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Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE'S FINAL DAY.... As 2009 comes to an end, today is also the last day of the Monthly's annual fundraising drive. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can still make a big difference.

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Steve Benen 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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

* Learning more about yesterday's suicide attack in Afghanistan: "The C.I.A. operatives stationed where a suicide bombing occurred Wednesday -- killing at least eight Americans -- were responsible for collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and plotting missions to kill the networks' top leaders. Seven of the victims at Forward Operating Base Chapman were C.I.A. officers, and one of the victims was the base chief, officials said. The attack at the remote base in southeastern Afghanistan on Wednesday was carried out by someone who wore an Afghan National Army uniform, according to NATO officials."

* The suicide bomber in the attack was not searched because he'd been invited onto the base -- the attacker had been courted as a possible informant.

* Charges pending against Blackwater for the September 2007 shooting in Nisoor Square have been thrown out: "U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina said Justice Department prosecutors improperly built their case on sworn statements that had been given under a promise of immunity. Urbina said the government's explanations were 'contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility.'"

* More encouraging economic news: "The number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits dropped unexpectedly last week, another indication that the job market may be healing as the economy slowly recovers."

* ABC News reported this week that two of the plotters of the failed Christmas terrorist plot had been released by the Bush/Cheney administration. The network has partially retracted its report, saying that one of the two was not involved.

* Radical Yemen cleric Anwar Awlaki is apparently not dead. Good to know.

* Sessions' controversy deepens: "Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) in 2004 collected more than $24,000 from a financial firm since revealed to be part of a massive, billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, federal election data shows. The contributions came from Stanford Financial -- run by indicted financier Allen Stanford -- and together comprised the second-largest contribution from any firm to Sessions' campaign that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, citing official Federal Election Commission reports."

* Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) wants to debate Dick Cheney.

* Interesting item from Noam Scheiber: "[T]he government's stress tests -- an eight-week effort to vet the balance sheets of the country's biggest banks -- was the single most consequential economic policy of 2009."

* Another lapse in judgment at the Washington Post.

* TheConservatives.com, a big project of the Washington Times, has apparently been scrapped.

* Rush Limbaugh was hospitalized overnight in Hawaii after experiencing chest pains. By all accounts, the right-wing radio host is expected to fully recover.

* And Rachel Maddow noticed that several media outlets simply passed along Dick Cheney's vile attack against the White House yesterday without noting how spectacularly dishonest it was. She offered news outlets and media professionals some worthwhile advice: "Again, my friends and colleagues in the media have two choices in covering this. You can just copy down what the Republicans and Vice President Cheney are saying, and click 'send,' call it journalism, or you can actually fact-check those comments and put them into context. Your choice. It's your country."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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WILL THE BLUE DOGS COME HOME ON HCR?.... Nearly two months ago, when the House passed its health care reform bill, the vote was 220 to 215. While one House Republican, Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao of Louisiana, joined with the majority, 39 Democrats joined with Republicans to oppose the legislation.

A couple of the 39 Dems -- Reps. Eric Massa (N.Y.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) -- said the health care bill was too conservative to support, but nearly all of the Democratic opponents were conservative Blue Dogs, with one objection or another.

The Senate reform bill, we now know, is less progressive in most respects than the House version, including the omission of a public option. Will some of the Blue Dogs who balked at the House bill in November support the final bill if it closely resembles the Senate version? Brian Beutler takes a closer look.

[F]or the first time, we're seeing signs that some of the members who opposed the bill the first time around are keeping their options open -- even leaning towards supporting the final bill if it closely resembles the Senate package.

Freshman Blue Dog Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO) says some positive things about the Senate bill, and is keeping an open mind. Blue Dog Jason Altmire (D-PA) is on the record saying that the Senate bill is stronger than the House bill, and that "a lot" of Blue Dogs might flip their votes from 'no' to 'yes' if the Senate bill prevails in conference.

This isn't just an academic question. To get the reform bill through the chamber the first time around, the Democratic leadership had very little margin for error -- 218 votes were needed, and Pelosi & Co. assembled 219 Democratic proponents. If there's a sizable progressive contingent that's unsatisfied with the final package -- that is, if it's too close to the Senate version -- an untold number may vote with Republicans against final passage.

At that point, the leadership would need at least some Blue Dogs to cross the finish line. Frankly, I'm not sure what more the Blue Dogs could want from the legislation -- they sought cost controls, deficit reduction, and the removal of the public option. Some conservative Dems will reflexively oppose any reform bill (cough, cough, Mike McIntyre, cough), but for the rest, this should be an easy call.

That is, if their opposition was principled and policy-focused, and not just a reflexive response to far-right apoplexy.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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CAN TWO PLAY AT THAT GAME?.... In the wake of the failed terrorist attack on Christmas, confused Republicans have been almost giddy about the shift in focus. As the GOP sees it, issues like the economy and health care are Democratic issues, while national security "belongs" to them, reality and their failed record notwithstanding.

This was bolstered, at least initially, by the fact that far-right Republicans rushed forward to exploit public fear to trash the White House and raise money, while congressional Democrats largely sat on their hands and kept a low profile -- even though, again, there's no reason in the world for Republicans to claim the high ground on the issue they don't even understand.

What's interesting, though, is that the DCCC at least says it intends to turn the tables as the midterms approach.

Democratic leadership in Congress is pledging to make Republican votes against key national security and defense funding measures a feature in the upcoming congressional elections, following the botched Christmas Day terrorist attack aboard a Detroit-bound airliner.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-M.D.) told the Huffington Post on Wednesday that it was the committee's duty to ensure that, come 2010, the American people are aware that House Republicans opposed a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that included funding for airport security.

The 2010 appropriations bill contained Transportation Security Administration funding for explosives detection systems and other security measures -- it was opposed by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) among others.

"It is not so much that the DCCC will be holding people accountable but the American people will be holding people accountable. They deserve to have that info and we will make sure they have it," Van Hollen told Sam Stein. "And I'm assuming our Republican colleagues will have an opportunity to explain why they voted against additional resources for homeland security."

(And remember, it's not just the House.)

I don't doubt Van Hollen's sincerity, but it's probably a little early to say what the driving issues of the 2010 cycle will be. The point, however, is that if national security is a major factor on voters' minds, the DCCC believes it has a compelling pitch to voters -- House Republicans voted against funding for screening operations and explosives detection systems at airports, and voted against funding for the military during two wars.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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THEY'RE BOTH WRONG.... Matt Yglesias considers the decade in comic-book adaptations.

We had a lot of comic book adaptations in the zeros, and the best of them, contrary to what you might have heard, is Iron Man. I promise you that this is a better movie than The Dark Knight. Go back and watch them again if you don't believe me. I'm not sure what's led people to get confused about this -- I think maybe people have decided that the use of a darker color pallet makes Dark Knight more serious, which is itself a lot sillier than using bright colors in your comic book adaptation. Dark Knight isn't even as good as Batman Begins!

Dave Weigel offers an alternative take.

Matthew Yglesias says it's "Iron Man," which I think is reflective of the back-loaded bias of so many decade retrospectives. "Spider-Man," which came out seven years ago, is clearly the adaptation of the decade. Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin/Norman Osborn is a fantastic villain (remember the mirror monologues? of course you do) with motivations that make sense and a great denouement. Kirsten Dunst, as bland as she can be, makes a great dream girl, and the resolution of the romance is so good that J.K. Rowling ripped it straight off for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Like "Iron Man," it nails the ecstasy of the origin scene, but "rich man gets powers" is a less satisfying transition than "nerd gets everything he wants."

They're both wrong. The adaptation of the decade was "Spider-Man 2." Doc Ock was infinitely more interesting than the Goblin; the train sequence was one of the best of the genre; Peter's existential crisis of confidence made for a more meaningful arc; and the nerd didn't really get everything he wanted until the sequel, making the conclusion that much more satisfying.

"Iron Man" was all matter of fun, but c'mon, it didn't really have a script and Iron Monger wasn't well thought out. Both "Dark Knight" and "Batman Begins" were superior. For that matter, "X2" is widely underappreciated -- Brian Cox always makes good movies even better -- and deserves to be part of the mix for the decade's best.

Let's also not overlook some other fairly strong showings, including the "Hellboy" movies, "Watchmen," and "300."

The genre also had some clunkers this decade. Matt singles out "Daredevil" and "Elektra" as the worst of the '00s, and while they are awful, I'd say "Catwoman" and both of the "Fantastic 4" movies were even worse.

What say you?

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?.... After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father raised concerns about his son's radicalism in November, Abdulmutallab's name was added to an enormous list, and the CIA prepared a profile. The profile, however, was not shared with other agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center.

Soon after, the National Security Agency intercepted chatter about al Qaeda in Yemen seeking a Nigerian for some kind of attack at some point in the near future. The National Counterterrorism Center had that information, but didn't have much to go on.

So, eight years after the attacks of 9/11, communications between intelligence agencies are still far from the idea. But was the failed plot an "intelligence failure"? In a very smart post, Spencer Ackerman explains why it may not have been.

Abdulmutallab's father told embassy officials in Abuja that he didn't know where his son was, but might be in Yemen. The CIA had that information. NSA has information that a Nigerian might be used for an attack sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If all of this had gone into the NCTC, would someone have put two and two together -- setting off the process for pulling Abdulmutallab's visa or putting him on the no-fly? Maybe. And the rationale for the all-source, multi-agency NCTC is all about intelligence sharing. But remember: the inputs are that the guy's dad says he's dangerous; he's Nigerian; he might be in Yemen; and al-Qaeda in Yemen may be looking to use a Nigerian in a forthcoming attack. Is that really enough?

The answer to that question most certainly requires a policy decision, not an intelligence decision. The intelligence community is drinking from a fire hose of data, a lot of it much more specific than what was acquired on Abdulmutallab. If policymakers decide that these thin reeds will be the standard for stopping someone from entering the United States, then they need to change the process to enshrine that in the no-fly system. But it will make it much harder for people who aren't threatening to enter, a move that will ripple out to effect diplomacy, security relationships (good luck entering the U.S. for a military-to-military contact program if, say, you're a member of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, since you had contacts with known extremists), international business and trade, and so on. Are we prepared for that?

Similarly, there's a reasonable issue to investigate about intelligence-sharing processes even in the pre-specific-threat level. But remember: that just increases the firehose of data NCTC must process. Information is supposed to filter up to NCTC in strength and specificity from the component intelligence agencies so that NCTC isn't overwhelmed. If we want to say that there should be a lower standard for sharing with NCTC, fine. But then either NCTC needs to be given more resources, or we risk missing the next Abdulmutallab because NCTC's analysts will be drowning in nonspecific data and trying to rope it to flotillas of additional information.

When you know the answer to a puzzle, the clues look glaringly obvious. This week, we've all seen plenty of items making it seem as if the entire intelligence community must have been asleep at the wheel: "The father told us he was dangerous! And al Qaeda said it was looking for a Nigerian! Simple!"

Except it's not. As Kevin Drum concluded, "The intelligence community plainly needs to account for itself here, and upon investigation we might decide that there really was a systemic breakdown. But it's way too early to say that with any confidence."

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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KUNG FU ON AN AIRPLANE.... If you caught yesterday's episode of "Hardball," you saw Chris Matthews host a pretty good discussion between Salon's Joan Walsh and former Dick Cheney aide Ron Christie. It's fair to say Christie didn't get end up looking especially good.

But towards the end of the episode, Matthews slipped back into character. (via John Cole)

"I think we have got to get serious about catching terrorists, not just catching weapons. I'm waiting for the terrorist who knows kung fu or something that gets on an airplane without a weapon. God knows what that is going to be like."

In case you were wondering, you can watch the clip and see that Matthews wasn't kidding. He seems to think this is a legitimate area of concern.

Now, I don't know if Chris Matthews has ever actually been on an airplane, but it's a pretty tight, confined space. A dangerous martial-arts display would be exceedingly difficult in the aisle of even the largest jumbo jet.

And even if a kung-fu-trained terrorist were to start beating up a passenger or crew member, there are still all of the other passengers and crew members to contend with.

Also note the context: Matthews is urging us to "get serious" about counterterrorism, and in the next sentence, warning us of the potentially deadly consequences of terrorists who know "kung fu or something."

Apparently, "getting serious" means not taking security advice from Chris Matthews.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THE SCANDAL LIST.... Marc Ambinder posted the latest in a series of end-of-the-decade polls yesterday, asking readers, "What's the best (or worst) Republican political scandal of the decade?" Respondents were given five choices:

* The Abramoff investigation

* Sen. Larry Craig's "wide stance"

* Gov. Mark Sanford's Argentinian affair

* Rep. Mark Foley's IMs to young male pages

* Other

The top-four choices rotated randomly. As of this morning, the Abramoff scandal was well ahead of the pack.

And while the Abramoff, Craig, Sanford, and Foley matters were clearly significant Republican scandals -- three of the four relate to sex, which is always an attention-grabber -- Ambinder's list doesn't include any of Tom DeLay's scandals, the still-shocking Duke Cunningham scandal, the corruption of nearly all of the Alaska Republican Party's establishment, the phone-jamming scandal that may have helped Republicans steal a Senate race in New Hampshire, other Republicans caught up in sex scandals (John Ensign, David Vitter, Tim Hutchinson), or any of the many, many Bush/Cheney scandals.

That's a shame, because if we're really going to consider the biggest "Republican political scandals of the decade," we shouldn't overlook the gang that couldn't shoot straight, which in fairness, probably deserves its own end-of-the-decade poll.

Jamison Foser noted, "Not mentioned [on Ambinder's list]? The Bush administration lying its way into a war of choice, listening in on the phone conversations of Americans, torture, Abu Ghraib, putting an unqualified crony in charge of FEMA, the US Attorneys firing, outing a CIA operative to get back at her husband, etc."

Those are all key Bush-era scandals, but as long as we're listing some of the highlights (or lowlights, as the case may be), I'd also mention the response to Hurricane Katrina, Scooter Libby and his get-out-of-jail-free card, the no-bid Halliburton contracts, the cost estimates of Medicare Part D deliberately hidden from Congress, the pundits paid to toe the administration's line in the media without disclosure, the fake-news segments the administration created to run on local news outlets without disclosure, the suppression of scientific data the White House found politically inconvenient, the misuse of "faith-based" grants to help Republican congressional candidates, Karl Rove's campaign "briefings" to federal offices in violation of the Hatch Act, the odd special access the White House gave to Gannon/Guckert, and plenty more that I'm probably forgetting.

All from the administration that vowed to return "honor and dignity" to the executive branch.

How can we look back at this godforsaken decade, ask about Republican scandals, and overlook these gems?

Steve Benen 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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

* The Democratic Change Commission, which was convened to examine the presidential nominating process, will apparently recommend eliminating the influence of superdelegates. The recommendation will be further evaluated by the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee.

* Much to the chagrin of the DCCC, Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly (D) announced this morning she is ending her campaign against first-term Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R). Dems believe Jenkins is vulnerable, and will likely try to get state Sen. Tom Holland into the race.

* Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) new fundraising letter suggests he's expecting to face a primary challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

* Sen. Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina is considered one of the more vulnerable Republican incumbents in 2010, but he still doesn't mind being associated with the Bush presidency -- Karl Rove is headed to N.C. to help Burr raise money.

* The intra-party fight within Florida's state GOP is getting even more intense. This week, a group of key Republican fundraisers in the state -- most are top allies of Jeb Bush -- called on Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer to resign.

* He's been running for months, but yesterday, ophthalmologist Rand Paul formally filed the paperwork to run for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky. Paul, who has no experience in government at any level, is best known for being Rep. Ron Paul's (R-Texas) son, and for being named after Ayn Rand.

* Former congressman and convicted felon Jim Traficant said yesterday is he "going to run" for Congress next year, though he hasn't picked a district. Traficant served seven years behind bars after being convicted on federal corruption charges. He was released in September, and would have to quickly establish residency somewhere in order to pretend he's part of the community he wants to represent.

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

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A REASONABLE QUESTION.... David Kurtz was probably just being a little snarky with this one, but I've been wondering about this same question myself.

If an underwear bomb means we're not safe under Obama, does a shoe bomb mean Bush didn't really keep us safe after 9/11?

The right-wing criticism of the Obama administration this week has been lacking in any coherence whatsoever, but the bottom line is fairly straightforward -- they want people to blame the president for the attempted attack. Indeed, as far as Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) is concerned, the failed Abdulmutallab effort wasn't an "attempted" terrorist attack, but rather, "it was a terrorist attack."

But that's what makes David's question quite relevant. The White House's Republican critics can't say, exactly, why the president should be blamed for the attempted attack, but even if we put that aside, every criticism is undermined by the Reid shoe-bomb attempt.

The Abdulmutallab plot proves Obama is pursuing a poor national-security strategy? Then the Reid plot proved that Bush/Cheney must have pursued a poor national-security strategy.

The Abdulmutallab plot proves Obama has signaled "weakness" to America's enemies? Then the Reid plot proved that Bush/Cheney must have signaled "weakness" to America's enemies.

The Abdulmutallab plot proves Obama can't keep Americans safe? Then the Reid plot proved that Bush/Cheney couldn't keep Americans safe.

As for Hoekstra's specific argument about Abdulmutallab's failed effort representing an actual terrorist attack, this also necessarily means that the Republicans' favorite talking point -- other than 9/11, Bush/Cheney stopped terror attacks in the U.S. -- isn't true.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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PROFITING FROM TERROR.... There's something very wrong with a political party that looks at the attempted murder of hundreds of innocent Americans and, within a few days, thinks, "Maybe I can make a few bucks off of this."

This started earlier this week with Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), but has extended to the House Republicans' campaign committee...

House Republicans moved quickly to use a recent terrorism attempt to help boost their fundraising efforts, sending out an e-mail Wednesday calling for "an immediate contribution" by Dec. 31.

...and the Senate Republicans' campaign committee.

The NRSC is the latest GOP group to use the failed bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound plane to rake in money.

In a statement, DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan accused Republicans of going "beyond crass political opportunism," noting that the Republican campaign committees are using potential terrorism "to raise campaign cash." Sevugan added that Democrats won't lectured by a party that "implemented a radical foreign policy that alienated our allies, emboldened our enemies, depleted our resources, distracted our focus and who made the nation less secure."

The fundraising efforts do, however, raise an uncomfortable question. The GOP attacks against the administration this week have been largely incoherent, contradictory, hypocritical, and dishonest. I'd assumed this was just about trashing the president and undermining Americans' confidence in their government. But is it possible Republicans have spent the last six days senselessly shrieking because they're looking for a fundraising boost?

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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INTERROGATING ABDULMUTALLAB.... About a millisecond after Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was on the ground on Friday, federal officials took Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab into custody. He was soon after charged with attempted terrorism. Conservatives aren't happy about this for a variety of reasons, but one concern in particular is especially wrong.

Tom Ridge, for example, told Americans this week that Abdulmutallab will only provide information "if he volunteers it." Similarly, the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb complained that "we can't interrogate" the suspected terrorist.

Obviously, no one should expect much from Goldfarb, but Ridge doesn't have any excuses -- he has a law degree and, not incidentally, he led the Department of Homeland Security, where presumably this issue came up more than once.

In reality, Abdulmutallab -- even after having been read his rights, and securing counsel -- can be, probably has been, and will be interrogated. As Spencer Ackerman explained yesterday, "Just because the guy lawyers up doesn't mean we can't interrogate him."

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials I've talked to in the last several hours have been flabbergasted to hear this line of argument, because at its heart, it betrays a fundamental ignorance of the process. One who has experience in these matters called it "flat-out ignorance" to claim that the "criminal justice system or law enforcement methods impede the collection of actionable intelligence. There is no basis in fact."

Why? Let me turn this over to a U.S. official deeply familiar with intelligence matters who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Abdulmutallab case. "I cannot speak from first-hand knowledge of the present matter, but if a terror suspect like Abdulmutallab invokes [his] right to silence, it does not mean law enforcement officials must cease the interview," the official said. "It simply means inculpatory information probably will not be used in court."

Got that? Mirandization is about admissibility in court. This ought to explain why law enforcement and intelligence officials aren't complaining about Abdulmutallab. It's just Obama's political enemies, who have no problem inventing a concern based on absolutely nothing and then promoting their ignorance about security matters to a pliant media.

If I had a nickel for every time Republican talking points reflected a "flat-out ignorance," I could retire a wealthy man.

It's possible, of course, that Republican activists like Ridge, Goldfarb, and others aren't hopelessly confused. Rather, maybe they understand the process very well, and are simply lying shamelessly this week in the hopes of scoring cheap points by exploiting public fear and confusion.

That, however, would be worse.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LEAVE HAWAII ALONE.... This again?

On CNN [yesterday] morning, host John Roberts asked former Romney spokesman Kevin Madden about the hypocritical "heat for this president from the Republicans" regarding the Obama administration's response to the attempted Christmas day terrorist attack. Madden claimed that the two reasons Republicans were launching attacks were that Obama "has very little political capital" on terrorism and that he is "on vacation in Hawaii" at the moment. Madden added that "Hawaii to many Americans seems like a foreign place."

I'd hoped we were past this by now.

You'll recall that, during last year's presidential campaign, Cokie Roberts complained on ABC, "I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii and I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place." Soon after, on NPR, Roberts repeated the criticism, arguing that Obama's vacation destination "makes him seem a little bit more exotic." She added that Hawaii is "a somewhat odd place" for him to take a break, even though he was born in Hawaii and grew up there.

Around the same time, Politico ran a 1,200-word piece -- seriously -- on the political perils of Obama spending eight days vacationing in the state of his birth. It quoted a pollster saying, "For somebody who has been called 'elitist,' going to Hawaii is not exactly going against type. I would rather have him going to national parks."

For some, it seems the silliness continues.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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AN INCONVENIENT VOTING RECORD.... Almost immediately after some congressional Republicans started trashing the Obama administration for the failed Abdulmutallab plot, Democrats noted that 108 House Republicans -- including Boehner and Pete Hoekstra -- opposed funding for the Transportation Security Administration, including money for screening operations and explosives detection systems.

It's worth noting, however, that it's not just House Republicans, and it's not just this year.

Some of the same Republican lawmakers currently criticizing the President for softness on terrorism voted back in July 2007 against legislation that, among other reforms, provided $250 million for airport screening and explosive detection equipment.

The Improving America's Security Act of 2007 was a relatively non-controversial measure that effectively implemented several un-acted-upon recommendations from the 9/11 Commission. Eighty-five Senators voted in favor of the bill's passage. Seven missed the vote (several of whom were on the campaign trail, including Barack Obama, John McCain and Chris Dodd).

Eight Republican Senators, however, voted against passage, including Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Tom Coburn (R-Okl.) Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), James Inhofe (R-Okl.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ari.).

Now, those eight far-right senators -- which includes, of course, Jim DeMint, who is blocking a vote on the nominee to head the TSA -- knew the legislation was going to pass with strong bipartisan support. They also knew it had been endorsed by members of the 9/11 Commission and the Bush administration.

They even knew that the sure-to-pass legislation included key measures on cargo inspection, transportation security, aid to states and local communities, and funding for airport screening and explosive detection equipment.

But they all voted against the Improving America's Security Act anyway, and never actually explained why. They must have felt pretty strongly about their opposition, though, under the circumstances.

Something to keep in mind the next time DeMint & Co. start claiming the moral high ground on national security issues.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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PFEIFFER MAKES IT PLAIN.... It's understandable that the White House, any White House, wants to stay "above the fray." A president and his/her team have broader responsibilities that preclude tit-for-tat squabbles with petty partisans.

That said, some criticisms deserve responses. Dick Cheney, for example, isn't some two-bit radio shock-jock in a third-tier market -- he only acts like it -- but is rather the former vice president of the United States. His loathsome and spectacularly dishonest attack on the president yesterday was hard to ignore.

And with that in mind, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer published an important item yesterday, offering a surprisingly forceful response to Cheney's latest vile nonsense. Pfeiffer noted at the outset that it's "telling" that Cheney and his right-wing cohorts "seem to be more focused on criticizing the Administration than condemning the attackers."

Just as important, Pfeiffer offered a "substantive context" for those who seem desperate to assign blame for a failed terrorist attack.

[F]or seven years after 9/11, while our national security was overwhelmingly focused on Iraq -- a country that had no al Qaeda presence before our invasion -- Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's leadership was able to set up camp in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they continued to plot attacks against the United States. Meanwhile, al Qaeda also regenerated in places like Yemen and Somalia, establishing new safe-havens that have grown over a period of years. It was President Obama who finally implemented a strategy of winding down the war in Iraq, and actually focusing our resources on the war against al Qaeda -- more than doubling our troops in Afghanistan, and building partnerships to target al Qaeda's safe-havens in Yemen and Somalia. And in less than one year, we have already seen many al Qaeda leaders taken out, our alliances strengthened, and the pressure on al Qaeda increased worldwide.

To put it simply: this President is not interested in bellicose rhetoric, he is focused on action. Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country. And it seems strangely off-key now, at a time when our country is under attack, for the architect of those policies to be attacking the President.

That's a rather diplomatic way of saying, "Dick, you had your shot and you failed. Now shut up while we clean up your mess. You can thank us later."

Cheney's disgusting missive also insisted that the president, by his estimation, doesn't realize we're "at war." Pfeiffer reminds us of several instances in which Obama has made it clear that, as far as this administration is concerned, we are very much at war.

There are numerous other such public statements that explicitly state we are at war. The difference is this: President Obama doesn't need to beat his chest to prove it, and -- unlike the last Administration -- we are not at war with a tactic ("terrorism"), we at war with something that is tangible: al Qaeda and its violent extremist allies. And we will prosecute that war as long as the American people are endangered.

Well said.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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December 30, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... The Monthly's annual fundraising drive is almost over. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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Steve Benen 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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

* A suicide bomber killed eight Americans in Afghanistan today, at an attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province.

* Anbar, Iraq: "Twin bombings -- one an assassination attempt against an Iraqi provincial governor -- killed 23 people and wounded the governor Wednesday in the worst violence in months to hit the western province that was once al-Qaida's top stronghold in Iraq."

* Getting a sense of the intelligence breakdown that allowed Abdulmutallab onto that flight.

* Yemen: "Yemeni security forces stormed an al-Qaida hide-out Wednesday in a principal militant stronghold in the country's west, setting off clashes, officials said, as a security chief vowed to fight the group's powerful local branch until it was eliminated."

* That's a lot of transparency: "Fulfilling one of the transparency goals of President Obama's administration, the White House today released more than 25,000 records of visitors who came through the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this year."

* On a related note, Obama also declared today that "no information may remain classified indefinitely."

* Great story on why the House Committee on Financial Services can be so dysfunctional.

* I'm beginning to wonder if Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) is getting dumber by the day.

* The implosion of the far-right Washington Times continues apace.

* Fox News still wants to see a war against Iran.

* Good tip: "Just because green jobs are growing doesn't necessarily mean it helps to have a green major."

* Brad DeLong: "[M]y grade for the Obama economic team for its first year would definitely be: exceeds expectations."

* And in 2003, the Dixie Chicks were excoriated for criticizing George W. Bush at a concert overseas. Six years later, Ted Nugent trashed President Obama at an event overseas, but will likely face far less pushback -- because few remember who Ted Nugent even is. (Remember "Cat Scratch Fever"? That was released in 1977.)

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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CONGRESSIONAL DEMS START TO SPEAK UP.... Within hours of the attempted terrorist attack last Friday, Republicans had already begun blaming the president for the actions of the madman. Since then, abandoning any sense of reason, GOP officials and their allies have been trashing U.S. officials for ... well, something bad. It's unclear what.

Congressional Democrats have been slow to either defend the White House against baseless attacks or go on the offensive against the Republican attack dogs. That seemed to change this afternoon.

While many Dems stay silent and let the WH lead the way, DCCC chair Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY) say the previous admin let down their guard.

"In general, we are facing the consequences of the Bush administration's failures to deal with al Qaeda," Van Hollen told Hotline OnCall. "The Republicans have no business in pointing fingers at the Obama administration on terrorism and national security."

"The Obama administration has been much more aggressive about going after al Qaeda than the Bush administration, which turned its focus from al Qaeda to Iraq," he added. The Obama admin has "been on the offense in places where the Bush administration had taken its eye off the ball."

I'd go a little further, but that's not bad. It's probably also worth noting that a) Bush/Cheney released the terrorist plotters into an "art therapy rehabilitation program"; b) failed spectacularly to keep America and its allies safe from terrorism during the former administration's eight years; c) the same Republican lawmakers whining now also opposed funding for the Transportation Safety Administration, including money for screening operations and explosives detection systems; and d) that Obama has succeeded on counter-terrorism fronts that Bush/Cheney only talked about. That said, Van Hollen's message isn't a bad start.

Also today, Massa picked up on Cheney's latest idiocy, responding, "I would remind the American public that the apparent leaders of the al Qaeda cell in Yemen were two terrorists who were released by Vice President Cheney in secret. I think there's a level of accountability that has to be levied personally on the vice president."

