Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2009

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

* As of this afternoon, the gunman believed to be responsible for shooting four uniformed police officers in Tacoma, Washington, remains at large. (Because the suspect, Maurice Clemmons, had his sentence commuted by Mike Huckabee, there's a political angle to the story.)

* In a brazen attempt to antagonize the world, Iran announced its intentions to build 10 new sites to enrich uranium, dramatically expanding the same nuclear program that has helped isolate the regime.

* Not encouraging: "President Asif Ali Zardari has ceded his position in Pakistan's nuclear command structure to his prime minister, in a sudden political maneuver widely seen as a fresh sign of turmoil on the eve of President Obama's strategy announcement for the region."

* Expect President Obama to lay out "a time frame for winding down the American involvement in the war in Afghanistan" tomorrow night.

* The status quo needs improvement: "The administration said Monday that it would increase the pressure on banks to help troubled homeowners receive permanently lower mortgage payments. The Treasury Department said that mortgage servicers would be required to submit plans on how they would decide whether a loan would be permanently modified. Bank that fall short of the guidelines of their agreement could face fines or sanctions, the Treasury said."

* Oh my: "With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children."

* Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, of the traditional National Party, appears to have won Honduras' presidential election.

* The Senate should expect to work quite a few weekends in December.

* A war tax is "probably not" going to happen.

* The White House press corps' interest in the "party crashers" story seems more than a little excessive.

* The elite community college.

* Another potential domestic terrorist is caught with a bomb-making lab in his Ohio home.

* Smart piece from Marc Ambinder on the success of Obama's Asia trip.

* Interesting: "Jeff Sharlet, who burst onto the scene with his book about The Family, the shadowy fundamentalist organization that has infested American politics like a nest of rabid termites, has leveled another revolting accusation at the group. His research and investigation into the group, which involved infiltrating them and living with them, reveals that U.S. lawmakers who are members of The Family are behind the atrocious, hateful Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2009 that is likely to become law in Uganda."

* The Palin "bus" tour has apparently included some private-jet travel.

* I haven't felt the need to write about the ridiculous "Climategate" nonsense, but Kevin's post strikes all the right notes.

* There's something deeply wrong with the right: "By a wide margin, Americans consider Rush Limbaugh the nation's most influential conservative voice. Those are the results of a poll conducted by '60 Minutes' and Vanity Fair magazine and issued Sunday. The radio host was picked by 26 percent of those who responded, followed by Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck at 11 percent. Actual politicians -- former Vice President Dick Cheney and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin -- were the choice of 10 percent each."

* A list to help motivate the liberal base a bit.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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THE LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STIMULUS.... Republican lawmakers were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the economic recovery package that rescued the economy from the abyss. But instead of feeling embarrassed about the latest in a series of dramatic economic misjudgments, GOP officials continue to rail against the economic life-preserver.

Well, that's actually only part of the problem. While they shake their fist at the stimulus with one hand, they're reaching out for more stimulus aide with their other hand. Lee Fang has this report about Rep. Bill Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, who loves the recovery package when he's not trashing it.

* Last week, Shuster attended the groundbreaking ceremony for a sewage treatment plant for the Blairsville Municipal Authority. Republican State Senator Don White noted that the project was only possible because of the stimulus, which allowed the state Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) to provide a $10.4 million grant and a $3 million low interest loan for construction.

* On November 4, Shuster asked Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) to use some of the state's stimulus money to reopen the Scotland School for Veterans' Children. Shuster noted that using the Recovery Act money for the school would save 134 full-time jobs.

* In July, Shuster joined 14 Pennsylvania lawmakers -- including fellow stimulus-opponents Reps. Glenn Thompson (R-PA), Charlie Dent (R-PA), Jim Gerlach (R-PA), and Todd Platts (R-PA) -- in writing a letter asking that stimulus money be used towards public universities.

* In June, Shuster hailed the stimulus-funded initiative to build a high-speed rail line between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Post-Gazette quoted Shuster praising the project: "I believe we are about to experience a new era in passenger rail in this country. I want Western Pennsylvania to participate in this new era and to enjoy the benefits of increased and expanded passenger rail service."

This comes a week after a Virginia jobs fair in House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's (R) district, where he repeatedly condemned the stimulus effort -- neglecting to mention that the job fair wouldn't have existed were it not for the stimulus effort.

And let's not forget, this isn't exactly an unusual occurrence. Bobby Jindal, Mitch McConnell, Saxby Chambliss, Johnny Isakson, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry all have two things in common -- they (1) railed against recovery efforts, rejecting the very idea of government spending improving the economy; and (2) later discovered they liked stimulus spending after all, and felt it was important to help the economy in their state.

Shuster, in other words, is in good company.

Of course, the phrase these guys are looking for, but can't bring themselves to say, is "Thank you, Mr. President, for rescuing the economy from the recession we helped create."

The sooner they concede they were wrong (again), the sooner we can all move on. I'm confident the White House has no interest in rubbing it in.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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AFGHANISTAN.... On the eve of his national address at West Point, President Obama issued an order to the Pentagon to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The president has spent much of the day discussing his decision with foreign leaders, after communicating his instructions to the brass on Sunday afternoon.

A lot of the relevant details have not yet been released, and one assumes we'll know a great deal more about the future of the U.S. policy after the president's remarks tomorrow.

Slate's Fred Kaplan ran a good piece today, articulating "mixed feelings" that I can relate to.

So here's what it comes down to: This option might be a good idea if it worked, but the chances of its working are slim (though not zero); all the other options seem to be bad ideas, but they might cost less money and get fewer American soldiers killed (though not necessarily).

Which road is less unappetizing? I don't know. That's why I'm ambivalent.

My guess is that President Obama held so many meetings with his national-security advisers on this topic -- nine, plus a 10th on Sunday night to get their orders and talking points straight -- because he wanted to break through his own ambivalences; because he needed to come up with a reason (not just a rationalization) for doing whatever it is that he's decided to do, some assurance that it really does make sense, that it has a chance of working, so he can defend it to Congress, the nation, and the world with conviction. Let's hope he found something. A columnist can be ambivalent; a president can't be.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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MARK KIRK'S DESCENT CONTINUES.... It's tempting to think Rep. Mark Kirk (R), running for the Senate in a traditionally "blue" state, would be careful about shifting too far to the right. Sure, he has a primary, but Kirk is expected to win the Republican nomination fairly easily.

Alas, Kirk's descent continues unabated. In the latest example, the congressman suggests, in writing, that women may be denied mammograms if health care reform becomes law. In a new mailing, Kirk writes:

This month, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended eliminating mammograms for women ages 40-49. The panel concluded that while thousands of women's lives would be saved by continuing the test, "the net benefit is small" for the population as a whole.

Currently, this is only an advisory recommendation. But under the health care bill moving through the Senate, this recommendation could become law.

TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK: Should women between the ages of 40 and 49 be denied access to life-saving mammograms?

Kirk has to know how ridiculous this is. "This recommendation could become law"? According to whom? In Grown-Up Land, this recommendation has no chance of becoming law.

In a statement, DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan called the mailing "a lie," adding, "This is just another pathetic example of a Republican party that offers the American people nothing but fear and lies when what they desperately need is leadership and solutions."

A recent New York Times editorial explained Kirk actually has the story backwards: "There is virtually no chance that any insurers, either public or private, will deny coverage to anyone based on these recommendations. Government and industry officials have said that explicitly and, in fact, every state but Utah requires private insurers to pay for mammograms for women starting in their 40s.... The only part of the reform bills that could affect mammography would only make them more accessible. Under the legislation, the secretary of health and human services might be given authority to waive Medicare co-payments for prevention services that rank highly in the opinion of this task force. Since the task force gave a low grade to screening women in their 40s, the secretary could not waive cost-sharing for them."

It's a genuine shame to see what some Republicans are willing to do to get a win a primary.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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WORTH FIGHTING FOR OR NOT?.... When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) included a public option in the Senate version of health care reform, there was a sense of relief among proponents of the idea. When the motion to proceed passed (barely) with the public option intact, reform advocates were again pleased.

But as attention turned to the end game, and the public option emerged as arguably the biggest hurdle to overcoming Republican obstructionism, I've noticed a new argument among some public-option supporters: the current version of the public option may not be worth fighting for.

If you've followed the debate, you know the public option that's survived is a shell of its original self. We're talking about a plan that a fairly small percentage of the population will be eligible to participate in, which features negotiated rates, and which states can opt out of.

A week ago, Josh Marshall was among the first to argue that this incarnation may not be worth the effort, calling what's left of the public option "measly," and not worth delaying the larger reform effort over. He added that the proposed plan would likely become "a dumping ground for what health care policy types call 'creaming' -- health insurers wanting to maintain pools of the young and the healthy and dump responsibility for the aged and chronically ill on to public programs or on to nothing at all." Soon after, Tim F. added, "[W]ithout some major changes the public option is going to suck."

It now seems like I'm seeing the same argument pop up all over the place. Paul Starr wrote in the NYT yesterday:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, [the current version of the public option] would enroll less than 2 percent of the population and probably have higher premiums than private plans. For progressives to say they will block reform without a public option is not just foolish, but potentially tragic if it results in legislative deadlock. [...]

Liberals should be prepared to give up what is now a mere symbol for changes in the bill that would deliver affordable insurance more effectively and quickly to the millions of Americans who desperately need it.

A USA Today editorial, which supports of the idea of competing public and private plans, added this morning that the provision has been "weakened" and "diluted." The piece added, "As things stand, it's a wonder that so many people are fighting so much over something so toothless."

Matt Yglesias didn't go quite so far as to say the provision is no longer worth pursuing, but he concluded that the remaining public option has been "defined down to something that's much less significant."

If this approach catches on among lawmakers, we can probably guess what's going to happen to the provision. There are several Democratic senators who've been pushing hard for a public option since the beginning, but if they come to believe that what's left of the measure is hardly worth fighting for, and reform proponents fear that the remaining public option won't be effective, they'll invest their energies elsewhere.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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MONEY IN YOUR POCKET.... Following up on earlier item, there's growing reason to believe health care reform will produce lower premiums for consumers. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber's analysis reached this conclusion, and the Congressional Budget Office released a report today that will almost certainly be misconstrued, but which is actually a positive development.

According to CBO, average premiums in the individual market would increase 10 to 13 percent because of provisions in the Senate health care bill, but, crucially, most people (about 57 percent) would actually find themselves paying significantly less money for insurance, thanks to federal subsidies for low- and middle-class consumers.

Those are two separate findings, but it seems likely that Republicans will use the former finding to attack reform, claiming it will raise people's premiums, and leave people confused about the second finding, which is actually the one that impacts people's pocket books.

This can get a little confusing, which conservatives will no doubt want to exploit, so let's set the record straight before the lying begins in earnest. The CBO looked at premiums for consumers getting insurance as individuals, through small-group coverage, and large-group coverage. Both group markets, which serve a large majority of Americans under 65, are expected to see premiums decrease as a result of reform. That means more money in the pockets of tens of millions of consumers.

And what about the individual market? Premiums are expected to increase by about 10% by 2016. As Ezra Klein explained, however, what matters is why.

The CBO sees the changes coming from three different sources. First, "the average insurance policy in this market would cover a substantially larger share of enrollees' costs for health care (on average) and a slightly wider range of benefits." This accounts for all of the increase in premiums. In fact, it accounts for much more than the projected increase: The improvement in the insurance obtained on the individual market would, on its own, raise prices by up to 30 percent.

But the increase is moderated by two other policy changes. First, the new rules governing the insurance market are expected to make the market more efficient, lowering prices by 7 to 10 percent. Second, the individual mandate, alongside the subsidies and the increased ease of purchasing insurance, is expected to bring in healthier folks, which should save another 7 to 10 percent. Add it all together and we're looking at a 10 to 12 percent increase in premiums for insurance that's about 30 percent better than what people are getting now. It's a steal. And all this is before we get to subsidies.

The CBO estimates that 57 percent of people in the individual market will receive subsidies to help them purchase health-care insurance (folks on the individual market tend to be much lower-income, with much less stable employment). Those subsidies will reduce premium costs by between 56 to 59 percent for the average beneficiary. So in the final analysis, the effect of reform on your typical individual market purchasers is to give them insurance that's about 30 percent better but only 10 to 12 percent more expensive, and then assure them subsidies that will lower their payments by more than 50 percent.

The Congressional Budget Office, in other words, has offered another encouraging report on the benefits of health care reform. With the debate poised to begin in the Senate, the timing is helpful.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM.... The lead Politico piece of the day highlights "7 stories Barack Obama doesn't want told." The idea, apparently, is to identify seven media narratives that have the potential to catch on -- especially if they're picked up and repeatedly tirelessly by outlets like Politico -- and undermine President Obama's standing.

It's not an especially enlightening list, and most of the seven are pretty predictable -- the president needs more fiscal discipline; he's too thoughtful and appreciative of nuance; his White House is too mean ("the Chicago Way"); his White House isn't mean enough ("pushover"); he's elevated Speaker Pelosi too much; and he's arrogant.

Of particular interest, though, was John Harris' observation about the president may not be enough of an "American exceptionalist."

Politicians of both parties have embraced the idea that this country -- because of its power and/or the hand of Providence -- should be a singular force in the world. It would be hugely unwelcome for Obama if the perception took root that he is comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence or position in the world.

On this score, the reviews of Obama's recent Asia trip were harsh.

His peculiar bow to the emperor of Japan was symbolic. But his lots-of-velvet, not-much-iron approach to China had substantive implications.

I don't doubt that a variety of pundits find all of this very compelling. It's not.

For one thing, the bow wasn't especially "peculiar," and no one outside beltway newsrooms seems to care. For another, the "reviews" of the Asia trip may have been "harsh," but the reality of the trip was far more encouraging. Just as important, the bulk of the Obama agenda seems focused on helping the United States regain its influence and position as the global leader -- which is the opposite of being "comfortable with a relative decline."

As Greg Sargent explained, Harris' assumptions about exceptionalism seem especially off-base.

There's been a general unwillingness [among some political reporters] to acknowledge how vastly the landscape of national security politics has shifted in the wake of Bush's catastrophic foreign policy experiments and the electorate's resounding rejection from 2006 onward of his vision of swaggering unilateralism. Multiple polls have shown that majorities support Obama's engagement of hostile foreign leaders.... The electorate even supported Obama's decision to journey to Berlin and promise a new era of engagement, which was widely ridiculed as an "apology."

Harris notes that Obama should fear a narrative holding that he is "comfortable with a relative decline in U.S. influence," but this formulation, too, is revealing. Obama in 2008 explicitly rejected the notion that pragmatic global engagement, and the willingness to compromise with other countries in order to tackle common challenges, is tantamount to risking a "decline in U.S. influence." He won resoundingly. Indeed, he was elected after insisting that it's in America's interests to carve out a new type of global leadership role built on a rejection of that world view.

Quite right. In fact, in April, the president was specifically asked about whether he subscribes "to the school of 'American exceptionalism' that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world." Obama offered what struck me as the perfect response: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.... I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

It's not how the right perceives American exceptionalism, and it's not how the wired-for-Republicans media perceives American exceptionalism, but it's a thoughtful, nuanced, mature approach to the issue.

That this might be a problematic "narrative" is absurd.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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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.

* The proposed RNC "purity test" is struggling to pick up support from party leaders. Yesterday, former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie told CBS it would not be "in the best interest of the party."

* In a surprise move, the Boston Globe endorsed community service leader Alan Khazei in Massachusetts' Senate Democratic primary. Recent polls show Khazei struggling to get to double digits. The primary election is Dec. 8 -- a week from tomorrow.

* On a related note, former Massachusetts governor and presidential nominee Michael Dukakis (D) threw his support to Rep. Mike Capuano's (D) Senate campaign. State Attorney General Martha Coakley remains the Democratic frontrunner, but there's some evidence to suggest Capuano is closing the gap.

* In Wisconsin, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) leading next year's gubernatorial race, but by a narrow margin. Barrett leads former Rep. Mark Neumann (R) by two (41% to 39%); leads former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) by five (46% to 41%), and is tied 40% each against Milwaukee County executive Scott Walker (R).

* In Michigan, a new Mitchell Research & Communications poll shows state Attorney General Mike Cox leading Rep. Pete Hoekstra in a Republican gubernatorial primary, 27% to 24%.

* Republicans have been eyeing Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) as a vulnerable incumbent, but the leading GOP challenger will apparently skip the race next year.

* Ralph Nader is still thinking about running for the Senate in Connecticut next year.

* And in a bit of surprise, Mike Huckabee said he is "less than likely" to run for president in 2012. I find that pretty hard to believe.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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ENCOURAGING DICK.... As you may have heard, Newsweek's Jon Meacham has a provocative item in the new issue, encouraging Dick Cheney to run for president because it would be "good for the Republicans and good for the country." There are more than few problems with the argument, but the part that stood out for me is the notion that we need a "referendum on competing visions" of government.

One of the problems with governance since the election of Bill Clinton has been the resolute refusal of the opposition party (the GOP from 1993 to 2001, the Democrats from 2001 to 2009, and now the GOP again in the Obama years) to concede that the president, by virtue of his victory, has a mandate to take the country in a given direction. A Cheney victory would mean that America preferred a vigorous unilateralism to President Obama's unapologetic multilateralism, and vice versa. [...]

A campaign would ... give us an occasion that history denied us in 2008: an opportunity to adjudicate the George W. Bush years in a direct way.

I seem to recall a lengthy process -- I believe it was called "the presidential election of 2008" -- where Americans were given a choice between a continuation of Bush/Cheney policies and a more progressive, Democratic approach. I also seem to recall the outcome -- a one-sided victory for the Dem.

It's true that the defeated and humiliated Republican Party maintains that the president did not earn a mandate, but why would an Obama victory over Cheney change the GOP's mind? 365 electoral votes weren't enough?

For that matter, is the jury still out on the Bush presidency? Meacham sees the need for additional adjudication "in a direct way." I'm not sure what more evidence anyone would need that Bush failed in spectacular and historic ways, in practically every area of public policy. It will take many, many years to address the fiascos of the last eight years.

Meacham sees these catastrophes and thinks, "What we really need is the failed president's vice president to seek national office." There's no reason to think that's a good idea.

The Newsweek editor added, "No one foresaw Cheney's reemergence as a force in the politics of the 21st century until it happened." Did it? Sure, the mainstream media loves to follow Dick Cheney's attack of the day, but when, exactly, did the unpopular and discredited former vice president "reemerge as a force in the politics of the 21st century"? I don't remember that happening.

Indeed, rank-and-file Republicans were asked in a new poll about who best reflects the party's principles. Just one chose Dick Cheney -- not 1 percent, I mean one individual person.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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LACKING DIRECTION.... The Washington Post released a poll today on what Republican voters are thinking, and how satisfied they are with their party. The results were all over the place.

The Republican rank and file is largely in sync with GOP lawmakers in their staunch opposition to efforts by President Obama and Democrats to enact major health-care legislation, but a new Washington Post poll also reveals deep dissatisfaction among GOP voters with the party's leadership as well as ideological and generational differences that may prove big obstacles to the party's plans for reclaiming power.

What's tricky about all of this is trying to get a sense of direction. Rank-and-file Republicans aren't happy, but it's not altogether clear what they're looking for, either.

In 2005, 76% of Republicans were satisfied with the direction set by the party's leadership; now that number is 49%. About a third believes GOP leaders do not stand up for the party's "core values."

The next question, of course, is what Republican leaders should do in response, and that's where the poll offers few clues. It's one thing to learn that the party is off-track; it's another to know what to do about it.

It's not like there's a clamoring for an even more right-wing party -- 58% of Republicans want to see the party work with Democrats, and 69% said they approve of GOP candidates who take moderate positions on some issues.

There's also no real sense of what the party's priorities ought to be. About a third of Republicans believe the GOP should spend more time opposing gay marriage, but nearly as many believe the party should do the opposite. About a third of Republicans want to see more focus on abortion, and nearly as many prefer less. GOP voters expressed concern about taxes, spending, and the economy, but that's pretty much what the party leadership focuses on already.

This is not entirely unexpected -- when the party has a small congressional minority, no clear leadership, and no policy agenda to speak of, it stands to reason that rank-and-file attitudes would be all over the place. But the poll isn't much of a roadmap for what party supporters expect their representatives to do.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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THE BATTLE BETWEEN THE PROXIES.... The White House would love nothing more than to see the larger health care reform debate come down to a battle of proxies. Among those endorsing reform are the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the AARP, and the American Cancer Society. Among those opposing reform are insurance companies and assorted right-wing activist groups.

For the mainstream, one side appears to have the edge.

With that in mind, as the debate in the Senate gets underway again, the White House is highlighting this division. This morning, this video from Vice President Biden was posted online, asking a good question: "When it comes to explaining what health care reform means to you, who do you trust?" He's not talking about the president or members of Congress; he's talking about doctors and nurses.

For those of you who can't watch video clips from your work computers, the video features Biden, along with remarks from Dr. Lori Heim, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, and Rebecca Patton, president of the American Nurses Association.

Biden asks, "Do you trust the defenders of the status quo, the people who say you'd be better off if you left things just the way they are? Or would you rather hear from the folks who actually know something about what's happening in our healthcare system because they work in it every day, doctors and nurses?"

He added. "When it comes to something as important as your health, listen to the people you trust."

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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LOWERING PREMIUMS.... Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have us believe that reform will mean "higher premiums." MIT economist Jonathan Gruber published an important item over the Thanksgiving break, suggesting that McConnell has it backwards.

A new analysis by a leading MIT economist provides new ammunition for Democrats as the Senate begins formally debating the historic health-reform bill being pushed by President Barack Obama.

The report concludes that under the Senate's health-reform bill, Americans buying individual coverage will pay less than they do for today's typical individual market coverage, and would be protected from high out-of-pocket costs.

So Democrats will argue that under the Senate bill, Americans would pay less for more.

Gruber, a Treasury Department official in the Clinton administration, relied on CBO data and found that consumers buying individual insurance in an exchange would save $200 (singles) to $500 (families) a year. (Jonathan Cohn reminds us, "Of course, that won't actually happen until the new insurance exchanges are operating -- something not scheduled for a few years, under both the House and Senate bills.")

The White House seized on Gruber's analysis, and it's likely to be widely circulated on the Hill this week.

Also note, however, that Gruber's piece won't be the final word on the subject. The Congressional Budget Office is also expected to publish a report this week on reform's expected impact on premiums.

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

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GEARING UP FOR ROUND TWO.... After a three-day debate over whether to debate health care reform two weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was relieved -- to a point. He got the bill to the floor, but realized he's still pushing uphill.

"We can see the finish line, but we're not there," Reid said after the Nov. 21 cloture vote. "The road is a long stretch."

The first step on that road will begin in about six hours, when the debate over health care reform gets underway on the Senate floor for the first time ever. Reid's plan is pretty straightforward -- pass a bill before Christmas and send it to conference. The Republicans' plan is equally clear-cut -- delay as long as possible, obstruct as much as possible, and bring up as many embarrassing amendments as possible.

Republicans will seek to stop some of the Democrats' proposed Medicare changes, including cuts to privately run Medicare Advantage plans that provide enhanced benefits mostly at higher cost.

Republicans are likely to try to eliminate or sharply reduce some of the Democrats' proposed new taxes, including an increase in the Medicare payroll tax for high earners.

There will also be amendments on the politically volatile topics of abortion and immigration. Most of the Republican amendments will fail because the Democrats have the votes to set them aside.

And Republicans will face the challenge of explaining why they need to offer so many amendments when their party leaders have made clear that they simply want to kill the measure.

Ordinarily, amendments are proposed to improve the bill. It's what makes the Republican amendments pointless -- even if their measures pass, they'll still oppose reform. But the GOP caucus is nevertheless lining up hundreds of possible proposals. They're also strategizing about having amendments read word for word to slow the process down even further.

Among Dems, as expected, the most contentious point continues to be the public option, which will continue to be the subject of intense behind-the-scenes debate. The search for another compromise on the matter is ongoing, but satisfying the various contingents won't be easy. Snowe's "trigger" is still very much in play, as is the notion of a trigger coupled with an option for states to create their own public plans faster.

What's more, a Politico item noted this morning, "There is one idea that supporters hope could rally the centrists: Call it the nonpublic 'public option.' It's an idea from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) for a national insurance program that is neither run nor financed by the government. It could win over moderates because it wouldn't be a direct government expansion, but it would also satisfy liberals because it would be a national health insurance program designed to compete with private insurers from Day One."

Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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NEXT STEP ON JOBS.... In recent weeks, we've learned that the House is planning to move forward on a new jobs bill by Christmas; the Senate is putting together a plan of its own to be passed early in the new year; and while the White House's plans are less clear, President Obama is hosting a "summit" on jobs later this week.

But, while there's a much-needed focus on job creation among leading policymakers, not everyone is on the same page.

As Democrats renew their push to create jobs, they are at odds over the timing, cost and scope of additional measures, with the White House's concern about high budget deficits pitted against the eagerness of many in Congress to spur hiring before next year's elections.

After months in which his focus has been on a health care overhaul and foreign policy issues, President Obama will pivot later this week to the economy, convening a White House forum on Thursday to discuss ideas for job creation and then traveling to Allentown, Pa., for his first stop on a "Main Street Tour."

Congressional Democrats return from a holiday break intent on packaging new proposals for tax incentives and construction projects to promote employment, with the House, where every member is up for re-election next year, on a much faster track than the Senate or the White House.

Lawmakers seem intent on doing something, though there's disagreement on how much investment, how it would be paid for, and whether it should be paid for. And with the White House apparently shifting its attention to deficit reduction -- a mistake, to be sure -- the task becomes that much more difficult.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) added, "There's sort of an anomaly here -- people want us to do stuff on jobs but they don't want to see a lot of government spending."

You don't say. The public's demands may frequently be contradictory, but that's all the more reason to focus on doing what works -- folks may say they want less spending and more deficit reduction, but when push comes to shove, they want a job more.

With that in mind, here's hoping Paul Krugman's latest piece gets circulated far and wide among policymakers.

If you're looking for a job right now, your prospects are terrible. There are six times as many Americans seeking work as there are job openings, and the average duration of unemployment — the time the average job-seeker has spent looking for work — is more than six months, the highest level since the 1930s.

You might think, then, that doing something about the employment situation would be a top policy priority. But now that total financial collapse has been averted, all the urgency seems to have vanished from policy discussion, replaced by a strange passivity. There's a pervasive sense in Washington that nothing more can or should be done, that we should just wait for the economic recovery to trickle down to workers. [...]

So it's time for an emergency jobs program.... All of this would cost money, probably several hundred billion dollars, and raise the budget deficit in the short run. But this has to be weighed against the high cost of inaction in the face of a social and economic emergency.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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November 29, 2009

TEN MONTHS IN.... President Obama's detractors on the right believe the president has racked up some accomplishments, all of them awful. The more widespread impression among news outlets and many who voted for the president is that Obama hasn't accomplished much at all.

Slate's Jacob Weisberg has a contrarian piece this weekend, arguing that the opposite is actually true. If health care reform is completed by mid-January, Weisberg argues, the president will deliver a State of the Union address in a couple of months "having accomplished more than any other postwar American president at a comparable point in his presidency."

We are so submerged in the details of [the health care] debate -- whether the bill will include a "public option," limit coverage for abortion, or tax Botox -- that it's easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the impending change. For the federal government to take responsibility for health coverage will be a transformation of the American social contract and the single biggest change in government's role since the New Deal. If Obama governs for four or eight years and accomplishes nothing else, he may be judged the most consequential domestic president since LBJ. He will also undermine the view that Ronald Reagan permanently reversed a 50-year tide of American liberalism.

Obama's claim to a fertile first year doesn't rest on health care alone. There's mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February -- combined with the bank bailout package -- prevented an economic depression. Should the stimulus have been larger? Should it have been more weighted to short-term spending, as opposed to long-term tax cuts? Would a second round be a good idea? Pundits and policymakers will argue these questions for years to come. But few mainstream economists seriously dispute that Obama's decisive action prevented a much deeper downturn and restored economic growth in the third quarter. The New York Times recently quoted Mark Zandi, who was one of candidate John McCain's economic advisers, on this point: "The stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do -- it is contributing to ending the recession," he said. "In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent."

When it comes to foreign policy, Obama's accomplishment has been less tangible but hardly less significant: He has put America on a new footing with the rest of the world. In a series of foreign trips and speeches, which critics deride as trips and speeches, he replaced George W. Bush's unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory. Obama has already significantly reoriented policy toward Iran, China, Russia, Iraq, Israel, and the Islamic world. Next week, after a much-disparaged period of review, he will announce a new strategy in Afghanistan. No, the results do not yet merit his Nobel Peace Prize. But not since Reagan has a new president so swiftly and determinedly remodeled America's global role.

Ranking presidents by first-year accomplishments is kind of tricky, but Weisberg's case is hardly dismissible. President Obama, faced with inherited challenges no U.S. leader has seen in generations, and restricted by the first Senate in American history to abandon majority rule altogether, is probably fairly pleased with his first 10 months.

The success of his first year will be largely dependent on the outcome of the health care debate, but Obama may soon be able to point to his first 12 months in office and say he rescued the economy from a depression, passed the health care reform bill Americans have been waiting decades for, approved most progressive budget bill in a generation, got a Supreme Court nominee confirmed, lifted the ban on stem-cell research, passed a national service bill, passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed new regulations of the credit card industry, passed new regulation of the tobacco industry, achieved some key counter-terrorism successes, and helped improve the nation's standing on the world stage.

There have been plenty of painful missed opportunities, but as first years go, this isn't bad. Imagine what Obama's record would be like if Republicans hadn't gone mad and if supermajorities weren't needed on every vote in the Senate. (Or better yet, imagine what Obama's record would be like if he entered office in 2001, with a strong economy and massive surplus.)

Obviously, icebergs loom. If the economy continues to struggle, the Democratic base remains frustrated, and lawmakers decide they'd rather duck the big issues in an election year, 2010 may yet prove to be a disaster. If Democrats lose their majority in either chamber, Obama's agenda is finished.

But in the meantime, Weisberg's piece may be contrarian, but it's a perspective the White House will be endorsing heartily in mid-January.

Steve Benen 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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INHOFE UNIMPRESSED BY STARS AND SCIENCE.... A growing number of officials recognize the national security implications of global climate change. The NYT recently ran a report noting the ways in which a warming planet "will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics.... Such climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions."

The Central Intelligence Agency even intends to develop a new division that would focus on intelligence gathering related to national security, unstable governments, and climate change.

And given the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's efforts to pass a climate bill in this Congress, the panel recently heard from a variety of retired U.S. military leaders, all of whom agreed that it's time to change America's energy policy.

The NYT asked Sen. James Inhofe, a right-wing Oklahoma Republican and the Senate's most ardent global warming denier, about the "threat to national security by destabilizing developing countries." He replied by questioning the integrity of the military leaders who accept the evidence and are concerned about the consequences of climate change.

"That's the most ludicrous thing. They looked around and they found, I think, five generals to testify before the committee. Well, that's 5 generals out of 4,000 retired generals that say that. There are a lot of generals who don't like to be out of the limelight. They'd like to get back in."

Generally, in congressional circles, a certain respect for decorated generals and admirals is expected. Except in Inhofe's case, if they accept science he chooses to ignore, they deserve to be trashed publicly.

Inhofe's developed a reputation for being America's Worst Senator. It's well deserved.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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RNC PURITY TEST = SUICIDE PACT?.... Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker has been encouraged of late by what she sees as good signs for Republicans. She sees the leading political issues of the day -- health care, KSM trial, and global warming -- as "unpopular Democratic ideas," which in turn gives the GOP hope.

But that was before the "purity test" for the Republican National Committee came up. Parker sees it as a "suicide pact" to help "weed out undesirables from their ever-shrinking party."

In fact, the 10-point checklist proffered by Bopp and others is the antithesis of conservatism. As Kirk wrote in his own "Ten Conservative Principles," conservatism "possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata . . . conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order."

Each of Bopp's bullets is so overly broad and general that no thoughtful person could endorse it in good conscience. Some are so simplistic as to be meaningless. As just one example: "We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges." What does that mean? Do we support all troop surges no matter what other considerations might be taken into account? Do we take nothing else into account? Does disagreement mean one doesn't support victory?

Whatever the intent of the authors, the message is clear: Thinking people need not apply. The formerly elite party of nuanced conservatism might do well to revisit its nonideological roots.

Noting what a departure the proposed litmus test is from intellectual seriousness, Parker added, "When did thinking go out of style?"

I don't share Parker's policy preferences, but I would love to see prominent Republican leaders ponder why thinking is discouraged in contemporary conservative circles.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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PRIORITIZING THE PUBLIC OPTION.... That Americans approve of the idea of a public option is no longer in doubt. After months of polling, we've consistently seen a majority of Americans say they like the idea of a public plan competing against private insurers. The results have bolstered proponents of the idea, on and off the Hill.

What's been less clear is the prioritizing. Most Americans approve of a public option, but are they demanding its inclusion in the reform bill? How dissatisfied will they be if reform passes without the public option? The results here aren't as encouraging for ambitious reform advocates.

Surveys show that a majority of the public supports [the public option]. But those supporters value other objectives of a health care overhaul, like lowering costs, even more. A deeper look at the polls suggests a disconnect between Washington and the public over the public option. It has become magnified as a political issue beyond its immediate effect on the health insurance system, although both sides say its power, for good or ill, would become evident over time.

To begin with, a public option would attract only a few million people, the Congressional Budget Office predicts. Those people would probably be sicker than the general population. For that reason, and because their numbers would be relatively small, their premiums would be higher than for private insurance.

The public remains deeply divided about the overall health care bills, suggesting that for many, their support for the public option is not strong enough to outweigh their doubts about other parts of the bills.

Even those who identify themselves as Democrats are not that wedded to a public option. In a November survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, released last week, they ranked it seventh in importance, far behind "affordability" and "accessibility" of medical care.

Two weeks ago, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked respondents the main reason they either supported or opposed the health care bills. Among supporters, only 2 percent cited the public option. Among opponents, only 3 percent did so.

About a month ago, policymakers woke up to find a front-page, above-the-fold headline in the Washington Post that read, "Public option gains support; Clear majority now backs plan." The article reported on the latest poll that found, even after months of attacks from the right, 57% of the country endorsed the public option -- a number that had gone up since August. The news stiffened spines among lawmakers pushing for the policy -- if most Americans still want a public option, even after fierce criticism, proponents felt more encouraged to fight for it.

This newer data, then, showing public flexibility on the issue, may have the opposite effect. If the politicians become convinced that the idea isn't really a priority for most of the country, and the provision is seen as a stumbling block to finishing the debate, then they're less likely to fight as hard as they otherwise would.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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EVEN IN SKI STATES.... Given the potential catastrophic international consequences of global warming, it's hard to put "future of ski resorts" right up there with droughts, pandemics, and rising sea levels.

But as a political matter, you'd think conservative Republicans in ski states would be a little more sensible. (thanks to reader T.D. for the heads-up)

Ski resorts across the country are using the Thanksgiving weekend to jump start their winter seasons, but with every passing year comes a frightening realization: If global temperatures continue to rise, fewer and fewer resorts will be able to open for the traditional beginning of ski season.

Warmer temperatures at night are making it more difficult to make snow and the snow that falls naturally is melting earlier in the spring.

In few places is this a bigger concern than the American West, where skiing is one of the most lucrative segments of the tourism industry and often the only reason many people visit cash-strapped states like Utah during winter.

But even as world leaders descend on Copenhagen next month to figure out a way to reduce carbon emissions blamed in global warming, the industry is still grappling with leaders in some of their own ski-crazy states who refuse to concede that humans have any impact on climate change.

Take Utah, for example, which has an economy that relies on tourism revenue, but which wouldn't draw a lot of visitors were it not for the state's skiing industry.

And yet Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) don't trust the evidence and think "the jury is out" on whether human activity is related to warming temperatures.

In other words, by embracing the far-right line, Utah's leaders are willing to gamble their state's future on the notion that scientific evidence should be rejected.

''That's just kind of raging ignorance,'' said Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability for Aspen (Colo.) Skiing Co. ''We're not environmentalists, we're business people. We have studied the hell out of the climate science. To have a neighboring governor not believe it ... It's absurd.''

POWDR Corp., which owns several ski resorts, is part of a coalition hoping to educate public officials in ski states.

Brent Giles, POWDR Corp.'s director of environmental affairs, says regardless of what anyone believes about global warming, it makes good business sense for everyone to become more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

''All you can do is give them what science you've got and show how easy it is to make some of these changes and tell them they're going to save money,'' Giles said. ''Why can't we just do it because it makes sense?''

It's a good question.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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TORA BORA.... Towards the end of the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry tried to raise public awareness of an issue Americans hadn't heard much about. In December 2001, the U.S. had pinned down Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora, but the Bush administration decided not to send additional troops.

George W. Bush, just two weeks before Election Day, was incensed by the criticism, and tried to characterize this as attacks on the military. "Now my opponent is throwing out the wild claim that he knows where bin Laden was in the fall of 2001 -- and that our military had a chance to get him in Tora Bora," the then-president said. "This is an unjustified and harsh criticism of our military commanders in the field."

It was an odd thing to say. Far from being a "wild claim," the Bush administration itself came to the same conclusion Kerry did -- two years beforehand.

Five years later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry now chairs, has completed a thorough analysis of the national security failure, documenting for history exactly what transpired.

The report, based in part on a little-noticed 2007 history of the Tora Bora episode by the military's Special Operations Command, asserts that the consequences of not sending American troops in 2001 to block Mr. bin Laden's escape into Pakistan are still being felt.

The report blames the lapse for "laying the foundation for today's protracted Afghan insurgency and inflaming the internal strife now endangering Pakistan." [...]

The showdown at Tora Bora, a mountainous area dotted with caves in eastern Afghanistan, pitted a modest force of American Special Operations and C.I.A. officers, along with allied Afghan fighters, against a force of about 1,000 Qaeda fighters led by Mr. bin Laden. [...]

The new report suggests that a larger troop commitment to Afghanistan might have resulted in the demise not only of Mr. bin Laden and his deputy but also of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Mullah Omar, who also fled to Pakistan in 2001, has overseen the resurgence of the Taliban.

Like several previous accounts, the committee's report blames Gen. Tommy R. Franks, then the top American commander, and Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, for not putting a large number of American troops there lest they fuel resentment among Afghans.

This is not to say that success at Tora Bora would have eliminated the threat posed by al Qaeda, but the fiasco allowed the terrorist network's top leaders to escape and continue with their efforts.

The events at Tora Bora was largely ignored by major media outlets -- perhaps because they were too embarrassing to the administration soon after 9/11 -- but for the record, Kerry was right, and Bush was wrong.

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

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November 28, 2009

GIVE VOTERS A REASON.... The latest Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos included the usual question on the generic congressional ballot, with Dems still enjoying a modest edge over Republicans, 37% to 32%, with 31% unsure. Democratic numbers were strongest in the Northeast (53% Dems, 7% GOP), and Republican numbers were strongest in the South (51% GOP, 21% Dems).

But this poll added a new question to the mix to measure voter enthusiasm: "In the 2010 Congressional elections will you definitely vote, probably vote, not likely vote, or definitely will not vote?" The overall results aren't nearly as interesting as the partisan breakdown.

Among self-identified Republican voters, 81% are either "definitely" voting next year or "probably" voting, while 14% are "not likely" to vote or will "definitely" not vote.

Among self-identified Independent voters, 65% are either "definitely" voting next year or "probably" voting, while 23% are "not likely" to vote or will "definitely" not vote.

And among self-identified Democratic voters, 56% are either "definitely" voting next year or "probably" voting, while 40% are "not likely" to vote or will "definitely" not vote.

Markos, who called the results "shocking," explained:

Two in five Democratic voters either consider themselves unlikely to vote at this point in time, or have already made the firm decision to remove themselves from the 2010 electorate pool. Indeed, Democrats were three times more likely to say that they will "definitely not vote" in 2010 than are Republicans.

This enormous enthusiasm gap ... seems to make passing legitimate health care reform an absolute political necessity for Democrats. This polling data certainly should be something for Congressional leadership to consider, as they move along the legislative path.

The notion of an enthusiasm gap this year is not exactly new, but we haven't seen numbers quite this stark until now.

The results aren't a total surprise. President Obama, working with a Democratic Congress, generated high hopes. As the year progressed, the GOP base was worked into a frenzy, based on little but rage, ignorance, and confusion, while the Democratic base grew frustrated and impatient. They did their part on Election Day, and there's a sense that Democratic leaders aren't doing their part now. Policymakers have gone the better part of nine months without any major legislative accomplishments. That, coupled with a still-struggling economy, is not a recipe for widespread satisfaction.

To be sure, there are some explanations for the political paralysis. For the last six months, policymakers tackled the toughest policy challenge of them all -- health care reform -- which left little room for anything else. Plus, now that the Senate no longer operates on majority rule, passing anything even mildly noteworthy has become harder than at any point in American history. But these explanations, while true, don't change the larger dynamic -- the motivated right is still convinced the president is Hitler, and the listless left is still waiting for progress.

It's obviously not too late, and a great deal can happen over the next 10 or so months. What's more, the solution isn't exactly a mystery -- if Dems do what they were elected to do, they'll be pleased with the results. I keep thinking about something Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said earlier this month: "We must deliver. I need to give Democrats something to be excited about."

Finish health care. Pass a jobs bill. Finish the climate bill. Re-regulate the financial industry. Finish the education bill. Pick up immigration reform. Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." It's ambitious, but a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president can prove to the country that they know how to tackle the issues that matter and know how to get things done.

The R2K/Daily Kos poll shouldn't cause panic among Democratic leaders; it should serve as a wake-up call.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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EVEN CONDOLENCES CAN BE POLITICIZED.... A Russian train derailed, en route from Moscow to St. Petersburg last night, killing at least 26 people and injuring nearly 100 more. Some of the early reports indicate that Russian officials believe a bomb on the tracks may have been the cause of the crash, which, if true, would make it Russia's deadliest terrorist attack in years.

The White House, which has been cultivating closer ties to Russia, issued a statement with some fairly routine language -- saying that U.S. officials are "deeply saddened by the terrible loss of life," "our hearts go out," etc.

Andrew Malcolm, the LA Times' political blogger and former Laura Bush press secretary, has decided that he disapproves of the White House's condolences.

Perhaps it's just to show the world that, even on a slow-news U.S. post-holiday day, the Obama crowd is on the job. [...]

We'll have to watch and see what criteria the 10-month-old Obama administration uses to issue such regular comments -- what type disaster merits comment, how many dead to warrant a White House message, and in what country.

If it's every multiple-death incident in every country, they're going to be pretty busy in the press office. But at least they have jobs.

Malcolm added that the White House's statement extending condolences was "not presidential."

Now, there may be a kernel of an interesting point in there somewhere. The White House probably isn't going to issue a press statement in response to every deadly incident around the world.

But it's Malcolm's larger observation that reinforces questions about his reflexive partisanship. Russia may have just seen its deadliest terrorist incident in years; the White House issues a statement; and the LA Times' blogger whines that it's "not presidential"? C'mon.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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OBAMA OUTREACH IN ASIA KEEPS PAYING OFF.... Threats of sanctions against Iran have rarely been effective, in large part because Iran assumed, correctly, that Russia and China would oppose punitive measures.

President Obama and his foreign policy team have invested considerable energy in changing this equation. There's ample evidence their efforts are paying off.

The United Nations nuclear watchdog demanded Friday that Iran immediately freeze operations at a once secret uranium enrichment plant, a sharp rebuke that bore added weight because it was endorsed by Russia and China.

The governing body of the watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, meeting in Vienna, also expressed "serious concern" about potential military aspects of Iran's nuclear program.

Administration officials held up the statement as a victory for President Obama's diplomatic efforts to coax both Russia and China to increase the pressure on Iran. They said that they had begun working on a sanctions package, which would be brought before the United Nations Security Council if Iran did not meet the year-end deadline imposed by Mr. Obama to make progress on the issue.

Now, yesterday's vote was largely symbolic, and did not come with any actual punishment for Iran. Nevertheless, the vote, the toughest against Iran in nearly four years, signaled intense international pressure on Tehran. This was also a vote Obama and his team knew was coming up, and knew that Russia and China would be inclined to oppose. U.S. officials, including the president, worked diligently to persuade Moscow and Beijing, and the encouraging result suggests having grown-ups running the executive branch again is a good idea.

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said China's support on Iran and its decision to set a climate change goal on Thursday showed that Mr. Obama's trip to Beijing was producing results despite criticism of the visit. "This is the product of engagement," Mr. Emanuel said, adding that it was "a direct result" of the trip.

In other words, U.S. political reporters have spent two weeks berating the White House for an unproductive Asian trip lacking in "deliverables." Those reporters' criticism seems increasingly misguided with each passing day.

James Fallows, who's been deeply critical of the domestic media's coverage of the president's week-long trip to Asia, added yesterday, "Will wait to see if this weekend's talk shows or opinion sections offer any 'hey, wait a minute' reconsideration of their unanimous judgment last week about the way the Obama team was manhandled and stonewalled by the Chinese. I'll wait, but I won't hold my breath.... Seriously, when does an official part of the chattering class -- one of the weekend talkers, someone from the leading newspapers -- look back on these past two weeks in journalism's effort to represent reality and ask how the dominant narrative could have been so wrong, and wrong in a way that was easily noticeable at the time? Just curious."

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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PARTY CRASHERS.... When I saw reports that a couple of aspiring reality-show participants finagled their way into the White House's State Dinner, I thought, "Well, I guess security will be tighter next time," and moved on.

It never occurred to me this would become literally front-page news and the subject of obsessive media speculation. Sure, the political news has been a little slow, but we're talking about some odd, publicity-craving couple who showed up at a party without an invitation. I'm not entirely sure why we're supposed to care.

John Cole's reaction struck me as the right one.

Some days I've about had it with this country. The absurd over-reaction to the WH dinner crashers was way too much the last few days, but I just saw a ten minute piece on CNN that treated this like it was an enormous deal, and I can't take much more of this kind of idiocy.

In a sane society, the reaction to this sort of thing would be for people to say to themselves "Wow, the cheeky bastards" and move on with life while the Secret Service quietly performed an internal investigation. But we are not a sane society....

Yesterday, we reached the point at which at least one member of the House, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), requested a full congressional probe into the incident. Seriously. Congressional Republicans couldn't bring themselves to lift a finger to investigate Bush-era scandals, but wannabe Bravo stars crash a soiree and all of a sudden, it's hearing time.

I can appreciate the fact that threats against the president and his family are up considerably this year, as right-wing radicals contemplate violence. Obviously, security for the First Family has to be taken seriously, and after an incident like this one, it stands to reason that the Secret Service would take steps to prevent the error from happening again.

But if there's a good reason for this intense media interest about an inconsequential stunt, someone's going to have to explain it to me.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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November 27, 2009

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

* Dubai World, a government investment company, seems to be out of money. Global markets did not respond well to the news.

* More on the Iran news tomorrow: "The United Nations nuclear watchdog's governing board voted overwhelmingly Friday to censure Iran for its defiant nuclear policies, and demanded an immediate halt to work on an uranium-enrichment plant built in secret in mountain tunnels south of the Iranian capital."

* Some political progress in Baghdad: "Iraqi politicians pushed ahead Friday with a compromise over a contested election law, awaiting approval from Kurdish officials on a deal that would increase the number of seats in parliament as a way to mute criticism and allow a vote crucial to U.S. plans in the country to go forward."

