEFINE 'PARTISAN HACKERY'.... Newsweek's Katie Connolly had a blog item yesterday on the discussion over "czars," which raised some worthwhile points. Indeed, as a substantive matter, it touched on key details that often go overlooked.

Connolly noted, for example, that "czar" is an ambiguous term with no specific meaning. The piece also emphasized the fact that White House "czars" have been around for generations, including George W Bush's 36. The Newsweek item even included some helpful historical context: "The appointment of czars makes Obama a communist about as much as a fake Kenyan birth certificate does. Remember that whole Russian revolution? The Tsars and the commies didn't really see eye to eye on much..."

As Matt Yglesias noted, however, the post also included one frustrating observation.

Anyone who watches cable news surely knows that conservatives are getting themselves all hot and bothered over the Obama administration's appointment of so-called czars. Today, the Democratic National Committee is going nuts in response. I've got more e-mails from them about this today than I care to count. This whole debate is descending into complete partisan hackery: GOP operatives are fanning ridiculous fears while Democrats are proffering inflated claims to counter them.

I'm sorry to hear about the DNC filling Connolly's email inbox, but I suspect the party finds it necessary because a) Republican "czar" critics are saying a lot of things that aren't true; b) there are relevant facts here that many news outlets are ignoring; and c) the DNC knew the media would be covering the Republican press conference yesterday and wanted to get the facts out. This is, after all, one of the reasons the DNC exists.

As Matt put it, "Silly Democratic National Committee, boring reporters by tediously pointing out that the central political argument being made by their opponents is totally dishonest! What partisan hackery! How sad that the debate is 'descending' to this level! But who's to say who's to blame for this situation? Maybe the DNC should have just turned the other cheek and not annoyed Newsweek with its pesky emails."

As for the notion that "Democrats are proffering inflated claims to counter" Republicans, I don't know what this refers to. What "inflated claims"? I received some of the same emails yesterday, and didn't find any factual errors at all. In fact, the Newsweek item included some of the same accurate figures in its post.

I suspect what happened here is what happens often -- Newsweek realized that Republican claims are both misleading and hypocritical, but didn't want to be accused of "bias," so it gratuitously added criticism of the DNC. That way, the piece was "balanced."

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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PUTTING HIS VOTES WHERE HIS MOUTH IS.... As we talked about earlier, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) was outraged to learn that Washington's Metro system did not run as smoothly as right-wing activists would have liked during Saturday's protests. Conservatives wanted to rail against government providing public services, but were disappointed when the taxpayer-subsidized subway system failed to meet their public transit expectations.

Brady was especially incensed that some of his own constituents had to spend their own money on privately-funded taxi cabs.

As Greg Sargent reports, Brady has no one to blame but himself.

...Brady voted against Federal funding for the very same Metro he's blaming for offering the tea partiers substandard service. [...]

[E]arlier this year, Brady voted against the stimulus package. It provided millions upon millions of dollars for all manner of improvements to ... the D.C. Metro.

Every House GOPer, of course, voted against the stimulus. Still, it's a real head-spinner to bash a government-run system for failing to adequately serve an enormous anti-government protest after opposing government funding for it.

It's not too late, I suppose. The D.C. metro system has no dedicated source of revenue, which undermines the quality of the service. Now that Brady has come to realize that transportation projects like these need added government investment, I'm sure that if he were to propose a new spending bill to improve this and other public transportation projects, Democrats would graciously co-sponsor his proposal.

What do you say, Rep. Brady?

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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APPLYING HEAT TO SNOWE.... There's plenty of rhetoric from Republicans on the Hill about the need for Democrats to reach out to GOP lawmakers to negotiate on health care reform. The talk has long been rather silly -- nearly all of the Republican caucus opposes reform. Talks with Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi dragged on for months, even when it became obvious they weren't negotiating in good faith.

For that matter, Democrats continue to invest considerable time and energy in wooing Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine -- arguably the only Republican in Congress who seems sincerely interested in passing a bill -- and her caucus is almost desperate to see those talks end.

That puts the pressure squarely on Snowe, the three-term Maine moderate who has been at the center of the Senate Finance Committee's bipartisan Gang of Six negotiations -- and who is widely considered to be the Republican most likely to jump ship. "Everybody's praying she won't," says Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Some Republicans are doing more than praying. Conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said it would be "naive" and "very foolish" for any GOP senator to allow a Democratic proposal to advance, because the Democrats would ultimately change the bill to their liking in conference committee.

"It would be terrible if one Republican chose to basically sell out the whole [Republican] Conference, particularly in return for some naive idea that we can get some compromise here and that it's going to hold up in [a House-Senate] conference."

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said he didn't want to speculate how much backlash Snowe would receive from her caucus if she were the lone GOP senator to support the plan -- but he also made clear that a lone defector would be in a tough spot.

"Except to say this: If Republicans are unanimous or maybe unanimous but one -- that puts a real spotlight on anybody who does differ from all of their colleagues," Kyl said.

If senators are willing to use phrases like "sell out the whole conference" on the record, it's safe to assume the pressure Snowe is feeling to reject reform, even if Democrats shape the bill exactly to her liking, is even more intense behind the scenes.

Snowe has faced this kind of pressure before, and given Maine's left-leaning ways, it's likely the senator will face at least as much lobbying from her constituents in the other direction.

But one thing to keep in mind is that the Senate Republican caucus, unlike Senate Dems, have mechanisms in place to enforce party unity and discipline. When Democrats break party ranks on key bills, there are no consequences. Those who let GOP leaders down, however, know in advance that enticements like committee positions are very much on the line. Rumor has it that Grassley began trashing reform more aggressively in August when his Republican colleagues made it clear that his future assignments were in jeopardy if he worked with Dems to pass a reform bill.

Snowe, in other words, may very well be punished for doing the right thing. And she knows it.

Another possible angle to consider: if state lawmakers in Massachusetts change the law and an interim Democratic senator brings the majority back to 60, how would this change the negotiations?

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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OBAMA SCRAPS BUSH MISSILE-DEFENSE PLAN.... George W. Bush crafted a plan to bring a missile defense system to Poland and the Czech Republic. In one of the more dramatic departures from the previous administration, President Obama announced this morning that U.S. policy is changing course.

The White House is not abandoning missile-defense altogether, but on the advice of the Pentagon and the unanimous judgment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. will "instead deploy a reconfigured system aimed more at intercepting shorter-range Iranian missiles."

As the president explained this morning, "This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems, and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program.... To put it simply, our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies. It is more comprehensive than the previous program; it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost-effective; and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missile threats; and it ensures and enhances the protection of all our NATO allies."

For the president's Republican detractors, Obama is making a mistake listening to the Secretary of Defense and the unanimous judgment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the president should only really listen to the neo-cons who've been wrong about every major national security and foreign policy challenge in recent memory.

Indeed, all the usual suspects are responding with predictable outrage. The Weekly Standard, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman have led the charge this morning, making arguments that don't make a lot of sense.

Robert Farley responded, "Let's be clear; this is a huge victory for common sense over fantasy, and for responsible defense budgeting. This project had no function other than to serve the pecuniary interest of the missile defense industry, and to sate the ideological lust of conservatives infatuated with St. Reagan. No convincing strategic logic could ever be provided for the program; advocates careened wildly between arguments, desperately trying to see if they could make anything stick."

I'd just add that, in general, most of the rhetoric from the right this morning has been about alleged symbolic victories for one foreign rival or another. It's been labeled a "win for Putin," or a "nod towards appeasement." Conservatives have barely tried to address the substance, or better yet, argue how Bush's fanciful approach would have been more effective.

In a statement, the National Security Network explained, "Conservatives have been quick to go on the attack, arguing that this will leave Europe exposed to an Iranian attack. These arguments are not based in fact, as not only do the cancelled missile defense systems have significant technological shortfalls, but they would also fail to protect against Iranian missiles because of both their location and technological advances in Iranian missile technology. Furthermore, from a geopolitical perspective, the European missile defense was a disaster. It worsened relations with Russia without even providing a credible defense against their nuclear arsenal, further undercutting nonproliferation efforts. Because there is no strategic benefit to maintaining the program -- either militarily or diplomatically -- the Obama administration has wisely has decided to eliminate this program and to develop a more adaptable missile defense system that better protects Europe."