And Van Hollen and Massa both pointed to the fact that the Transportation Safety Administration doesn't have a chief administrator right now because of Republican obstructionism. Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) "pure partisan ideology placed not only the passengers and crew of that Northwest flight at great personal danger, but in fact placed the entire American traveling public in danger," Massa said. "He should be held personally accountable for that incredible act of partisan politics that placed so many Americans at risk."

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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THE THREE AMIGOS STRUGGLE TO KEEP UP.... Well, that's embarrassing.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) sent a letter to President Obama today asking him to halt the transfer of six Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. The request, they say, is in light of the danger they've apparently just now realized Yemen poses, because Nigerian terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has said he was trained there.

The only problem: those six detainees have already been returned to Yemen.

Whether the appeal itself has merit is suspect enough. For Graham, McCain, and Lieberman, the fact that there are terrorists in Yemen necessarily means detainees from Yemen shouldn't return home, regardless of the individual circumstances. That may have a certain child-like logic, but it's not an especially coherent approach to national security.

What's more, note that Bush/Cheney released 14 Gitmo detainees to Yemen, and the Graham/McCain/Lieberman trio didn't have much to say about it at the time.

But the fact that these three wrote to the president about detainees who have already been sent back suggests the Graham/McCain/Lieberman triumvirate not only don't understand the policy, but aren't even keeping up on current events. Did it not occur to the senators or their aides to, I don't know, check Google or something?

In case this wasn't quite embarrassing enough, when confronted with reality, the senators complained that their ignorance was Obama's fault: "A spokeswoman for McCain, Brooke Buchanan ... said the gap in the senators' knowledge raised questions about the administration's communications with Congress."

Actually, the gap in the senators' knowledge raises questions about the senators' ability to use a search engine. If you go to the Justice Department's website, there's an entire press release about the transfer of these detainees to Yemen. It took me about five seconds to find it. The collective efforts of three experienced United States senators didn't even check?

Remember, as far as the political establishment is concerned, Graham, McCain, and Lieberman are some of the foremost experts on foreign policy and national security on the Hill. I can't help but wonder how much more it will take to disabuse the establishment of this misguided perception.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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BETTER BUSH APOLOGISTS, PLEASE.... In December 2001, after Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid used PETN to try to blow up an airplane en route to the United States, federal officials charged, convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated Reid very effectively. The case tested the federal justice system, which passed with flying colors. At the time, no one questioned or criticized the Bush administration's handling of the case -- it simply didn't occur to anyone that the process might be controversial.

Eight years later, after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab used PETN to try to blow up an airplane en route to the United States, federal officials intend to charge, convict, sentence, and incarcerate Abdulmutallab with the professionalism and efficiency they demonstrated in 2001. Republicans and their allies are throwing a fit over the mere possibility -- but they can't explain why.

So, the question is, why the Bush administration's approach was universally accepted without criticism, and why the Obama administration's identical approach to an identical case is the subject of far-right apoplexy.

TPM has been working on getting an answer to this today, but the right's intellectual firepower is shooting blanks.

Wow, this is getting pretty bad for the National Review and Marc Thiessen. Thiessen of course said that we tried Richard Reid in a regular American court since that was "long before we figured out that we had other options than handing him over" to law enforcement. But as TPM Reader RM points out, President Bush okayed military tribunals a month before Reid tried to blow up the plane.

As I said, there's no spinning this one. There's no reason beside GOP electoral strategy for not trying AbdulMutallab in a regular American Court. But seriously, with National Review's august history, can't we at least get better fake answers?

Thiessen also argued the real relevant case here was Jose Padilla, not Richard Reid. But Thiessen doesn't know what he's talking about -- Padilla was sent to a military tribunal because officials didn't have enough evidence to try him in a federal criminal court. The Reid and Abdulmutallab cases are identical, including the fact that evidence to convict won't be a problem.

If we cut through the nonsense and the talking points, we're left with the obvious answer we knew before we asked the question: Republicans and their allies want to destroy the Obama presidency, and don't care if they have to make up garbage to suit their goals. Literally every day, and with literally every story, the usual suspects -- congressional Republicans, the RNC, Fox News, National Review, The Weekly Standard, etc. -- ask themselves, "How can we use this to attack the White House?" Contradictions, hypocrisy, and dishonesty are entirely irrelevant, and aren't considered obstacles to trashing the president.

They know no limits and have no shame.

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

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DEMINT'S WATERLOO?.... The Transportation Safety Administration doesn't have a permanent head right now. President Obama nominated Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and a counterterrorism expert, to head the TSA a few months ago, and he's already been approved by two Senate committees with bipartisan support.

But Sen. Jim DeMint, a right-wing Republican from South Carolina, has blocked Senate confirmation because he doesn't want TSA employees to be able to join a labor union. Protecting the American public from terrorism is a priority, but for DeMint, preventing government workers from organizing is a much higher priority.

DeMint went a little further on CBS's "The Early Show" today, arguing that there's really no rush to filling the TSA leadership post.

A Republican senator who has been blocking President Barack Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration complains that Democrats are trying to rush a vote on the nominee without adequate debate.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has placed a hold on the nomination of former FBI agent and police detective Erroll Southers.

Why hurry? Collective bargaining represents a bigger threat to our future than terrorists blowing up airplanes, right?

We don't have to imagine what would happen if the shoe were on the other foot here. It's been a while, but in advance of the 2002 midterms, the Bush administration, after initially balking at the idea, decided it wanted to create the Department of Homeland Security. Democratic senators endorsed the idea, but wanted to protect the collective bargaining rights of DHS workers.

The White House and congressional Republicans responded by arguing that Democrats are terrorist-loving traitors. Remember the ad showing Max Cleland's image morphing into Osama bin Laden? It was all over a labor dispute relating to DHS employees.

Now we have a similar situation, only with DeMint, it's slightly worse -- he sees the threat, he knows Southers is qualified, he realizes the nation would benefit from a permanent TSA head, but DeMint is still blocking the nomination because he hates unions that much.

Any chance the Obama White House will approve Rove-like ad morphing DeMint into bin Laden? Well, no, probably not, because Democrats don't play the game this way. But reader A.S. emailed me yesterday to argue that "DeMint just hit his Waterloo."

All Dems have to do is swing at the slow hanging curve.

Steve Benen 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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BORED NOW.... After listening to incessant conservative whining for several days now, I realize that the right is targeting Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. I just can't figure out what it is, exactly, that conservatives think Napolitano did wrong.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) is complaining that he didn't like the look on the DHS secretary's face.

In the wake of the attempted bombing of a plane bound for Detroit, Rep. Peter King (NY-R) criticized Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for appearing "bored." [...]

"Finally, Janet Napolitano comes out and the first thing she said was everything worked well. And she seemed almost like she was bored to be there. There was no intensity. There was no show of emotion," he said.

That's what it's come to with today's Republican Party -- in the wake of an attempted terrorist attack, one of the first GOP responses is to blast the Homeland Security secretary for her tone and facial expressions. King wants her to be more "emotional."

Is there something in the water I'm not aware of?

Keep in mind, King went on to say about the Obama administration, "Let me make it clear, I think they are doing the right thing as far as their policies. Since this attack occurred, the FBI and, as far as I can tell, Homeland Security and all the agencies of the United States government are doing the right job."

So, a leading Republican lawmaker is blasting the head of DHS, not because of her on-the-job performance, but because she was calm and composed during a public statement.

I'm at a loss here. Going after Napolitano for "the system worked" is pretty silly. Going after Napolitano for the look on her face while talking to the media is insane.

And yet, we have at least one GOP lawmaker calling for Napolitano's resignation, a call that some in the media seem to think has merit. But I still don't know what it is that the DHS secretary is being accused of. As John Cole put it, "What did she do wrong? Napolitano didn't change any procedures which then led to the bomber getting through security. She didn't shift the DHS budget in a way that impacted security. She didn't botch the response. And her statement is factually correct, and only wrong if you completely distort what she said." Napolitano's biggest mistake has nothing to do with her responsibilities and everything to with "giving Republicans (with yet another assist from the liberal media) a sound bite that is easy to demagogue."

If the right intends to force out a high-ranking cabinet official who's been doing strong, capable work, they're going to have to do better than "she seemed almost like she was bored."

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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CLOSE GITMO ANYWAY.... Very little of the conservative reaction to the failed Abdulmutallab plot on Christmas has made sense, but the calls to keep Gitmo open in response to the attempted terrorism are especially odd.

For many on the right, the effort to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay was some kind of signal that we're no longer going after terrorists. That's backwards. The point is that Gitmo, thanks to the Bush/Cheney failures, had become a rallying cry that helped terrorists.

When President Obama began the process of shutting the facility down, he explained his position in a way that even conservatives should have been able to understand: "The message we are sending around the world is that the U.S. intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals ... We intend to win this fight, and we intend to win it on our terms."

Now, apparently, conservatives believe the fact that terrorists still want to kill Americans is reason enough to keep Gitmo open. The Obama administration said today that plans to close the facility haven't changed. A senior administration official said today:

The detention facility at Guantanamo has been used by Al Qaeda as a rallying cry and recruiting tool - including its affiliate Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As our military leaders have recognized, closing the detention facility at Guantanamo is a national security imperative.

The President created the Guantanamo Review Task Force to conduct the thorough work that the previous administration did not: to review the relevant information about each detainee, including the threat they pose, to determine whether they should be prosecuted, detained, or transferred. As he has said before, the President will not release any detainee who would endanger the American people. We have worked cooperatively with the government of Yemen to ensure that all appropriate security measures are taken when detainees are transferred.

In other words, nothing has changed. Nor should it -- Gitmo was undermining our national security interests before Dec. 25; it's still undermining our national security interests after Dec. 25. Closing the facility isn't at odds with our security; keeping it open is.

Now, if only congressional Dems weren't stuck in a defensive crouch, they could echo the administration's position. That, apparently, isn't going to happen.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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SETTING THE REPEAL TRAP.... When Democrats first started pressing Republicans on whether they're prepared to commit to repealing health care reform, it seemed counter-intuitive. Indeed, last week, when Dems said that they would demand a clear answer on repeal from every GOP candidate, NRSC spokesperson Brian Walsh said, "I realize it's the holiday season and all, but my advice would be to cut back on the spiked eggnog."

The Republicans' far-right base, of course, is making the same demand, and that's easier to explain. Newt Gingrich said on "Meet the Press" the other day that "every Republican in 2010 and 2012 will run on an absolute pledge to repeal this bill." The party's right-wing base will apparently tolerate nothing less -- they hate the reform package (or what they think they know about it) and expect their allies to make "Obamacare" go away.

But what's interesting is that leading Democrats seem quite sincere in their hopes that Gingrich is right and that every GOP candidate really will run on a repeal pledge. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer had this item earlier today:

[B]efore it even becomes law, opponents of health care reform ... are already talking about repealing it. Certainly there is a fundamental disagreement here, since many opponents of reform -- again including Gingrich -- appear to think that insurance companies can do no wrong. [...]

[E]veryone should be very clear what is being called for here. At a time when insurance companies are finally about to be reined in, and when American families are finally about to be given control over their own health care, opponents of reform are advocating that insurance companies once again be allowed to run wild.

While several provisions of the health care reform initiative wouldn't kick in until 2014, the really popular measures would kick in almost immediately in 2010. Consumers would have all kinds of new protections, including a ban on discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, the elimination of rescissions, and a ban on annual or lifetime caps.

And that's exactly why the aggressive repeal push from Republican activists and the Tea Party crowd offers Dems an important opportunity. Democratic leaders would love nothing more than to be able to tell voters next year, "A vote for a Republican is a vote to let insurance companies screw over American families. Know those new protections that just became law? Republicans will take them away unless you vote Democratic."

Some GOP candidates are willing to back partial repeal, in part because they know parts of the package are popular, and in part because they realize that total repeal is practically impossible. But for the right-wing base, partial isn't good enough. As Josh Marshall noted yesterday, "After all, if it's really the end of the universe, America and Apple Pie, as Republicans have been suggesting, it's hard to say you just want to tinker at the margins."

It puts Republican candidates in a box. Democrats are going to ask, "Are you really going to fight to repeal protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions?" If the Republican says "no," he/she alienates the GOP activists who will settle for nothing but a full repeal. If the Republican says "yes," he/she alienates the mainstream electorate.

It leaves Dems and Teabaggers asking the same question at the same time: are Republicans prepared to embrace a total repeal pledge or not?

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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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.

* Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.) became the 13th House Republican to announce he won't seek re-election yesterday. Though there will likely be a crowded GOP primary, the district is expected to remain in GOP hands -- McCain won here with 52% last year, and Bush won the district with 61% in 2004.

* Massachusetts state Sen. Scott Brown, the Republican nominee in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, launched his first television ad of the race today. The GOP candidate uses the ad to try to tie himself to JFK's legacy. Brown will face state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) on Jan. 19.

* Former Sen. Mark Dayton (D), as part of his gubernatorial campaign, announced yesterday that he's been taking medication for many years to treat depression. Dayton, a recovering alcoholic, also conceded that he briefly began drinking again towards the end of his one term in the Senate. "I am a candidate for governor and I think people have a right to know this about me," he said yesterday.

* Perhaps concerned about this standing back home, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska is launching a new television ad tonight explaining his position on health care reform. In light of all the distortions, Nelson says in the spot, "I want you to hear directly from me."

* And while there's still no official word, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) continues to move closer to challenging Sen. John McCain in a Republican primary in Arizona next year. Hayworth, who became a right-wing radio talk-show host after losing his re-election bid in 2006 told his listeners this week that "we may have moved past due diligence into something that is more than a legal term of art ... something called 'testing the waters.' So stay tuned on that."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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THE APPLES-TO-APPLES COMPARISON.... Karl Rove pried himself away from his divorce attorney yesterday, just long enough to show up on Fox News to condemn President Obama for waiting three days before commenting publicly on the failed Abdulmutallab plot. Rove added that he was outraged that White House officials "couldn't bother to interrupt [the president's] vacation."

What a hack.

Eight years ago, a terrorist bomber's attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner was thwarted by a group of passengers, an incident that revealed some gaping holes in airline security just a few months after the attacks of September 11. But it was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks about the so-called "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate.

It's rare to get such a perfect apples-to-apples comparison. Reid and Abdulmutallab used the same chemical, the same target, the same intended consequence, in same month of the year, with the same twisted ideology. Reid's attempt happened when Bush was away from the White House; Abdulmutallab's attempt happened when Obama was away from the White House.

Any fair evaluation makes clear that the Obama team's response was faster, more thorough, and offered more depth.

While the Obama White House issued a background statement through a senior administration official calling the incident an "attempted terrorist attack" on the same day it took place, the early official statements from Bush aides did not make the same explicit statement.

Bush did not address reporters about the Reid episode until December 28, after he had traveled from Camp David to his ranch in Texas.

Democrats do not appear to have criticized Bush over the delay. Many were wary of publicly clashing with the commander-in-chief, who was getting lofty approval ratings after what appeared to be a successful military campaign in Afghanistan. The media also seemed to have little interest in pressing Bush about the bombing, or the fact that the incident had revealed a previously unknown vulnerability in airplane security -- that shoes could be used to hide chemicals or explosive devices.

Here's the kicker: while major news outlets have given Obama detractors all kinds of airtime since Friday, six days after Reid's attempted terrorism, Bush fielded 15 questions from reporters. They asked about the then-president's holidays plans, but asked literally zero questions about the terrorist attempt to blow up an airplane over American soil six days prior.

If Republicans and/or political reporters can explain this stunning double-standard, I'd love to hear it.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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NO REWARD FOR BEING A GROWN-UP.... I have no idea if Republicans' insane attacks against President Obama on counter-terrorism are going to have an effect. The daily tracking polls haven't shown much of a shift as of yet, but much of the public is enjoying the holiday season and may not be fully engaged in the GOP talking points of the day.

Ideally, Americans would see through the baseless condemnations of the White House, and recognize them for what they are: petty and stupid. But if public attitudes actually start to shift, and wrong-but-loud criticism undermines confidence in the administration's national security policies, there is an alternative strategy available.

Up until now, the president has chosen a mature, sensible, and effective approach to counter-terrorism. Marc Ambinder had an item over the weekend about the deliberate White House strategy in response to the failed Abdulmutallab plot.

Here's the theory: a two-bit mook is sent by Al Qaeda to do a dastardly deed. He winds up neutering himself. Literally.

Authorities respond appropriately; the President (as this president is want to do) presides over the federal response. His senior aides speak for him, letting reporters know that he's videoconferencing regularly, that he's ordering a review of terrorist watch lists, that he's discoursing with his Secretary of Homeland Security.

But an in-person Obama statement isn't needed; Indeed, a message expressing command, control, outrage and anger might elevate the importance of the deed, would generate panic (because Obama usually DOESN'T talk about the specifics of cases like this, and so him deciding to do so would cue the American people to respond in a way that exacerbates the situation. [...]

Let the authorities do their work. Don't presume; don't panic the country; don't chest-thump, prejudge, interfere, politicize (in an international sense), don't give Al Qaeda (or whomever) a symbolic victory; resist the urge to open the old playbook and run a familiar play.

Republicans didn't care for that approach, and preferred a collective display of pants-wetting. GOP voices and the media decided the strategy to deny terrorists a p.r. victory wasn't good enough. This was a time for partisan grandstanding, not mature leadership.

Again, maybe Americans will find the president's approach compelling. They should. But at this point, it seems pretty obvious that the president acting like a grown-up is going over the political world's head.

There's apparently an expectation that the president can -- and probably should -- exploit incidents for as much political gain as possible. So, for example, when U.S. forces, acting on the president's orders, successfully took out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya and one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa, the president should appear before the cameras and explain, "Hey, look at me! I took out one of the world's most dangerous terrorists!" When U.S. forces, acting on the president's orders, killed Baitullah Mehsud, the terrorist leader of the Taliban movement Pakistan, Obama should assemble reporters to declare, "Booyah! Who's da man?"

When the Obama administration took suspected terrorists Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi into custody before they could launch their planned attacks, each and every instance requires its own press conference, in which the president can proclaim, "Republicans' talk is cheap; I'm the one keeping Americans safe."

The president, by all appearances, finds such shameless politicization of counter-terrorism offensive. And it is. But Republicans are running an aggressive misinformation scheme, and if it's effective, the White House may need to reconsider whether the public rewards or punishes leaders who act like grown-ups.

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

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EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS GOOD NEWS FOR REPUBLICANS.... If facts, history, evidence, and reality have no meaning whatsoever -- and they may not -- then this makes sense.

Republicans are jumping on President Obama's response to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner as the latest evidence that Democrats do not aggressively fight terrorism to protect the country, returning to a campaign theme that the GOP has employed successfully over the past decade. [...]

The result of the GOP offensive could be to create doubt, even fear, among the American public that Obama cannot protect them.... [I[f the public remains concerned about the safety of air travel and about international terrorism, the Republican attacks on Obama could be "very influential," said Andrew Kohut, a veteran pollster and president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

"I don't know if it has legs, but it certainly has potential if it has legs," Kohut said.

By all appearances, it doesn't matter if the Republican attacks are baseless and ridiculous. It doesn't matter if Republican national security policies failed. It doesn't matter that Republicans are more anxious to denounce the president than they are to denounce terrorism.

What matters now is what mattered before -- whether GOP voices can create and exploit just enough misguided panic and fear to benefit politically. If they can shout "soft on terror" often enough, and the media overlooks all available evidence, maybe the public won't notice how ridiculous the Republican lies really are.

Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said the attempted attack on Christmas is "a black eye" for the administration. It takes about three seconds of actual thought to realize how absurd this is. Was 9/11 "a black eye" for Bush/Cheney? How about the anthrax attacks? Or Richard Reid? Or the attacks against U.S. allies around the world? And the terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?

If I didn't know better, I might think terrorists trying to kill Americans under a Republican administration is good news for the GOP, while terrorists trying to kill Americans under a Democratic administration is also good news for the GOP. When terrorists try to kill Americans under a Republican administration, it's Democrats' responsibility to help bring the country together against a common foe. When terrorists try to kill Americans under a Democratic administration, it's Republicans' responsibility to attack the White House, undermine American confidence, and create a climate of fear and division.

The Washington Post reported, "The health-care debate demonstrated how successful Republicans and their allies can be in selling a message to the American people, even when some of their facts are in doubt." That's one of my favorite sentences in a long while -- Republicans can't govern, and don't understand public policy, but they have a unique ability to convince the public that their lies might be true.

Reality is stubborn, and the facts aren't on Republicans' side. The trick is getting Americans to notice.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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DICK THE COWARD.... It was only a matter of time before Dick Cheney decided to trash the president again.

"As I've watched the events of the last few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won't be at war."

Let's review a few pesky details. First, it was Cheney's administration that released some of the alleged terrorists who plotted the attack into an "art therapy rehabilitation program" in Saudi Arabia, only to see them become terrorist leaders in Yemen. It was also Cheney's administration that gave Abdulmutallab a visa to enter the United States in the first place.

Second, let's compare some "low-key responses." President Obama addressed a failed terrorist attack three days after it occurred. Eight years ago, when a terrorist tried to blow up an airplane under nearly identical circumstances, then-President Bush waited six days before making brief, cursory public remarks. Five days after the attempted terrorist attack, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused substantive comment altogether, telling reporters, "That's a matter that's in the hands of the law enforcement people." A White House spokesperson would only say at the time that officials were "continuing to monitor events."

Democrats, at the time, didn't launch an assault against the Bush administration, and we didn't see Al Gore condemning the White House. It simply didn't occur to Democrats in 2001 to use the attempted mass murder of hundreds of Americans to undermine the presidency.

Eight years later, Dick Cheney believes his principal responsibility is to destroy President Obama -- the man Americans chose to clean up the messes Cheney left as a parting gift after eight years of abject failure.

This recent piece from James Fallows continues to ring true: "The former vice president, Dick Cheney, has brought dishonor to himself, his office, and his country. I am not aware of a case of a former President or Vice President behaving as despicably as Cheney has done in the ten months since leaving power.... Cheney has acted as if utterly unconcerned with the welfare of his country, its armed forces, or the people now trying to make difficult decisions. He has put narrow score-settling interest far, far above national interest."

Dick Cheney is a coward and a disgrace.

Steve Benen 8:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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THE OTHER KING.... Most of the time, when a Republican congressman named King is in the media saying bizarre things, the culprit is Steve King of Iowa. But let's not overlook just how nutty Peter King of New York is, too.

Over the weekend, for example, King appeared on CNN and said the Obama administration has "refused to use the word 'terrorism.'" That's obviously false. More specifically, the Republican lawmaker said, "Even when the president gave his speech at West Point about the troops going to Afghanistan, he didn't use the word 'terrorism.' He spoke of 'extremism.'"

That would be an interesting observation if it weren't completely wrong. From the president's West Point speech:

"America, our allies and the world were acting as one to destroy al Qaeda's terrorist network and to protect our common security....

"Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating attacks of terrorism against the Pakistani people....

"In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror....

"Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters....

"We will strengthen Pakistan's capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear....

"And that's why I've made it a central pillar of my foreign policy to secure loose nuclear materials from terrorists....

Now, the point isn't just that King is a rather confused partisan clown who routinely says things on national television that aren't true. The point is King remains a prominent Republican spokesperson on national security issues despite being a rather confused partisan clown who routinely says things on national television that aren't true. Is there no one in the House or Senate Republican caucuses who can speak intelligently and honestly on these issues?

What's more, is there no one in the media who cares that King routinely lies to national television audiences? As Jason Linkins explained, "It seems to me that if the aftermath of the Crotchfire Attack on NWA Flight 253 proved anything about Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.), it's that his main strength as a national security expert is to have excellent intel on the location of various television cameras and the means to get in front of them very quickly. His alacrity, naturally, comes at the expense of his ability to say anything sensible to those cameras once he's found them, but in the current media universe that doesn't matter: the shininess of pointless political static supersedes the need to actually broadcast anything remotely intelligent."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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December 29, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... The Monthly's annual fundraising drive is almost over. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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Steve Benen 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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

* He didn't sound pleased: "President Obama on Tuesday blamed a 'systemic failure' in the nation's security apparatus for the attempted bombing of a passenger jet on Christmas Day and vowed to identify the problems and 'deal with them immediately.'"

* Preliminary reports point to very dangerous materials: "A dangerous explosive allegedly concealed by Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his underwear could have blown a hole in the side of his Detroit-bound aircraft if it had been detonated, according to two federal sources briefed on the investigation."

* Tehran: "Iranian security forces made a wave of new arrests Tuesday, including Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi's sister and a relative of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, pressing forward with a broadening crackdown on the reformist movement in the wake of deadly protests this week."

* North Korea claims to have an American citizen in custody who, N.K. officials say, entered the country illegally from China.

* Good economic news: consumer confidence is climbing and many hiring managers expect to add full-time workers in 2010.

* Less good economic news: "Home prices rose modestly in October but beneath the apparent good news were some disquieting signs of deterioration. Analysts expect prices this winter to resume their descent, putting fresh pressure on the fragile economy."

* Kabul: "As the U.S. and its allies try to overcome logistical hurdles and rush some 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan in 2010, intelligence officials are warning that the Taliban-led insurgency is expanding and that 'time is running out' for the U.S.-led coalition to prove that its strategy can succeed."

* Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has blocked a vote on the nominee to hear the Transportation Security Administration, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to force a vote on Erroll Southers when the Senate reconvenes in January.

* The Obama administration seems pretty concerned about the new Japanese leadership.

* Bob Herbert tackles the excise tax intended to finance health care reform. Ezra Klein responds.

* Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a champion of abortion rights, seems largely satisfied with the compromise funding language in the Senate bill.

* Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) will be the subject of an ethics probe, though no one seems to know why.

* This certainly doesn't sound good: "The political action committee behind the Tea Party Express (TPE) -- which already has been slammed as inauthentic and corporate-controlled by rival factions in the Tea Party movement -- directed around two thirds of its spending during a recent reporting period back to the Republican consulting firm that created the PAC in the first place."

* And apparently, words like "alleged" are a little too sophisticated for Fox News.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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DAN BURTON STRIKES AGAIN.... Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security released reports, requested by Bush administration officials, on the threats posed by potentially violence radical extremists -- on the right and left. By late April, several House Republicans had called on DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to resign because of the reports.

The demands didn't make any sense; the White House ignored the right-wing lawmakers' tantrum; and in time, conservatives found new toys to play with. The political world moved on.

Eight months later, at least one House Republican has decided to kick off a new round of calls for Napolitano's resignation.

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) on Tuesday became the first lawmaker to call on Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to resign after the recent attempted airline bombing.

The veteran member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called for Napolitano's ouster in the wake of the attack on the Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.

Now, the details matter here. Did Burton call for Napolitano's resignation because of a problem with the no-fly list? No. Did Burton call for Napolitano's resignation because of Adbulmutallab's visa to enter the United States? No. Did Burton call for Napolitano's resignation because of a TSA breakdown? No.

Burton called for Napolitano's ouster because, as he sees it, her comment on Sunday that "the system worked" means Americans may no longer have "confidence" in her abilities.

Think about that. A high-ranking cabinet official should quit, Burton believes, because of a three-word phrase that was entirely reasonable in context. A so-called "gaffe" is more important, the argument goes, than actual on-the-job performance.

This is terribly nutty. Then again, we are talking about Dan Burton -- a man who used his role as chairman of the House Government Reform Committee back in the '90s to fire a bullet into a "head-like object" (reportedly a melon) in his backyard to test whether former White House counsel Vince Foster was murdered.

Americans have every reason to have lost confidence in Burton. Maybe he should resign?

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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HOEKSTRA TAKES HEAT OVER CRAVEN SOLICITATION.... Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee and a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Michigan, sent out a fundraising appeal this week, hoping to exploit the Abdulmutallab terrorist plot for financial gain. Even by the standards of House Republicans, it was an ugly, craven move.

Dems are starting to pounce. Hari Sevugan, the DNC's national press secretary, issued this statement this afternoon.

"It was shameful that Republicans like Mr. Hoekstra would attempt to play politics with our national security at all, but raising money off it is beyond the pale. Republicans are playing politics with issues of national security and terrorism, and that they would use this incident as an opportunity to fan partisan flames and raise money for political campaigns tells you all you need to know about how far the Republican party has fallen and how out of step with the American people they have become.

"The American people simply will not tolerate the likes of Mr. Hoekstra and the Republican Party playing politics with the serious issues of national security and terrorism -- especially after the mess they left this country in both domestically and on national security after eight years of failed leadership."

Around the same time, Ryan Rudominer, the DCCC's national press secretary, also took a swing.

"Time and again, Congressional Republicans refuse to back up their tough talk about national security with a vote to actually keep Americans safe. Instead of shamelessly trying to raise campaign cash off the plot to blow up a plane and kill innocent Americans on Christmas, Ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee Pete Hoekstra should look in the mirror and ask why he and 107 of his House Republican colleagues recently voted against strengthening airport security."

Also this afternoon, a spokesperson for Michigan Republican Rick Snyder, a Hoekstra rival for the state's gubernatorial nomination, said, "It is extremely disappointing that [Hoekstra] would us a potentially tragic incident to raise money for his political campaign. In these troubling times, words can't describe how sad it is to see an attempt to politically capitalize on a failed terrorist attack just three days after it happened."