* In Afghanistan, much of the Taliban's control rests in the southern part of the country. More recently, however, it's power is growing in the north, threatening, among other things, a NATO supply line.

* Need a refresher on what the controversy surrounding the PMA Group is all about? Here's a good primer.

* Helpful report from Robert Schlesinger on "The Staggering Rise of the Filibuster."

* I realize the Tea Party crowd is pretty extreme, but what kind of people publicly heckle a grieving family?

* Mike Wooten speaks, and he's calling Sarah Palin's book "a pack of lies." It's not an uncommon assessment.

* Since when does student-loan debt interfere with becoming an attorney?

* So, how did Tareq and Michaele Salahi get into the White House's state dinner this week? And will they face charges as a result?

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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ROVE'S INTEREST IN AN 'HONEST APPRAISAL'.... When Karl Rove helped run the White House, he accepted certain beliefs as truths. He believed, for example, turning massive surpluses into massive deficits was entirely reasonable. He believed reckless tax cuts for the already rich were an example of responsible governing. He believed expanding the size of government, adding to entitlements, increasing the federal role in education, and putting it all on future generations' tab, was perfectly sensible. He believed fiscal responsibility was a punch-line.

And now that Karl Rove is outside the White House, he believes he's entitled to complain about deficits from his perch in the media establishment.

What seems to concern the president is not the problem runaway spending poses for taxpayers and the economy. Rather, what bothers him is the political problem it poses for Democrats.

Last year, Mr. Obama made fiscal restraint a constant theme of his presidential campaign. "Washington will have to tighten its belt and put off spending," he said back then, while pledging to "go through the federal budget, line by line, ending programs that we don't need." Voters found this fiscal conservatism reassuring.

However, since taking office Mr. Obama pushed through a $787 billion stimulus, a $33 billion expansion of the child health program known as S-chip, a $410 billion omnibus appropriations spending bill, and an $80 billion car company bailout. He also pushed a $821 billion cap-and-trade bill through the House and is now urging Congress to pass a nearly $1 trillion health-care bill.

Rove wants to see an "honest appraisal" of where we are. Good idea. The stimulus was necessary because Rove's old boss left the president an economy on the verge of wholesale collapse. S-CHIP expansion was necessary because Rove's old boss rejected a bipartisan measure to help low-income children go to the doctor. Rescuing the auto industry was necessary because it was a continuation of Rove's old boss' policy and the nation couldn't afford to cut off American manufacturing at the knees at the height of the recession. Cap and trade, Rove neglected to mention, wouldn't add to the deficit, and is necessary because Rove's old boss ignored the climate crisis for eight years. The health care reform bill would cut the deficit significantly, and is necessary because Rove's old boss fiddled while the dysfunctional health care system got worse.

That's an "honest appraisal."

Rove added, "When Mr. Obama was sworn into office the federal deficit for this year stood at $422 billion. At the end of October, it stood at $1.42 trillion."

Rove may not be smart enough to understand this, so I'll try to make the explanation simple for him.

The bulk of the $1.42 trillion deficit has nothing to do with the Obama administration's policies. The Center for American Progress' Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden recently explained, "The policies of the Bush administration, which included tax cuts during a time of war and a floundering economy, are clearly the primary source of the current deficits." Specifically, 40% of the fiscal deterioration we're seeing -- the single largest contributing factor -- can be attributed to Bush policies. Another 12% comes from Bush's financial rescues, while 20% are the result of the economic crisis Bush handed off to his successor. What's President Obama's share? Just 16% of the total, most of which is the result of new spending that was necessary to prevent a depression.

There are some pretty sleazy pundits in the media, but when it comes to combining dishonesty, ignorance, hypocrisy, and misguided chutzpah, few are quite as offensive as the man George W. Bush used to call "Turd Blossom."

Andrew Sullivan added earlier:

I remember very vividly a heated argument with Karl Rove over eight years ago in which I worried about spending and deficits. "Deficits don't matter!" Rove kept repeating in that nasal world-weary tone he has. After a bit, I said, "What do you mean, deficits don't matter? Don't you remember the 1990s?" "No, no, no, no, Andrew," he replied. "What I mean is that people don't vote on deficits. That's why they don't matter."

I learned then that nothing beyond short term politics motivates Rove. Nothing. And I also learned: this fathomless cynicism is not just repulsive, it's invariably wrong. People sure did vote on deficits in 1992. And one small reason Obama won in 2008 is because many Independents and Republicans couldn't trust the GOP to stop spending and borrowing us into oblivion in an era of economic growth.

Now, Rove -- whose shamelessness is only matched by his incompetence -- is writing a deficit hawk column for the WSJ.... What Rove requires is what Palin requires: total amnesia of what they just said or did.

Update: Joe Klein added: "It's not surprising that the blinkered extremists of the Wall Street Journal editorial page would print this drivel -- any other mainstream op-ed page would require Rove to acknowledge, in passing, at least, his complicity in the current mess -- but it remains a scandal, nonetheless, and the sheer craven audacity of it needs to be pointed out, from time to time."

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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EVOLVING PUBLIC OPTION CHOICES.... If the policy choices boil down to a public option in the health care reform bill or a "triggered" public option, I think the choice is pretty obvious. As we've talked about before, the underlying assumption behind the trigger is that public option would help lower costs, expand access, and use competition to improve efficiency. But these improvements should be put off, the argument goes, as we wait to see if maybe private insurers can achieve these goals on their own.

Of course, as is often the case when debating health care, the details matter. It's not just the public option vs. the trigger -- we're looking at a landscape in which watered-down versions of a public option are being considered alongside competing kinds of triggers.

On the spectrum of choices, I still think triggers are towards the "useless" end of the scale. That said, I can imagine a carefully-structured trigger that could work fairly well. Nearly all of the trigger ideas that have been floated thus far aren't close, but that's not to say it's impossible.

With that in mind, the Urban Institute has a constructive idea to offer.

Democrats searching for a compromise on health care reform may find a little Thanksgiving light in a new policy paper out Wednesday: Skip a "weak" public option now in favor of a much stronger one that would kick in automatically if the health industry doesn't meet its promises to slow the growth in medical costs.

The paper, from the Washington-based Urban Institute, offers a fresh look at the whole public option debate, casting the issue as "one of fiscal conservatism" -- more about containing health costs than extending benefits to the uninsured.

Its authors accept the likelihood of a trigger as proposed by Republican moderates but suggest it be tied to proven government data on national health expenditures rather than some new index to measure the affordability of coverage. And, in effect, the health industry would be given a three- to four-year test period to show its ability to slow the growth in costs.

Failure would trigger a more powerful public insurance competitor than either the House or the Senate has yet embraced -- one that challenges not just the market power of insurers but also providers, especially hospitals.

"A strong version is necessary because there is little else in health reform that can be counted on to contribute significantly to cost containment in the short term," the authors write. A trigger means delay, but "even the threat of such a plan being triggered offers the potential to affect market dynamics between insurers and providers."

By comparison, if only a watered-down public option survives and costs continue to rise unchecked, both insurers and providers face the prospect of even greater government regulation of private-sector prices, the authors warn. "Indeed, a strong public option competing on a level playing field with private plans paradoxically might be the best 'last chance' for competition to work."

I maintain that Harry Reid deserves a lot of credit for sticking with the public option, and including it in the Senate bill that's headed to the floor. But the remaining public option is not well positioned to deliver on the underlying promise of the idea. As Tim F. put it, "I hope that the rest of the health care bill is freaking awesome. I really do. Because without some major changes the public option is going to suck. What will stop insurers from dumping expensive undesirables into a public ghetto? A guilty conscience?"

Igor Volsky fleshed this out in additional detail, pointing to some of the shortcomings that have become more apparent as the public option has been watered down.

What's more, Josh Marshall wrote earlier this week that what's left of the public option is "measly," and not worth delaying the larger reform effort over, because of very limited eligibility, and the likelihood that it would become "a dumping ground for what health care policy types call 'creaming' -- health insurers wanting to maintain pools of the young and the healthy and dump responsibility for the aged and chronically ill on to public programs or on to nothing at all."

Which brings us back to the question of what kind of trigger we're talking about here. If Snowe and Nelson are thinking about triggering in state-based co-ops in 2018, then this is a rather pointless endeavor. But if there's a possibility that trigger advocates are serious about crafting a meaningful policy -- by no means a given -- there's an avenue that reform advocates might find appealing.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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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.

* James Bopp Jr. is defending his "purity test" for Republican candidates seeking RNC support in the 2010 elections. He called it an "effective way to regain trust with conservative voters that has been undermined" by G.O.P. financial support for "liberal Republican ticket-switchers."

* Now that Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman appears to be done conceding and unconceding, he's made it clear that he will seek a re-match in New York's 23rd next year.

* Another poll shows Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard (D) looking very strong against incumbent Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in a hypothetical match-up, 47% to 28%.

* After his surprisingly strong showing in the city's recent mayoral race, New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. (D) is weighing a variety of possible races next year, including a possible primary campaign against appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

* Nevada's gubernatorial race remains rather unpredictable at this point. If Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman runs as an independent, a Nevada News Bureau poll shows Bush-appointed federal judge Brian Sandoval (R) leading a three-way contest.

* "Draft Dick Cheney 2012" got to work today. Good luck with that.

* A right-wing group called Tea Party Nation will host the "First National Tea Party Convention" in Nashville in early February. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) will be a featured speaker, and Sarah Palin will serve as keynote speaker.

* Palin has raised the notion of running on a national ticket with Glenn Beck. The Fox News personality suggested he wouldn't be interested, because the half-term governor would always be "yapping" from "the kitchen."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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A DIFFERENT KIND OF WAR-TIME SACRIFICE.... Lincoln raised taxes to pay for the Civil War. McKinley raised taxes to finance the Spanish-American War. Wilson raised the top income tax rate to 77% to afford WWI. Taxes were raised, multiple times, to help the nation pay for WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Even the first President Bush raised taxes after the first war with Iraq to keep the deficit from spiraling out of control. It was simply understood -- responsible leaders from both parties realized that wars were expensive, and had to be paid for.

What we saw from George W. Bush and Republican lawmakers during his two terms was without precedent in American history -- policymakers cut taxes during a war, ran huge deficits, and effectively asked future generations to pay for our current national security agenda. The two ongoing conflicts have cost, by some estimates, $1 trillion and counting.

Attention now turns to how President Obama will respond to the same dilemma. If the administration sends an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it would cost about $30 billion per year over existing spending on the war. Some savings are gained as we withdraw from Iraq, but the costs are quickly absorbed by the war in Afghanistan.

Bruce Bartlett reflects today on the growing interest in returning to the historical norm.

The White House has given no indication of how it plans to pay for expanding the war in Afghanistan. More than likely, it will follow the Bush precedent and just put it all on the national credit card. But at least some members of Congress believe that the time has come to start paying for war. On Nov. 19, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., introduced H.R. 4130, the "Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010." It would establish a 1% surtax on everyone's federal income tax liability plus an additional percentage on those with a liability over $22,600 (for couples filing jointly), such that revenue from the surtax would pay for the additional cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan.

It's doubtful that this legislation will be enacted. But that's not Obey's purpose. He will probably offer it as an amendment at some point just to have a vote. Republicans in particular will be forced to choose between continuing to fight a war that they started and still strongly support, or raising taxes, which every Republican in Congress would rather drink arsenic than do. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see those who rant daily about Obama's deficits explain why they oppose fiscal responsibility when it comes to supporting our troops.

Obey makes no secret of his motives. He knows that deficits need to be reduced at some point and this will put pressure on spending programs he supports. "If we don't address the cost of this war, we will continue shoving billions of dollars in taxes off on future generations and will devour money that could be used to rebuild our economy," Obey explained in a press statement.

It's also a test for the public. Support for escalation in Afghanistan appears, by some measures, to be growing. The question then becomes fairly straightforward -- do Americans expect future generations to pick up the tab, or do they support higher taxes now to pay for the conflict?

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE EFFICACY OF GUN DATA.... We've learned in recent weeks that Nidal Hasan's communications with a radical cleric had come to the attention of the FBI, which had begun investigating the Army psychiatrist accused of the Fort Hood massacre. Federal officials did not, however, know about Hasan's purchase of a handgun -- a move that would likely have brought greater scrutiny before the shootings.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R) write this morning that the FBI couldn't have known about Hasan's firearms purchase because of a shift in the law, approved several years ago. The curb on gun data, they argue, can and should be fixed.

During the Clinton administration, the FBI had access to records of gun background checks for up to 180 days. But in 2003, Congress began requiring that the records be destroyed within 24 hours. This requirement, one of the many restrictions on gun data sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), meant that Hasan's investigators were blocked from searching records to determine whether he or other terrorist suspects had purchased guns. When Hasan walked out of Guns Galore in Killeen, Tex., the FBI had only 24 hours to recognize and flag the record -- and then it was gone, forever.

As former FBI agent Brad Garrett has said, "The piece of information about the gun could have been critical. One of the problems is that the law sometimes restricts you in what you can do."

The Tiahrt amendments passed by Congress interfere with preserving, sharing and investigating data on gun purchases by terrorist suspects. If that weren't bad enough, Congress has also failed to close a gap in federal law that prevents the FBI from blocking a sale to an individual under investigation for terrorist activity.

To put this in a slightly larger perspective, if the FBI is investigating someone who may have terrorist ties, that person will be put on a no-fly list. That same person, however, is free to purchase firearms, and the FBI will likely not know. In other words, those suspected of terrorist activity can't buy a plane ticket, but they can buy a semi-automatic.

The fatal lesson we learned on Sept. 11 was that, if we are going to protect innocent Americans from terrorists, we must break down the walls standing between federal agencies and effective investigative practices. The attack at Fort Hood was a tragic reminder that such walls still exist. Until Congress shows the political courage to tear them down, there will be more catastrophic breaches of national security and more tragic loss of life.

The Bush administration sought a change in the law, but Congress, listening to the gun lobby, ignored the request. The Obama administration wants the same change -- Attorney General Eric Holder reminded lawmakers about this last week -- though there's a limited political appetite for closing the existing gun-data gap.

Here's hoping the Fort Hood tragedy changes the equation.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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LONG OVERDUE.... In 1987, the Reagan administration and then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) imposed a travel and immigration ban more than two decades ago on those who are HIV-positive. The result has included separated families, avoided medical tests, and highly-skilled workers taking their expertise elsewhere.

About a month ago, President Obama announced that he's ending the ban, calling it a decision "rooted in fear rather than fact." This week, the L.A. Times reported on the timeline and the people who'll benefit.

A stamp in Heidemarie Kremer's passport reveals her health status as HIV-positive.

Because of the disease, Kremer -- a native of Germany -- has been barred from becoming a legal resident of the United States. She and her two children are fighting possible deportation, and their plans for the future are on hold.

But that soon may change.

This month, the federal government cleared the way for HIV-positive foreigners to visit the country and apply for green cards, lifting a bar that has been in place for more than two decades. [...]

The new rules, including the elimination of HIV testing for green-card applicants, take effect Jan. 4.

"To finally be in a position where I can tell people that they can come to the United States to visit their family or that they can get a green card and stay here with their partner is just incredible," said Victoria Neilson, legal director for Immigration Equality, a national organization that advocated for lifting the ban.

It's about time.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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PALIN AND THE OTHER MEDICARE.... Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) was asked a question the other day about Canada's Medicare system. The question wasn't especially serious -- it came from a satirical television show -- but the answer was pretty interesting.

At a recent stop on her "Going Rogue" book tour, Sarah Palin told Canadian comedian Mary Walsh that Canada should get rid of its public health care system.

Walsh is the co-creator and star of This Hour Has 22 Minutes -- a nightly news parody show in the same vein as The Daily Show -- and she arrived in character, as the conservative Marg Delahunty, to the Borders where Palin (the "Alaskan Aphrodite") was signing books.

"I just wanted to ask you if you have any words of encouragement for Canadian conservatives who have worked so hard to try to diminish the kind of socialized medicine we have up there." Walsh shouted to Palin as she approached the table.

Palin's handlers tried to help her by ushering Walsh out of the Borders, but Palin could not be deterred. When Palin left the signing, Walsh caught up with her in the parking lot, where Palin suggested that Canada should get rid of its public health care system. "Keep the faith," Palin said, "because common sense conservatism can be plugged in there in Canada too. In fact, Canada needs to reform its health care system and let the private sector take over some of what the government has absorbed."

A few things to consider here. First, as Igor Volsky explained, Palin's confused about the role of the private sector in the Canadian system.

Second, Palin may be convinced that Canada "needs to reform its health care system," but Canadians strongly disagree. (Indeed, the last thing most of the industrialized world wants is a health care system more like ours.)

And third, if Palin thinks Canada's Medicare system should be at least partially privatized, does she also believe America's Medicare system, which is very similar, should also be partially privatized? Indeed, would destroying Medicare as we know it be part of what she considers "common-sense conservatism"?

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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SEEING THE ASIA TRIP IN A NEW LIGHT.... During and after President Obama's week-long trip to Asia, major U.S. media outlets were dismissive and derisive about the effort. Political reporters insisted the administration hadn't actually gained anything, and by coming home empty-handed, the president had wasted his time.

White House officials have been frustrated by the media's spin, insisting that the trip would pay dividends. The Atlantic's James Fallows has been a leading critic of American outlets' coverage of the diplomatic efforts.

Yesterday, Fallows followed up, noting more "evidence of failure" in the wake of the president's excursion.

Today in the NYT: "China Joins U.S. in Pledge of Hard Targets on Emissions"

Today in the Washington Post: "China's backing on Iran followed dire predictions; Before Obama's visit, NSC warned leaders of Mideast turmoil"

Today in the (state run) China Daily: "Mainland may pull some missiles.... Beijing might consider removing a portion of its missile arsenal in South China, a long-held precondition by Taiwan for peaceful cross-Straits ties, a mainland expert said Wednesday."

Today also in the China Daily: "DPRK top leader meets visiting Chinese defense minister"

Along with the failure indicated yesterday, also in the China Daily: "RMB rate fine-tuning is possible"

If we're lucky, the Obama administration will have plenty more "failures" like these in the coming years.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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A NEW WAY OF DOING BUSINESS.... Nearly all of this work is done below the radar, but dozens of government agencies hear from hundreds of official advisory committees, featuring tens of thousands of unpaid members. In general, the panels are made up of people with a certain expertise in obscure areas of public policy, representing companies, trade groups, or advocacy organizations.

It's a fairly standard practice for these advisory committees to include plenty of lobbyists. It's a practice the Obama administration is changing.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of lobbyists are likely to be ejected from federal advisory panels as part of a little-noticed initiative by the Obama administration to curb K Street's influence in Washington, according to White House officials and lobbying experts.

The new policy -- issued with little fanfare this fall by the White House ethics counsel -- may turn out to be the most far-reaching lobbying rule change so far from President Obama, who also has sought to restrict the ability of lobbyists to get jobs in his administration and to negotiate over stimulus contracts. [...]

Under the policy, which is being phased in over the coming months, none of the more than 13,000 lobbyists in Washington would be able to hold seats on the committees, which advise agencies on trade rules, troop levels, environmental regulations, consumer protections and thousands of other government policies.

Norm Eisen, the White House ethics counsel, recently explained, "Some folks have developed a comfortable Beltway perch sitting on these boards while at the same time working as lobbyists to influence the government. That is just the kind of special interest access that the president objects to."

As one might imagine, this isn't going over well on K Street, but good-government advocates seem pleased. Common Cause' Mary Boyle added, "You may lose a lot of expertise, but these people are also paid to have a point of view; they have an agenda. We support what the administration is doing to get deep-seated special interests out of the business of running our government, so this seems like a step in the right direction."

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

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November 26, 2009

HAPPY THANKSGIVING.... Just a quick housekeeping note for readers checking in today. I'll be around, and will check in if something important comes up, but I don't expect to have much in the way of content today. I'll be back tomorrow morning.

Also, in light of the holiday, I thought I'd take a moment to share my thanks to all of you. I appreciate your interest, support, and encouragement, and wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

As for the news of the day, the White House issued President Obama's weekly address this morning, pointing to what will hopefully be a better year ahead.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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November 25, 2009

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

* Iraq: "At least 10 people were reported killed Wednesday in Iraq, including four who perished in twin bombings near a revered Shiite shrine in Karbala. The other six were members of a family whose home north of Baghdad was raided overnight by suspected insurgents, according to Iraqi authorities."

* Good news on the economic front: "[T]he number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits fell below 500,000 last week for the first time since January.... The number of people filing first-time claims for jobless aid fell by 35,000 to 466,000, the Labor Department said Wednesday. That was the fewest since September of last year. And it was far better than the 500,000 economists had expected."

* More good news on the economic front: "Consumer spending ticked upward in October, the Commerce Department estimated today, a marked reversal from the month before."

* When President Obama unveils the future of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, he'll do so in a speech at West Point.

* Soon after the president's remarks, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hear directly from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

* In a bit of a surprise, support for additional troops in Afghanistan is growing, not shrinking.

* Israeli officials today approved a 10-month settlement freeze, but the exceptions to the policy make it controversial.

* The U.S. delegation to Copenhagen next month will include Al Gore.

* More lists from the White House visitor logs.

* The media gave Sarah Palin all kinds of attention last week -- more than most Americans were interested in.

* Phillip Carter resigned this week from the Defense Department after just seven months on the job. He cited "personal reasons," which by all accounts, is the truth.

* Alex Koppelman and Mike Madden have a nice overview on why the Senate leadership aren't anxious to approve health care legislation through the reconciliation process.

* One step closer to impeachment proceedings against South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R).

* If John McCain wants to talk about "viciousness" and "personalization" in political attacks, we can oblige.

* Over time, policymakers shifted their focus away from class size in K-12. The same shift is underway in higher ed.

* Of the 10 longest pieces of congressional legislation considered over the last decade, five of the bills were written by Republicans. (If the GOP were willing to consider ending the whining about the length of the health care bill, now would be a very good time.)

* For Dana Perino, maybe Bush's first term doesn't count.

* And finally, as presidential pardons for Thanksgiving turkeys go, today's was pretty amusing.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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EMPIRICISM ISN'T SUPPOSED TO BE POLITICIZED.... Back during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama offered a spirited defense of empiricism. "The thing I think people should feel confident in is that I'm going to make these judgments not based on some fierce ideological pre-disposition but based on what makes sense," the candidate said. "I'm a big believer in evidence. I'm a big believer in fact."

After years of an administration that boasted of its ability to create its "own reality," Obama's approach -- then and now -- comes as something of a relief.

It's why I was struck by this Victor Davis Hanson column for National Review, which argues that the president has gone to "war against reason." Given that reality suggests the opposite is true, this seemed like an odd argument for a conservative to make.

But to bolster his case, Hanson notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined the unemployment rate for decades. The problem, as he sees it, is that the White House is now also releasing information on jobs "created or saved" since economic recovery efforts got underway. And that's bad, apparently, because while the job landscape has worsened as a result of the recession Obama inherited, the administration is now also reporting data on jobs that would have been cut were it not for the stimulus.

And how is this evidence of undermining empiricism? I haven't the foggiest idea. Jon Chait tries to make sense of the argument.

Ok. Hanson doesn't say that the Obama administration has suppressed or altered the BLS's calculation of unemployment. He charges it with creating another website that attempts to calculate how many jobs were saved by the stimulus -- a premise that is shared by the major macroeconomic forecasting firms. Hanson seems to further believe that this figure is intended as a substitute for the unemployment level, betraying an inability to grasp the distinction between the current unemployment rate and how many jobs were saved as a result of the stimulus.

How can anybody not understand the difference between these two things? His chain of reasoning is just so wildly illogical you can't even refute it.

If I had a nickel for every time I had that thought after reading something at National Review, I could retire.

On a related note, Jon didn't mention it, but whenever I think of politics and empiricism, I'm reminded of a terrific piece he wrote nearly five years ago on this very subject.

We're accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people's lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people's lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy -- more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition -- than conservatism.

Now, liberalism's pragmatic superiority wouldn't matter to a true ideological conservative any more than news about the medical benefits of pork (to pick an imaginary example) would cause a strictly observant Jew to begin eating ham sandwiches. But, if you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism's aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

If there's a "war against reason" underway, Victor Davis Hanson is looking at the wrong culprits.

Stepping back, however, it's more than a little distressing that we've reached the point at which the left and right now have competing understandings of the basic meaning of empiricism. It's not a healthy development.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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IT DIDN'T USED TO BE THIS WAY.... We've heard "it takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate" so many times over the last several years, much of the political world has more or less internalized the argument. Requiring supermajorities on everything has slowly become routine, and it rarely occurs to the establishment and those who cover it to question the dramatic shift.


With that in mind, Ezra Klein posts a copy of this fascinating letter from the LBJ presidential library, sent in by Yale student David Broockman. It shows correspondence from Mike Manatos, Johnson's Senate liaison, soon after the president had won re-election. (If it's a little tough to read, click on it for a larger view.) Manatos was counting heads, seeing how many Medicare supporters lost re-election, but how many Medicare supporters were poised to enter the chamber.

"[I]f all our supporters are present and voting," Manatos noted, "we would win by a vote of 55 to 45."

Imagine that. An important piece of legislation could be approved by the Senate if "only" 55 senators out of 100 supported it. In 1965, a 55-vote majority in the Senate meant a victory. In 2009, a 56-vote majority in the Senate means a defeat. Or, more accurately, a 56-vote majority can't even get a bill brought to the floor for a vote in the first place.

Ezra added, "The filibuster of yesteryear, in other words, was not a supermajority requirement. It was closer to a tantrum. That's not to say it was never used to prevent a vote: Southerners did exactly that to block the Civil Rights Act, and Johnson was forced to find 67 votes to break their effort. But such measures were left for extraordinary moments, not built into the everyday workings of the body. The use of the filibuster has changed, and with it, so too has the Senate."

This is unsustainable. The Senate wasn't design to function this way, it didn't use to function this way, and the sooner majority-rule is brought back, the sooner the institution can help govern again.

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

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ONE CLOTURE VOTE AFTER ANOTHER.... Reader R.H. emails this afternoon with an important procedural question. It's a subject that comes up from time to time, which leads me to think a lot of people may be interested in this. With R.H.'s permission, I'm republishing the note:

...We currently have one health care reform bill passed. That's the House's. It provides for a public option.

The strong likelihood is that the Senate bill will not provide a public option. So for argument's sake, let's say it's passed and has no public option.

These bills will have to be resolved in conference. That means it will either need to take from the House bill and provide a public option or take from the Senate bill and not provide a public option.

Again for argument's sake, let's say we take from the House bill and provide a public option in the final legislation. Ah, but this needs to pass the Senate again, right?

But I believe that the final vote on the conference bill is not subject to cloture votes, meaning that the final conference resolution only needs to pass by a simple majority. And if it were just a matter of a simple majority, the Senate bill WOULD have a public option. So... wouldn't the final conference resolution providing a public option then pass the Senate by a simple majority and proceed onto the President's desk?

I wish this were the case, but it's not. The final, post-conference bill will return to the Senate where it will face the last in a series of filibusters.

And what a series it is. It took a supermajority to bring the bill to the floor for a debate; it will take another supermajority to let the Senate vote on the bill and send it to conference; and it will take another supermajority to let the Senate vote on the final, once-and-for-all bill.

The vision presented by R.H. would certainly expedite matters. The leadership could approve a more modest bill, in line with the demands of Nelson, Landrieu, Lieberman, and Lincoln, and send it conference. The White House could send back a much stronger bill, in line with the House approach, and there'd be nothing center-right Dems could do about it.

Alas, that's not the case. In fact, after the grueling task of getting the Senate bill to a point at which it can garner 60 votes, I suspect those center-right hold-outs will make a fairly explicit threat to the president and the House negotiators: "You change one letter of this thing and we'll filibuster it when the bill gets back from conference."

So, to make a short story long, post-conference bill are filibusterable. Something to keep in mind as the process continues to unfold.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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UNDERSTANDING LIEBERMAN'S MOTIVATIONS.... Whenever Joe Lieberman's name pops up, the now-tired cliche -- he's with Democrats on "everything but foreign policy" -- still pops up. Usually, it's intended as sarcasm, emphasizing the fact that Lieberman is at odds with his former party on a variety of issues that have nothing to do with his neo-conservative worldview on international affairs.

But the reason the cliche came into existence in the first place is that, on domestic policy, Lieberman has actually maintained some pretty progressive ideas. On issues like gay rights and the environment, Lieberman has occasionally even been downright liberal.

When it comes to health care policy, the Connecticut senator wasn't nearly as conservative as he is now. So what happened? Peter Beinart's explanation sounds pretty compelling.

For close to a decade, he got nearly perfect scores from the American Public Health Association, which backs a single-payer health-care system, and in lieu of that, the "public option." Now, all of a sudden, he's so outraged by a public option that he's threatening to filibuster any bill that contains it. [...]

So why is he doing this? Because he's bitter. According to former staffers and associates, he was upset by his dismal showing in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary. And he was enraged by the tepid support he got from many party leaders in 2006, when he lost the Democratic primary to an anti-war activist and won reelection as an independent. Gradually, this personal alienation has eaten away at his liberal domestic views. His staff has grown markedly more conservative in recent years, and his closest friends in Congress are now Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham. For Lieberman, the personal has become political, and it has pushed him further to the right.

The irony is that when Lieberman was officially a Democrat, he was ideologically independent -- a living manifestation of the Humphrey-Jackson tradition. Now that he's technically an independent, he's becoming a standard-issue conservative. For people who believe -- as Lieberman himself once did -- in progressive health-care reform, it's a tragic shift.

This would explain a few things. For example, Lieberman has been making arguments that don't make any sense, as if he's confused about the policy basics on an issue he's studied for years. Why would that happen? Because, by this reasoning, he's letting his emotions override his judgment -- Democrats hurt his feelings, so he'll teach them a lesson. It's small and petty, and would undermine the interests of millions of struggling Americans, but in a contest between Lieberman's ego and the public benefits associated with increased competition in the health care marketplace, it's apparently not even close.

Of course, Beinart may be mistaken. Tim Fernholz noted that Lieberman may simply be "in hock to insurance companies," some of which are located in Connecticut.

That isn't much of a choice, I'm afraid. Lieberman is either putting his hurt feelings over the needs of the nation, or he's putting the insurance industry's profits over the needs of the nation. Either way, Lieberman is so far from the man he used to be, the two bear no resemblance.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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CHARTS THAT PROVE THE POINT.... The New York Times had a terrific report the other day, explaining that the stimulus package is "working," polls and Republican talking points notwithstanding.

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com and an occasional adviser to lawmakers from both parties, said, "[T]he stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do -- it is contributing to ending the recession." Zandi added that without the recovery bill, the "G.D.P. would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent. And there are a little over 1.1 million more jobs out there as of October than would have been out there without the stimulus."


What I didn't realize is that the piece included some very helpful charts, featuring projections of key economic indicators from three companies that specialize in macroeconomic forecasting. (via Matt Yglesias). You'll notice, of course, the black line and the gray line -- the black representing progress with the recovery plan, the gray representing what would have happened without it.

There are several angles to keep in mind here. First, opponents of the stimulus would have us believe the recovery plan has failed. Those are, oddly enough, the same people who got us into this economic mess in the first place. They were wrong then, and they're wrong now.

Second, as Brad DeLong explained, the people providing the data for the NYT charts are economists "who sell their forecasts to paying clients." In other words, these aren't political players who have an incentive to skew the data -- to stay in business, they have to get these trends right. And when it comes to the stimulus, they're unanimous in their beliefs that the Recovery Act helped the economy considerably, and will continue to do so next year.

Third, my only complaint about the charts is that there isn't a third line -- one for the economy with the stimulus, one for the economy with no intervention, and one with what we would have seen if we'd taken the Republicans' advice. It was, after all, 95% of congressional Republicans who, at the height of the crisis, voted for a truly insane five-year spending freeze.

How they feel justified complaining now, rather than thanking president for preventing an economic catastrophe, is a point of ongoing concern.

There's no mystery here. The debate is over. The economy is obviously still struggling, but the stimulus did what it was supposed to do, and has made a real, positive difference.

Conservatives were wrong about Reagan's tax increases. They were wrong about Clinton's tax increases. They were wrong about Bush's tax cuts. And they're wrong again now.

That Republicans still manage to talk about economic policy at all demonstrates a remarkable amount of chutzpah.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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RNC PURITY TEST MAY TRIP UP SEVERAL CANDIDATES.... The proposed "purity test" for GOP candidates seems to have already made an impact, before even being considered. To review, a significant faction within the Republican National Committee is reportedly pushing a test, which GOP candidates expecting party support would have to pass. It includes a 10-point platform, and if you're deemed insufficiently conservative on three or more issues, no party backing for you.

My initial take is that the test was so conservative, prominent Republican leaders from George W. Bush to Ronald Reagan would all come up far short. Probably more important, though, is the practical effect on current GOP candidates.

The New York Times, for example, noted that Rep. Mike Castle, a relatively moderate Republican, is running for the Senate in Delaware next year, and is likely to face a fierce fight against state Attorney General Beau Biden (D). Castle will no doubt need plenty of support from the national party -- which he won't get if the purity-test resolution is approved by the RNC.

Lee Fang went a little further still, and included House lawmakers likely to seek re-election.

ThinkProgress has conducted an analysis that finds at least 40 current Republican members of Congress have violated at least one principle of the purity test.

This is all pretty entertaining, but in my heart of hearts, I suspect this initiative will go about as well as the last big push from Jim Bopp -- which is to say, cooler heads will realize this is ridiculous, and pass a watered down resolution that doesn't actually mean anything.

But I have a hunch the DNC is hoping the measure has far greater success.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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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.

* It's been hard to keep track of the status of Doug Hoffman's unsuccessful congressional election in New York's 23rd -- he's conceded and unconceded a couple of times -- but as of yesterday, he's officially done. Maybe Hoffman will stick to this one.

* With two weeks to go until the primaries in Massachusetts' special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, a Rasmussen poll shows the Democratic race tightening a little. State Attorney General Martha Coakley still enjoys a big lead over Rep. Michael Capuano, 36% to 21%, but the margin appears to be shrinking a bit.

* Speaking of Massachusetts, Rasmussen shows Gov. Deval Patrick (D) with small leads over his rivals in next year's re-election fight. Patrick's edge comes by way of a three-way contest, with State Treasurer Tim Cahill running as an independent.

* In New York, former mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) hasn't said whether he'll run for the Senate next year against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), but Rasmussen and Zogby both have new polls showing him leading the appointed incumbent.

* The crowded GOP Senate primary in Connecticut is starting to thin out, with former Ambassador Tom Foley (R) shifting his attention from the Senate race to the gubernatorial race.

* California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) announced to Jay Leno last night that Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado is his choice to be the new lieutenant governor. Whether the legislature will approve the nomination is unclear.

* Former Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Jon Runyan intends to run as a Republican against Rep. John Adler (D) in New Jersey next year, but he's rejoining the NFL first, to play for the San Diego Chargers.

* Might former Rep. J.D. Hayworth take on Sen. John McCain in a Republican primary in Arizona next year? Hayworth seems to be thinking about it.

* And annoying speculation shifts from Lou Dobbs' interest in running for president to Lou Dobbs' interest in running for the Senate.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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PERINO'S POOR PERSPICACITY.... It's best not to expect much from Dana Perino's appearances on Fox News. The former Bush White House press secretary tends to make largely forgettable comments, representing a generic and uninteresting partisan Republican perspective.

But Perino's appearance last night with Sean Hannity was more noteworthy than most. The topic was the shootings at Fort Hood, and Perino, playing her usual role, criticized the White House for not having labeled the massacre as "terrorism." She emphasized that the rhetorical description of the violence "matters," though she didn't say why.

More important, though, is what Perino went on to argue: "We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term. I hope they're not looking at this politically. I do think that we owe it to the American people to call it what it is."

It wouldn't be the first time Perino said something puzzling, but in this case, it's not even clear what she was going for.

George W. Bush served for eight years, and during his tenure the United States suffered its most devastating terrorist attack ever. Soon after, there were the anthrax attacks against Americans. Depending on how one chooses to define the word "terrorism," it's also worth remembering the countless attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term." Someone's going to have to explain this one to me.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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PERIPATETIC PRESIDENT TO PRESS FOR PROGRESS.... To demonstrate the U.S. commitment to combating global warming, many, here and around the world, hoped President Obama would personally travel to Copenhagen next month for the United Nations meeting on climate change. They got their wish.

Mr. Obama, who had previously not committed to making an appearance at the summit, will deliver a speech on Dec. 9 en route to Oslo, Norway, where he will accept the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10.

Mr. Obama had been under considerable pressure from other world leaders and environmental advocates to make the trip as a statement of American commitment to the climate change negotiations. The talks, involving more than 190 nations, are expected to produce a wide-ranging interim political declaration but stop short of proposing a binding international treaty.

Delegates are expected to commit to completing the treaty next year.

Mr. Obama has said recently that he would attend the session if his presence could help lead to a successful outcome. It is significant that he will appear at the beginning rather than at the end of the 12-day meeting. Most major decisions at such environmental forums come at the very end of the process.

Mr. Obama will tell the delegates to the climate conference that the United States intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions "in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020," according to a White House official.

In a statement this morning, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who's helping lead the Senate fight on a climate bill, said of the president's travel plans, "This could be one hell of a global game changer with big reverberations here at home. For the first time, an American Administration has proposed an emissions reduction target and when President Obama lands in Copenhagen it will emphasize that the United States is in it to win it. This announcement matches words with action. The Obama Administration is now undeniably mustering bona fide leadership on climate change, not merely departing from Bush Administration intransigence and ideology."

Now, as we talked about last week, the larger plans for the Copenhagen meeting have already been scaled back a bit, with leaders eyeing a two-step process -- incremental progress this year, and a commitment to renew the next stage of efforts next year.

But Obama's in-person lobbying efforts will give the talks a boost, and signal to the world that the United States intends to lead.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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THE LATEST SHOT AT HEALTH CARE REFORM.... Nearly every other far-right constituency has manufactured odd reasons to oppose health care reform, so it stands to reason that the gun crowd would get in on the fun.

About a week ago, Gun Owners of America told its 300,000 members that the reform bill pending in the Senate "would mandate that doctors provide 'gun-related health data' to 'a government database,' including information on mental-health issues detected in patients, which could jeopardize their ability to obtain a firearms license." Not done there, the alert added that "nothing within the bill would prohibit rabidly anti-gun HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from decreeing that 'no guns' is somehow healthier."

It's not an abortion bill, but the debate managed to turn to abortion. It's not a gun bill, but the debate has managed to turn to guns. It's funny how the culture-war issues manage to sneak their way into everything.

Hoping to knock the bogus argument down before it becomes too common, the White House's Dan Pfeiffer published a fact-check item yesterday, setting the record straight.

NOTHING IN THE SENATE BILL WOULD RESULT IN "GUN-RELATED HEALTH DATA" BEING SUBMITTED TO THE GOVERNMENT. There is no mention of "gun-related health data" anywhere in the Senate's health reform bill and there is nothing in the bill that would result in any such data being reported to the government. The bill does provide guidelines for reporting of anonymous statistical information to help with research, but none of this would lead to gun ownership or "gun related health data" being included in reporting to the government.

NOTHING IN THE SENATE HEALTH REFORM BILL WOULD LEAD TO HIGHER PREMIUMS FOR GUN OWNERS OR A "DECREE" THAT GUN OWNERS ARE LESS HEALTHY THAN OTHERS. Section 2717 section creates guidelines for insurers to report on initiatives that improve quality of care and health outcomes, and it specifically lists what types of programs would be involved - such as smoking cessation, physical fitness, nutrition, heart disease prevention. There is no mention of guns, and there is no language that could result in higher premiums for gun owners or lower premiums for people who do not own guns. Section 2705 of the bill does permit employers to provide premium discounts for employee participation in health promotion and disease prevention programs, and it prohibits insurers from discriminating against individuals for specific reasons such as health status, medical history, and genetic information. It allows the Secretary to add other "health status-related" factors to the list. But again, there is no mention of guns, or any possibility that owning or not owning guns would ever be considered a "health status-related" issue.

For those who may be inclined to believe the accusations, these pesky, accurate details may be deemed irrelevant. But for those swayed by reality, it's always nice to have the White House offer a reality check.

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ADDING INSULT TO INJURY.... Most modern democracies would never let their own citizens go bankrupt because they got sick. The phrase "medical bankruptcies" is an outlandish concept in most of the industrialized world. There's simply no reason for the United States to tolerate this.

Some of the debtors sitting forlornly in [Nashville's] old stone bankruptcy court have lost a job or gotten divorced. Others have been summoned to face their creditors because they spent mindlessly beyond their means. But all too often these days, they are there merely because they, or their children, got sick.

Wes and Katie Covington, from Smyrna, Tenn., were already in debt from a round of fertility treatments when complications with her pregnancy and surgery on his knee left them with unmanageable bills. For Christine L. Phillips of Nashville, it was a $10,000 trip to the emergency room after a car wreck, on the heels of costly operations to remove a cyst and repair a damaged nerve.

Jodie and Charlie Mullins of Dickson, Tenn., were making ends meet on his patrolman's salary until she developed debilitating back pain that required spinal surgery and forced her to quit nursing school. As with many medical bankruptcies, they had health insurance but their policy had a $3,000 deductible and, to their surprise, covered only 80 percent of their costs.

"I always promised myself that if I ever got in trouble, I'd work two jobs to get out of it," said Mr. Mullins, a 16-year veteran of the Dickson police force. "But it gets to the point where two or three or four jobs wouldn't take care of it. The bills just were out of sight."

Although statistics are elusive, there is a general sense among bankruptcy lawyers and court officials, in Nashville as elsewhere, that the share of personal bankruptcies caused by illness is growing.

We're not talking about families that took unnecessary risks or who are looking for a handout. These are just folks, most of them middle-class, who played by the rules, needed medical attention, and slipped into financial ruin because they couldn't pay their medical bills.

If policymakers pass health care reform, it wouldn't entirely fix the problem, at least not right away, but it would make a significant difference: "Bills in both houses would expand eligibility for Medicaid and provide health insurance subsidies for those making up to four times the federal poverty level. Insurers would be prohibited from denying coverage to those with pre-existing health conditions. Out-of-pocket medical costs would be capped annually."

Just one more reason to get this done.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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COMPETING VERSIONS OF REALITY.... The good news is, most Americans acknowledge the reality of climate change; accept that it's a serious problem; and support efforts, such as cap and trade, to address the crisis.

The bad news is, like practically everything else of late, it's become a partisan issue in which the American mainstream has one set of beliefs, and Republicans have an entirely different reality.

The percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening has dipped from 80 to 72 percent in the past year, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, even as a majority still support a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

The poll's findings -- which also show that 55 percent of respondents think the United States should curb its carbon output even if major developing nations such as China and India do less -- suggest increasing political polarization around the issue, just as the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are intensifying efforts to pass climate legislation and broker an international global warming pact.

The increase in climate skepticism is driven largely by a shift within the GOP. Since its peak 3 1/2 years ago, belief that climate change is happening is down sharply among Republicans -- 76 to 54 percent -- and independents -- 86 to 71 percent. It dipped more modestly among Democrats, from 92 to 86 percent.

That there was any drop at all is discouraging. The problem grows more severe with each passing year, and policymakers are more inclined to take necessary actions if they feel like they're responding to public demand. The more people reject reality, the more likely politicians will put off hard work.

In this case, the discouraging results are compounded by the simplicity of the poll question itself. As Kevin noted, "[T]his isn't a drop in conservatives who think that global warming is manmade. It's not a drop in the number who think it will continue in the future. It's not a drop in the number who think it's too expensive to do anything about it. The question ABC asked was whether or not temperatures had increased over the past hundred years. It's a simple factual question like asking if the Allies won World War I. But only a bare majority of conservatives believe it. It's Jim Inhofe's party now."

As this relates to legislation pending in Congress, there was one encouraging result -- a 53% majority supports a cap-and-trade proposal. The results on this question have improved ever so slightly over the last several months.

On a related note, Thomas Friedman had a good column on all of this last week, explaining why even the most reason-resistant conservatives should take energy policy seriously: "[Y[ou don't believe in global warming? You're wrong, but I'll let you enjoy it until your beach house gets washed away. But if you also don't believe the world is getting more crowded with more aspiring Americans -- and that ignoring that will play to the strength of our worst enemies, while responding to it with clean energy will play to the strength of our best technologies -- then you're willfully blind, and you're hurting America's future to boot."

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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SHAMELESS.... The struggle continues -- is the wiser course of action ignoring Sarah Palin because she's a foolish clown undeserving of attention, or shining a light on her offensive antics to help demonstrate the misguided inanities of the larger right-wing movement?

I generally lean towards the former, but some of the former half-term governor's misdeeds are too odious to overlook. Like this one, for example.

Former Alaska GOP Gov. Sarah Palin on Monday accused President Barack Obama of not acknowledging the sacrifices made by the men and women in the U.S. military.

"There's been a lack of acknowledgment by our president in understanding what it is that the American military provides in terms of, obviously, the safety, the security of our country," Palin said during an interview with Fox News's Greta Van Susteren. "I want him to acknowledge the sacrifices that these individual men and women -- our sons, our daughters, our moms, our dads, our brothers and sisters -- are providing this country to keep us safe."

"They're making sacrifices," said Palin, who visited the Army base at Fort Bragg on Monday as part of her ongoing book tour. "They're putting so much on hold right now so that the homeland can be safe and they can fight for democratic ideals around our world. I want to see more acknowledgment and more respect given to them."

Asked specifically what she'd like to see more of from Obama, Palin said, "I want to see them equipped. I want to see them given everything that they need, including strategies -- a surge strategy in Afghanistan, for one -- so that they know that they're there for victory, they're not there just biding their time as lives are being lost."

Even for Palin, this is vile. "There's been a lack of acknowledgment by our president in understanding what it is that the American military provides in terms of, obviously, the safety, the security of our country"? I'm not entirely sure she's trying to say here, or what it is she thinks the president has failed to "acknowledge."

But in Grown-Up Land, the Commander in Chief has honored the service and sacrifices of servicemen and women repeatedly. He did so at Dover Air Force Base last month; just as he did at Fort Hood and on Veterans' Day this month. Obama, in just the past few weeks, has met with U.S. troops in Florida, Alaska, Texas, and in South Korea.

Also note, Palin, who has never demonstrated any meaningful understanding of foreign policy at any level -- look, Sarah, there's Putin flying over your house -- can't criticize the administration's efforts on a substantive level, so she complains for no reason about her misguided sense of "strategies."

In other words, we can add this to the very long list of subjects on which Sarah Palin pops off without having a clue what she's talking about.

John Cole added, "What a detestable human being.... I'm seriously so sick and tired of these people. Visit the troops and you are accused of using them as a photo op. Spend one day not genuflecting to the troops, you are accused of ignoring them."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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November 24, 2009

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

* Brutal massacres in the Philippines: "A police official says 11 more bodies have been unearthed from a mass grave in the southern Philippines, bringing the death toll from a massacre of political supporters and journalists to 46." Blue Girl has more.

* Third quarter growth was revised downward, from 3.5% to 2.8%.

* President Obama intends to "finish the job" in Afghanistan.

* He's also reaffirming U.S. ties to India: "The relationship between the United States and India will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century," Obama said -- twice.

* Nearly one in four U.S. mortgages is under water (owner owes more than the home's value). That's astounding.

* The Senate leadership thinks the reconciliation process is far more trouble than it's worth.