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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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 Suffolk University/WHDH-TV poll in Massachusetts shows state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) as the odds-on favorite in the special election to fill the Senate vacancy left by Ted Kennedy. She's far better known, at least for now, than her Democratic rivals, and she leads the top GOP candidate in a hypothetical match-up by 30 points. (thanks to V.S. for the tip)

* A new Quinnipiac poll shows Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) trailing his leading Republican opponents, but the gap is shrinking. In a hypothetical match-up against former Rep. Rob Simmons (R), the GOP challenger leads 44% to 39%. In July, Simmons led by nine.

* Speaking of the Senate race in Connecticut, financier Peter Schiff, a former advisor to Ron Paul, is now officially running in the Republican primary, hoping to take on Dodd next November.

* In New York, a Marist poll shows 70% of voters in the state hoping Gov. David Paterson (D) does not seek another term. Two-thirds of New Yorkers, and more than three-quarters of New York Democrats, want to see state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo run to replace Paterson. In a primary, Cuomo leads Paterson by 47 points.

* In Colorado, Rasmussen shows former Lt. Go. Jane Norton (R) leading appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo) by nine points, 45% to 36%. Norton enjoys much better name recognition, despite Bennet already being in the Senate.

* In New Hampshire, Rasmussen shows former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) leading Rep. Paul Hodes (D) in a hypothetical match-up by eight, 46% to 38%.

* In North Carolina, Rasmussen shows incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R) with a 10-point lead over Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) in a hypothetical match-up, 48% to 38%. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) has also been eyeing the race, but he trails Burr by an even larger margin.

* Rep. Roy Blunt's (R) Senate campaign in Missouri just got a little easier, with former state treasurer Sarah Steelman (R) deciding not to take on Blunt in a GOP primary.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (228)

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THOMAS PEREZ DESERVES A VOTE.... Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the paralysis that too often grips Congress is the absurd nominating process. It's become entirely routine for qualified nominees who enjoy more than enough support to be confirmed to wait for floor votes, indefinitely, for parochial, often ridiculous, reasons.

John McHugh's nomination to be Secretary of the Army was held up because Kansas' Republican senators didn't want certain detainees locked up at Fort Leavenworth. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) put a hold on an EPA nominee, not because he was unqualified, but because Voinovich wanted a new report from the agency on the costs associated with cap and trade. Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) put a hold on an Interior Department nominee because Bennett had questions about oil and gas leases in Utah. OLC nominee Dawn Johnsen has been waiting patiently -- for eight months.

Thomas Perez, meanwhile, is the president's choice to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which was gutted during Bush's terms. Perez's qualifications are not in question -- Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights called Perez "arguably the most qualified candidate ever nominated" -- but he has nevertheless been waiting for six months for the Senate to confirm him.

Adam Serwer reports on the problem.

Oddly, part of what seems to be holding up Perez' nomination is a case Perez had nothing to do with: the Justice Department's recent decision to dismiss a 2008 voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party -- a decision now under internal investigation. Some attorneys in the Voting Rights Section see the case as part of the leftover politicization from the Bush years, while Republicans have used the case to argue that the Department is now being politicized by Democrats.

Perez' supporters argue since he wasn't even employed by the Justice Department at the time, it's absurd to hold up his confirmation because of the Black Panther case. "It just shows you how political and specious the arguments against him are," says Henderson.

Senate Republicans have also expressed concern about Perez' affiliation with what they see as "radical groups" -- namely CASA de Maryland, whose work on behalf of immigrants is seen by conservatives as controversial. During Perez's Senate hearings, Senator Jeff Sessions accused the group of "promoting illegal immigration" because they published a pamphlet informing undocumented immigrants about their legal rights if they are caught in an immigration raid.

Sessions seems to be at the center of the delays. Because Perez once lamented the "long history of xenophobes who oppose immigration," the Alabama Republican has accused Perez of denigrating "those who stand for a lawful system of immigration and immigration enforcement."

And so, Perez waits (and waits) for a simple vote to occur. In the meantime, the administration's plan to get the Civil Rights Division back on track is partially on hold. As the legal director of Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights told Adam, "It's hard to implement a strategy for how the division's going to operate without the head of the division there. There are a lot of decisions that aren't being made because they're waiting for the head person to come in."

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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SAFRA HEADED FOR THE HOUSE FLOOR.... We've talked a bit about the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) before. I continue to think it's a no-brainer. The student-loan industry is getting government subsidies to provide a service the government can perform for less. The Obama administration has asked Congress to remove the middleman, streamline the process, save taxpayers a lot money, and help more young people get college degrees.

The NYT's Gail Collins had a good column on the bill today, which as she noted, is "pretty easy to explain."

It would simplify the federally guaranteed loan system, save an estimated $87 billion over 10 years and use that money to increase aid to low-income students, improve community colleges and raise standards for early childhood education.

Let us stop here and recall how the current loan system works:

1) Federal government provides private banks with capital.

2) Federal government pays private banks a subsidy to lend that capital to students.

3) Federal government guarantees said loans so the banks don't have any risk.

And now, the proposed reform:

1) The federal government makes the loans.

Wow. You really do wonder why nobody came up with this idea before.

Well, in fairness, the Clinton White House came up with the same idea, but Republicans and industry lobbyists went berserk and the plan had to be scaled back.

They're throwing another fit this year, but for now, the bill seems to be on track. Honestly, the GOP opposition on this is just embarrassing. The same folks who demand cost savings, improved efficiency, and streamlined government programs, are nevertheless opposed to a common-sense idea that achieves those very goals. Some of the Republicans are no doubt swayed by industry campaign contributions, some just reflexively oppose everything Obama administration supports, and some would rather have an inefficient private system than a superior public system for purely ideological reasons.

Fortunately, opponents appear to be losing this fight. The House is set to vote on SAFRA this afternoon, and the prospects look pretty good. It often goes overlooked, but President Obama's top three domestic priorities for this Congress are reforms on health care, energy, and education. That makes today's vote pretty important to the White House.

It's also pretty important to the country. As always, readers can keep up on this and other higher-ed-related issues at the Washington Monthly's college guide blog.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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DANCING WITH THE CZARS.... How misleading has the right been with the attacks on "czars" in the Obama administration? Even David Brody, of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, said he's been "researching this topic" and concluded that the rhetoric is "really misleading." (via Right Wing Watch)

"[I]f you want to bring credibility to your argument you need to get your facts straight," Brody said. "Conservative media outlets hurt themselves when the information they provide isn't the total picture. It may play well with Obama's staunch critics but doesn't the full truth matter?

Is that a rhetorical question?

Brody is, all kidding aside, completely right about this. He specifically called out Fox News for misleading reports, and the Republican network has been covering this "story" in the most ridiculous way possible. The DNC put together this short video, noting Glenn Beck complaining bitterly about some of Obama's "czars," all of whom are filling offices created by George W. Bush. Beck only became incensed over this when the presidency changed parties.

"With apologies to Tom DeLay, and despite the railing you're hearing from the Republican caucus room and Fox News, the GOP has been 'dancing with czars' for a very long time. The unmitigated hypocrisy of these attacks not only speaks to the credibility of this manufactured controversy, but to the inability of the Republican party to say no to the marching orders doled out by Glenn Beck and the far right's noise machine," said DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan.

Fox News' claims are, however, getting more audacious. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Bush had "36 czar positions filled by 46 people during his eight years as president." Fox News, reporting on the Post article, said the newspaper had found 16 "czars" in the Bush administration.

The network had one of the digits right, but that's not exactly reassuring.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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PAWLENTY'S NOT-SO-BOLD ACORN DECISION.... Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's (R) acute case of Romney-itis seems to be getting worse.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty today joined the chorus of disapproval aimed at the ACORN community organizing group, ordering that state agencies "stop all state funding" of the group.

But a local spokesman for the group said there's no state funding to stop.

In a letter sent to Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson, Pawlenty cited "recent reports of questionable behavior and potentially illegal activity" by ACORN employees as the basis of his action.

Kevin Whelan, a spokesman for ACORN's Twin Cities affiliate, said the organization has never gotten money from the state "and there's certainly not a dime to cut off right now."

In other words, Pawlenty's grandstanding has the same practical effect as me announcing that I've decided to strip the Political Animal budget of all ACORN funding.

This detail, however, will likely go overlooked in Pawlenty's stump speech, when he proudly proclaims to conservative activists that he boldly cut off ACORN from taxpayer dollars in Minnesota.

It doesn't matter if it's true; it matters if it impresses the base.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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VITTER'S CHALLENGING HURDLE.... Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) would no doubt love nothing more than for people to forget about his habit of championing "family values" while, on the side, paying prostitutes for extramarital sex. But that's proving to be difficult.