In general, lines of decency and mainstream norms don't really apply to House Republicans, so if Hoekstra actually pays a price for his genuinely pathetic display, I'll be very impressed. There are certain things politicians just shouldn't do. Trying to raise money off the attempted murder of hundreds of innocent Americans should be one of them.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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IF THEY REALLY WANT TO POLITICIZE NATIONAL SECURITY.... A variety of congressional Republicans seem awfully anxious to play partisan games with the terrorist threat, and exploit the Abdulmutallab plot for electoral gain. The risk, of course, is that by starting the fight, the GOP attack dogs may be confronted with issues they're unprepared to deal with.

There is, for example, the fact that the nominated head of the TSA can't get confirmed because of Republican obstructionism. Then there's the fact that congressional Republicans also opposed funding for the TSA, including money for screening operations and explosives detection systems.

And then there's this unpleasant tidbit.

Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.

American officials agreed to send the two terrorists from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia, where they entered into an "art therapy rehabilitation program" and were set free, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.

As Ron Chusid put it, "Just imagine the Republican response if Barack Obama or Bill Clinton had released prisoners to enter an 'art therapy rehabilitation program.' This sounds almost as silly as an American president sitting and reading a children's book while the country is under attack."

Now, just to be clear, I'm not suggesting Bush/Cheney are indirectly responsible for the attempted attack on Christmas. Sure, the Bush/Cheney administration released some of the alleged terrorists who plotted the attack into an "art therapy rehabilitation program" in Saudi Arabia, only to see them become terrorist leaders in Yemen. And sure, it was the Bush administration that gave Abdulmutallab a visa to enter the United States in the first place. But there was almost certainly no way for the former administration to know what would happen.

Let's be honest -- if Obama had released the attack's plotters into an "art therapy rehabilitation program" in Saudi Arabia, we would never hear the end of it. This would be the lead story on Fox News every day until the end of time. "Art therapy rehabilitation program" would become President Obama's middle name(s).

If Republicans really want to turn the attempted terrorist attack into a partisan fight, Democrats should welcome the opportunity.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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MAYBE THEY FORGOT ABOUT RICHARD REID.... Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) doesn't want Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to face criminal charge in a federal court. Former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge doesn't want Abdulmutallab to have legal rights.

I had the same thought Josh Marshall had about the search for elusive consistency.

Remember, the AbdulMutallab case is virtually identical to the Richard Reid "Shoe Bomber" case from December 2001 -- to an uncanny degree. Same explosive, (PETN), same MO (blowing up an airliner bound for the US), same failed attempt.

It's really about as close to identical cases and you get. And, of course, Reid was tried in civilian courts and is now serving a life sentence. Seemed to work fine in his case. And unless I'm misremembering, I don't remember anybody criticizing this approach at the time.

Most of the criticisms we're hearing are pretty silly. But that's where the buck stops. It happened. Obama's president. It's natural that the political opposition will try to pin it on him. But can we at least get some demagoguing that isn't so transparently ridiculous and easily refuted by pointing out the policy the accuser followed when they were in charge?

Right. The Reid and Abdulmutallab cases offer nearly identical circumstances -- same chemical, same target, same intended consequence, same month of the year, same twisted ideology. Reid was charged, convicted, sentenced, and locked up for life. Neither conservatives nor liberals whined about it. But if the Obama administration subjects Abdulmutallab to an identical process, Republicans are outraged? Either they're idiots or they think we are.

But let's take this one step further. In December 2001, Reid tried to blow up an airplane en route to the United States, intending to murder the Americans on board. In December 2009, Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airplane en route to the United States, intending to murder the Americans on board. To hear several prominent far-right Republicans tell it, Abdulmutallab's attempt must be President Obama's fault -- as they see it, the suspected terrorist wouldn't have tried to commit mass murder were it not for the administration's policies. Failed attempt or not, the effort itself, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said, is evidence of the White House's "approach" being wrong.

For any grown-up, that's obviously insane. But taken at face value, doesn't that necessarily mean that Bush/Cheney policies were equally responsible for Reid's nearly identical terrorist plot? If Abdulmutallab's attempt is evidence of Obama's national security strategy being misguided, wouldn't Reid's attempt also be evidence of the Bush/Cheney strategy being equally misguided?

What's more, is there any evidence -- any at all -- that congressional Democrats attacked Bush/Cheney for Reid's failed attempt? I suspect there isn't, which is why it seems like the two parties simply aren't playing the same game.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE TALKING POINTS NO ONE'S REPEATING.... When it comes to the debate over national security and counter-terrorism, this White House prefers the high road. President Obama didn't mention Republicans or their recent attacks yesterday, instead declaring, "As Americans, we will never give into fear and division."

Bill Burton, the White House's deputy press secretary said the administration is committed to keeping national security issues out of the partisan realm. "The president doesn't think we should play politics with issues like these. He hasn't. His response has been fact-based and appropriate and will continue to be as such," Burton told reporters.

It's a reminder that when it comes to the nation's partisan divide, the two sides are playing different games.

Republicans have wasted no time in attacking Democrats on intelligence and screening failures leading up to the failed Christmas Day bombing of Flight 253 -- a significant departure from the calibrated, less partisan responses that have followed other recent terrorist activity.

Not too long ago, blaming America's leaders for attempted terrorist attacks was considered borderline treasonous. There was an expectation that when enemies of the United States tried to commit mass murder of Americans, all of us should close ranks, join together, and put patriotism over party. That, it turns out, only applies to Republican presidents.

It stands to reason that the White House doesn't want the president getting into a petty pissing match with right-wing members of Congress like Pete Hoekstra and Jim DeMint, but congressional Democrats aren't stepping up to respond at all. As Avi Zenilman put it, "Why are Jay Rockefeller, John Kerry, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, and other Democratic national security voices keeping quiet? What are they scared of?"

I could vaguely understand if Dems were remaining silent because they felt like this is a policy fight they can't win, but that's backwards -- the talking points Democrats aren't repeating are obvious and rather devastating for Republicans.

It's not even an especially long list:

* The GOP's obstructionism is dangerous -- The Transportation Safety Administration doesn't have a permanent head right now, because one right-wing GOP senator won't let the Senate vote on the president's clearly-qualified nominee. What's more, some of the far-right Republican lawmakers blasting the president are the same Republican lawmakers who opposed funding for the TSA, including money for screening operations and explosives detection systems.

* The GOP record is a failure -- To hear the Hoestra/King/DeMint camp tell it, the Obama administration should have stuck with the Bush/Cheney strategy. It's worth noting, then, that the Bush/Cheney strategy was a spectacular failure. Perhaps Republicans need to be reminded of the catastrophic events of 9/11, the anthrax attacks against Americans, the attempted shoe-bombing, terrorist attacks against U.S. allies around the world, terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush's inability to capture those responsible for 9/11, and Bush's failures that inspired more terrorists and made al Qaeda recruitment easier.

* The knocks on Obama's record are insane -- The Hoestra/King/DeMint crowd would have us believe President Obama doesn't take the terrorist threat seriously enough. Notice, however, that these same callous partisans had precious little to say when U.S. forces, acting on the president's orders, successfully took out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the ringleader of a Qaeda cell in Kenya and one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa; Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's enemy No.1 and the leader of its Taliban movement; and launched strikes against suspected al Qaeda sites in Yemen. For that matter, the Obama administration took suspected terrorists Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, and Hosam Maher Husein Smadi into custody before they could launch their planned attacks. All in just 11 months.

It's like watching a debate in some kind of political bizarro world in which reality has no meaning. National security and counter-terrorism is one of the Republicans' weakest points. It's an area in which President Obama has had his biggest successes. Republicans are attacking from a position of weakness, and Democrats are letting them -- in part because the White House doesn't want to politicize national security issues, and in part because congressional Democrats are on the sidelines, pretending it's 2003.

The public will continue to think the GOP is "stronger" on counter-terrorism -- all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding -- unless Democrats tell Americans otherwise.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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GIVE US WHAT WE WANT AND THEN WE'LL NEGOTIATE.... The idea of some kind of bipartisan budget commission is misguided, but the underlying goal is not entirely ridiculous. There are limited options when it comes reducing the government's long-term deficit: collect more money, spend less money, or some combination of the two.

The commission would ostensibly create the conditions for some kind of grand bargain -- Democrats would have to accept spending cuts they would otherwise oppose, and Republicans would accept tax increases they would otherwise oppose. Spread the pain around and everyone gets some political cover.

The Wall Street Journal's right-wing editorial page has a suggestion for Republicans in how they approach these talks, should they occur.

A budget deficit commission is nothing more than a time-tested ploy to get Republicans to raise taxes. [...]

The Democrats will use a tax-and-spend commission to confront Republicans with the false choice between huge tax increases or fiscal disaster. Republicans should respond with their own choice: They'll agree to a deficit commission only if it takes tax increases off the table....

In other words, as far as the WSJ is concerned, a grand bargain can be considered just as long as one side gets what everything it wants in advance of the negotiations. Yeah, that'll work.

In our reality, thanks to Republican policies championed by the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, there's a serious long-term budget shortfall. Closing that shortfall without tax increases is impossible, whether the GOP and its mouthpieces like it or not.

Update: Looks like others were thinking along the same lines.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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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.

* Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R) is poised to formally announce a gubernatorial campaign in Rhode Island. Chafee parted ways with the Republican Party after his 2006 defeat, and it's unclear what party affiliation he'll use in next year's campaign.

* In a setback for DCCC recruiting, Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks (D) announced that he will not run for Congress next year, and will instead continue his gubernatorial campaign. Party leaders hoped to see Sparks run against Rep. Park Griffith, who became a Republican last week.

* Rep. Mark Kirk (R) is the leading Republican candidate in Illinois' 2010 Senate race, prompting some desperation from his primary challenger, Andy Martin. This week, Martin, a right-wing lawyer, launched a radio ad speculating as to whether Kirk "is a homosexual." Subtle.

* Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) isn't up for re-election until 2012, but if Gov. Dave Heineman (R) decides to challenge him, a new Rasmussen poll suggests Nelson would be a big underdog.

* In Maryland, former state lawmaker George W. Owings III is poised to challenge incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley in a Democratic gubernatorial primary. Owings, perhaps best known for his work in former Gov. Bob Ehrlich's Republican administration, apparently intends to challenge O'Malley from the right.

* Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) would appear ineligible for a third term -- the state has a term-limits law -- but he's apparently commissioned a poll to "assess his political standing as he considers whether to challenge a state law that prohibits governors from serving three terms." If Freudenthal decides to step down after eight years in office, he'll likely throw his support to state Sen. Mike Massie (D).

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

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ABSTAINING FROM MAKING SENSE.... If there's one thing conservatives claim to hate, it's wasteful federal spending on programs that have been proven not to work.

Unless we're talking about funding for abstinence programs, in which case conservatives love wasteful federal spending on programs that have been proven not to work.

Proponents of sex education classes that focus on encouraging teenagers to remain virgins until marriage are hoping that the rescue plan for the nation's health-care system will also save their programs, which are facing extinction because of a cutoff of federal funding.

The health-care reform legislation pending in the Senate includes $50 million for programs that states could use to try to reduce pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease among adolescents by teaching to them to delay when they start having sex.

Under the federal budget signed by President Obama, such programs would no longer have funds targeted for them.

"We're optimistic," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association, which is lobbying to maintain funding for the programs. "Nothing is certain, but we're hopeful."

Bush/Cheney spent about $150 million a year on abstinence programs that failed miserably. Obama's budget directs funds to "teenage pregnancy prevention" for programs that have been "proven effective through rigorous evaluation." The right objected, arguing that limiting funding to effective programs would exclude their preferred initiatives. Obama didn't budge.

But abstinence proponents believe health care reform might offer new opportunities, in large part because Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) pushed a measure to provide $50 million to states to use for abstinence programs. It was approved in committee thanks to the support of a couple of conservative Democrats, and for some reason, the provision ended up as part of the legislation passed by the Senate. (Hatch described himself as being "as surprised as anyone" to see the provision remain in the bill.)

Reality has been stubborn on the question of abstinence effectiveness, and policymakers shaping the final health care bill would be wise to acknowledge it. The nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that abstinence programs do not affect teenager sexual behavior. A congressionally-mandated study, which was not only comprehensive but also included long-term follow-up, found the exact same thing. Researchers keep conducting studies, and the results are always the same.

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

That this is still even an argument reflects poorly on the seriousness with which lawmakers consider reason and evidence in shaping public policy.

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

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THE HEIGHT OF CRAVENNESS.... Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee and a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Michigan, has been desperately trying to exploit the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas for political gain. But even by Hoekstra's low standards, this is one of the more craven displays of any politician this year.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) is now jumping upon the Northwest Airlines attack -- and using it to raise money for his gubernatorial campaign, the Grand Rapids Press reports.

In the letter, Hoekstra denounces the Obama administration on a whole range of national security issues -- ranging from Flight 253 itself to Guantanamo Bay, investigation of the interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration, and what Hoekstra calls Obama policies that "impress the 'Blame America First' crowd at home and his thousands of fans overseas."

First, when a Republican's first instinct in the wake of an attempted attack is to blame the president and U.S. officials for the terrorist's actions, he's more or less joined the "Blame America First" crowd.

Second, as a substantive matter, Pete Hoekstra is completely, demonstrably wrong about every aspect of national security policy.

And third, just how pathetic does a politician have to be to try to raise money off the attempted murder of hundreds of innocent Americans? Just how desperate does that politician have to be to see a plot to blow up an airplane over American soil and think, "You know, maybe I can exploit this to pick up a few checks."

Looking back over the last several years, Hoekstra has long been an embarrassing buffoon, especially on matters of national security. But he didn't go quite this far -- blaming the president for a terrorist's actions, trying to use attempted murder to fill his campaign bank account -- until very recently. It seems as if Pete Hoekstra is anxious to make the transition from hapless clown to pernicious hack.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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HEALTH CARE REFORM TALKS QUIETLY GET UNDERWAY.... The House returns from its winter break until Jan. 12, and the Senate reconvenes six days later. If the goal is to get health care reform finished and sent to the president's desk before the State of the Union address -- a tall order, to be sure -- policy talks will have to begin long before lawmakers return to the Hill.

Apparently, the discussions quietly got underway yesterday.

Congressional aides began laying the groundwork Monday for Democratic leaders in the House and Senate to negotiate competing health care reform bills into legislation that can be signed by President Barack Obama, a senior Senate aide confirmed. [...]

"Everything happening this week is happening behind the scenes," the Senate aide said of preparations to reconcile the House and Senate bills. "Staff is taking the week to review documents. Informal staff meetings may happen, but nothing is scheduled just yet."

There's still a very real possibility that policymakers will skip a formal conference committee, and instead hold informal talks between White House and congressional leaders. After they agreed to a final package, the theory goes, the House would approve it before sending it, "ping-pong" style, back to the Senate, which would then pass it en route to the president. A decision on whether to pursue a formal conference or not may come as early as next week.

Time will tell whether the House-Senate negotiations will go smoothly, but in recent days, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House Majority Whip, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the DCCC, have signaled the likelihood of House support for the Senate's version.

Update: Paul Waldman puts together the 10 "things to watch" as efforts to merge the House and Senate bills continue. "It's not just about abortion and the public option," he reminds us.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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DEMINT BLOCKS TSA NOMINEE.... A few weeks ago, there was a mildly embarrassing dust-up over the Transportation Security Administration posting materials online that, if manipulated, revealed sensitive security information. When "The Daily Show" did a segment on this, Jon Stewart highlighted the fact that the TSA doesn't actually have an administrator.

What Stewart didn't mention is why.

An attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day would be all-consuming for the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration -- if there were one.

Instead, the post remains vacant because Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has held up President Barack Obama's nominee in an effort to prevent TSA workers from joining a labor union.

President Obama nominated Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and a counterterrorism expert, to head the TSA a few months ago. Southers is the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department assistant chief for homeland security and intelligence, and the associate director of the University of Southern California's Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events. Two Senate committees considered the nomination, and easily approved Southers with bipartisan support.

But the Senate hasn't been able to vote on the nomination because DeMint hates unions, and isn't sure if Southers might allow TSA workers to organize. Without that guarantee, DeMint not only opposes Southers' nomination, but prefers to leave the Transportation Security Administration without a permanent administrator.

This realization, in the wake of the attempted terrorism on Christmas, should make DeMint back down. It hasn't -- he still supports blocking Southers' nomination until he knows TSA workers won't unionize. The terrorist threat is bad, but the threat of collective bargaining is the real danger.

Also note, congressional Republicans also opposed funding for the TSA, including money for screening operations and explosives detection systems.

The GOP is desperate to politicize the attempted terrorism. That's probably not a good idea.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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PAWLENTY'S DREADFUL IDEA.... One year ago, as the global economy teetered on the brink of collapse, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said he knew exactly what the United States should do to address the crisis and prevent a depression: approve a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Seriously.

As Pawlenty saw it in December 2008, the economic crisis was the result of excessive debt. Right off the bat, that didn't make any sense. Nevertheless, the governor proceeded to argue that balancing the budget in the midst of a financial crisis represented "common sense, kitchen table logic."

The argument may have helped Pawlenty in his bid to become the poster child of Neo-Hooverism, but fortunately, his truly insane recommendation was ignored by those with actual responsibilities.

A year later, and with his unannounced presidential campaign already in gear, Pawlenty is still at it.

Mr. Pawlenty has proposed an amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would limit spending during any two-year budget period to the amount of revenue collected during the previous budget cycle. At a Republican fund-raiser in New Hampshire on Dec. 16, the governor also pushed the idea of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would force Congress to pass, and the president to sign, a balanced budget.

You'll remember that this little gimmick was popular with the Gingrich crowd 15 years ago, before sane people realized it didn't make any sense -- sometimes, the government should run deficits to address crises, such as wars and deep recessions. You know, like the stuff Obama inherited.

It's hard to know whether Pawlenty seriously believes his own nonsense (in which case he's a fool), or if he's just spouting this to score cheap points with the Republican base, which he assumes doesn't know better (in which case he's a hack). Either way, this kind of talk should, in a reasonable political world, effectively end Pawlenty's efforts to become a credible national figure.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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OUR BROKEN SENATE.... Senate Republicans have engaged in unprecedented abuse of the chamber's filibuster rules, but the problems is exacerbated by the unprecedented abuse of Senate "holds."

Of the 200 or so Obama nominations pending, some 75 have gotten through committee but were being held up for various reasons in the Senate, administration officials and Congressional staff members said. During their last gasps of official business after the health care vote on Thursday morning, senators cleared 35 nominees by unanimous consent -- far short of the 60 that administration officials had been hoping to get through by the end of the year.

One of those finally approved was Miriam Sapiro, who had become the Obama administration's prime example of stalled nominations since being chosen in April to be a deputy United States trade representative. Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, put a hold on the confirmation of Ms. Sapiro, an Internet policy consultant, to try to pressure the trade representative's office to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization against Canada over a law that bans cigarettes with candy flavors.

Think about that. A government office remained vacant for months, and a qualified nominee was stuck in limbo, because some far-right senator was worried about Canadians' ability to buy candy-flavored cigarettes.

That would be mind-numbing enough if it were an isolated incident, but inane Senate holds on qualified nominees have become painfully routine. The General Services Administration has been without an administrator because Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) blocked the president's nominee -- he wanted more funding for a federal office building in downtown Kansas City. The president's nominee for the U.S. ambassador to Spain faced a hold because Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wanted more information about the dismissal of AmeriCorps' inspector general.

The nominee to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission faces a hold. Judicial nominees have been subjected to holds for no apparent reason. Dawn Johnsen was nominated to head the Office of Legal Counsel, but she's spent nine months in procedural limbo. Patricia Smith is prepared to be the Department of Labor's Solicitor, responsible for enforcing workplace protections, but there's a hold on her, too.

There isn't even anyone in charge of the TSA right now, because of another Republican hold. (More on that later.)

Put simply, the failed and discredited Republican minority is effectively breaking the United States Senate.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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December 28, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... The Monthly's annual fundraising drive is almost over. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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Steve Benen 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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

* Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, the only known American serviceman being held captivity: "The Taliban released a video Friday showing a U.S. soldier who was captured more than five months ago in eastern Afghanistan."

* Three attacks in three days against Shiites in Pakistan: "A suicide bomber killed more than 30 people at a Shiite religious procession in Karachi on Monday, setting off rioting in parts of the city and prompting fears that extremist groups already waging a multi-front war against the government were now trying to foment sectarian violence against the country's minority Shiite Muslims."

* Claiming responsibility: "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility Friday for an attempt to destroy a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit on Christmas Day, saying that it had done so in response to airstrikes against the group in Yemen this month. The group said it had provided Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with an explosive device that failed because of 'a technical fault.'"

* Tehran: "Iranian security forces stormed a series of opposition offices on Monday, rounding up at least 12 prominent anti-government activists in a new crackdown on the country's reformist movement, opposition Web sites and activists reported."

* Israel's Housing Ministry announced plans today to build nearly 700 housing units in Jewish areas of Jerusalem. The White House isn't happy about it.

* Preliminary evidence points to slightly better-than-expected U.S. retail numbers during the holidays.

* Is full-body scanning equipment on the way?

* Despite the intense criticism from Roman Catholic bishops, the nation's Catholic hospitals have signaled that they support the Senate's compromise on abortion funding in health care reform.

* Jonathan Gruber explores the merit of taxing "Cadillac" health plans to finance reform.

* Ethics watchdogs have been impressed thus far by what they've seen from the Obama White House.

* I'm starting to get the impression that Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) isn't fond of higher ed.

* Victor Davis Hanson writes odd things.

* R.I.P., Percy Sutton.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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WHETHER 'THE SYSTEM' WORKED.... Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been catching all manner of hell over the last 24 hours for having said "the system worked" when it came to the AbdulMutallab incident in the skies over Michigan on Christmas. I can see why this was an awkward choice of words, but the reaction has been way over the top.

Napolitano's reference to the system, in context, was clearly in reference to the federal response to the attempted terrorism:

"Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight. We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated. So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly."

This is hardly scandalous stuff. When there's an attempted act of terrorism, the administration has a series of steps it wants to see executed, quickly and effectively. What Napolitano was talking about was officials' ability to do just that -- getting the right information to the right people at the right time so the right teams are ready, even on Christmas day. This wasn't some drill -- officials were given tasks in response to the attempted attack and "the system worked," inasmuch as everyone did what they were supposed to do after the incident.

Much of the political world is throwing a fit, though, because "the system" didn't "work" before the incident. But isn't that obvious? The fact that AbdulMutallab was on the plane with a potential explosive device in his underwear pretty much proves that there was a breakdown at some point in the system. This much should be pretty clear to everyone, and it's certainly clear to the head of DHS.

Asked about yesterday's three-word phrase, Napolitano told Matt Lauer this morning, "I think the comment is being taken out of context. What I'm saying is, once the incident occurred, moving forward, we were immediately able to notify the 128 flights in the air of protective measures to take, immediately able to notify law enforcement on the ground...."

She added that the system that should have kept AbdulMutallab off the plane "failed miserably" and that "no one is happy or satisfied with that."

The various right-wing voices are calling for Napolitano's head, apparently because of the inconsequential three-word phrase. It's hard to take this nonsense especially seriously since those identical right-wing voices also called for Napolitano's head when they learned the Bush administration sought reports on the potential threats posed by radical extremists in the U.S.

Besides, if awkward phrasing is grounds for removal from high-ranking federal office, George W. Bush never would have made it through his first year of his presidency.

The question isn't whether Napolitano's choice of words was adequate; the question is whether she's performing well running an nearly-impossible-to-oversee federal agency. By fair standards, she's not only proven herself capable and competent, but also the best secretary DHS has had in its relatively short history.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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'WE WILL NEVER GIVE IN TO FEAR OR DIVISION'.... Speaking from a Marine base in Hawaii, President Obama spoke for about seven minutes this afternoon about the attempted terrorism on Christmas day, and the developments in Iran over the weekend.

Obama covered a fair amount of ground, recapping a bit on what we know about the AbdulMutallab incident in the skies over Michigan, and lauding "the quick and heroic actions of passengers and crew."

The president announced the launch of a "full investigation" to find "all who were involved and hold them accountable," before talking about a series of new administration actions, including "enhanced screening and security procedures for all flights," additional federal air marshals "to flights entering and leaving the United States," a review of the U.S. "watch list system ... not only of how information related to the subject was handled, but of the overall watch list system and how it can be strengthened," and a review of "all screening policies, technologies and procedures related to air travel."

"Finally, the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident," Obama said. "Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist.

"As a nation, we will do everything in our power to protect our country. As Americans, we will never give in to fear or division. We will be guided by our hopes, our unity, and our deeply held values. That's who we are as Americans; that's what our brave men and women in uniform are standing up for as they spend the holidays in harm's way. And we will continue to do everything that we can to keep America safe in the new year and beyond."

Obama also addressed developments in Iran and said the United States "joins with the international community in strongly condemning the violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens, which has apparently resulted in detentions, injuries, and even death.... What's taking place within Iran is not about the United States or any other country. It's about the Iranian people and their aspirations for justice and a better life for themselves. And the decision of Iran's leaders to govern through fear and tyranny will not succeed in making those aspirations go away."

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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DELAYED JUSTICE.... I have to admit, I always find it heartening to see professionals who were screwed over by Bush's corrupt Justice Department get recompense from the Obama administration.

A career prosecutor whose promotion to Main Justice was quashed by Monica Goodling during the Bush years has been nominated to be a U.S. Attorney, in President Obama's latest reversal of a politicized decision of the Bush Justice Department.

William Hochul, who has been an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York for nearly 20 years, was nominated to be a U.S. Attorney last week after a recommendation from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Hochul was poised to be appointed to a top counterterrorism detail in 2006 when Goodling, the DOJ's White House liaison, intervened because Hochul's wife was active in Democratic politics.

An internal DOJ investigation of Goodling reported in 2008 that "notwithstanding the candidate's outstanding qualifications," she "refused to allow the candidate to be detailed to [the counterrorism job] solely on the basis of his wife's political party affiliation."

The lawyer who got the job Hochul sought was a loyal, inexperienced Republican. But Hochul was married to a Democrat, and in the Bush era, that meant "no job for you."

This isn't the first time we've seen Obama's team make amends. Remember Leslie Hagen?

Hagen seemed to be exactly the kind of lawyer the Bush gang would want around. She was a respected lawyer, she had impeccable credentials as a Republican, and her performance evaluations at the Justice Department were outstanding. And yet, in October 2006, Hagen was told her contract with the administration would not be renewed. Apparently, Monica Goodling had heard a rumor about Hagen's sexual orientation.

That, apparently, was enough. As one Republican official at the DoJ conceded, for some Bush political appointees, being gay is "even worse than being a Democrat." The Justice Department's inspector general investigated and found that Hagen was, in fact, passed over based on nothing more than office rumors about being a lesbian. Worse, Goodling, a graduate of Pat Robertson's college, blocked Hagen from being considered from any position, at any level, in the Justice Department.

Fortunately, the Obama administration did right by Hagen, and rehired her to the Department in February.

There was also Daniel Bogden once described by James Comey as "straight as a Nevada highway," and his performance records showed him to be a highly regarded U.S. Attorney by the federal judiciary. That, apparently, was a problem -- Karl Rove and Bush's Justice Department expected him to politicize his office. When the U.S. Attorney chose instead to do his job properly, he was fired, despite being a Republican.

This year, Obama brought him back as a U.S. Attorney.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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THE MOST POPULAR 'MTP' GUEST OF THE YEAR.... In the previous post, I mentioned what disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on "Meet the Press" yesterday. I neglected to ask a relevant question: why on earth was Newt Gingrich on "Meet the Press" yesterday?

Yesterday was Gingrich's fifth appearance on "MTP" just this year. In fact, Newt Gingrich, despite not having held any position in government for over a decade, was the single most frequent guest on "Meet the Press" in 2009 of any political figure in the United States. Literally.

From March to December, Gingrich appeared on "MTP," on average, every other month. No one else in American politics was on the show this often.

I'm reminded of something Eric Boehlert wrote recently:

[A]s often happens when I read breaking, this-is-what-Newt-said dispatches, I couldn't help thinking, 'Who cares what Newt Gingrich thinks?' And I don't mean that in the partisan sense. I mean it in the journalistic sense: How do Gingrich's daily pronouncements about the fundamental dishonesty of Democrats (Newt's favorite phrase) translate into news? Why does the press, 10 years after Gingrich was forced out of office, still treat his every partisan utterance as a newsworthy occurrence? In other words, why does the press still treat him like he's speaker of the House? It's unprecedented.

Eric wrote that seven months ago. It's still true.

Keep in mind, "Meet the Press" didn't have the actual Speaker of the House on at all this year. It also featured zero appearances from all of the other living former House Speakers (Hastert, Wright, Foley) combined.