* Census worker Bill Sparkman's death has been ruled a suicide by Kentucky state police. Officials believe Sparkman hoped to make his death look like a murder to help his family with the insurance money.

* There's growing support among House Democrats for a "pay as you fight" measure, which would raise taxes to pay for the war in Afghanistan.

* Rep. Mark Kirk's (R-Ill.) opposition to Gitmo transfers gets a little less rigid.

* Bill O'Reilly is delusional if he thinks Bill Moyers' retirement was motivated by a Fox News ambush.

* Dick Cheney is delusional if he thinks he can speak for Americans in uniform.

* Is the right still worked up about those stolen CRU emails?

* Early decision still important to colleges.

* Opponents of health care reform have spent $75 million in advertising to convince the public it's a bad idea. Proponents have spent $73.5 million.

* And finally, Sarah Palin has plenty of right-wing fans. They're just not sure why they like her. Since I can't understand it either, their confusion is oddly comforting.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE PHRASE CANTOR IS LOOKING FOR IS, 'THANK YOU'.... Listening to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) talk about economic policy is a terribly frustrating experience. The poor guy is not the brightest light in the harbor, if you know what I mean, and his uninterrupted record -- Cantor has been wrong about every major economic question over the course of his career -- is more than a little humiliating.

This week, Cantor hosted a job fair, during which he trashed the economic recovery efforts as an "utter failure." It's one of those attacks that's idiotic for a variety reasons -- we know the stimulus rescued the economy from the abyss; we know Cantor's alternative proposal (five-year spending freeze at the height of the crisis) was hopelessly insane and would have made things much worse; and we know the stimulus was needed to fix a crisis Cantor and his cohorts were responsible for creating in the first place.

But in this specific case, there's another problem with Cantor's nonsense, and it's an ironic one.

Nearly half of the 30 organizations participating in a job fair Cantor is holding Monday in Culpeper were recipients of the stimulus.

The list includes a slew of government agencies and schools that have directly benefited from the package and may be using stimulus money to hire people (as the money was originally designed to do), including the Orange County public schools, the Transportation Security Administration and Virginia Department of Labor, and some companies that may have indirectly benefited such as Comcast and Terremark.

In other words, the job fair at which Cantor trashed the stimulus wouldn't have been possible were it not for the stimulus.

If this seems vaguely familiar, it's because Cantor has run into this problem before. In April, the Minority Whip heralded a high-speed rail project in his district, made possible by the stimulus package. Just two months prior, Cantor fought tooth and nail to prevent that project from existing, and specifically mocked government funding on high-speed rail.

"The continuing hypocrisy from Republican leaders, like Eric Cantor, who try to block solutions in Washington and then take credit for them back home, is reaching epidemic proportions,'' the DCCC's Jesse Ferguson said. "If Representative Cantor's 'Party of No' policies were in effect, this event would have been an unemployment fair not a jobs fair."

The truth is, Cantor's nonsense is just unnecessary. Cantor was wrong, again, and it's obvious to anyone who's paid any attention. I'm sure the White House has no interest in rubbing it in. Ideally, Cantor would simply acknowledge that President Obama rescued the economy, and it was the White House that took steps to help recovery efforts in Cantor's district. The phrase Cantor is looking for isn't "utter failure"; it's "Thank you, Mr. President."

There are a handful of lawmakers who've developed an unearned reputation for intelligence, despite evidence of striking confusion and ignorance. Eric Cantor is at the top of the list.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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THE ORPHANED BAILOUT.... There seems to be a pattern -- as the economic crisis was unfolding, conservatives accepted the financial industry bailout as painful but necessary. A year later, with the bailout wildly unpopular, the same conservatives hope Google isn't working so we won't be able to check their previous position.

Take Carly Fiorina, for example. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO was an awkward McCain campaign surrogate last year, and she's decided to parlay her failure into a Republican Senate campaign in California. Yesterday, she spoke at an American Spectator Newsmaker Breakfast.

Fiorina said that she was opposed to bailouts and President Obama's economic stimulus package.

Of course she did. If Fiorina had defended the bailout, she'd lose her Republican primary. As Matt Corley noted, the problem is that Fiorina argued last fall that the bailout was entirely "necessary," because something "had to be done."

Fiorina's in good company. Sarah Palin endorsed the bailout; now she doesn't like it anymore. Mitt Romney endorsed the bailout; now he's railing against it. Glenn Beck not only endorsed the bailout, he said at the time that it ought to be bigger. Now he's convinced it's evil.

I realize that when it comes to right-wing populism, last year's financial industry bailout holds a unique place in the panoply of conservative complaints. But these far-right characters can only run so far from their records of a year ago.

They have a few choices. They can a) hold their ground and defend the bailout; b) explain why they were mistaken; or c) admit that they're shamelessly pandering, hoping to score a few cheap points with the Teabagging crowd by telling them what they want to hear.

Pretending that recent history didn't happen isn't one of the choices.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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CUTTING COSTS.... Just a few days after David Broder argued the Democratic health care reform plan may not cut costs enough, David Brooks makes a similar case. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the NYT columnist argues, "Instead of reducing costs, the bills in Congress would probably raise them." Brooks concedes that Dems "have tried to foster efficiencies," but he doesn't expect them to succeed in "fundamentally bend[ing] the cost curve."

Perhaps the Davids should take the time to read this Ron Brownstein piece, published over the weekend, on the ways in which the reform plan would cut costs. The White House has been circulating Brownstein's item, and for good reason -- it's an important piece.

When I reached Jonathan Gruber on Thursday, he was working his way, page by laborious page, through the mammoth health care bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had unveiled just a few hours earlier. Gruber is a leading health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is consulted by politicians in both parties. He was one of almost two dozen top economists who sent President Obama a letter earlier this month insisting that reform won't succeed unless it "bends the curve" in the long-term growth of health care costs. And, on that front, Gruber likes what he sees in the Reid proposal. Actually he likes it a lot.

"I'm sort of a known skeptic on this stuff," Gruber told me. "My summary is it's really hard to figure out how to bend the cost curve, but I can't think of a thing to try that they didn't try. They really make the best effort anyone has ever made. Everything is in here....I can't think of anything I'd do that they are not doing in the bill. You couldn't have done better than they are doing."

Gruber may be especially effusive. But the Senate blueprint, which faces its first votes tonight, also is winning praise from other leading health reformers like Mark McClellan, the former director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services under George W. Bush and Len Nichols, health policy director at the centrist New America Foundation. "The bottom line," Nichols says, "is the legislation is sending a signal that business as usual [in the medical system] is going to end."

If we're going to be intellectually honest about this, the truth is, reining health care costs is extremely tricky. No one can say with any confidence exactly what might to work and what might not. Brownstein gets into some wonky details about the competing provisions, which are worth reading to appreciate the larger policy fight.

The point, however, is Democratic leaders are pursuing all kinds of measures intended to bend the cost curve. Chances are, some will work well, some won't. But the key is what Gruber told Brownstein: "I can't think of a thing to try that they didn't try. They really make the best effort anyone has ever made."

The idea is to put the best ideas in the legislation, make a genuine effort to get costs under control, and see what's effective.

The funny part of this, in a way, is that Republicans should be applauding these efforts. This is their signature concern, right? Cutting costs? Saving money? Fiscally responsible policymaking? It's likely one of the reasons so many Republicans who aren't in office have already expressed support for the effort.

As Ezra Klein explained the other day, "If this piece of the bill was passed on its own, it would be the most important cost control bill ever considered by the United States Congress."

Also, Kevin Drum noted that the Senate bill is the most "ambitious" attempt to "rein in both Medicare costs, and healthcare costs generally, than anything ever done. Nothing else even comes close." He added that Reid's measure may be the "best prospects for healthcare cost control we've ever seen."

That's clearly, demonstrably true. If the public understood this, and there was a broader recognition that Republicans were needlessly attacking the most ambitious cost-savings package in American history, perhaps the debate would be less ridiculous.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THIS IS CNN?.... Trevor Francis, the communications director at the Republican National Committee, was forced out yesterday. A couple of hours later, the party announced that Alex Castellanos, a notorious Republican media consultant and CNN contributor, will take over as a senior communications adviser to RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

The news prompted Atrios to note, "I'm sure CNN will keep his seat warm." I assumed the same thing, but as it turns out, that won't be necessary -- Castellanos will still be sitting in the same seat.

Longtime Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos will continue to serve as an on-air personality for CNN despite recently taking on a consulting role for the Republican National Committee, the network confirms.

On Monday, it was reported that Castellanos, who has served as a media consultant for many Republican presidential candidates as well as an advisor for the private health insurance industry, will play an expanded role at the RNC after the committee parted ways with its communications director, Trevor Francis.

Apparently, Castellanos makes enough money doing media work for private health insurance companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that he'll be unpaid for his work as the RNC's senior communications adviser. And since Castellanos won't literally be on the Republican National Committee's payroll, CNN is entirely comfortable paying him to offer "political analysis" on the air.

And here I thought the ethical/professional lines had already been blurred too much. Now, CNN -- you know, the network that has positioned itself as above the fray -- will feature regular on-air commentary from the Republican National Committee's new message/strategy guy.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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WHAT TO DO ABOUT JOE.... Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), refusing to allow a vote on any health care bill that subjects private insurers to any competition at all, told the WSJ yesterday, "I'm going to be stubborn on this."

Stubborn, he means, in opposing any health-care overhaul that includes a "public option," or government-run health-insurance plan, as the current bill does. His opposition is strong enough that Mr. Lieberman says he won't vote to let a bill come to a final vote if a public option is included.

Probe for a catch or caveat in that opposition, and none is visible. Can he support a public option if states could opt out of the plan, as the current bill provides? "The answer is no," he says in an interview from his Senate office. "I feel very strongly about this." How about a trigger, a mechanism for including a public option along with a provision saying it won't be used unless private insurance plans aren't spreading coverage far and fast enough? No again.

So any version of a public option will compel Mr. Lieberman to vote against bringing a bill to a final vote? "Correct," he says.

This isn't exactly new ground, but I think this was Lieberman's most explicit declaration in opposition to public-option "triggers." The bottom line is straightforward enough: if even one consumer is given a choice between a private plan and a public plan, Joe Lieberman will work with Republicans to kill health care reform, no matter the consequences for the millions who are counting on this bill to pass.

There's no reason to believe Lieberman is playing some kind of leverage game; all evidence suggests he's entirely sincere. The senator is so offended by the notion of public-private competition, he'll betray anyone and everyone to prevent it -- even if Lieberman doesn't seem to understand the basics of the policy he's so vehemently against.

With that in mind, should the "trigger" compromise become the focus of negotiations with the center-right, it suggests the road to 60 votes will go through Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) office, not Joe Lieberman's. Indeed, if Lieberman isn't willing to listen to reason, evidence, or pleas for compromise, it may very well be time to shift the nature of the talks -- I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Senate Dems simply stopped engaging Lieberman, and went back to figuring out how to make Snowe happy again. When the votes are cast, 60 is 60; whether the final vote comes from Snowe or Lieberman doesn't matter. (Maybe if Lieberman's phone stopped ringing, and he no longer felt important, he'd be more willing to engage in good-faith talks.)

It's also worth watching to see if there's any talk about consequences for the former Democrat. A few weeks ago, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) sounded open to punishing Lieberman for his deeds: "Let's see what happens. I don't think anybody should be filibustering -- nobody should be filibustering health care. Either vote it up or vote it down." I've heard very little talk since.

Obviously, we've been through this before, and we all know the score -- if the party were to strip Lieberman of his committee chairmanship, for example, he'd likely to start caucusing with the Republican minority. If he switched, the Democratic caucus would go from 60 to 59 seats, and the Senate that already seems paralyzed would be even more dysfunctional. Party leaders are just as anxious to avoid this fate now as they were when they handed Lieberman his gavel a year ago.

But would the equation change at all if/when Lieberman betrays his colleagues on the most important domestic policy vote in a generation? Shouldn't it?

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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PELOSI GETS IT.... If more policymakers embraced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's approach to economic recovery, we'd all be better off. Here's the Speaker this morning, during a conference call:

"We're never going to decrease the deficit until we create jobs, bring revenue into the Treasury, stimulate the economy so we have growth. We have to shed any weakness that anybody may have about not wanting to be confrontational on this subject for fear that we'd be labeled not sensitive to the deficit. … The American people have an anger about the growth of the deficit because they're not getting anything for it.... So if somebody has the idea that the percentage of GDP of what or national debt is will go up a bit, but they will now -- and their neighbors and their children -- will have jobs, I think they could absorb that.... If we pull our punch, as they did in the mid-30's, we shouldn't be surprised if history repeats itself."

By "history," Pelosi was no doubt referring to the 1937 effort on the part of FDR's administration to move away from stimulating the economy and towards deficit reduction. The shift was a mistake -- when policymakers should have kept spending, they instead started bringing down the deficit. Economic conditions quickly deteriorated again, after several years of progress.

And now, we're poised to see this happen again. Recovery efforts rescued an economy on the brink, leading to widespread talk within the establishment to shift away from job creation and economic growth, and towards spending cuts and deficit reduction. The talk has already convinced far too much of the public to believe nonsense, which in turn has rattled anxiety-ridden political leaders.

Pelosi's assertion couldn't be more accurate: "The debate between deficit reduction and job creation is not a real choice, because we'll never have deficit reduction unless we have job creation. Of course we have to be sensitive to how this is paid for, but that doesn't mean we don't do it."

Given the ongoing economic difficulties, there's no reason in the world for so many in the political establishment to want to take their foot off the gas. For politicians, this should be an especially easy call -- voters tend to be happier when the economy and job market are stronger.

This ain't rocket science, folks.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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THE PURPOSE OF THE RNC'S 'PURITY TEST'.... A significant faction within the Republican National Committee is reportedly pushing a purity test, which GOP candidates expecting party support would have to pass. It includes a 10-point platform, and if you're deemed inadequate on three or more issues, no party backing for you.

Part of the problem, of course, is that a whole lot of Republican leaders would come up short on this litmus test. Everyone from John McCain to George W. Bush to Ronald Reagan would likely be deemed insufficiently right-wing for today's Republican National Committee.

But Ralph Hallow reports today that some RNC members believe the test may be necessary anyway.

Members of the conservative group within the RNC tell The Washington Times that, besides aiming to make the GOP more consistently and reliably conservative by promoting lower taxes, keeping spending levels in check and focusing on national security, they want to head off an already emerging third party inspired by the anti-spending tea-party movement.

Honestly, if the already far-right Republican Party needs purity tests to prevent even-further-right Republicans from breaking off and forming their own party, Republicans are in even deeper trouble than they realize.

And yet, the effort continues.

To a very real extent, this only serves to reinforce Democratic arguments about the GOP no longer welcoming moderates. The DNC is no doubt hoping that the RNC embraces the strategy with both arms.

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

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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 conventional wisdom insists President Obama is losing independents (an ambiguous word to begin with). Charles Franklin takes a closer look at the evidence and finds steady independent support for the president since August.

* Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is trying to get off the ropes as his Senate campaign loses GOP support to primary rival Marco Rubio. Crist argued yesterday that it would be "hard to be more conservative than I am on [the] issues." No one seriously believes that, but I guess he's not considering a party switch.

* In Arizona, the latest Rasmussen poll shows state Attorney General Terry Goddard (D) as the leading contender for next year's gubernatorial campaign, with modest leads over the likely GOP candidates. The exception: controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his scandalous approach to immigration policy, who enjoyed majority support in the poll. Arpaio has not, however, said whether he's eyeing the race.

* Former Ambassador Tom Schieffer (D) has ended his gubernatorial campaign in Texas. His departure makes it that much more likely that Houston Mayor Bill White (D) will get in the race.

* Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) is facing some primary competition next year, despite his conservative voting record, because the base is convinced he's not right-wing enough. Inglis has been a long-time mentor to Sen. Jim DeMint (R), but the far-right senator will apparently not endorse his old friend.

* In California, Carly Fiorina (R) still hopes to generate conservative support for her Senate campaign. Yesterday, when asked whether she might get an endorsement from Sarah Palin, Fiorina told reporters, "I have no idea. You'll have to ask Sarah Palin. She's on a mega book tour right now -- that's exciting to see. I share Sarah Palin's values."

* Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) is reportedly mulling over whether to take on Sen. Russ Feingold (D) next year. A new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Feingold with a comfortable lead over Thompson, 50% to 41%, in a hypothetical match-up.

* I'm already officially tired of hearing about Lou Dobbs' possible interest in a presidential campaign.

* And speaking of misguided national ambitions, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) will be testing the presidential waters in South Carolina next month.

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

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MANUFACTURED STORY OF THE DAY.... With an Indian delegation, led by Prime Minister Singh, at the White House today, President Obama will host his first State Dinner this evening. The conservative media machine has already decided on its preferred angle.

The far-right Washington Times, with its few remaining staffers and editors, published a report this morning with this headline: "Top Republican lawmakers not invited to State Dinner." (The print edition said, "Obama's big tent leaves out GOP bigwigs.") Drudge, naturally, took the bait, telling readers, "Not invited: Republican lawmakers..." Fox News, not surprisingly, soon followed, republishing the Times piece.

All of this might be more compelling if it weren't for the leading Republicans who were, in fact, invited.

Let's run through the list of Republicans the Times names in its story, despite its headline:

House Minority Leader John Boehner: He certainly counts as a "top Republican lawmaker." Curl and Mosk write that "Boehner won't be there; he's on Thanksgiving break and home in Ohio." Left out of their story? That Boehner was reportedly invited.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Also a "top Republican" who "received an invitation" but "decided to skip the dinner."

Louisiana Rep. Bobby Jindal: He was invited, according to the Times, because he is a "prominent Indian-American." You could make a pretty solid argument that Jindal rose quickly in the GOP's ranks after they chose him to give a rebuttal to Obama's first address to Congress. At the time, the Times even decided that Jindal sounded pretty presidential.

Sen. John McCain: Not invited. The Times writes that this is despite the fact that "Obama the candidate pledged a post-partisan presidency."

I realize the political conditions are such that every event is an opportunity for an attack. The president's hosting a state dinner, so Republicans and their media outlets have to think of something to say to undermine the White House.

But the best they could come up with is an invitation list that only included some prominent Republican leaders? And that turned into a headline that read, "Top Republican lawmakers not invited to State Dinner"?

Rumor has it the Washington Times won't be around much longer. It won't be missed.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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TELEGRAPHING THEIR PUNCHES.... The strategy for congressional Republicans isn't exactly a secret.

Even if a [health care reform] bill ultimately passes, Republicans hope to delay that moment until well into 2010 -- when all seats in the House and one-third of those in the Senate will be contested -- then make the case to voters that Democrats took their focus off the economy and an unemployment rate above 10%.

Got that? Congressional Republicans are desperate to delay progress on health care reform, while congressional Democrats want to complete work on health care and move onto a jobs bill. If GOP tactics are successful, Democratic efforts on jobs will be delayed.

At which point, Republicans will say, "Why haven't Democrats done more to address unemployment?"

The offense has told the defense exactly what play it's about to call, daring them to stop it. If Democrats want to stop the play, it's within their power to do so.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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LIGHT READING.... Of all the many Republican arguments against health care reform, the incessant whining about the literal, physical size of the legislation is comically foolish. And yet, rather than a grown-up debate about policy, the congressional majority remains obsessed with page-number totals.

We talked a few months ago about why the claims themselves are so misleading. If you've ever seen the physical page of a bill in Congress, you know that it doesn't look like a traditional printed page in, say, a book. They have huge margins, with a large font, and every line is numbered and double-spaced.

But the child-like complaints -- if a bill is "long," it must be "bad" -- continue unabated. In recent weeks, congressional Republicans have become especially fond of Tolstoy. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah said the health care reform bill is "larger than the novel 'War and Peace.'" Rep. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri said proposals are "exceeding even 'War and Peace' in length." Rep. Joe Barton (R) of Texas added, "'War and Peace' -- some people consider it the greatest book ever written, but most people recognize the novel because at 1,284 pages its length is often the butt of jokes. Now imagine trying to read something that long overnight."

Fox News kept up a Tolstoy fixation for quite a while, too.

The Associated Press, to its credit, looked into this.

The bill passed by the House is 319,145 words. The Senate bill is 318,512 words, shorter than the House version despite consuming more paper. Various versions of Tolstoy's novel are 560,000 to 670,000 words. Bush's education act tallied more than 280,000 words.

By now, the full draft of Reid's bill that had circulated in the corridors and landed so prominently on Republican desks has been published in the Congressional Record in the official and conventional manner.

The type is small and tight. No hernias will be caused by moving this rendering of the bill around. Unfurling it on the Capitol steps would not be much of a spectacle.

It's 209 pages.

In other words, the health care bill -- the one that Republicans say is too burdensome to actually read -- is shorter than Sarah Palin's 413-page book.

Can the GOP move on to new talking points now?

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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AFGHAN ANNOUNCEMENT A WEEK FROM TODAY.... After a lengthy review process, President Obama reportedly has all the information he needs to craft a new U.S. policy towards Afghanistan. We'll hear all about it in a televised address to the nation a week from tonight.

For two hours on Monday evening, Mr. Obama held his ninth meeting in the Situation Room with his war council.... The president's military and national security advisers came back to the president with answers he had requested during previous meetings, most of which focusing on these questions: Where are the off-ramps for the military? And what is the exit strategy?

The conversation settled around sending about 30,000 more American troops, two officials said, the first of whom would deploy early next year to be in place in southern or eastern Afghanistan by the spring. The troop reinforcements would likely be sent in waves, according to an official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss war strategy. [...]

While the president is expected by several of his advisers to announce sending more than 20,000 new troops - perhaps closer to the 40,000, as recommended by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal - the White House is working to make the announcement more than simply a number of troops. It will include an outline of an exit strategy, officials said.

That last part is obviously key. The decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan will not be popular with many of the president's own supporters, many of whom believe the longest war in American history should come to an end. But if the White House has not only decided on the size of an escalation, but also a larger, revamped strategy that features a light at the end of the tunnel, the administration's new policy may address at least one underlying concern.

In terms of what to expect, leaked reports have varied considerably over the last several weeks, but McClatchy reports that the administration will approve 34,000 additional troops. In terms of the politics, Republicans are likely to attack, not because of the escalation, but because they'll think the escalation is a brigade or two short. But this will be rather silly. As Spencer Ackerman recently noted, "[L]et's say that McClatchy is right and Obama goes with 34,000 new troops. Is the Republican Party really going to say that 6,000 troops -- basically one to two Army combat brigades -- are the difference between success and failure? That's, well ... that just doesn't make sense."

The public's reaction to such a decision is hard to gauge. The latest CNN poll, released this morning, offers a muddled look at public opinion -- 45% of Americans said they support the war, while 52% oppose it. The same poll, however, found that 50% support sending additional troops, while 49% do not. So, some who oppose the war nevertheless want to see an escalation?

Nevertheless, we're likely to see a fairly big push on this. After the president's prime-time address on Tuesday (12/1), Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry will both likely testify before lawmakers on the new U.S. policy. Expect quite a bit of congressional skepticism.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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EDUCATE TO INNOVATE.... Earlier this year, President Obama was showing so much enthusiasm and interest in science and scientific integrity that one observer characterized him as "almost strident" on the issue. The description put a negative spin on what I consider to be one of the president's most endearing qualities -- I can't think of a modern president who speaks as often and as enthusiastically about science as Obama.

This was especially true yesterday, when the president hosted a White House event to unveil a new "Educate to Innovate" initiative, intended to improve the science and math scores of American students. A variety of scientists and inventors were on hand for the event -- including Adam and Jaime from "Mythbusters," who the president called out by name -- and Obama not only talked up administration efforts, he emphasized the importance of changing public attitudes.

I was especially pleased to hear that, starting in 2010, there will be an annual White House Science Fair. The president explained, "Today, I'm announcing that we're going to have an annual science fair at the White House with the winners of national competitions in science and technology. If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you've produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we're going to lead by example. We're going to show young people how cool science can be."

But the part of Obama's remarks that had me thinking long after I'd finished watching was the section on educational efforts overseas.

The president said:

"You know, I was in Asia, I think many of you are aware, for a week, and I was having lunch with the President of South Korea, President Lee. And I was interested in education policy -- they've grown enormously over the last 40 years. And I asked him, what are the biggest challenges in your education policy? He said, 'The biggest challenge that I have is that my parents are too demanding.' (Laughter.) He said, 'Even if somebody is dirt poor, they are insisting that their kids are getting the best education.' He said, 'I've had to import thousands of foreign teachers because they're all insisting that Korean children have to learn English in elementary school.' That was the biggest education challenge that he had, was an insistence, a demand from parents for excellence in the schools.

"And the same thing was true when I went to China. I was talking to the mayor of Shanghai, and I asked him about how he was doing recruiting teachers, given that they've got 25 million people in this one city. He said, 'We don't have problems recruiting teachers because teaching is so revered and the pay scales for teachers are actually comparable to doctors and other professions. '

"That gives you a sense of what's happening around the world. There is a hunger for knowledge, an insistence on excellence, a reverence for science and math and technology and learning. That used to be what we were about. That's what we're going to be about again."

I hope that's true, because our future depends on it.

This also helps set up a helpful juxtaposition. At this point, the nation's leading Democrat is a dynamic president who values science, innovation, and learning. One of the nation's leading Republicans is a half-term governor who rejects evolutionary biology and who disdains elites with "Ivy League educations."

Whether the United States is able to maintain its role as the global leader will depend on which side of this divide wins.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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HACKS AND FLACKS.... Interesting shake-up at the RNC late yesterday afternoon.

Trevor Francis, the communications director at the Republican National Committee, is leaving his post, an odd mid-cycle departure that suggests some level of turmoil within the GOP's chief campaign committee. [...]

His hiring by the national committee surprised some observers as Francis had never worked with Steele previously. Steele is something of a free agent when it comes to his dealings with the press -- often serving as his own press secretary with mixed results.

Steele's tendency to freelance makes him difficult to manage from a press perspective and, according to sources familiar with Francis's departure, that tension was part of the reason he decided to step aside.

Francis didn't quite last a year on the job -- he started in March, before abruptly resigning yesterday.

The reasoning behind the shift is still a little murky, though Jonathan Martin reported that GOP insiders believe Steele pushed Francis out the door because the party chairman "didn't feel he was getting enough credit for the GOP's electoral success earlier this month."

Just as interesting was who the RNC tapped as its new communications director: Republican media consultant and CNN analyst Alex Castellanos.

I suppose this isn't a huge shock. As recently as July, Michael Steele hosted a press conference to trash the idea of health care reform, and read several parts of a Castellanos strategy memo word for word. It stands to reason that the RNC would seek a message/media flack who's already been writing Steele's script.

But it's still a hire that signals the RNC's misguided direction. Castellanos is, after all, the Republican media strategist responsible for buying ads for private health insurers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, reinforcing the obvious impression that the RNC principally represents the interests of big business.

He's also the far-right strategist responsible for the notorious "White Hands" ad in support of Jesse Helms' 1990 Senate campaign, generally considered one of the most racist campaign ads of the modern political era.

In other words, if you've been shaking your head in response to RNC messaging this year, realize that it's poised to get a little more offensive going forward.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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November 23, 2009

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

* Afghanistan: "Bombings and shootings killed 12 people across Afghanistan, including four American troops and three children, as President Barack Obama convened his war council again Monday to fine-tune a strategy to respond to the intransigent violence."

* Encouraging real estate news: "Home sales surged for the second month in a row in October, climbing to the highest level in 2 1/2 years as first-time buyers rushed to take advantage of an expiring tax credit. Home sales nationwide are now up nearly 37 percent from their bottom in January."

* HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius unveiled state-by-state details on how health care reform would help nationwide.

* Is reconciliation still on the table? Maybe, but there are plenty of reasons the Senate leadership hopes to avoid it.

* Iraq elections in January? Don't count on it.

* South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) faces 37 charges of ethics violations.

* Bill Moyers' presence on television will be sorely missed.

* If policymakers are looking for areas for infrastructure investment, sewage treatment plants are definitely worth the money.

* The job market, four-year degrees, and the two-year degrees.

* The inner-workings of the Washington Times.

* Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) not only won't appear on NSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," his office refuses to return calls from Maddow staffers. Sounds pretty cowardly.

* I'm starting to get the impression that the LA Times' Andrew Malcolm is using his platform for partisan purposes. Call it a hunch.

* Speaking of shameless partisan hacks, Dick Cheney is now whining about President Obama bowing to the emperor of Japan. Fun fact: Cheney worked for Nixon and H.W. Bush, both of whom bowed to the emperor of Japan.

* It's a little under the radar right now, but Sen. John Ensign's (R-Nev.) sex scandal continues to get uglier.

* Ari Fleischer will be representing the BCS. Figures.

* Interesting item from Mark Kleiman: "Your high-school civics teacher no doubt told you that you should 'vote for the person, not the party.' Madison and Hamilton, who hated what they called 'faction,' would have agreed. All three of them were wrong. Party is the only mechanism by which voters can influence actual outcomes."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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AT LEAST THEY KNOW THEIR AUDIENCE.... Ross Douthat has an interesting column today, primarily on Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, both of whom, Douthat argues, have made the same mistake with regards to their futures.

As the columnist sees it, Palin and Huckabee "owed their appeal more to personality than to substance," and would have been wise to "take their newfound eminence seriously" and start hitting the books. Instead, they chose to "cash in on their celebrity," leaving them no better off when it comes to gaining credibility and/or positioning themselves for national office.

There's something to this. Both Huckabee, a two-term governor, and Palin, a half-term governor, have presidential ambitions, but both are burdened with a weak understanding of public policy and a general indifference to serious work. With no day jobs, Palin and Huckabee could have begun learning things en route to building a national platform. Neither chose wisely.

But this was probably an either/or situation for the former governors. The column notes, "It's possible to be a celebrity and a serious politician at the same time: Barack Obama's career proves as much."

Yes, except Obama is dealing with an audience that seeks out and honors serious politicians. As Isaac Chotiner explained, Palin and Huckabee aren't.

The first problem with this argument is that ... Palin is unlikely to become a policy wonk because she is not very smart. What's more, Douthat's argument is tautological. Sure, it would be nice for the GOP if Palin and Huckabee were interested in policy. But if they were interested in policy, then they would not be so appealing to the GOP base.

In other words, the problem is that a large part of the right has no interest in a policy wonk, and sneers at intellectuals and elites and the types of people Douthat would like to see running the party. A candidate who was interested in learning the ins and outs of the welfare state and health care policy is unlikely to ever achieve Palin/Huckabee levels of popularity with the grassroots.

Quite right. The two competing bases find different qualities appealing. The GOP base is enthralled by "leaders" who boast about their apathy for intellectualism, elites, and book learnin'. The Democratic base tends to find this kind of dumbing down of politics insulting.

Palin and Huckabee see value in maintaining popularity in advance of likely national campaigns. No part of that scenario includes showing the slightest interest in public policy details.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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FOX NEWS PONDERS 'QUALITY CONTROL'.... Over the last few weeks, Fox News has suffered some embarrassments that left even the partisan network feeling ill at ease. An incident occurred when Fox News combined footage of events to make it seem as if more people attended a right-wing event on health care than showed up in reality.

Soon after, the same network did the same thing, showing a Palin audience from last year when reporting on a Palin event last week.

Chastened, Fox News management has issued a memo on "quality control," making clear that these errors won't be tolerated in the future. The memo argues that the network has to improve its performance "in terms of ensuring error-free broadcasts." It added:

Effective immediately, there is zero tolerance for on-screen errors. Mistakes by any member of the show team that end up on air may result in immediate disciplinary action against those who played significant roles in the "mistake chain," and those who supervise them. That may include warning letters to personnel files, suspensions, and other possible actions up to and including termination, and this will all obviously play a role in performance reviews.

So we now face a great opportunity to review and improve on our workflow and quality control efforts. To make the most of that opportunity, effective immediately, Newsroom is going to "zero base" our newscast production. That means we will start by going to air with only the most essential, basic, and manageable elements. To share a key quote from today's meeting: "It is more important to get it right, than it is to get it on." We may then build up again slowly as deadlines and workloads allow so that we can be sure we can quality check everything before it makes air, and we never having to explain, retract, qualify or apologize again. Please know that jobs are on the line here. I can not [sic] stress that enough.

This makes sense. Fox News' "on-screen errors" have been ridiculous for years, from deceptive footage, to absurd on-screen text, to chyron mistakes (such as identifying former Rep. Mark Foley as "D-Fla." at the height of his sex scandal).

As it happens, nearly all of these "on-screen errors" serve to benefit Republican goals and preconceived narratives. Must be a coincidence.

But now Fox News is going to address this. Good for them. At the risk of sounding picky, though, when might the network take a "zero-tolerance" approach to the accuracy of the rest of its broadcasts? "On-screen errors" have clearly been a problem, but it's not as if the rest of on-air reporting has been accurate.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE RNC'S PURITY TEST.... After the party's unpleasant experience in New York's 23rd, Republicans hope to exclude moderates from their upcoming slate of candidates. But the commitment leads to an awkward question: who gets to decide which candidates meet the party's ideological standards?

Don't worry; some Republican National Committee members have a plan. It's called the "Resolution on Reagan's Unity Principle for Support of Candidates," and it's being circulated among RNC members in the hopes of generating party support. The litmus test was reportedly written by attorney Jim Bopp, Jr., a prominent attorney opposed to abortion rights, perhaps best known for pushing an RNC resolution that would have relabeled the Democratic Party the "Democrat Socialist Party." (The effort failed earlier this year.)

Bopp's purity test for Republican candidates hits most of the predictable highlights.

(1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama's "stimulus" bill

(2) Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;

(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;

(4) Workers' right to secret ballot by opposing card check

(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;

(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;

(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat

(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;

(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and

(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership

And what does this have to do with Reagan? "President Ronald Reagan believed ... that someone who agreed with him 8 out of 10 times was his friend, not his opponent," the resolution states. With that in mind, if a candidate strayed from the list on three more issues, the RNC resolution, if approved, would block him/her from receiving financial support and/or official endorsements.

Complicating matters, the resolution also says that the RNC will decide whether a candidate actually agrees with eight out of 10 -- merely promising to go along isn't enough if the party doesn't like your voting record.

It occurs to me, looking over the list, that George W. Bush would have been deemed ineligible for support from the Republican National Committee. He did, after all, increase the size of government, run enormous deficits, endorsed cap and trade, allowed North Korea and Iran to become more serious security threats, and rejected the right's line on immigration.

For that matter, I'm not sure if Ronald Reagan would have gotten RNC support, either. Reagan, you'll recall, voted for several tax increases, began the modern era of massive federal debt, ran huge deficits, and approved an immigration measure the far-right still resents.*

And it's not just the past, either -- Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine would easily fail this test, and be made ineligible for support from her own party.

I can't wait to see how the purity test turns out for the RNC. They're a clever bunch, aren't they?

* Update: Reader S.T. also reminds that Reagan would have failed the RNC Purity Test after withdrawing Marines from Lebanon in 1983 in the wake of the barracks bombing. Dick Cheney bashed the decision years later.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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IF SENATORS ARE WORRIED ABOUT THE POLLS.... Ideally, it'd be preferable if senators took the same attitude as Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and put the public's needs above possible political considerations. But that's not how the game is usually played -- in the health care fight, policymakers are keeping an eye on the polls.

With that in mind, here's an interesting one for lawmakers to review.

A new national survey from Public Policy Polling (D) finds that health care has put the Democrats in a tricky situation -- passing a bill with a public option doesn't offer a clear political benefit, but not passing anything would cause an even greater problem.

The Democrats lead on an initial generic Congressional ballot by 46%-38%. If they pass a health care with a public option, the gap becomes 46%-41%. If they don't pass a health care bill at all, though, it becomes a 40%-40% tie -- reminiscent of the loss in Democratic support in 1994, after they failed to pass a health care bill.

"Clearly Democrats need to pass a health care bill if they want to do well at the polls next year," said PPP president Dean Debnam, in the polling memo. "But they don't need to take an all or nothing approach. Allowing the status quo to remain rather than accepting a bill without a public option would be a poor decision politically."

Those aren't entirely the expected results. Given the general popularity of the public option, I would have liked to see the generic ballot numbers improve for Democrats in the scenario in which reform passes with a public option.

Nevertheless, Dems have to realize that failure would be devastating, not only to the tens of millions of Americans counting on reform becoming law, but electorally for the party that promised to deliver on its top domestic priority. The public is largely split on the merits of the initiative, but if the whole effort implodes, Dems lose with everyone.

This seems especially true for "red"-state Democrats who are worried about re-election. If Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), for example, thinks she's likely to face headwinds next year, she should imagine those same conditions after having killed health care reform.

The surest way for Democrats to improve their political standing is to pass a good reform bill.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LIES AND THE LYING LIARS WHO TELL THEM.... Over the weekend, Roll Call ran an online item, explaining, "With the Senate preparing to vote Saturday on whether to consider a $848 billion health care overhaul bill, national Democrats on Friday launched a rapid response system aimed at blunting each GOP criticism of the bill."

I have to say, the DNC's rapid-response fact-checking was pretty damn impressive. I lost count of how many alerts hit my inbox during the debate, but just about every time a Republican senator would make an appearance -- on the Senate floor or on one of the cable networks -- another alert went out, pointing to his/her demonstrable falsehoods. Late yesterday, the DNC posted the entire package of fact-checking items, which serves as a timeline of sorts, chronicling each bogus claim as it was made.

But let's not miss the forest for the trees here. Looking over the rapid-response list, the efficiency of the DNC operation is impressive, but the key takeaway is more important: Good lord, Republicans sure do lie a lot about health care.

I mean, GOP lawmakers weren't even close to the truth. Watching the debate as it unfolded, one got the sense that reform's opponents either know literally nothing about the issue at hand, prefer almost pathological levels of dishonesty, or perhaps both.

Over the weekend, Josh Marshall noted in passing that the congressional GOP lied quite a bit during the 1994 reform debate, but Republicans are now "upping their game ... lying even more shamelessly than in round 1."

I'm reminded of Ruth Marcus' reaction to the House debate a few weeks ago, when she marveled at the "appalling amount of misinformation being peddled" by Republicans.

I don't mean the usual hyperbole about "a children-bankrupting, health-care-rationing, freedom-crushing, $1 trillion government takeover of our health-care system," as Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling put it. Or the tired canards about taxpayer-funded abortion or insurance subsidies for illegal immigrants. Or the extraneous claims about alleged Democratic excesses....

I mean the flood of sheer factual misstatements about the health-care bill.... You have to wonder: Are the Republican arguments against the bill so weak that they have to resort to these misrepresentations and distortions?

Their Senate colleagues were just as offensive, shamelessly pretending as if reality had no meaning whatsoever.

John McCain, for example, said in a written statement that the reform bill would add "more than a trillion dollars to our country's deficit," would put medical decisions "in the hands of government bureaucrats," and amount to a "government takeover of our health care system." He's obviously lying. None of this is even remotely true.

But McCain and his cohorts have a strong incentive to be as blatantly dishonest as they can be. For one thing, it keeps the rabid GOP base worked up. For another, it might confuse the American mainstream, who won't know who's telling the truth and who isn't.

Ordinarily, the media would help sort this out. So much for that idea: "The media is basically letting all opponents of health care say whatever the hell they want about health care reform with little pushback. I don't know why I continue to be surprised when this happens, but I do..."

Without political consequences for dishonesty, this is only going to get worse.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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OVERCOMING GOVERNMENTAL PARALYSIS.... Fred Hiatt's latest column ponders the question of whether American democracy is "in paralysis." I don't agree with every word of the piece -- in fact, some elements strike me as wildly off-base -- but his conclusion resonated with me.

[M]ost of us would welcome common-sense improvements in health-care delivery and insurance -- but the system feeds on and exacerbates our differences. The advent of the 60-vote rule in the Senate has magnified the already formidable checks and balances built into the Constitution, with the disproportionate blocking power it awards small and rural states. Cable television and the Internet have empowered those with the greatest intensity of feeling. The self-serving redistricting habits of the political elite, designed to protect incumbents, have left most legislators vulnerable only to primary challenges from the extremes of their respective parties.

Whichever explanation appeals to you -- and no doubt they all contain some truth -- the perception of paralysis increases the urgency of passing health-care reform. Failure would damage the Obama presidency, and it would also deepen the fear, here and abroad, that America is stuck.

Paradoxically, though, it also increases the urgency of doing health-care reform right. If Congress and the administration manage only to extend expensive new benefits, without improving the health-care system or controlling rising costs, it will be an achievement -- but not one that will long reassure anyone concerned about the U.S. ability to get things done.

This sounds about right. There's a growing fear that our political system simply can't function in a problem-solving capacity anymore. Given the enormity of the challenges the country faces, paralysis is a devastating condition to find ourselves in.

Looking back, there have been situations in which policymakers simply lack the wherewithal to identify the problems that surround them. That's not where we find ourselves. There have been other situations in which policymakers can identify the problems, but have no idea how to fix them. That's not where we find ourselves, either.

Instead, we know exactly what the challenges are, and have a pretty strong sense of what needs to be done, but are burdened by a process that can't approve the necessary solutions.

There are a variety of underlying changes that have exacerbated the paralysis, including, but not limited to, the abandonment of majority rule in the Senate; the descent of a major political party into right-wing madness; and the tribulations of American political journalism.

But the result is the same: a dysfunctional system that struggles mightily to adopt solutions to huge challenges, even when one party controls the levers of power.

Passing an imperfect-but-meaningful health care reform bill would demonstrate that our institutions can still take on a task and achieve a desired goal. To be sure, it would be a welcome development for the broken health care system, but it might also inspire some confidence in a political system that needs to get un-stuck.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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

* In a disappointment for the DCCC, which hopes to keep retirements to a minimum, Rep. Dennis Moore (D) of Kansas announced this morning that he'll retire at the end of this term. Republicans immediately declared it a major pick-up opportunity, but it's probably best described as a swing district -- Bush carried it easily in 2000 and 2004, but President Obama narrowly won Kansas' 3rd last year.

* With two weeks to go before the Senate primary in Massachusetts, a Boston Globe poll shows state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) with a big lead over Rep. Michael Capuano (D), 43% to 22%."Things could change, but it would have to go really sour for [Coakley] over the next few weeks,'' said pollster Andrew E. Smith.

* On the other hand, Capuano is still picking up support. Late last week, Diane Patrick, Gov. Deval Patrick's (D) wife, threw her support to the congressman.

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) recently launched a television ad campaign to boost his standing, but so far, the efforts have not paid dividends. The latest Marist poll found that a majority of New Yorkers have seen at least one of the commercials, but it didn't matter -- nearly two-thirds of those who saw one of the ads still hope Paterson doesn't seek another term next year. Oddly enough, the governor fared slightly better among those who didn't see any of the ads.

* Next year's gubernatorial race in Michigan is still wide open. A new Denno-Noor poll shows Lt. Gov. John Cherry (D) leading the Democratic field, but he only has 20% support and most Michigan Dems are undecided. Likewise, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) leads the GOP field with 21%.

* Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has had some trouble winning over some of the more progressive members of the New York delegation, but her efforts are beginning to pay off. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of Congress' most progressive leaders, will reportedly endorse Gillibrand today.

* It's unclear if North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) intends to take on Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) next year, but if he does, a Zogby poll shows Hoeven easily defeating the incumbent senator.

* Would demagogic television personality Lou Dobbs run for president in 2012? Dobbs said the idea is not "crazy." There may be some disagreement on the subject.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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A SHOW WITH A TINY AUDIENCE.... The right has plenty of talking points used to attack the decision to bring Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York for a criminal trial, some more reasonable than others. One of the more common criticisms, however, is one of the worst: KSM might exploit the trial to put on an offensive show.

The concern comes with some variation. I've heard conservatives raise the specter of a "show trial," with KSM making a mockery of the proceedings and the bloodshed of 9/11. Others fear KSM using the courtroom as a platform to spew hate and vile nonsense.

In general, federal judges run a pretty tight ship, and there are mechanisms in place to prevent a circus atmosphere, especially when the charges at hand involve mass murder. But Adam Serwer reminds us of a point that I'd hoped was obvious, but which seems to go largely overlooked.

What the articles on the subject all seem to omit is that there will be no TV cameras in the courtroom for this trial. Khalid Sheik Mohammed's rants will be available only by transcript. Americans, to the extent they aren't bored to tears, will get to experience KSM's pontificating on the evening news through the age-old craft of voice-overs placed over tastefully edited court drawings made mildly more exciting by creative use of keyframes.

Right. If Khalid Sheik Mohammed throws tantrums and goes on insane rants about whatever is on his mind, the only people who'll see/hear any of this will be those who are literally, physically in the courtroom.

Indeed, when Bush's Justice Department tried Zacarias Moussaoui in a civilian courtroom not far from the Pentagon, he was not exactly a model of decorum. Remember how embarrassing it was for the United States and our system of justice when the world got to see video of his antics? Probably not -- there is no such video, because there are no cameras in federal courts. His rants were easily ignored.

As conservative fears go, this is pretty weak tea.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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WHEN AND WHY DID LINCOLN CHANGE HER MIND?.... Back in July, we talked about an op-ed Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It wasn't perfect, but the center-right senator struck some encouraging notes:

Individuals should be able to choose from a range of quality health insurance plans. Options should include private plans as well as a quality, affordable public plan or non-profit plan that can accomplish the same goals as those of a public plan. [...]

Unfortunately, opponents of reform, who have no real plan for improving health care, are already using the tired arguments of the past. They say that Congress is trying to create "more government" or a "Washington takeover" of health care, which will raise your taxes, get between you and your doctor, and eliminate private insurance. It's a strategy that spreads misinformation and generates fear to preserve the status quo. Arkansans should not be misled by those who oppose real reform.

Of course, that was several months ago, before Teabaggers went berserk in August. But as Igor Volsky noted, as recently as yesterday, Lincoln's own website argued, "Individuals should be able to choose from a range of quality health insurance plans. Options should include private plans as well as a quality, affordable public plan or non-profit plan that can accomplish the same goals of a public plan."

That was the senator's official position a day after Lincoln stood on the floor of the Senate, "promising" to join a Republican filibuster of health care reform "as long as a government-run public option is included" in the bill.

After Volsky's post, Lincoln's office changed the senator's official position, scrubbing the page of any references to allowing consumers to choose among competing plans.

But given that the reasoning behind Lincoln's conservative position on reform has gone largely overlooked, perhaps, the next time the senator is addressing reporters, someone can ask her, "So, why were you for giving consumers the choice of a public option before you were against it?"

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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LEVERAGE.... Jonathan Cohn wrote a good lay-of-the-land piece last night on the state of the health care reform fight, noting, among other things, the "unambiguous." "unyielding," and "obstinate" efforts of center-right Democrats undermine the Senate bill.

But Cohn's point about reform's champions is the one I keep mulling over.

To be sure, Liberals can flex their muscle, too. Bernie Sanders made very clear, in his own statements over the weekend, that he wasn't guaranteeing to give his vote -- particularly if conservative Democrats (and former Democrats) extract even more concessions.

Sanders is right to play hardball like this, but, at the end of the day, it's hard to imagine he'd cast the vote to kill health care reform. He simply cares too much about the people even a weakened bill would help. The same goes for Sherrod Brown, who's emerging as a leading voice for progressives. Their interest in helping their fellow man is, in strategic terms, a great weakness.

I not only think this is right, I think it's a dynamic that will inevitably shape the debate over the next month (or more). We're dealing with a series of upcoming negotiations in which conservative Dems' indifference gives them leverage. In other words, Lieberman, Nelson, & Co. don't much care if this once-in-a-generation opportunity implodes, while reform advocates care very much. These rather obvious bargaining positions create a playing field that is anything but level.