Take the latest ACORN controversy, for example. As you've probably heard, some conservative activists, posing as sex workers, secretly filmed an exchange in which a former ACORN employee advised them on how to avoid paying taxes.

Vitter, who describes himself as "the Senate's most outspoken critic of ACORN," hopes to capitalize on the controversy created by the video. Jake Tapper reported yesterday:

Vitter has introduced a bill that would deny any federal funds to the group, which bills itself as the nation's largest grassroots organization serving low-income and middle-income Americans.

"After months of beating the drum and continued news reports of criminal investigations, the president and his administration are finally starting to distance themselves from ACORN. The Census dropping ACORN as a partner is a good, common sense move. Now we must go one step further and support my simple and direct amendment, which declares that no federal funds should go ACORN," said Vitter.

The Louisiana Democratic Party, however, points out a point of potential awkwardness for the senator -- the fake prostitution ring the young conservative journalists at BigGovernment.com talked about, versus the very real ones Vitter was accused of having frequented.

Exactly. Seeing Vitter express outrage about advice for make-believe prostitutes only invites everyone else to ask, "Hey, aren't you that guy who ran on a 'family-values' platform and then got caught cheating on your wife with hookers?"

What's more, on Monday, when the Senate was voting to cut off HUD funding for ACORN, Vitter didn't show up, citing a "scheduling" problem.

It's a reminder that Vitter has come to be defined by a sex scandal that's difficult to overcome. Last week, he started talking about "character" in government, which immediately reminded observers of his prostitution problem. In July, Vitter urged Republicans to "get back to core conservative values," which immediately reminded observers of his prostitution problem.

Now he's targeting ACORN over a prostitution controversy? Vitter is just making this easy.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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DEMANDING THE TRAINS RUN ON TIME.... One of the underlying complaints of far-right "Tea Party" protestors is a rejection of taxpayer-financed public services. If the government imposes taxes to create programs to benefit everyone, the argument goes, it's "socialism." They recommend cutting spending and letting people fend for themselves. It's what "freedom" is all about.

Occasionally, though, those principles run into practical problems in amusing ways.

Protesters who attended Saturday's Tea Party rally in Washington found a new reason to be upset: Apparently they are unhappy with the level of service provided by the subway system.

Rep. Kevin Brady called for a government investigation into whether the government-run subway system adequately prepared for this weekend's rally to protest government spending and government services.

Seriously.

The Texas Republican on Wednesday released a letter he sent to Washington's Metro system complaining that the taxpayer-funded subway system was unable to properly transport protesters to the rally to protest government spending and expansion.

Apparently, Brady heard complaints from some of his constituents who traveled to D.C. to protest "big government." They were disappointed to discover, however, that the government hadn't done more to satisfy their public-transportation expectations, and now want other government officials to address the problem.

In some instances, Brady said constituents relied on private enterprise -- taxi cabs -- rather than the (ahem) public option. The conservative lawmaker described this as a bad thing. Local officials, Brady said, should have made "a great effort to simply provide a basic level of transit" to the public.

Read that sentence again and replace "transit" with "health care coverage."

I should add, as someone who rode the D.C. metro every day for seven years, that the system has some fairly dramatic flaws -- in large part because it has no dedicated source of revenue. Without real investment, the system makes desperate pleas for funds, some of which go unheeded. The result is dramatic deficits, which in turn lead to cutbacks in services.

Any effort to improve the system would be rejected by lawmakers like Brady and activists like the ones who protested government services on Saturday.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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September 16, 2009

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

* Afghanistan: "The Afghan national election commission, in its first full tally of ballots cast in last month's presidential election, announced Wednesday that President Hamid Karzai had won 54.6 percent of the vote, a large enough margin to win reelection without a runoff against his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah."

* Congressional Dems, especially Jay Rockefeller, aren't especially impressed with the Baucus health care plan.

* At least the CBO likes it.

* The sooner Baucus fixes his bill's free-rider problem, the better.

* Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) almost certainly won't support a public option, but he seems amenable to a trigger.

* The House formally rebuked Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) late yesterday. The final vote was 240 to 179.

* The House ethics committee is investigating allegations involving Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and Sam Graves (R-Mo.), in unrelated matters.

* Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a staunch opponent of abortion rights, is prepared to kill health care reform unless it includes even more restrictions on abortion funding.

* I don't think Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) understands what a "czar" is.

* GOP leaders are still lying about cap-and-trade costs.

* Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is surprisingly optimistic about reform getting "more than 60 votes." What does he know the rest of us don't?

* It's hilarious hearing Rick Santorum explain why Republicans should be able to use reconciliation on large and small bills, but Democrats shouldn't.

* As the recession drags on, student loan default rates are up significantly.

* Look for more armed passengers on Amtrak.

* Fred Kaplan: "How distributing cash -- to Karzai, Abdullah, and other bigwigs -- could help us win in Afghanistan."

* Every state has its crazies -- even New Jersey.

* Orly Taitz gets laughed out of court.

* Katharine Weymouth isn't having a good summer.

* Bush purged U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden, and Obama has undone the damage.

* Headline of the day: "Uninsured Americans hope reform brings health coverage."

* ACORN is auditing itself.

* And finally, following up on Paul's item from earlier, I was delighted to see The Atlantic include me in its list of the nation's 50 most influential political commentators. I'm #44 on the list, but using Beck/Malkin/Teabagger math, and aerial photos from 1997, I've decided that I'm actually in the top five.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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GIBBS COMES PREPARED.... Glenn Beck talked about it, which means right-wing activists are worked up about it, which means Republicans lawmakers have embraced it as a serious matter. As is always the case, the political media establishment notices the uproar, and decides it must be a legitimate "story."

The issue, of course, is "czars." The White House press corps, picking up on baseless whining from GOP lawmakers, pressed Robert Gibbs today for some answers. The press secretary came prepared.

Gibbs said GOP "silence was deafening" on the issue of czars during former President George W. Bush's administration.

Republicans didn't raise the issue, he said, when Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) pushed a Y2K czar or when Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) called for a manufacturing czar.

"You've read Sen. Bennett was pushing for a Y2K czar that he didn't think was powerful enough," Gibbs said. "You've seen Lamar Alexander call for a manufacturing czar."

He also brought up the name of Randall Tobias, a Bush administration deputy Secretary of State and "abstinence czar" who resigned after it was discovered his name was on a prostitution services call list.

"You know, somebody referred to in the Bush administration as the abstinence czar was on the D.C. madam's list," Gibbs said. "Now, did that violate the Constitution or simply offend our sensibilities?"

That's a pretty solid response, which should help drive the point home -- this is a hopeless "controversy" over a bipartisan White House practice that's been around for decades. Indeed, some of the very same Republicans criticizing the use of "czars" now actively promoted and encouraged the use of "czars" before Obama became president.

The question, then, is whether news outlets will pretend this is a legitimate story anyway, by virtue of GOP complaints. After all, as ABC News reminded us last week, the media "loves a good fight -- even when the charges are unfounded."

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

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NOT EVEN A GOOD CO-OP.... Proposals for non-profit health care cooperatives (co-ops), offered as an alternative to a public option, have consistently been a little vague. They're generally a poor substitute, but at least in theory, some have described credible co-ops that might be able to offer some competition with private insurers. It would depend on how it's set up.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), despite initially offering rhetorical support for a public option at the start of the process, today unveiled his reform framework, which relies on a co-op system. Ezra Klein, who's been blogging the new Baucus Plan all afternoon, describes what Baucus has in mind.

The co-ops are on the state level, with each state pretty much required to have one. The 50 co-ops can then band together to leverage their national purchasing power. Sounds good, right? Sort of.

The co-ops can only compete in the small group and individual markets. That is to say, if the co-ops prove effective, and The Washington Post would like to offer co-op coverage as an option to its workers, it can't. The co-ops are not allowed to contract with large employers, which is to say, they can't compete with private insurers in the largest market, and they can't get the purchasing power that would come from a serious foothold among corporate customers.

Not only is their size restricted, so too is what they can do with their size. The co-ops can band together to increase their purchasing power, but they can't set national payment rates for their members, a la Medicare. As I understand it, they have to bargain with each provider and drug manufacturer and hospital and so forth separately, meaning they're denied one of the main advantages of size. The insurance industry is, in other words, being protected from not just public competition, but co-op competition.

I've never been big on co-ops, but I realize it's at least possible to structure them in a way that could provide a benefit and credible competition.