There's just no reasonable explanation for this. Gingrich was forced from office in disgrace -- by his own caucus -- 11 years ago. What's more, he's kind of a nut -- we're talking about a former office holder who speculated, just last week, about hidden messages from God in snowstorms.

And yet, no other political figure was on "Meet the Press" more this year than crazy ol' Newt Gingrich. If someone can explain why, I'm all ears.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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THE REPEAL LITMUS TEST.... The question of whether Republicans would prioritize repealing health care reform has come up from time to time this year. It's not an especially complicated idea -- GOP officials have worked to make reform as unpopular as possible. That way, if/when it passes, Democrats won't enjoy the political benefits, and Republicans can run against it.

But as Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) conceded last week, repeal is trickier than it sounds.

Apparently, however, it's too late for that. Newt Gingrich said on "Meet the Press" yesterday that "every Republican in 2010 and 2012 will run on an absolute pledge to repeal this bill." The party's right-wing base will apparently tolerate nothing less.

It's now becoming clear that this could be a major issue for Republicans in 2010: the Tea Party movement, as well as high-profile conservatives, are going to demand that candidates call for a full repeal of the Dem healthcare reform bill, presuming it passes.

Multiple figures on the right are beginning to make this demand explicit. In an interview with me just now, Max Pappas, the Vice President for Public Policy of Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, said that if the bill passes, politicians should call for a full repeal.

"This has an unusual ability to be repealed, and the public is on that side." he said. "The Republicans are going to have to prove that they are worthy of their votes."

He emphasized that all the different parts of the bill fit together, and that Congress would need to try to repeal the whole thing.

I realize that right-wing activists aren't especially fond of nuances and details, but the request doesn't make much sense. Conservatives are making demands their friends won't be able to meet.

There is, of course, the practical/procedural hurdle. The right would need a Republican president, working with a Republican House, and a 60-vote Republican majority. Crapo, hardly a moderate, called this a "very tall order." He's right.

But then there are the political hurdles. "Every" Republican candidate will pledge to repeal popular consumer protections? Caps on families' medical expenses? Cost-containment measures? Deficit-reduction provisions? Subsidies for families who can't afford coverage? I really doubt it.

But the demands nevertheless leave the GOP in a bind. Party leaders know they won't be able to repeal the entire reform initiative, but the party's base is making inflexible demands. Note, for example, that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dodged a question from Jake Tapper yesterday when asked (twice) whether "Republicans running for Senate in 2010 should run on a platform of vowing to repeal the healthcare reform bill." After McConnell refused to say either way, RedState's Erick Erickson was incensed.

Expect this to be a major point of contention in conservative circles for much of 2010.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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ON AMERICAN SOIL.... This paragraph, about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab following his failed terrorist attempt about Northwest Airlines Flight 253, seems rather innocuous, because it is rather innocuous.

A Justice Department official said Abdulmutallab was released Sunday from a Michigan hospital where he was treated for burns suffered in the failed bombing. He was in a federal prison in Milan, Mich., according to the Associated Press. He is scheduled to appear in federal court in Michigan on Jan. 8.

As far as I can tell, these bland details do not seem to have caused any meaningful stir whatsoever. Nor should they. But I think we can all imagine the various right-wing hysterics that could come up right about now.

A terrorist tried to blow up an airplane and murder hundreds of Americans ... and we're keeping him on American soil? Won't that make Michigan a magnet for al Qaeda? How can the Obama administration let this security risk exist in a Michigan community? Where's Pete Hoekstra and John Boehner when Michiganders need them?

And Abdulmutallab is going to appear in an American criminal court? What if he uses the platform to spew hateful propaganda? To a borrow a line from Rep. John Shadegg (R) of Arizona, won't the court proceedings encourage al Qaeda members to kidnap the mayor's daughter, the court clerk's kids, and the jailer's siblings?

All of this is, of course, quite foolish, and deliberately so. Abdulmutallab is, by all appearances, a two-bit thug. His presence in a federal prison, and later in a federal criminal court, is not cause for panic. It's simply the justice system at work -- we've done this before; we'll do this again. It's best not to freak out.

But the larger point has broader applicability. Bringing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to a federal court need not terrify Americans, nor should Khalid Sheik Mohammed's proceedings. Putting Abdulmutallab behind bars on American soil does not undermine our national security, and nor would any of the detainees at Gitmo.

If federal plans for Abdulmutallab are not causing right-wing apoplexy, neither should any of the other administration plans regarding due process and detainee transfers.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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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.

* Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is "very confident" that no other House Democrats will switch parties before the midterm elections.

* Remember former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, perhaps best known for prosecuting disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R)? Earle is now running for lieutenant governor in Texas as a Democrat.

* In Alabama, Rep. Parker Griffith, who became a Republican last week, is still facing a crowded GOP primary. But what about a Democratic opponent? The DCCC has reached out to state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who is running an uphill gubernatorial campaign and may be interested in jumping into the House race.

* Louisiana Democrats taking on Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) next year believe they have yet another key issue -- Vitter blocked the EPA from releasing a report on the dangers posed by formaldehyde. The issue is of particular significance in Louisiana in light of the 34,000 Louisianans who lived in FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina.

* Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a prominent Blue Dog, would ostensibly be a top GOP target next year, but Roll Call reports that Republicans are "having recruiting problems in Florida's Panhandle-based 2nd district."

* It may seem early, but Rep. Tim Bishop's (D-N.Y.) Republican opponent launched a general-election ad this morning, 11 months before Election Day.

* And in Ohio, former representative and convicted felon Jim Traficant is apparently contemplating a comeback, and may run in a Democratic primary against a yet-to-be named House incumbent.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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THE WARNING FROM ABDULMUTALLAB'S FATHER.... The New York Times reported yesterday that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker, contacted U.S. officials recently with fears about his son's increasingly extremist religious views.

It prompted Marty Peretz to complain that Abdulmutallab's father's concerns should have been taken more seriously. Peretz insisted that "Washington had real details about an Islamic maniac and did nothing about it."

I can appreciate why this thinking may seem reasonable at first blush. U.S. officials were warned about Abdulmutallab's radicalization, but they didn't do much in response. Now that we know Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airplane over Michigan, it's easy to sit back after the fact and complain, "Boy, someone really should have listened to that guy's father's warning."

But it's worth appreciating the larger context, and understanding why the warnings didn't prompt immediate, wide-reaching action.

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father in Nigeria reported concern over his son's "radicalization" to the U.S. Embassy there last month, intelligence officials in the United States deemed the information insufficient to pursue. The young man's name was added to the half-million entries in a computer database in McLean and largely forgotten.

The lack of attention was not unusual, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who said that thousands of similar bits of information flow into the National Counterterrorism Center each week from around the world. Only those that indicate a specific threat, or add to an existing body of knowledge about an individual, are passed along for further investigation and possible posting on airline and border watch lists.

"It's got to be something that causes the information to sort of rise out of the noise level, because there is just so much out there," one intelligence official said.

The report entered on Abdulmutallab, 23, after his father's Nov. 19 visit to the embassy was "very, very thin, with minimal information," said a second U.S. official familiar with its contents.

We're dealing with a situation in which Abdulmutallab's father, justifiably concerned, felt like his son might become dangerous. He didn't have any information about a specific plot, but he wanted the authorities to be aware of the potential problem. U.S. officials added Abdulmutallab's name to a list -- a rather long list.

And therein lies the point. U.S. officials learn about all kinds of potentially dangerous people, all over the globe, every day. Most of these people have never committed an act of terrorism, and never will. A tiny fraction will consider violence, a tiny fraction of them will actually attempt mass murder. It's literally impossible to launch investigations into every one of them. It's not that officials "had real details about an Islamic maniac and did nothing about it"; it's that officials had vague details and lacked the capacity and wherewithal to take immediate action.

There's a lot of information out there, and results like this one are practically unavoidable. Blaming U.S. officials for not leaping to action in response to the father's concerns is a mistake.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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STANFORD AND SESSIONS, SITTING IN A TREE.... Sir Allen Stanford is widely recognized as one of the decade's more notorious criminals. The scandal-plagued banker, after all, was allegedly responsible for one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in recent history.

Hoping to cultivate power, influence, and credibility, Stanford also had a habit -- before his arrest -- of making close connections with politicians in Washington. The efforts included generous campaign contributions and lavish Caribbean trips. Stanford's investments paid off in 2001, when he used his connections to help kill legislation intended to crack down on offshore tax havens -- a step Stanford had to take to keep secret his corrupt scheme run through an offshore bank in Antigua.

With that in mind, federal investigators are interested in knowing if members of Congress did special favors for the alleged Ponzi scheme operator. One lawmaker in particular is likely to receive a fair amount of scrutiny.

Just hours after federal agents charged banker Allen Stanford with fleecing investors of $7 billion, the disgraced financier received a message from one of Congress' most powerful members, Pete Sessions.

"I love you and believe in you,'' said the e-mail sent on Feb. 17. "If you want my ear/voice -- e-mail,'' it said, signed "Pete.''

Pete Sessions is, of course, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the man chiefly responsible for orchestrating the GOP strategy for the 2010 midterm elections. (He's also the same lawmaker who said earlier this year he'd like to see Republicans emulate the Taliban.)

Keep in mind, Sessions reached out to Stanford after Stanford was busted by the Securities and Exchange Commission for running a $7 billion Ponzi scheme. Most sane politicians distance themselves from apparent criminals, but this year, the head of the NRCC reached out to an apparent criminal to tell him he loves him.

Sessions and Stanford reportedly bonded during a couple of trips to the Caribbean. Asked for comment about his Feb. 17 email, the far-right Republican chose not to respond.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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CENTER-RIGHT DEMS THROWING COLD WATER ON CLIMATE BILL.... An important cap-and-trade bill has already passed the House. It's been pending in the Senate for about five months now, but proponents note that the policy has some pretty compelling selling points, including the fact that it caps emissions, combats global warming, reduces pollution, helps create new jobs in a burgeoning sector, and lowers the federal budget deficit, all at the same time.

From a purely political perspective, it also worth noting that recent polls from McClatchy, CNN, Politico, Pew Research Center, and WaPo/ABC all show the same thing -- a majority of Americans support congressional approval of a cap-and-trade bill.

With all of this in mind, it should come as no surprise that center-right Democrats are already going to great lengths to make sure climate legislation doesn't even come up for a vote in the Senate.

Bruised by the health care debate and worried about what 2010 will bring, moderate Senate Democrats are urging the White House to give up now on any effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill next year.

"I am communicating that in every way I know how," says Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of at least half a dozen Democrats who've told the White House or their own leaders that it's time to jettison the centerpiece of their party's plan to curb global warming.

The article includes quotes from several conservative Democrats, all of whom said they'd like the Senate to just skip the climate bill and focus on the economy. Besides, the thinking goes, lawmakers are just kind of tired.

To put it mildly, that's not a compelling pitch. For one thing, policymakers have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Getting health care done -- if health care gets done -- doesn't mean taking a year off.

But more importantly, while a focus on the economy makes sense, there's no reason lawmakers can't embrace a climate bill as part of a larger economic strategy: "Many utilities, investors, and even some consumer companies like Starbucks and Nike believe cap-and-trade will unleash a flood of investments in energy efficiency and renewable fuels like wind, solar, and nuclear power."

This needs to get done, and if the Senate takes a pass on 2010, it's hard to imagine when the next available opportunity might be. It's not as if this will get easier after Republicans make likely gains in the midterms -- it's a party dominated by a head-in-the-sand crowd that prefers to pretend science and data aren't real.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE STREETS OF TEHRAN.... Political unrest in Iran was relatively quiet throughout the fall, after the striking protests of the summer in the wake of the dubious Ahmadinejad election. But Iranians once again took to the streets over the weekend for protests that renew doubts about the future of the country's ruling regime.

The intense clashes in several Iranian cities that left at least five protesters dead and scores more injured Sunday have raised the stakes for both sides as the government seeks to contain a newly revitalized opposition movement.

The street battles took place on one of the holiest days in the Shiite Muslim calendar, a fact that is likely to give even deeper resonance to Sunday's deaths and that could help spawn further demonstrations in the days ahead. Opposition Web sites reported that as many as 12 protesters had been killed, including the nephew of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The government conceded there had been five deaths in Tehran but denied responsibility and said the police had not used their weapons.

That account conflicted with those of numerous opposition sources, which reported that security forces had at various points opened fire on the crowds. Witnesses also reported that demonstrators, who numbered in the tens of thousands, fought back with unusual force, kicking and punching police officers and torching government buildings and vehicles. [...]

Amid thick smoke from fires and tear gas that blanketed key parts of the city, Tehran became the scene of hand-to-hand combat between security forces and the protesters. At one point, according to witnesses, members of the pro-government Basij militia fired their handguns while ramming a car through two barriers set up by demonstrators. Elsewhere, the protesters, who in recent months had run whenever security forces moved in to disrupt demonstrations, began to attack riot police, pelting them with rocks and setting some of their vehicles ablaze.

The White House denounced the "violent and unjust suppression" of Iranian protestors. In a statement, White House National Security Council spokesperson Mike Hammer said, "Hope and history are on the side of those who peacefully seek their universal rights, and so is the United States."

One of the bigger concerns, in the very near future, is that the Iranian government's response to the protests will be even more severe than they were in the summer. Predicting an even harsher crackdown, Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, an opposition supporter and a sociology professor at Tehran University, said, "Everything will, from now on, be harsher, tougher, stronger."

If yesterday's events were any indication, this kind of response will only intensify the underlying conflict.

What's more, Joe Klein highlighted the likely reaction from the "increasingly skeptical religious community in Qum" to the government's brutality: "The only real hope for an end to the Revolutionary Guards' dictatorship is broad opposition by the mullahs. No one knows whether that is possible, but today's violence surely makes the current regime's moral standing less tenable."

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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MATALIN'S ALTERNATE UNIVERSE.... Mary Matalin, one of CNN's more brazen partisan hacks, was complaining bitterly about the Obama White House yesterday, and whined that the president "never gives a speech where he doesn't explicitly or implicitly look backwards." In literally the next breath, Matalin proceeded to look backwards.

"I was there [in the Bush White House]. We inherited a recession from President Clinton and we inherited the most tragic attack on our own soil in our nation's history. And President Bush dealt with it. And within a year of his presidency at this comparable time, unemployment was at 5 percent. And we were creating jobs."

As a factual matter, Matalin, as is usually the case, doesn't have the foggiest idea what she's talking about. Bush didn't "inherit" the attacks of 9/11 -- they happened more than eight months into Bush's presidency, after his administration largely ignored warnings about the threat. Bush didn't "inherit" a recession -- it began in March 2001. Matalin didn't even get the unemployment numbers right.

Putting aside Matalin's striking detachment from reality, though, there are two broader angles to keep in mind here. The first is the hypocrisy -- throughout 2009, Republicans and their allies shriek every time President Obama references the challenges he "inherited." Pointing out the spectacular failures of the last administration has somehow become verboten, as if it's a sign of presidential weakness.

But notice Matalin's contradiction -- Obama isn't supposed to reflect on what he inherited, but as long as we're on the subject, let's all reflect on what Bush inherited, even if the claims themselves are demonstrably wrong.

The second is the hackery. Bush was arguably one of the biggest and most painful presidential failures in American history, which makes Republican operatives like Matalin all the more anxious to keep the "blame Clinton for everything" meme going strong, even now.

The underlying spin isn't exactly compelling. The Matalin pitch, in a nutshell, is, "Sure, Obama inherited the Great Recession, two wars, a job market in freefall, a huge deficit, and crushing debt, a health care system in shambles, a climate crisis, an ineffective energy policy, an equally ineffective immigration policy, a housing crisis, the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, a mess at Gitmo, and a severely tarnished global reputation. But what Bush got from Clinton wasn't exactly a walk in the park."

Except it was. After cleaning up H.W. Bush's mess, Clinton bequeathed a prosperous, peaceful country, held in high regard around the world, with a shrinking debt, and surpluses far into the future. There was a burgeoning terrorist threat emerging, but Clinton's team provided Bush with the necessary tools and warnings necessary to keep the nation safe. Bush failed miserably, despite having been given an incredible opportunity to succeed.

Matalin would have us believe Bush "inherited" a mess. If she were capable of shame, she ought to be embarrassed peddling such nonsense on national television.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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LIEBERMAN EYES 'TOMORROW'S WAR'.... In light of the attempted terrorism aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas, there are plenty of reasonable questions that deserve thorough answers. Why was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab able to get and keep a visa in 2008? To what extent did Abdulmutallab have terrorist associations? How dangerous were his materials, and how was he able to get them on the plane?

And if you're Joe Lieberman, how soon can we go to war with Yemen?

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) Sunday said that Yemen could be the ground of America's next overseas war if Washington does not take preemptive action to root out al-Qaeda interests there.

Lieberman, who helms the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday" that the U.S. will have to take an active approach in Yemen after multiple recent terrorist attacks on the U.S. were linked back to the Middle Eastern nation.

The Connecticut senator said that an administration official told him that "Iraq was yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war."

It was, I suppose, only a matter of time. Those of you who had "Lieberman on Fox News on Sunday morning" in the pool can collect your prize.

Part of what's confusing about Lieberman's comments is that it's not clear exactly what he has in mind for "tomorrow's war." He expects the U.S. to "act preemptively" in Yemen. But does that mean an invasion? One assumes not, since the Yemeni government has already been largely cooperative with our counter-terrorism efforts over the last eight years.

Does that mean striking at terrorist targets in Yemen? One assumes that's not what Lieberman was referring to, since we've been doing just that for quite some time. Indeed, the NYT noted today, "In the midst of two unfinished major wars, the United States has quietly opened a third, largely covert front against Al Qaeda in Yemen. A year ago, the Central Intelligence Agency sent several of its top field operatives with counterterrorism experience to the country, according a former top agency official. At the same time, some of the most secretive Special Operations commandos have begun training Yemeni security forces in counterterrorism tactics, senior military officers said."

Watching Lieberman on Fox News yesterday, one got the sense that Lieberman sees value in "Shock and Awe: Yemen Edition." Here's hoping Lieberman's calls are widely ignored.

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

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December 27, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... Yes, the Monthly's annual fundraising drive is still underway. I've been told by the powers that be that it will continue through the end of the calendar year. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

If you're a regular, you know that the Washington Monthly offers the kind of cutting-edge reporting and analysis the country needs now more than ever, breaking big stories well ahead of major mainstream outlets.

But to keep us going strong, we need a little help. Your donation will not only help the magazine, but also help support this blog. In fact, we've already begun work on a redesign -- a development more than a few of you have requested -- but need some additional funds.

The Monthly is a nonprofit organization. We have print and online ads, but this only covers a small part of our expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to stay up and humming. The truth is, without an annual pledge week, we can't stay in business.

So, I hope we can count on your support. In honor of the Monthly's 40th anniversary, the magazine is asking for $40 donations, but any amount is welcome. If every "Political Animal" reader chipped in just $1, we'd surpass our fundraising goal.

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Steve Benen 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUFFOON WATCH.... Some have wondered this year if, in the case of a deadly terrorist attack, Republicans could bring themselves to put patriotism over party, and rally behind a president they disagree with.

I think we're getting a sense of the answer.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) said Sunday that it is fair to blame the Obama administration for the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day.

Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Select Intelligence Committee said that the administration has not taken the threat of terrorist threats on the U.S. seriously.

Asked by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace if it is fair to blame the Obama administration for the attacks, the Michigan Republican replied "Yeah, I think it really is."

Not quite 48 hours after a Nigerian man -- who got a visa to enter the United States from the Bush administration -- unsuccessfully tried to kill Americans, Pete Hoekstra, one of Congress' more offensive buffoons, is going on national television to blame the Obama administration.

I know I shouldn't be surprised, but this is nauseating.

To rationalize his insane criticism, Hoekstra said he felt comfortable blaming the administration for an attack that didn't occur because, "The Obama administration came in and said we're not going to use the word terrorism anymore, we're going to call it man-made disasters, trying to, I think, downplay the threat from terrorism."

By any reasonable measure, this is breathtakingly stupid. Putting aside the fact that Hoekstra, as a factual matter, isn't even close to reality -- the White House uses the word "terrorism" all the time, whether Hoekstra keeps up on current events or not -- the argument itself is ludicrous. Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airplane based on Obama administration rhetoric? Is that really the line the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee wants to share with a national television audience?

Let's be clear. First, the Obama administration's record on counter-terrorism is very impressive. Second, Pete Hoekstra's record on national security issues is so ridiculous, it's hard not to point and laugh. And third, Hoekstra's attempts to exploit an attack that failed is almost certainly motivated by an effort to impress right-wing primary voters in advance of his gubernatorial campaign, making his attacks against the president cheap and disgusting.

What an embarrassment.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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THE RECORD SOME WOULD PREFER TO FORGET.... Just six years ago, congressional Republicans approved a major expansion of the government's role over health care, adding a massive amount of money to the national debt in its first decade.

The AP's Charles Babington reports that most GOP officials no longer want to talk about their own record.

Six years ago, "it was standard practice not to pay for things," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We were concerned about it, because it certainly added to the deficit, no question." His 2003 vote has been vindicated, Hatch said, because the prescription drug benefit "has done a lot of good."

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said those who see hypocrisy "can legitimately raise that issue." But he defended his positions in 2003 and now, saying the economy is in worse shape and Americans are more anxious.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said simply: "Dredging up history is not the way to move forward."

Seriously? Is that how we're going to play this game?

Snowe's quote is hard to take seriously -- as if her own record isn't relevant right now -- but it's Hatch's quote that's especially ridiculous. For Republicans, supporting huge new programs without figuring out how to pay for them "was standard practice." Six years later, this is justifiable, just so long as the huge new programs do "a lot of good."

Just so we're clear, according to the rules, Republicans don't have to pay for their programs, and Democrats do. Republicans can build up massive debts, and Democrats can't.

Let's cut the nonsense. Republicans supported Medicare Part D (Karl Rove saw it as a way of creating a "permanent" GOP majority). It was the biggest expansion of government into the health care industry since Medicare. By any reasonable measure, it was a huge giveaway to private industries, and came with a price tag of at least $1 trillion -- far more than this year's Democratic health care reform plan. It was "complicated as hell," and left a huge doughnut hole that screwed over millions of seniors. It included end-of-life counseling, which Republicans now consider "death panels." The Republican bill, which passed under almost comically corrupt circumstances, was financed entirely -- literally, 100% -- through deficit spending, leaving future generations to pick up the tab.

And what do these exact same Republican lawmakers say now? That the Democratic reform plan increases government's role in health care (check), costs too much (check), is too complicated (check), and passed under suspicious circumstances (check). Oh, and don't "dredge up history" that GOP finds embarrassing.

Republicans simply aren't serious about health care policy. Anyone who suggests the Democratic bill should have been "bipartisan" need only to be reminded of what transpired six short years ago.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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SHIFTING THE BURDEN.... One of the Republican talking points in the days leading up to the Senate vote on health care reform was, "Can you believe this bill is passing without bipartisan support?" As it turns out, one of the new White House talking points, in the wake of the vote, is, "Can you believe this bill passed without bipartisan support?"

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer had an item the other day tries to turn one of the principal GOP arguments on its head.

Today's Republican talking point of the day is that the historic health reform bill passed today represents the first major piece of social legislation to be passed without a single vote from across the aisle.

Well that may be true. But it's not a commentary on this bill. It's a commentary on the Republican Party, whose leaders made a determination that they were going to put party over progress. That's never happened before when the nation took on big challenges.

Right. GOP lawmakers would have Americans believe that Republicans' refusal to engage in good-faith negotiations, and stubborn opposition to the same ideas they'd already endorsed, reflects poorly on Democrats. Pfeiffer's point is that this argument has it backwards -- for generations, members of both parties were willing to step up and work on major reform initiatives like this with at least some sense of cooperation.

We've never had a situation in which a major political party simply refused to consider a reform effort of this magnitude. In 2009, the Republican Party, in its entirety, decided to sit on the sidelines, heckling those doing the real work of government.

Pfeiffer added, "The sad truth is that Congressional Republican leaders decided early on that their best move was to 'delay, define, and derail' reform -- not to find common ground on a bill both parties could support. They made clear their hopes that health insurance reform would be President Obama's 'Waterloo' and that it would 'break him' politically. In the process, they lost sight of the fact that this was never about President Obama -- it was about the families struggling to keep up with skyrocketing premiums; the small businesses forced to choose covering employees and staying afloat; the 15,000 Americans who lost insurance every day this year. [Thursday 's] vote was a victory for them."

Greg Sargent endorsed the approach. "[T]he die has been cast, and the best route for Dems is to emphasize the fact that the health care reform bill is theirs alone," Greg noted. "Medicare, Social Security, the Clean Air Act, and many other major reforms all passed with bipartisan support. This is the first major reform in American history to be unanimously opposed by a major party. No need to run from this."

Sounds like good advice to me.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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BRODER URGES DEMS TO BE MORE MODERATE.... Former Clinton Commerce Secretary William Daley wants to see the Democratic Party be more moderate. David Broder, not surprisingly, is thrilled.

The president is surrounded by people who share Daley's grasp on reality, none more important or better placed than Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a fellow Chicagoan. But the picture is not so clear on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's inner circle is made up of long-standing veterans of gerrymandered House districts, virtually immune from Election Day challenge, just as she is. The wants and needs of "the Democratic base" count heavily for them, and Daley's warnings may be resented or ignored.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's home-state party in Nevada is as closely tied to the unions as Michigan used to be in the days of Walter Reuther, and Reid views the world from that perspective.

As a loyal Democrat, Daley insisted in the closing paragraphs of his op-ed that his party is not doomed to ruin. It can still avoid anything more than a minimal setback in 2010, he said, if it will simply "acknowledge that the agenda of the party's most liberal supporters has not won the support of a majority of Americans -- and, based on that recognition . . . steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day, from health care to the economy to the environment to Afghanistan."

OK, a few things. First, to suggest that Harry Reid "views the world" from a union-dominated perspective is simply mistaken. Is EFCA on the Senate schedule? No. Did Reid change course when labor opposed the tax on "Cadillac" health plans? No.

Second, Broder believes all people should be more moderate at all times -- today's column was almost comically predictable -- but he's wrong to scoff at the notion that Democrats should generate some excitement among the party's activist base. Motivating the rank and file will likely be key to Dems' success (or lack thereof) in the 2010 midterms.

Third, for Broder (and Bill Daley) to believe that liberals' priorities have "not won the support of a majority of Americans" is, for lack of a better word, odd. Liberals pushed for a public option in health care reform, and a majority of all Americans agreed. Liberals supported a Medicare buy-in, and a majority of all Americans agreed. Liberals want a cap on carbon emissions, and a majority of all Americans agree. Liberals want an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and a majority of all Americans agree. On most issues, the liberal approach to policy issues is the mainstream approach to policy issues.

And fourth, note that Broder is pretty vague about what "moving to the center" would actually look like. "Ignoring the demands of the base" isn't a substantive recommendation. "Ignoring the demands of unions" isn't a substantive recommendation, either. "Steer a more moderate course" doesn't actually mean anything unless it's followed by some depth.

If Broder wants to see Democrats become more "moderate," how about backing that up with something specific? It's not as if he lacks a high-profile media platform. If he knows where he'd like to see Democrats go, he should say so.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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SENDING A SIGNAL.... If you've been following the news the past couple of days, you've no doubt seen plenty of coverage of the attempted terrorism aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. And while you've also probably seen some political figures rush to get on television -- God help anyone caught between Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) and a camera -- President Obama has remained largely scarce. Indeed, yesterday, the president went golfing.

Marc Ambinder noted yesterday that there's a deliberate White House strategy underway.

Here's the theory: a two-bit mook is sent by Al Qaeda to do a dastardly deed. He winds up neutering himself. Literally.

Authorities respond appropriately; the President (as this president is want to do) presides over the federal response. His senior aides speak for him, letting reporters know that he's videoconferencing regularly, that he's ordering a review of terrorist watch lists, that he's discoursing with his Secretary of Homeland Security.

But an in-person Obama statement isn't needed; Indeed, a message expressing command, control, outrage and anger might elevate the importance of the deed, would generate panic (because Obama usually DOESN'T talk about the specifics of cases like this, and so him deciding to do so would cue the American people to respond in a way that exacerbates the situation. [...]

Let the authorities do their work. Don't presume; don't panic the country; don't chest-thump, prejudge, interfere, politicize (in an international sense), don't give Al Qaeda (or whomever) a symbolic victory; resist the urge to open the old playbook and run a familiar play.

In the Bush/Cheney era, we know officials read from a far different script. Incidents like these became opportunities to exploit. Top officials -- Bush, Cheney, Rice, Ashcroft, Ridge -- would fan out and start hitting the talking points. There'd be talk about invading Yemen. Maybe the Bush gang would get a bump in the polls, maybe Dems and administration critics would hold their fire for a few days. If they didn't, the White House could take comfort in knowing that critics would be accused of "aiding and abetting" terrorists by attacking the Commander in Chief in the wake of a crisis.

Obama and his team obviously prefer a far more mature, strategic approach. It's about projecting a sense of calm and control. It's about choosing not to elevate some lunatic thug who set himself on fire.