Put it this way: imagine there's a big meeting with every member of the Democratic caucus in both chambers. You stand at the front of the room and make a presentation: "If health care reform falls apart after having come this far, tens of millions of Americans will suffer; costs will continue to soar; the public will perceive Democrats as too weak and incompetent to act on their own agenda; the party will lose a lot of seats in the midterms and possible forfeit its majority; and President Obama will have suffered a devastating defeat that will severely limit his presidency going forward. No one will even try to fix the dysfunctional system again for decades, and the existing problems will only get worse."

For progressive Democrats, the response would be, "That's an unacceptable outcome, which we have to avoid."

For conservative Democrats, the response would be, "We can live with failure."

This necessarily affects negotiations. One contingent wants to avoid failure; the other contingent considers failure a satisfactory outcome. Both sides know what the other side is thinking.

Yes, progressive Democrats can force the issue, keep the bill intact, and force Nelson, Landrieu, Lieberman, and Lincoln to kill the legislation, in the process making clear exactly who was responsible for the debacle. But that's cold comfort -- the goal isn't to position center-right Dems to take the blame for failure; the goal ostensibly is to pass a bill that will do a lot of good for a lot of people.

The push for more "compromise" isn't going to be pretty.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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PRIORITIES STRAIGHT.... It's always encouraging when a lawmaker in a precarious position has his/her priorities straight.

"If you get to the final point and you are a critical vote for health care reform and every piece of evidence tells you if you support the bill you will lose your job, would you cast the vote and lose your job?" CNN's John King asked Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado on Sunday's State of the Union.

"Yes," Bennet bluntly and simply replied.

Bennet was appointed by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter to replace Sen. Ken Salazar, who stepped down from the Senate to serve as President Obama's Interior Secretary. Bennet, who was superintendent of the Denver public school system prior to his appointment, will have to seek election to the seat for the first time in 2010.

Now, I wasn't especially impressed with the question. We haven't seen King pressing his Republican guests on the price they may pay as a result of opposing health care reform. Indeed, the question for Bennet is premised on the notion that supporting health care reform is somehow a risky, politically dangerous thing to do. The framing of the question has a decidedly GOP-friendly spin.

Regardless, Bennet's response sent the right signal -- lawmakers who care more about keeping power than using it are looking at their responsibilities the wrong way. Good for him.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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MAKING REFORM PERSONAL FOR LAWMAKERS.... It's pretty common to see Republican lawmakers appear on Fox News and repeat a key talking point -- if Democratic health care reform proposals are so great, why are members of Congress exempt from the new rules?

The claim is apparently part of a right-wing email chain, and it's been debunked. But Time's Joe Klein raised a related point yesterday that turns the talking point on its head.

My favorite provision requires that all members of Congress give up their federally-funded health care benefits and join the health care exchanges that will be set up by this bill. This is brilliant politics, addressing the tide of populist anger and fears of incipient socialism. But it also makes an important substantive point.

The future of health care reform in this country will depend on how effectively the exchanges -- health insurance super-stores -- are working. If members of Congress have to participate in this system, you can bet they'll insist on an array of choices, similar to the system they currently use, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan.

In all candor, Klein's item is the first I've heard of this. If he's right, this strikes me as both good policy and good politics.

The idea of requiring lawmakers to join exchanges is good policy because it all but guarantees they'll make sure consumers have good options to choose from. After all, they'll want those options for themselves.

And it's obviously good politics because it demonstrates confidence in a reformed system, and signals to the public that members of Congress are willing to put their coverage where their votes are.

There might even be a campaign upside -- it's the kind of thing that lends itself well to attack ads. "Sen. Schmoe voted against a reform plan that would have forced members of Congress to have the same health care choices as millions of regular Americans. Does Sen. Schmoe think he's too important to get the same options as the rest of us? Call Sen. Schmoe and tell him...."

If Klein's wrong, and this isn't in the bill, here's hoping some Dem sees fit to push the measure in an amendment.

Update: Interesting background on how this provision got into the bill.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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FORGET THE MAINE?.... How concerned are Democratic leaders about keeping the 60-vote Senate caucus together on health care reform? They're already making contingency plans, hoping to replace defectors with the Maine Moderates.

Anxious that Saturday's party-line Senate vote to open debate on a health care overhaul gives them little maneuvering room, Obama administration officials and their Congressional allies are stepping up overtures to select Senate Republicans in hopes of winning their ultimate support.

The two moderate Republican senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, say Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, reached out to them after he unveiled the Senate measure, encouraging them to bring forward their ideas and concerns.

Ms. Collins also received a personal visit from a high-level Obama emissary, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former senator who worked closely with her on various issues as part of a bipartisan coalition.

Now, at first blush, this seems pointless. Probably second blush, too. Snowe and Collins not only oppose the Democratic proposal, they both just voted to filibuster a motion to have a debate on the bill. Collins said yesterday that she'd like to find a way to "rewrite the bill in a way that would cause it to have greater support." The two may be slightly less conservative than their GOP colleagues, but they don't exactly sound like prime targets for across-the-aisle outreach.

On the other hand, there are four members of the Democratic caucus -- Nelson, Landrieu, Lieberman, and Lincoln -- who are being just as obstinate as Snowe and Collins, if not more so. Indeed, all things being equal, it's probably fair to characterize Snowe as being to Lieberman's left on health care reform (Lieberman thinks even a trigger would be going too far in generating competition for private insurers).

With this in mind, the outreach to the Maine senators seems to have less to do with asking, "How can we make this vote bipartisan?" and more to do with asking, "What can we do if Lieberman decides to betray us?"

Of course, it's not just Lieberman. His center-right Democratic cohorts will all make painful demands to undermine the bill. The fact that Snowe and Collins are still on the radar screen, though, signals that the leadership is keeping its options open.

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

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November 22, 2009

ANOTHER MONTH, ANOTHER EXCUSE.... That Joe Lieberman would rather kill health care reform than let some consumer choose between competing public and private plans isn't exactly new. I continue to find it fascinating, though, to see his evolving explanations.

In June, Lieberman said, "I don't favor a public option because I think there's plenty of competition in the private insurance market." That didn't make sense, and it was quickly dropped from his talking points.

In July, Lieberman said he opposes a public option because "the public is going to end up paying for it." No one could figure out exactly what that meant, and the senator moved onto other arguments.

In August, he said we'd have to wait "until the economy's out of recession," which is incoherent, since a public option, even if passed this year, still wouldn't kick in for quite a while.

In September, Lieberman said he opposes a public option because "the public doesn't support it." A wide variety of credible polling proved otherwise.

In October, Lieberman said the public option would mean "trouble ... for the national debt," by creating "a whole new government entitlement program." Soon after, Jon Chait explained that this "literally makes no sense whatsoever."

Well, it's November. And guess what? We're onto the sixth rationale in six months. I actually like the new one.

"This is a radical departure from the way we've responded to the market in America in the past," Lieberman said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press." "We rely first on competition in our market economy. When the competition fails then what do we do? We regulate or we litigate.... We have never before said, in a given business, we don't trust the companies in it, so we're going to have the government go into that business.."

What a pleasant change of pace. Lieberman is moving away from practical and policy arguments -- that's a good move, since he's totally wrong on the merits -- and shifting towards opposition based on traditions.

That's at least creative. We haven't set up public plans to compete with dysfunctional private models before, therefore we shouldn't in the future. The first half of the equation may very well be true, but the second half is more of an observation than an argument.

In a nutshell, reform advocates are saying, "Giving people the choice of a public option is likely to help consumers by cutting costs and promoting competition." Lieberman is effectively responding, "We haven't done things that way in the past."

To which I respond, "So?"

The goal here is not to preserve ideologically-based traditions; the goal is to help consumers get the care they need at a price they can afford.

But don't worry, December is almost here. Lieberman will have a new line soon enough.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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BIG DIFFERENCE IN LITTLE ROCK.... In October, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann helped raise $1.2 million for the National Association of Free Clinics, which in turn led to events in Little Rock, Kansas City, and New Orleans where the uninsured could get medical attention.

The Arkansas clinic was yesterday. Seeing what transpired should effectively end the debate on the need for health care reform.

More than 1,000 uninsured Arkansans with a broad range of medical ailments, including at least seven who required immediate emergency care, sought care Saturday at a free clinic at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.

Patients with heart failure and chest pain were among those rushed to emergency rooms.

"One with heart failure had just been in the hospital three weeks ago," said Dr. Kimberly Garner, the clinic's medical director and medical director of geriatric evaluation and management at Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System.

"It was recommended he see a cardiologist, but he doesn't have health insurance so he wasn't able to go in for a follow-up."

Lee Fang posted some video from the event, including one attendee who explained it's been years since his last doctor's visit, despite having diabetes, because he can't find a job that offers insurance.

Of course, all of those who sought care at the free clinic had to deal with rationing and long wait times -- which, incidentally, is what conservative opponents of reform are constantly warning against.

These clinics don't happen nearly often enough, but when they do, we see similar patterns. In August, there was a free clinic 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. In September, there was a clinic in Houston, where more than 2,000 people showed up seeking medical treatment.

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."

And yet, this is the norm. Despite this, we still have conservative politicians threatening to kill reform if some people are given a choice between competing public and private plans. Worse, in some far-right 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."

If only that were true.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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REFRESHING LIEBERMAN'S MEMORY.... When it comes to the larger health care reform debate, the public option is a pretty new idea. As recently as the 2004 campaign, the leading Democratic candidates (Dean, Kerry, Edwards, Clark) all had health plans, but none of them proposed a government insurance option to compete alongside private insurers.

And while it's a welcome addition to the debate, it's not that new. Joe Lieberman said this week, "It's classic politics of our time that if you look at the campaign last year, presidential, you can't find a mention of public option. It was added after the election."

I can understand why Lieberman made the argument -- he may want to deny the notion of a mandate. If President Obama easily won a presidential election, but didn't promise a public option, it's more plausible to argue that lawmakers shouldn't endorse after-the-fact add-ons.

Which is why it's all the more important to note that Lieberman doesn't know what he's talking about. The Obama plan always featured a public option, since the day he unveiled his proposal in May 2007. In fairness, the measure didn't generate a lot of attention -- Republicans were too wrapped up in talking about preachers and flag pins -- but it was there the whole time.

Brian Beutler followed up with Lieberman on the Hill yesterday, and the Connecticut senator repeated the claim that was debunked days ago.

"This is a kind of 11th hour addition to a debate that's gone on for decades," Lieberman told reporters tonight. "Nobody's ever talked about a public option before. Not even in the presidential campaign last year."

I asked in response, "How do you reconcile your contention that the public option wasn't part of the presidential campaign given that all three of the [leading Democratic] candidates had something along the lines of the public option in their white papers?'

"Not really, not from what I've seen. There was a little -- there was a line about the possibility of it in an Obama health care policy paper," Lieberman said.

When reminded that Obama embraced the idea, as well as Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, during the campaign, Lieberman replied, "...Clinton, Obama, McCain -- I don't see it. Anyway, I'm opposed to it."

He's quite a senator, isn't he?

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE INESCAPABLE CONCLUSION.... I frequently get emails from readers warning me not to underestimate Sarah Palin. She has a rabid fan base, I'm reminded, who care little for reason, and are outwardly hostile towards reality. The right-wing enthusiasm surrounding Palin, the argument goes, is cause for genuine concern.

Perhaps. Time will tell whether the popularity of idiocy can endure and grow, but in the meantime, I think grown-ups should at least be able to agree that the half-term governor has the intelligence of a wilted salad.

O'REILLY: Do you believe that you are smart enough, incisive enough, intellectual enough to handle the most powerful job in the world?

PALIN: I believe that I am because I have common sense and I have -- I believe the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of a spineless -- a spinelessness that perhaps is made up for that with some kind of elite Ivy League education and a fat resume that's based on anything but hard work and private sector, free enterprise principles. Americans are -- could be seeking something like that in positive change in their leadership. I'm not saying that that has to be me.

Ladies and gentlemen, the one national political figure that can make George W. Bush look like Socrates.

Palin thinks she's qualified to lead, not in spite of her inexperience and ignorance, but because of her inexperience and ignorance. I can see the bumper stickers now: "Vote Palin '12: She Won't Bother You With A Bunch Of Highfalutin Thought And Seriousness."

To be sure, it's not easy to spin two years as a scandal-plagued governor of a state with a small population and socialized oil revenue into a right-wing platform for national office. I get that. But the way to overcome a background like this is to demonstrate extraordinary judgment, clarity of thought, maturity, and a capacity for innovative policy solutions.

"I believe the values that are reflective of so many other American values" doesn't quite cut it.

Or, who knows, maybe it does. I tend to value book learnin' and credible ideas, which no doubt puts me in the "elitism" camp.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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A DERANGED HUCKSTER HAS SOME PRODUCTS FOR YOU.... Glenn Beck doesn't want a microphone; he wants a cult that will keep buying his wares.

Glenn Beck, the popular and outspoken Fox News host, says he wants to go beyond broadcasting his opinions and start rallying his political base -- formerly known as his audience -- to take action.

To do so, Mr. Beck is styling himself as a political organizer. In an interview, he said he would promote voter registration drives and sponsor a series of seven conventions across the country featuring what he described as libertarian speakers.

On Saturday he held a festive campaign-style rally in The Villages in Florida, north of Orlando, in which he promoted his recently released book, "Arguing With Idiots," and announced another book to come next August filled with right-leaning policy proposals gathered from the conventions.

For those keeping score at home, Beck released a book in June, and then another in September, with plans for yet another in August. That's three books in 14 months. That doesn't include the Christmas book released last year, which will get an update with a photo companion book this year. It also doesn't include the "An Inconvenient Book" that was published in May, or "America's March to Socialism," an audio book released around the same time.

For a guy who seems to read a third-grade level -- remember, he thinks the word "OLIGARH" is missing a "y" -- Beck seems awfully prolific in creating new products for his minions to purchase.

Indeed, Steve M. gets this just right: "So now we see what Glenn Beck really is: He's basically a televangelist. A huckster. A late-night pitchman selling seminars and book/DVD/audio combo packages that will allegedly help you get rich through flipping real estate. A human-potential-movement cult leader who promises life breakthroughs in exchange for participation in costly 'religious' or 'therapy' programs."

Beck's conventions will apparently be seminars, in which suckers God-loving patriots will learn all about the voices in Beck's head Beck's vision for a better future.

And when I say "future," I mean future -- Beck claims to be working on a "100 year plan."

I've heard of long cons, but this is ridiculous.

Update: Beck's pre-election gathering will be a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, scheduled for August 28, 2010 -- the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It's literally nauseating.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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TACKLING BRODER'S SKEPTICISM.... David Broder isn't sure if health care reform will cut the deficit, and as such, isn't sure if he likes the bill pending in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was delighted to see the column, and called the writer a "distinguished senior columnist" with important "reservations as a citizen."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) replied, "To focus on a man who has been retired for many years and writes a column once in a while is not where we should be."

Technically, Broder never exactly retired, and continues to churn out fairly predictable content (next week's column: politicians should be more moderate). But in his latest item, Broder doubts that the Senate's reform plan will achieve the promised deficit reductions. The columnist is aware of the CBO report, but reads it in such a way as to conclude that "the promised budget savings may not materialize."

Broder's Washington Post colleague Ezra Klein seems to think Broder should have taken a closer look at the details.

The net increase of $160 billion in the first 10 years is part of CBO's analysis, not a caveat to it. It doesn't mean the bill doesn't cut the deficit, it just means that overall spending is larger before you add revenues into the equation. Moreover, the CBO continues: "during the decade following the 10-year budget window, the increases and decreases in the federal budgetary commitment to health care stemming from this legislation would roughly balance out."

In other words, the revenue and the savings grow more quickly than the costs. Extend that line out further and, yes, federal spending on health care falls as a result of this bill. In other words, the bill satisfies Broder's conditions. But he doesn't come out and say that.

Instead, he pivots to the now-traditional argument that Congress won't be able to stick to the savings and revenue measures in this bill. That, however, is another way of saying that Congress can't cut health-care costs and the American government will go bankrupt. For one thing, that's not a very good reason not to at least try and avert that outcome. But if Broder's position is that we face certain fiscal collapse, then the only real question is whether we would prefer that 30 million Americans had insurance in the meantime, or went uninsured over that period.

Reading Broder's column reminds me of listening to center-right Democrats complain about the bill for no apparent reason. Harry Reid crafted a modest, affordable bill that would significantly reduce the deficit, cut systemic costs, and steer clear of massive tax increases. This is what the center-right says it wants. And yet, they're reluctant to take "yes" for an answer.

Broder's argument seems to be, "Well, maybe policymakers won't follow through and do what the legislation explicitly mandates they do." By any reasonable measure, that's simply not an argument.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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A LIST OR A RANSOM NOTE?.... Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has a few thoughts about the kind of changes he'd like to see on the health care reform bill. In fact, he has two pages of ideas, which he's already delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

"There is not a lot of explanation there. These are just items," Nelson said.

What's on it? Public option, abortion, and CLASS Act, among other things.

"There will be a lot of discussion back and forth about what might get enough votes," Nelson said after the vote. "There will have to be fairly significant changes for others as well, not just me.... Nuance will not be enough."

I haven't seen the actual list, but at this point, I'm not altogether sure what any of this means. Nelson hasn't included "a lot of explanation" with his demands? Wouldn't "a lot of explanation" be helpful under the circumstances?

He isn't exactly a rookie. If Nelson has some specific ideas about policy improvements, he should, you know, craft legislative language, put together proposed amendments, start seeking co-sponsors, etc. Handing Reid a list of "just items" doesn't sound especially constructive.

For that matter, it'd be helpful to know if this is a list or a ransom note. Does Nelson intend to join a Republican filibuster if only some of his list is addressed to his satisfaction?

As the process moves forward, keep in mind that Nelson appears to have a hierarchy of concerns in mind. Just a few days ago, the conservative Democrat said he doesn't like the existing restrictions on abortion funding, but added, "If there's no public option, perhaps some of the [abortion] problem goes away."

In other words, Nelson has a list, but his top target is the public option. I suspect the other center-right members of the caucus are thinking along the same lines.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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THREADING A VERY SMALL NEEDLE.... There's been plenty of talk about a public option compromise for months. And every time is seems a negotiated deal will satisfy various contingents, conservatives insist they'll need a little more.

Brian Beutler reported last night that another round of talks is poised to get underway.

In light of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's statement tonight -- that he welcomes negotiations on a public option compromise -- Sen. Chuck Schumer's spokesman Brian Fallon emails a statement to TPMDC. He says discussions with centrists, such as they are, are in the earliest stages.

"Leading up to tonight's vote, some senators expressed a desire to discuss the public option currently in the Senate bill. Of course, Senator Schumer did not rule that out. But no such talks have yet taken place, and there is not any compromise at hand beyond what Leader Reid has already inserted into the bill. Senator Schumer remains a strong proponent of the opt-out, level playing field public option."

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) told TPMDC earlier today that Schumer had been tasked as the point man in negotiations between senators who support a public option, and those who prefer a "trigger" compromise.

I haven't the foggiest idea how this is going to work out, and I don't envy Schumer. Liberal Democrats have said they can't go any further than they've already gone; conservative Democrats have said they'd rather join a Republican filibuster than allow the existing public option to even get an up-or-down vote on the floor.

Keep in mind, when progressive Dems argue that they've already compromised, they have a very compelling case to make. They started with a desire for Medicare for all. That was negotiated down to a national public option. That, in turn, was negotiated down to a national public option with limited eligibility. That was negotiated down again to a national public option with limited eligibility tied to negotiated reimbursement rates, instead of Medicare rates. In time, that was negotiated down once again, leaving a public option with limited eligibility tied to negotiated reimbursement rates, which any state could choose not to participate in.

And for Republicans and several center-right Dems, this is not only still too high a burden on insurance companies, it's also worth killing health care reform over. If that strikes you as a rather extreme position to take -- we are, after all, just talking about giving consumers a choice between competing plans -- we're on the same page.

If you go with a "trigger," you lose the center-left and health care reform dies. If you keep the existing compromise, you lose the center-right and health care reform dies. The debate, at that point, becomes a fight over who gets the blame.

There seems to be an assumption that policymakers will "figure something out." We've come this far, and most seem to agree that there will be some kind of deal that helps drag the bill across the finish line. I'm just not sure what that deal would, or could, look like.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WHERE THINGS STAND.... At this point, every step forward has a certain historic significance. The Senate voted 60 to 39 last night to bring a health care reform bill to the floor for the first time ever, marking the latest in a series of milestones. But that there was any drama at all surrounding last night's vote underscores the silliness of the process -- there was a lengthy, overwrought debate yesterday about whether to have an even longer, more overwrought debate in December.

Or put another way, yesterday's vote (supermajority on the motion to proceed) makes it possible to have other votes (supermajority on amendments), which will make it possible to have another vote (supermajority on cloture), which will hopefully lead to another vote (final passage).

And while last night's vote was far more difficult than it should have been -- every Republican in the Senate opposed even talking about health care reform -- it was the easiest hurdle to clear.

Two reluctant Democratic senators, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, warned that their support for a motion to open debate did not guarantee that they would ultimately vote for the bill. Their remarks echoed previous comments by several other senators, including Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, and Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut.

Those comments made clear that more horse-trading lies ahead and that major changes might be required if the bill is to be approved. And it suggested that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who relied only on members aligned with his party to bring the bill to the floor, may yet have to sway one or more Republicans to his side to get the bill adopted.

If the Senate leadership had 59 votes lined up for cloture, finagling one lone holdout would be tricky enough. But as the bill currently stands, there are four holdouts who are all prepared to vote with Republicans to kill health care reform. Indeed, two of the four -- Lieberman and Lincoln -- were pretty emphatic about their intentions yesterday, leaving themselves no meaningful wiggle room.

Much of the debate will focus on the public option, of course, but votes on abortion, immigrants, subsidy rates, and medical malpractice will be nearly as contentious.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said late yesterday, "The battle has just begun." It was the only accurate remark he made all day.

Last night was another achievement that keeps the ball rolling. Regrettably, it's still rolling uphill.

The debate is expected to resume a week from tomorrow and extend through December. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) still intends to pass a bill by Christmas.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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November 21, 2009

MOTIONING TO PROCEED.... Going into today, Senate Democrats had lined up 58 votes in support of bringing health care reform to the floor for debate. Every Republican in the chamber hoped to kill the initiative before the discussion could even begin, and two center-right Southern Dems remained on the fence.

This afternoon, one of the two made the right call...

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's hopes of pushing ahead with a sweeping health reform plan got a boost Saturday when Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she will vote to start debate.

"My vote today to move forward on this important debate should in no way to be construed as ... an indication of how I might vote as this debate comes to an end," she warned in comments on the Senate floor. "It is a vote to move forward.... But much more work needs to be done."

...and about two hours later, the other followed suit.

Senate Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas said Saturday she will support bringing the Senate health care reform bill to the floor for debate, giving Democrats the 60 votes they need to prevent a Republican filibuster.

"Although I don't agree with everything in this bill, I believe it is important to begin this debate," she said. "This issue is very complex. There is no easy fix," she said in making her announcement on the Senate floor, just hours before Saturday night's 8 p.m. procedural vote.

Barring any extraordinary surprises, there are now 60 votes to bring health care reform to the floor for a debate, at which point plenty of amendments will be considered. It's the first key procedural hurdle -- the vote is still scheduled for 8 p.m. -- and senators will begin the next phase of the process a week from Monday.

Pay particular attention to the talk about public option "triggers," which lingers despite opposition from the left and right. Brian Beutler reports this afternoon that Landrieu told reporters "she thinks Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will soon have to choose between a triggered public option and no health care bill. She also says Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) -- the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate one of its most fierce and vocal public option advocates -- has been tasked as a point man on the issue."

A variety of conversations have been underway this week, most of them surrounding Sen. Tom Carper (D) of Delaware, who's been working on various public-option compromises for months. Carper has been talking to Landrieu, Schumer, and even Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) about some kind of deal. Given the nature of the discussions, it's safe to assume the deal will include a public option provision that's even weaker than the one currently in the Senate plan.

With that in mind, we'll likely run into the same dilemma that's been apparent for quite a while -- keep the public option and the reform bill will likely die because center-right Dems won't accept it; compromise even more on the public option and the reform bill will likely die because center-left Dems won't accept it.

Expect plenty of arm-twisting, deal-making, needle-threading, and legal bribery in the near future*.

* updated

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

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HOW STIMULATING.... Republican critics of the economic recovery efforts, when they're not taking credit for the money that's benefiting their state/district, take it as a given that the stimulus "failed." For the right, it's a foregone conclusion, hardly worth discussing anymore.

The New York Times reminds us today that "dispassionate analysts" agree that a fair look at the stimulus package shows that it may be "messy" but it's also "working."

The legislation, a variety of economists say, is helping an economy in free fall a year ago to grow again and shed fewer jobs than it otherwise would. Mr. Obama's promise to "save or create" about 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 is roughly on track, though far more jobs are being saved than created, especially among states and cities using their money to avoid cutting teachers, police officers and other workers.

"It was worth doing -- it's made a difference," said Nigel Gault, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, a financial forecasting and analysis group based in Lexington, Mass.

Mr. Gault added: "I don't think it's right to look at it by saying, 'Well, the economy is still doing extremely badly, therefore the stimulus didn't work.' I'm afraid the answer is, yes, we did badly but we would have done even worse without the stimulus."

In interviews, a broad range of economists said the White House and Congress were right to structure the package as a mix of tax cuts and spending, rather than just tax cuts as Republicans prefer or just spending as many Democrats do. And it is fortuitous, many say, that the money gets doled out over two years -- longer for major construction -- considering the probable length of the "jobless recovery" under way as wary employers hold off on new hiring.

Obviously, a bigger investment would have meant a bigger return. The $787 billion package would have been more ambitious if the Senate operated on majority rule, and even White House economists have conceded that the stimulus bill should have been larger to accommodate the size of the hole in the economy. That aid to states had to be curtailed to bring on GOP votes continues to undermine the effectiveness of the strategy.

But on the whole, we're talking about a recovery package that saved us from a wholesale economic collapse. Conservative Republicans -- who've been wrong about every major economic challenge of the last generation -- who whine bitterly about the stimulus are, as is usually the case, misguided.

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com and an occasional adviser to lawmakers from both parties, added, "[T]he stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do -- it is contributing to ending the recession." Zandi added that without the recovery bill, the "G.D.P. would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent. And there are a little over 1.1 million more jobs out there as of October than would have been out there without the stimulus."

Left unsaid is what the economic consequences would have been if we'd listened to congressional Republicans -- 95% of whom voted for a truly insane five-year spending freeze at the height of the downturn.

Politically, however, the stimulus has proven problematic -- much of the public is convinced it didn't work, since the economy is still struggling. The more effort the White House invests in explaining reality, the better.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a push among conservative political activists on something called "imprecatory" prayers, which are basically appeals to God to hurt, or possibly kill, a specific target.

It's become an offensive political development, because a growing number of right-wing outlets are praying for something bad to happen to President Obama. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield had this report on BeliefNet this week. (thanks to reader K.P. for the heads-up)

Any time the citizens of a state, particularly a democracy, invoke their faith to pray for the demise of those they oppose politically, we should be concerned. When the call for such prayers becomes one of the most popular Google searches in the country, we should shake, especially those of us who believe in God, prayer and the Bible. Psalm 109, verse 8, went viral this morning in just that way.

Among the world's top Google searches today are phrases that contain the words "Psalms 109 8", and "Psalm 109 8 prayer for Obama". For those of you who may not know that particular verse, it reads "May his days be few, may another take over his position." And before anyone excuses this toxic use of scripture as nothing more than the wish that President Obama not be re-elected to a second term of office, the next verse in the psalm reads, "May his children be orphans and his wife a widow".

In fact, the entire chapter is about the prayer for death of an evil person. Not to mention that anyone who knows enough Bible to have thought about this verse in particular, surely knows the entire chapter and appreciates its message. Pretty scary stuff.

All this is especially upsetting in light of the last weeks' events at Fort Hood. Exactly how long is it going to take us to figure out the danger of linking faith claims and violent fantasies?

A few too many on the right have begun taking this very seriously, putting "Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8" -- prayers, in other words, for something awful to happen to the president -- onto t-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, and even teddy bears. It's a bit of a dog whistle -- the typical person who sees it might think it's simply a prayer in support of the president, but a closer look makes the malicious intent clear.

Frank Schaeffer told Rachel Maddow this week that the right-wing activists embracing this lurid nonsense are dangerous, threatening, and "genuinely frightening."

The more people in faith communities speak out against this nauseating hatred, the better.

Also from the God Machine this week: A large group of evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christian leaders have teamed up to promote something called the "Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience." As the NYT reported, the signers of the document agree that "they will not cooperate with laws that they say could be used to compel their institutions to participate in abortions, or to bless or in any way recognize same-sex couples."

The "Manhattan Declaration" is intended, at least in part, to signal the relevance of the religious right movement, and declare that those involved with the project will be unyielding on issues like gay marriage, abortion rights, and stem-cell research.

A friend of mine was on hand for the D.C. event unveiling the Declaration, and asked a good question: "The divorce rate is 50 percent. Earlier, Mr. [Chuck] Colson indicated that fatherlessness impacts the prison population. Is anyone here willing to state, for the record, that divorce is a bigger threat to the American family than same-sex marriage?"

The speakers didn't want to touch it. Imagine that.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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OBAMA IN ASIA.... All week, administration officials have expressed a great deal of satisfaction with President Obama's trip to Asia. And all week, U.S. reporters have told the country that the trip has been unproductive and unsuccessful. It's probably worth taking a moment to note who's right.

For its part, the White House seems genuinely pleased. In the president's weekly address, Obama touted the importance of the trip, and explained why his efforts in Asia will pay dividends domestically. "I traveled to Asia to open a new era of American engagement," the president said, before pointing to progress on national security, climate change, human rights, trade, and economic development.

Likewise, U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah, explained yesterday that there's been an important disconnect between U.S. media reports on the trip and reality. "I attended all those meetings that President Obama had with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao," Huntsman said, referring to the Chinese president and premier. "I've got to say some of the reporting I saw afterward was off the mark. I saw sweeping comments about things that apparently weren't talked about, when they were discussed in great detail in the meetings."

James Fallows noted this morning:

Two colleagues with different perspectives -- from each other's, and sometimes from my own -- marvel at how badly the mainstream American press distorted the picture of what happened during Barack Obama's just-ended tour of Asia. [...]

We're all familiar with one "crisis of the press," the business collapse. This is a different kind of crisis, though it makes the business crisis worse: the distortion of reality by compressing every complex issue into the narrative of the DC-based "horse race."

Fallows quoted one journalist, with extensive experience covering foreign policy, saying, "Even through a veil of censorship and propaganda, the Chinese people managed a clearer view of Obama's visit than the U.S. media did."

But just think of how many fascinating reports there were this week on Obama bowing!


As far as I can tell, U.S. political reporters covering the trip looked at this as if it were a campaign. The notion that the president may have been laying the diplomatic groundwork for future progress was completely lost, and incremental progress was ignored.

This was an important week for the administration. It's a shame we don't have a media establishment equipped to report on it.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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ALL HE IS SAYING, IS GIVE ESCALATION A CHANCE.... I'll take, "People whose opinions should no longer matter" for $100, Alex. (via Atrios)

US Senator John McCain predicted an allied win in Afghanistan in one year to 18 months if sufficient troops are sent, as the White House mulls sending tens of thousands of reinforcements. [...]

"I am absolutely convinced and totally confident that with sufficient resources we can turn the situation around," McCain told reporters at an international defense summit in easternmost Canada.

"I even am bold enough to predict that in a year to 18 months you will see success if the effort is sufficiently resourced and there is a commitment to get the job done before setting a date to leave the region," he said.

McCain didn't get around to explaining why his perspective on this should have any salience at all, which is a shame. I'd love to hear why anyone should take him seriously on the subject.

Keep in mind, as recently as a year ago, McCain rejected talk of sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. He later changed his mind, and then changed it back. The seriousness with which McCain took U.S. policy in Afghanistan became clear when the senator endorsed the notorious "muddle through" strategy.

But of particular interest right now, it'll be great to hear McCain flesh out this position in more detail. In 12 to 18 months, he says, the U.S. will "see success" in Afghanistan, but only if an additional 40,000 troops are on the ground. But what does "success" mean? Gen. McChrystal has said largely the opposite -- that the mission may very well fail even with an escalation.

McCain has long loved bumper-sticker-style slogans as a substitute for actual thinking about foreign policy. But that's all the more reason to press further. What does "get the job done" mean? What can 108,000 soldiers do that 68,000 soldiers have not? If escalation is the key to success, why has McCain resisted troop increases in the past?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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IF THEY'VE ALREADY MADE UP THEIR MINDS.... On Fox News yesterday, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) explained, in no uncertain terms, that "every single Republican" in the Senate "will oppose" health care reform. Kyl conceded that the reform bill may change before a final floor vote, but every Republican already realizes that the legislation "will only get worse."

Since it's his job to keep track of such things, Kyl's declaration is probably accurate. Indeed, it's not the least bit surprising -- the far-right Minority Whip has made similar declarations before.

But Kyl's affirmation led Sam Stein to raise a good point. If the entire Senate Republican caucus has already decided to oppose the bill, no matter what changes might be made, then why should anyone care that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants six weeks of debate?

...Kyl's prophecy of across-the-board opposition does seem to undercut that other GOP tactic. Why do Senate Republicans need six weeks to debate and consider the legislation if they're already determined to vote against it?

"We know it's been in Harry Reid's office for six weeks and the other 99 senators haven't seen it," McConnell told "Fox News Sunday" last week. "I think we ought to at least have as much time for the other 99 senators and all of the American people to take a look at this bill as Majority Leader Reid has had."

And why, for that matter, are Senate Republicans complaining about a limited three-day window to read the legislation if they have already come to a final verdict on its contents?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that GOP demands for six weeks of debate has very little to do with genuine interest in good-faith deliberations, and everything to do with pointless delay tactics. Call it a hunch.

Here's hoping Senate Democratic leaders ignore Republican pleas for more time to attack a bill the minority has already decided to oppose en masse.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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AS IF STANDISH HASN'T SUFFERED ENOUGH.... Few communities have been as hard hit by the recession as Standish, Michigan. With an unemployment rate for nearly 25%, Standish's economy has been kept above water, barely, by the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility. The prison generates one-fourth of the revenue for the town's budget and is easily the largest employer.

In June, the state announced it would have to close Standish Max, and the struggling town realized things were poised to go from dreadful to abysmal. In August, however, there was a glimmer of hope -- the Obama administration was considering the prison as a location for Gitmo detainees. Most locals were thrilled at the prospect of a lifeline, and area politicians, from both parties, hoped desperately that Standish would be selected.

But then the right-wing politicians decided to intervene. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), who's inexplicably running for governor next year, decided he'd fight to prevent the White House from "bringing terrorists to Michigan." This week, Liz Cheney's new political operation kept the demagoguery going.

Cheney's group, Keep America Safe, has released a short documentary starring several residents of little Standish, Michigan, slamming the Obama administration over a proposal to transfer some Guantanamo detainees to the town's maximum security facility, one of several facilities being discussed.

The vid ... ominously warns that unnamed "politicians" want Gitmo detainees placed in their "small farm town," without saying who the politicians are or whether they're Federal or local. A resident says those politicians "aren't listening to us little people in Standish."

But Standish's City Manager tells us that local leaders and residents want the facility, and dismissed Cheney's efforts as "fearmongering."

Cheney is "certainly not representing the views of our community," the City Manager, Michael Moran, told our reporter, Amanda Erickson.

Standish's city council recently approved a resolution encouraging the transfer of Gitmo detainees to the prison. The vote was unanimous. It's almost as if local officials think they understand what their community needs better than Liz Cheney does. The nerve.

For more on this, Chris Bodenner had a terrific item on the Standish issue last month. It noted that, thanks to Republican efforts, the community will probably not be chosen by the administration. The community will suffer terribly, but Hoekstra will no doubt claim "victory" for taking away the struggling town's last hope.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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HARDHEADED ON HARDBALL.... During last year's presidential campaign, MSNBC's Chris Matthews had some annoying habits. Particularly when it came to sizing up Barack Obama, the "Hardball" host repeatedly questioned whether the candidate was disconnected from regular ol' America.

For example, Obama ordered orange juice in a Pennsylvania diner, and Matthews complained ad nauseum -- real Americans order coffee at a diner, not o.j. When Obama demonstrated poor bowling skills, Matthews whined incessantly about Obama's alleged difficulties in making a "regular connection."

By April, Matthews argued on the air that Obama's appeal may be limited to "people who come from the African-American community and from the people who have college or advanced degrees," but not with "regular people." It was an observation that was offensive on multiple levels.

And yesterday, the MSNBC host re-embraced the talk that made "Hardball" largely unwatchable for most of the campaign. "President Obama has his chin out on just about every hot issue out there," Matthews told viewers, adding, "Health care. Terror trials. Job losses.... Is he just too darned intellectual? Too much the egghead? Why did he bow to that Japanese emperor? Why did he pick Tim Geithner to be his economic front-man? Why all this dithering over Afghanistan? And who thought it was a wonderful idea to bring the killers of 9/11 to New York City, the media capital of the world, so they could tell their story?"

Remember, when conservatives attack MSNBC as in the tank for the administration, they count Matthews as a liberal partisan.

It's a challenge to respond to this nonsense quickly; Matthews said a lot of dumb things in a short period of time. But it's worth noting that Obama isn't "leading with his chin"; he's tackling the issues in front of him. That's what presidents do. Obama bowed to the Japanese emperor as a matter of protocol, and no one cares except the media establishment. Obama isn't "dithering" -- though it's good to know Chris Matthews is willing to read directly from Dick Cheney's script -- he's crafting a forward-thinking U.S. policy, which is what Bush/Cheney should have done a long time ago.

And Khalid Sheikh Mohammed isn't being invited to NYC for story-telling -- he'll be on trial for mass murder.

As for the general nonsense about "eggheads," anti-intellectualism, alas, remains alive and well.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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November 20, 2009

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

* Still no word from Sens. Landrieu and Lincoln as to whether they'd rather kill health care reform than let the Senate debate the bill. Landrieu said she'd end the suspense in the morning.

* Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) gets a provision he was looking for: "Senate Democratic leaders have amended their newly released health reform bill to include a contentious provision allowing some workers to receive cash vouchers toward exchange coverage in lieu of enrolling in employer-based plans."

* It's encouraging to see Jim Comey and Jack Goldsmith, two top ranking officials from the Bush Justice Department, defend the decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four accused co-conspirators in an NYC criminal court.

* The House passed the "Doc Fix" last night, on a 243 to 183 vote. House Republicans were for it before they were against it.

* A slap on the wrist: "The Senate ethics committee on Friday issued a sternly worded rebuke to Senator Roland Burris of Illinois, saying he had made misleading and inaccurate statements about the circumstances surrounding his appointment by disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich. But it made no recommendation for punishment."

* Did Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) knowingly violate Senate ethics rules? Probably.

* The University of California probably didn't intend to be one of the most expensive in the country, and yet, here we are.

* Systemic change doesn't happen over night: "Narratives will always be with us, but it would be nice if they could at least be tenuously based on reality.... [T]he 'silver tongued orator' narrative has really been plucked out of nowhere. Yes, Obama is a good speaker, but there's zero evidence that his administration or his governing style is based on this in any significant way. Just the opposite, in fact. So knock it off, folks."

* Impeachment is still a possibility for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R).

* I argued yesterday that it takes a lot of nerve for Karl Rove to criticize the White House for releasing bad news on Friday afternoons. Media Matters fleshes the point out in more detail.

* If Dick Armey goes around saying "read the bill," mantra like, he should probably take the time to read the bills he criticizing.

* Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), still not very bright.

* Stephen Colbert and David Letterman seem mildly concerned that President Obama is cooler than they are.

* And in Utah, state Sen. Chris Buttars (R), one of the nation's more notorious homophobic bigots, explained a little bit about his worldview this week. "I meet with the gays here and there," Buttars said. "They were in my house two weeks ago. I don't mind gays. But I don't want 'em stuffing it down my throat all the time."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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PLAYING A GAME WITH ELLIPSES.... Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.), who is considered a vulnerable House incumbent next year, voted against health care reform two weeks ago. She'd been under fire from the National Republican Congressional Committee, and when push came to shove, Kosmas sided with the GOP on the bill.

Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote a column recently about how Kosmas' vote didn't stop the Republican attacks.

Democrat Suzanne Kosmas may have irritated her liberal base when she voted against Nancy Pelosi's health-care bill. But she also backed the National Republican Congressional Committee into a corner ... at least she would have if the party hacks had any shame or integrity.

For months, the NRCC had been sending out releases, asking whether Kosmas had the courage to do the right thing (in its mind anyway) and stand up to "Pelosi's health-care takeover."

Well, she did. She voted against it.

This apparently confused the simpletons at the NRCC, who don't know how to do anything but gripe. So now, they are continuing to bash her on the topic, saying: OK, she may have done what they wanted -- but not for the reasons they wanted. So they still hate her.

Why anyone pays attention to these petulant partisans who couldn't care less about Central Florida issues is beyond me. In fact, I'm hearing from more and more Republicans -- including respected ones contemplating congressional campaigns -- that the NRCC's incessant whining makes the whole party look like amateur hour.

Jason Linkins, however, noted what the National Republican Campaign Committee did with the column, when the NRCC embraced it as their own. The Republicans' press release read:

Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell notes that Rep. Suzanne Kosmas --far from covering her political bases with a 'NO' vote on Pelosi's healthcare bill -- continues to get hit from both sides:

"Democrat Suzanne Kosmas may have irritated her liberal base when she voted against Nancy Pelosi's health-care bill...[and Republicans] are continuing to bash her on the topic, saying: OK, she may have done what they wanted -- but not for the reasons they wanted."

Got that? Maxwell blasted Republicans for being "party hacks" and "simpletons," with no "shame or integrity," who engage in such "petulant" partisanship "incessant whining" that the "the whole party look like amateur hour." And the National Republican Congressional Committee nevertheless thought this column was good for them, and eliminated the pesky criticism with some creatively placed ellipses.

The moral of the story: don't trust NRCC press releases.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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NORAH O'DONNELL'S REASONABLE QUESTION.... A clip made the rounds this week of MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell appearing live in Michigan, at a bookstore where Sarah Palin fans had lined up to get their copy of "Going Rogue" signed. The video seems to have become a little more interesting as the week went on.

If you haven't seen it, O'Donnell starts interviewing random folks waiting in line, eventually coming across a young woman with a t-shirt that slams the financial industry bailout from last year. O'Donnell asks the young woman, named Jackie, whether she realizes that Sarah Palin actually endorsed the bailout. "Where'd you hear that?" the Palin fan asked.

In the same exchange, asked specifically what she likes about the former governor, the fan said something about Palin's approach to the Constitution (the response was eerily reminiscent of an item in The Onion this week).

Now, I know this made for some easy mockery, but I'm inclined to cut the young woman a fair amount of slack. It's easy to get flustered during a national television interview, especially if you're not prepared. She's just 17, and anyone can appear foolish in such a situation.

But since the segment aired, conservative activists have lashed out at O'Donnell for asking Palin fans if they know anything substantive about Palin. Worse, Jackie personally decided to blast "the liberal media and their crafty schemes." She called O'Donnell a "buffoon" who asked "a gotcha question."

Nothing erases sympathy faster than cheap nonsense. Jackie wore an anti-bailout t-shirt to a Palin event, and got asked a question about Palin and the bailout. This is hardly the result of a "crafty scheme." It's not O'Donnell's fault the young woman has a limited understanding of her hero's record.

And that record is unambiguous. As Dave Weigel noted earlier, Palin really did endorse the bailout at the time, and did so again in "Going Rogue" (page 270).

It's hardly beyond the pale to ask Palin's anti-bailout supporters about this. So what's with all the whining?

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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TRENT FRANKS' SHORT MEMORY.... Six years ago this month, the floor of the U.S. House was the scene to one of the more embarrassing moments in the history of the institution. It was when the Republican majority brought Medicare Part D up for a vote.

GOP lawmakers saw Medicare's long-term finances as a problem, and decided to make matters worse with a new drug benefit. Every penny of the program -- which costs hundreds of billions of dollars -- was simply thrown onto the deficit, and Republicans were deliberately lied to about the cost (the Bush administration literally threatened officials who considered telling Congress the true price tag).

When the vote was scheduled, the bill was defeated -- so GOP leaders kept the vote open for hours, bribing members to change their minds. Humiliated, Republicans demanded that the C-SPAN cameras be turned off, so Americans couldn't watch the soul-crushing antics.

Bruce Bartlett reflects on this today, calling it "one of the most extraordinary events in congressional history." Of particular interest is Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, one of just three Republicans who were convinced to switch their votes, from Nay to Aye.

Like all Republicans, [Franks] has vowed to fight [health care reform] with every ounce of strength he has, citing the increase in debt as his principal concern. "I would remind my Democratic colleagues that their children, and every generation thereafter, will bear the burden caused by this bill. They will be the ones asked to pay off the incredible debt," Franks declared on Nov. 7.

Just to be clear, the Medicare drug benefit was a pure giveaway with a gross cost greater than either the House or Senate health reform bills how being considered. Together the new bills would cost roughly $900 billion over the next 10 years, while Medicare Part D will cost $1 trillion.

Moreover, there is a critical distinction -- the drug benefit had no dedicated financing, no offsets and no revenue-raisers; 100% of the cost simply added to the federal budget deficit, whereas the health reform measures now being debated will be paid for with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, adding nothing to the deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Maybe Franks isn't the worst hypocrite I've ever come across in Washington, but he's got to be in the top 10 because he apparently thinks the unfunded drug benefit, which added $15.5 trillion (in present value terms) to our nation's indebtedness, according to Medicare's trustees, was worth sacrificing his integrity to enact into law. But legislation expanding health coverage to the uninsured -- which is deficit-neutral -- somehow or other adds an unacceptable debt burden to future generations. We truly live in a world only George Orwell could comprehend when our elected representatives so easily conflate one with the other.

It's easy to forget -- some of us would like to block the memories from our minds -- but the Republican majority in Congress from 2003 through 2006 was so comically awful, it made many reasonable observers question whether the American experiment was really a good idea. The vote on Part D was a genuine embarrassment to the institution.

With that in mind, seeing Franks whine now, after having switched his vote six years ago, is a reminder of the ridiculous amount of chutzpah some of these members have. Just shameless.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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COBURN'S CRAVENNESS.... Sen. Tom Coburn, a right-wing Republican from Oklahoma, is apparently not above callous opportunism. He saw headlines about mammogram screening, headlines about a proposed tax on elective cosmetic surgery, and in his drive to kill health care reform, decided to combine some disparate talking points.

[Yesterday], Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who is a physician and staunchly opposed to this legislation, suggested on the Senate floor that a woman would be taxed if she had breast reconstruction surgery following cancer.

"In this bill is a 5% tax on cosmetic surgery," Coburn said. "Just yesterday -- the day before yesterday, U.S. preventive task forces, services, recommended because it's not cost effective that women under 50 not get mammograms unless they have risk factors. Well, you tell that to the thousands of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer lat last -- last year under 50 with a mammogram. You tell them it's not cost effective. Also in this bill is a 5% tax on the breast reconstruction surgery after they had a mastectomy. They're going to tax having your breast rebuilt after your breast is taken off because it is elective plastic surgery. It is elective cosmetic surgery. We're going to have a tax on it because we've taxed elective cosmetic surgery. We're in trouble as a nation because we've taken our eye off the ball."