Baucus' vision seems to be the wrong approach to a weak idea.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE RESULT OF BAUCUS' 'HARD WORK'.... In unveiling his health care reform framework this afternoon, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) called his proposal "balanced" a "common-sense" plan that "will" pass. He was asked, not surprisingly, about the absence of GOP support.

"I believe I have an obligation to work as diligently, as hard as I can to try to get the most broad-based bill possible," Baucus said, adding, "I worked very hard to get that bipartisan support and I think that we will get it. That is, I think that certainly, by the time the Finance Committee in this room votes on final passage of health care reform, there will be Republican support."

It's unclear why he's optimistic about this.

Indeed, the level of support (or lack thereof) puts into doubt the utility of Baucus' entire strategy. The chairman expected his committee to approve a bill in June. Here we are in mid-September, and Baucus has very little to show for his efforts, except a framework he could have presented months ago.

Matt Yglesias noted, "In addition to the substantive concessions Baucus made in order to get nothing, it's worth noting that Baucus made huge procedural concessions in order to get nothing. If he'd just stuck to the schedule, we would have been at this point in the process at a time when Barack Obama's approval rating was considerably higher. And at the end of the day, politics is largely about politics and winning bipartisan support for proposals has at least as much to do with the popularity of the proposer."

What's more, Baucus accepted Republican delaying tactics, which led to the August recess, which gave the right the opportunity to trash the bill just as they'd planned. The plan, the president, and the party are all in a weaker position now.

Baucus not only isn't being rewarded for his attempts at bipartisan outreach, his efforts have led to a landscape that's fundamentally worse for reform. As Greg Sargent concluded, "It's perfectly possible that the resulting shift in public opinion could mean the final bill will be significantly different than it might have been. That, in the end, could end up being the Gang of Six's true legacy."

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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HE'S COMING FOR OUR FOOD.... Back during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama noted, "We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK." The comment, made 16 months ago, was obviously about over-consumption and America's role in the world.

A year and a half later, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is worried. "President Obama said we can't eat as much food as we want and think the rest of the world will be okay about that, as if that matters to freedom-loving Americans," she told her colleagues from the House floor this week.

"Well, we just heard last week that the Federal Government now under the Obama administration is calling for a re-ordering of America's food supply. What is that going to mean? Now will the White House decide how many calories we consume or what types of food we consume?"

Yes, Michele, that's exactly what it means. In fact, ACORN will now be responsible for preparing all foods in all households. President Obama will appoint a "dinner czar" to make sure you don't skip your vegetables. If you do, a "death panel" will decide whether you qualify for dessert.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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HOW BIZ-CZAR.... Shortly after President Obama's inauguration, many on the left noticed that the Republican Party was effectively being led by Rush Limbaugh. There was a leadership vacuum, and the right-wing radio host was filling it.

But as the year has progressed, the GOP seems less influenced by Limbaugh, and more influenced by Glenn Beck. It was Beck who launched a crusade against Van Jones, eventually helping force his ouster. It was Beck who's waged war against ACORN, leading to votes like these.

And it's Beck who believes Obama administration "czars" are part of some kind of nefarious plot. And what was once an idea driven by fringe, right-wing paranoia has now been embraced by Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Jack Kingston's (R-Ga.) has rapidly signed up 99 co-sponsors for his Czar Accountability and Reform Act of 2009.... All but one of them are Republicans: the member of the majority party backing Kingston's crusade to prevent presidential advisers who haven't been approved by the Senate from collecting salaries is Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.) All are Republicans. (See update below.)

At 2:15 p.m., at least three House Republicans will join Kingston (R-Ga.) for a press conference on "their efforts to bring about increased transparency and accountability for President Obama's czars."

A group of GOP senators is starting to take this seriously, too.

We've been over all the reasons why this is absurd. But the one angle that strikes me as the most salient is the fact that President Obama's use of officials is entirely routine. The Washington Post noted today, "By one count, Bush had 36 czar positions filled by 46 people during his eight years as president."

If even just one Republican lawmaker or Fox News personality had expressed even the slightest concern about this, it'd be easy to take their overwrought anguish seriously now. But that never happened -- Bush's legion of "czars" was fine. Indeed, the "czars" employed by all of the modern presidents weren't the least bit controversial. But with Obama, it's grounds for apoplexy? (In some instances, conservatives thought Bush didn't have enough czars.)

Several of the White House's "czars" have been confirmed by the Senate. Some of these "czars" are filling positions created by Congress. Nearly all of these "czars" are filling offices that existed long before Obama became president. Indeed, "czars" is just a colloquial shorthand for officials with long titles -- no one in government actually has the word in his or her job title.

What we have here is the Republican Attack Machine following Beck's lead, looking for the next baseless attack to throw a tantrum over.

UPDATE: Clay of Missouri is not a co-sponsor of this legislation. It was reported erroneously due to a clerical error. Hotflash at Show Me Progress has the whole story.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Paul Glastris

THE ATLANTIC 50... The Atlantic has just published a list of what it considers, based on a very involved set of metrics, the 50 most influential political commentators in the country. Guess who ranks #44, one spot behind Ron Brownstein and one ahead of Lou Dobbs? Our own Steve Benen! Congrats Steve!

Paul Glastris 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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PRIMARIES WORK.... This is the same guy who opposed the public option shortly after joining the Democratic Party.

Single-payer healthcare should be "on the table" in the healthcare debate, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) said yesterday.

Specter made the comments at an AFL-CIO meeting in Pittsburgh yesterday. The convention voted to pursue a single-payer plan.

"Although there's not a lot of support of single-payer, I believe it should be on the table," Specter told the audience. "At a minimum, we shouldn't settle for anything less than a robust public option."

Raise your hand if you think Specter would be saying anything like this if he weren't facing Rep. Joe Sestak in a Democratic primary.

I mean, really. In April, Specter was a Republican who opposed progressive ideas in health care reform. In September, he's a Democrat who wants single payer on the table.

We've all seen politicians evolve ideologically over time, but this is remarkable -- and entirely the result of a desire to impress the Democratic base.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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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.

* A couple of new polls in New Jersey, where the gubernatorial race keeps getting more interesting. A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll shows Gov. Jon Corzine (D) edging past Chris Christie, 41% to 40%. A Public Policy Polling survey, however, shows Christie up by nine, 44% to 35%.

* Speaking of this year's gubernatorial campaigns, a Clarus Research Group poll released last night shows Creigh Deeds (D) narrowing the gap against Bob McDonnell (R) in Virginia. The former state attorney general now leads by five, 42% to 37%.

* In a big surprise, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D) has reversed course and will not run for the Senate in Massachusetts.

* The RNC is investing $7 million in Virginia's gubernatorial race. That's $2 million more than the DNC.

* President Obama appeared alongside Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania yesterday, for back-to-back fundraising events.

* The latest Rasmussen poll in Nevada shows Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) struggling badly against both of his largely unknown GOP opponents.

* A new Quinnipiac poll in Ohio shows Gov. Ted Strickland (D) with a 10-point lead over former Rep. John Kasich (R), 46% to 36%, in next year's gubernatorial race.

* The same poll shows both Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate -- Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner -- leading in hypothetical general election match-ups.

* World Wresting Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon announced today she's running for the Senate in Connecticut. McMahon will run in a crowded Republican field for the chance to take on Sen. Chris Dodd (D).

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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THEY WANT TO RUN THE JOINT.... Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the cantankerous member of the Gang of Six who spent the summer trashing health care reform, announced that he's withholding support for the Baucus framework because "there's no guarantee" that it will remain unchanged.

As the conservative Iowan sees it, after the bill leaves committee, the bill is likely to be altered. Democrats, Grassley said, have not yet "made a commitment" to simply let the Gang of Six write the final bill.

Greg Sargent explained how silly this is.

Grassley's position really appears to be that a key reason he can't back the bill now is that Dems haven't sworn a blood-oath not to do a bill alone later if no bill emerges that can get "broad" Republican support. This amounts to asking Dems to promise in advance to do nothing at all in the event that a "broad" number of Republicans don't agree to get behind some kind of compromise bill.

By this standard, in order to satisfy Grassley's definition of true bipartisanship, Dems quite literally must cede all their power and leverage in advance, even as Republicans are refusing en masse to back any proposal that can reasonably be called a compromise. That really is Grassley's position, with no exaggeration.

Quite right. I'd only add that this position is the same one Sen. Mike Enzi, the conservative Wyoming Republican who's also been part of the Gang of Six, articulated in late July.