Indeed, notice the pattern throughout the year. The Obama administration has taken out Saleh al-Somali, 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 launch potential attacks.

In each case, there were no high-profile press conferences, no public chest-thumping, no desire to politicize the counter-terrorism successes. Indeed, most of the country probably never heard a word about any of these developments.

It's about competent and effective leadership, and it's what the country was sorely lacking up until 11 months ago.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE FOCUS ON YEMEN.... The claims have not yet been independently corroborated, but Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who apparently tried to bring down an airplane over Michigan on Christmas, has told officials he "obtained explosive chemicals and a syringe that were sewn into his underwear from a bomb expert in Yemen associated with Al Qaeda."

The Yemeni connection was also apparently the thrust of a briefing given to key congressional lawmakers. One of them, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, who tried to politicize the incident shortly after it occurred, used Twitter yesterday to suggest the Obama administration has paid insufficient attention to Yemen.

Given that Hoekstra is the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, he probably should realize that the Obama administration is paying a great deal of attention to Yemen.

Yemeni forces, backed by the United States, launched a major attack Thursday on a meeting of senior al-Qaeda operatives thought to include the Yemeni American cleric linked to the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, U.S. and Yemeni officials said. [...]

[T]he U.S. involvement in the strike in southeastern Yemen -- along with a similar strike in the country last week -- appears to reflect greater willingness by the Obama administration to use military force in confronting terrorists outside the traditional war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week's strike was seen at the time as the most significant example of the new approach, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the planning and execution of the attack.

The attack on al Qaeda in Yemen late last week -- personally approved by President Obama -- was executed with "intelligence and firepower" supplied by the United States, representing the widest offensive against Yemeni jihadists in years.

What's more, as Faiz Shakir noted, "[B]oth Obama and his homeland security adviser, John Brennan, have cited Yemen as a key concern.... Despite Hoekstra's desire to make a political issue of the terrorist attack, the evidence is clear that the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen has been a focal point for the Obama administration."

If the reaction from right-wing blogs is any indication, conservatives are already in full-tantrum mode. (Gold star to the reader who can identify a prominent far-right site demanding U.S. officials begin torturing Abdulmutallab.) But as Matt Yglesias explained, U.S. efforts are proceeding as they should: "Al-Qaeda's ideological support appears to be on the wane. The logistical capabilities displayed by things like this attempted airplane explosion are unimpressive. Military campaigns are underway against their hideouts in Yemen and Pakistan. Things are basically going fine."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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December 26, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... Yes, the Monthly's annual fundraising drive is still underway. I've been told by the powers that be that it will continue through the end of the calendar year. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

If you're a regular, you know that the Washington Monthly offers the kind of cutting-edge reporting and analysis the country needs now more than ever, breaking big stories well ahead of major mainstream outlets.

But to keep us going strong, we need a little help. Your donation will not only help the magazine, but also help support this blog. In fact, we've already begun work on a redesign -- a development more than a few of you have requested -- but need some additional funds.

The Monthly is a nonprofit organization. We have print and online ads, but this only covers a small part of our expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to stay up and humming. The truth is, without an annual pledge week, we can't stay in business.

So, I hope we can count on your support. In honor of the Monthly's 40th anniversary, the magazine is asking for $40 donations, but any amount is welcome. If every "Political Animal" reader chipped in just $1, we'd surpass our fundraising goal.

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Steve Benen 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (3)

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VISIONARY INCREMENTALISM AND THE D.C. POWER STRUCTURE.... The institutional power structures that exist in D.C. are not new. On the contrary, they've evolved slowly over decades, and put up overwhelming resistance when challenged.

With that in mind, the NYT's Adam Nagourney has an interesting piece, noting an underlying point of contention between the Obama White House and the progressive base. On the one hand, the president is pursuing his agenda by playing by the establishment's rules, navigating his way through the existing power structure to achieve his policy goals. On the other, liberals want the president to re-write the establishment's rules and raze the existing power structure.

As much as Mr. Obama presented himself as an outsider during his campaign, a lesson of this [health care reform] battle is that this is a president who would rather work within the system than seek to upend it. He is not the ideologue ready to stage a symbolic fight that could end in defeat; he is a former senator comfortable in dealing with the arcane rules of the Senate and prepared to accept compromise in search of a larger goal. For the most part, Democrats on Capitol Hill have stuck with him.

By contrast, [Howard] Dean, the former Democratic Party chairman who has long had strained relations with this administration, said the White House was slow to fight and quick to make concessions -- particularly on creating a public insurance plan -- and demanded that Democrats kill the Senate version of the health care bill.

That sentiment was echoed by liberal efforts that grew up around the Dean campaign, notably Daily Kos and MoveOn.org, which argued that Mr. Obama was not tough enough in staring down foes, be they insurance companies or Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent from Connecticut.

"He ran as someone who would fight against entrenched special interests on behalf of the little guy," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has emerged as one of Mr. Obama's leading critics in recent days. "And what we learned in this debate is that he's not willing to fight and exert pressure on entrenched special interests when it comes to big ideas."

Now, I suspect the White House would disagree. The president butted heads with an entrenched special interest on health care (insurance companies), a different entrenched special interest on military procurement reform (powerful contractors), a different entrenched special interest on FDA regulation of tobacco products (Big Tobacco), and a different entrenched special interest on reforming student loan policies (private lenders).

But the larger point is nevertheless true -- Obama has not changed the political structure, he's working within it. Accusations about "politics as usual" are not unfounded -- the agenda and direction of the country changed considerably on Inauguration Day, but the rules of the game haven't. President Obama's m.o., for the most part, seems to be built around choosing the issue, getting the best deal he thinks he can get, and then moving onto the next issue. The focus places an emphasis on problem solving, while leaving traditional power structures in place.

At least for now, that is.

President Obama has unique gifts, but overturning the D.C. political establishment in 11 months probably isn't a reasonable expectation. If/when health care reform becomes law, it will change, at a rather fundamental level, the relationship between the government and the populace, which may in turn create opportunities for re-writing the rules of the game. It's the kind of thing that will take time ... and a genuine, determined commitment. Time will tell.

I do, however, have a related question, especially for historians in the audience. When FDR got Social Security through Congress, the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases. Women and minorities were, for lack of a better word, screwed.

All of these dramatic flaws were the result of compromises Roosevelt felt like he had to make -- some with uncooperative members of Congress, some with the institutional powers of the day -- in order to achieve his goal.

I'm wondering, however, whether FDR was decried at the time by liberals as a sell-out unwilling to fight for a stronger Social Security bill against entrenched special interests. Were there progressive activists at the time who denounced Social Security as inadequate? Were there liberal lawmakers who voted with Republicans to kill it because it didn't go far enough? Was there widespread talk that Democrats would suffer in the 1936 midterms because liberals were unsatisfied the compromises FDR accepted?

This isn't intended as a snarky question; I'm genuinely curious and looking for write-ups on the political history of the mid-30s.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... In the last TWIG edition until the new year, the God Machine took note of E.J. Dionne Jr.'s column this week on the ways in which religion and politics didn't cause as big a stir as in previous years.

It is 2009's quiet story -- quiet because it's about what didn't happen, which can be as important as what did.

In this highly partisan year, we did not see a sharpening of the battles over religion and culture.

Yes, we continued to fight over gay marriage, and arguments about abortion were a feature of the health-care debate. But what's more striking is that other issues -- notably economics and the role of government -- trumped culture and religion in the public square. The culture wars went into recession along with the economy.

The most important transformation occurred on the right end of politics. For now, the loudest and most activist sections of the conservative cause are not its religious voices but the mostly secular, anti-government tea party activists.

It's important not to overstate the case. Clearly, the religious right still exists, and conservative activists still rely on matters of faith to deny gay Americans basic civil rights and to restrict American women's reproductive rights. Sen. Ben Nelson's (D-Neb.) often incoherent demands about indirect abortion funding very nearly killed health care reform.

But overall, Dionne's analysis sounds right. The U.S. embrace of the culture war becomes more notable when the country is in otherwise fine shape. That hasn't been the case for several years, and as a result, even Republicans are shifting their attention away from a religio-political agenda. Note, when GOP leaders started a rebranding effort, they ignored culture-war issues entirely, and when Republicans talk about trying to retake Congress, it's not because they intend to work on school prayer and Ten Commandments displays. The religious right's threats no longer seem to scare GOP leaders as they once did, giving the movement less influence.

It prompted Dionne to conclude that "the cultural and religious conflicts that have persisted were debated at a lower volume" this year. God bless us, everyone, indeed.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* A woman jumped a barrier and knocked down Pope Benedict XVI before he delivered his traditional Christmas Day greetings, raising a new round of questions about the Vatican's security procedures.

* Former President Jimmy Carter hopes to make amends with the Jewish community, and issued an apology this week. "We must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel," Carter said in the letter. "As I would have noted at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but which is appropriate at any time of the year, I offer an Al Het [a prayer said on Yom Kippur] for any words or deeds of mine that may have done so."

* Former Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri, who is also an ordained Episcopal priest, has created a new Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University. "Chancellor Mark Wrighton said the center, which will open in January, would seek to deepen the academic understanding of the connections between religion and politics and encourage civil discourse in which people 'in a respectful society' can hold different views."

* And I was pleased to see that L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper, considers "The Simpsons" acceptable entertainment. "Homer finds in God his last refuge, even though he sometimes gets His name sensationally wrong," L'Osservatore said. "But these are just minor mistakes, after all, the two know each other well."

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

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NO PUNISHMENT FOR PREGNANT SOLDIERS.... A bad idea that was, thankfully, short-lived.

A controversial policy that put pregnant soldiers in war zones at risk of discipline will be rescinded under an order from the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Gen. Raymond Odierno has drafted a broad new policy for the U.S. forces in Iraq that will take effect Jan. 1, and that order will not include a pregnancy provision that one of his subordinate commanders enacted last month, according to the U.S. military command in Iraq.

Odierno's order comes about a week after the pregnancy policy issued by Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo triggered a storm of criticism. Cucolo had issued a policy that would permit the punishment of soldiers who become pregnant and their sexual partners.

Now, Cucolo had already started backing off his own policy earlier this week, explaining that he had no intention of actually pursuing courts-martial against female soldiers who get pregnant. It was highly unlikely that a pregnant servicewoman was actually going to end up behind bars.

But it's nevertheless encouraging to have this matter resolved altogether. Odierno will issue a new general order on Jan. 1, following a thorough review of existing orders. The pregnancy provision will not part of the consolidation.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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PETE HOEKSTRA, SHAMELESS BUFFOON.... Speculation about terrorist plots based on limited information is a fool's game. We know very little about Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempts on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 yesterday, though there are some pretty obvious questions about how he got materials on board, how dangerous they were, and what his associations may be.

Responsible federal officials will wait to get a more detailed picture before popping off in the media, making reckless accusations. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, inexplicably the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has not yet been briefed on yesterday's incident, but that hasn't stopped him from trying to exploit the Abdulmutallab matter to score some cheap partisan points.

"It's not surprising," U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Holland Republican, said of the alleged terrorist attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight in Detroit. ... "People have got to start connecting the dots here and maybe this is the thing that will connect the dots for the Obama administration," Hoekstra said.

It's not even clear what that means, exactly, though Hoekstra was apparently offended that an Obama administration official described the incident as an "attempted" terrorist attack when, as far as Hoekstra is concerned, "it was a terrorist attack."

How such a world-class buffoon became the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee remains an open question, though it continues to be something of an embarrassment for the Republican caucus.

There are a couple of angles to this to keep in mind. First, Hoekstra would like people to believe the Obama administration isn't taking the terrorist threat seriously enough. The evidence to the contrary -- a.k.a. "reality" -- is overwhelming.

Second, when it comes to national security issues, Hoekstra has one of the more transparently ridiculous track records of any member of Congress in recent memory. We are, after all, talking about a partisan clown who held a press conference in 2006 to announce, "We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

And third, yesterday's pettiness probably has something to do with Hoekstra's gubernatorial campaign -- he needs to impress the GOP base to win his primary, and he likely assumes cheap shots at the president in light of attempted terrorism is the way to get a bump in the polls.

One can hope the opposite will occur. Even Republican primary voters should be disgusted by Hoekstra's shameless hackery on this.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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NORTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT 253.... By early evening, there were quite a few reports about a man setting off a firecracker on a plane en route to Detroit. As it turns out, there was quite a bit more to it than that.

A Nigerian man tried to ignite an explosive device aboard a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight as the plane prepared to land in Detroit on Friday, in an incident the United States believes was "an attempted act of terrorism," according to a White House official who declined to be identified.

The device, described by officials as a mixture of powder and liquid, failed to fully detonate. Passengers on the plane described a series of pops that sounded like firecrackers.

Federal officials said the man wanted to bring the plane down.

Details are, not surprisingly, still pretty sketchy. The suspected terrorist has been identified as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who apparently studies engineering at University College London. He proceeded with his plan towards the end of the flight, aboard an Airbus A330 wide-body jet flying into Detroit from Amsterdam, after originating in Nigeria.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, has spent quite a bit of time getting hysterical in the media about what transpired, but by all accounts, Abdulmutallab was not exactly a terrorist mastermind. Abdulmutallab, whose claimed ties to Al Qaeda have not been substantiated and may have been "aspirational," had a powder taped to his leg, which he mixed with chemicals held in a syringe. He may have intended to bring down the plane, but by more than one account, his materials were "more incendiary than explosive," and it's not clear if it had the capacity to do serious damage.

Of the 278 passengers and 11 crew members on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the only injury seems to have been to Abdulmutallab himself, who apparently suffered severe burns when he inadvertently set himself on fire.

The other passengers on the flight, according to several accounts, acted quickly and effectively to subdue the would-be terrorist.

We'll no doubt have a better sense of what transpired in the coming days, but at this point, plenty of key questions have gone unanswered. How did Abdulmutallab, whose name appears to be included in the government's records of terrorism suspects, get his materials on board? How dangerous were the materials? What, if any, ties did he have to larger terrorist networks?

While we wait for these additional details, it appears federal officials are taking the matter very seriously. President Obama was briefed on developments throughout the day, and John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, convened an interagency meeting late yesterday to review the incident and discuss possible new precautions.

If you're traveling this weekend, it's unclear whether you'll face additional security measures, beyond the usual, though existing efforts will be "tightened" after the Detroit incident.

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December 25, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... Yes, the Monthly's annual fundraising drive is still underway. I've been told by the powers that be that it will continue through the end of the calendar year. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

If you're a regular, you know that the Washington Monthly offers the kind of cutting-edge reporting and analysis the country needs now more than ever, breaking big stories well ahead of major mainstream outlets.

But to keep us going strong, we need a little help. Your donation will not only help the magazine, but also help support this blog. In fact, we've already begun work on a redesign -- a development more than a few of you have requested -- but need some additional funds.

The Monthly is a nonprofit organization. We have print and online ads, but this only covers a small part of our expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to stay up and humming. The truth is, without an annual pledge week, we can't stay in business.

So, I hope we can count on your support. In honor of the Monthly's 40th anniversary, the magazine is asking for $40 donations, but any amount is welcome. If every "Political Animal" reader chipped in just $1, we'd surpass our fundraising goal.

Just click here to help out. You can donate online, through PayPal, or through the mail.

Thanks.

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Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A GOOD DAY FOR A DICKENS REFERENCE.... Paul Krugman today urges progressives to "congratulate themselves" on the success of the health care reform effort, in what he described as "a big win for them -- and for America."

And to that end, Krugman borrows from Dickens.

Indulge me while I tell you a story -- a near-future version of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." It begins with sad news: young Timothy Cratchit, a k a Tiny Tim, is sick. And his treatment will cost far more than his parents can pay out of pocket.

Fortunately, our story is set in 2014, and the Cratchits have health insurance. Not from their employer: Ebenezer Scrooge doesn't do employee benefits. And just a few years earlier they wouldn't have been able to buy insurance on their own because Tiny Tim has a pre-existing condition, and, anyway, the premiums would have been out of their reach.

But reform legislation enacted in 2010 banned insurance discrimination on the basis of medical history and also created a system of subsidies to help families pay for coverage. Even so, insurance doesn't come cheap -- but the Cratchits do have it, and they're grateful. God bless us, everyone.

O.K., that was fiction, but there will be millions of real stories like that in the years to come.

Krugman also identifies the groups of the legislation's opponents, most notably the "crazy right, the tea party and death panel people." The problem with this contingent, of course, is not just the total absence of coherent policy objections, but also that their wild-eyed madness now overlaps with the concerns voiced by the Republican mainstream.

"In the past, there was a general understanding, a sort of implicit clause in the rules of American politics, that major parties would at least pretend to distance themselves from irrational extremists," Krugman said. "But those rules are no longer operative. No, Virginia, at this point there is no sanity clause."

Man, I wish I'd come up with that one.

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HOUSEKEEPING NOTE.... It looks like it's a fairly slow news day, and I don't imagine too many readers will be stopping by, so expect a very light posting schedule today. I'll be around in case something dramatic and/or unexpected happens, but if the political world is quiet today, "Political Animal" will be, too.

Whether you're celebrating a holiday or just a day off of work, have a great one.

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December 24, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... Yes, the Monthly's annual fundraising drive is still underway. I've been told by the powers that be that it will continue through the end of the calendar year. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

If you're a regular, you know that the Washington Monthly offers the kind of cutting-edge reporting and analysis the country needs now more than ever, breaking big stories well ahead of major mainstream outlets.

But to keep us going strong, we need a little help. Your donation will not only help the magazine, but also help support this blog. In fact, we've already begun work on a redesign -- a development more than a few of you have requested -- but need some additional funds.

The Monthly is a nonprofit organization. We have print and online ads, but this only covers a small part of our expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to stay up and humming. The truth is, without an annual pledge week, we can't stay in business.

So, I hope we can count on your support. In honor of the Monthly's 40th anniversary, the magazine is asking for $40 donations, but any amount is welcome. If every "Political Animal" reader chipped in just $1, we'd surpass our fundraising goal.

Just click here to help out. You can donate online, through PayPal, or through the mail.

Thanks.

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Steve Benen 6:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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

* Yemen: "Yemeni jets launched an aerial assault Thursday against suspected senior al Qaeda operatives meeting in a remote location, and about 30 militants were killed, according to the Yemen news agency SABA.... One of the militants may have been the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the embassy said."

* Encouraging: "The Labor Department said the number of new claims for unemployment benefits fell to 452,000 last week, down 28,000 from the previous week, providing the latest sign the job market is gradually improving. It was the best figure since September 2008, before the credit crisis peaked. A recovery in the job market is vital to a strong recovery."

* There was one other vote in the Senate this morning: "The Senate voted Thursday to raise the ceiling on the government debt to $12.4 trillion, a massive increase over the current limit and a political problem that President Barack Obama has promised to address next year." The final vote was 60 to 39, though George Voinovich's (R) broke ranks and voted with Dems, and Indiana's Evan Bayh (D) voted with the GOP.

* Uganda may "soften" its insane anti-gay legislation, with the country's Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo suggesting life sentences may replace execution for "offenders."

* What you need to know following the Copenhagen climate summit.

* Fatigue and nerves can cause trouble: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accidentally voted against health care reform this morning, before quickly correcting himself.

* In the U.S., we're talking more and more about students getting their college degrees in three years instead of four. In the U.K., they're pondering a similar shift -- from three years to two.

* I've long thought this would be a good idea: "A group of judges, political officials and lawyers, led by the retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has begun a campaign to persuade states to choose judges on the basis of merit, rather than their ability to win an election."

* And at Chicago's Second City, the comedy troupe held a weekend-long 50th anniversary bash. Stephen Colbert, a Second City alum, was on hand, and reflected on Fox News' Glenn Beck, who makes satire so difficult because he's genuinely deranged. Beck "raised the stupid bar and now it's nearly inapproachable," Colbert said. "I worry that if we use that as a model....if somebody doesn't believe what they're saying, it's very hard to out-stupid them. Because then there's no place to sink our hook into, there's no mountain to climb there. I can't climb Glenn Beck since there's nothing there."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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EVEN IN SUCCESS, 'THE SYSTEM' IS IN TROUBLE.... We've all heard the phrase, "The system worked." It's usually uttered after some contentious, tumultuous, needlessly complicated process meets with a satisfactory conclusion. The suitable result, in these cases, came not from a radical departure from existing norms, but by slowly, painfully working within the framework already in place.

When it comes to health care reform, one might be tempted to think "the system," in the broadest possible sense, "worked." We had hearings, a lengthy debate, and a back and forth that I suppose we can describe as spirited. In the end, the House culled together a majority to pass its bill, and the Senate managed to overcome Republican obstructionism and pass its bill with a 60-vote majority. It wasn't pretty, and it was excruciating to watch at times, but after compromising, cajoling, persuading, and arm-twisting, health care reform worked its way through the system.

Our politics, the argument goes, must not be completely broken, since policymakers were able to identify a problem, propose a solution, and pass legislation. It might even give someone hope -- if officials can work within the system to address the health care crisis, they presumably can do the same to address any number of other major policy challenges.

Mark Schmitt, who was pleased with this morning's vote, explains why that would be the wrong lesson to have learned.

The reason [the health care vote] feels like a loss is simply that fact, that any sense of movement or possibility in our political institutions -- and again, I mean mostly the Senate but not only the Senate -- is gone. Getting exactly 60 votes, on an issue where the ground has been prepared, is possible only on rare occasions. That Obama, and Harry Reid and his allies, hit that small target on the single issue that has eluded every progressive president before him is wonderful for both the health-care system, and for those millions who need care, but still, it does not bode well for our political future.

I've always argued that Obama viewed his central domestic mission as changing the culture and practice of American politics. The passage of health reform is a revelation of just how desperately that change is needed and how difficult it will be to achieve.

Arguing that "the outlines of a growing political crisis" are evident in this debate, Matt Yglesias added, "Think about extending this precedent forward to the time when we need to deal with the budget deficit, however, and things start to look very different. You just can't deal with the country's fiscal challenges within the political dynamic that currently exists. There's no way."

At the risk of taking an overly-simplistic approach to a multi-faceted problem, I continue to think the solution lies in a) the eventual emergence of a sane wing of the Republican Party; and b) the return of majority rule to the Senate. The ability to actually solve problems and address crises in an efficient, coherent fashion would be aided immensely by these two highly improbable developments.

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AN EYE TOWARDS HISTORICAL CONTEXT.... After the Senate finally passed its health care bill this morning, a variety of efforts were made to capture the larger significance. Calling it a "watershed moment," Jonathan Cohn described the proposal as "the most ambitious piece of domestic legislation in a generation." Ezra Klein called it a "historic advance," and "arguably the most important piece of legislation the body has passed since 1963."

Matt Yglesias said the reform plan, if passed, will be "the greatest progressive social policy achievement in over 40 years. It's fine not to be satisfied with this legislation, but it's perverse not to be happy about it."

Calling the bill "a cause for celebration, not recriminations," Kevin Drum added, "I'm 51 years old and this bill is, without question, the biggest progressive advance in my adult life. You have to go back to the great environmental acts of the early 70s to get close, and to the civil rights/Medicare era to beat it. That's four decades, the last three of which have constituted an almost unbroken record of conservative ascendency. And now that ascendancy is just days away from being -- finally, decisively -- broken."

But it's Jon Chait who goes the furthest, calling the health care bill "the greatest social achievement of our time" and "the most significant American legislative triumph in at least four decades."

Of particular interest was Chait's analysis of (what's left of) the Republican criticisms of the plan. After running through the incoherent and contradictory claims, he concludes:

The persistence of these thoroughly debunked pseudo-factoids reveals a couple things about the state of the GOP. The first is that the party desperately lacks for genuine health care expertise. Being a member of a party long committed to defending American health care naturally makes one disinclined to study the horrifying reality of the system; likewise, a thorough understanding of the health care system makes one disinclined to support the party that has spent decades blocking its reform.

Second, conservative belief in the failure of health care reform is undergirded by deeper ideological values that are not amenable to data. Consider this typical salvo against reform in National Review, by Jeffrey Anderson, a Bush-era HHS speechwriter: "The motivation is simple and can be reduced to one word: power. And it doubtless has the American Founders, who dedicated their lives to securing liberty, spinning in their graves."

If we want to understand why a bill that embodies the best of moderate Republican ideas has attracted zero support from the Republican Party, it is because moderation has disappeared from the party. The takeover of ideological conservatives, implacably opposed to the expansion of government, has rendered impossible any bipartisan solution.

Someone probably ought to let David Broder know.

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HARRY REID.... Whether one sees the Democratic health care proposal as the greatest progressive policy accomplishment in a generation or a bitter disappointment worthy of defeat, it's hard to deny that the Senate Majority Leader did what he set out to do. There were plenty of times this year when it seemed the reform proposal simply wouldn't survive, but Harry Reid kept working, and managed to find -- and hold onto -- 60 votes.

Rahm Emanuel was agitated. With only seven weeks until Christmas, the opportunity to pass healthcare legislation seemed to be fading. The White House chief of staff feared that if the Senate left for the holiday without passing a bill, President Obama's top domestic priority would wither as lawmakers turned to other concerns next year.

Democratic senators and administration officials gathered in a conference room outside Majority Leader Harry Reid's Capitol office. Emanuel wanted to know: Was there a chance the chamber could still act in time?

As one participant placed a calming hand on Emanuel's sleeve, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told him there was one chance: The White House would have to put its trust in Reid.

The quirky, taciturn majority leader had no background in health policy and a less-than-commanding public image. Yet today Reid delivered as the Senate moved to take its final vote on the most sweeping healthcare legislation to make its way through the chamber in nearly half a century.

As the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid has received his share of criticism -- much of which, on occasion, I've endorsed. But he was able to reach his leadership position thanks to his unique understanding of his caucus, his mastery of Senate procedure, and his almost preternatural patience. Rutgers political scientist Ross K. Baker said, "There are Senate leaders like that who come along every few decades."

Every time reform appeared to be teetering on the brink, Reid would take steps to pull it back from the precipice. It wasn't always pretty, and I didn't always approve of every decision, but whenever reform seemed poised to fail, Reid grew more determined to succeed.

ABC News' Jonathan Karl said this week, "Say what you want about the health care bill, but Harry Reid is about to complete a task of LBJ proportions. And Lyndon Johnson never had to corral 60 Senators for one vote during a blizzard. If public opinion doesn't turn around for Democrats, this may ultimately prove to be a pyrrhic victory, but on a purely procedural level Harry Reid now looks like the master of Senate. One month ago, who seriously thought the health care bill would pass the Senate by Christmas?"

The Brookings Institution's Tom Mann added, "The much-pilloried Harry Reid led an increasingly undemocratic and dysfunctional institution to a stunning victory for the majority party."

And Matt Yglesias wrote last week that Reid's "performance throughout 2009 has been nothing short of heroic.... One's instincts are that overcoming these challenges required some kind of larger-than-life figure, full of colorful LBJ-style anecdotes, or maybe a figure of overwhelming charisma and popularity. That's not Harry Reid. But the proof is in the pudding, and from where we sit today, the low-key, unassuming, unpopular senator from Nevada has delivered on the most significant piece of progressive legislation in over 40 years."

For a senator who's very much at risk of losing his seat next year, the plaudits come at a welcome time.

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CRAPO CONCEDES REFORM REPEAL UNLIKELY.... Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) conceded that if/when health care reform becomes law, it's not going anywhere.

"Technically it could be peeled back if the circumstances were right," Crapo said during an appearance on a conservative news radio syndicate. "But we would have to have a president who would sign such a bill, and we would have to have 60 votes in the Senate -- not just 50."

"So it would be a very tall order, and frankly, the likelihood's that that's not going to develop in the near future," he added.

That's true, but it's incomplete. Crapo's right that the legislative circumstances are almost certainly not going to materialize to facilitate a repeal, but there's also the political problem Republicans are reluctant to acknowledge.

Josh Marshall had this item this morning.

Sen. Hatch is on TV getting cornered by a host on just what in this bill he'd be for -- if he supports health care reform but just doesn't like this version of it. It was pretty comical. The host asks him whether he's in favor of barring health insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. Oh, yeah, oh, we all agree on that, blah blah blah. No explanation of how you do that without dramatically broadening the risk pools.

It's not surprise. But it's worth noting once again that the Republican opposition on this whole issue is a sham.

It certainly is. It's exactly why GOP senators have ended up opposing provisions they support -- it's about blind, reflexive, reactionary opposition. Listening to the floor debate over the last several weeks has only reinforced the notion that Republican opposition is a sham -- their rationales boil down to lies or trivia (and occasionally lies about trivia). This week, there have been more than a few instances in which it seemed Republicans no longer remembered why, exactly, they thought this was a bad idea.

And any attempt at repeal would be met by awkward questions like those Hatch couldn't answer this morning. Are they going to repeal the consumer protections? The caps on families' medical expenses? The cost-containment measures? The subsidies for families who can't afford coverage?

It's not exactly a compelling message over the next couple of cycles: "Know that health coverage you and your family will finally be able to afford? Vote for me and I'll take it away."