As Republican lies on health care go, this one's pretty despicable.

For one thing, Coburn doesn't understand what the Preventive Services Task Force said -- the mammogram recommendation had to do with research-based standards, not cost.

More important, though, the legislation's provision on a 5% tax on elective cosmetic surgery clearly excludes procedures for those with congenital abnormalities, disfiguring diseases, or traumatic injuries. Anyone requiring reconstructive surgery resulting from accidents or diseases would be exempt.

There is no "5% tax on the breast reconstruction surgery after they had a mastectomy." Coburn's making it up, hoping no one notices how offensive his lying really is.

Ruth Marcus asked the other day, "You have to wonder: Are the Republican arguments against the bill so weak that they have to resort to these misrepresentations and distortions?"

It's a question that will be coming up again and again.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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CLOTURE WATCH.... Senate Democrats need 60 votes to bring health care reform to the floor for a debate. As of this morning, three Dems -- Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.), and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) -- had not yet committed to letting the Senate consider the legislation.

As of this afternoon, one of the three made the right call: Nelson will vote with the majority. In a statement, the conservative Democrat concluded:

"In my first reading, I support parts of the bill and oppose others I will work to fix. If that's not possible, I will oppose the second cloture motion -- needing 60 votes -- to end debate, and oppose the final bill.

"But I won't slam the doors of the Senate in the face of Nebraskans now. They want the health care system fixed. The Senate owes them a full and open debate to try to do so."

Nelson may, in other words, slam the doors of the Senate in the face of Nebraskans some other time, just not tomorrow night.

Landrieu hasn't made any official announcements, but she made some comments that suggest she's already looking ahead to the next stage of the debate. "I have leverage now, I'm using it to the best of my ability, I'm going to use it on the Senate floor," Landrieu said. If the senator doesn't think the bill is going to the Senate floor, she probably wouldn't say this.

Lincoln continues to be the most cryptic of the group. Earlier today, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters that Lincoln had told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) how she intends to vote. Lincoln's office quickly said that wasn't the case, and that the senator was still reviewing the bill.

Truth be told, especially after Nelson's statement, it's hard to imagine a lone Democratic senator siding with Republicans to block a debate on health care reform, effectively strangling reform in the crib. But when center-right Dems feel panicky, they become unpredictable.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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THE DANGERS OF ILLITERACY.... OK, so most Americans have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to the deficit. How are they when it comes to understanding stimulus efforts? Arguably, on this, they're even worse.

Rasmussen has a new poll showing a 51% majority believes cancelling the economic recovery efforts would "create more jobs." Derek Thompson, flabbergasted, characterized these beliefs as "insane."

It's one thing to say that canceling the rest of the stimulus money would help our deficit. That's arguable, even if I think it's dead wrong, since the best way to help our deficit is to put people back to work when demand is nonexistent so that they (1) receive taxable income and (2) spend that taxable income on products to help other people's taxable income. [...]

The idea that canceling the stimulus would create more jobs implies that passing the stimulus has actually killed more jobs than it's created, which is bonkers. Let's say you don't want to consider infrastructure spending or green technology spending or a single job that might have been created in the private sector. If nothing else, the tens of billions we've sent to state budgets have, without question, saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, like teachers, that are supported by state taxes. It's just a very basic fact.

So this is a crazy statistic, but I think it's important to ask why Americans think the stimulus is actually hurting job-creation.

It's a good question, and your guess is as good as mine. Chances are, it's not just one thing. Part of the confusion is likely the result of an electorate that doesn't quite understand the basics, and is therefore easily misled by the same people who got us in this mess. Part of it comes from a media that hasn't made much of an effort to explain the basics. And part of the problem has to be politicians -- one party believes Hoover was right about the Great Depression, and the other party is afraid to talk about how government spending and intervention prevented a wholesale economic collapse.

Regardless of the cause, the consequences of widespread confusion and ignorance can be, and may turn out to be, devastating. If most Americans believe government spending undermines job creation, and are convinced that short-term deficit reduction is more important than economic growth, they're more likely to vote for arsonists to put out the fire.

The surest way to make things even worse is to reward those who created the problem in the first place.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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JUKEBOX JOHN PLAYS A NEW TUNE.... Sens. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman -- a tri-partisan group -- have been crafting a climate change bill that can generate broad support in the Senate. All three are personal friends with Sen. John McCain, and all three would love to get the Arizona Republican's support on this issue that he's historically cared about.

So, how's that going?

"Their start has been horrendous," McCain said Thursday. "Obviously, they're going nowhere."

McCain has emerged as a vocal opponent of the climate bill -- a major reversal for the self-proclaimed maverick who once made defying his party on global warming a signature issue of his career.

Now the Arizona Republican is more likely to repeat GOP talking points on cap and trade than to help usher the bill through the thorny politics of the Senate.

McCain refers to the bill as "cap and tax," calls the climate legislation that passed the House in June "a 1,400-page monstrosity" and dismisses a cap-and-trade proposal included in the White House budget as "a government slush fund."

Former aides are mystified by what they see as a retreat on the issue, given McCain's long history of leadership on climate legislation.

No one should be mystified. John McCain's core beliefs don't appear to exist.

McCain co-sponsored climate-change legislation three in three separate Congresses during the Bush era, and endorsed cap and trade as a sound policy. In 2008, however, McCain decided to oppose the same ideas he'd already endorsed, and he's sticking with this far-right persona.

Asked for an explanation, McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan said, "This really hasn't been done in a bipartisan fashion."

I see. The climate bill is being pushed by a Dem (Kerry), a Republican (Graham), and an Independent (Lieberman), but the problem is that the effort is too partisan. Follow-up question for Brooke Buchanan: "Huh?"

Best of all, now that it looks like McCain will have to work even harder to impress the far-right GOP base, any hopes that he'll step up and show some leadership on this all but disappear.

Some in the media think the president is to blame for not having "reached out" to McCain "enough." As Atrios added, "Yes, obviously, it's Obama's fault that McCain's flip-flopping on issues. In the Village, nothing is ever McCain's fault."

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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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.

* Doug Hoffman has once again lost the congressional special election in New York's 23rd.

* Surprisingly enough, a new Rasmussen poll shows Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) struggling badly with his Republican supporters back home. In a hypothetical primary match-up against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), McCain's lead is just two points, 45% to 43%.

* There's no official word, but there are reports that Rudy Giuliani will not run for governor in New York next year. There are some rumors, however, that he's eyeing the Senate race, instead.

* If Giuliani does take on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in New York, a new Marist poll suggests he'll start as the frontrunner. Gillibrand, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year, is still not universally known in the state.

* A new Zogby poll (telephone, not internet) shows Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) leading her top Republican challenger, state Sen. Gilbert Baker, by two points, 41% to 39%. If Lincoln supports the health care bill, Zogby shows her losing support.

* In California, a Rasmussen poll shows Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) below the 50% threshold, but nevertheless leading both of her Republican rivals by about 10 points each.

* Sen. Arlen Specter, still hoping to impress Democratic primary voters, told bloggers yesterday that he does not support a military escalation in Afghanistan.

* A new Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos in Florida continues to show a very competitive gubernatorial race. State Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) leads state CFO Alex Sink (D) by two, 35% to 33%.

* Speaking of Florida, Blue Dog Rep. Allen Boyd (D) is facing a primary challenge next year, and a new poll suggests state Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson may have the early edge over the incumbent.

* Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) was asked yesterday afternoon whether Sarah Palin is qualified to be president. He really didn't want to answer the question.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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NO APPETITE FOR PROCEDURAL HURDLES.... It's not especially realistic to think voters will appreciate the nuances of congressional procedures. Words like "filibuster," "cloture," and "motion to proceed" are not well understood.

That said, when one breaks down the concepts for the public, voters' instincts tend to be pretty sound.

New polling in Nebraska, Louisiana and Arkansas commissioned by Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a liberal interest group pushing President Obama's plan, and obtained by [Chris Cillizza] shows huge majorities of voters in all three states favor the bill being debated on the floor.

Eighty-eight percent of likely 2010 Nebraska voters, 84 percent of likely Arkansas voters and 82 percent of likely voters in Louisiana told Democratic pollster John Anzalone that regardless of whether they supported the health care legislation, they believed it should get a full floor debate. (Those numbers include more than two-third support among Republican and independent voters.)

This is encouraging, and not particularly surprising. The poll described the motion to proceed, for example, and asked respondents, "In the Senate, before a bill can be voted on, there must be a vote to allow it to be debated. Regardless of whether you support or oppose the health insurance reform plan itself, do you believe that it should be debated on the floor of the Senate?"

Support was overwhelming in all three conservative "red" states -- 88% of Nebraskans, 82% of Louisianans, and 84% of Arkansans all agreed that health care reform should be debated. (It makes one wonder how voters in, say, Maine might feel if they knew that both of their "moderate" Republican senators are opposed to even letting the bill comes to the floor for a debate.)

The poll then asked about cloture: "Once a bill has been debated in the Senate, senators must then vote on whether to allow the bill itself to be voted on. Regardless of whether you support or oppose the health insurance reform plan, do you believe that senators should allow it to be voted on?"

The numbers weren't quite as strong, but again, support was largely one-sided -- 80% of Nebraskans, 77% of Louisianans, and 77% of Arkansans agreed that senators should let health care reform come up for a vote.

I suspect that for most typical Americans, this is a no-brainer. Should the Senate be allowed to debate health care reform on the floor? Should senators be allowed to vote yea or nay on the health bill? Of course they should.

There's been a behind-the-scenes debate in recent months about whether to separate policy votes from procedural votes. But a report like this one suggests the public already makes the distinction just fine.

It also suggests senators panicky about their standing back home should take comfort -- support cloture, let the bill come up for a vote, and then come down on whatever side you want. Their constituents already expect health care reform to come up for a vote, so there's no reason to side with Republicans in blocking one.

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

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TAKE A BOW.... Fox News polls are notorious for asking nutty questions that mainstream outlets would be too embarrassed to consider, but the network's latest (pdf) survey only includes one oddity.

"When the president of the United States is traveling overseas, do you think it is appropriate for him to bow to a foreign leader if that is the country's custom or is it never appropriate for the president to bow to another leader?"

The results no doubt disappointed the network -- 67% of Fox News' respondents said customary presidential bows are fine. Even a majority of self-identified Republicans (53%) agreed that the gesture is appropriate.

And yet, despite the fact that the country doesn't seem to care, this was considered a pretty huge deal in media circles all week, generating items in the AP, Newsweek, the NYT, and of course, Fox News. (In fairness, some of those items were questioning the seriousness of the "story.")

As Greg Sargent noted, "It's another sign, if you needed one, of how far off to the right some contemporary conservative discourse has drifted. It's also a mark of how absurd it is that some traditional news orgs actually felt obliged to, er, bow to the pressure to cover this particular line of criticism."

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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HEATING UP IN THE SUNSHINE STATE.... In January, when it looked Florida Gov. Charlie Crist would face former state House Speaker Marco Rubio in a Republican Senate primary, a poll showed the governor with a commanding lead, 57% to 4%.

This week, a Research 2000 poll conducted for Daily Kos showed things a little more competitive. Crist now leads Rubio 47% to 37%. A 10-point lead may seem reasonably strong, but the trend should cause some panic on the governor's campaign -- Crist is fading fast and Rubio has excited the right-wing base. This poll is consistent with other recent data pointing in the same direction.

Markos Moulitsas explained:

These trendlines are bleak for Crist, and there's little chance of him surviving. Remember, Rubio hasn't spent a dime on media yet. This is all grassroots driven, and the teabaggers are engaged, angry, and looking for the next Scozzafava. Crist is in their crosshairs, and the governor has been flopping all over the place hoping to stem this growing tide against him, and failing. Note -- 50 percent of Republicans still don't know who Rubio is. The more he raises his name ID, the better he does.

Chris Cillizza added, "That Rubio has made up so much ground without spending any real money on voter contact -- television or radio ads, direct mail etc. -- should be very worrisome to Crist as it seems to suggest considerable softness in his numbers. In other words, the more Republicans look closely at Crist, the less they like what they see."

Markos also tested some hypothetical general election match-ups. If Crist manages to get the GOP nomination, he'll still easily defeat the likely Democratic candidate, Rep. Kendrick Meek. Of course, Crist's chances of winning the primary are growing increasingly remote. What if he runs as an independent against Rubio and Meek? The three-way contest is basically a toss-up.

But here's a twist -- if Crist becomes a Democrat, he's in a stronger position. It prompted Markos to conclude that Crist's "cleanest path to a Senate seat" is "switching parties and making an earnest transition on the issues."

For the record, there hasn't been so much as a hint from Crist about a willingness to switch. On the contrary, he's spent the last several weeks trying in vain to convince Florida Republicans that he's really more conservative than he seems (which, incidentally, is what Arlen Specter did before he realized it was a lost cause and became a Dem). For that matter, it's not at all clear if Florida Democrats would accept Crist with open arms.

But it's fun to ponder, I suppose.

Another angle to consider is what Florida Dems do with this changing landscape. When Crist announced he was running for the Senate, he was largely considered a shoo-in, and high-profile Dems who would have otherwise considered the race decided to take a pass. If Rubio seems likely to get the GOP nod, will the Democratic field grow with the changing circumstances?

Or are we dealing with a dynamic in which the best chance of a Democrat winning the race is for Crist to switch?

And if Crist can't win the primary, and doesn't want to become a Dem, does he really throw the state a curveball and decide he wants to be governor again after all?

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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WHEN THE MAJORITY IS MISGUIDED.... A new CNN poll shows more Americans shifting their blame for the Republican recession away from the Republicans. As recently as May, 53% said Republicans are "more responsible for the country's current economic problems," while 21% blamed Democrats. In the newly released poll, a 38% plurality holds the GOP responsible, while 27% point the finger at Democrats.

That is, to be sure, disappointing, given reality. But the trend suggests public patience is waning -- the electorate expects Democrats to fix the problems they inherited from Republicans faster.

But that's not the most frustrating aspect of the poll. This is:

"Which of the following comes closer to your view of the budget deficit -- the government should run a deficit if necessary when the country is in a recession and is at war, or the government should balance the budget even when the country is in a recession and is at war?"

Given the precarious state of the economy and widespread concerns about unemployment, common sense suggests concerns over the deficit should wane. But the poll found that a whopping 67% of respondents want the emphasis to be on deficit reduction, while 30% see the deficit as necessary under the circumstances. Those results are very similar to those from an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken a few weeks ago.

It's probably worth noting that the majority is hopelessly wrong. I'm not even sure if the majority fully understands what the deficit is, why it's large, what would be needed to make it smaller, and how it fits into the larger economic landscape. For many, it seems the "deficit" is just an amorphous concept that loosely means "bad economy."

Which is why it's important that policymakers not base policy decisions on illiteracy. Americans say they want a stronger job market and a better economic growth. They also say they want less spending, lower taxes, and an immediate focus on deficit reduction. The inherent contradictions are lost on far too many.

Matt Yglesias recently explained:

A lot of politicians and political operatives in DC are very impressed by polling that shows people concerned about the budget deficit. I think it would be really politically insane for people to take that too literally. If Congress makes the deficit even bigger in a way that helps spur recovery, then come election day people will notice the recovery and be happy. If, by contrast, the labor market is still a disaster then people will be pissed off. It's true that they might say they're pissed off at the deficit, but the underlying source of anger is the objective bad conditions.

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.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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THEY'RE NOT ABOVE LYING.... The Senate's health care reform plan is not without flaw. Indeed, the subsidy rates for low-income families remain a major point of concern.

But true to form, Republicans don't want to talk about the legislation's actual shortcomings; they prefer to make stuff up. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), for example, released an item yesterday insisting that the Senate plan "requires a monthly abortion fee."

Just like the original 2,032-page, government-run health care plan from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) massive, 2,074-page bill would levy a new "abortion premium" fee on Americans in the government-run plan. [...]

What is even more alarming is that a monthly abortion premium will be charged of all enrollees in the government-run health plan.

Offering another helpful case study in how the Right Wing Machine works, Boehner's blisteringly stupid claim was quickly picked up and trumpeted by Drudge and Limbaugh. No doubt, many rank-and-file conservatives now think it's true.

The claim might be alarming, if it weren't so ridiculous. As Jeremy Schulman explained, "'Monthly abortion fee' implies there is some sort of extra charge assessed to consumers in order to pay for abortions. But this isn't the case. Rather, the bill sets up requirements by which insurance plans segregate their funds so that federal dollars don't pay for abortion coverage.... If you choose to purchase a plan that covers abortion, it's completely expected that a portion of your premium pays for abortion coverage. Saying that this creates some sort of additional 'abortion fee' is like saying that there's a 'monthly heart attack fee' because the plan covers heart attacks."

Jodi Jacobson went line by line, picking apart Boehner's vile attack.

The DNC, which jumped all over this, added in a statement, "With such clear evidence to the contrary, we'd like to believe that this is the last time we'll hear this scare-tactic from Boehner and the Party of No... but since all Republicans have to offer are more lies, we're not counting on it."

To borrow a phrase, "I have given up hope for a loyal opposition. I'd settle for a sane one."

Steve Benen 8:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE IN THE SENATE.... As of late yesterday, we have a reasonably strong sense of what to expect in the Senate with regards to the health care debate. We don't yet know how it's going to turn out, but at least the process seems clear.

In fact, the leadership struck a couple of deals yesterday that make the process pretty straightforward -- the chamber will debate the bill tomorrow, and then vote on the motion to proceed. If there are 60 votes, reform will proceed to another round of debate. If there aren't 60 votes, the entire initiative is in real trouble.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday afternoon set the procedural wheels in motion for a crucial vote on a major health care reform bill Saturday night at 8 p.m. and scored a coup by apparently persuading Republicans to abandon their plans to have the entire 2,074-page bill read aloud on the Senate floor.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate on Thursday afternoon, Reid filed a motion to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on the motion to proceed to a House-passed tax bill that will serve as a shell for the $848 billion Senate health care measure that he unveiled Wednesday.

In doing so, Reid also asked for and received the consent of Republicans to avoid more votes this week as well as a threatened, lengthy reading of the Senate bill. Reid's move means the Senate will wrap up work Saturday and avoid coming into session next week.

Before yesterday's agreement, Republicans were going to force a full reading of every word of the bill, which would in turn lead to another procedural vote around 2 a.m. on Monday morning. Now, none of that will be necessary -- GOP senators will spend all day tomorrow trashing the idea of reforming the dysfunctional health care system, leading up to an 8 p.m. cloture vote. If the motion is approved, the chamber will break for Thanksgiving and return a week from Monday.

Why not hold the vote on the motion to proceed sooner? Because the leadership agreed to have the bill publicly available for 72 hours before the first vote, and Saturday night at 8 p.m. will be exactly 72 hours after the legislation (pdf) was posted online.

With the process question resolved, attention now shifts to assembling 60 votes. If Harry Reid didn't think he could corral the supermajority needed, he probably wouldn't have scheduled tomorrow night's vote. But as of now, it's still unclear if the necessary support is there.

A handful of on-the-fence Dems made clear that they would support the motion to proceed, including Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has signaled he's likely to vote with the majority tomorrow night, but it's not definite. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was supposed to announce her intentions yesterday, but didn't. Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) hasn't said much of anything, and remains a point of concern.

And just to be clear, this isn't a vote on the bill; we're talking about a vote to begin a debate on the bill. It's still astounding to me that three Senate Democrats are reluctant to support a routine procedural measure that would simply allow the chamber to talk about health care reform, and consider changes to the bill.

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

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November 19, 2009

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

* Pakistan: "A suicide bomber killed 16 people Thursday outside a courthouse in northwestern Pakistan, the latest attack in an onslaught by Islamist militants fighting back against an army offensive in the nearby Afghan border region. The bombing was the sixth in less than two weeks in and around Peshawar."

* Ugh: "A rising proportion of fixed-rate home loans made to people with good credit are sinking into foreclosure, adding to concerns about the strength of the economic recovery."

* Judge David Hamilton was confirmed today to the 7th Circuit. The final vote was 59 to 39. For reasons I'll never understand, 39 out of 40 Senate Republicans -- including Snowe and Collins -- voted against him.

* House Speaker Nancy Pelosi likes the Senate health care reform bill, and thinks its provision on abortion-funding restrictions works a lot better than the Stupak amendment.

* The White House's Nancy-Ann DeParle also prefers the Senate provision to the Stupak language.

* It's hard to believe how much college tuition rates are going up in California. It's going to price a lot of students right out of their schools.

* Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy to become Europe's new president.

* Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) pushed a measure yesterday to freeze credit card rates on existing balances through the holiday season. Senate Republicans quickly blocked it.

* It's painful to think about, but there are 17 counties in the United States in which the poverty rate for children is 50%.

* Steve Doocy, surprisingly bad at arithmetic.

* Charles Krauthammer understands domestic policy about as well as he understands foreign policy.

* Maybe Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) should read T.R. Reid's book again. I don't think he understood it the first time around.

* Good piece from Michael Crowley on President Obama's Asia trip: "[G]ive the man some more time."

* If conservatives disagree with the president, it's big news. If conservatives agree with the president, it's ignored. In terms what constitutes a newsworthy development, isn't that backwards?

* Just two weeks after getting caught using old footage to exaggerate right-wing crowd sizes, Fox News used old footage to exaggerate a right-wing crowd size. Today, the Republican network apologized, again.

* Rupert Murdoch gets the O'Reilly treatment.

* Nice summary of the Palin problem: "Yesterday I was thinking about how everything she says sounds like it's just plucked from the tea party talking points of the day, but ... they aren't just talking points, they're sort of bizarrely, syntactically mashed up talking points. I wonder what really goes on inside her head? Lots of politicians have mastered the art of speaking in talking points and never going off message, but mostly they at least try to sound like they know what they're talking about. Palin doesn't. She just spouts the sixth grade version of the talking points with an apparently total unawareness that she sounds like a child."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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BENDING THE PROVERBIAL CURVE.... For some conservatives, including some center-right Democrats, the very point of tackling health care reform is to get health care costs under control. Ezra Klein has a great item today, explaining how the Senate reform bill does just that.

If this piece of the bill was passed on its own, it would be the most important cost control bill ever considered by the United States Congress. But you could never have passed it on its own. You needed the coverage to make the grand bargain work. Republicans like to call this bill a trillion-dollar experiment to expand the health-care system, and in some ways, it is. But it's also a multitrillion-dollar experiment to cut costs in the health-care system, and it deserves credit for that, and support from fiscal conservatives. It's easy to talk about cutting costs, but this is the chance for people to actually do it.

The "grand bargain" is an important concept that often goes overlooked in the debate. For the left, which has been clamoring for health care reform for several generations now, the point of fixing the system is the moral outrage of allowing tens of millions of Americans to go without coverage. The uninsured are one serious illness away from bankruptcy, or one layoff away from family peril, and progressives have long demanded a remedy.

For the right, the principal reason to even entertain the possibility of reform is fiscal -- conservatives are worried about spiraling costs and massive deficits.

Which leads to the bargain. The left wants to expand coverage; the right wants to get costs under control. Neither side would be especially willing to entertain the other's goal, were it not for the satisfactory resolution of their main concern. Harry Reid's bill, warts and all, gets the bargain largely right.

Indeed, were our political landscape slightly saner, Republicans -- you know, the ones who've invested heavily in the notion of cutting costs and shrinking deficits -- would embrace this bill with both arms. For that to happen, they'd have to be serious about public policy, and willing to put national considerations above short-term political interests. I know, it's hard to type this with a straight face, too.

But that doesn't change the underlying truth. As Kevin Drum explained, the Senate bill is the most "ambitious" attempt to "rein in both Medicare costs, and healthcare costs generally, than anything ever done. Nothing else even comes close." He added that Reid's measure may be the "best prospects for healthcare cost control we've ever seen."

Postscript: And speaking of Ezra, he also has a good post sketching out the kinds of positive reform changes we could expect before 2014. The fairly long list includes all kinds of consumer protections for those of us with private coverage, include a ban on lifetime limits, a ban on annual caps, the elimination of rescissions, and coverage for preventive care and immunizations.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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CONSISTENCY ISN'T THEIR STRONG POINT, CONT'D.... We talked yesterday about how Republicans haven't exactly been consistent when it comes to their deeply held beliefs on the perils of judicial filibusters. But their consistency on trials for terrorists is arguably more humiliating.

In 2002, the Bush Justice Department put Zacarias Moussaoui, an al Qaeda terrorist often referred to as the "20th 9/11 hijacker," on trial in a federal court near D.C. No one, at the time, said then-President Bush was putting American lives at risk or undermining U.S. national security interests with the trial. Despite the conservative apoplexy of the last week, the Moussaoui trial was simply considered appropriate and routine.

Greg Sargent reported today on a quote from George W. Bush in 2006, in which the then-president proclaimed that terrorists should be "tried in courts here in the United States."

At the time, Bush was waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the military commissions he had established to try alleged members of Al Qaeda. At the presser, he said the administration was waiting for the high court to determine the "proper venue" for trying suspected terrorists, and seemed to say U.S. courts were a valid venue if it came to it.

At a minimum, Bush clearly saw no problem with bringing suspected terrorists to the U.S. for trial -- something that the Obama administration is now doing, drawing widespread criticism on the right.

I haven't found any evidence of any conservatives criticizing Bush's position or his decision to try Moussaoui in a criminal court on American soil.

Likewise, let's not forget that Rudy Giuliani, one of the leading Republican attack dogs on President Obama, said he considered the Moussaoui trial a testament to the strength of our legal system and the American dedication to the "rule of law." Giuliani called the verdict "a symbol of American justice," and said the trial itself might improve America's standing internationally. After Moussaoui was convicted by a civilian jury, the former mayor boasted, "America won tonight."

Similarly, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial "indefensible," arguing that it would help terrorists. But when Bush brought Moussaoui to a criminal courtroom for a trial near the Pentagon, Sessions was satisfied with the administration's decision.

Is a little intellectual consistency too much to ask for? Don't answer that; it's a rhetorical question.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE EXASPERATING 'CENTRISTS'.... Let's see. First, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he liked the Stupak amendment and would be "highly unlikely" to vote for health care reform unless it included the language, or something very close to it, in the final bill. Then, Nelson shifted gears, saying he misunderstood a reporter's questions the first time, and is satisfied with Senate Dems' restrictions on public funding of abortion.

Now, Nelson has moved back in the other direction again.

The language in the Senate healthcare reform bill designed to bar federal funds from paying for abortions is not good enough, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) modified the healthcare bills approved by two committees in order to address concerns from anti-abortion-rights senators that the bill would change current laws prohibiting taxpayer money from being spent on abortion while not alienating abortion-rights supporters.

Reid did not succeed, according to Nelson, a key centrist swing vote Reid needs to advance his healthcare bill at a crucial test vote set for Saturday.

"We have looked at the language," Nelson told The Hill. "That language is not language that I would prefer.... I think you need to have it eminently clear that no dollars that are federal tax dollars, directly or indirectly, are used to pay for abortions and it needs to be totally clear. [It's] not clear enough, I don't think."

But here's the kicker: Nelson may be playing a little game here. Reid's measure on abortion funding is the right way to go, and Nelson almost certainly knows it. So what's the problem? Nelson wants to kill the public option once and for all. In fact, Nelson said today, "If there's no public option, perhaps some of the [abortion] problem goes away."

The problem, then, isn't with the abortion-related language -- Nelson is just looking for leverage. The message to Reid, in effect, is, "You get rid of the public option and I'll accept your provisions on abortion."

Also note, Nelson said yesterday, "If you don't like the bill, then why would you block your own opportunity to amend it?" Today, he said he's undecided on whether he would block his own opportunity to amend the bill.

And speaking of "centrists," Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) is still threatening to kill health care reform if there's a public option -- and now thinks he can pull some other Dems with him.

Maybe now would be a good time to pause and note how unbelievably ridiculous these center-right senators are being. Harry Reid has offered them an affordable reform bill that doesn't cost too much, lowers the deficit, restricts funding of abortion, restricts aid to immigrants, and doesn't raise taxes on the middle class.

And the "centrists" are still complaining, suggesting they're not really willing to compromise on anything.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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FOXX'S NOTION OF 'REVISIONIST HISTORY'.... On the House floor today, Rep. Virginia Foxx, a right-wing Republican from North Carolina, boasted of her party's alleged progressive history on civil rights.

"Just as we were the people who passed the civil rights bills back in the '60s without very much help from our colleagues across the aisle," said Fox. "They love to engage in revisionist history."

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), stunned, tried to set Foxx straight, pointing to the role of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the 1960s. "John Lewis, a member of this House, was beaten on the Edmund Pettus bridge to get that civil rights legislation passed," Cardoza reminded Foxx. "Tell John Lewis that he wasn't part of getting that legislation passed."

Matt Corley added, "To support the claim that Republicans were actually the architects of civil rights, conservatives often point out that a 'higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats supported the civil-rights bill.' But this ignores the 'distinct split between Northern and Southern politicians' on the issue."

This comes up from time to time, and since some confused people like Virginia Foxx have trouble remembering the details, it's worth the occasional refresher.

The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to competing constituencies -- southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and white progressives and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled, ultimately siding with an inclusive, liberal agenda.

As the party shifted, the Democratic mainstream embraced its new role. Republicans, meanwhile, also changed. In the wake of LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act, the Republican Party welcomed the racists who no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party. Indeed, in 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater boasted of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and made it part of his platform. It was right around this time when figures like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond made the transition -- leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP.

In the ensuing years, Democrats embraced its role as the party of diversity, inclusion, and civil rights. Republicans became the party of the "Southern Strategy," opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, vote-caging, discriminatory voter-ID laws, and politicians like Helms, Thurmond, Pat Buchanan, and Virginia Foxx.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THERE BAYH GOES AGAIN.... Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana wrote a column for CNN, explaining why he intends to vote against raising the debt ceiling, "unless Congress adopts a credible process to balance our books and eliminate the red ink."

Long-term deficits drive up interest rates for consumers, raise prices of goods and services, and weaken our country's financial competitiveness and security.

The bigger our deficits, the fewer resources we have to make critical investments in energy, education, health care and tax relief for small businesses and middle-class families.

The bigger our deficits, the more we must borrow from foreign creditors like China, allowing governments with competing interests to influence our economic and trade policies in ways that run counter to our national interest. [...]

Our unsustainable debt is neither a Democratic nor a Republican problem. It is rooted in the DNA of both political parties. Some in Congress like to spend more than we can afford, and some like to cut taxes more than we can afford. The easy path is simply to borrow until the credit markets will no longer allow it.

What Bayh wants is a congressional commission to recommend a deficit-reduction package, which lawmakers would be forced to vote on, up or down. Without the commission, Bayh is prepared to let the United States default on its loans and send the global economy into turmoil. It's an interesting little hostage situation Bayh has created for himself.

There are, however, some issues to consider. For example, it was none other than Evan Bayh who recently voted to "reform" the estate tax, cutting taxes for the extraordinarily rich, at a cost of $750 billion over the next decade. To pay for it, he recommended ... nothing. The costs would simply all be added to the deficit. Given this, I hope he'll forgive my skepticism about his credibility on the subject of fiscal responsibility.

For that matter, I know everyone is always supposed to believe at all times that "both sides are equally to blame," but Bayh's shorthand is lazy and wrong. Democratic policymakers cut the deficit and created a surplus. Republican policymakers were the single most fiscally irresponsible officials in American history. Yes, Dems are running high deficits now, but only because the alternative is a wholesale economic collapse. Skipping over this history is, at best, misleading.

It's also worth keeping in mind that the president's budget proposals already project deficit reductions, and health care reform would further bring significant reductions to the deficit.

But perhaps the biggest question I have for Bayh is: why wait? If the Indiana senator and his cohorts want to put together a deficit reduction strategy, why not put pen to paper and present a plan?

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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HOW DEEP DOES THE PARANOIA RUN?.... When Doug Hoffman announced his belief that there was an ACORN-led conspiracy to steal the recent congressional special election in New York's 23rd, the temptation was to assume the poor guy had gone mad. But Alex Koppelman notes a new poll that suggests Hoffman is only lending his voice to widespread, right-wing paranoia.

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, got lucky with the timing of its latest survey. That's because PPP asked respondents, "Do you think that Barack Obama legitimately won the Presidential election last year, or do you think that ACORN stole it for him?"

Fully 26 percent of respondents said they believe ACORN stole the election for Obama, compared to 62 percent who said they think he won it fair and square. 12 percent weren't sure.

The numbers were even more revealing when broken down along partisan lines. A majority of Republicans -- 52 percent -- think ACORN stole the presidency, while just 27 percent said they believe Obama's office is legitimately his.

Now, I haven't seen the details or methodology of this poll, but I'm a little skeptical about the results. OK, more than a little.

Barack Obama received nearly 70 million votes on Election Day, and picked up 365 electoral votes. One in four Americans -- and a majority of self-identified Republicans -- believes this was made possible due to the secret, carefully-executed, coordinated national efforts of a community group that can't recognize fake pimps?

I'm willing to believe there are a lot of very confused conservatives out there. I'm even willing to concede that much of the Republican Party necessarily questions the legitimacy of any election in which the GOP candidate loses. But this poll has to be wrong, doesn't it?

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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NO TIME TO REST ON (INCOMPLETE) LAURELS.... As things stand, the Senate will apparently tackle climate change in the spring. National Journal reports on some members who aren't in any hurry.

"After you do one really, really big, really, really hard thing that makes everybody mad, I don't think anybody's excited about doing another really, really big thing that's really, really hard that makes everybody mad," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. "Climate fits that category."

Now, I don't want to sound unsympathetic. After eight years of failure, incompetence, mismanagement, and corruption, Congress' to-do list is pretty full -- including tackling issues that went neglected under Republican rule and putting out fires that began under Republican rule.

But this attitude of "one big thing is enough" fails to appreciate the scope of the challenges facing federal lawmakers, and the rare opportunity the Democratic majority has to put things right. I'm reminded of this recent column from Harold Meyerson, who noted that we're witnessing the third generational opportunity for progressive policy change of the last century.

The first time around, in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt and Congress had enacted the landmark legislation of the First Hundred Days -- depositor insurance, emergency relief, industrial stabilization, public employment (the Civilian Conservation Corps). The second time around, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson and Congress had created the Great Society, passing more than 80 bills, among them Medicare, the Voting Rights Act and federal aid to education, in six months.

And the third time around, before health care reform has even cleared the first procedural hurdle, there's a sense among some that other "really, really big things" will have to wait for some other time, maybe even some other Congress.

I wish it were that easy. Democrats were elected to clean up some unprecedented failures of historic magnitude, not tackle a few issues and call it a day.

There's less than a year left in this Congress, at which point the Democratic majority is very likely to shrink. In terms of "really, really big things" that need to get done, Congress should have a strategy to at least pass a jobs bill, a climate bill, and financial regulatory reform.

The more success it has, the more impressed the public will be, and the more motivated the base will be. Not incidentally, these bills carry enormous public policy significance, and this may be the last good shot policymakers have at tackling these issues for a long while.

Buck up, Sen. McCaskill, there's work to be done.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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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.

* As absentee ballots get counted in New York's 23rd, it looks like Doug Hoffman is going to lose to Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.), again.

* In a bizarre twist, Hoffman now claims there was a conspiracy among union members and ACORN to "sway the results" of the congressional special election. Even local Republican officials dismiss the accusations as "absolutely false."

* A new Rasmussen poll shows California Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) tied with Meg Whitman (R) in next year's gubernatorial campaign, 41% each. Brown leads the other Republican candidates in hypothetical match-ups by about 10 points.

* Speaking of California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is apparently done with electoral politics. ''I have never labeled myself as a politician, so I am not going to run for anything else,'' Schwarzenegger said Tuesday.

* Former North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker (D) is the latest in a long line of Democrats to decide not to run against Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) next year.

* Republican National Committeeman Sean Mahoney had been rumored as a possible Senate candidate in New Hampshire, but he's decided not to join the crowded GOP primary. Barring any unexpected announcements, former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, former gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne, and businessman Bill Binnie will vie for Republican nod in the open-seat contest.

* Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter (D) remains coy about whether he'll take on incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in a primary next year.

* Sarah Palin said she'd consider Glenn Beck as a running mate in 2012. I'm not sure if she was kidding.

* Dick Cheney, meanwhile, still isn't interested in running for anything in 2012.

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

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MARCUS SETS GERSON STRAIGHT.... In his Washington Post column this week, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson makes some fairly predictable attacks against the Obama administration for, among other things, deciding to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in federal court.

Gerson labels Attorney General Eric Holder "the most destructive member" of the president's cabinet, before characterizing the looming trial as a "circus," in which "intelligence sources and methods" will be aired. The conservative columnist, who apparently no longer worries about his credibility or stature, insists that the attorney general rejects the idea of a "war with terrorists," and "seems determined to undermine" those who believe the war on terror should continue.

This kind of palaver has become tiresome and pointless, and it's tempting to just ignore it. But the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus did something unusual yesterday: she pushed back hard against one of her own colleagues. (thanks to D.D. for the tip)

First, on the merits of the decision to try Mohammed in federal court rather than through a military tribunal. Note to Mike: They have the presumption of innocence in tribunals, too. Unlike O.J.'s, federal trials, for better or worse, aren't televised, and federal judges are no Lance Ito. Any experienced federal judge can prevent Mohammed from using the trial as a soapbox, and, as Steven Simon points out in the New York Times, the better bet is that the propaganda bonanza would be to our advantage, not the jihadists'.

Federal law contains sufficient safeguards to protect sources and methods, and you can be sure that the Justice Department made a careful assessment that it could obtain a conviction without harmful disclosure. The risk of acquittal is negligible, although I think that word may be overstating things. More important, even if Mohammed were somehow acquitted, it's not as if he would saunter off to brunch in Tribeca. He'd no doubt be indicted and held on other charges, or preventively detained. [...]

Second, on Gerson's mind-reading derogation of Holder. To suggest that the attorney general makes difficult legal decisions on the basis of ideological predispositions is not only a slur; it ignores the many times Holder's decisions (using military commissions, invoking the state secrets privilege, denying habeas corpus relief to detainees in Afghanistan, to name just a few) have discomfited liberal allies. There is a distinction -- one Gerson and company choose to ignore -- between treating terrorism as solely a law enforcement problem and using the techniques of law enforcement as one of many routes to combat and punish terrorism.

Marcus concludes that Gerson's screed went "beyond the pale."

This may make for some awkward moments around the WaPo water cooler, but I'm glad to see it anyway. Gerson, among other Post columnists, writes cheap columns with baseless attacks against those who happen to be in a different political party. The more he's called out for his errors of fact and judgment by his own colleagues, the better.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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ENOUGH TO MAKE AN ATTORNEY GENERAL LAUGH.... Attorney General Eric Holder talked to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, primarily about the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators in federal court. It didn't go especially well -- Republicans on the panel didn't seem persuaded -- but Dahlia Lithwick highlighted the most troubling aspect of the Q&A.

Specifically, some GOP senators are concerned that some Justice Department officials, including the attorney general himself, may actually be terrorist sympathizers.

[Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa] demanded that Holder explain the presence in the solicitor general's office of Neal Katyal, who represented Osama Bin Laden's driver at the Supreme Court. Grassley used a smear from the New York Post (penned by the writer who ridiculously claimed Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh believed "Sharia law could apply to disputes in US courts") to demand that Holder account for Jennifer Daskal as counsel in its National Security Division, who allegedly wants terrorists to have more time to write poetry. Grassley demanded that Holder produce a list of DoJ appointees who have ever acted as lawyers for terror detainees.

Then Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., read from an editorial suggesting that the reason these detainee trials have been so long delayed is all the "leftist lawyers" who stalled the military commissions by challenging them in the courts. Kyl noted many of those lawyers -- including Holder -- work for the Justice Department despite the fact that Holder's firm, Covington & Burling, "volunteered its services to at least 18 of America's enemies in lawsuits they brought against the American people." Remember in 2006 when the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, Cully Stimson, had to resign his position at the Pentagon for urging U.S. corporations to boycott any law firm that defended terror suspects? Apparently those law firms are still un-American, and anyone associated with them should be barred from DoJ. (The subtext for much of this criticism, as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., observed, is that all these lawyers are somehow in it for the money.)

Holder, quite literally, blurted "Hah" in response to this line of questioning, before patiently explaining to Republicans how misguided the argument is.

Lithwick concluded, "[W]hen you continue to hear that anyone who objects to Bush's detainee policies is unworthy to serve in government, or is part of some elaborate conspiracy to free terrorists, there is truly nothing left to do but laugh."

The appeal of McCarthyism lingers on.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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THE ORIGINAL KING OF IRONY KEEPS HIS CROWN.... It's easier to stomach Karl Rove's political commentary if one thinks of him as some kind of performance artist.

Today, for example, Rove writes an entire column about the Obama White House releasing discouraging news on Friday afternoons.

Every modern White House has put out news on contentious issues late on Friday in the hope that doing so will bury it, or reduce the amount of critical scrutiny it would otherwise receive. What is unusual is the degree to which this White House has relied on this tactic.

I nearly fell out of my chair reading this. It was, after all, Karl Rove's signature move -- release bad news late on Friday afternoons, in the hopes it would generate less attention. Rove is going after the president's team for occasionally using the same media trick Rove personally perfected while helping run the White House.

What we are seeing with the White House's timing in releasing its decision on KSM and other terrorists is a presidency clinging to campaign tactics that aim to dominate the 24-hour-news cycle. The problem is that ploys that work in a campaign don't work nearly as well when you're in charge of the executive branch. Once in office, you have to live with the consequences of a policy decision.

Seriously? Karl Rove is lecturing the White House on appreciating the consequences of policy decisions? Did Rove ever have to deal with the repercussions of his own misconduct?

At least, however, the almost farcical column is in keeping with Rove's general m.o. Rove ran a White House that embraced a "permanent campaign," so he's accused the Obama team of embracing a "permanent campaign." Rove embraced the politics of fear, so he's accused Obama of embracing the politics of fear. Rove relied on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted " political events, so he's accused Obama of relying on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted" political events. Rove looked at every policy issue "from a political perspective," so he's accused Obama of looking at every policy issue "from a political perspective." Rove snubbed news outlets that he considered partisan, so he's accused Obama of snubbing snubbed news outlets that he considered partisan.

A lesser hack may find it difficult to launch political attacks that are ironic, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time, but Rove is a rare talent.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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THE RENEWED FOCUS ON JOB CREATION.... The AP had a disconcerting report yesterday on the Dec. 3 "jobs summit" at the White House. As the AP put it, President Obama "says creating jobs isn't the goal of a coming White House forum on jobs and economic growth."

At first blush, that sounds pretty nutty. The White House is holding a forum on jobs and the goal isn't to create jobs? Why bother holding a summit, then?

In truth, NBC's Chuck Todd asked the president how a summit "is going to create a job." Obama explained that the economy is starting to grow, and businesses are starting to be profitable again, but job growth is lagging. "And so the goal of the job summit is to figure out, are there ways of us accelerating that hiring?" the president said. "And there are a whole range of ideas out there; we've examined a lot of them. But one of the benefits of convening this group is it gives us a chance to talk directly to small businesses and medium-sized businesses, the main drivers of employment, to find out what exactly is going on."

That's a far cry from reporting that the goal of the jobs summit isn't to create jobs.

On the Hill, meanwhile, we know the House is moving forward with its plans for a jobs bill. Today, Roll Call reports that two leading Senate Democrats are crafting a plan, too.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) have been quietly trying to write a jobs bill that the Senate can act on early next year, underscoring the renewed emphasis Congressional Democrats are putting on the economy as 2009 comes to a close. [...]

Dorgan said this week he hoped to have a bill through the Senate before the president's State of the Union address in late January and that he does not envision the health care debate tripping up that timeline.

"We're going to be working on the jobs issue even as the health care bill is on the floor," he said. "I don't think that is going to interfere with the effort to get a good jobs package."

Durbin said he and Dorgan teamed up to write the bill with the blessing of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has been leading the Senate's push to enact a health care reform bill before Christmas.

Durbin acknowledged that Republicans are likely to complain that the Democratic majority shouldn't put health care above job creation. The Majority Whip said, however, that the caucus is "trying to make it clear that we can walk and chew gum" at the same time.

As for concerns that the Senate jobs bill may be at odds with a House version, Durbin added that he's working with Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who's helping lead the House efforts.

As for paying for the initiative, Durbin is eyeing unused TARP money, while the House is also weighing the possibility of a transactions tax on Wall Street.

I have to say, it's encouraging to see Dems dig in quickly on this. A meaningful jobs bill is necessary -- the sooner the better -- and the majority seems to be responding well. It's likely that center-right Dems will figure out a way to undermine these efforts, but for now, there's some heartening momentum.

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

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GIVING CENTRISTS VERY LITTLE TO COMPLAIN ABOUT.... A Senate Democratic aide emailed me yesterday with some of the top-line numbers for the new health care bill: $848 billion over 10 years; $127 billion in deficit reduction in the first decade; $650 billion in deficit reduction in the second decade.

Literally, the very first thought that came to my mind was, "Well, that ought to shut the 'centrists' up."

While the wonks and assorted policy analysts pore over the legislation and CBO study, it's worth taking a moment to remember that center-right Democrats, who've been complaining about this initiative all year, have very little to complain about right now. Indeed, they should be thrilled -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has put together a reform package custom made to give the so-called "moderates" just about everything they said they wanted.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid unveiled his $848 billion health reform bill Wednesday to broad support from fellow Democrats -- and the move quickly turned up the pressure on the last few wavering moderates to support the plan, which includes a sizable chunk of deficit cutting. [...]

Democrats on Wednesday were clearly hoping that the deficit figures -- the biggest deficit reduction of any health bill to date, Reid's office noted -- would knock down one of the last remaining obstacles to winning the votes of key centrists, at least to go ahead with debate on the bill as early as this weekend.

At this point, they've run out of excuses. The center-right Democrats said they wanted a reform bill that didn't cost too much, lowered the deficit, restricted funding of abortion, restricted aid to immigrants who entered the United States illegally, and didn't raise taxes on the middle class.

Are Nelson, Landrieu, Lincoln, and Lieberman really going to refuse to take "yes" for an answer? After Reid crafted a bill to address practically of their concerns, are these center-right members of the caucus really going to endorse a Republican filibuster of this landmark legislation?

Yes, there's still a public option, and the conservative Dems don't like the idea of public-private competition. But a little perspective is helpful -- Reid's version of the public option is a compromise of a compromise of a compromise. States that don't want to give residents a choice won't have to, and according to the CBO, only about 3 million to 4 million American consumers will end up choosing the public plan.

In other words, the center-right Dems have to decide: is it worth killing the entire health care reform initiative -- which otherwise meets all of their concerns -- because about 1% of the population may voluntarily choose to enroll in a public plan.

The notion that conservative Dems would filibuster their reform package is ridiculous. The notion that conservative Dems wouldn't even allow a debate on this bill is insane.

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

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THE REID BILL.... As promised, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) unveiled the Senate's health care reform bill late yesterday afternoon, presenting it first to an impressed Democratic caucus, and then to the media. As far as the politics of the rollout are concerned, Reid has to be thrilled.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid presented an $848 billion health-care overhaul package on Wednesday that would extend coverage to 31 million Americans and reform insurance practices while adding an array of tax increases, including a rise in payroll taxes for high earners.