He issued a statement demanding "commitments" from the White House, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi that the Gang of Six bill would be the legislation sent to the president. Objections from other committees and other lawmakers were irrelevant -- Enzi wanted assurances that his agreement would be untouched by either chamber.

Grassley and Enzi effectively decided that the entire legislative branch of government has six members -- none of whom are liberal, and none of whom represent large, diverse states -- who should be solely responsible for overhauling the health care system of the United States.

It's quite a gang Baucus put together.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THIS TIME, THEY MEAN IT.... Byron York reports that conservatives felt "deep reservations" about George W. Bush's "governing philosophy," but just didn't talk about it much. (thanks to reader D.D. for the heads-up)

Conservatives greatly admired Bush for his steadfastness in the War on Terror -- to use that outlawed phrase -- and they were delighted by his choices of John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. But when it came to a fundamental conservative principle like fiscal discipline, many conservatives felt the president just wasn't with them.

You saw that throughout the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, when GOP candidates, while not mentioning Bush specifically, got big applause from conservative Republican audiences by pledging to return fiscal responsibility to the White House. [...]

Republicans have again found their voice on fiscal discipline. And some of them wish they had been more outspoken when a president of their own party was in the White House.

As DougJ asked, "How long til they start describing Bush as 'liberal'?" I'm guessing any minute now.

As a work of revisionist history, York's piece is almost amusing. Conservative Republicans on the Hill backed Bush on just about everything he asked for over two terms. GOP lawmakers helped Bush add $5 trillion to the national debt, and didn't hesitate to put two tax cuts, two wars, Medicare Part D, and No Child Left Behind on the national charge card, left for some future generation to worry about.

If Republicans were uncomfortable with any of this, they hid their concerns well.

As for the '08 presidential field, York saw candidates committed to fiscal responsibility. If memory serves, however, all of the leading GOP presidential hopefuls were promising even more tax cuts, and offered no substantive proposals to either pay for them or balance the budget.

"Republicans have again found their voice on fiscal discipline"? If true, that would be an awfully convenient realization to make after their recent recklessness.

But in reality, it's not true. Republicans, at least those in positions of power in Washington, want more tax cuts the nation can't afford, and apparently consider military and Medicare spending off limits.

Indeed, let's not forget an important story from June that went largely overlooked. The White House asked GOP lawmakers to come up with some recommended budget cuts. The caucus came up with a "bold" plan that would cut federal spending by about $5 billion a year -- far less than the White House plan to reduce spending.

If they've "found their voice on fiscal discipline," they're not saying anything coherent.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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ONE OF THESE NETWORKS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHERS.... Chris Cillizza argues that the political number of the day is five.

That's the number of networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Univision -- that President Barack Obama will appear on this Sunday as he seeks to re-build momentum for his health care plan.

Putting the president so far forward on Sunday -- particularly so soon after his primetime address to a joint session of Congress last week -- is evidence that the White House recognizes that the deal is far from closed with the American people when it comes to health care.

In moments of crisis during the 2008 campaign, Obama's campaign always put their candidate front and center -- knowing that he was the most convincing and compelling advocate for his own policies that they had in the stable.

I tend to think this is a good strategy. There will be plenty of pundits talking about the president being "over-exposed," but having the president in front of the public, making the case for his own agenda, seems wise. Why hit five networks? Because news consumers are fragmented, and reaching a large audience requires making the rounds.

And after the Sunday shows, President Obama will be in New York to appear on David Letterman's show on Monday night.

Of course, you might notice that there's one network missing from the president's line-up. A senior administration official told CNN that Obama will be appearing on every network except Fox News.

Time's James Poniewozik argues that this is a "mistake."

The perception may be that Fox is a nest of Obama-haters whose audience is monolithically opposed to him, but I think he would only benefit from being perceived to have the stones to do Fox and do it regularly.

The White House would be wise to ignore Poniewozik's advice. Fox News isn't even a news network -- it's a propaganda outlet that just finished promoting a right-wing march on Washington. The network exists as an appendage of the Republican Party. For the president to reward the network with "regular" interviews makes about as much sense as chatting with Limbaugh or the Weekly Standard, and expecting quality journalism with professional standards.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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IT NEVER ENDS.... A month ago, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) became one of a very small number of GOP officials, and the only member of the House Republican leadership, to criticize right-wing activists' tactics. She conceded that some conservatives were going too far.

That was mid-August. Now, McMorris-Rodgers is trying to get those same activists agitated again, lying to them with rhetoric about death-panels for special-needs children.

Surrounded by a group of parents clutching pictures of their special needs children, two Republican members of Congress stood in front of the Capitol on Tuesday and warned that President Obama's proposed health care system will lead to a rationing of care for children with disabilities.

GOP Reps. Trent Franks of Arizona and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said at a news conference that government-run health care systems, wherever they exist in the world, inevitably force health providers to refuse care to people with chronically-ill family members in order to reduce costs. Both members of Congress said the issue hits close to home: McMorris-Rodgers has a son with Down Syndrome, and Franks was born with a cleft palate.

"Whenever there is pressure on government to cut costs, and that is ostensibly the purpose here, the reality is a lot of times the doctors take their hands off the situation," Franks said. He also predicted that the president's health care legislation will lead to "the largest expansion of abortion since Roe vs. Wade."

Asked for proof that Democratic proposals would lead to this nightmare, McMorris-Rodgers said she didn't have any, but said parents were worried about it anyway. They're worried, of course, because truth-challenged lawmakers hold ridiculous press conferences like the one McMorris-Rodgers hosted yesterday. (Asked how she'd recommend helping parents with children with disabilities, McMorris-Rodgers recommended more tax breaks.)

I realize this has a dog-bites-man quality. "Republican lawmakers lie about health care reform" isn't exactly a stop-the-presses headline.

But this was nevertheless striking to me. Sarah Palin brought up the notion of panels that would ration care for special-needs children six weeks ago, and it was immediately deemed hopelessly wrong and willfully dishonest. Six weeks later, we have Reps. Trent Franks and Cathy McMorris Rodgers are repeating the exact same lie, knowing that a) some worried families might believe this nonsense; b) the media is reluctant to call out those who tell these lies; and c) there will be no consequences for their dishonesty.

Why has the debate over health care reform been farcical? Why is the notion of "bipartisan compromise" a foolish daydream? This press conference is Exhibit A.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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DROPPING THE PRETENSE.... Among some of President Obama's more despicable right-wing detractors, there has long been a racial element to their attacks. Generally, however, there's at least some subtlety to the race-baiting. Even the most depraved conservatives realize that unvarnished racism will generate a backlash, so they tend to be cautious.

Yesterday, however, the right came about as close to "straight-up George Wallace-style race-baiting" as we've seen from high-profile conservatives all year. It apparently started with a blaring headline on Drudge: "White Student Beaten on School Bus; Crowd Cheers." In 2009, a fist fight among teenagers on a school bus is now important national news, because the kid throwing the punch was black, and the kid taking the punch was white.

Rush Limbaugh decided President Obama is somehow responsible for this.

"It's Obama's America, is it not? Obama's America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety, but in Obama's America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, 'Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,' and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white."

Publius added, "[I]t's not not just Limbaugh. It's also Malkin, and Gateway Pundit, and Drudge, and Tom Maguire."

For those who believe reality matters, the school-bus fight reportedly had nothing to do with race, but rather, a couple of bullies who like to dictate who sits where on the bus. Conservatives who consider the fight of great national importance didn't even get the basics right. (Of course, even if the scuffle had been racially motivated, it takes a truly deranged political observer to hold the president responsible.)

But this isn't about reality. This is about right-wing activists who desperately want to stir up racial hatred of the president. It's vile and disgusting, and continues to tear at our social fabric in dangerous ways. There's no place for these transparently racist tactics in our discourse, but the likelihood of consequences for Limbaugh and his cohorts remains small.

Andrew Sullivan's take rang especially true.

The story was a classic schoolbus bully incident; it could happen anywhere any time and has happened everywhere at all times with kids of all races, backgrounds and religions. To infer both that it was racially motivated and that this is somehow connected to having a black president is repulsive. I know that is almost de trop with Limbaugh, but sometimes you have to regain a little shock. This man is spewing incendiary racial hatred. He is conjuring up images of lonely whites being besieged by angry violent blacks ... based on an incident that had nothing to do with race at all. And why, by the way, does someone immediately go to the racial angle when looking at such a tape?