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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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.

* Republican leaders, most notably John McCain, have reportedly been reaching out to Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.) about switching parties. Carney issued a statement late yesterday, saying, "I appreciate the Republican Party's outreach, but I have no plans to change parties."

* In related news, Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama switched parties this week, but only after commissioning a general-election poll in his district.

* He's not up for re-election until 2012, but Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has not done much to improve his stature this year. CNN's latest national poll found that Lieberman's favorable rating has dropped 9 points over the last few weeks. The biggest decline came among self-identified independents.

* Several top Republicans, including Karl Rove, have been trying to recruit Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) to run in next year's Senate race in New York, but the Long Island lawmaker has said he's not inclined to try. "All I've told them is that over the holidays I'll discuss it with my family, but I don't see any reason to change my mind," King said.

* In one of the bigger surprises of the 2006 cycle, Sen. Jim Webb (D) defeated incumbent Sen. George Allen (R) in Virginia, thanks at least in part to Allen's infamous "macaca" slur. Allen conceded this week that he's pondering a rematch in 2012.

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A BETTER ANSWER.... On PBS yesterday, Jim Lehrer reminded President Obama that the House health care bill has a public option, while the Senate bill doesn't. (I'm fairly certain he knew that.) As the process enters the final phase, Lehrer asked, "[W]hat's going to be your position when you sit down and talk about this?" The president replied:

"[L]ook, I've been in favor of the public option. I think the more choice, the more competition we have, the better.

"On the other hand, I think that the exchange itself, the system that we're setting up that forces insurance companies to essentially bid for three million or four million or five million people's business, that in and of itself is going to have a disciplining effect.

"Would I like one of those options to be the public option? Yes. Do I think that it makes sense, as some have argued, that, without the public option, we dump all these other extraordinary reforms and we say to the 30 million people who don't have coverage, 'You know, sorry. We didn't get exactly what we wanted'? I don't think that makes sense."

Whether you find that response compelling or not -- it sounds about right to me -- we can probably all agree it's a better response than, "I didn't campaign on the public option."

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POLLING THE PARTIES' VISIONS.... There have been plenty of polls of late, many of which show Republicans gaining strength. But a CNN poll released yesterday offered some discouraging news to the minority party: people still don't think Republican policies are good for the country.

Despite the bruising battle over their health care reform proposals, congressional Democrats have maintained an advantage over their Republican counterparts on one key measure, according to a new national poll.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Wednesday indicates that a bare majority of Americans, 51 percent, believe that the Democrats' policies are good for the country, with 46 percent saying that those policies would take the country in the wrong direction.

By contrast, 53 percent of people questioned in the poll say that the GOP's polices would move the nation in the wrong direction, with 42 percent saying Republican policies are good for the country.

That's a tough nut to crack, and it's no doubt a consequence of the failures of the Bush era, which will should take quite a while to live down. That Republicans' preferred policies haven't changed at all -- if given power, they'd go right back to the Bush policies that didn't work -- doesn't help.

But looking at the internals (pdf) suggest the GOP isn't even moving in the right direction. The poll found a 53% majority believing that Republican policies would move the country in the wrong direction. CNN and Gallup polls have been asking this question for a while, and going back over the last 15 years, it's never been higher than 53%.

"This advantage on policy could be an important edge for the Democrats heading into the 2010 midterm elections," said CNN polling director Keating Holland.

Maybe, maybe not. Elections rarely seem to come down to policy or substantive merit, but it's an edge that may count for at least something.

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THEY THOUGHT IT WAS CONSTITUTIONAL BEFORE THEY DIDN'T.... Yesterday afternoon, Senate Republicans aggressively pushed a measure to challenge the constitutionality of the individual mandate in health care reform.

The constitutional point of order, authored by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), was defeated on a 60-39 vote, with Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) not voting. DeMint and Ensign argued the Reid bill would force citizens to purchase health care -- which they said goes beyond the federal government's authority.

Maybe you approve of the mandate; maybe you don't. Let's put that aside for a moment. What's interesting about yesterday's vote goes beyond the merit of the specific provision.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), for example, voted yesterday to declare an individual mandate unconstitutional. Just two months ago, she voted for a Democratic health care reform plan ... which included the same individual mandate. How can a provision be permissible in October but unconstitutional in December?

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also voted yesterday to declare an individual mandate unconstitutional. Over the summer, he told Fox News, "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates.... There isn't anything wrong with it."

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) all voted yesterday to declare an individual mandate unconstitutional. All five of them are on record co-sponsoring a reform measure that included an individual mandate.

The point here is not just to highlight the bizarre inconsistencies of Republican opponents of health care reform. This is also important in realizing why bipartisanship on health care proved impossible this year -- Republicans were willing to reject measures they'd already embraced. All the Democratic outreach and compromise options in the world can't overcome the fundamental lack of seriousness that comes with a party that opposes and supports the same idea at the same time.

Post Script: In case there's any lingering confusion, by the way, the notion that an individual mandate violates the Constitution -- an argument suddenly embraced by the entire Senate Republican caucus -- is absurd. As Ezra Klein explained in November, "[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 Mark A. 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."

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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BRODER'S A HARD MAN TO PLEASE.... For the ostensible "dean" of the media political establishment, David Broder's take on the health care debate seems oddly detached from actual events.

What should have been a moment of proud accomplishment for the Senate, right up there with the passage of Social Security and the first civil rights bills, was instead a travesty of low-grade political theater -- angry rhetoric and backroom deals.

Um, Mr. Broder? Angry rhetoric and backroom deals were very much a part of the passage of Social Security and the first civil rights bills.

There's blame enough to go around. Start with the 40 Republicans, not one of whom was willing to break out of the mold of negative conformity and offer a sustained working partnership in serious legislative effort.

But even those Republicans who were initially inclined to do that -- and there were at least a handful of them -- were turned away by the White House and the Senate Democratic leaders, who never lifted their sights much beyond the Democratic ranks.

I hate to be a stickler for detail, but the White House and the Senate Democratic leaders all but begged Republicans to be a part of the process. The entire initiative was put on hold for months so the bipartisan "Gang of Six" could hold fruitless backroom talks, but the negotiations were nevertheless endorsed by the White House and the Senate Democratic leadership. More recently, just a week ago today, President Obama spent an hour and a half reaching out to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) directly, followed up by a half-hour phone call. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine was sought out nearly as much. In April, President Obama met with GOP leaders in the White House, and started talking about the kind of concessions he was prepared to make as part of a bipartisan compromise. He asked what Republicans might be willing to do in return. They offered literally nothing.

Dems "never lifted their sights much beyond the Democratic ranks"? Reality suggests otherwise.

It would help a lot if [President Obama] reached out personally to those few Republicans who might still want to improve the bill rather than sink it.

What does Broder think the president has been doing the last several months? Has Broder been traveling outside the country since the spring?

The entire column is almost pretty much what one would expect, given the columnist. Broder blames "both sides" and urges policymakers who disagree to put aside their differences and come together, letting the country know reform has "bipartisan support." Sigh.

The truth is, David Broder should be thrilled with the Democratic plan, in that it addresses all of his purported concerns. It was the result of extensive compromise between liberals and conservatives; it incorporates ideas from the left, right, and center; it's the most ambitious cost-cutting measure Congress has considered in at least a generation; and it's a fiscally responsible policy that brings down the deficit considerably in the coming years.

Isn't this the kind of policy and process Broder claims to love?

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OBAMA JOINS CRITICISM OF FILIBUSTER ABUSE.... On PBS's "Newshour" last night, Jim Lehrer asked President Obama for his thoughts on Senate Republicans' use of filibusters. The president conceded that he's "very frustrated."

"[A]s somebody who served in the Senate, who values the traditions of the Senate, who thinks that institution has been the world's greatest deliberative body, to see the filibuster rule, which imposes a 60-vote supermajority on legislation -- to see that invoked on every single piece of legislation, during the course of this year, is unheard of.

"I mean, if you look historically back in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s -- even when there was sharp political disagreements, when the Democrats were in control for example and Ronald Reagan was president -- you didn't see even routine items subject to the 60-vote rule.

"So I think that if this pattern continues, you're going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us. We're going to have to return to some sense that governance is more important than politics inside the Senate. We're not there right now."

Obama added that everyone, regardless of party, should be able to reflect on the abuse that's underway and agree that "this can't be the way that government runs." He went on to say, "If we had a Republican president right now and a Republican-controlled Senate, and Democrats were doing some of these things, they'd be screaming bloody murder. And at some point, you know, I think the American people want to see government solve problems, not just engage in the gamesmanship that has become so customary in Washington."

Unless I missed it, this appears to be the most extensive comments the president has made on the subject. It's a welcome addition to the larger debate.

And while the answer was heartening, let's not overlook the question -- the issue of filibuster abuse has risen to the level that Jim Lehrer thought to ask about it in a rare White House interview. It suggests the issue itself is going mainstream, and the larger discussion about how the Senate should operate is entering the larger public discourse.

Indeed, the PBS exchange comes the same week as terrific pieces on the subject from James Fallows, Paul Krugman, and E. J. Dionne, Jr. It even came up on "Meet the Press" this week.

As we talked about the other day, in order for necessary changes to happen, members will need to feel pressure to restore majority rule to the Senate. In order for them to feel pressure, the public will have to reject the dysfunctional and borderline-dangerous status quo. And in order for the public to feel outraged, the mainstream political discourse will have to shine a light on the problem.

It's starting to happen.

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LANDMARK HEALTH CARE BILL PASSES SENATE.... It wasn't easy. It took nearly a full year of contentious debate. There were more than a few times in which it looked as if the struggle would come up short.

But this morning, the U.S. Senate did something it's never done before: it passed a sweeping health care reform bill.

The Senate voted Thursday to reinvent the nation's health care system, passing a bill to guarantee access to health insurance for tens of millions of Americans and to rein in health costs as proposed by President Obama.

The 60-to-39 party-line vote, on the 25th straight day of debate on the legislation, brings Democrats a step closer to a goal they have pursued for decades. It clears the way for negotiations with the House, which passed a broadly similar bill last month by a vote of 220 to 215.

Vice President Biden was on hand for the vote, making a rare appearance in the chamber he used to call home. The only senator not to vote was Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky, who's been absent for much of the week for unstated reasons.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted, "Nearly 65 years ago, Harry Truman condemned a system that condemns its citizens to the devastating economic side effects of sickness. Nearly 65 years later, we still suffer from the same. Just months after World War II came to a close, President Truman wrote this in a letter to Congress: 'We should resolve now that the health of this nation is a national concern; that financial barriers in the way of attaining health shall be removed; that the health of all its citizens deserves the help of all the nation.'

"Decades passed and those financial barriers grew taller, but we never found that resolve -- until today."

Exactly what will happen next is still a little unclear. There may be a formal conference committee to resolve the differences between the Senate and House bills, or there may be informal talks among Democratic leaders, leading to separate House and Senate votes.

Lawmakers don't return from their winter recess until mid-January -- the House comes back on Jan. 12, the Senate six days later -- but President Obama has said he'll begin work on a final bill, merging to the two versions, well before then.

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December 23, 2009

PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... Yes, the Monthly's annual fundraising drive is still underway. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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The Monthly is a nonprofit organization. We have print and online ads, but this only covers a small part of our expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to stay up and humming. The truth is, without an annual pledge week, we can't stay in business.

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Steve Benen 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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

* The Senate shot down a Republican filibuster of health care reform this afternoon, the last hurdle before an up-or-down vote on the bill. The vote was 60 to 39, with Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) skipping the proceedings for an undetermined reason.

* Tomorrow morning's Senate vote has been moved from 8 a.m. (ET) to 7 a.m. (ET), to help senators avoid winter storms. The vote will be the first held on Christmas Eve since 1895.

* Democrats made one last attempt to have the vote today instead of tomorrow. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) refused.

* Good economic news: "Personal incomes rose in November at the fastest pace in six months while spending posted a second straight increase, raising hopes that that the recovery from the nation's deep recession might be gaining momentum."

* Bad economic news: Purchases of new homes in the U.S. unexpectedly fell last month, indicating a recovery from the worst housing slump since the Great Depression will be slow to develop.

* At this rate, Gitmo may never close.

* Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, denounced the Senate health care reform bill today, saying it should be scrapped and lawmakers should start over. Slaughter did not, however, rule out voting for the final reform bill.

* As part of a Republican attack on health care reform today, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) read a post from FireDogLake on the Senate floor.

* On a related note, progressives are only invited onto "Fox & Friends" for two reasons: 1) to be used as a punching bag; or 2) to be used to undermine the Democratic policy agenda. There is no third reason.

* Excise tax vs. wealthy surcharge? Ezra makes the case for the former.

* A counter-intuitive new CNN poll found that Americans, simultaneously, approve of the escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and oppose the war itself.

* ACORN seems to be having a good month: "The controversial community organizing group Acorn has not broken any laws in the last five years, according to a Congrssional Research Service report released Tuesday evening."

* Nate Silver makes the case for Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee being the 2009 Democrat of the Year.

* And Newt Gingrich believes a Republican takeover of the House could make Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) a committee chair, despite her being stark raving mad. It's the kind threat that might help motivate the Democratic base a bit.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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BOOK REVIEWS.... In the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly, there's an interesting review by Jamie Malanowski of a book called Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present by Hank Stuever. Given this week's seasonal festivities, it seems like a book that may be of particular interest right now. From the Malanowski review:

Pillar of the economy, climax of the calendar year, and wellspring of sentiment, myth, and moral teaching, Christmas is that institution which is so influential, so pervasive, so enormous that it seldom requires more than a pop lyricist to help reveal itself. A phenomenon more ripe for journalistic scrutiny, then, would be hard to find, which is why Hank Stuever, a reporter for the Washington Post, spent three Christmas seasons in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, where he was well positioned to observe suburban Americans performing their holiday rituals in their native habitat. The product of his study is Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present, a stylishly written and often delightful book that aims to capture all the things that Christmas is about -- family, values, religion, ritual, celebration, kitsch.

It's one of several worthwhile reviews in the Monthly, including:

* Amy Sullivan's review of Jeffery L. Sheler's Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren.

* Joshua Green's review of Martin Eisenstadt's I Am Martin Eisenstadt: One Man's (Wildly Inappropriate) Adventures with the Last Republicans.

* Charles Homans's review of Peter Maass' Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.

* Paul Hockenos' review of Gunter Grass' On the Road From Germany to Germany.

* Michael O'Donnell's review of Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market and Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made.

* Jesse Singal's review of Ethan Gilsdorf's Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.

* And Tim Murphy's review of Robert W. Merry's A country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent.

What's that cliche? They're all perfect for the booklover on your holiday shopping list, or even as a gift to yourself....

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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ENSIGN'S UNDERSTANDING OF 'SOLEMN OATHS'.... Part of the problem for politicians caught up in sex scandals is that they become a lens through which all news is filtered. For example, when Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) promoted his efforts to protect raw oysters, or made a casual reference to handcuffs, it offered critics a chance to remind folks about Vitter's background with prostitutes.

Similarly, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) took to the Senate floor today to push a measure challenging the constitutionality of health care reform. He told his colleagues, "When each one of us comes to this floor after we're elected, we raise our right hand, put our hand on the Bible, and take an oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States. We in no way take an oath to reform health care, or do anything else that we think is good to do.... That's the oath, the solemn oath that each and every senator takes."

First, health care reform isn't unconstitutional.

Second, Ensign's talk about the importance of honoring "solemn" oaths only serves to remind us that he cheated on his wife, sleeping with an aide married to his friend. Eric Kleefeld noted that senator "does appear to have a point on this one. After they are elected, Senators walk down the aisle of the chamber and perform a serious ceremony, committing themselves to the bonds of their office. And breaking those vows is not to be taken lightly."

And third, Cornyn's point of order was defeated, 60 to 39. All 39 were Republicans -- including Snowe and Collins -- who presumably know better.

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DEAN'S SUBTLE SHIFT ON REFORM PLAN.... Former Vermont Gov. and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean recently became the highest profile progressive voice to denounce the Senate Democratic health care plan. Just six days ago, he wrote an op-ed arguing that the Senate plan would do "more harm than good." The day before, Dean said he thought policymakers should "kill the Senate bill."

Since then, Dean seems to have shifted a bit. On "Meet the Press," he said the bill "has improved over the last couple of weeks." Rather than have it killed, Dean said he "would let this thing go to conference committee and let's see if we can fix it some more." He even said he's "all ears" to a policy that doesn't include a public option.

Last night, talking to Rachel Maddow, Dean went a little further still. "Honestly, to see the Republicans up there carrying on the way they are, I basically concluded that maybe we should pass this thing," he said, adding, "If the Republicans hate it, there must be some good to it."

Dean also pointed to several improvements he liked in the final Senate bill, including measures that "tightened up cost control, money was added for community health centers ... and increased doctor reimbursements to rural physicians. So they've done a number of things that will make this approach more likely to work."

When Rachel asked specifically if the Senate bill provides "an appropriate foundation for a public option to be introduced" later, Dean replied, "Actually, it does.... Once you've got the exchanges set up ... you could modify this at a later date."

Is it me, or does this represent a rather striking shift in tone?

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'A TOUGHER ASSIGNMENT'.... We still have about another month until President Obama marks his first year in office, but many observers have already begun considering where Obama's first year ranks among his modern colleagues'. By most accounts, whether one approves or disapproves of the agenda, the president's first 12 months appears to rank among the most ambitious and consequential in generations.

The bar tends to be set, of course, by FDR and LBJ. Robert Dallek, an accomplished presidential historian, reflected on the differences.

Dallek said Roosevelt had the "advantage" of a huge crisis to bridge partisan division over the New Deal. Johnson, he said, was "able to invoke [John F.] Kennedy's legacy" to push through civil rights and Medicare legislation.

"While Obama has had a crisis, it's not the sort that the opposition would give in to his demands," he said. "Obama, in a sense, has had a tougher assignment than either Roosevelt or Johnson had. The fact that he's getting so close on this health-care bill speaks to his talent of leadership, doggedness and determination to put across the biggest piece of social legislation since Social Security."

The notion that Obama's task is more challenging than Roosevelt's or Johnson's may sound hyperbolic, but I think there's something to this.

I've long thought the most poignant political commentary after the 2000 election a satirical piece from The Onion, in which George W. Bush assured the nation that "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over." Similarly, the most poignant observation after the 2008 election came from the same publication, the day after Americans made Obama the president-elect: "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job."

FDR had to address the Great Depression, but in the wake of Hoover, there were plenty of Republicans willing to work with the Roosevelt administration, and a discredited GOP didn't put up much of a fight. Three decades later, LBJ had a bold, large-scale agenda, but there were still moderate Republicans on the Hill. Neither Roosevelt nor Johnson had to worry about mandatory supermajorities to pass legislation -- Filibuster Mania was still decades away.

It's why I tend to consider the demands on Obama to be almost comical. First, Obama was tasked with rescuing the economy, overseeing two costly wars, improving a deteriorating job market, addressing a crushing debt, and fixing health care, energy policy, immigration, a housing crisis, a collapsing U.S. auto industry, the Gitmo mess, and America's reputation around the world.

Second, Obama is expected to do all of this without Republican support on anything. The GOP simply pretended that its spectacular failures didn't discredit the party.

And third, Obama, for the first time in American history, is told that every one of his proposals has to get 60 votes in the Senate to proceed, making it impossible to do much of anything unless Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson approve.

Dallek calls this "a tougher assignment than either Roosevelt or Johnson had." That sounds like a reasonable assessment.

Of course, the scope of the difficulties doesn't much matter in a practical or political sense. It's not as if voters intend to evaluate on a curve -- success or failure will be judged at face value. No one at either end of the ideological spectrum wants to hear excuses.

But as the first anniversary approaches, the historical context does add some perspective.

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MEDIA MANIPULATION AT ITS MOST INANE.... You've probably noticed the phenomenon. Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin will say something ridiculous on Facebook or Twitter, which immediately becomes "news," regardless of merit. There's a problem with this that goes beyond news outlets' comically poor judgment on what constitutes a noteworthy political development.

Take the "death panels" garbage. Palin made the insane claim on Facebook, which effectively became a press release that outlets were only too happy to embrace, without scrutiny. When reality huggers noted that the argument had no connection to the truth, Palin had another Facebook entry, which was effectively another press release, which generated a new round of coverage. Now that the nonsense has been labeled the "Lie of the Year," Palin has published another Facebook message, which has again generated a new round of coverage, despite being completely inaccurate.

It's a familiar pattern. Indeed, it happened just last week when the former governor relied on Facebook entries to "argue" with those who accept science, reason, and evidence on climate change. Palin didn't actually do any real interviews with journalists, but she, or someone she pays, kept writing little messages online, each of which garnered scrutiny-free news stories. Indeed, a few weeks ago, NBC News' Andrea Mitchell interviewed Al Gore, asking questions about global warming by simply reading from Palin's Facebook page.

Dave Weigel has a very smart piece today, describing the entire journalistic dynamic as "a humiliating exercise."

The problem is that Palin has put the political press in a submissive position, one in which the only information it prints about her comes from prepared statements or from Q&As with friendly interviewers. This isn't something most politicians get away with, or would be allowed to get away with. But Palin has leveraged her celebrity -- her ability to get ratings, the ardor of her fans and the bitterness of her critics -- to win a truly unique relationship with the press. She is allowed to shape the public debate without actually engaging in it. [...]

I think what Palin's doing here is incredibly savvy. She knows that anything that goes out under her name will be accepted as fact by conservatives ... and she knows that liberals despise her and will pick apart everything that goes out under her name. It was liberals, after all, who obsessed over the "death panel" claim, because for whatever reason they thought it was vitally important to prove that Palin was misleading people about what was in the health care bill.

At the same time, I think that the media's indulgence of Palin's strategy -- which often results in pure stenography of press releases that may or may not have been written by her -- is ridiculous, bordering on pathetic.

It's a very compelling point. I'll admit, I'm often torn on this. While I've largely blown off most of Palin's post-resignation nonsense, occasionally, I'm so overwhelmed by the stupidity of her poorly-written missives that I find them noteworthy. It's hard not to marvel at the fact that the conservative movement has made a hero out of (another) dim-witted clown. Indeed, I'm often concerned that if some of her more unhinged policy claims go unchallenged, people may not realize how absurd they are. (A key difference between blog coverage of Palin and, say, CNN's coverage of Palin is that we tend to do fact-checking.)

But Weigel's observation is an important one -- outlets need not treat barely-coherent Facebook messages from an unemployed politician as major developments. She's playing the media for fools, and too many major outlets are only to pleased to be the sucker.

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'STAR TREK' AND 'UNABASHEDLY LIBERAL' VALUES.... Kevin Drum flags this gem from National Review's Mike Potemra:

I have over the past couple of months been watching DVDs of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show I missed completely in its run of 1987 to 1994; and I confess myself amazed that so many conservatives are fond of it. Its messages are unabashedly liberal ones of the early post-Cold War era -- peace, tolerance, due process, progress....

What an odd thing to say. It's not uncommon for someone on the left to suggest conservatives find concepts like peace, tolerance, due process, and progress distasteful, but it's quite rare for a conservative to admit such a thing in print.

But it doesn't end there. Potemra, hoping to understand why conservatives enjoy a show that embraces wacky concepts like due process, asked some National Review colleagues about it. The answer, apparently, is that the right appreciates the "toughness" of Jean-Luc Picard, portrayed as "a moral hardass," who offers viewers a "compelling portrait of ethical uprightness."

But as John Holbo explained, that only makes the larger problem with the analysis worse.

[S]urely the proper conclusion to be drawn, then, is that being an ethically upright and generally virtuous person is, however surprising this result may be, consistent with being tolerant, peace-loving, even with upholding due process. And there is no particular difficulty to the trick of being in favor of progress while being skeptical about human perfectibility. I say this is a semi-serious point because I think, for some conservatives, the main objection to a somewhat vaguely conceived set of liberal values really is a strong sense that they are inconsistent with a certain sort of hardassery in the virtue ethics department. End of story. But then Star Trek TNG ought, by rights, to be the ultimate anti-conservative series. At least for the likes of Potemra.

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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.

* National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (R-Texas) wants the party's base to be more tolerant of moderate candidates. The Texas senator said conservatives "have to yield to the world as it is and not necessarily how they wish it would be." That's not going to go over well.

* Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, who switched parties yesterday, will "refund campaign contributions to any donors who ask for their money back." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wants its money back.

* In a big setback for his Senate campaign, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) lost the support of two prominent Florida Republicans who'd already endorsed his candidacy. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) withdrew their endorsements yesterday, and when asked why, one cryptically replied, "He knows why."

* On a related note, it looks increasingly as if the "Florida Republican Party organization is now in the midst of a civil war, with the latest shoe to drop being that embattled party chairman Jim Greer has called for a special executive committee meeting, in response to a request that he be ousted as chairman."

* A year before the midterms, a survey from Public Policy Polling suggests Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is not particularly vulnerable.

* A Republican pollster finds a very competitive GOP field in next year's gubernatorial race in South Carolina. The leading candidates -- state Attorney General Henry McMaster and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer -- are currently tied at 22% each.

* Former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R), running for the Senate in Colorado next year, is still working to curry favor with right-wing activists, no matter how extreme they are.

* And in Arizona, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth has not yet launched a primary campaign against Sen. John McCain, but in light of the possibility, the two camps are already going at it.

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

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RIGHT SEIZES ON SCHULTZ LINE.... Earlier this week, MSNBC's Ed Schultz appeared on "Morning Joe," and pressed David Axelrod on health care reform, criticizing the Democratic plan from the left. Soon after, on his radio show, Schultz said White House officials were emailing hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski -- during the program -- to complain about all the liberal critics of health care reform on the show.

"Now think about that," Schultz told listeners. "Here's the White House getting in contact with 'Morning Joe' because they're afraid there's too many lefties on the air!"

Schultz's comments were, not surprisingly, quickly embraced by far-right bloggers, who said Schultz confirmed fears about MSNBC being in cahoots with the president's team. After all, the argument goes, if White House aides are communicating with "Morning Joe" hosts during the program, it suggests ... something nefarious. One went so far as to call it "state control" of the media, adding that it would be scandalous if conservative media figures "had been caught taking orders from Bush during the program."

James Joyner, himself a conservative, noted how silly this is.

Now, first of all, all we know if that Schultz claims he saw the hosts looking down at their BlackBerries during the show. He doesn't claim to have seen the messages or that the hosts said they had a question from the White House. It's pure wild ass speculation on Schultz' part.

But let's take a leap of faith and presume that MSNBC's show hosts do in fact get emails from the White House trying to spin them. Is that really that shocking? The White House has a rather sophisticated communications shop, after all. If the hosts are checking their emails while guests are on the air -- which strikes me as a rather bizarre thing to do -- then it stands to reason that they get whatever emails are sent during the show, including those from the White House.

How, exactly, does that translate into state control?

It's the political equivalent of working the refs. Watch any NFL game and you'll see players and coaches pleading with the officials to throw a flag or reverse a call. And every so often, the ref will change his mind after hearing the argument! Does that mean the refs are under the coaches' control? Of course not.

And, one presumes, Limbaugh, Hannity, and Levin did indeed get messages from the Bush administration and other Republican operatives during their broadcasts. Hell, Limbaugh has admitted to "carrying the water" of the party, putting a spin on things contrary to his own beliefs in order to help Republicans win. He was getting his talking points from somewhere.

Does anyone really think Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman from Florida who many presume has future political ambitions, is a stooge for a Democratic administration? It just doesn't make any sense.

Regrettably, the failure to make sense seems largely irrelevant here. What matters is getting people excited, not keeping them informed.

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

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'POTENT' FOR WHOM?.... Tomorrow morning will be fairly busy on the Senate floor. Around 8 a.m. (ET), the chamber will vote up or down on health care reform. Soon after, members will vote to increase the legal debt limit to $12.4 trillion.

It was part of a deal struck by Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell yesterday, and both got something in exchange. Reid wins by expediting the schedule, and McConnell wins by securing a debate he perceives as a winner for Republicans.

The temporary increase [in the federal debt limit] is projected to get the Treasury through another two months. In exchange, Republicans won the right to stage a full debate on the debt limit in late January, when lawmakers will have to approve an even larger increase to accommodate record deficits.

Republicans view the soaring national debt as a potent political issue heading into the 2010 congressional elections and want to use a lengthy Senate debate to focus attention on the issue just as Obama is preparing to address Congress and unveil his second budget request.

That Republicans consider the national debt a "potent political issue" continues to strike me as fascinating. In 2001, the deficit had been eliminated, and the United States had begun paying down the debt for the first time in a generation. The notorious "debt clocks" had to be turned off -- they hadn't been programmed to run backwards.

After eight years of Republican efforts, $5 trillion had been added to the debt, and a massive surplus had become a $1.3 trillion deficit. At this point, nearly 100% of the long-term debt is the result of Republican fiscal mismanagement.