Democratic leaders were jubilant.... The legislation received a positive response from across the Democratic spectrum. "This is the bill that we've been fighting for," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), a liberal who pressed Reid to revive the public option. Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.), the budget chairman and a leading Democratic fiscal hawk, said after a briefing on the bill, "I was very impressed by what Senator Reid has done."

OK, so what's in it? Let's briefly review some of the key elements:

Cost and deficit reduction: The Senate bill carries a price tag of $848 billion over 10 years, well below the arbitrary White House limit of $900 billion and less than the House version. The CBO estimates that the legislation will cut the federal budget deficit by $130 billion in the first decade, and a hard-to-believe $650 billion in the second decade.

Timing of implementation: To make the bill more affordable, the effective date of the Senate reform package would be 2014, a year later than the House bill.

Financing: To pay for reform, Reid's plan would impose an excise tax on the so-called "Cadillac" plans (insurance packages worth more than $23,000). There would now also be a 5% tax on elective cosmetic surgery (which would exclude procedures on those with congenital abnormalities, disfiguring diseases, or traumatic injuries). Reid also proposes a 0.5% increase to the Medicare payroll tax for families earning more than $250,000.

Subsidies: Medicaid would be expanded to 133% of the poverty line, and subsidies would help those making up to 300% of the poverty line -- which is short of the 400% threshold that many progressive reform advocates had hoped for. Instead, Reid would impose regulations on insurers to cap expenses for those between 300% and 400% of the poverty line.

Coverage: The bill would extend coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans, bringing insurance to 94% of the population. About a third of those left out would be undocumented immigrants.

Public Option: As expected, Reid went with a national public-option plan, which states could pass laws to opt out of.

Abortion: Reid steered clear of the Stupak amendment language, but would separate abortions paid for through premiums and taxpayer subsidies. The provision is a little complicated, but to make a long story short, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) loves what Reid came up with, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is livid.

Mandates: There's an individual mandate, but the penalties are fairly weak. There is no formal employer mandate, but there are some modest fines imposed on larger employers who fail to cover their workers.

Anti-trust: Buckling to demands from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), the Senate bill does not end anti-trust exemptions for the insurance industry.

For a caucus that's been at odds with itself for quite a while, Senate Dems left their meeting smiling. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said, "We're going to pass this legislation."

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) vowed, "It's going to be a holy war."

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

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November 18, 2009

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

* The CBO has scored the Senate health care bill at $849 billion over 10 years. It will cut the federal budget deficit by $127 billion over the first decade, and as $650 billion in the second decade. The plan extends coverage to 31 million uninsured Americans, which would bring the overall total to 94% of the population.

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise visit to Afghanistan earlier today, on the eve of Hamid Karzai's inauguration.

* Offered a very good deal, Iran nevertheless continues to be uncooperative.

* It looks like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) will join his party on the motion to proceed on health care reform.

* HHS pushback: "Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday afternoon issued a strong statement intended to put distance between federal policy and an influential panel's recommendations that most women should start regular breast cancer screening at age 50, not 40."

* President Obama expects Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be convicted and executed.

* Even after the economic crisis, exactly zero Senate Republicans are expected to support re-regulation of the financial industry.

* Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has finally dropped his hold on veterans' benefits bill.

* Wait, Somali pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama again?

* Democrats want to pass a law mandating paid sick leave for H1N1 sufferers. Business groups and their lobbyists are fighting the proposal.

* On a related note, a majority of Americans claim they don't want the H1N1 vaccine. I guess that'll mean more for the rest of us.

* Are there troops available for an escalation in Afghanistan?

* Professional courtesies be damned, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) intends to force the reading of the entire health care bill.

* The stimulus bill has helped millions of Americans avoid falling into poverty.

* Incremental progress on lessening suicides in the U.S. military.

* Zombies as potent metaphors.

* Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) today became the longest-serving member of Congress ever.

* Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) on Monday called Islam a "savage religion." He issued a qualified apology yesterday.

* Conservative lawmakers in Texas may have inadvertently made marriage illegal in the state. Oops.

* Dahlia Lithwick: "Opposition to the Obama administration's plan to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his confederates in a federal court in New York City is hardening into two camps. One is concerned that we may be unwittingly playing into the terrorists' hands. The other is incensed that we already have. What both camps share, besides a kind of unhinged logic and complete disregard for the legal process, is an obsessive fascination with the accused. The result is a broad willingness to sacrifice our commitment to legal principles in favor of the symbolic satisfaction of crushing the hopes and dreams of a motley group of criminals."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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EVIL EMPIRE, DEATH PANELS, AND CONSPICUOUS UNINTELLIGENCE.... I have deliberately steered clear of writing posts about Sarah Palin this week, in part because I don't think she's worth the obsessive media attention, and in part because I find myself struggling to care. I figure, plenty of other sites have this beat covered nicely, so I'll direct my attention elsewhere.

That said, I hope readers won't mind too much if I highlight one especially startling Palin comment, which is almost hard to believe.

The former half-term governor was asked by ABC News about her use of the phrase "death panels," which is generally considered one of the more ridiculous lies of the health care debate. In response, Palin told Barbara Walters that she wasn't being literal, and compared her choice of phrases to Reagan referring to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire."

"It's kind like what Reagan used to do, though, when he talked about, say, the 'evil empire.' You're never going to find the evil empire on a map of the world.

"And yet [Reagan] talked about that, in terms that people could understand -- kind of rationing down, not complicating the issue. But he, with the issue of the evil empire at the time, used those two words to get people to shake up, wake up, find out what's going on here. Now, had he been criticized and, and mocked, and, and condemned for ever using a term that wasn't actually there on a map, or in documents, we probably would never have succeeded in, in crushing the evil empire, and winning that."

Specifically on the notion of "death panels," Palin added that President Obama is "not lying" because "those two words will not be found in any of those thousands of pages of different variations of the health care bill," but she nevertheless thinks the president is being "disingenuous" because there will be "bureaucrats" who "will be able to call the shots, based on somebody's subjective judgment of productivity, of somebody's life, who will receive the health care that needs to be rationed, and who will not."

She added that it's "funny" to her that the White House rejected her insane argument, "and yet then, steps were taken to take the 'death panels' out."

This is among the stupidest things I've ever heard any politician say on any subject.

I hardly know where to start; none of this makes any sense. Palin thinks Reagan wasn't being literal about the "evil empire." That's wrong. The Soviet Union was the existential threat of the 20th century, and Reagan wasn't trying to "ration down" the rhetoric (whatever that means); he was being entirely literal.

Palin thinks use of the words "evil empire" made it possible to win the Cold War. That's insane. The Soviets collapsed because they ran a corrupt system based on a misguided ideology, not because of an American catchphrase.

She thinks this relates to her "death panel" nonsense because Reagan wasn't being literal (except he was), which is similar because she's also not being literal (except she is). Palin went on to explain that she really does think death panels are real (except they're not).

And to top it off, she thinks "death panels" were removed from the bill (except they weren't) because she was right (except that she wasn't).

I can think of plenty of politicians who are genuinely, unambiguously dumb. I've even met a few, and marveled at how they were able to attain any kind of political responsibilities, given their limited intellectual prowess. But I don't think I've ever seen a politician as conspicuously unintelligent as Sarah Palin gain national prominence. She represents the very worst American politics has to offer, and the embarrassment she brings to the political system is severe.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE STUPAK AMENDMENT.... To hear Rep. Burt Stapak (D-Mich.) and his allies tell it, his amendment on public funding of abortion is simply a continuation of the status quo. The measure, as they see it, is the equivalent of adding the Hyde Amendment, which has been on the books for more than three decades, to the health care reform bill.

Proponents of abortion rights have spent two weeks arguing otherwise. A new policy analysis bolsters their argument. Brian Beutler reports:

A new study by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services adds some expert imprimatur to what many progressives have been saying all along: The Stupak amendment to the House health care bill--which will prevent millions of women from buying health insurance policies that cover abortion--is likely to have consequences that reach far beyond its supposedly intended scope.

The report concludes that "the treatment exclusions required under the Stupak/Pitts Amendment will have an industry-wide effect, eliminating coverage of medically indicated abortions over time for all women, not only those whose coverage is derived through a health insurance exchange."

In other words, though the immediate impact of the Stupak amendment will be limited to the millions of women initially insured through a new insurance exchange, over time, as the exchanges grow, the insurance industry will scale down their abortion coverage options until they offer none at all.

Citing the findings, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said, "What the findings show are that women who want to purchase policies with their own money -- with their own premiums -- will not be able to buy insurance policies.... That's frankly the intention of the anti-choice movement now."

DeGette added that she's spoken directly to some of the Dems who voted for the Stupak measure two weeks ago, but who did not fully appreciate what the amendment was all about.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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THE 'CENTRISTS' BLOCKING THE DOOR.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will, in about an hour, unveil his health care plan to the Democratic caucus. Soon after, Reid is expected to talk about his proposal with reporters.

But a select few received a sneak preview this afternoon.

Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson, who have all expressed skepticism about the party's health care reform plan, were summoned to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office Wednesday to get a sneak peak at his health care bill.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Wednesday the senator invited these three moderate Democrats into his office to give them the "particulars on the bill."

All have been withholding support on voting to start debate -- and the fact that Reid is giving the three their own special briefing, before the broader Democratic meeting at 5 pm Wednesday, is a signal of their power.

In case you're thinking that this list of center-right Dems is missing someone, keep in mind that Joe Lieberman has already said he'll vote for the motion to proceed -- putting Nelson, Landrieu, and Lincoln to the right of Lieberman.

And just to clarify further, Reid is wooing these three, not to vote for the bill, and not to cut off a Republican filibuster of the bill, but just to get their support to send the legislation to the floor for consideration. To that extent, this is almost ridiculous -- three Senate Democrats are seriously thinking about joining Republicans in blocking a debate on health care reform. Forget an up-or-down vote, Nelson, Landrieu, and Lincoln have to be pleaded with just to allow the Senate to talk about health care reform on the floor.

If it seems hard to imagine an actual Democratic senator going so far as to strangle health care reform in the crib, note that CNN's report added that Landrieu said "she is leaning toward a 'no' vote on the motion to proceed."

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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WITH NO MARGIN FOR ERROR.... Sen. Max Baucus (D) apparently had to travel home to Montana for a family emergency, which means there are now "only" 59 members of the Senate Democratic caucus on the Hill. As Ezra noted, this one family matter might delay the health care reform process just a little more.

Word was that Reid was hoping to vote to proceed on the bill on Saturday, but if Democrats don't have Baucus, that could leave them with 59 votes, rather than the 60 needed to break the filibuster. The question then becomes whether Snowe or Collins will vote for cloture, or whether the vote needs to be delayed.

At the outset, this isn't a terribly big deal, but it does show the chilling delicacy of the Democratic margin. If a single senator falls ill, or gets in a car accident, or is otherwise incapacitated, the vote count becomes wildly unbalanced, and health-care reform becomes imperiled.

It's almost farcical.

Remember, this isn't just about health care. Back in February, Congress needed to pass a stimulus bill to help rescue the economy. But with no margin for error, the Senate had to wait around for more than five hours because Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) was flying back to D.C. from his mother's funeral.

With a 60-vote majority, one would like to think the Senate would still be able to operate if a guy has to fly home for a family emergency. But that's not the case. If even one Democrat can't show up for a vote for any reason, the legislative process stops -- because majority-rule no longer exists in the chamber (and because GOP moderates have almost entirely disappeared).

There has to be a better way for a legislative branch to function.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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ROHRABACHER'S PLEASANT SURPRISE.... Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is not someone I'd consider a moderate. He's dismissed Abu Ghraib torture as being similar to "hazing pranks from some fraternity." He rejects evidence on climate change, and has argued that warming was caused by dinosaur flatulence.

But credit where credit is due -- Rohrabacher has taken some sensible positions of late.

[S]peaking on the House floor last night, Rohrabacher said that the president is right not make any "brash" decisions [on Afghanistan]: "President Obama will soon make a decision that will chart the course for America's involvement in Afghanistan for years to come. I personally am not upset that it has taken President Obama this long to determine his response to General McChrystal's request for an additional 35,000 U.S. combat troops to be sent to Afghanistan. This is a monumental decision [...]

"This is not the time for business as usual nor is it time for brash decision making. A decision to send U.S. troops to Afghanistan will cause money -- lots of it -- and it will cost lives."

Rohrabacher added that calls from the right for more combat units in Afghanistan would be "counterproductive and perhaps disastrous." The California Republican went on to condemn the Bush administration's efforts in the region: "The competence of the last administration in carrying out that war and building a peace was abysmal."

All of this comes just a month after Rohrabacher said his party's caucus is overly invested in "political games," adding, "The Republican leadership in the House right now is constantly trying to play a political game every day to try and get a headline, and I don't think that's going to take us anywhere."

Maybe it's the soft bigotry of low expectations, but when a House Republican says something sensible, it stands out as noteworthy.

Update: Atrios reminds me that Rohrabacher, while not insane on this one issue, has a colorful background on counter-terrorism. It's a good point. For that matter, an emailer also reminds me of Rohrabacher having been up to his ears in the Abramoff scandal.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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SEMANTIC SILLINESS.... I suppose it's not too surprising, but it is depressing to be reminded of how stunted our political discourse really is. Greg Sargent had this disheartening-but-fascinating report.

On an RNC conference call with reporters just now, Rudy Giuliani called on the Obama administration to start using the words "war" and "terror" in the same sentence again.

First, he repeatedly praised Attorney General Eric Holder for his repeated use of the word "war" in his opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, where he's being grilled over his decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a New York court.

But then he charged that Holder's description of our standoff with global terrorism as a "war" wasn't good enough, and claimed that the administration's abandonment of the specific phrase "war on terror" was directly linked to the decision on where to try KSM and his co-conspirators.

Keep in mind, Giuliani, who has a child-like understanding of national security, isn't making a policy argument, per se. For the former mayor, the key here is rhetoric -- unless administration officials use the precise three-word phrase that Giuliani prefers, then the White House must necessarily be wrong.

"I do think that terminology is important," Giuliani said.

Apparently, so. The Attorney General told lawmakers this morning about the "war" the U.S. is fighting "against terrorism" and "a vicious enemy." According to the former mayor, Eric Holder's choice of words is inadequate, which leads the Justice Department to make bad decisions, which leads the Obama administration to undermine U.S. national security interests.

I know a wide variety of people, including most of the media establishment, take Giuliani seriously. I just don't understand why.

For what's it's worth, the Obama administration agreed early on that the "war on terror" phrase was lacking. That made sense; one can't wage a "war" against a tactic anyway. It also made strategic sense -- Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained the "war on terror" has "became associated in the minds of many people outside the Unites States and particularly in places where the countries are largely Islamic and Arab, as being anti-Islam and anti-Arab."

By moving away from the phrase, the president and his team came into line with the thinking of Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who banned the use of the phrase "Global War on Terror" back in 2007. Even Donald Rumsfeld rejected the phrase back in 2006: "[I]t is not a 'war on terror.'" Did Giuliani host RNC conference calls to condemn Mullen's and Rumsfeld's choice of phrases?

It should be obvious, but the key here is the efficacy of the policy, not the semantics. And when it comes to counter-terrorism, Obama and his team have proven themselves quite effective at capturing, detaining, and occasionally killing terrorists. If Giuliani is unsatisfied with this, he'll have to do a far better job of explaining why.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DEBT.... It looks like the story of the day among conservative bloggers is this CBS News report on the size of the U.S. national debt.

It's another record-high for the U.S. National Debt which today topped the $12-trillion mark. Divided evenly among the U.S. population, it amounts to $38,974.34 for every man, woman and child.

Technically, the debt hit the new high yesterday, but it was posted on the Treasury Department website just after 3:00 p.m. ET today. The exact calculation of the debt is a 16-digit tongue-twister and red-ink tsunami: $12,031,299,186,290.07

This latest milestone in the ever-rising journey of the National Debt comes less than eight months after it hit $11 trillion for the first time. The latest high-point is not unexpected, considering the federal deficit for the just-ended 2009 fiscal year hit an all-time high at $1.42-trillion -- more than triple the previous year's record high.

It's more than a little odd to see Republicans rediscover their outrage about deficits, debt, and the burdens of future generations. It was, after all, George W. Bush who added $5 trillion to the debt, after inheriting a quarter-trillion-dollar surplus from the Clinton era, which generated exactly zero criticism from GOP members of Congress.

Indeed, the entire political dynamic of the debate is bizarre. The Bush administration and congressional Republicans supported two costly wars, and added every penny to the debt, becoming the first party in American history to finance military conflicts entirely on credit. These same GOP officials expanded Medicare and created No Child Left Behind, and made literally no effort to pay for either.

And after their policies helped create the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, making increased spending and deficits an absolute necessity, Republicans feel comfortable making demands about fiscal responsibility? Seriously?

John Cole added, "I would love to hear how the Republican plan for slashing the deficit and tackling the debt will work. I'm interested in how capital gains tax cuts, making the Bush cuts permanent, ending the 'death tax,' continuing the prescription drug plan while ignoring the rising costs of health care, permanent war in the Middle East and privatizing Social Security are going to bring our books back into the black. I'm all ears, guys."

We all are. Republicans believe they have the credibility needed to address the same budget mess they created. I'd actually love to hear more about this -- if they were handed the reins of government immediately, and could do as they please, how would they improve the long-term budget picture?

Tax increases are, they say, out of the question. Cuts to the defense budget, apparently, are also off the table. If this year's health care debate is any indication, Republicans would also steer clear of any kind of Medicare cuts. The GOP could, I suppose, try to eliminate Social Security altogether, but I don't think they'd try (and if they did, their efforts wouldn't go far).

The Republican response is likely to point to some vague "spending cuts," that excludes the biggest areas of the budget. But let's not forget that in June, the White House asked GOP lawmakers to come up with some recommended budget cuts. The Republican caucus came up with a "bold" plan that would cut federal spending by about $5 billion a year for five years -- far less than the White House plan to reduce spending.

But it's not too late. Republican policymakers turned a massive surplus into a massive deficit, but they claim they now take fiscal discipline seriously. I'm delighted. They should take this opportunity to put a plan where their rhetoric is.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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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.

* In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has taken a pounding for weeks from his Senate primary rival, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R). National Journal reports that Crist is now poised to start punching back. The governor's campaign manager said Rubio "has had five to six months of the ability to go around and say whatever he'd like, and that's now changing."

* A new survey (pdf) from Public Policy Polling shows a very competitive Senate contest in Missouri, one of next year's most closely watched races. The poll shows Rep. Roy Blunt (R) with a large lead over his primary opponent, but Blunt currently trails Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan by the narrowest of margins, 43% to 42%.

* New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) has not officially launched a gubernatorial campaign yet, but he and his team have reportedly begun looking at possible running mates. On the list is New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who recently looked quite strong in a narrow defeat against NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

* Virginia Gov. and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine spent some time this week talking about Creigh Deeds (D) getting trounced in this year's gubernatorial race. Kaine believes Deeds would have fared far better if he'd motivated the Democratic base and stuck closer to President Obama.

* Next year's gubernatorial race in Kansas may be an open-seat contest, but Sen. Sam Brownback (R) looks so strong, he's spent the last several months running unopposed. Tom Wiggans (D), a Kansas business leader, announced yesterday that he'll take on Brownback. It will be Wiggans' first attempt at elected office, and he will likely face no opposition for the Democratic nomination.

* Don't be too surprised if former HHS Secretary and Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) runs against Sen. Russ Feingold (D) next year in Wisconsin.

* In Connecticut, former wrestling executive Linda McMahon's (R) Senate campaign continues to struggle in being taken seriously. A former employee is now blasting McMahon for, among other things, failing to provide health care and pensions for her wrestlers.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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GOHMERT GOES THERE.... Among members of Congress, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) has long stood out as a man a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Two weeks ago, he argued that health care reform proponents are trying to kill off senior citizens before they warn young people about the evils of the Democratic agenda. A few weeks before that, Gohmert argued that expanding hate crimes protections would lead to a legalization of necrophilia, pedophilia, and bestiality. He then compared those who disagree with him to Nazis.

And while Gohmert's name is not quite as familiar as Steve King's and Michele Bachmann's when it comes to the House Stark Raving Mad Caucus, he's clearly making a play for notoriety.

....Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas suggested yesterday that Democrats may actually want another terrorist attack because rebuilding the city would create jobs.

"You've got subways, tunnels, bridges all subject to terrorism. And unless they're trying to create a new jobs bill by allowing terrorism back in New York then this is insane. And even that would be insane."

Last night, Gohmert said that "it is extremely helpful to have a community organizer in the White House because you'll need lots of community organization in order to adequately evacuate massive areas of the most densely populated area in America."

This is the same Gohmert who appeared on a radical radio show in July to argue that the government may try to control what Americans eat and where we can live. He's also endorsed the "Birther" legislation.

In May, Gohmert told his colleagues, "We are going to borrow more money from the Chinese to possibly give them money back to create habitats for wild dogs and cats that are rare. There is no assurance that if we did that we wouldn't end up with moo goo dog pan or moo goo cat pan."

The guy has "future member of the House Republican leadership" written all over him.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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ILLINOIS REPUBLICAN LAMENTS 'IDIOTS'.... The prospect of transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay to a maximum-security prison in Thomson, Illinois, generated an interesting response from a Republican state lawmaker who represents a neighboring area.

Representative Jim Sacia of the state's 89th District accused Republicans in Washington -- including Senate candidate, Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill) -- of risking thousands of local jobs in their demagoguery of the detainee issue.

"My thinking on this is extremely positive," Sacia told the Huffington Post. "If we lose this opportunity. All I can think of is we literally are idiots. I mean that sincerely."

"I understand I'm on different pages of music with others in my party. First of all this should not be a partisan issue in anyway. If President Obama brings the detainees on U.S. soil and we sit here with a brand new state-of-the-art, max security prison, sitting vacant for the last eight years, and pass on an opportunity to sell it to the federal government, which we would fill it with 1,500 regular prisoners and 800 detainees, what is the problem? The building was designed to do that.

"The only reason we have rhetoric now is because of the closing of Gitmo," Sacia concluded. "It makes no sense at all. This is a tremendous opportunity and we would be idiots to waste it."

As Sacia, a former law enforcement official, sees it, the proposal could bring thousands of jobs to an area that has "suffered unbelievable economic hardship."

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), meanwhile, is taking a different tack. Kirk, hoping to generate support for his 2010 Senate campaign, is grandstanding on the issue, arguing without evidence that locked up terrorist suspects would endanger Illinois residents.

In other words, as far as Jim Sacia is concerned, Mark Kirk is the "idiot" who wants to waste the economic opportunity.

The congressman's cheap tactics may end up costing him support and credibility. The Chicago Sun-Times editorialized this week, "Kirk's scare talk might do him wonders with the GOP base, but it won't convince a single terrorist that this nation has a backbone."

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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GETTING THE BALL ROLLING AGAIN.... When the House of Representatives passed health care reform two weeks ago, it was heralded as a landmark achievement and sent a loud signal that this once-in-a-generation opportunity really was coming together. All eyes immediately turned to the Senate.

Where the momentum quickly came to a halt. We've had two weeks of a reform bill in limbo, waiting for the CBO, putting out fires, and generally just sitting around waiting for progress.

Today, the Senate leadership intends to get the ball rolling again.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will unveil and discuss his health care bill to Democrats at a special 5 pm caucus meeting tonight, sources say. Reid hopes to brief the caucus before the bill is publicly unveiled, and that could happen late tonight. A CBO analysis of that legislation is expected somewhat earlier in the day, and despite some last minute road bumps, Reid is reportedly very pleased with the numbers he's seeing.

Reid may give the public 72 hours to review the bill before holding a cloture vote on a motion to proceed this weekend, though he may call for that vote slightly earlier.

Everything I'm hearing is entirely consistent with this. As I understand it, Reid has personally seen the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, and is very pleased with the results. He'll talk to the Democratic caucus about the CBO score at the 5 p.m. (ET) meeting, and some top-line numbers will likely be available, though the full CBO report may not be publicly released until tomorrow.

After the meeting with Senate Dems, Reid will likely host some kind of event on the Hill, talking up the bill and the CBO score. (Depending on the length of the caucus meeting, Reid may or may not wrap up in time for the evening newscasts.)

The White House's efforts are also picking up. Vice President Biden will be on the Hill today, meeting with Reid and working on a whip strategy. Tom Daschle and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will reportedly be part of Biden's lobbying efforts among Senate Democrats.

The first procedural vote -- a motion to proceed, which will effectively begin the formal debate -- is by no means an easy one. Every Republican is expected to filibuster the vote -- they not only oppose reform, they oppose debating reform -- meaning that every member of the Democratic caucus will have to at least be willing to take this initial step.

That vote may come as early as Friday, though Saturday is probably more likely.

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

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CONSISTENCY ISN'T THEIR STRONG POINT.... When President Obama nominated Judge Hamilton for the 7th Circuit seven months ago, Obama did so specifically because Hamilton has a record of moderation. The nomination was intended to send a signal that the process of filling judicial vacancies need not be contentious. "We would like to put the history of the confirmation wars behind us," one White House aide said back in March.

That didn't happen. The very same Republican senators who insisted that judicial filibusters are an affront to our constitutional traditions yesterday launched a filibuster of the Hamilton nomination. Dana Milbank's piece on this is worth reading.

In their quest to thwart President Obama, Republicans do not fear the hobgoblin of consistency.

For much of this decade, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, now the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, led the fight against Democratic filibusters of George W. Bush's judicial nominees. He decried Democrats' "unprecedented, obstructive tactics." To have Bush nominees "opposed on a partisan filibuster, it is really wrong," he added. He demanded they get "an up-and-down vote." He praised Republican leaders because they "opposed judicial filibusters" and have "been consistent on this issue even when it was not to their political benefit to do so."

So now a Democratic president is in the White House and he has nominated his first appellate judicial nominee, U.S. District Judge David Hamilton. And what did Sessions do? He went to the floor and led a filibuster.

Sessions rationalized his inconsistency by saying he doesn't "agree" with Judge Hamilton's "judicial philosophy."

He had plenty of company. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in 2005 that judicial filibusters are a distortion of the Senate's "advise and consent" responsibilities, but that didn't stop him from joining Sessions' filibuster yesterday. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said in 2005 that judicial filibusters have no place in the Senate, but he voted with Sessions, too. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in 2005 that judicial filibusters are likely to "destroy" the federal judiciary "over time," but he also joined his GOP colleagues.

In the end, 70 senators, including 10 Republicans, voted for cloture. Just 29 supported the filibuster, and most of them demanded the exact opposite when Bush was in office.

Now, I suspect the charge from the right will be that the hypocrisy cuts both ways -- Republicans are turning their backs on their collective Bush-era outrage, but Senate Dems, the argument goes, are also contradicting their previous positions.

Milbank, to his credit, notes the qualitative difference: "Democrats were not in the same league of hypocrisy, because they weren't opposing Republicans' right to filibuster."

Right. For the GOP, filibusters of Bush's nominees were literally unconstitutional, and an affront to our system of government. Now, these same Republicans think the same tactic is fine. The two haven't switched sides -- Dems haven't said judicial filibusters tear at the fabric of democracy, they simply said it's a dumb idea.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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MOMENTUM ON THE HILL FOR A JOBS BILL.... House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he expects the House to pass what he called a "jobs bill" before Christmas.

He indicated that the legislation might include money for public jobs, which many liberals have advocated; tax credits to employers for new hires, an Obama campaign proposal that was shelved early this year amid concern that businesses might game their payrolls; and additional spending for infrastructure and road projects.

"All the economic analysts have indicated that it is going to be very difficult" to reduce the jobless rate, he said, "but we are hopeful to make progress on that."

For those who remain out of work in the coming year, he indicated the measure also would extend emergency federal unemployment and health benefits.

It may be tempting to think any lawmaker with a pulse would jump at the chance to support a jobs bill, given the larger economic climate. With double-digit unemployment, who in their right mind would reject a federal effort to create jobs?

The usual suspects, actually. Let's not forget, in January and February, with the economy on the brink of a collapse, the overwhelming majority of Republicans preferred a truly insane five-year spending freeze to a stimulus effort. The handful of moderate Republicans who were willing to entertain the idea demanded that the recovery initiative be smaller than it needed to be.

And now that a jobs bill is back on the table, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) argues, "How will 'spend, spend, spend' get the American economy back on track?" I sometimes get the impression Eric Cantor is easily confused.

Roll Call reports that Blue Dogs are split on the idea, and most of the caucus' leadership is opposed. Blue Dog Co-Chairman Baron Hill (D-Ind.) said he would "probably not" support the effort, and Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) said a jobs bill is probably unnecessary because the economy is improving anyway.

In the upper chamber, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) sounded skeptical about the idea, unless it's done through the pending transportation spending bill. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she's reluctant to spend more, but said a jobs bill may be worthwhile if it's "very targeted." Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe (R) and Susan Collins (R) both signaled reluctance, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the idea of a jobs bill is an "insult." Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said of a renewed congressional effort to create jobs, "I don't think that would be a good idea."

This isn't going to be easy.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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A STRONGER SENATE VOTE ON DETAINEES.... Five months ago, the Senate voted to deny funding to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The vote was 90 to 6 -- most Democrats said they were waiting for a better plan from the Obama administration.

Yesterday, a related vote went much better.

The Senate on Tuesday rejected an attempt to bar using funds from a defense spending bill to build or modify prisons in the United States to hold detainees from Guantanamo Bay, a move that suggested congressional Democrats may be lining up behind President Obama's vision for closing the military prison.

The Senate vote, largely along party lines, came days after the administration announced plans to bring five alleged terrorists, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to New York for trial. The GOP-backed measure was attached to a $134 billion plan that funded programs for veterans and military construction. The overall bill was passed unanimously.

The measure, championed by right-wing Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, garnered three votes from the Democratic caucus: Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

In a statement, VoteVets.org chairman and Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz called out the amendment's sponsor: "Nearly 200 terrorists were tried and convicted in U.S. courts, most notably Zacharias Moussavi who was brought to the U.S. by President George W. Bush. All the while, Senator Inhofe was quiet. Playing politics with security like this is a disgrace."

On a related note, David Kurtz posted an item from a reader yesterday that resonated with me: "Let me get this straight: we kept KSM and his buddies in Gitmo for eight years, no trial, no process, under harsh conditions including torture -- and now that we're finally giving them a trial in civilian court, NOW Al-Qaeda wants to retaliate? NOW they're going to kidnap the mayor's daughter and demand that KSM be released? It doesn't even make sense on its own terms."

Quite right. The standard Republican rhetoric suggests terrorists are necessary magnets for more terrorists -- where one goes, others follow. If there's a terrorist on trial in NYC, terrorists will go to NYC. If there's a terrorist locked up for life in Illinois, terrorists will flock to Illinois. As Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) put it the other day, he fears "al Qaeda would follow al Qaeda."

So, there's the follow-up question: if the Republican reasoning is correct, shouldn't the area around Gitmo be the single most dangerous place on earth? Or put another way, if there mere presence of terrorists invites violence, shouldn't al Qaeda have launched countless attacks against Gitmo at some point in recent years?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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November 17, 2009

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

* The shift from unipolar power? "President Barack Obama's first visit to China underscored a shifting balance of power: two giants moving closer to being equals."

* As of a few minutes ago, the Republican filibuster of Judge David Hamilton was defeated, 70 to 29. The vote makes Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) look pretty bad.

* No word, as of this minute, from the CBO on the Senate health care bill. The plan, for now, is for the leadership to unveil the bill tomorrow, with the first vote by this weekend.

* White House isn't happy about the approval of settlement expansion in Jerusalem. From a press statement: "We are dismayed at the Jerusalem Planning Committee's decision to move forward on the approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem. At a time when we are working to re-launch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed. Neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that could unilaterally pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations. The U.S. also objects to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. Our position is clear: the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties."

* Tackling financial fraud: "The Obama administration has formed a new task force to target financial fraud -- replacing an earlier corporate fraud task force. Attorney General Eric Holder says the new group will have a broader scope -- and incorporate state investigators as well as federal agencies -- to investigate and prosecute financial crimes that worsened the market collapse."

* Pakistan thinks it's making real progress against the Taliban. The Obama administration isn't quite as confident.

* It looks like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner may want to explain these efforts from last year at the New York Fed.

* Let's just say Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) isn't impressed with the database work associated with tracking stimulus spending.

* The public seems comfortable with a surcharge on the rich to pay for health care reform.

* So, if I'm reading the new CNN poll correctly, Americans are comfortable with trials against terrorists suspect, and they're comfortable with these trials on American soil. But if they're in civilian courts, as compared to military tribunals, the public balks. How much does the electorate really appreciate the legal nuances here?

* C Street House loses its tax-exempt status. Good move.

* The DCCC slams Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) following his insane references to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's kids.

* Depressing, but not unexpected: "Uninsured patients with traumatic injuries, such as car crashes, falls and gunshot wounds, were almost twice as likely to die in the hospital as similarly injured patients with health insurance, according to a troubling new study."

* The inspirational story of Tererai Trent.

* John McCain loves the AARP. John McCain hates the AARP. Even now, Jukebox John keeps changing his tune.

* And while I continue to steer clear of actual, stand-alone posts on Sarah Palin, it's probably worth noting that her book appears to be a work of fiction. Not true at all. Just totally wrong about reality.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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REPEAL IN '13? NOT GONNA HAPPEN.... From time to time, congressional Republicans will concede that health care reform, in one form or another, is likely to become law sometime soon. They'll usually follow it up, however, by assuring the GOP base that Republicans will work to repeal the reform package just as soon as they're in the majority again -- whenever that might be.

National Journal's Ron Brownstein notes in his latest piece that we're likely to hear even more of this.

Some senior House Republicans have already pledged to repeal any health care bill if they regain the majority. And many GOP challengers in 2010 will surely echo them. But with Obama holding a veto pen, Republicans probably couldn't mount a real threat unless they won the White House in 2012. One top adviser to a possible 2012 GOP presidential contender says that, given the GOP base's hostility to the reform plan and independents' unease, it is likely that "most potential [Republican] candidates will argue for wholesale replacement with their own version of health care reform."

There are some good pieces on this from Matt, Brendan, and Ezra, but I'd just add that I'm not especially worried about the prospects of repeal. Indeed, for all the GOP bluster, I find it hard to believe even the most wild-eyed Republican seriously believes repeal is a possibility.

For one thing, if anyone thinks the year-long effort to pass reform was difficult, just imagine trying to un-pass it. Are Republicans going to craft a new health care plan that can pass the House, get 60 votes in the Senate, and gain approval from some other, future president? They shouldn't count on it.

For another, any Republican "replacement" health care plan would invariably want to curtail efforts to cover the uninsured -- which is exactly why it's a political impossibility. There will be precious few politicians willing to proudly proclaim to tens of millions of Americans in 2012, "Know that health coverage you're about to get for you and your family? I'm about to take it away."

It's why conservatives have spent the year fighting, lying, and screaming -- they know how limited their options will be going forward. Republicans might be able to gut a public option, undermine consumer protections, or make it harder on middle-class families to afford coverage, but those efforts would be difficult, and bring their own political penalties.

Once this bill is done, changes will be incremental and a major overhaul will be all but impossible anytime soon.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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SHIFTING BACK TO THE OTHER REFORM FIGHT.... For about two weeks, much of the fight surrounding health care reform has been about abortion. Now that we have a sense of where that dispute is headed, it's a good time to get back to the other health care reform fight.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, met on Monday night with a group of liberal Senate Democrats who urged Mr. Reid not to back down from his decision to put a government-run insurance plan, or public option, in the major health care legislation that he is working to finalize.

Mr. Reid has said that he would include a public plan in the bill with a provision for states to opt out if they do not want to offer it. But Mr. Reid is still short at least 3 of the 60 votes he needs on a motion to bring the health care bill up for debate.

An aide to Mr. Reid said that the majority leader remained committed to retaining the public plan as he worked to secure the final votes.

The meeting was held at the request of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio, one of the Senate's more forceful advocates of the public option. The point, apparently, was to remind the leadership that reform advocates have already compromised quite a bit to get to this point, and they're not especially inclined to compromise even more, especially since a clear majority of the Senate is fully on board with the existing Democratic plan.

"We figure on the public option there has been a lot of compromise already," Brown said. "People who oppose the public option, you know, the overwhelming number of Republicans -- maybe all of them -- and the couple or three Democrats, will have their chance on the floor to do amendments."

Brown also emphasized the record of progressive compromises: "A large number of people in this country including many, many doctors wanted Medicare for all. That didn't happen. Then we wanted a strong public option tied to Medicare rates. Then we wanted a public option building the Medicare network. That didn't happen. Now we are saying public option coming out of the HELP Committee. And now we're saying public option with the state opt-out. Where was the compromise coming from their side?"

The problem, of course, is that having "only" 56 votes in the Senate isn't enough, at least according to the twisted version of the legislative process currently guiding the chamber. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told MSNBC last night that the caucus is "working on it," but they're "struggling."

One possible avenue going forward: "[S]imply leaving the ball in the moderates' court." It's an approach that tells Nelson, Lincoln, Landrieu, and Lieberman that the weight of history rests on their willingness to break a Republican filibuster and let the Senate vote on health care.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE ENDURING KNOW-NOTHING STRAIN.... Washington Times editor Wesley Pruden trashed President Obama in his column today, which wouldn't ordinarily be especially interesting. The right-wing writer, however, touched on a specific kind of attack that illustrates a larger trend.

In this case, Pruden is all worked up because the president bowed before the Japanese Emperor. Pruden believes Obama doesn't understand "American history" because "the essence of America is that all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye."

That's nice rhetoric, which would be more compelling were it not for the various photos of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and H.W. Bush bowing before foreign leaders during their respective tenures. I've looked for related columns of Pruden trashing these Republican presidents for forgetting "the essence of America," but can't seem to find any.

But the key to the column is the wrap-up:

...Mr. Obama, unlike his predecessors, likely knows no better, and many of those around him, true children of the grungy '60s, are contemptuous of custom. Cutting America down to size is what attracts them to "hope" for "change." It's no fault of the president that he has no natural instinct or blood impulse for what the America of "the 57 states" is about. He was sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.

This is obviously some pretty offensive nonsense from a shameless hack, but it also speaks to a Know-Nothing strain that lingers in American politics.

Nativism was more common during last year's campaign. Columnist Kathleen Parker, for example, wrote a piece in May 2008 on questions of candidates and "full-bloodedness." She wrote, "It's about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots.... We love to boast that we are a nation of immigrants. But there's a different sense of America among those who trace their bloodlines back through generations of sacrifice.... Full-blooded Americans get this."

The skepticism was, of course, directed at Barack Obama, which is odd when one thinks about it -- his grandfather fought in Patton's Army, and Obama himself is apparently a distant cousin of Dick Cheney. How his "roots" have been deemed inadequate is a mystery.

Unless, of course, you're a conservative who think the president's father doesn't count because he was African; his mother doesn't count because she married a man from "the Third World"; and his birthplace doesn't count because it's a non-contiguous state. It's what makes Pruden comfortable openly mocking the president's "blood impulse" -- as if the president is only technically American, in a way that we shouldn't respect.

It's a shame such reminders are necessary in the 21st century, but I'd like to note that America isn't a country club or fraternity reserved for the white, wealthy elite. Obama's story is a uniquely American story. Some of us take pride in such things. The notion that we must judge citizens based on a right-wing understanding of "natural instincts" or "heritage" -- more generations = more American -- is an idea that offends everything our country stands for.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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STUPAK'S TOUGH TALK.... The last we heard from Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), he was making a variety of bold threats about killing health care reform unless his expansive anti-abortion measure is included in the final bill. This morning, Stupak showed up on "Fox & Friends" for a little more chest-thumping.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) pledged this morning to defeat healthcare reform if his abortion amendment is taken out, saying 10 to 20 pro-life Democrats would vote against a bill with weaker language.

"They're not going to take it out," Stupak said on Fox and Friends, referring to Senate Democrats. "If they do, health care will not move forward."

Responding to White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod's contention that the Stupak measure goes too far and would have to be "adjusted," the Michigan lawmaker responded, "We won fair and square.... [T]hat is why Mr. Axelrod is not a legislator, he doesn't really know what he is talking about."

Exactly who doesn't know what he's talking about is open to some debate.

Here's what we know at this point. First, Stupak had claimed that he representing a voting bloc of 40 votes, but as of this morning, he believes his faction is made up of "at least 10 to 15 to 20" House Dems who oppose abortion rights. For Speaker Pelosi and the House leadership, making up the loss of 40 votes is impossible to overcome. A 10-vote bloc represents a serious problem -- it would require some Dems who voted against the bill to change their minds -- but not an insurmountable hurdle.

Second, Stupak's amendment appears to have no shot at all in the Senate. It would need 60 votes, and it probably doesn't even have 50. The one conservative Dem who seemed the most supportive of the measure has since reversed course.

And third, Stupak can talk tough on "Fox & Friends," and the show's audience no doubt appreciates it, but he may not be able to back up the bravado. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, argued this morning that when push comes to shove, Stupak won't be able to kill reform over this one issue.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE NATURE OF THE OPPOSITION.... A new CNN poll shows 46% of Americans support the health care reform proposal pending in Congress, while 49% are against it. The numbers are nearly identical to the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, which found 48% support, 49% opposition.

But there's an underlying problem with the question -- nearly all of these polls fail to tell us why Americans like or dislike the proposal. It's similar to poll questions asking whether the public approves of President Obama's handling of the issue, and seeing the number drop below 50%. Is that because Americans want him to compromise more or less? Is he fighting too hard or not hard enough for a public option? Is he going to fast or too slow? The number is inherently ambiguous.

To its credit, the CNN poll went a little further than most on this point.

Americans are split over the health care bill which narrowly passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, according to a new national poll -- and the survey suggests the opposition to the legislation isn't coming only from the right. [...]

"Roughly one in three Americans opposes the House bill because it is too liberal, but one in 10 oppose the bill because it is not liberal enough," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "That may indicate that a majority opposes the details in the bill, but also that a majority may approve of the overall approach taken by House Democrats and President Obama."

As a result, despite the division over the House bill, a majority of Americans would like to see the Senate take up the legislation.

Most of the time, it seems as if the conventional wisdom assumes critics of the reform plan are necessarily on the right. But the CNN poll helps prove otherwise -- 46% support the reform bill, and another 10% would like it if it were more liberal.

Republicans tend to look at these evenly-split polls on health care and assume opponents of the bill are with the GOP. That's clearly not the case.

The same poll, by the way, shows President Obama's approval rating holding steady at 55%, and Democrats leading Republicans on the generic-ballot test by seven points.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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HOW THE GAME USED TO BE PLAYED.... Medicare's chief actuary, Richard Foster, has caused congressional Democrats a few headaches with a report on health care reform. Ezra Klein had an interesting item this morning, reminding us of the last time Foster wrote a report congressional leaders didn't like.

In 2003, when Republicans were forging ahead on the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, Foster wrote an analysis suggesting that the bill would cost $534 billion over the first 10 years -- quite a bit more than the $394 billion estimate by the Congressional Budget Office. He handed his report over to the White House, the OMB and the Department of Health and Human Services. And that's where it died.

As we learned later, Tom Scully, the Bush-appointed head of CMS, told Foster that he'd lose his job if he released that report. Despite believing the demand was "inappropriate" and "unethical," Foster, after consulting with an HHS lawyer who told him that Scully could indeed make good on his threat, buried the report.

Say what you will about the Democrats this year, but compared with the Medicare Part D process (remember the shenanigans of the House vote that literally led ethics investigations against Tom DeLay?), health-care reform has been a model of good government.

I remember the scandal well. In fact, if anything, Ezra may be underselling what transpired.

During the congressional debate over Medicare Part D, Foster prepared a cost estimate. Administration officials specifically told the actuary that his findings were unhelpful -- Scully was warned specifically not to share the truth with Congress. "The consequences for insubordination are extremely severe," Foster was told at the time.

Independent analyses, including one from the Congressional Research Service, said the Bush administration's threats and efforts to deliberately hide information from lawmakers may have been literally criminal.

Why didn't this become a bigger story? In large part because congressional Republicans, in the majority at the time, decided not to pursue it. As months went by, other Bush-related scandals emerged, and the coordinated effort to mislead Congress faded.

Five years later, I'm trying to imagine what it would be like if the Obama administration deliberately hid discouraging information about health care reform from Congress, and threatened government officials in order to keep inconvenient information from public view.

Hell, when HHS told Humana to stop using taxpayer money to mislead the public about health care reform, Republicans labeled it a "gag order" and began blocking literally every health-related nominee sent to the Senate for confirmation. If they want to talk about "gag orders," it's a discussion Democrats should welcome.

For all the hyperventilating this year from the right about alleged abuses of power, it's fun to take a stroll down memory lane once in a while.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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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.

* At the urging of Fox News' Glenn Beck, Conservative Party congressional candidate Doug Hoffman "un-conceded" the race in New York's 23rd. Two weeks ago, Hoffman apparently lost the race, but some spreadsheet errors have since narrowed the margin of his defeat.

* For what it's worth, it still seems exceedingly unlikely that Hoffman will overcome the vote deficit.

* In Iowa, a new Des Moines Register poll offers awful news for Gov. Chet Culver (D), who's seeking re-election next year. The incumbent's approval rating is down to 40%, and in a hypothetical match-up against former Gov. Terry Branstad (R), Culver now trails by 24 points, 57% to 33%.

* Speaking of Iowa, the same poll shows Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) with a big lead over Democrat Roxanne Conlin, 57% to 30%. Conlin last sought statewide office 27 years ago, and many Iowans don't remember her -- Conlin's name I.D. is only 62%. Grassley, however, did not win over voters during his antics during the health care debate, and only 39% of Iowans approve of his handling of the issue.

* In Kansas, there's a heated gubernatorial Senate primary between two Republican members of the U.S. House, Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt. At this point, Moran appears to be pulling away.

* Alexi Giannoulias' (D) Senate campaign in Illinois continues to pick up steam, earning a big endorsement yesterday from Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

* If former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) runs for governor next year, a new Rasmussen poll shows he'll be the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. It would be Coleman's second run for the job -- he lost to Jesse Ventura in 1998.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... During the floor debate over health care reform, Rep. John Shadegg (R) of Arizona generated a little attention for himself by bringing a 7-month-old baby to the podium, and pretending to speak on her behalf.

Last night's speech wasn't nearly as adorable. Shadegg spoke from the House floor to rail against a criminal trial for alleged 9/11 conspirators in New York City. In particular, the far-right Arizonan was incensed that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) believes, "It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered."

As Matt Finkelstein reported, Shadegg doesn't see it quite the same way. "I saw the Mayor of New York said today, 'We're tough. We can do it,'" the Republican congressman said. "Well, Mayor, how are you going to feel when it's your daughter that's kidnapped at school by a terrorist? How are you going to feel when it's some clerk -- some innocent clerk of the court -- whose daughter or son is kidnapped? Or the jailer's little brother or little sister?"

As a matter of decency, Shadegg's little tantrum was vile and unnecessary. If Shadegg has a policy argument to make, fine. But openly speculating on the House floor about imaginary kidnappings of the mayor's daughter is loathsome, even by the standards of congressional Republicans.

And while I'm hesitant to offer any kind of substantive response to such transparent nonsense, I can't help but wonder, where has John Shadegg been? Why didn't he pop off like this during any of the other criminal trials against the hundreds of terrorists who've been put through the federal justice system? If this right-wing lawmaker seriously believes court proceedings lead foreign terrorists to kidnap children on American soil, why has Shadegg remained entirely silent on the point over the last couple of decades?