These people are going off the deep end entirely: open panic at a black president is morphing into the conscious fanning of racial polarization, via Gates or ACORN or Van Jones or a schoolbus in St. Louis. What we're seeing is the Jeremiah Wright moment repeated and repeated. The far right is seizing any racial story to fan white fears of black power in order to destroy Obama. And the far right now controls the entire right.

Do they understand how irresponsible this is? How recklessly dangerous to a society's cohesion and calm?

I think they understand it all too well. Indeed, it's their driving motivation.

To their credit, there were a handful of conservatives who stepped up on this. Rod Dreher said Limbaugh is "up to something wicked." He added that Limbaugh and his ilk "are quite simply tearing the country apart."

If more conservatives were equally willing to criticize these attempts to stoke racial tensions, we'd all be better off.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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BAUCUS COMES UP EMPTY ON GOP VOTES.... After months of negotiations, debate, and partisan wrangling, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will unveil his health care reform framework today. Baucus, who delayed the entire legislative process for months, simply so he could work with Republicans on a bipartisan solution, has managed to garner a grand total of zero GOP votes for his proposal.

CNN has learned that -- barring some unforeseen change -- Democratic Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus will unveil a health care proposal Wednesday without the support of the three Republican senators -- Charles Grassley, Mike Enzi and Olympia Snowe -- he's been negotiating with for months.

...Wednesday, when the Senate Finance Chairman unveils his bill, all indications are he will be doing it without the support of Republicans he has spent hundreds of hours negotiating with.

Gang of Six members reportedly chatted again last night, but agreed to nothing.

So, in the span of a half-day, Baucus' reform package was rejected by one of the Finance Committee's leading Democrats (Jay Rockefeller) and all of the Finance Committee's Republicans. An inauspicious start, to be sure.

All eyes have been on Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), the Senate's most moderate Republican and the only GOP lawmaker on the Hill who seems sincere about wanting a reform bill. She no doubt disappointed Baucus when she concluded that his bill just isn't good enough.

But let's not lose sight of why Snowe balked at the Baucus framework. For one thing, she's concerned about the financing mechanism, which she believes would hit Maine hard. But just as importantly, Snowe also believes (as I do) that Baucus' plan offers weak and inadequate subsidies. "The affordability question is crucial," Snowe said. "It's a central component, because at the end of the day people have high expectations they will have access to affordable health insurance."

In other words, one of the leading Republican negotiators on health care reform believes Baucus' plan is too conservative.

So, does this mean Dems will have no choice but to go it alone, probably through reconciliation? That's probably premature -- Snowe isn't going for Baucus' plan, but Baucus' plan isn't the final bill. It's about to be amended a whole lot in committee, and then has to be reconciled with the HELP bill.

Snowe may still be able to support a reform package -- just not the one Baucus will formally present today.

As for the committee chairman, this has to be pretty embarrassing. He invested months and countless hours in this, holding up health care reform with painful delays. Indeed, don't forget that the Finance Committee was supposed to be the first committee to pass reform.

Baucus, it appears, has very little to show for his efforts.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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September 15, 2009

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

* Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said today the recession is "very likely over," but he doesn't think the job market is going to improve anytime soon.

* Retail sales figures were stronger than expected in August.

* Vice President Biden made his third trip to Iraq this year earlier today, but while he was in the Green Zone, "three large explosions near the American Embassy shook downtown Baghdad."

* The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told the Senate Armed Services Committee today he'll likely need more troops -- and more time -- for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Senate Republicans were pleased; Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was not.

* U.S. support for the war in Afghanistan has reached an all-time low in the new CNN poll.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) let his colleagues know today that if Republicans slow down the chamber's schedule, he'll cancel their week-long break in October.

* Reid is also unafraid, for now, of reconciliation.

* The House is debating formal criticism of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) this afternoon.

* A conservative activist brought two guns to a protest outside President Obama's event in Minnesota over the weekend.

* Muntader al-Zaidi, freed after nine months in an Iraqi jail.

* The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) would save quite a bit of money.

* Might Operation Rescue go out of business? It's apparently a distinct possibility.

* Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) isn't especially impressed with the arguments of his right-wing constituents.

* After an 83 to 7 vote, ACORN will no longer be eligible for HUD grants.

* On a related note, ACORN is considering filing suit against Fox News, Breitbart.com, and two conservative activists.

* R.I.P., Norman Borlaug. Thanks for all the lives you saved.

* As it turns out, Obama's off-the-record "jackass" comment seems to be working pretty well, politically.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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ROCKEFELLER THROWS A BRUSH-BACK PITCH AT BAUCUS.... Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) seemed to think he could thread the needle. He'd offer a right-leaning reform package that could pick up some Republican support, and keep Democrats more or less satisfied. His plan isn't working.

This afternoon, shortly after Baucus said there's a "very good chance" he'd get bipartisan support for his proposal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Baucus' plan still isn't conservative enough to get GOP votes.

And what about progressive, pro-reform Democrats? The ones Baucus refused to include in the bipartisan negotiations? Baucus may have hoped his Democratic colleagues would simply go along, figuring his plan is better than nothing. Today, however, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), a strong supporter of a bold, ambitious reform package, was unambiguous.

"There is no way in present form I will vote for [Baucus' proposal]," Rockefeller said. "Therefore, I will not vote for it unless it changes during the amendment process by vast amounts."

Jonathan Cohn puts this in the larger context.

A little over a month ago, right before the August recess, I spoke with Rockefeller at some length. And he was clearly wrestling with how to position himself.

No living senator has done as much to promote health reform as he has. It's the cause of his life and, for the first time, the goal is within reach. He admitted that voting against a package, even a flawed one, was difficult to imagine.

But Rockefeller also made clear his frustration with the compromises Baucus was making, whether it was replacing the public plan with a co-op or gradually reducing the subsidies to help people pay for insurance. He was particularly incensed about the changes to Medicaid and CHIP, programs on which he's worked closely over the years.

It seemed like he was still on board, if only to help get a bill out of the Finance Committee and onto the Senate floor. But you got the feeling -- well, I got the feeling -- that was near the breaking point. Clearly, he's now hit it.

The next step is some pretty intense wrangling. There'd be less, if only Baucus had bothered to talk about the proposal, even a little, with the Democrats on his own committee.

The Dems enjoy a 13-10 edge on the Finance Committee, suggesting Baucus doesn't have a lot of leeway -- if even a few Dems break ranks and reject his flawed proposal, Baucus would need some Republican votes to make up the difference, and as McConnell explained, that's not likely to happen.

A few things to keep an eye on: how many (and what kind of) changes Baucus is willing to make to keep Dems on board; whether the leadership tells Rockefeller to pass Baucus' plan now and they'll fix it when it's being reconciled with the HELP bill; whether Rockefeller gets Democratic allies to force Baucus' hand (and how many); whether Snowe gets on board with Baucus' plan; and whether Harry Reid considers just circumventing the Finance Committee altogether, moving the HELP bill to the floor with a bunch of amendments.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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WHICH GUY HAS 'NO CLUE'?.... Matt Latimer, a former Bush speechwriter, has a new book coming out, featuring some provocative behind-the-scenes insights from the confused and mismanaged White House. The published excerpts are already causing a bit of a stir.

The former president wasn't impressed with Sarah Palin, for example, saying she wasn't "remotely prepared" to seek national office. Bush also had unkind things to say about Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. In particular, he said the current president "has no clue."

Coming from George W. Bush, it was ironic criticism.

GQ published a lengthy excerpt in its new issue, most of it focusing on the Bush White House's response to the financial crisis a year ago. Apparently, it took some effort to help the then-president understand the seriousness of the crisis and the solution he ostensibly supported.

Finally, the president directed us to try to put elements of his proposal back into the text. He wanted to explain what he was seeking and to defend it. He especially wanted Americans to know that his plan would likely see a return on the taxpayers' investment. Under his proposal, he said, the federal government would buy troubled mortgages on the cheap and then resell them at a higher price when the market for them stabilized.

"We're buying low and selling high," he kept saying.

The problem was that his proposal didn't work like that. One of the president's staff members anxiously pulled a few of us aside. "The president is misunderstanding this proposal," he warned. "He has the wrong idea in his head." As it turned out, the plan wasn't to buy low and sell high. In some cases, in fact, Secretary Paulson wanted to pay more than the securities were likely worth in order to put more money into the markets as soon as possible. This was not how the president's proposal had been advertised to the public or the Congress. It wasn't that the president didn't understand what his administration wanted to do. It was that the treasury secretary didn't seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.