Now, I realize that this observation is premised on pesky details like fact, reality, and evidence -- none of which have any relevance in a campaign, in GOP talking points, or in mainstream media coverage. But it's worth remembering that when Republicans talk about the "potency" of the debt as a political issue, they're pointing to a mess they created.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE SOTU DEADLINE.... If all goes according to plan, by this time tomorrow, the Senate will have passed a sweeping health care reform bill on a 60 to 40 vote. Soon after, members will make a beeline for the airport, with no plans to return for about three weeks.

There is, however, the matter of when the final health care bill can/will be approved and sent to the White House for President Obama's signature. Everyone involved suggests they'd really like to see this wrapped up before the State of the Union address, which will probably be delivered on Jan. 26 or Feb. 2.

That may, however, be a tall order. As Mike Allen noted this morning, the House won't reconvene until Jan. 12, and the Senate doesn't return until six days later. Appointing members to the conference committee takes votes, and after participants work out their differences, waiting for a CBO score may take another week.

In effect, the conference committee would have to work out a satisfactory deal over the course of a day or two if they intend to meet the SOTU deadline.

It's why lawmakers may opt to skip the conference committee altogether, preferring a ping-pong approach that's been talked about quite a bit lately.

The reconciliation of the two bills is expected to take place in January, with the aim of sending a bill to the White House for President Obama's signature before he delivers his first State of the Union address. Instead of negotiating in a formal conference committee, senior Democratic aides in both chambers said they expect to hash out a bill in informal negotiations, push it through the House and send it back to the Senate for final approval, a strategy that would give them broad flexibility to rewrite policy provisions in search of a compromise.

That would at least have the advantage of efficiency, and it might still make the SOTU deadline feasible. Something to keep an eye on.

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

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MISDIRECTED PRAYERS?.... Earlier this week, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) raised a few eyebrows when he said, on the Senate floor, that Americans "ought to pray" that one of his Senate colleagues "can't make the vote" on health care reform. It sounded a bit like the right-wing lawmaker wanted something bad to happen to a fellow member.

By yesterday, however, one senator did fail to show up to register a vote on health care -- but it wasn't one of the Democrats, it was Coburn's Republican colleague from Oklahoma, Sen. James Inhofe.

Yesterday on C-SPAN, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) fielded calls from viewers, one of whom raised the specter of misdirected prayers. "Our small tea bag group here in Waycross, we got our vigil together and took Dr. Coburn's instructions and prayed real hard that Sen. Byrd would either die or couldn't show up at the vote the other night," the caller said. "How hard did you pray because I see one of our members was missing this morning. Did it backfire on us? One of our members died?"

Barrasso dodged the question's specifics, and said he did not know why Inhofe didn't show up.

Now, it's certainly possible that the caller was not actually an insane right-wing Teabagger, but was actually a health care reform supporter trying to make conservatives look ridiculous. Regrettably, it's very difficult to tell lately -- the line is blurred between conservatives and over-the-top parodies of conservatives.

Either way, this is awfully amusing.

For the record, Inhofe was not the victim of misdirected prayers, but was traveling yesterday. He'll be back on the Hill for today's and tomorrow's votes.

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THE PUBLIC OPTION'S HISTORY, REVISITED.... President Obama sat down with the Washington Post's Scott Wilson on Tuesday, and reflected on the successes of 2009. The president pointed to accomplishments that "in a normal legislative year would be considered really big achievements" -- Lily Ledbetter, hate-crimes expansion, S-CHIP, tobacco regulation, military procurement reform, new consumer credit-card protections, Sotomayor confirmation -- before looking ahead to 2010.

But health care remains the central focus of Obama's young presidency, and one of his comments to the WaPo has already rankled many.

In the interview, Obama vigorously defended the [health care reform] legislation, saying he is "not just grudgingly supporting the bill. I am very enthusiastic about what we have achieved."

"Nowhere has there been a bigger gap between the perceptions of compromise and the realities of compromise than in the health-care bill," Obama said. "Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill."

In listing those priorities, he cited the 30 million uninsured Americans projected to receive coverage, estimated savings of more than $1 trillion over the next two decades, a "patients' bill of rights on steroids," and tax breaks to help small businesses pay for employee coverage.

Those elements are in the House and Senate versions of the legislation; their competing proposals will have to be reconciled in conference committee next year. The House bill includes a government-run insurance plan favored by progressive Democrats; the Senate version does not. "I didn't campaign on the public option," Obama said in the interview.

Now, any discussion that begins with "it depends on the meaning of the word 'campaign,'" is bound to be pretty annoying. Sam Stein and Alex Koppelman ran thorough reports late yesterday on Obama's record as a candidate in 2007 and 2008, and to make a long story short, Obama clearly endorsed the public option and included it as part of his larger policy agenda -- the plan as published online specifically touted a "public health insurance option" -- but it wasn't an element he invested much time in before Election Day.

As Stein summarized, "An examination of approximately 200 newspaper articles from the campaign, as well as debate transcripts and public speeches shows that Obama spoke remarkably infrequently about creating a government-run insurance program."

Indeed, for all the concerns that Obama should have pushed the measure more aggressively during this year's congressional deliberations, it appears the president advocated on behalf of the public option far more after getting elected than before it.

The question, then, is why the president would now say that he "didn't campaign on the public option." I suspect it has something to do with wanting a clean win.

This president, like all presidents, wants historic achievements to look as impressive as possible. When health care reform is signed into law, the White House doesn't want the first paragraph to read, "President Obama accomplished today what most modern presidents couldn't deliver ... but he didn't get what he really wanted." Obama, then, has an incentive to characterize the final product as a close reflection of what he requested all along.

Indeed, I imagine this has helped drive the president's motivations for the last several months. Obama defended and promoted the public option for much of the year, but apparently concluded in the fall that there just weren't 60 votes for the measure, and he lacked leverage over those who stood in the way. So, rather than investing energy and political capital in a provision that wasn't going to overcome the procedural hurdles -- there were "only" 56 Senate supporters for the public option, and because the chamber is farcical, that's not enough -- the president focused his efforts elsewhere.

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A NOT-SO-WARM WELCOME.... Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.) probably thought his plan would go smoothly. A conservative lawmaker from a conservative district, Griffith no doubt figured his professional future would be far more secure if he betrayed the party that helped him get elected, and became a Republican -- the GOP would be thrilled with the pick-up, and the far-right voters back home would applaud the change.

As became quickly apparent yesterday, the plan was flawed.

A prominent right-wing blogger, even before Griffith officially announced his decision, told his readers, "We can pick this guy off and get a real Republican in that seat." The right wing Club for Growth issued a statement expressing a similar sentiment.

In Alabama, Griffith was facing a variety of far-right challengers, all of whom seem undeterred by the former Democrat's change of heart. Dave Weigel had a great report on this, highlighting the near-unanimous hostility the new Republican lawmaker is still facing from right-wing contingents in his district.

"This is an act of desperation to maintain power," said [Les Phillip -- a Tea Party activist who'd been waging a Republican campaign for Griffith's seat since August]. "It's exactly what people in this district are sick of. When someone lied before, and now says he's telling the truth, well, was he lying then, or is he lying now?" [...]

"We've known for a long time that Parker Griffith's principles are either for sale to the highest bidder or can change depending on how the poll results are looking," said a spokesman for Mo Brooks, a county commissioner who'd gotten some early support from the NRCC, in an interview with Politico. "He seems to speak out of both sides of his mouth."

The harsh reactions of Brooks and Phillip were in line with the reactions of activists in Alabama's fifth congressional district.

"He's an S.O.B.," said Dale Jackson, a conservative radio host who's posted a banner reading "Parker Griffith Cannot Be Trusted" on his Website. "He's a liar. Michael Steele should be ashamed of himself. The NRCC should be ashamed of itself for not coming out and immediately repudiating this guy. He was unacceptable a year ago and he's acceptable now? A year ago, they were saying this guy was a murderer."

And that's really just scratching the surface. A variety of prominent Alabama Teabaggers and assorted right-wing leaders all said they don't really trust Griffith, question his integrity, and planned to back others in the GOP primary.

In D.C., Republican officials were delighted by the party switch, but in a noticeable omission, the National Republican Congressional Committee did not throw its official support to the now-incumbent lawmaker from Alabama -- a detail Griffith probably should have worked out before making the switch official.

Welcome to Republican politics, Parker Griffith. It will be all that you bargained for, and more.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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December 22, 2009

PLEDGE WEEK CONTINUES.... You may be tired of the reminders, but it's almost over and this is important. Yes, the Monthly's annual fundraising drive is still underway. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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The Monthly is a nonprofit organization. We have print and online ads, but this only covers a small part of our expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to stay up and humming. The truth is, without an annual pledge week, we can't stay in business.

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

* A little more provocative: "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declined to give a yes-or-no answer on whether he could assure the West that Iran would never weaponize its nuclear material and turn it into a bomb."

* Economic growth in the third quarter was revised downward again, to 2.2%: "The Commerce Department's new reading on gross domestic product for the July-to-September quarter was slower than the 2.8% growth rate estimated just a month ago."

* Serious shortfalls: "The recession's jobless toll is draining unemployment-compensation funds so fast that according to federal projections, 40 state programs will go broke within two years and need $90 billion in loans to keep issuing the benefit checks."

* Encouraging figures in the real estate market: "Extraordinary government efforts to stabilize the housing market are paying off. What happens when the help runs out is anyone's guess. Sales of previously occupied homes surged in November to the highest level in nearly three years, spurred by federal subsidies for starter homes and a massive Federal Reserve push to drive down mortgage rates."

* Obama finds cost savings: "President Barack Obama on Monday touted the federal government's efforts to become more efficient, highlighting a new report that shows billions of dollars in savings on contract costs. The report by the Office of Management and Budget shows that agencies have identified more than $19 billion in contract savings for fiscal year 2010, which began Oct. 1. Obama said that puts the government on track to meet its goal of saving $40 billion annually by fiscal year 2011."

* Obscene: "Ed Hanway, CEO of Cigna, one of the nation's largest health insurance companies, will step down at the end of this year, in just over a week. When he does, he'll get $73,200,000 as compensation for a job well done."

* An unexpected drop in crime: "The homicide rate dropped 10 percent in the first half of this year as crime rates reached their lowest point nationally since the 1960s, the FBI reported Monday."

* A welcome reversal: "An Army general in Iraq backed away from his threat today to court martial female soldiers who get pregnant."

* The New York Times editorial board supports the Democratic health care reform plan.

* So does a group of prominent economists who've been tracking the process.

* Jane Hamsher argues health care reform won't really work "on behalf of the 'poor.'" Jonathan Cohn responds.

* Nate Silver tackles the "insidious myth of reconciliation."

* Fair and balanced: "'Fox & Friends' lists '5 things conservatives hate' and '5 things liberals hate' about Senate health care bill."

* Giving colleges a new mission: prepare kids for college.

* Deadly volcano ash isn't funny.

* For all her talk about small government and the evils of spending, Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) family farm has received over a quarter million dollars in government handouts.

* Mary Matalin described proponents of health care reform as "health care jihadists." Seriously. CNN pays her for this kind of stuff.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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GRIJALVA EYES IMPLEMENTATION SCHEDULE.... Rep Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been fighting constantly all year to keep as many liberal provisions in the health care reform bill as possible. He'd made some veiled threats (and some not-so-veiled threats) about opposing any bill without a public option, though he's now signaling his support for the watered-down legislation.

Grijalva's is, however, looking for another concession -- one that need not alienate any center-right members of the Senate Democratic caucus. He talked to Greg Sargent today, and said he's eyeing the implementation schedule

In the inteview, Grijalva confirmed that House Dems were beginning to discuss the idea of revising the Senate bill in conference to move up the implementation date for insurance coverage and make it more in line with the earlier date in the House bill.

I asked Grijalva if he could support the bill if such a change were made, even if it lacked a public option or other similar concessions sought by liberals.

"It would sweeten it somewhat," Grijalva said, "if they speed up the coverage mechanism."

He added: "That would be something I'd have to look at very closely."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) seems to be thinking along the same lines, arguing today that the "starting date" will be a key focus in the conference committee.

As we talked about yesterday, the sooner the better. Paul Starr argued that a faster timetable should be a priority in the conference-committee talks, and there's no reason to think lawmakers like Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman would object -- they can come up with new objections on the fly, but neither have ever said a word about the implementation schedule. And why would they? There's nothing ideological about it.

By all accounts, literally the only reason to delay implementation of subsidies until 2014 is to bring down the overall cost of the bill. The Senate version costs $871 billion over 10 years, which is below the ceiling the White House presented in September. Moving up the schedule means moving above the ceiling.

What I'm unclear on -- and if anyone knows for certain, email me -- is exactly how much it would cost to move up subsidies from 2014 to 2013 (or sooner still). Is it in the range of an additional $50 billion? Or closer to an additional $200 billion? The former makes it feasible; the latter does not.

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THE POOR WOMAN CAN'T HELP HERSELF.... Just yesterday, Politifact's independent fact-checking feature announced its "Lie of the Year." It was a fairly obvious choice, but nevertheless well deserved -- the ignoble award went to former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care," Palin wrote over the summer, in her award-winning missive.

It was one of the stupidest things ever written by anyone on any subject. It also cemented Palin's reputation as a crazy person with an acute allergy to the truth.

Just one day after her deranged "death panel" nonsense was named the "Lie of the Year," Palin decided to raise the specter of her insane accusation all over again.

"NOW w/the Prez "threatening" &Congress "rushing" is when we MUST pay more attention than ever 2what this HealthCare Takeover is all about," Palin wrote in one tweet. "[M]erged bill may b unrecognizable from what assumed was a done deal:R death panels back in?"

To translate this into English, the former half-term governor believes President Obama is "threatening" someone -- she wasn't clear on who -- while lawmakers are "rushing." Given that the health care reform debate lasted nearly as long as Palin's entire tenure as governor, it's hard to believe the process really has been "rushed."

Nevertheless, she believes it's important that "we" carefully scrutinize what the "takeover is all about." Who, exactly, is taking over what is, alas, still unclear.

She goes on to suggest the conference report may be "unrecognizable" from the legislation, and "death panels" -- which never existed in our reality -- may be "back in" after the White House's intervention.

As Alex Koppelman put it, "[B]ecause Democrats are just dying to sneak in a provision that would allow them to kill your loved ones."

Any chance she's a performance artist, making a bold statement about the intellectual bankruptcy of modern-day conservatives?

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A SLIGHT ADJUSTMENT TO THE SCHEDULE.... It's not exactly a Christmas miracle, but senators and their staffs will get a little bit of a break when the Senate holds its up-or-down vote on health care reform.

Senate Republicans have agreed to end their filibuster of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) health care reform bill a few hours early, allowing for a vote at 8 a.m. on Christmas Eve.

Under the agreement between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), votes on final passage of the health care bill and a two-month extension to the debt limit sometime before early afternoon on Christmas Eve.

Republicans also have secured the right to offer between two and four votes to the long-term debt limit extension, which is expected to come to the floor sometime in February.

Yesterday, the Senate Republican caucus met to discuss strategy, and members demanded that they fight until the last possible moment, even if it meant delaying the vote until 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Today, the same caucus met, and decided delaying the inevitable may not be worthwhile after all.

A short while ago, Reid asked "unanimous consent that all post cloture time be expired at 8 am Thursday." It was approved without objection.

This is a nice step for the chamber, but it's worth re-emphasizing a key detail: if Republicans were willing to scrap the pointless obstructionism, the Senate could vote on the reform bill today and everyone could enjoy a nice little holiday-season break. No such luck.

I can, however, take some comfort in knowing I won't have to bring a laptop to Christmas Eve dinner Thursday night.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... The Washington Post reports today on Republican efforts to win four traditionally-GOP-leaning congressional seats in Virginia, currently held by Democrats. Of particular interest is Tom Perriello in Virginia's 5th.

Thanks to a surge of voters in Charlottesville, a left-leaning college town, Perriello eked out a 727-vote victory over right-wing incumbent Virgil Goode (R). Well aware that turnout will be weaker in a midterm election, Republicans immediately put the Virginian at the top of their 2010 target list. Most campaign watchers expect Perriello to lose.

And to that end, attack ads have been airing against Perriello all year, and the Tea Party crowd has been organizing actively against him. One might expect, under these circumstances, to see the freshman lawmaker moving quickly to the right in order to keep his job. Perriello doesn't see it that way.

Perriello said there is a difference between being targeted and being vulnerable, and he said his support for health-care and energy reform are not as out of touch with his constituents as his opponents say. But even he seemed to acknowledge the challenge of winning next year as he described how he has sought to govern since taking office in January.

"My ultimate goal is not to get reelected," he said. "It's to know that I did the best damn job I could representing the people of the 5th District and making a difference. That's just a different litmus test than some of the powers that be are used to working with."

"My ultimate goal is not to get reelected." Perriello believes he was elected to do a job, not to position himself for future elections. He's decided to do the right thing for his constituents by voting for the economic recovery package, health care reform, and cap and trade, even if they're not popular in his district.

The usual model tells lawmakers to vote in such a way as to keep power, even if lawmakers know better. Perriello thinks it's more important to use power than to keep it. This is rare and admirable quality.

This is a quality that voters tend to overlook, swayed more by 30-second ads and robocalls than principled leadership. It no doubt contributes to the efficacy of Congress, or lack thereof.

And as long as we're talking about Perriello, I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention this profile from Slate's Dahlia Lithwick from last year:

Here in Virginia, when Democrats talk about [Perriello], cartoon birds sing and cartoon butterflies play small cartoon harps. A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, Perriello worked to end atrocities in Liberia as well as with child soldiers, amputees, and local pro-democracy groups in Sierra Leone. He became special adviser for the international prosecutor during the showdown that forced Liberian dictator Charles Taylor from power. His work as a security analyst has taken him to Afghanistan and Darfur. Perriello has also been a part of a groundswell of young progressives whose religious faith motivates them to seek social change through public service. One of the most startling aspects of his 2008 campaign was his pledge to tithe 10 percent of his campaign volunteers' time to local charities. Time they could have spent stuffing mailers and phone-banking went to building houses for the poor.

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THE PRICE OF DOING BUSINESS.... Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters yesterday that it took quite a lot of effort to shape a health care bill that could generate as broad a base of support as this one.

"There are 100 senators here, and I don't know that there's a senator that doesn't have something in this bill that isn't important to them," Reid said. "If they don't have something in it important to them, then it doesn't speak well of them."

That last part seems to have made an angry group of Republicans that much more furious. The accusation, of course, is that the bill is now loaded with "pork," as the Wall Street Journal put it, as senators were "bought off."

As Eric Boehlert explained, the complaints sound a little silly.

For anybody who's spent more than three weeks inside the Beltway, the allegations of legislative arm-twisting certainly sound naive, since that's how the D.C. game has been played for going on two centuries now. But nonetheless, conservatives insist Democrats have stooped to some kind of historic low.

But I can't help wondering what Nick Smith thinks about those claims. Because back in late 2003, when was serving as a Republican member of Congress from Michigan, Smith opposed the Bush White House's attempt to revamp Medicare when the issue came up for a vote in November. Republican leaders quickly realized that night that they didn't have the votes and started leaning on their own members.

At the time, House GOP leaders literally promised to deliver $100,000 in campaign contributions to Smith in exchange for his vote. The attempted bribery of lawmakers on the House floor was so obscene, it prompted yet another Ethics Committee investigation into Tom DeLay's antics.

By comparison, Democratic "sweeteners" on health care are about as common as the sunrise. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was in a position of leverage before the motion to proceed, so she secured some funding for her state. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) was a long-time holdout, so he sought some extra Medicaid money for Nebraska. All kinds of senators received all kinds of inducements, prompting Republican apoplexy, as if this were some kind of unprecedented abuse.

Are they new here? Congress has always operated this way. When Republicans were in the majority, the "incentives" were even more shameless and blatant -- and unlike the Dems' bill, the GOP payoffs were all added to the deficit.

At this point, after so many progressive measures have been removed from the health care bill, I suspect Republicans don't even remember what it is they hate so much about the proposal, and are hyperventilating about "sweeteners" as a way to rationalize their opposition. They'll have to do better than this -- no one really cares about inconsequential side deals.

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MCKALIP'S RIDICULOUS OUTREACH.... Over the summer, when a variety of right-wing activists became notorious for their antics, David McKalip made quite a name for himself.

McKalip, a physician in central Florida, distributed a racist email showing President Obama as a witch doctor. He later apologized, but not before resigning from the leadership of his local medical association, and stepping down from an influential post as a delegate to the American Medical Association. Even rabid, right-wing members of Congress decided they didn't want anything to do with the guy.

Humiliated, McKalip said in late July that he would, despite the outpouring of support from Tea Party activists, withdraw from the public debate over health care reform.

Apparently, that didn't stick. The far-right doctor has a new idea -- reaching out to liberals to kill health care reform.

Tea Party activist David McKalip, who sent out the now-famous picture of Obama as a witch doctor, is now reaching out to the very progressives who sent him hate mail, calling on them to unite in a left-right coalition to "Stop the Final Corporate Takeover of Medicine."

In what he describes as "a call to action from an unlikely ally," McKalip, the Florida neurosurgeon who recently appeared as an anti-reform expert on Glen Beck's show, tells progressives to call their House representatives and "tell them 'No to the Senate Bill!'"

As part of his message to the left, McKalip quoted Howard Dean, Glenn Greenwald, and Ed Schultz, pointing to their concerns with the Democratic reform plan. Of course, McKalip completely disagrees with all of the policy goals outlined by Howard Dean, Glenn Greenwald, and Ed Schultz, but he's hoping to use them to further divide progressive proponents of reform.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that very few liberals will choose to team up with this guy. Call it a hunch.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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NRCC SCRAMBLES TO HIDE ITS OWN ATTACKS.... Now that Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama has made the transition from being a far-right Democrat to being a far-right Republican, the National Republican Campaign Committee will welcome the new GOP lawmaker with open arms.

But to make this embrace a little less awkward, Republicans are having to scramble to take back all of things they said about Griffith when they were trying to destroy him and his reputation. The NRCC ran this ad, for example, to make it seem as if Griffith doesn't care about terrorism and believes "America's greatest enemy is America."

As Alex Koppelman noted, Republicans had to move quickly, and the NRCC yanked the ad from YouTube this morning: "Their official copy of the spot has been removed from the video-sharing site. One other user's copy still remained as of this post, however."

As for the DCCC, 14 months ago, a party spokesperson described Griffith as an "effective and independent voice." The content was also removed from the DCCC website this morning.

Post Script: And as long as we're on the subject, Griffith, a radiation oncologist by trade, will apparently cite health care reform as a rationale for betraying his former party. It will no doubt be used as "evidence" of physicians opposing reform, which is why it's all the more relevant to point out that the Democratic reform plan has been endorsed by the American Medical Association, and that most physicians support progressive reform proposals.

Griffith was out of step with the Democratic mainstream on just about everything, and he's out of step with most physicians when it comes to the broken status quo.

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THEY PROBABLY WON'T MISS HIM.... Alabama's 5th congressional district is among the most conservative in the country to represented by a Democrat. After Blue Dog Parker Griffith abandons his party and becomes a Republican today, the pairing will make a bit more sense.

According to two senior GOP aides familiar with the decision, the announcement will take place this afternoon in Griffith's district in northern Alabama.

Griffith's party switch comes on the eve of a pivotal congressional health care vote and will send a jolt through a Democratic House Caucus that has already been unnerved by the recent retirements of a handful of members who, like Griffith, hail from districts that offer prime pickup opportunities for the GOP in 2010.

The switch represents a coup for the House Republican leadership, which had been courting Griffith since he publicly criticized the Democratic leadership in the wake of raucous town halls during the summer.

By any reasonable measure, any time a party gets a member to switch sides, it's something of a coup. But in this case, Parker Griffith has practically been the definition of a DINO (Democrat In Name Only). Just this year, he voted against the economic recovery package, the federal budget, health care reform, energy policy, and Wall Street reform. The guy even voted against equal pay for women when Congress approved the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

For all intents and purposes, Parker Griffith has been a far-right reactionary since the day he took the oath of office. He fit in with congressional Democrats about as well as Dick Cheney would fit in at Netroots Nation.

Chances are, Griffith's switch was motivated by electoral considerations -- his district backed McCain and Bush overwhelmingly in recent elections, and was probably inclined to vote Republican in the 2010 midterms, too. Just as Arlen Specter became a Democrat to improve his chances at re-election, Griffith was likely guided by the same motivation.

Also note, while the Republican Party is no doubt thrilled to add to its caucus, Griffith may still run into serious trouble come Election Day. Erick Erickson is already trashing him, telling readers this morning, "We can pick this guy off and get a real Republican in that seat." The right wing Club for Growth is thinking along the same lines.

In terms of the bigger picture, the RNC will no doubt crow, but it's hard to characterize this as some kind of seismic shift -- a conservative lawmaker with a conservative voting record will represent a conservative district. He'll have a different letter after his name, but that's about the most significant aspect of the development.

That said, Matt Yglesias raises an important point: "[T]his is a reminder that the Democrats' current huge majority with 257 members isn't remotely sustainable. To get a majority that big you need to win a lot of districts you just can't reliably win. Substantial losses in 2010 and/or 2012 are basically inevitable. That said, there are still a few GOP-held House seats that could plausibly be won by a reliably liberal Democrat. The real issue is whether the Democratic majority can add a few seats like that, and contain losses enough to maintain 220-230 reasonably reliable votes and thus the effective ability to govern."

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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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.

* To no one's surprise, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) will announce today that he's not running for the Senate next year, making it very likely that Giuliani will not seek any elected office in 2010. He will reportedly throw his support to former Rep. Rick Lazio (R), who badly lost his Senate bid nine years ago to Hillary Clinton.

* Former Bush Budget Director Rob Portman (R) is running for U.S. Senate in Ohio, hoping voters overlook his record in the Bush administration. To that end, it's odd that Portman invited Karl Rove to appear at an Ohio Lincoln Day Dinner on January 21.

* It seems hard to imagine, but a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows ophthalmologist Rand Paul (R), Ron Paul's inexperienced son, with a big lead in his Senate primary race in Kentucky. The poll shows Paul with 44% among Republicans, while Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who enjoys the party's backing, has 25%.

* It's always best to take internal polls with a grain of salt, but Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is circulating data showing him trailing former Rep. Rob Simmons (R) by five, 51% to 46%. That's not good news for the incumbent, but it's far better than the double-digit deficits Dodd has seen in other recent polls.

* In Illinois, a new Rasmussen poll shows interesting results for Democrats. Incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who assumed the office after Blagojevich's impeachment, trails former state Attorney General Jim Ryan (R) in a hypothetical match-up, 46% to 39%. State Comptroller Dan Hynes (D), however, taking on Quinn in a Democratic primary, narrowly leads Ryan in his own hypothetical match-up.

* There have been rumors about Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) retiring next year, but his spokesperson insisted yesterday that he is, in fact, running for re-election.

* Bill Kristol wants to see House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), one of Congress' dimmest bulbs, take on Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) next year. That seems unlikely.

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

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'DECADE FROM HELL'.... The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked respondents to assess the strength of the soon-to-end decade.

According to the poll, a combined 58% said the decade was either "awful" or "not so good," 29% said it was fair, and just 12% said it was either "good" or "great."

I'm hard pressed to imagine what those 12% were thinking.

In Time, Andy Serwer recently put it this way:

Bookended by 9/11 at the start and a financial wipeout at the end, the first 10 years of this century will very likely go down as the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through in the post-World War II era. We're still weeks away from the end of '09, but it's not too early to pass judgment. Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade.

Was it really that bad? Pretty much, yes. One barely has to give it much thought to remember what made this decade one Americans don't want to remember: 9/11, the Great Recession, two devastating wars, anthrax, Katrina, Tom DeLay and the culture of corruption, Enron, Madoff, sniper shootings, an explosion of debt, the entire Bush/Cheney presidency. Median incomes went down. Poverty went up. Global warming got worse. Fox yanked "Firefly" after 14 episodes, while "According to Jim" aired 182 episodes.

The '70s were bad. The '00s were worse. Serwer speculates as to what went wrong, and believes the decade suffered from a combination of neglect, greed, self-interest, and a deferral of responsibility, all at once. That sounds about right.

I'm just glad it's almost over.

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FRANKEN AMENDMENT BECOMES LAW.... In October, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) proposed a key amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill. Yesterday, it was signed into law.

Motivated by 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. The 30 opponents -- representing 75% of the entire GOP Senate caucus -- were Republican men.

There were some implantation questions from the Pentagon, but after some additional efforts, and overcoming a Republican filibuster, Franken's measure became law after President Obama signed the Department of Defense Appropriations Act over the weekend.

Digby had a good take on this.

The reason I think it's good news isn't just on the substance (which it certainly is) but on the politics. Franken's amendment is driving the Republicans crazy because they basically voted to protect rapists and are now paying a political price for that. And now they are whining that Franken was somehow "uncollegial" because the amendment put them in an embarrassing position (which makes me wonder how many other things issues are swept under the rug because it would make members of the opposition uncomfortable.)

That's the kind of thing the Democrats should do more of. Expose the Republicans' hypocrisy and cruelty by forcing these issues on to the agenda.