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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FILIBUSTER FOLLY.... The to-do list itself is almost overwhelming. After eight years of Republican failure, incompetence, mismanagement, and corruption, Democratic leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were tasked by the electorate to rescue the economy, resolve two costly wars, improve the struggling job market, address a crushing debt, and fix health care, energy policy, immigration, a housing crisis, a collapsing U.S. auto industry, and the Gitmo mess.

And just to make things really interesting, those same Democratic leaders were told they had to meet a new procedural standard that no governing party in the United States has ever had to overcome: a 60-vote minimum in the Senate on everything.

The New America Foundation's Michael A. Cohen explains today that it's this one obstructionist tactic -- filibusters and the threat of filibusters -- that has stunted policymakers' ability to function.

Reforming the way Washington operates is hardly the sexiest of topics, but from a policy and even a political perspective, there are few more important issues on which Democrats should be focusing their energy. Quite simply, the filibuster has become the single tool that is undercutting everything Obama and the Democrats were elected to achieve.

Both parties have historically used the filibuster, but its overuse by modern Republicans stands at outrageous proportions.... In effect, majority rule in the Senate has been supplanted by undemocratic, supermajority rule. The filibuster has become a tool to block not just bad legislation but all legislation; it has become so endemic that it is now an institutionalized way of doing business, casting its shadow over everything the Senate does.

To be sure, with a 60-member Senate Democratic caucus, this should, in theory, be an obstacle that can be cleared. But note that this year hasn't been a consistent 60 -- it was 58 until Specter switched. It was 59 until Franken was seated. It was functionally 58 in the midst of Kennedy's and Byrd's illnesses. It was 59 after Kennedy's death.

It's 60 now, but there are still 58 actual Democrats -- one of the caucus members is Joe Lieberman, whose loyalty is limited to his own ego. Even with 60, it only takes one center-right Dem to defeat any bill.

The point, of course, is that 60 shouldn't be the necessary minimum anyway. If a majority of the House, a majority of the Senate, and the president all agree on a piece of legislation, it should pass. Congress should operate on majority rule.

I like items like Cohen's, not just because it's well written and important, but because it's part of a larger effort to finally get this issue on the table and on the minds of the political world. As his piece noted, what's needed here is "political will" to address the dysfunctional process that "represents the single greatest threat to the Democratic Party's progressive agenda and its political future."

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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AN ODD WAY TO SHOW 'LEADERSHIP'.... It's almost tragic to see what a guy has to do to seek the Republican presidential nomination these days.

In the era of tea-party conservatives, [Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R)] is calculatedly veering to the right. Speaking to the Economist in St. Paul, he recently explained that the Earth might be warming but that it is unclear "to what extent that is the result of natural causes."

Pawlenty obviously knows better. We know he knows better because he has a lengthy, public record on environmental issues that bears no resemblance to his new positions. Lee Fang has a terrific timeline, which makes clear that "over the course of the last three years, Pawlenty has gone from an outspoken proponent of clean energy to a Glenn Beck pandering climate change denier." In late 2006, Pawlenty not only sought to reduce carbon emissions, he even promoted a regional cap-and-trade program. In late 2007, he declared climate change "one of the most important [issues] of our time."

That was then. Now Pawlenty opposes his own cap-and-trade plan and claims to question the basics of global warming.

Is winning a primary more important than losing one's self-respect?

Pawlenty was inclined to stay out of the special election in New York's 23rd, right up until right-wing bloggers demanded he intervene. He backed the Conservative Party candidate soon after. Pawlenty engaged in grandstanding against ACORN funding that doesn't exist. He validated "death panel" nonsense. He's even dabbled in radical Tenther ideas.

Pawlenty, in other words, still hasn't sought treatment for his Romney-itis. Remember Romney? He was the relatively moderate Republican governor of a reliably "blue" state, who could present himself, with a straight face, as a pragmatic, sane policymaker. That is, until he wanted to be president, and decided to experience some kind of ideological metamorphosis -- sane, moderate pragmatism wouldn't win over the Republican base, so that persona would have to be cast aside. It was painful to watch, and ultimately ineffective.

But that hasn't stopped Pawlenty from trying the identical strategy.

The base demands fealty. Tim Pawlenty hopes to prove to them what a great "leader" he'll be by following their commands and abandoning his own record in the hopes of impressing them.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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GOP STILL FAILING TO CAPITALIZE.... Plenty to chew on in the new WaPo/ABC poll.

As the Senate prepares to take up legislation aimed at overhauling the nation's health-care system, President Obama and the Democrats are still struggling to win the battle for public opinion. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Americans deeply divided over the proposals under consideration and majorities predicting higher costs ahead.

But Republican opponents have done little better in rallying the public opposition to kill the reform effort. Americans continue to support key elements of the legislation, including a mandate that employers provide health insurance to their workers and access to a government-sponsored insurance plan for those people without insurance.

Looking through the internals, there are some interesting angles to keep an eye on.

* Reform: Asked for their "overall" impressions of the health care debate, 48% support the reform plan, 49% oppose it. That's a pretty even split, though it's worth noting that 48% support is the highest it's been in several months -- there's a clear division, but it's not getting worse for reform advocates.

* Reform specifics: While the public is evenly divided on the larger bill, a 53% majority still supports a public option; a 66% majority supports an employer mandate; and a 56% majority supports subsidized health plans that cover abortion procedures, so long as there's a division between premiums and taxpayer money.

* President Obama: The president's level of support is showing some durability, despite the difficult times. His job approval rating is 56%, one point lower than October, but two points higher than September. His personal favorable rating is even higher, at 61%.

* Republican Party: The GOP is still failing badly to capitalize on the changing landscape. When respondents were asked who they trust to handle the nation's challenges, Republicans trailed Democrats by 16 points, 47% to 31%. The margin is similar when it came to GOP vs. the president on issues like the economy and health care. Just as important, Democrats enjoy a 10-point lead on which party "better represents your own personal values," and a 15-point on which party is "more concerned with the needs of people like you."

* Party of No: Respondents were asked, "Do you think leaders of the Republican Party are mainly presenting alternatives to Obama's proposals, or mainly criticizing Obama's proposals without presenting alternatives?" A 61% majority said the GOP is just criticizing.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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A 'SIGNIFICANT' JOBS PACKAGE?.... For the last several months, it seemed there was no political appetite for additional federal investment to help the economy. The recovery bill approved in February had helped prevent an economic calamity, but Democratic leaders feared the public would recoil if they took on another effort.

Those attitudes seem to be changing quickly. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) signaled to his caucus that he's eyeing a new job-creation bill. A few days later, President Obama announced plans for a jobs summit at the White House in December.

And Roll Call reports today that leaders from both chamber are "gathering ideas and building momentum for what could be a significant new jobs package" early in the new year.

[R]esistance among Members to a significant new economic package appears to be fading.... [T]he continued uptick of the unemployment rate -- now at 10.2 percent -- has renewed the once-taboo idea of another stimulus.

"While Members are definitely concerned about spending, there also is a recognition that unemployment is over 10 percent, and Members want to be able to say they are doing something on unemployment and jobs," one House leadership aide said. [...]

One idea that continues to get talked about is a $500 billion transportation reauthorization bill, which is up for renewal anyway and would produce tangible projects and jobs that are easy for voters to see and lawmakers to tout.

The same article noted that congressional Republicans will continue to push for "several hundred billion in tax cuts," paid for through spending cuts. Since this is insane, congressional Democrats have shown no interest in the idea.

The political angles to this are pretty obvious. Republicans will insist that federal investment in the economy is always a bad idea, and argue that the stimulus package was a "failure," all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. A jobs bill will be labeled "Stimulus II" (or "Stimulus III," if you count Bush's failed efforts in early 2008), in the hopes of creating a public backlash.

But there's an equally obvious flipside: the public backlash against extended, rising unemployment rates is much more problematic than Republicans, Fox News, and talk radio whining incessantly about investing in the economy.

As for the timeline, most of the reports point to a "early 2010" timeframe, but the House -- which is left to wait for the Senate to work on health care and energy policy, which the lower chamber have already passed -- may act even sooner. Indeed, there's at least one report suggesting House Democrats may pass a jobs bill "by Christmas."

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

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NELSON SIGNALS FLEXIBILITY ON ABORTION RESTRICTIONS.... Almost immediately after the House approved health care reform with the Stupak amendment on abortion, attention turned to the Senate. Given that such expansive restrictions would not be part of the bill that's sent to the floor, and the fact that there wouldn't be 60 votes to add it to the legislation, the Stupak language wasn't going anywhere.

The problem, though, was Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), the most conservative Democrat in the chamber. Nelson, who opposes abortion rights, was apparently "pleased" with the Stupak amendment, and was reportedly "highly unlikely" to vote for reform unless it includes language to "clearly prohibit federal dollars from going to abortion."

Nelson's opposition would become a difficult hurdle to clear. Democrats couldn't add the Stupak amendment without losing pro-choice votes, but if Democrats didn't add the Stupak language, Nelson could help kill the entire effort.

Fortunately, late yesterday, Nelson seemed to come around.

[Nelson] now says he would be satisfied with the less restrictive language approved by the Senate Finance Committee.

Nelson's position is apt to help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is trying to cobble together a health care bill -- which is full of policy mine fields such as abortion -- without losing the support of any Democrats, many of whom support abortion rights, while others, like Nelson, do not.

At issue is whether federal money that is used to subsidize health insurance premiums can be separated from private funds to pay for abortions. In the Senate language, that would be allowed. In the House language, it would not.

Nelson said his position has been consistent, but said he misunderstood a reporter's question on the issue last week.

Now, you'll notice that CNN's report didn't include any direct quotes -- only paraphrases. With that in mind, it's probably best to be optimistic, but not overly so until Nelson makes a firm commitment.

But if the CNN report is accurate, it's very good news. If the Senate Democrats' leading pro-life members -- including Harry Reid, Bob Casey, and Ben Nelson -- all agree that existing restrictions on abortion funding are adequate, and that the Stupak language is unnecessary, then it seems far more likely that the abortion fight will not derail the reform effort in the Senate.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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November 16, 2009

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

* President Obama talks up human rights in China. Nice move.

* Good news: retail sales looked encouraging in October. Bad news: Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke believes the recovery will be weak, with lingering unemployment and tight credit.

* IAEA worries about Iran: "The United Nations' nuclear watchdog is concerned that Iran's belated revelation of a new uranium enrichment site may mean it is hiding further nuclear activity, an agency report said on Monday."

* Stunning: "The number of Americans who lack dependable access to adequate food shot up last year to 49 million, the largest number since the government has been keeping track, according to a federal report released Monday that shows particularly steep increases in food scarcity among families with children." Blue Girl has more.

* GM reported a $1.2 billion quarterly loss, which, oddly enough, was good considered good news. Even harder to believe is the fact that GM is now saying it's prepared to pay off federal loans ahead of schedule.

* The U.S. Postal Service implemented a strategy of $10 billion in cost-cutting measures. It still lost $3.8 billion in the 2009 fiscal year.

* After having opposed judicial filibusters for the last eight years, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) announced today he will filibuster Judge David Hamilton's appeals court nomination.

* Figures: "Even as drug makers promise to support Washington's health care overhaul by shaving $8 billion a year off the nation's drug costs after the legislation takes effect, the industry has been raising its prices at the fastest rate in years."

* That's a lot improper payments: "The government paid more than $47 billion in questionable Medicare claims including medical treatment showing little relation to a patient's condition, wasting taxpayer money at a rate nearly three times that of the previous year."

* What's with that new report from the Center on Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)? Igor Volsky had a good item on this.

* There are still some people (see Ignatius, David) worried about inflation. Please ignore them.

* Late last week, former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

* Nice piece from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) on the inanity of much of the health care debate. (thanks to reader T.D. for the heads-up)

* The perils of being a poor ivy leaguer.

* John McCain now hates the AARP.

* I was very disappointed to see that Anonymous Liberal is taking an extended break from blogging. He's long been one of my favorites.

* I'm going out of my way not to write posts about Sarah Palin today, but it's worth noting that a wide variety of claims from her book have already been thoroughly debunked.

* And finally, the right-wing Tea Party event in southern Virginia, where participants were planning to burn Democratic lawmakers in effigy, is off. "We had to cancel it," an organizer said. "The property owner won't allow us to do it. The media attention was something that he didn't want."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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READJUSTING EXPECTATIONS FOR COPENHAGEN.... Several months ago, there was an ambitious vision of what might happen in combating climate change this year. Congress would act on the White House's calls for a cap-and-trade bill, and administration officials would then go to Copenhagen in December to negotiate a new international agreement.

Neither, we now know, is going to happen. President Obama, at an appearance in Singapore over the weekend, conceded that a comprehensive, international deal is simply out of reach this year. The White House will, however, continue to push for incremental progress, including a more modest interim agreement at Copenhagen this year, and a commitment to renew the next stage of efforts next year.

So, it's a dejecting setback? Not necessarily. Expectations for Copenhagen had already been scaled back considerably, and Joe Romm went so far as to suggest the shift might actually be a positive development.

The new plan for Copenhagen makes the prospects for a successful international deal far more likely -- and at the same time increases the chance for Senate passage of the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill that Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen Lieberman (I-CT) are negotiating with the White House. [...]

Indeed, had leaders gone into Copenhagen without this recognition of the obvious and let the whole effort collapse under the weight of unrealistic expectations, that would have been all-but-fatal to the domestic bipartisan climate bill.

Now it will be obvious when the Senate takes up the bill up in the winter that the rest of the world is prepared to act -- that every major country in the world has come to the table with serious targets and/or serious commitments to change their greenhouse gas emissions trajectories. Every country but ours, that is.

The few key swing Senators will understand that they are the only ones who stand in the way of strong US leadership in the vital job-creating clean energy industries and stand in the way of this crucial opportunity the world now has to preserve a livable climate through an international deal. Their role in history will be defined by this one vote. And, yes, I do think that matters to people like Dick Lugar (R-IN) and perhaps even John McCain (R-AZ).

I'm not quite as confident as Romm when it comes to pressure on GOP lawmakers. As Brad Plumer put it, "It'll also be interesting to see if a semi-agreement in Copenhagen puts any pressure on lawmakers here in the United States to pass a climate bill. If it's clear that every other country in the world is prepared to take serious steps to cut emissions, and that the U.S. Senate is the major hold-up, does that weigh on individual senators at all? I'm sort of skeptical."

As am I. Republicans seem entirely unfazed when told, "There's a health care crisis, and the entire country is waiting for you to be responsible and do your duty." These same lawmakers will soon be told, "There's a climate crisis, and the entire world is waiting for you to take your obligations seriously." Will they find this compelling? I suppose time will tell.

That said, by moving towards a two-step process, the White House will have some additional time to work on a Senate that seems increasingly unable to meet the challenges of the day.

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

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GOD, COUNTRY, AND PTSD.... Tara McKelvey has a fascinating item in Boston Review on diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of particular interest was an anecdote from Paul Sullivan, an analyst in the VA's Veterans Benefits Administration.

Sullivan was working as an analyst at the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington in early 2005 when he was called to a meeting with a top political appointee at the VA, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Michael McLendon. McLendon, an intensely focused man in a neatly pressed suit, kept a Bible on his desk at the office. Sullivan explained to McLendon and the other attendees that the rise in benefits claims the VA was noticing was caused partly by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were suffering from PTSD. "That's too many," McLendon said, then hit his hand on the table. "They are too young" to be filing claims, and they are doing it "too soon." He hit the table again. The claims, he said, are "costing us too much money," and if the veterans "believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD." At that point, he slammed his palm against the table a final time, making a loud smack. Everyone in the room fell silent.

"I was a little bit surprised," Sullivan said, recalling the incident. "In that one comment, he appeared to be a religious fundamentalist." For Sullivan, McLendon's remarks reflected the views of many political appointees in the VA and revealed what was behind their efforts to reduce costs by restricting claims. The backlog of claims was immense, and veterans, often suffering extreme psychological stress, had to wait an average of five months for decisions on their requests.

McLendon denied the incident took place, but nevertheless told McKelvey that he believes PTSD is "a made-up term," which has "taken on a life of its own." She added that McLendon, in talking about the issue, "pounded the table with the side of his hand more than ten times, hitting it so hard that the wooden surface shook."

As Atrios put it, "It's like the job recruitment process [in the Bush administration] involved advertising for 'the worst people ever born in the history of the universe.'"

It's disheartening to think that the Bush administration put some of these people in key positions of authority and responsibility in the first place.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE CONSEQUENCES OF OPPOSING REFORM.... The conventional wisdom last week was that Democratic lawmakers from competitive districts/states would be faced with a difficult challenge: how would they explain their vote in support of health care reform?

The political establishment largely overlooked the obvious inverse -- Americans have been waiting for health care reform for a long time, and there are some Republican lawmakers who'll struggle to explain their opposition to the bill.

Take Rep. Mike Castle (R) of Delaware, for example.

This is one of the more surprising polls I've seen recently: Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of the vice president, is leading Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) in a hypothetical 2010 U.S. Senate matchup. The Susquehanna Polling & Research survey has Biden beating Castle by five points. When they polled this race in April, Castle led by 21 points. (This poll was conducted from November 10 to November 15.)

What's responsible for the Biden surge? He's grabbed the lead in vote-rich New Castle County, built up a 41-point lead among Democratic voters, and moved to only 5 points behind Castle among independents. According to the pollster, the shift "may be a result of negative publicity [Castle] received in the state after casting a 'no' vote for President Obama's health care reform bill in the U.S. Congress."

Delaware is fairly "blue" state, but Castle has cultivated, over the course of decades, a reputation as a reasonable moderate. He's never really faced a serious electoral threat, and when he announced his intention to run for the Senate, Castle began the race as the clear frontrunner.

But House Republicans are expected to toe the party line, and Castle has stuck with the GOP, even on odious measures like the Stupak amendment (Castle has always been pro-choice, and surely knows better). It's apparently costing him quite a bit of support.

I don't want to make too much of this. It's only one poll, and it's possible additional data will point in a more ambiguous direction. But if the poll is right, it offers an important counterweight to the notion that support for health care reform is necessarily an electoral loser, and opposition is automatically a ticket to victory.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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HARKIN'S EXPECTATIONS ON THE REFORM CALENDAR.... Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, talked to Bill Press today about how the debate over health care reform is likely to unfold over the next several weeks. Even with an aggressive push, Harkin still doesn't expect a bill to be signed into law before January.

The Iowa Democrat said he expects the Congressional Budget Office to release its report tomorrow, at which point the leadership intends to bring the reform bill to the floor. He added, however, that the process of amending the legislation may not begin until after the Thanksgiving break.

Harkin also expects some petty obstructionist tactics from Senate Republicans, but has reportedly talked to Senate leaders about Democratic responses.

Harkin said Democrats expect Republicans will try to stall the debate by asking for the entire bill to be read on the Senate floor. If that happens, Harkin said, the majority party is likely to use a procedural maneuver to keep the Senate in session this weekend.

"If the Republicans want to stay here this Saturday and Sunday to read the bill, then let them stay here," Harkin said, adding that Democrats would hold a "live quorum," where the sergeant at arms requests the presence of all absent senators.

"I'll tell you, we're going to do something like that," Harkin said. "We are planning to do something that would require Republicans to be there 24 hours a day, and if they leave the floor, we'll ask unanimous consent to dispense with the reading, and that'll be the end of it."

That seems more than fair. If Republicans are going to try obstructionist tactics, the least Democrats can do is make it difficult for them.

Regardless, Harkin also outlined a calendar that included working every weekend in December, and long days (and nights) through the weekdays.

At this point, the backstop isn't the end of the calendar year -- it's the State of the Union address in mid-January. It stands to reason most Democratic lawmakers do not want a situation in which President Obama stands in the well and has to explain to the nation why health care reform has not yet passed.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE GOP CIVIL WAR -- CALIFORNIA EDITION.... In New York's 23rd, Dede Scozzafava enjoyed the support of the Republican establishment, but the base preferred Doug Hoffman. In Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter enjoyed the support of the Republican establishment, but the base preferred Jim Toomey. In Florida, Charlie Crist enjoys the support of the Republican establishment, but the base prefers Marco Rubio.

And in California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina the U.S. Senate candidate with the strong support of GOP leaders. But she'll face state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore in a Republican primary. For the right-wing activists that dominate Republican politics, it's an easy call.

As Dave Weigel reported today, DeVore is the one who "talks bluntly about fascism and even about Barack Obama's birth records."

From the conservative activist's perspective, DeVore's an ideal candidate. After writing a war novel, "China Attacks," in 2000, DeVore became a frequent reviewer at Amazon.com. His take-outs on action novels and political texts reveal more about his political thinking than most candidates would be comfortable divulging. On a Tom Clancy novel about the threat posed by Japan Devore wrote: "Replace "Japan" with "China" and the thesis holds together rather well in 2005." On Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism": "Roosevelt's New Deal had much in common with Mussolini's fascism." [...]

[A]sked what he thought of Brown's ideas, DeVore didn't take the chance to denounce "birther" rumors or the movement itself-which has been heavily active in California.

"The president is doing himself no favors by spending millions of dollars to block the release of documents surrounding his birth certificate," said DeVore.

A Birther who gave "Liberal Fascism" five stars and who compares the New Deal to Mussolini's fascism? Running statewide in California -- where Obama won with 61% of the vote? What's not to like?

For the record, while nearly all of the party's top leaders have rallied behind Fiorina, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has endorsed DeVore, citing his "willingness to stand up against his own party leaders."

In other words, as far as DeMint's concerned, DeVore is to the right of the already-conservative Republican Party, which makes him perfect.

The Republican primary is June 8, 2010. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is no doubt looking forward to it.

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

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THE ROMAN CATHOLIC VOTE.... A year ago, according to exit polls, President Obama won 53% of the Catholic vote, seven points stronger than John Kerry's total from 2004. A Politico item suggests the debate over health care reform in general, and the Stupak amendment in particular, may push Roman Catholic voters into the Republican camp.

By teeing up a public battle over abortion in the health care bill now before the Senate, congressional Democrats could be risking more than just the fate of the legislation.

Hanging in the balance are millions of Catholic swing voters who moved decisively to the Democrats in 2008 and who could shift away just as readily in 2010. [...]

[Democratic] gains will be at risk if a polarizing abortion fight takes place in the Senate.

I'm really not sure why. It's an inconvenient detail for many involved, but in the United States, pro-choice Catholics outnumber pro-life Catholics. Adherents are no doubt well aware of the church's unyielding position on the issue, but it hasn't much of an effect on how rank-and-file, self-identified Catholics feel about reproductive rights for American women.

Indeed, last year, there were plenty of attempts to go after the Obama campaign on this very issue. It obviously didn't make a difference.

I'm not altogether sure what the point of the Politico article even is. There's a possibility that a debate over premiums vs. subsidies that might indirectly subsidize abortions will push Catholic voters away from Democrats? I guess it's possible, but it's at least equally possible that this debate won't have any meaningful impact at all.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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'UNPRECEDENTED,' EXCEPT FOR ALL THE OTHER TIMES.... Joe Scarborough argued this morning that it's "unprecedented" for the U.S. to try foreign terror suspects in our federal judicial system. That might be true, if it weren't for all the other foreign terror suspects that have been tried, convinced, and imprisoned through our federal judicial system.

Bush administration used federal justice system to bring several foreign terrorism suspects to justice. During the George W. Bush administration, several foreign terrorists were brought to justice through the federal justice system, including 9-11 conspirator Zacarious Moussaoui, "Shoe bomber" Richard Reid and East African embassy bombing perpetrators Wahid el-Hage, Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, Mohammed Rashed al-Owhali, and Khalfan Khamis Mohammed.

Clinton administration also used federal justice system to bring foreign terror suspects to justice. During the Clinton administration, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and "urban terrorism" plotters Sheik Oma Abdel Rahman and others were brought to justice through the federal justice system.

There are already 216 international terrorists in U.S. prisons. A May 29 Slate.com article reported that according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, "federal facilities on American soil currently house 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists. Some of these miscreants have been locked up here since the early 1990s. None of them has escaped. At the most secure prisons, nobody has ever escaped."

Now, maybe Scarborough doesn't know anything about this subject. Maybe he forgot all the examples that prove how wrong he is. Maybe he just doesn't care.

But given the apoplexy, you'd think the KSM trial was something extraordinary. Indeed, it's no doubt what prompted Scarborough to assume it's "unprecedented." After all, with so many conservatives freaking out, it stands to reason the Obama administration is breaking all the rules. In reality, that's absurd -- the trial is actually routine.

It's also a reminder of how weak the right's complaining has been the last several days. If there's a strong case that terror trials are a bad idea, conservatives seem unable to make it.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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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.

* Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) had promised to leave the Senate this year to focus on her gubernatorial campaign in Texas. Over the weekend, Hutchison shifted gears, explaining that she would not step down until the GOP primary in March.

* To the disappointment of the DSCC, Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) is not running for the Senate next year against incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R). Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D) is currently the leading Dem in the race.

* Following a push from the White House, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) is running for governor in Wisconsin next year.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) has a new, minute-long ad up in Nevada, touting his position as "America's most powerful senator."

* New York Gov. David Paterson (D) continues to look like a candidate seeking another term next year, but a new Siena poll shows him trailing state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in a hypothetical primary match-up by a whopping 59 points, 75% to 16%.

* Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) still isn't popular -- a new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that a majority of Americans wouldn't even consider voting for her if she ran for president, and 60% said Palin isn't qualified to be president.

* Is Rudy Giuliani (R) going to run for governor? He's taking the idea "into consideration."

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, is not running for governor, and wants to see the scuttlebutt end.

* And in 2012 news, right-wing activist Liz Cheney suggested her father, Dick Cheney, might consider a presidential campaign in three years. She may have been kidding; it's hard to tell.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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CRIST'S CROSS TO BEAR.... Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), like other governors from both parties from coast to coast, accepted federal stimulus funds to shore up a budget in crisis. Unlike most Republican governors, however, Crist endorsed the effort to rescue the economy, which was headed for a depression. It's now putting his political future at risk.

To be sure, Crist hasn't helped himself with blatant inconsistencies about his position. For that matter, right-wing Republicans are nearly as upset about Crist's public appearance with President Obama in February as the policy position.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum has an interesting piece on the political dynamic in Florida between Crist and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, who's challenging Crist in a GOP Senate primary next year.

[I]f every governor accepted stimulus dollars, few states were as hard hit by the 2008 economic crisis as Florida. State revenues collapsed by 11.5 percent between 2008 and 2009. Constitutionally obliged to balance the budget, Crist raised fees and cigarette taxes -- and still faced a huge budget gap. [...]

Constitutionally obliged to balance his budget, Crist welcomed President Obama's offer of federal stimulus dollars, and campaigned hard for passage of the emergency measure.

The final Obama plan granted Florida more than $15 billion over three years. That money averted radical cuts to schools and Medicaid. It saved the state from furloughing employees and raising taxes even higher. It has paid for emergency employment on roads and water projects. It has extended unemployment benefits for 700,000 Floridians and put an extra $25 per week in their relief packets.

Rubio, true to form, has trashed the recovery effort that saved the economy from collapse, and blasted his Republican governor for endorsing it. Asked what he would have done if governor, Rubio said he would have refused federal aid for his struggling state, and would have preferred to cut $6 billion out of the $65 billion state budget.

Asked where this $6 billion in savings would have come from, Rubio said, "I don't have the budget in front of me."

It's the kind of seriousness of thought and analytical depth we've come to expect from all of the right's leading darlings.

The point of the piece by Frum -- who is a conservative, by the way -- is that Rubio's shallow, reflexive response too often represents the norm on the right. Conservatives find it easy to take cheap shots at ideas that work, but struggle to craft actual solutions or solve actual problems.

"Are vague bromides about big government anything like an adequate response to the worst economic crisis experienced by any American under age 80?" Frum asked, adding, "If all we conservatives have to offer is oppositionism, then opposition is the job we'll be assigned to fill."

I like to think that last point is true, though I'm far from sure -- there's a sizable group of voters who may simply not care if Republicans have nothing to offer but knee-jerk opposition to sound policies. If they expect to maintain their role as the governing party, Dems are going to have to deliver, not count on the GOP's pathetic approach to public policy pushing voters away.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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LEADING CONSERVATIVES: 'THE SCAREMONGERING ABOUT THESE ISSUES SHOULD STOP'.... After months of debate, it appears officials are close to selecting a domestic facility for relocating detainees from Guantanamo Bay. From a purely political perspective, what's especially interesting about this is the endorsements the idea has received.

The facility in question is a near-empty prison in rural Illinois, in a town called Thomson. The federal government is reportedly eyeing the facility as "a leading option" to resolve the Gitmo issue.

Local residents, in desperate need of an economic boost, like the idea. So does Illinois' governor and senior senator. And oddly enough, some prominent conservative leaders are on board, too.

Republicans in Congress are gearing up to fight a new White House effort to relocate detainees at Guantanamo Bay to a prison facility in Illinois. But on Sunday, a group of highly respected conservative figures lent their support to the transfer, calling it necessary to "preserve national security" while simultaneously avoiding "sweeping and radical departures from an American constitutional tradition."

In a joint statement prepared by the Constitution Project, David Keene, founder of American Conservative Union, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and former representative and presidential candidate Bob Barr say moving suspected terrorists to the Thomson, Illinois prison facility, "makes good sense." Taxpayers, they note, have already invested $145 million in the facility, which has been "little used." And the surrounding community, they add, could benefit from increased employment once the prison becomes filled.

"The scaremongering about these issues should stop," they add, noting that there is "absolutely no reason to fear that prisoners will escape or be released into their communities."

This is not to say the plan won't still face resistance. Republican Illinois Reps. Donald Manzullo and Mark Kirk have already voiced their strong opposition to the idea, for a variety of painfully inane reasons. My personal favorite from Kirk: Chicago would become "ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots." (Kirk's Senate campaign has turned him into something of an embarrassment.)

That said, the combination of support from the administration, Dick Durbin, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D), local residents, and conservative leaders like Keene and Norquist makes the plan appear more likely to come together.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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CHAMBER OF COMMERCE, CREATING ITS OWN REALITY.... The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hasn't had an especially good year. Its denials of global warming have been embarrassing; the group has lost some high-profile corporate members; its membership numbers have been exposed as exaggerated.

Now that the Chamber has been caught trying to finance a phony study on health care reform, the organization's credibility is poised to reach new lows.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an assortment of national business groups opposed to President Obama's health-care reform effort are collecting money to finance an economic study that could be used to portray the legislation as a job killer and threat to the nation's economy, according to an e-mail solicitation from a top Chamber official.

The e-mail, written by the Chamber's senior health policy manager and obtained by The Washington Post, proposes spending $50,000 to hire a "respected economist" to study the impact of health-care legislation, which is expected to come to the Senate floor this week, would have on jobs and the economy.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "Maybe," you'll be tempted to argue, "the Chamber and its allies simply wanted to do a legitimate economic study. How do we know the report would be rigged to bolster a preconceived anti-reform narrative?"

The answer, of course, is that the Chamber's memo already points to the agreed-upon conclusion of the economic review that does not yet exist. From its email: "The economist will then circulate a sign-on letter to hundreds of other economists saying that the bill will kill jobs and hurt the economy. We will then be able to use this open letter to produce advertisements, and as a powerful lobbying and grass-roots document."

The Chamber's James Gelfand, who wrote the memo, said the proposal for the trumped-up economic study was "suggested by our Congressional allies." It was unclear as to who those "allies" are, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that congressional Republicans asked the Chamber of Commerce to help kill health care reform with this spurious study.

It's not exactly a plan that screams "credible, independent analysis."

If this seems vaguely familiar, it was only a month ago that a dubious study by America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) was released, in the hopes of derailing the health care reform effort. It wasn't long before it was exposed as something of a political sham.

White House Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said the email is "proof positive that the opponents of health reform will not let the facts get in the way of their efforts to defend to the status quo that has been so profitable for the insurance companies."

The AHIP fiasco inspired reform proponents to redouble their efforts against the conservative anti-reform scam. With any luck, the Chamber's mess will do the same.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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THE VOTE ON HAMILTON.... The schedule may change, but it seems likely that Judge David Hamilton, President Obama's nominee to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, will come up for a vote this week. It's even more likely that Hamilton will have more than 60 votes for confirmation.

The question is whether far-right Republicans filibuster anyway. A group of 24 conservative leaders, led in part by former Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, have demanded GOP senators try to block a vote. Even if it fails, they argue, the obstructionist tactics will "send a signal." (What that "signal" represents remains unclear.)

The conservative activists have proven to be so far gone they've positioned Manuel Miranda to act as the voice of reason.

Manuel Miranda, a former Senate GOP leadership aide and chairman of Third Branch Conference, a coalition of conservative leaders that has taken an active role in several high-profile debates of judicial nominees, has questioned the push to block Hamilton.

"Respectfully, I disagree with this rally to 'vote no on the cloture' for this or any nominee that one would expect a Democratic president to nominate, if the sole purpose is to block or 'stop,' and not merely and genuinely to prolong a debate," Miranda wrote in an e-mail to fellow conservatives.

Miranda's group was formerly known as the National Committee to End the Judicial Filibuster. He was one of scores of conservative leaders who sent a letter in 2005 to Senate GOP leaders demanding they abolish the filibuster of judicial nominees.

Miranda is, of course, best known for stealing over 4,000 memos and documents related to judicial nominees from Democratic computer servers in 2004. Asked to explain his actions, Miranda once famously said, "You have no ethical duty to your opposition."

And now, even he thinks Obama's judicial nominees deserve a debate and a vote.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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DR. NO'S DISREGARD FOR WOUNDED VETS.... A Senate measure to help wounded veterans is on the verge of passing, and that's clearly a positive development. There's just one problem.

The urgently needed legislation consolidates more than a dozen improvements in veterans' health care -- most notably a new assistance program for family members who wind up providing lifelong home nursing to severely disabled veterans. These vital caregivers -- who sacrifice careers and put huge strains on their own mental health -- assume an obligation "that ultimately belongs to the government," Senator Daniel Akaka, the bill's chief sponsor, properly notes.

The measure also expands benefits for women veterans who suffered sexual trauma on duty, extends veterans' care in rural areas, tightens quality control at V.A. hospitals, and ensures that catastrophically disabled veterans will not be charged for emergency services in community hospitals.

Sounds great, right? Senators seemed to think so -- it sailed through committee with unanimous support. But it's currently stuck, because right-wing Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma refuses to let it advance. As he sees it, the five-year, $3.7 billion price tag for the veterans' program is too high a price unless is offset by budget cuts elsewhere.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted the strange standards Coburn applies to these spending bill -- Coburn doesn't care about paying for the war itself, but he balks when it comes to caring for the vets when they come home. "Where was he when we were spending a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq?" Reid asked. "That wasn't paid for. I didn't hear him stopping the bill from going forward at that time. I think he should become more logical and understand we have people who are suffering."

Or as the NYT editorial put it this morning, "Sheer embarrassment should drive the senator into retreat as he trifles with veterans' needs and burnishes his petty role as Dr. No."

I'm also reminded of something House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said just a year ago, "[T]here is a clear distinction between saying you support the troops and backing up those claims with genuine action."

A variety of veterans' groups have organized an effort to urge Coburn to let the Senate vote on the benefits bill. VoteVets.org has posted an online petition on the effort.

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

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MCCONNELL EMBRACES DITHERING ON REFORM.... About a month ago, Roll Call reported that the Senate Republican caucus, unable to kill health care reform on their own, "have implemented a comprehensive political strategy to delay, define and derail."

And now we're getting a sense of what that strategy is going to look like.

If there was any doubt that Senate Republicans are eager to drag their heels when it comes to health care reform, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) removed it on Sunday.

The Kentucky Republican, during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," demanded that the Senate take, at the very least, six weeks to deliberate legislation once it is sent to the floor for amendments.

"There will be a lot of amendments over a lot of weeks. The Senate is not the House, you saw in the House there was three votes and it was over in one day," McConnell warned. "This will be on the floor for quite a long time."

The goal, McConnell added, would be to "delay the process so we fully understand what's in the bill." Given the willful ignorance of the minority, there's no reason to think the minority caucus will ever "fully understand" the policy.

Nevertheless, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is almost desperate to expedite the process and finish work on the reform bill before year's end, McConnell is outlining a parliamentary strategy to make a swift, efficient process nearly impossible.

McConnell rationalized his obstructionism by pointing to public opinion polls: "The American people are overwhelmingly telling us, 'Don't pass it.' It'll be up to whether the Democratic majority wants to listen to the American people or whether they want to pass this anyway, just to basically ignore the opinion of the American population."

A majority of Americans supports a public option. A majority of Americans elected President Obama and handed him a huge electoral mandate. A majority of Americans gave Democrats their largest House and Senate majorities in a generation.

Since when does Mitch McConnell give a damn about "the opinion of the American population"?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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November 15, 2009

QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Mitt Romney insists President Obama "can't make up his mind on Afghanistan." The White House's David Axelrod responded earlier on CNN:

"The president has had hours and hours and hours of meetings with his military commanders, with his national security team, to run through every aspect of this, in order to get it right. And we've seen in the past what happens when we don't do that; when we don't do the necessary preparations. And he is determined to get Afghanistan right. It is something that Secretary Gates supports. It is something that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff supports; General McChrystal has been supportive of this process.

"You know, I know that Governor Romney has never had responsibility for any decision akin to this, so he just may not be familiar with all that it entails. But I think the American people are being well served by a process that is assiduous and in which every aspect of this is considered. Because, after all, lives of American servicemen are involved here. An enormous investment on the part of the American people, we ought to get it right."

I think it's wise to contrast this with Bush-era decision making. We tried an approach in which the Commander in Chief made reckless decisions without sufficient planning, and then allowed failing policies to continue -- literally for years -- without meaningful strategic reviews.

Now, we're giving due diligence a shot. Dick Cheney, David Broder, and Mitt Romney are tapping their collective watches. The president cares more about success than their impatience.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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RUDY REVELS IN NEW-FOUND RELEVANCE.... Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who left office nearly a decade ago and has no political responsibilities since, was all over the news this morning. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is headed to NYC, and for much of the media, even now, 9/11 = Giuliani.

Here's Giuliani's basic pitch, as he put it to ABC's George Stephanopoulos:

"Our federal system has an enormously protracted process that's going to go on forever. It grants more benefits than a military tribunal will grant. There's always the possibility of acquittal, change of venue... It creates an extra risk that isn't necessary for New York. Now, New York can handle it, there is no question about it, but why add an additional risk when you don't have to do that?

"I'm troubled by the symbolism of it. It seems to me that the Obama administration is getting away from the fact that we're at war with these terrorists. They no longer use the term 'war on terror.' They have been very slow to react to the whole situation with Major Hasan, which was clearly a terrorist act in the name of Islamic terrorism. It would seem to me that this is the worst symbol to send, that this is a civilian matter."

There are some interesting layers to this, so let's unpack it.

First, Giuliani criticizes the federal criminal justice system. That's an odd choice of political strategies -- not only is Giuliani himself a former federal prosecutor, but this same "federal system" that he's dismissive of has proven itself quite effective in trying, convicting, and imprisoning all kinds of terrorists over the last couple of decades.

Second, Giuliani is worried about acquittals. That's not going to happen.

Third, Giuliani went on and on about the "risk" posed by a trial, but he neglected to identify what this "risk" is. I'm genuinely curious -- what does he think will happen? Terrorists might target NYC? Not to put too fine a point on it, but terrorists have already targeted NYC. The city has held other trials for other terrorists, without incident. By Giuliani's reasoning, there should no legal proceedings against terrorists anywhere, because they might be magnets for attacks. In other words, Giuliani thinks we should let fear dictate our justice system. Fortunately, that's just not how the United States operates.

Fourth, Giuliani shifts gears away from actual problems with putting KSM on trial, and complains about "symbolism." That's backwards -- what can have more symbolic value than the United States showing the world the strength of our values and the integrity of our rule of law?

Fifth, Giuliani's convinced that White House is moving away from "war with these terrorists." It's possible that the former mayor doesn't keep up on current events, so here's a quick refresher for him: under Obama's watch, U.S. forces have killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan and Baitullah Mehsud, while taking suspected terrorists Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi into custody before they could launched potential attacks.

Giuliani thinks Obama is "getting away from" counter-terrorism? In reality, President Obama is playing by the rules and having great success in counter-terrorism. The administration isn't relying on torture, and is nevertheless stopping, catching, and killing the bad guys -- all while improving the United States' standing in the world and reclaiming America's role as a global leader.

Giuliani thinks that's a record worthy of criticism. Giuliani doesn't know what he's talking about.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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THE FUTURE OF THE STUPAK AMENDMENT, CONT'D.... Earlier in the week, President Obama signaled that the Stupak amendment will have to be changed. He told ABC News' Jake Tapper that "there there needs to be some more work before we get to the point where we're not changing the status quo."

The point being, the Stupak measure would change the status quo.

This morning, David Axelrod expressed a very similar sentiment.

Axelrod also addressed the House health care bill's Stupak amendment, which would prevent federal subsidies for abortions. Axelrod said that the president doesn't believe health care reform "should change the status quo" and that "this shouldn't be a debate about abortion" -- while also acknowledging that "the bill Congress passed does change the status quo."

This, fortunately, also comes on the heels of Sen. Bob Casey's (D-Pa.) encouraging remarks on the Stupak measure. Casey, a leading pro-life Democrat, said he believes "health care reform should not be used to change longstanding policies regarding federal financing of abortion which has been in place since 1976."

And then, there's the problematic members. Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), the most conservative Democrat in the chamber, said through a spokesperson this week that he was "pleased" with the Stupak amendment, and is "highly unlikely" to vote for reform unless it includes language to "clearly prohibit federal dollars from going to abortion."

This morning, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), another center-right Dem, said the Senate's reform bill will die unless it restricts public funding of abortion. "What is clear is at the end of the day, for this bill to be successful, that there cannot be taxpayer funding of abortion," Conrad said. He added, "It was clear in the House. It'll be clear in the Senate."

Now, if you read the quotes carefully, neither Nelson nor Conrad specifically said the exact Stupak amendment has to be in the Senate bill. They want restrictions, and the leadership intends to offer some. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that the Stupak measure will be added to the Senate bill -- there's no way there are 60 votes for it -- and the insiders I've talked to expect a thread-the-needle compromise to come together before a floor vote.

Who hates that compromise most -- and how many votes they can pull together to oppose the eventual bill -- remains to be seen.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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THE MISSING GOP BILL.... House Democrats have a health care reform package, and Senate Democrats will have their own reform proposal. House Republicans unveiled their health plan a couple of weeks ago, which of course leaves Senate Republicans.

The House GOP plan was more anticipated, based in large part on the fact that party leaders "guaranteed" its release. Senate Republicans never made any pretense -- their goal has always been to attack the plan on the table, not offer a credible alternative of their own.

The Senate GOP caucus will, however, apparently at least throw a few ideas into the mix, even if it's not in the form of an coherent, comprehensive policy.

Senate Republicans cannot say what exactly the budgetary impact of their health alternatives would be, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said this weekend. [...]

The New Hampshire Republican said that GOP alternatives, which they'll offer as amendments to Democrats' health legislation, "don't cost money."

It stands to reason, then, that either Republicans have come up with magical proposals, or they intend to ignore the tens of millions of Americans who currently lack coverage.

Gregg went on to say that his party won't get analyses from the Congressional Budget Office because "we don't know how to score them under CBO rules." He added that Republicans "know from experience" that their ideas would "produce more effectively delivered cost service."

Right. Because if there's one thing Republicans have "experience" with, it's improving health care delivery efficiently and cost effectively.

Remind me, has that ever happened?

In the larger context, though, it's a reminder of a question we may be hearing more of in the coming weeks. If House Dems, House Republicans, and Senate Dems were all able to put together health care plans, and present them publicly, why are Senate Republicans sitting this one out? Why not unveil a proposal, and let Americans compare the strengths and weaknesses of the competing approaches?

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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PULLING THE STRINGS.... Nothing inspires confidence in Congress more than having lawmakers almost literally reading the script prepared for them by lobbyists.

In the official record of the historic House debate on overhauling health care, the speeches of many lawmakers echo with similarities. Often, that was no accident.

Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world's largest biotechnology companies.

E-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that the lobbyists drafted one statement for Democrats and another for Republicans.

The lobbyists, employed by Genentech and by two Washington law firms, were remarkably successful in getting the statements printed in the Congressional Record under the names of different members of Congress.

Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points -- 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.

Now, don't necessarily expect tomorrow's "Daily Show" to have a segment featuring dozens of lawmakers repeating the identical lobbyist-written words over and over again. That's not quite how this worked.

The Congressional Record includes the transcript of what lawmakers said on the House floor, but members are also able to submit written statements that "revise and extend" their remarks. It's here where lawmakers submitted Genentech's preferred statements for the record. As Karen Tumulty noted, it lets the "lobbyists' paymasters" know that "they are getting good return on their investment."

What's noteworthy here is that it's "unusual for so many revisions and extensions to match up word for word. It is even more unusual to find clear evidence that the statements originated with lobbyists."

Note to congressional offices: if you're going to copy and paste someone else's homework, make more of an effort to pretend otherwise.

Asked about the statements, a lobbyist close to Genentech told the NYT's Robert Pear, "This happens all the time."

That's hardly a reassuring statement about the norms of the institution.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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TAKING A BOW.... As part of his Asian trip, President Obama met today with Japanese Emperor Akihito. In keeping with Japanese custom and diplomatic protocol, the president bowed.

If you're thinking this was an inconsequential moment, especially as compared to the significance of the trip itself, you're underestimating the right's propensity to embrace nonsense.

The president's gesture was the story of the day on far-right blogs yesterday, led in large part by the LA Times' Andrew Malcolm, who made the unfortunate transition to blogging after working as Laura Bush's press secretary. Drudge & Co. soon followed.

Now, I won't pretend to be an expert on diplomatic protocol when meeting foreign leaders, but I am aware of the fact that in Japan, a bow is fairly routine, customary greeting. Obama bowing in Japan upon being introduced to Akihito seems no more interesting than Bush kissing and holding hands with Saudi King Abdullah. Presidents tend to be respectful to foreign leaders, especially during overseas visits. It's not exactly tantrum-worthy.

Indeed, LG&M found a variety of photographs of then-President Eisenhower in full-on, head-down bows towards Pope John XXIII and Charles De Gaulle. It didn't seem to undermine American prestige on the international stage, and it certainly didn't signal American subservience towards the Vatican or the French.

The Obama administration dismissed the story.

A senior administration official said President Barack Obama was simply observing protocol when he bowed to Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko upon arriving at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Saturday.

"I think that those who try to politicize those things are just way, way, way off base," the official said. "He observes protocol. But I don't think anybody who was in Japan -- who saw his speech and the reaction to it, certainly those who witnesses his bilateral meetings there -- would say anything other than that he enhanced both the position and the status of the U.S., relative to Japan. It was a good, positive visit at an important time, because there's a lot going on in Japan."

Better conservatives, please.

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

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BRODER ON SPEED OVER ACCURACY.... I checked the byline a couple of times this morning, to make sure the column that was ostensibly written by David Broder wasn't, in fact, written by Charles Krauthammer. Regrettably, the so-called Dean of the D.C. Media Establishment actually wrote this.

The more President Obama examines our options in Afghanistan, the less he likes the choices he sees. But, as the old saying goes, to govern is to choose -- and he has stretched the internal debate to the breaking point.

It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision -- whether or not it is right.