Later, Bush rehearsed an address he was going to deliver the country, and was annoyed that his speechwriters hadn't included language about the government plan to "buy low and sell high." Aides tried to explain to the president that he misunderstood his own plan. At that point, Latimer said, "the president was momentarily speechless. He threw up his hands in frustration."

Bush asked his staff, "Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don't understand what it does?"

Remember, this man was president of the United States for eight years. Eight long, painful years, during which, he nearly destroyed the country.

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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9/12 CROWD ESTIMATES JUMP THE SHARK.... The "debate" over the size of the crowd for the right-wing protests in D.C. on Saturday have been painful to watch the last few days. Absurd claims and bogus photographs abound. This morning, Glenn Beck said a "university" put the number at 1.7 million, but he couldn't remember which one.

All of this has been embarrassing for a few days now, but the story didn't become farcical until today.

Yesterday on his radio program, while discussing the crowds at this weekend's 9/12 protests, Glenn Beck claimed that the London Telegraph "quote[d] a source from the Park Service, the National Park Service, saying that it is the largest march on Washington ever." This led to a good deal of confusion here, as the Telegraph article contains no such quote. Just another case of Beck making things up? Actually, the story behind this turns out to be much funnier than we could have anticipated.

Several conservative blogs have been quoting National Park Service spokesman "Dan Bana" as saying the 9/12 protest was "the largest event held in Washington, D.C., ever." This appears to be a repurposing of this quote from David Barna (who, unlike Dan Bana, appears to be a real person):

"David Barna, a Park Service spokesman, said the agency did not conduct its own count. Instead, it will use a Washington Post account that said 1.8 million people gathered on the US Capitol grounds, National Mall, and parade route. 'It is a record,' Barna said. 'We believe it is the largest event held in Washington, D.C., ever.'"

There are an astounding number of conservative bloggers running with this today, all of whom are telling their readers that Saturday's protest was the largest in D.C. history. (My personal favorite was the one mocking "Democrats and their media acolytes" who refuse to believe it.)

The problem, of course, is that the quote conservatives are so excited about referenced the Obama inauguration. The article that generated all of this right-wing excitement has a headline that reads, "Inaugural crowd size reportedly D.C. record." The very first sentence in the article that the conservative bloggers relied on reads, "The National Park Service says it will rely on a media report that says 1.8 million people attended President Obama's inauguration."

Charles Johnson, himself a conservative blogger at Little Green Footballs, finds the right's approach to this rather depressing. "This is so pathetic I don't know whether to laugh or cry," he said, adding, "An epic, monumental fail."

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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WHEN ODD MOVEMENTS PICK ODD LEADERS.... Many conservative activists want "Tea Party" activists to be considered normal, well-adjusted, mainstream Americans, who just happen to be concerned about taxes and government spending. Or deficits. Or maybe health care reform. Or quite possibly birth certificates. It's hard to keep track.

In any case, the drive to be taken seriously as a legitimate political movement is complicated by the fact that Tea Baggers so frequently come across as nutjobs. Take Tea Party Express organizer Mark Williams, for example.

Last night, Williams appeared on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" for a group discussion featuring Cooper, David Gergen, and James Carville. It was Williams' chance to present his group's efforts as credible and sensible. He failed spectacularly.

This clip is only a portion of the discussion, but Cooper noted from the outset that Williams has called the president a Nazi. When he denied it, Cooper noted Williams' own website. The right-wing activist responded, laughing, "We have got the philosophy of fascism and national socialism at work here. Of course we do." He then argued he doesn't call "Barack Obama" a Nazi, he calls "Mubarak Hussein Obama" a Nazi, which Williams considers completely different.

Asked if he was offended by some of the vile placards carried by Tea Baggers at their most recent protest, Williams refused to say, instead attacking liberals attending "so-called antiwar peace demonstrations," for carrying signs "where George Bush was portrayed as a monkey, where he was first portrayed as the Joker." He added that these protestors may be "representative of the Democrats and the American liberals."

Cooper noted that Williams has called the president "an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist in chief." Williams conceded that he does describe the president that way. "That's the way he's behaving," he said. Cooper asked if he "really believes" this. "He's certainly acting like it," Williams added.

When Gergen described this madness as "unbelievable," Williams added, "Until [Obama] embraces the whole country, what else can I conclude? He and guys like James [Carville] are totally, totally isolating the rest of this country."

Far be it for me to offer advice to right-wing protestors, but the Tea Party gang really ought to find a less ridiculous spokesperson to represent them on CNN.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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'HOW TO GET RICH'.... Health Care for America Now, hoping to keep some momentum going on reform, is launching a $1 million ad buy today, and it goes right after the insurance companies.

For those who can't watch clips from their work computers, the spot begins with a book, "How to get rich -- by America's health insurance companies." Chapter one of the book is "Charge a lot," and the viewer is reminded that insurers have been raising premiums four times faster than wages. Chapter two is "Make a lot," and the viewer is reminded that some insurance company CEOs are paid up to $24 million a year. Chapter three is "Deny a lot," which is reinforced by the fact that one out of five treatments prescribed by doctors is turned down by private insurers.

"If the insurance companies win, you lose," the ad concludes. "Tell Congress to rewrite the story. We want good health care we can afford -- with the choice of a public health insurance option."

Aiming the fight at private insurers right now is almost certainly not a coincidence. The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee Forum on Health Insurance Reform heard testimony today from Wendell Potter (whose name should sound familiar to you).

Potter warned lawmakers today against passing an "Insurance Industry Profit Protection And Enhancement Act." He didn't mention Max Baucus' plan by name, but he clearly isn't impressed with the Finance Committee chairman's proposal.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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'EVIDENCE' OF A LIBERAL MEDIA.... I pay no attention to celebrity-related news, so it never occurred to me to read the Washington Post's obituary of actor Patrick Swayze. But the Media Research Center's Tim Graham checked it out, and found evidence that "the Washington Post is a liberal newspaper."

[T]oday's Adam Bernstein obituary for Patrick Swayze begins obviously by noting his big hits "Ghost" and "Dirty Dancing," but doesn't get to "Red Dawn" until paragraph 23. Even then, Bernstein wrongly suggests he had a supporting role. [...]

"Red Dawn" was not a prestigious film, but it was a breakout lead role for Swayze, and a completely shocking product coming out of a Hollywood: a movie about American teens fighting a resistance against a Soviet invasion of the United States.

There are clearly no fortysomething Reaganites working in the Washington Post newsroom.

Jamison Foser responded, "I'm not kidding. Graham really wrote that. It actually happened."

Just think, if you're not reading conservative blogs, you're missing out on all kinds of fascinating insights you probably won't find anywhere else.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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RACE'S RELEVANCE.... Comments like these really irk me.

Speaking on the House floor this morning, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) told her colleagues, "In a recent article, conservative commentator Thomas Sowell, an African American, examined some of President Obama's claims about the health care reform legislation moving through the Congress. I wanted to quote some excerpts from his column that I found insightful...."

Now, there's obviously a problem with a lawmaker finding Thomas Sowell's analysis of reform proposals "insightful," but more importantly, why on earth did Foxx find it necessary to highlight Sowell's race? Since the policy matter at hand had nothing to do with racial, ethnic, or diversity issues, it seems as if Foxx believes the color of Sowell's skin matters because both Sowell and President Obama are black.

And that's crazy.

I'm trying to think of how to explain this in a way Foxx would understand. Imagine if, in 2008, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was speaking on the House floor about Bush's economic agenda, and said, "In a recent article, progressive columnist Paul Krugman, a white guy, examined...."

That seems ridiculous, right? It is, just as Foxx's comments were this morning.

It's worth noting that Foxx is positioning herself as one of Congress' nuttiest members. As Matt Finkelstein reminded us, "Over the past few months, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) has offered some interesting reasons why she opposes health care reform. In July, she dismissed the idea of a health care crisis when she declared, 'There are no Americans who don't have health care.' Just days later, she suggested that the House reform bill will 'put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.'"

She's not quite in the Bachmann/King/Broun league, but she's getting there.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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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.

* In 2005, when Creigh Deeds (D) and Bob McDonnell (R) faced off in Virginia's attorney general race, the National Rifle Association backed Deeds. In 2009, the NRA has switched and has thrown its support to McDonnell.

* The latest Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos in Arkansas shows incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) below the 50% threshold, but nevertheless leading her GOP challengers in hypothetical general election match-ups. The margins ranged from a seven-point lead to a 19-point lead. It's early, and Lincoln is obviously vulnerable, but the results are better for the Democrat than expected.