"Whether or not it is right." The Commander in Chief, in other words, should put expediency over merit. Speed is preferable to accuracy. It's only the longest military conflict in American history, with the future of U.S. foreign policy on the line -- the president should worry less about due diligence and thoughtful analysis, and worry more about picking a course, even if it's wrong. Other than the loss of American servicemen and women, untold billions of dollars, and undermining U.S. interests in a critical region, what's the worst that can happen?

What a crock.

I realize there's been a painful decline in the quality of Broder's analysis in recent years, but this column is a mess. He's effectively calling for President Obama to act and think more like President Bush -- make decisions first, and think through the consequences and implications second.

Worse, Broder goes so far as to castigate the administration for "all this dithering" -- using Dick Cheney's preferred choice of words.

The premise of the piece is that a decision is needed immediately. Where did this arbitrary deadline come from? Broder doesn't say; he just warns of the Taliban "coming back in Afghanistan," as if the Taliban hasn't already reclaimed much of the country.

Thinking back, I don't recall Broder ever showing this kind of Afghanistan-related antagonism towards the Bush administration -- which was, not incidentally, the team that allowed Afghanistan to deteriorate, watched as hard-earned gains slipped away, and never bothered to craft a strategy for the future of U.S. policy in the country.

Indeed, reading today's Broder piece I get the distinct impression that the columnist had lunch with John McCain at some point this week, and then rushed back to his desk to jot down the senator's criticism. That's a shame. Given the reality, Broder was facing an editorial deadline, and he decided the urgent necessity was to write a column -- whether or not it was right.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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BLOOD AND TREASURE.... There's no shortage of questions about how best to proceed in Afghanistan. By now, most of them are entirely familiar: would an escalation improve security? Can the Karzai government be relied upon? Is there an exit strategy? How many more U.S. casualties are we prepared to tolerate?

But there's another element to the debate that's generally overlooked, but which may come into play: can we really afford to keep the longest conflict in American history going?

While President Obama's decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan is primarily a military one, it also has substantial budget implications that are adding pressure to limit the commitment, senior administration officials say.

The latest internal government estimates place the cost of adding 40,000 American troops and sharply expanding the Afghan security forces, as favored by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and allied commander in Afghanistan, at $40 billion to $54 billion a year, the officials said.

Even if fewer troops are sent, or their mission is modified, the rough formula used by the White House, of about $1 million per soldier a year, appears almost constant.

Budget estimates suggest we're poised to begin seeing tens of billions of dollars in savings as a result of withdrawal from Iraq. Escalating the conflict in Afghanistan would, of course, eat up those savings and then some.

There tends to be an unspoken rule in our political discourse: the most aggressive voices on cutting spending, lowering the deficit, and trying to get the budget under control are the same voices who believe spending on defense, national security, and wars don't count. Indeed, a wide variety of conservative Republicans complained bitterly earlier this year when the Obama administration raised defense spending, but not as much as the GOP hoped (they labeled the increase a "cut").

The problem, of course, is that Pentagon spending is a huge portion of the federal budget, and wars are extremely expensive. For those policymakers intent on cutting spending, this would seem like an obvious area for savings -- except they're arguing the exact opposite, and no one presses them on how they propose we pay for it.

The NYT added, "Others said some Republicans could find it hard to justify a yes vote on troops after criticizing Mr. Obama for his spending."

I doubt it will be too difficult -- consistency isn't their strong point.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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November 14, 2009

FROM GITMO TO THOMSON?.... There's a near-empty prison in rural Illinois, in a town called Thomson. The federal government is reportedly eyeing the facility as "a leading option" to house suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay

Locals seem to think it's a good idea...

News that the federal government seems interested in transferring detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the Thomson Correctional Center was greeted warmly in this small, rural farm town along the Iowa border.

After holding out hope that the sprawling $145 million prison might improve the economic conditions in this remote area of the state, residents say any prisoners would be a welcomed sight.

...but a couple of Illinois Republican congressman have embraced the usual nonsense.

[Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.)] acknowledged "extraordinary unemployment" in northwestern Illinois--he put the rate at 17 percent -- but added: "The issue is: 'Are you going to exchange the promise of jobs for national security?' National security trumps everything. That's the safety of the people.

The lawmaker, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was concerned that "al-Qaida would follow al-Qaida" to northwestern Illinois if Thomson became the prison to replace Guantanamo Bay, which he believes is perfectly adequate. [...]

House Republican Mark Kirk of Northbrook, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, is circulating a sharply worded letter among the state's congressional delegation and state officials, urging the White House not to transfer suspected terrorists to the prison.

"If your administration brings al-Qaida terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago metropolitan area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization," Kirk, a five-term congressman, wrote in the letter to President Barack Obama.

This is sheer idiocy. Maybe Manzullo and Kirk know better and want to create a panic for political reasons; or maybe they're just cluelessly popping off. Either way, there's really no excuse for federal lawmakers to be this wrong.

It's hard not to wonder if these guys are even listening to themselves. Locking up terrorists is bad for security? Federal prisons are "ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots"? It's like listening to children.

Let's try to put this in a way that even Reps. Manzullo and Kirk could understand: the United States has already tried and convicted literally hundreds of terrorists. They're held in federal detention on American soil. The prisons have not become magnets for terrorism; there have been no escapes; there have been no attempted escapes; and there have been no efforts at breaking anyone out of any of the facilities. It's not an academic exercise -- it's reality.

[T]he apocalyptic rhetoric rarely addresses this: Thirty-three international terrorists, many with ties to al-Qaeda, reside in a single federal prison in Florence, Colo., with little public notice.

According to data provided by Traci L. Billingsley, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, "federal facilities on American soil currently house 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists. Some of these miscreants have been locked up here since the early 1990s. None of them has escaped."

A certain amount of political cowardice is to expected, but Manzullo and Kirk are just embarrassing themselves.

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SUCCESS BEGETS SUCCESS.... Approval ratings for Congress have slowly deteriorated over the course of the year, but a new Gallup poll shows opinions of the legislative branch turning upwards, if only a little.


The poll found, "Americans express slightly greater approval of Congress this month after last month's decline. The current 26% rating is up from 21% in October but down from 31% in August and September."

To be sure, a 26% approval rating is downright horrible, and there's no reason for anyone to celebrate a five-point uptick. The point, however, is that Congress' support went up after getting something done.

"The results are from a Gallup poll conducted Nov. 5-8, as the U.S. House of Representatives labored through the weekend on healthcare reform, ultimately passing a $1 trillion bill intended to expand coverage to millions more Americans," the analysis explained.

There are multiple dynamics involved in the public's attitudes towards Congress, but it's worth remembering that getting something done can do wonders for perceptions. If legislators want their branch of government to be more popular, it can, you know, do more legislating. If there's a perception of ineptitude, the best way to overcome this is to be more effective at passing bills.

Also note the partisan breakdown. Congress' numbers have fallen since March, in large part because self-identified Democrats have been less than pleased with the Democratic Congress. As the House passed health care, however, Democrats' approval of the institution climbed from 36% to 47%. (Even rank-and-file Republicans were more impressed, going from 9% to 17%.)

The more Congress gets done, the better its numbers will be.

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BLINDED BY FEAR AND REACTIONARY PARTISANSHIP.... When one cuts through the nonsense and poll-tested soundbites, the right's opposition to fair trials comes down to fear -- fear that our principles are aren't worth honoring, fear that our rule of law is somehow flawed, fear that radical thugs have acquired supernatural powers. It's just blinding, irrational fear.

But in the larger context, as Glenn Greenwald explained, there's an insulting pretext to conservatives' criticism.

[T]he Right's reaction to yesterday's announcement -- we're too afraid to allow trials and due process in our country -- is the textbook definition of "surrendering to terrorists." It's the same fear they've been spewing for years. As always, the Right's tough-guy leaders wallow in a combination of pitiful fear and cynical manipulation of the fear of their followers. Indeed, it's hard to find any group of people on the globe who exude this sort of weakness and fear more than the American Right.

People in capitals all over the world have hosted trials of high-level terrorist suspects using their normal justice system. They didn't allow fear to drive them to build island-prisons or create special commissions to depart from their rules of justice. Spain held an open trial in Madrid for the individuals accused of that country's 2004 train bombings. The British put those accused of perpetrating the London subway bombings on trial right in their normal courthouse in London. Indonesia gave public trials using standard court procedures to the individuals who bombed a nightclub in Bali. India used a Mumbai courtroom to try the sole surviving terrorist who participated in the 2008 massacre of hundreds of residents. In Argentina, the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals, and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes.

It's only America's Right that is too scared of the Terrorists -- or which exploits the fears of their followers -- to insist that no regular trials can be held and that "the safety and security of the American people" mean that we cannot even have them in our country to give them trials. As usual, it's the weakest and most frightened among us who rely on the most flamboyant, theatrical displays of "strength" and "courage" to hide what they really are. Then again, this is the same political movement whose "leaders" -- people like John Cornyn and Pat Roberts -- cowardly insisted that we must ignore the Constitution in order to stay alive: the exact antithesis of the core value on which the nation was founded. Given that, it's hardly surprising that they exude a level of fear of Terrorists that is unmatched virtually anywhere in the world. It is, however, noteworthy that the position they advocate -- it's too scary to have normal trials in our country of Terrorists -- is as pure a surrender to the Terrorists as it gets.

I'm also struck by the remarks of Jim Riches, whose son, a New York firefighter, died on 9/11. "Let them come to New York," said Riches, himself a retired deputy chief with the NYFD. "Let them get on trial. Let's do it the right way, for all the world to see what they're like. Let's go. It's been too long. Let's get some justice."

That this is even considered controversial is a dispiriting setback.

There is, of course, the ongoing debate to consider -- do conservatives believe their own rhetoric? It's occasionally difficult to tell. One could probably make a compelling argument that the same far-right voices throwing tantrums yesterday at the thought of fair trials know full well that the American system of justice is well equipped for legal proceedings like these. They're whining incessantly, the argument goes, because they hate the president. Yesterday had nothing to do with national security policy and everything to do with reactionary partisanship.

Alas, it's a scarier prospect, but it seems just as likely that the right accepts these attacks as true, and has rationalized their irrational fears as legitimate.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is discussion on Capitol Hill about the role of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in using its political influence to shape the health care bill to their liking. At least one progressive lawmaker is crying foul.

The inclusion of a restrictive abortion clause in the House health care bill, and the Catholic Church's involvement in its passage, has legislators and others debating the extent to which religious organizations can appropriately delve into politics. [...]

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote an op-ed in Politico on Monday saying the IRS should pay closer attention to the Conference's involvement in efforts to influence legislation, given its tax-exempt status.

"The role the bishops played in the pushing the Stupak amendment, which unfairly restricts access for low-income women to insurance coverage for abortions, was more than mere advocacy," Woolsey wrote. "They seemed to dictate the finer points of the amendment, and managed to bully members of Congress to vote for added restrictions on a perfectly legal surgical procedure."

In her piece, Woolsey added, "Who elected [the USCCB] to Congress? ... [Their] political effort was subsidized by taxpayers, since the Council enjoys tax-exempt status."

For the record, it seems highly unlikely that the Bishops will face IRS scrutiny over its lobbying efforts on health care -- federal tax law prohibits houses of worship from intervening in elections, but working on issues is permitted.

Also from The God Machine this week:

* Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals before his humiliating downfall, is still trying to work on a comeback. Haggard, perhaps best known for his extended extra-marital affair with a male prostitute, believes he's been "cured" of his homosexuality and ready to lead a flock again. "America loves a scandal, but they love a comeback even more," Haggard said.

* South Carolina's state legislature approved a Christian-themed license plate last year, featuring a cross in front of a stained-glass window, accompanied by the words "I Believe." This week, a federal court found the plates "clearly unconstitutional," and chastised state officials for having "embroiled the state in unnecessary (and expensive) litigation."

* This week, Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences is holding its first major conference on astrobiology, "The new science that seeks to find life elsewhere in the cosmos and to understand how it began on Earth..... [T]he unlikely gathering of prominent scientists and religious leaders shows that some of the most tradition-bound faiths are seriously contemplating the possibility that life exists in myriad forms beyond this planet. Astrobiology has arrived, and religious and social institutions -- even the Vatican -- are taking note."

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THE ONGOING IMPORTANCE OF THE FRANKEN AMENDMENT.... About a month ago, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) proposed an important amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill. Inspired the harrowing violence Jamie Leigh Jones suffered in 2005 while working for Halliburton/KBR in Iraq, Franken pushed a measure to withhold defense contracts from companies that "restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court."

Franken's measure passed, 68 to 30. But the fact that 30 white, male, Senate Republicans -- 75% of the entire GOP Senate caucus -- voted against the amendment continues to be a subject of political significance. (via Amanda Terkel)

Angry letters denouncing Republican senators have appeared in newspapers from Tennessee to Idaho. Unflattering videos of senators trying to explain their votes have gone viral on the Internet, including one of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) swatting away a hand-held video camera held by a liberal blogger questioning his vote against the amendment.

And Democratic strategists are salivating at the prospects of using the vote against the eight GOP senators who voted against the amendment and are up for reelection in 2010.

"I think anyone who voted against that has some tough explaining to do," New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told POLITICO. "And I think particularly some incumbents already in a challenged position -- it can be very detrimental to them because women voters are going to look at that and wonder, 'Does this senator stand on my side?'" [...]

Privately, GOP sources acknowledge that they failed to anticipate the political consequences of a "no" vote on the amendment. And several aides said that Republicans are engaged in an internal blame game about why they agreed to a roll-call vote on the measure, rather than a simple voice vote that would have allowed the opposing senators to duck criticism.

BarbinMD added, "Seriously? They voted against an amendment that was prompted by the brutal gang-rape of a young woman by her co-workers while she was working for a company under contract for the United States government, after which she was locked in a shipping container without food or water, threatened if she left to seek medical treatment, and was then prevented from bringing criminal charges against her assailants. And they failed to anticipate the political consequences?"

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RUDY FEELS RELEVANT AGAIN.... Following up on an earlier item, there is one disappointing downside to the Justice Department's decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in federal court. It has nothing to do with national security or the rule of law, and everything to do with Rudy Giuliani pretending to know what he's talking about.

It's as predictable as the sunrise -- if there's a news story that relates to 9/11, Giuliani takes up residence in television green rooms. That Giuliani's 9/11 record is a rather painful and humiliating embarrassment is largely, if not entirely, overlooked.

But now that KSM is headed for a New York courtroom, Giuliani is everywhere again. Tomorrow, Americans will find him on ABC, CNN, and Fox News. Why? Because a few too many network producers are lazy and prefer to maintain the fiction that the former mayor has something worthwhile to say.

Watching Giuliani on Fox News yesterday, Josh Marshall noted, "[I]t's amazing the utter contempt this man has for the American justice system." That's plainly true -- Giuliani issued a statement yesterday with tired cliches ("a pre-9/11 mentality") and banal canards (the administration is "unable to identify and properly define its enemies"). The same statement added, "This is the same mistake we made with the 1993 terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center. We treated them like domestic criminals, when in fact they were terrorists."

Alex Koppelman explained the gall it took for this clown to make such a statement.

First of all, Giuliani himself celebrated the plotters' conviction in criminal court back in 1994, saying the verdict "demonstrates that New Yorkers won't meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon -- the law."

Moreover, as mayor, Giuliani was in a unique position to learn from the 1993 bombing and prepare his city for the next terrorist attack. He failed on both counts, with the most obvious evidence of his failure coming in the decision about where to place the city's emergency command center: He ultimately chose the World Trade Center, which had been bombed only a few years earlier. Giuliani has since tried to put the blame for this on his emergency management director, Jerome Hauer, but Hauer had fought for a site in Brooklyn before caving in to his boss.

Last year, the New York Times revealed a memo prepared by the New York Police Department that revealed the NYPD's strenuous objections to the choice. They had good reason to be concerned: On 9/11, the command center was useless, and -- despite what Giuliani says now -- it took hours for him to find a spot that could serve as a backup, Hauer's previous requests to build a secondary facility having been turned down.

If recent history and common sense had a more relevant role in our public discourse, Giuliani would be a laughingstock. Instead, the media enables him, perpetuating myths news outlets were responsible for creating in the first place.

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A RATHER OBVIOUS DECISION.... The big political story of the day yesterday was the Justice Department's decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others connected to the 9/11 attacks in federal court in New York -- and the apoplexy this decision generated among conservatives. Twenty four hours later, I'm still not clear on why the right is having such a breakdown.

The NYT had a good editorial on this today, calling yesterday's announcement from the attorney general a "bold and principled step," which "promises to finally provide justice for the victims of 9/11."

Mr. Holder said those prisoners would be prosecuted in federal court in Manhattan. It was an enormous victory for the rule of law, a major milestone in Mr. Obama's efforts to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an important departure from Mr. Bush's disregard for American courts and their proven ability to competently handle high-profile terror cases. If he and Vice President Dick Cheney had shown more faith in the laws and the Constitution, the alleged mass murderers would have faced justice much earlier.

Republican lawmakers and the self-promoting independent senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, pounced on the chance to appear on television. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they said military tribunals are a more secure and appropriate venue for trying terrorism suspects. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a former judge who should have more regard for the law, offered the absurd claim that Mr. Obama was treating the 9/11 conspirators as "common criminals."

There is nothing common about them -- or Mr. Holder's decision. Putting the five defendants on public trial a few blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center is entirely fitting. Experience shows that federal courts are capable of handling high-profile terrorism trials without comprising legitimate secrets, national security or the rule of law.

That last point seemed to go largely unnoticed yesterday: we've done this before. KSM and his cohorts are, by all appearances, monsters. But the American system of justice is not only strong enough to deal with monsters, it's done so many, many times.

Or, put another way, why are we even having this conversation? When we got Zacarias Moussaoui, we charged him, tried him, convicted him, and locked him up for the remainder of his miserable life. Republicans and Fox News personalities didn't whine like children; it was simply a process that followed the rule of law.

The same is true of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Richard Reid, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, Jose Padilla, Ali Saleh al-Marri, John Walker Lindh, and Masoud Khan. The U.S. justice system has tried, convicted, and imprisoned hundreds of terrorists. Not one has ever escaped; not one has ever tried to escape.

And more to the point, when each was subjected to the criminal justice system, Republicans and their allies never complained. When they were sent to supermax facilities on American soil, no one whined about it or tried to scare the public.

It's hard not to get the impression that conservatives are throwing a tantrum based on nothing more than the hopes that Americans won't notice how foolish and cowardly they appear.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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November 13, 2009

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

* President Obama, off to a good start in Asia.

* We thought we might see a CBO score on the Senate health care bill today. No such luck.

* A "significant" amount of water on the moon. Cool.

* NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports the Obama administration's decision to try terrorists in a New York court. Bloomberg believes it's "fitting" to have their trial near Ground Zero.

* Interesting move: "Federal prosecutors on Thursday moved to seize several U.S. assets allegedly controlled by entities linked to the government of Iran, including a mosque and Islamic school in Potomac, Maryland in Prince William County and a Manhattan skyscraper. Prosecutors described an intricate web of ties allegedly connecting the properties to an Iranian bank that has been identified as a key financier of Tehran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and possibly acts of terrorism."

* A surprisingly candid report from Goldman Sachs on killing health care reform to maximize shareholder profits.

* John Solomon, out at the Washington Times.

* Immigration reform in 2010? It's possible.

* Coathangers for Dems who voted for the Stupak amendment.

* On a related note, constitutional questions surrounding Stupak's provision? (thanks to M.R.)

* Apparently, Sarah Palin has a new book coming out. Some of her more notable claims are already being dunked by other Republicans.

* Fred Kaplan on Afghanistan: "It's not how many troops to send; it's what those troops will do."

* Politicizing the end of the ffel program.

* Melody Barnes, the head of President Obama's Domestic Policy Council, recently told students at Boston College Law School that she supports gay marriage. There was some talk the White House didn't want a video of Barnes' comments released, but White House officials have told the school that it can post and publicize the remarks.

* And finally, here's an outside-the-box idea: Palin and Rod Blagojevich co-hosting a talk show: "They could call it 'The Hockey Mom and the Hair.'"

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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GOOD FOR BUSINESS.... The Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of major U.S. companies, released an interesting report yesterday, explaining that improvements to the health care system would be good for business. Reform advocates, not surprisingly, were delighted.

If we're going to be intellectually honest about the report, it's worth remembering that the Business Roundtable's conclusions fell far short of an endorsement of Democratic efforts. Indeed, it specifically rejected the idea of a public option, which reform advocates obviously want. The report also disapproves of the excise tax as a financing option.

That said, the business leaders highlighted the ways in which reform can help businesses currently getting slammed by increased health care costs, and are glad to see that policymakers are doing something about it. The White House wasted no time in touting the group's conclusion, and President Obama said in a statement that the report "underscores what experts and businesspeople have told us all along -- comprehensive health insurance reform is one of the most important investments we can make in American competitiveness."

Today, the DNC even released a new video, heralding the Business Roundtable's report.

And almost as important, Republicans aren't happy.

Tension between Republicans and the nation's top CEOs over healthcare reform escalated this week when the executives released a report praising aspects of President Barack Obama's top initiative.

Republicans in Congress and some of their business allies in Washington are fuming over a new report commissioned by the Business Roundtable (BRT), an organization that represents more than 50 of the nation's biggest corporations.

The report claims that parts of the Democratic legislation could cut healthcare costs substantially.

GOP officials have been angry with the Business Roundtable for not fighting the White House agenda more aggressively, and now the business leaders are, directly or indirectly, helping health care reform efforts. Republicans may not like it, but these executives want to do what's good for business, and they realize Democratic plans can make a positive difference.

And in the larger context, it's just that much more difficult to characterize reform as some kind of "radical" attack on free enterprise when the AMA, AARP, and Business Roundtable all think the plan is a good idea.

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ONE TRACK MIND.... The departure of White House Counsel Gregory Craig has been rumored for months, but it became official today. Craig stepped down after 10 months on the job, and will be replaced by Robert Bauer, a Democratic lawyer who's represented President Obama for years. The announcement was, as the NYT noted, "timed to take place the same day the Justice Department disclosed that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and four other men accused in the plot will be prosecuted in federal court in New York City."

But that's not what Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) believes. No, the "official" version isn't quite compelling enough for the King-man. He thinks he knows the real reason, and it's all about ... ready for this? ... ACORN.

Newly appointed White House counsel Bob Bauer is "perfectly positioned to be tasked with erasing the tracks between Obama and ACORN," one Republican lawmaker charged Friday.

The lawyer's hiring, announced this morning shortly after Greg Craig officially resigned the post, was also an attempt by the White House to deflect any fallout that may arise from an ACORN investigation currently underway in Louisiana, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) added in a statement.

"Bob Bauer has a public record of defending Barack Obama's relationship with ACORN," the congressman told supporters. "Bauer's hiring appears to be a tactical maneuver to strategically defend the White House exactly one week after Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell raided ACORN's national headquarters in New Orleans and seized paper records and computer hard drives that may lead to the White House."

There just has to be a prescription medication available to help King with his troubles.

As Tony Romm reported, the allegations don't stand up well to scrutiny. Bauer worked for the Obama campaign last year, and when Republicans launched trumped up allegations against ACORN, Bauer suggested there may have been cooperation between the McCain/Palin campaign and Bush's Justice Department. That's scandalous because, well, King says so. Needless to say, the right-wing Iowan's disturbed conspiracy theory doesn't make a lick of sense.

As Dave Weigel added, "King's attack here is almost surprisingly irresponsible. Almost."

What's more, Eric Kleefeld noted that King's latest derangement "comes a few days after another King press release in which he alleged that the resignation of White House communications director Anita Dunn -- Bauer's wife -- was connected to the aforementioned investigation against ACORN in Louisiana. So King previously seemed to be implying that Dunn was leaving in a hurry because of an ACORN scandal -- and now says that Bauer is coming in because of the same ACORN matter."

I imagine there are quite a few good folks in Iowa's 5th congressional district. It's a genuine shame King embarrasses them on a daily basis.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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THE STUPID, IT BURNS (LITERALLY).... Over the summer, right-wing activists hung Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) in effigy outside his district office. It was a key signal of what's to come -- the far-right Tea Party crowd's tactics go a little further than the usual political protests we're accustomed to in contemporary American politics.

How much further? A report from southern Virginia highlights this weekend's planned activities in Danville. (via Blue Virginia)

In a move sure to spark controversy, the Danville TEA Party will close their "Fired Up for Freedom" rally by burning Rep. Tom Perriello and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in effigy in response to the passage of landmark healthcare legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The event is being held Saturday at 5:30 p.m. in Blairs, VA at the corner of U.S. 29 and E. Witt Rd. and is open to the public.

Danville TEA Party Chairman Nigel Coleman said, "We were outraged to find that Tom Perriello had voted in favor of this bill. I was with dozens of 5th District voters in his office two days before the vote and we pleaded with him to stand with us against the Pelosi plan.... At this point we feel we have no representation in Congress."

For the record, Periello has met with Teabaggers, and tried to explain his policy approaches to them. They didn't seem interested in good-faith dialog.

And now, these same conservatives are literally planning to set fire to representations of their congressman and the House Speaker.

There's something deeply wrong with these folks.

Update: Josh Marshall adds, "I'm so old I can remember when ritualized symbolic execution of public officials wasn't cool."

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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PRESIDENT GINGRICH ON 'MTP'.... So, I was perusing the guest lists for the Sunday morning shows, wondering which channel would feature John McCain. (For the record, he hasn't been booked for any of the shows -- yet.) The line-up for "Meet the Press" stood out.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be on, which certainly makes sense, given her recent traveling. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be on, which also makes sense, given new education proposals unveiled this week.

And then, there are the other two guests.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), and civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton have been touring the country -- visiting classrooms and talking with students -- to highlight education issues and rally support for their proposed education reforms. We'll join them on the road this week, then sit down with them Sunday morning for a live interview to discuss their plans to improve the quality of education in this country.

Seriously? Do the producers just not like us?

I have no idea why Gingrich and Sharpton -- the original odd couple -- are in a position to talk about education reform. The Secretary of Education? Sure. These two? Not so much.

This will, by the way, be Newt Gingrich's fourth appearance on "Meet the Press" this year. The guy was run out of Congress by members of his own party more than a decade ago; he's held no positions of influence or authority since; but he's been a featured guest on "Meet the Press" every other month this year since March.


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KEEPING THE ABORTION-RELATED HEAT ON THE RNC.... Ben Smith reports this afternoon that RedState's Leon H. Wolf wants heads to roll at the Republican National Committee for having a health care policy -- for 18 years -- that covered abortion services.

For thirty years, we have fought tooth and nail to prevent our tax money from being used to pay for abortions. Turns out, we were apparently doing it through donating to the political party that was ostensibly on our side. This betrayal is so fundamental to the majority of people who donate to the RNC that it's almost unspeakable. I have no doubt that many of the staffers there will miss the point, so allow me to make it clearly: you have caused every person who donated to support your livelihood to become involved in what they perceive to be a grave moral evil.

The RNC's defense thus far seems to be excusable negligence; blaming it on some (surely departed) staffer who checked a box almost 20 years ago, and whoops, we weren't careful enough. So sorry. It won't happen again.

Not good enough. Not even close. [...]

In order for the RNC to regain the trust of their donors, they must disclose the names of all people involved in any way of the selection of their health care plan. And those people must be summarily fired. No severance packages, no golden parachutes; fired. For cause.

No pro-lifer in good conscience can give them a dime until this happens.

But here's the part RedState misses: the RNC's "problem" isn't really a thing of the past. This anger misses the point of what's happened here.

As we talked about this morning, all the RNC has done here is opt out of abortion coverage for RNC employees. RedState wants an explanation of how this went unnoticed for 18 years.

But more important is the underlying logic. The new-and-improved RNC policy will insure its employees through Cigna, and Cigna will still pay for abortions, just not for RNC employees. In other words, RNC premiums will go to the company, and the company will then use its pool of money to pay for abortions. That's the "fix" RNC Chairman Michael Steele scrambled to make.

RedState and the Republican National Committee support the Stupak amendment, and according to its reasoning, the RNC will still be indirectly subsidizing abortions with its premiums. Leon H. Wolf wants an explanation for the previous mistake, without realizing that very little has actually changed here.

Either the RNC agrees with this assessment or it rejects the reasoning behind the Stupak measure. It's one or the other.

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HOLDER TO TRY KSM, BOEHNER WHINES.... As expected, Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that he will try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in an NYC courtroom, and intends to pursue the death penalty against the suspected terrorist mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), predictably, is blasting the move because ... well, just because.

"The Obama Administration's irresponsible decision to prosecute the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in New York City puts the interests of liberal special interest groups before the safety and security of the American people. The possibility that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-conspirators could be found 'not guilty' due to some legal technicality just blocks from Ground Zero should give every American pause."

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) added that a trial "a few blocks from the World Trade Center site" necessarily puts the United States "at greater risk."

Keep in mind, this bizarre nonsense came by way of written statements. The comments weren't made off the cuff, before they could really think about what they were saying -- these were carefully crafted sentiments, which just happen to be ridiculous.

Greg Sargent added, "The larger point is that Republicans are already seizing on the Obama administration's decision to revive memories of 9/11 in order to give fresh urgency to GOP criticism of current terrorism policies. The amount of time that has passed since 9/11 had caused terrorism to fall dramatically on the list of voter concerns, making Republican criticism of the administration's moves on terror seem almost like a sideshow and a distraction."

I just wish conservative Republicans would come up with an argument here. I'm not looking for air-tight reasoning -- just something coherent and half-way intelligent. Because at this point, I have a hard time imagining that even the most dimwitted member of Congress actually believes that fair trials for almost-certainly-guilty terrorist suspects are "dangerous."

Who is it, exactly, that Boehner & Co. don't trust? The American system of justice? Federal prosecutors? Officials at federal detention facilities?

Or are we back to Republican fears that terrorist suspects are comic-book villains with super powers?

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IN AFGHANISTAN, ALL POLICY IS LOCAL.... There hasn't been much in the way of good news out of Afghanistan lately, which is all the more reason to take a closer look at this front-page piece in the New York Times on an aid effort called the National Solidarity Program.

Small grants given directly to villagers have brought about modest but important changes in this corner of Afghanistan, offering a model in a country where official corruption and a Taliban insurgency have frustrated many large-scale development efforts. [...]

People [in Jurn, in the northeastern portion of the country] have taken charge for themselves -- using village councils and direct grants as part of an initiative called the National Solidarity Program, introduced by an Afghan ministry in 2003.

Before then, this valley had no electricity or clean water, its main crop was poppy and nearly one in 10 women died in childbirth, one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Today, many people have water taps, fields grow wheat and it is no longer considered shameful for a woman to go to a doctor.

If there are lessons to be drawn from the still tentative successes here, they are that small projects often work best, that the consent and participation of local people are essential and that even baby steps take years.

After more than eight years of war, plenty of aid has arrived in Afghanistan from around the world, but much of it has gone through the dubious central government or gone to private contractors. The World Bank helped establish the National Solidarity Program six years ago, but the Bush administration was never fond of it.

That was a mistake -- the NSP has, in many ways, proven to be a silver-bullet program for Afghanistan. It gets needed resources to Afghan villages; it promotes stability by connecting local governance and development with the national government in Kabul; and it fosters democracy and accountability throughout the country.

In the Jurn example highlight by the NYT piece, this was an area "tormented by warlords" in the 1990s, and detached from the central government today. With modest, direct grants through the NSP, locals improved local infrastructure and built schools.

"Local residents contend that the councils work because they take development down to its most basic level," the article noted, "with villagers directing the spending to improve their own lives, cutting out middle men, local and foreign, as well as much of the overhead costs and corruption.:

A farmer was quoted in the piece saying, "You don't steal from yourself."

Robert Zoellick had an op-ed about the program last year: "The National Solidarity Program (NSP) that the World Bank helped launch with former finance minister Ashraf Ghani in 2003 empowers more than 20,000 elected Community Development Councils to allocate modest grants to local priorities, whether micro-hydroelectric generators, schools, roads, irrigation, erosion or water supply projects. It touches more than 17 million Afghans in all 34 provinces and has an economic rate of return of close to 20 percent. The program links self-help with self-determination."

For more on this, Gregory Warner had the definitive piece on the NSP in the Monthly in 2007, called, "The Schools the Taliban Won't Torch." Take a look.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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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.

* Vote counting continues in New York's 23rd. The chances of overturning the results appear, at this point, to be "highly remote."

* A new Rasmussen poll in Texas shows incumbent Gov. Rick Perry (R) leading his primary challenger, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) by double digits, 46% to 35%.

* Taking the Republican divisions up a notch, Florida's Marco Rubio (R) has been named the keynote speaker for next year's Conservative Political Action Conference, which will no doubt be a boost for his Senate campaign against Gov. Charlie Crist (R). As Evan McMorris-Santoro noted, "It's hard to overstate the importance of a CPAC appearance for a conservative politician."

* In the upcoming special election in Massachusetts to fill Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat, state attorney general Martha Coakley (D) is the frontrunner, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will throw her support to Coakley's principal rival, Rep. Michael Capuano (D), in the Democratic primary.

* Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) is apparently thinking about running for governor next year in Colorado. If Tancredo runs as a Republican, he'll face former Rep. Scott McInnis in a GOP primary.

* Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.) will make an announcement either today or tomorrow as to whether he'll run for the Senate next year against incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R). If Etheridge runs, he'll start off as the underdog -- a new survey (pdf) from Public Policy Polling has Burr leading Etheridge by 10.

* Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) claims he's not moving sharply to the right in advance of next year's Senate race. There's ample evidence to the contrary.

* Florida Republicans have a candidate to take on Rep. Alan Grayson (D) next year; they just don't like him very much.

* Might Ralph Nader run for the Senate in Connecticut next year? It's possible.

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

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THE COMMUNITY REINVESTMENT ACT ZOMBIE LIE.... The Wall Street Journal ran yet another op-ed today claiming that home loans made "under the pressure of" the Community Reinvestment Act helped to "fuel the greatest housing bubble our nation has ever seen."

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) recently pushed the same line. It leaves Paul Krugman with a feeling of hopelessness.

There's a persistent delusion, on the part of many pundits, to the effect that we're actually having a rational political discussion in this country. But we aren't. The proposition that the Community Reinvestment Act caused all the bad stuff, because government forced helpless bankers into lending to Those People, has been refuted up, down, and sideways. The vast bulk of subprime lending came from institutions not subject to the CRA. Commercial real estate lending, which was mainly lending to rich white developers, not you-know-who, is in much worse shape than subprime home lending. Etc., etc.

But in Dick Armey's world, in fact on the right as a whole, the affirmative-action-made-them-do-it doctrine isn't even seen as a hypothesis. It's just a fact, something everyone knows.

Truly, sometimes I despair.

It's probably the single most frustrating aspect of our political discourse. The right will make an outrageous claim; the claim will be proven false; but instead of moving on to a new claim, conservatives just continue to repeat the debunked point.

It's the crowd that creates their own reality.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) can be unintentionally amusing sometimes.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), an outspoken conservative and member of the House GOP leadership whip team, on Thursday refused to condemn the harsh rhetoric used by conservative "tea party" protesters amid the health care debate.

Asked whether she would pledge to no longer endorse the language of protesters who accuse President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats of being "socialist" and "evil" because of their health care reform plan, Blackburn paused before saying, "I'm happy to tell you the American people are very frustrated and what I can speak to is for me." [...]

Blackburn, a speaker at the Bloomberg Washington Summit, dodged several questions about whether her support for the rhetoric used by protesters helps or hurts her party.

She concluded, "Many of us would appreciate having a more civil tone here in Washington."

If she'd like a more civil tone, why would Blackburn fail to criticize the Teabaggers' right-wing vitriol? For that matter, wouldn't she tone down her own over-the-top rhetoric?

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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PAYING A HIGH PRICE.... Earlier this week, Jon Stewart did a segment on "The Daily Show" about Sean Hannity's coverage of last week's right-wing rally against health care reform. Stewart noticed that Hannity combined footage from a right-wing rally in September, in the hopes of confusing the Fox News audience. (Or, as Stewart later explained, the deceptive editing was "a literal manifestation of what we feel is the metaphorical methodology of the entire Fox network, which, of course, is the subtle altering of reality to sell a preconceived narrative.")

On Wednesday, at the very end of his Fox News program, Hannity spent 30 seconds acknowledging the mistake and apologizing.

Last night, Stewart aired a follow-up segment, showing his "live" reaction to Hannity's program. After having to suffer through the entire Hannity show, just to get to the apology at the very end, Stewart says through his tears, "It wasn't worth it. Nothing's worth sitting through this."

Towards the end of last night's segment, Stewart brought out the "young" man who originally caught Hannity's deception. The man, ostensibly a recent college graduate, has apparently been watching Hannity's show every night for five months, which has in turn made him appear to be an old, frail man.

"Kill me," he says. "Be a man and get me out of here."

I could relate to this on a personal level. Several years ago, I worked for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and was frequently told to watch Pat Robertson's "700 Club" program. Before I got used to it, I was convinced it'd take years off my life, too.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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I LIKED THE 'BIPARTISAN CONSENSUS' BETTER.... Obviously, Senate Republicans want to deny President Obama a historic victory, and will do what it takes to try to kill health care reform. But this "Tenther" nonsense points to a caucus that's gone completely around the bend.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL)--the highest ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee--is unclear about the Constitutionality of current health care legislation, and he's turning for clarity to the Federalist Society.

"I think that's a good question," Sessions said on a panel at the Federalist Society's National Lawyers' Convention. "Matter of fact I met with my staff...we were talking about, and you know what I said Leonard? I said we ought to ask Federalist society folks what they think too. I said let's begin to think about that question and what's the constitutional thing...can the government require to do what we think is in your best interest if you don't think it's in your best interest?"

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, once said there was a bipartisan consensus in favor of individual mandates. But he too seems to have joined the tenther fringe.

Grassley raised the prospect of reform being unconstitutional yesterday, but he's been at this for a while, initially raising the argument in mid-October.

Let's just briefly review reality here.

First, Republicans are coalescing around opposition to an idea that they've already endorsed. The policy proposal Grassley & Co. think may be unconstitutional is the same policy proposal Grassley & Co. fully embraced just a couple of months ago. Grassley told Fox News over the summer, "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates.... There isn't anything wrong with it."

Second, the notion that an individual mandate violates the Constitution is absurd. As Ezra Klein noted yesterday, "[Y]es, the individual mandate is constitutional. For a roundup of the argument, see this Tim Noah piece. For a longer, more technical explanation, see this post by law professor Erik Hall. The summary is that you can look at the individual mandate as a tax, which is constitutional, or as a regulation forcing private actors to engage in a certain transaction, much like the minimum wage, which is also constitutional. I've also heard scholars mention auto insurance, which is an obvious analogue, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which proved that the government can order businesses to install ramps, despite the fact that the constitution doesn't explicitly give the federal government jurisdiction over entryways."

A question Ruth Marcus raised the other day continues to ring true: "You have to wonder: Are the Republican arguments against the bill so weak that they have to resort to these misrepresentations and distortions?"

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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KHALID SHAIKH MOHAMMED HEADED FOR TRIAL.... It's always reassuring when the Obama administration, knowing that intense far-right blowback is inevitable, does the right thing anyway.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and four other men accused in the plot will be prosecuted in federal court in New York City, a federal law enforcement official said early on Friday.

But the administration will prosecute Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri -- the detainee accused of planning the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen -- and several other detainees before a military commission, the official said.

The decisions to give civilian prosecutors detainees accused of the 2001 terrorist attacks and keep the case of the Cole attack within the military system are expected to be announced at the Department of Justice later on Friday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

We've been through all the arguments before, but I guarantee we're about to have the same tiresome debate all over again. We'll hear that a U.S. criminal court couldn't possibly be equipped to hear a case against a terrorist suspect -- except for all the U.S. criminal courts that have already proven that they're well equipped to hear cases against terrorist suspects. We'll hear that KSM, if convicted, will end up in an American supermax facility that's ill prepared to house terrorists -- except for all the terrorists that already safely locked away in American supermax facilities.

I've simply never understood the right's weak-kneed panic over the U.S. justice system. From what I gather, the case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed should be pretty easy to make in court, and securing a conviction is likely to be pretty easy. By giving this suspected monster a fair trial, we can prove to the world the strength of American values and the integrity of the American system. Shouldn't Cheney, Giuliani, and the rest of the motley crew who'll spend the day whining on Fox News want a trial for KSM?

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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RNC SUBSIDIZES ABORTIONS FOR 18 YEARS -- AND COUNTING.... The debate over financing of abortions -- the basis for the offensive Stupak amendment -- is all about money being fungible. Amy Sullivan explained the problem nicely recently: "The problem, they say, is that if any insurance plan that covers abortion is allowed to participate in a public exchange, then premiums paid to that plan in the form of taxpayer-funded subsidies help support that abortion coverage even if individual abortion procedures are paid for out of a separate pool of privately-paid premium dollars."

But applying this argument can prove problematic. Focus on the Family, for example, one of the nation's largest religious right organizations and a fierce opponent of abortion rights, has health insurance for its employees through a company that covers "abortion services." The far-right outfit, by its own standards, indirectly subsidizes abortions.

Apparently, the Republican National Committee has the same problem. Politico reported yesterday afternoon that the RNC -- whose platform calls abortion "a fundamental assault on innocent human life" -- gets insurance through Cigna with a plan that covers elective abortion. The Republicans' health care package has been in place since 1991 -- thanks, Lee Atwater -- meaning that, by the party's own argument, it has been indirectly subsidizing abortions for 18 years.

Complicating matters, Politico found that Cigna offers customers the opportunity to opt out of abortion coverage -- "and the RNC did not choose to opt out."

The Republican National Committee, not surprisingly, scrambled. By last night, it resolved the issue. Sort of.

The Republican National Committee will no longer offer employees an insurance plan that covers abortion after POLITICO reported Thursday that the anti-abortion RNC's policy has covered the procedure since 1991.

"Money from our loyal donors should not be used for this purpose," Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement. "I don't know why this policy existed in the past, but it will not exist under my administration. Consider this issue settled."

Steele has told the committee's director of administration to opt out of coverage for elective abortion in the policy it uses from Cigna.

But does that actually "settle" the matter? The new RNC policy, apparently, is to have insurance through Cigna, opting out of abortion coverage. But let's not lose sight of the original fungibility problem -- the RNC is taking Republican money and giving it to an insurance company through premiums. That company will then use its pool of money to pay for abortion services, not for RNC employees, but for other customers.

In other words, the Republican National Committee will still indirectly subsidize abortions, every time it writes a check to Cigna.

And if the RNC disagrees with this reasoning, and believes the issue is "settled," then the party has rejected the reasoning of the Stupak amendment at a fundamental level.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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November 12, 2009

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

* Nidal Hasan was charged today with 13 counts of premeditated murder.

* Fed targets overdraft fees: "The Federal Reserve on Thursday released a new rule to prohibit banks from automatically enrolling customers in overdraft protection programs, which charge fees when consumers spend more than they have."

* Defense Secretary Robert Gates targets leaks coming out of the Pentagon.

* Would "work-sharing" programs help improve the job market?

* ACORN sues the federal government.

* The results in New York's 23rd probably won't be overturned.

* CNN's John King will replace Lou Dobbs in the 7 p.m. (eastern) slot.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ponders new funding options for health care reform, including raising the Medicare tax for those making more than $250,000.

* Rep. Steve Buyer (R) of Indiana should probably hire a good lawyer right about now.

* Who's going to defend child labor? Other than assorted business groups and their lobbyists, that is.

* Glass-Steagall was repealed 10 years ago today. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) got it right then, and has a few thoughts about what to do now.

* Even for the RNC, this new flip-flop talk is just stupid.

* If a school is going to have multiple chaplains to accommodate a spiritually diverse student body, it's only natural for there to be questions about the lack of a humanist chaplain.

* Paul Krugman: "So the whole idea of Fox Business is problematic. It's Fox, which means that it's basically an arm of the GOP; but that's a terrible match for business coverage, because the economy just refuses to punish liberals and reward conservatives the way it's supposed to."

* The sample in that Gallup poll yesterday was a little skewed with regards to party I.D.

* Did Michele Bachmann and Steve King violate House rules by using their official sites for grassroots organizing? Probably.

* Joe Klein thinks Jamie Kirchick is a "dishonest [expletive]" and a "[expletiving] propagandist." That's not unreasonable.

* Remember, you, too, can learn to speak Tea Bag. (thanks to D.L. for the tip)

* And finally, The Onion reflects on the big media story of the day: "Acting on anonymous tips from within the Hispanic-American community, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials on Wednesday deported Luis Miguel Salvador Aguila Dominguez, who has been living illegally in the United States under the name Lou Dobbs for 48 years."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE PRESIDENT IN SECTION 60.... If you haven't already read it, I'd encourage folks to check out a piece in New York Daily News today from James Gordon Meek, a reporter who spent some time yesterday in a personal capacity at Arlington National Cemetery, when he unexpectedly ran into the president.

Meek was visiting the grave of a friend who'd died in Iraq in a part of the cemetery labeled "Section 60," which is where many fallen from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. President Obama attended a service at the Tomb of the Unknowns, laying a wreath, but Obama also made an unscheduled stop at Section 60 to visit with friends and family members.

"What I got was an unexpected look into the eyes of a man who intertwined his roles as commander in chief and consoler in chief on a solemn day filled with remembrance and respect for sacrifices made -- and sacrifices yet to be made," Meek wrote. "I'm sure the cynics will assume this was just another Obama photo op. If they'd been standing in my boots looking him in the eye, they would have surely choked on their bile. His presence in Section 60 convinced me that he now carries the heavy burden of command."

Meek also appeared on MSNBC this morning to talk about his experience. "[Obama] didn't have to go to Section 60," Meek noted. "There was no White House aide who came along and screened the people who were standing there.... This guy, the president, could have gotten yelled at by a widow -- anything could have happened -- and it would have been on full display in front of the press pool that travels with him."

It's a moving piece. Take a look.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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THE LIMITS OF A CHARITABLE CALLING.... I've always found the Book of Matthew rather beautiful: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me...."

It goes on to say, "Unless you live in a city where gays can get married, in which case, to hell with it."

OK, it doesn't really say that last part, but the D.C. Archdiocese may be confused on the point.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said Wednesday that it will be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn't change a proposed same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care.

Under the bill, headed for a D.C. Council vote next month, religious organizations would not be required to perform or make space available for same-sex weddings. But they would have to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

"If the city requires this, we can't do it," Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Wednesday. "The city is saying in order to provide social services, you need to be secular. For us, that's really a problem."

Keep in mind, Catholic Charities receives quite a bit of taxpayer money to do social service work -- contracts that existed long before Bush's "faith-based" initiative. The archdiocese is now saying it would abandon its charitable contracts with the city if local officials legalize same-sex marriage.

Or as my friend Rob Boston put it, "Let me get this straight: The church is saying, 'Unless you bow to our demands, we'll stop taking your money'?"

Catholic Charities seems to want tax funds with no strings attached. The Post reported that from 2006 through 2008, Catholic Charities received about $8.2 million in city contracts to provide various services. The city is now asking them to abide by some reasonable anti-discrimination laws, laws that in my view they should have been following all along.

David Catania, a member of the D.C. who has pushed the same-sex marriage law, got it exactly right when he said, "If they find living under our laws so oppressive that they can no longer take city resources, the city will have to find an alternative partner to step in to fill the shoes."

For the record, there are other charities in D.C. that contract with the city on social services. The archdiocese is the only one threatening to stop working with local officials over the marriage equality issue.