* Research 2000 also polled Connecticut, and found incumbent Sen. Chris Dodd (D) trailing former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) by four, 46% to 42%. That margin is far smaller than a recent Rasmussen poll that showed Simmons up by 10.

* Former Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), soundly defeated by Hillary Clinton in a Senate race in 2000, has decided to run for governor next year.

* Speaking of New York, contrary to some reports, Rudy Giuliani is not running for the Senate next year.

* Former President Bill Clinton will wade into California's Democratic gubernatorial primary, and throw his support to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Most polls show Newsom trailing state Attorney General Jerry Brown by a wide margin, though Clinton's endorsement may shake up the race.

* In Massachusetts' upcoming special election to fill Ted Kennedy's vacancy, City Year co-founder Alan Khazei has announced he'll compete in the Democratic primary. Steve Pagliuca, a managing director at Bain Capital and managing partner of the Boston Celtics, is also eyeing the race.

* And in Michigan, retired football player Jay Riemersma announced yesterday that he's running to replace Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R), who's running for governor. Riemersma has never held public office, but has worked at the right-wing Family Research Council since hanging up his cleats. Shortly before Election Day last year, Riemersma wrote a piece called, "How could Christians vote for Obama?"

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SHOULDN'T BE A 'PRE-EXISTING CONDITION'.... Just when it seemed private health insurers couldn't appear any less sympathetic, we learn a little more about their coverage practices. Ryan Grim reported this jaw-dropper late yesterday.

With the White House zeroing in on the insurance-industry practice of discriminating against clients based on pre-existing conditions, administration allies are calling attention to how broadly insurers interpret the term to maximize profits.

It turns out that in eight states, plus the District of Columbia, getting beaten up by your spouse is a pre-existing condition.

Under the cold logic of the insurance industry, it makes perfect sense: If you are in a marriage with someone who has beaten you in the past, you're more likely to get beaten again than the average person and are therefore more expensive to insure.

In human terms, it's a second punishment for a victim of domestic violence.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) launched an effort in 2006 to prohibit the practice, but it failed in committee on a 10-10 vote. All 10 "no" votes came from Republicans.

The Service Employees International Union is lobbying on this issue, and noted yesterday, "Words cannot describe the sheer inhumanity of this claim. It serves as yet further proof that our insurance system is broken, destroyed by the profit-mongering of the very companies whose sole purpose should be to provide Americans with access to care when they need it most."

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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'CENTRIST' IS SUBJECTIVE, BUT C'MON.... Part of the problem with words like "moderate" and "centrist" is that they're inherently subjective. If you're Jim DeMint, Michele Bachmann and James Inhofe are mainstream, and Dianne Feinstein is a liberal.

What's more, the "middle" moves all the time. As Harold Meyerson recently explained, the middle of the House GOP caucus was 73% more conservative in 2003 than 30 years ago.

With that in mind, I'm not unsympathetic towards political reporters who are unsure when to use which labels. That said, the Politico described Rep. Brian Bilbray of California yesterday as "a centrist Republican." Dave Weigel noted what a mistake this is.

Bilbray was a member of the class of 1994 who lost his old House seat in 2000, then stayed in Washington as a lobbyist for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates "a temporary moratorium on all immigration except spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and a limited number of refugees." Bilbray returned to Congress in a 2006 special election, which he won in part by accusing his Democratic opponent of soliciting votes from illegal aliens. Since then, Bilbray has maintained a 92% rating from the American Conservative Union, which makes him an "ACU Conservative" in their ranking system. He voted against increasing the minimum wage, voted to repeal the Washington, D.C. gun ban, voted against a ban on anti-gay job discrimination, and voted against expanding SCHIP. When Tom Tancredo quit his leadership of the Immigration Reform Caucus in 2007, Bilbray replaced him.

Relying on Vote View, we see that Bilbray was the 79th most conservative member of the House of Representatives in the last Congress. As Jamison Foser noted, "That means Bilbray's voting record was more conservative than more than 80 percent of all members of Congress." Bilbray was slightly more conservative still in the Congress before that.

I'm certainly willing to entertain the idea that moderate Republicans still exist, in small and dwindling numbers, on the Hill. But if Bilbray makes the cut, the word has no meaning.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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A SEPTEMBER REBOUND?.... When CNN released the results of its new national poll yesterday, the network seemed to bury the lede a bit. The headline read, "CNN Poll: Slight majority approve of Obama on economy."

As President Barack Obama gives a speech on the economy Monday in New York City, a new national poll indicates that a slight majority of Americans approve of the way the president is handling the issue.

That's not incorrect, but it's hardly the most interesting angle to the poll results.

President Obama's approval rating, for example, went up five points, to 58%, the highest it's been in a CNN poll since June.

Asked about approval of the president's work on specific issues, 54% approve of his handling of the economy (up five points since August); 58% approve of his handling of foreign affairs (up four points since August); 51% approve of his handling of health care policy (up seven points since August); 52% approve of his handling of taxes (up seven points since August); and 46% approve of his handling of the deficit (up 10 points since August).

In the CNN poll taken two weeks ago, a narrow majority opposed the president's health care reform plan. In the new poll, a narrow majority favor the plan, giving it the most support since June.

Moreover, a 61% majority believe Republicans are "being obstructionist for mostly political reasons" in the reform debate, and 85% found Joe Wilson's outburst "inappropriate."

It's only one poll, of course, and these results do not entirely line up with the latest data from the Washington Post/ABC News poll. But I suspect the numbers are welcome news at the White House.

And as headlines go, "CNN Poll: Slight majority approve of Obama on economy" doesn't quite capture the results the same way "CNN Poll: Obama sees big bump in job approval" would have.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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BAUCUS PLAN FACES SCRUTINY, CHANGES.... It's likely that sometime today, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will formally unveil the framework of his health care reform proposal for his colleagues. After months of delays, that's a positive development -- policymakers have been waiting on Baucus' panel for far too long.

The problem, at this point, is with the proposal itself. Putting aside the public option for a moment -- Baucus' plan doesn't have one -- most reform advocates agree that the subsidy cap for uninsured families should be set at 400% of the federal poverty level. Last week, Baucus signaled his intention to support a 300% cap, and there was some scuttlebutt about a 350% compromise.

Suzy Khimm reports that Baucus won't budge. This will not help in making the bill more appealing to Democrats. For that matter, the far less generous approach won't even help with Republicans -- only Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is even considering support for the bill.

Jonathan Cohn considers whether the Baucus framework is adequate in its subsidies.

The bottom line here depends, in part, on which people you consider--in particular, whether you're looking at the poor or middle class, and whether you're looking at the relatively sick or the relatively healthy.

Total medical expenses, including premiums and out-of-pocket expenses, would be no more than 20 percent of annual income for most of the people profiled in the document. For the poor, it'd be dramatically less. That's the (relatively) good news.

And the bad news? These figures are all for people in average health. But people end up paying a lot more in out-of-pocket expenses when they have a serious medical issue--whether it's because of an accident, an acute illness, or a chronic disease. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, a family of four making $42,000 a year could owe $9,000 a year in medical expenses if it hit the maximum in out-of-pocket expenses--which is pegged, in the Finance legislation, to deductible levels in Health Savings Accounts. That's easy to do when one family member gets in an accident, has an acute medical problem, or is dealing with a chronic disease.

A family of four making $78,000 a year could owe $23,000 -- nearly a third of its income -- if it had a member with high medical bills.

Keep in mind, progressive Dems on the Finance Committee were blocked from Baucus' negotiations on shaping the proposal, and weren't even told which provisions were under discussion. Today will be their first real chance to examine the plan in any kind of detail, and they're going to want to make some changes. Indeed, The Hill reports that they're likely to "demand" some fairly significant improvements to the framework.

Publius makes the case that reform advocates should keep fighting for the public option, but at the same time, "can get more substantive bang for their buck by fighting for both better subsidies and higher levels of coverage (i.e., % of costs individuals have to provide).... [T]he public option is important, but I see it as a longer-term protection. If the Dems pass a bill that mandates coverage but provides skimpy subsidies and anemic coverage, it could be a full-blown policy disaster immediately."

I realize that it's not exactly a catchy rallying slogan to chant, "A subsidy cap at 300% of the federal poverty level is unacceptable!" but the truth is, it's a provision that really needs to be changed.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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A SERIES OF COUNTER-TERRORISM VICTORIES.... For the political