Remember, Republicans can barely contain their outrage over this -- Franken proposed a common-sense measure; it passed easily; and opponents of the amendment have faced some severe criticicism as a result. "The nerve of that guy," conservative senators keep saying.

For his part, this is Franken's first key legislative success. Here's to many more like it.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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PREDICTABLE TASTELESSNESS.... Right-wing blogs are not known for reaching heights of decency, so perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising when a site called "Confederate Yankee" published a post yesterday, hoping to see Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) die in order to block health care reform.

The post was headlined "All I Want Is A Byrd Dropping For Christmas." It added that if Byrd didn't die, the blogger would settle: "Even a nice coma would do."

I was also struck by the conclusion, in which "Confederate Yankee" conceded that some may be offended by such distasteful commentary. He responded:

I'd remind them that the party wheeling in a near invalid to vote in favor of this unread monstrosity of a bill is the one that should feel shame.

What an interesting argument. As "Confederate Yankee" sees it, he can call for the death of a U.S. senator, so that 30 million uninsured Americans won't get health care coverage. That's fine. But if there's an expectation that the senator vote on the legislation, reform proponents ought to feel embarrassed.

I knew there was a reason I stopped reading right-wing blogs.

For what it's worth, "Confederate Yankee" has it backwards -- Democrats didn't create the circumstances that forced Byrd to vote; Republicans did: "[T]he ailing Robert Byrd was wheeled in at 1 a.m. to break a filibuster on the manager's amendment. Byrd's presence was not required, especially considering that he'd clearly telegraphed his intention to vote to break the filibuster. But Republicans forced him to travel to the chamber.... The Senate hasn't just lost a bit of its collegiality. It's become heartlessly ferocious -- a place where the death of an honored friend presents an opportunity to kill his legislation, and in which the infirmity of an ailing colleague is seen as a potential path to procedural victory."

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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OBAMA'S 'PASSENGER BILL OF RIGHTS'.... We've all heard the horror stories about planes sitting on tarmacs for hours on end. It's a phenomenon that's about to be dramatically curtailed.

The federal government will impose stiff penalties starting this spring on airlines that keep passengers waiting too long on the tarmac without feeding them or letting them off the plane -- a remedy that will relieve many travelers but mean longer delays for a few.

The Obama administration took the strict new approach in response to several highly publicized events in recent years, and in the face of likely Congressional action if airline regulators did not respond to the consumer outcry that ensued. [...]

Under the rule, airlines that do not provide food and water after two hours or a chance to disembark after three hours will face penalties of $27,500 a passenger, the secretary of transportation announced on Monday.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters, "This is President Obama's Passenger Bill of Rights." Because of existing regulatory options, the new rules will not require congressional approval, and will go into effect in four months.

Kate Hanni, who created FlyersRights.org after she was stuck on a plane with her family for nine hours, called the Obama administration's announcement "a Christmas miracle."

Alex Seitz-Wald highlighted some passengers who'll likely agree.

Between January and June of this year, airlines stranded passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours 613 times. One particularly horrendous incident in August brought the issue to national attention. Passengers on a Continental flight from Houston to St. Paul-Minneapolis were forced to stay in a cramped commuter jet overnight with a foul-smelling lavatory after thunderstorms diverted their plane to Rochester, MN and gate crews wouldn't allow them off the plane. The ordeal led to the first-ever government fine of an airline for a tarmac stranding, with the three companies involved being forced to pay $175,000 for their negligence.

Under the new Obama administration rules, that fine could have been more than $1.2 million -- giving the airline a very strong incentive to avoid a similar incident.

This isn't my area of expertise, but I can't help but wonder -- given all of the years of awful incidents, why didn't previous administrations do something similar sooner?

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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STEELE'S SWEET RACKET.... Michael Steele was able to parlay a series of failures and fiascoes into becoming the clownish chairman of the Republican National Committee. After securing the gig, Steele was able to parlay his chairmanship into becoming a surprisingly well paid personality on the speaking circuit.

Michael S. Steele, Republican National Committee chairman, is using his title to market himself for paid appearances nationwide, personally profiting from speeches with fees of up to $20,000 at colleges, trade associations and other groups - an unusual practice criticized by a string of past party chairmen.

Mr. Steele, elected in January to the $223,500-a-year RNC post, is working with at least four outside agencies in Washington, New York, Boston and Nashville that book the speaking engagements. He charges between $8,000 and $20,000 for an address, plus first-class travel and lodging expenses.

The Republican National Committee has been awfully tolerant of Steele's incompetence, mismanagement, and humiliating gaffes this year. But this is a revelation that may put Steele's job in jeopardy.

Several former RNC chairmen said on the record that Steele's lucrative little scheme is hard to defend. Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., RNC chairman under Reagan, said, "Holy mackerel, I never heard of a chairman of either party ever taking money for speeches.... The job of a national chairman is to give speeches. That's what the national party pays him for."

Jim Nicholson, RNC chairman under W. Bush, said the job "demands so much of your time that you can work 24/7 and not get everything done, so taking time out to speak for the benefit of one's own bank account is not appropriate."

Rich Bond, RNC chairman under Clinton, said, "It just doesn't look right using RNC resources and trading on the title of chairman to make outside money." Bond added that if he received honoraria after a public appearance, he donated it to charity.

For what it's worth, the Democratic National Committee said it knows of no DNC chairs who've ever made speeches for personal gain the way Steele is doing now.

And what kind of personal gain are we talking about here? According to the Washington Times reported, "it potentially adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Stepping back, I suspect RNC members may be reluctant to switch chairmen less than a year from the midterm elections. It would be disruptive and embarrassing. On the other hand, is the party really prepared to keep an incompetent chairman who's using his title to line his own pockets?

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT.... Yesterday morning, there was widespread talk that Senate Republicans, recognizing the writing on the wall, would scrap their plans to delay the health care vote until Christmas Eve. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) organized a conference meeting, and at the top of the agenda was a discussion on "whether they should halt their efforts to the delay the bill." Asked if GOP members would go along, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said, "We'll see."

This would be reasonable. After yesterday morning's vote, it was clear Democrats have the votes they need to pass health care reform. Why delay the inevitable? Republicans could simply stop their obstructionist tactics, get the vote over with, tackle the debt-ceiling measure (that they would have to return to the Hill to approve shortly after Christmas), give their staff a break, and let everyone head home for the holidays. It made sense that the caucus would reevaluate the pointless plan.

And given what we know about Republican senators, it also made sense when they decided to stick to the original plan.

Senate Republicans say they are sticking to their guns and will continue to drag out passage of the Democrats' health care reform legislation, forcing the chamber to remain in session through Christmas Eve.

During a luncheon of the GOP Conference Monday, Republicans discussed whether to drop their filibuster or find some other way to allow lawmakers to break camp before 7 p.m. Thursday, when the Senate is scheduled to cast a final vote on the health care bill.

But while some Members had expressed interest in getting out of Washington earlier than expected, the Conference still plans to stick it out to the bitter end.

What's odd is that this petty, spiteful nonsense doesn't serve any meaningful goals at all. It doesn't affect the legislation; it doesn't change public opinion; it doesn't actually accomplish anything except annoy their families and their aides. As far as I can tell, the only people who actually want as many delays as humanly possible are rabid far-right activists who don't want Republicans to "roll over" on this. They'd be annoyed if the GOP threw in the towel, but they'll be annoyed anyway.

So, the pointless delaying tactics continue because Senate Republicans, in effect, fear that right-wing bloggers and Rush Limbaugh listeners will complain if they don't. And that's more important than senators spending time with their families during the holidays.

I don't understand it, either.

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

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December 21, 2009

PLEDGE WEEK CONTINUES.... Have I mentioned that we're holding a fundraiser? Yes, the Monthly's annual fundraising drive is still underway. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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Steve Benen 6:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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

* Tehran: "Iran's most senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, has died, his grandson said Sunday. He was 87. Nasser Montazeri said his grandfather, who was seen as the spiritual father of Iran's reform movement, died in his sleep overnight."

* Hopefully, a good sign: "The hiring of temporary workers has surged, suggesting that the nation's employers might soon take the next step, bringing on permanent workers, if they can just convince themselves that the upturn in the economy will be sustained."

* The American Medical Association formally endorses the Senate health care bill.

* President Obama's Passenger Bill of Rights: "The federal government will impose big fines starting this spring on airlines that keep passengers waiting on the tarmac too long without feeding them or letting them off the plane. Airlines that let a plane sit on the tarmac for more than two hours without giving passengers food or water, or more than three hours without offering them the option of getting off, will face fines of $27,500 a passenger, the secretary of transportation announced on Monday."

* Counter-terrorism: "On orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. military launched cruise missiles early Thursday against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, administration officials told ABC News in a report broadcast on ABC World News with Charles Gibson."

* Health care reform is going to save a lot of American families a lot of money.

* We know about the ways in which the Senate health care bill got worse (it lost the public option), but in a variety of other ways, it got much better.

* Jane Hamsher writes up 10 specific reasons she'd like to see the Senate health care bill defeated. Jonathan Cohn and Ezra Klein write up specific rebuttals to Hamsher's list.

* CNBC's John Harwood is taking cheap and unnecessary shots at progressive opponents of health care reform. Completely uncalled for.

* Joe Klein takes down Tom Coburn.

* Tim Fernholz takes down Robert Samuelson.

* Reimportation obviously didn't come together this year. The White House isn't done with the idea, though.

* I shouldn't be surprised, but prominent right-wing bloggers probably shouldn't publish posts hoping for senators to die.

* John McCain feels comfortable telling us what Ted Kennedy would have thought. Remember when McCain had class? It's been a long time.

* How did South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) avoid impeachment?

* When the federal government takes a more active role in education.

* Watching the Senate become cruel: "The Senate hasn't just lost a bit of its collegiality. It's become heartlessly ferocious -- a place where the death of an honored friend presents an opportunity to kill his legislation, and in which the infirmity of an ailing colleague is seen as a potential path to procedural victory.... At this point in its history, however, consensus is a laughable goal. Basic decency doesn't even seem achievable. And if the behavior of the Senate has changed, then so too must its rules."

* Mike Huckabee compares Ben Nelson to Judas. Wow. (thanks to K.Z. for the tip)

* Don't bring a gun to a snowball fight.

* A well deserved honor for Glenn Beck.

* And similarly, the Politifact Lie of the Year was probably an obvious choice, but the editors made the right call.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... I don't usually think of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island as an especially aggressive lawmaker, at least rhetorically. I've frequently been very impressed with Whitehouse, and appreciate his first-class intellect, but he's never seemed like a top choice to deliver a real stemwinder on the Senate floor.

But yesterday, Whitehouse didn't hold back, blasting Senate Republicans for their "desperate, no-holds-barred mission of propaganda, falsehood, obstruction and fear." He warned the GOP of a "day of judgment" by the electorate, which the senator said leaves Republicans "terrified."

Whitehouse added, "When it turns out there are no death panels, when there is no bureaucrat between you and your doctor, when the ways your health care changes seem like a good deal to you, and a pretty smart idea, when the American public sees the discrepancy between what really is, and what they were told by the Republicans, there will be a reckoning. There will come a day of judgment about who was telling the truth."

I'm almost tempted to ask, "Can I get a witness?"

Jillian Rayfield noted that Whitehouse "began his monologue by quoting 1950s intellectual Richard Hofstadter, warning that a right-wing minority could create 'a political environment in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.'" The senator went on to say, "The malignant and vindictive passions that have descended on the Senate are busily creating just such a political climate."

(It appears that some on the right are throwing a fit about the speech, but their complaints are misguided.)

First, Senate Republicans turn Evan Bayh into a proud Democratic partisan, then Senate Republicans turn the usually-staid Sheldon Whitehouse into a Scripture-citing firebrand.

Works for me.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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HARKIN'S ALREADY THINKING AHEAD.... The House passed a health care reform bill with a public option, and the Senate had a compromise version of the public option that enjoyed the support of 56 senators. When it was watered down even more -- it became a "trigger" as of two weeks ago -- it had 58 supporters. Because the Senate can be incredibly frustrating, that wasn't enough, and because Joe Lieberman threatened to kill the entire initiative, the measure was scuttled.

At least, for now. Very few big ideas are passed on the first try, and the public option was embraced so enthusiastically by so many this year, it stands to reason that it will be part of the policy landscape, forevermore, until it becomes law. Every candidate for federal office -- especially those running in Democratic primaries -- should expect to make their position on the public option clear.

The question at this point, though, is how long until the public-option debate can begin anew. One powerful Democratic senator is already thinking ahead.

One of the public option's strongest Congressional supporters insisted on Monday that while the Senate is poised to pass health care legislation that does not offer consumers a government-run insurance plan, he will bring the idea up again -- most likely after that bill is passed.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told reporters that the public option is not dead. "It will be revisited," he said. "I'm just saying, I believe it is so vital and so important that it is going to be revisited. Believe me." The Iowa Democrat said that "even next year," senators "may be doing some things to modify, to fix, to compliment what we've passed here."

That's good to hear. Conservatives should realize that while Lieberman and Ben Nelson undermined the public option this year, the issue isn't going away. Democrats spent years improving Social Security and Medicare after they were passed, and this will be similar. The public option will remain a top progressive priority indefinitely.

Now, there are a few possibilities going forward. It's possible that the public option could be part of the conference committee talks, but it seems unlikely -- the conference report will need to overcome yet another Republican filibuster, and Lieberman and Nelson wouldn't hesitate to join the GOP on this. Harkin alluded to 2010, but I'd be surprised if this received serious consideration by the leadership in either chamber -- not only do lawmakers face a crowded election-year calendar, but it seems hard to imagine Pelosi or Reid initiating another debate on health care policy so quickly after finishing their landmark bill (assuming the landmark bill actually becomes law).

Which suggests 2011 would be the earliest available opportunity. Whether it's possible or not will depend almost entirely on the results of the midterms -- more progressive lawmakers means a better chance at making a public option happen; fewer progressive lawmakers means the policy will be that much further away.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE UNKNOWN ELECTORAL IMPLICATIONS.... It's hardly a secret that the Democratic health care reform plan has been subjected to some intense criticism -- from insurance companies, from the Republican Party, from right-wing activists, and more recently, from some liberal reform proponents -- which has weakened once-strong support. Given the incredible misinformation campaign launched by conservatives, it's sometimes a pleasant surprise reform still has any supporters left at all.

As a rule, politicians don't like passing unpopular bills, and certainly don't expect to reap rewards from doing so. But health care reform is trickier than most issues.

Many conservatives seem to think Dems are committing the political equivalent of mass suicide, which necessarily makes one wonder why Republicans are fighting so diligently to prevent it. Many Democratic officials believe it's well worth the risk, in part because reform is so important as a policy matter, and in part because they expect to reap the electoral benefits of championing a (hopefully) successful policy.

For what it's worth, at least one new national poll will be welcome news among Dems in D.C.

Support for the health care reform bill that Democrats are pushing through the Senate has risen six points since early December, according to a new national poll, and although a majority of Americans still oppose its passage, only four in ten agree with Senate Republicans that the bill is too liberal.

The results of the CNN poll are entirely counterintuitive. The poll, which may very well be an outlier, shows support for reform jumping from 36% to 42% over the last two weeks. More importantly, it shows the biggest jump in support among Democrats -- who liked the plan significantly more after the public option and the Medicare buy-in were scuttled. (The same is true of President Obama, whose approval rating is up six points, thanks in large part to a jump in support from self-identified liberals.)

That does seem odd, doesn't it?

In any case, whether the CNN is reliable or not, I think it's at least possible that the reform bill will give Dems a bit of a bump in January. If there's a big White House ceremony to celebrate the accomplishment, an appreciation for the historic nature of the development, followed by an effective sales job built around the State of the Union, support for reform may very well go up.

The wild card, I suspect, will be the progressive activists. Time will tell if the conference committee improves the bill, and if so, how much. But if the resulting policy is deemed a bitter disappointment by reform's most ardent supporters, and the long-awaited health care reform breakthrough is rejected by the left, it reshuffles the electoral deck. Democratic officials, one imagines, would expect plaudits from their own base, delivering on the holy grail of Democratic politics for seven decades. If that doesn't occur, it's going to hurt the party going forward.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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AN ODDLY APPROPRIATE CHOICE.... Human Events, a relatively prominent right-wing magazine, selects a "Conservative of the Year" ever December. In its new issue, the publication extends the honor to former Vice President Dick Cheney. The article that accompanies the award was written by none other than John Bolton, the man Bush/Cheney tapped to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

It's a strikingly silly piece, characterizing Cheney as a powerful political force, striking fear in the hearts of the president, his team, the media, and the political establishment. Bolton characterizes the failed former V.P. as a champion of all that is good and right -- you know, stuff like torture -- which has made Cheney the victim of mean Democrats and journalists, who've made "assaults on his character, his judgment and his performance in office."

Cheney's quiet, inner-directed motivation is simply impervious to the attacks orchestrated against him by the Chicago machine-style politicians at the White House, a fact also plainly visible to his fellow citizens. And it is yet another important reason to have confidence that Cheney's solid policy analysis will yet prevail in the national political arena. Of course he is the conservative of the year!

The same piece, by the way, insists that Cheney may be reviled by the insider types, but outside of D.C., Americans appreciate the former vice president's background as "a very experienced, very dedicated patriot." (There's ample evidence to the contrary.)

The article ran in print, which made it difficult for Bolton to dot the i's with little hearts.

But stepping back from this reality-bending love letter, it's worth noting the larger context -- the fact that the "Conservative of the Year" is a wildly unpopular, almost clownish former vice president, who pops up on Hannity and Limbaugh from time to time, does not speak well of the state of conservative/Republican politics.

Cheney, after all, failed spectacularly in government. Cheney's attempts at governing were humiliating for him personally, and nearly catastrophic for the rest of us. If he's the nation's leading conservative voice, Democrats are delighted.

After the painful embarrassment of the Bush/Cheney era, Republicans would presumably want a new direction, and perhaps a new crop of leaders to step. Instead, 13 months after the electorate strongly rejected Cheney's way for a new, more progressive, direction, the appalling former V.P. is still considered the nation's leading far-right voice.

Way back in March, even congressional Republicans weren't afraid to say publicly that they really wanted Dick Cheney to just go away. Human Events, nine months later, proudly disagrees. I suspect the DNC is delighted.

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A LONG TIME TO WAIT.... If things go according to plan, President Obama will sign a health care reform bill into law sometime in January. Almost immediately, a wide variety of consumer protections will kick in, including security for those with pre-existing conditions who've faced discrimination from insurers.

But some of the biggest elements of the plan -- most notably subsidies for those who currently lack coverage -- won't get up and running until 2014 (or, in the House bill, 2013). The reform framework will endure plenty of attacks between now and then.

What's behind the delays? Kevin Drum had a good item on this.

I'm pretty sure the 2014 date is mostly due to budget finagling. This stuff can't be done overnight, but I'll bet most of it could be implemented within 12 months, and it could certainly be implemented within 24.

So how big a problem is it that nothing is going to happen until 2014 instead? My first order guess is: not much. In fact, I think everyone will be surprised at just how fast healthcare reform fades from the public discourse once it's passed.... After all, the plain fact is that as important as it is, healthcare reform affects a pretty small chunk of the population either for good (better coverage) or ill (higher taxes). Around 15-20% tops.

Still, sooner would be better. It's easier to demagogue healthcare reform as long as the supposed disasters to come are still speculative, and it's easier to keep around the longer it's had to work.

Agreed. As far as I can tell, literally the only reason to delay implementation of subsidies until 2014 is to bring down the overall cost of the bill. The Senate version costs $871 billion over 10 years, which is below the ceiling the White House presented in September. Moving up the schedule means moving above the ceiling.

But that's unsatisfying for those who see 2014 as an excessive delay. Paul Starr argues today that a faster timetable should be a priority in the conference-committee talks.

One possibility is to abandon the idea that the program has to be implemented on the same date in every state across the nation. Instead, states might be given incentives (though not yet full funding) to come into the program early, perhaps even during 2011. A state like Massachusetts, which already has a functioning insurance exchange, might be able to move that quickly. Other states might follow during 2012, with a final date for implementation and full federal funding coming in mid-2013.

Staggering the start-up dates would enable states that acted later to learn from those that moved first. By fall 2012, under this approach, President Obama and the Democrats who had voted for reform could point to areas of the country where the program was already in effect. And even if Democrats lost the 2012 election, it would be difficult to undo the program and take insurance coverage away from the millions who had gained it.

There is one final possibility. Even if the House-Senate conference adopts the slow Senate timetable, the proposal for accelerated implementation in "early-action" states could still be passed separately in a subsequent budget-reconciliation measure (which requires only 51 votes in the Senate). One way or another, Democrats need to find a way to speed up the pace of reform.


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SHINING THE SPOTLIGHT ON UNPRECEDENTED ABUSE.... There is arguably no greater obstacle to effective policymaking than Republican abuse of Senate filibuster rules. But most of the country, which understandably has limited interest in legislative procedure, has no idea that the problem exists. Worse, the media has accepted filibuster abuse as routine -- as if the Senate has always operated with mandatory supermajorities.

It's created a truly absurd legislative system. In order for necessary changes to happen, members will need to feel pressure to restore majority rule to the Senate. In order for them to feel pressure, the public will have to reject the dysfunctional and borderline-dangerous status quo. In order for the public to feel outraged, the mainstream political discourse will have to shine a light on the problem.

I'm delighted that this is starting to begin in earnest. Just over the last couple of days, the issue has garnered attention from a variety of prominent voices. James Fallows described the explosion in the number of filibusters as a "basic and dangerous threat to the ability of any elected American government to address the big issues of its time."

For most of the first 190 years of the country's operation, U.S. Senators would, in unusual circumstances, try to delay a vote on measures they opposed by "filibustering" -- talking without limit or using other stalling techniques.... The significant thing about filibusters through most of U.S. history is that they hardly ever happened. But since roughly the early Clinton years, the threat of filibuster has gone from exception to routine, for legislation and appointments alike, with the result that doing practically anything takes not 51 but 60 votes.

In his print column today, Paul Krugman pointed to the problem to highlight the fact that this one Senate tactic has made the entire United States government "ominously dysfunctional."

We need fundamental financial reform. We need to deal with climate change. We need to deal with our long-run budget deficit. What are the chances that we can do all that -- or, I'm tempted to say, any of it -- if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate?

Some people will say that it has always been this way, and that we've managed so far. But it wasn't always like this. Yes, there were filibusters in the past -- most notably by segregationists trying to block civil rights legislation. But the modern system, in which the minority party uses the threat of a filibuster to block every bill it doesn't like, is a recent creation. [...]

Nobody should meddle lightly with long-established parliamentary procedure. But our current situation is unprecedented: America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option -- not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike.

E.J. Dionne Jr. wants the political world to wake up.

In a normal democracy, such majorities would work their will, a law would pass, and champagne corks would pop. But everyone must get it through their heads that thanks to the bizarre habits of the Senate, we are no longer a normal democracy.

Because of a front of Republican obstruction and the ludicrous idea that all legislation requires a supermajority of 60 votes, power has passed from the majority to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one.

Late last week, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, while talking about health care generally, was asked where progressives should be "putting their energies." Stern immediately turned his attention to the filibuster: "The Senate is distorting democracy. They've set up a system that does not represent what the American people want--and not just on health care. It sets the stage for America to be unable to meet the challenges on everything from jobs to energy to trade to foreign policy.... I think that is morally wrong. It hurts America, diminishes its ability to solve problems."

The point isn't that these prominent voices are breaking new ground. On the contrary, all of these sentiments are no doubt familiar to even casual readers of prominent progressive blogs.

Rather, the point is the systemic problem is starting to become more widely recognized. That's encouraging.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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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 DCCC is launching a round of robocalls in congressional districts in Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania this week, targeting GOP lawmakers for being "cozy with Wall Street and unwilling to overhaul the financial system that led to last year's economic meltdown."

* The DNC raised $5.9 million in November, as compared to the $6.4 million raised by the RNC in the same month. Both committees are about even in cash-on-hand.

* We don't yet know if North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) intends to challenge Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) next year, but if he does, Rasmussen shows Hoeven with a significant lead in the hypothetical match-up, 52% to 37%.

* Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), a leading House Blue Dog, has said he will seek re-election next year, but don't be surprised if he leaves the Hill soon after to run for governor in 2012.

* New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. has been mentioned as a leading candidate for a variety of offices next year -- he ran a surprisingly strong race for mayor this year -- but seems especially interested in a possible primary challenge against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D).

* And speaking of New York, former mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) is still weighing his options for next year. According to the latest report, Giuliani has ruled out a gubernatorial campaign -- he apparently thinks state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is unbeatable -- and would consider a Senate campaign against Gillibrand, though people close to Giuliani consider it a long shot.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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HACKER IN THE PASS-THE-BILL CONTINGENT.... Credit for the idea behind the public option largely goes to Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, who crafted the policy a few years ago, and which was quickly embraced by Obama, Clinton, and Edwards when they presented their reform plans during the presidential primaries in 2007.

Hacker didn't seem especially thrilled to see the so-called "Team of Ten" trade the public option away in exchange for the Medicare buy-in, but he nevertheless signaled tacit support for the resulting compromise. Of course, we now know that Joe Lieberman demanded the elimination of both the public option and the Medicare buy-in.

Where's Hacker now? He described himself as "devastated" by Lieberman's successful efforts, and offended by the efficacy of obstructionism, but Hacker nevertheless supports the current Senate bill and believes it "could move us substantially toward those goals."

As weak as it is in numerous areas, the Senate bill contains three vital reforms. First, it creates a new framework, the "exchange," through which people who lack secure workplace coverage can obtain the same kind of group health insurance that workers in large companies take for granted. Second, it makes available hundreds of billions in federal help to allow people to buy coverage through the exchanges and through an expanded Medicaid program. Third, it places new regulations on private insurers that, if properly enforced, will reduce insurers' ability to discriminate against the sick and to undermine the health security of Americans.

These are signal achievements, and they all would have been politically unthinkable just a few years ago.

Of particular importance, though, was Hacker's advice to progressives who disapprove of the Democratic plan:

If and when legislation passes, progressives should demand immediate concrete actions to make the promise of a reform a reality more quickly and more effectively.

So a bill must pass. Yet it must be a better bill that passes. And it must be understood by the President, the Congress and every American as only a step -- an important but ultimately incomplete step -- toward the vital goal that the campaign for the public option embodied: good affordable health care for every American.


Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE SCANDAL THAT SLIPPED THROUGH THE CRACKS.... In an early-Saturday vote, the Senate approved a massive Pentagon spending bill, including funding for U.S. troops that was due to run out. The final vote was 88 to 10.

But in the story that went largely overlooked late last week, Senate Republicans attempted to block the vote on troop spending, entirely because they hoped it would cause a delay that could derail health care reform. GOP lawmakers were, in fact, quite candid about their motivations. "They are prepared to jeopardize funding for troops at war," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. "If Democrats did that, there would be cries of treason."

But Republicans did that anyway. Tom Schaller recognized the political opportunity.

Not only are Republican senators threatening to block funding for the troops. Not only are they doing so under cover of night. Not only does this go against all of the soft-on-defense attacks the GOP has launched against Democrats since, oh, 1968.

But some Republicans openly admit they are doing it.

If President Obama and Senate Democrats cannot turn this into a holy shit storm of criticism, there's something wrong with them. This is a breakaway dunk for Lebron James. This is a tipped pass headed straight into the cornerback Darrell Green's hands, with nothing but an open sideline between him and the end zone. This is a fat pitch down the middle to Albert Pujols on a full count with the bases loaded. This is my beloved Alex Ovechkin with the puck on his stick and an open net in front of him.

As you may have noticed, this did not happen, and Republicans are not the slightest bit embarrassed by their behavior. If you're thinking that Dems just aren't especially good at capitalizing on these kinds of opportunities, that's because the party's track record has been discouraging at times.

But in this case, Democrats deserve credit for at least trying. Less than a day after Republicans tried to block military spending, the DNC unveiled a 30-second ad on the subject, which has reportedly begun airing on the cable news networks.

"How far are Republicans willing to go to protect the insurance industry and block health reform?" the ad asks. "Far enough to deny funding and equipment for our troops in harm's way. Republicans are so desperate to block health reform and protect their special interest friends that they delayed funding for our men and women in uniform. Then they voted against it. Tell Republicans to stop playing politics with health care. And to stop playing politics with our troops."

The White House pushed the story, too.

Why wasn't this a bigger deal? I suspect timing had a lot to do with it -- the ad was unveiled as all kinds of health care-related developments were unfolding, and on the same day as the conclusion of international climate talks in Copenhagen. The Senate GOP's misconduct just got lost in the shuffle.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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A SKEWED PERSPECTIVE.... As part of last night's coverage of the health care reform debate in the Senate, David Gergen complained about the stark partisan divide.

"In my judgment it's a tragedy for the country to have a bill this important, a historic piece of legislation, pass with only one party voting for it."

Gergen, naturally, blamed both parties equally. (The official rulebook handed to all centrist establishment pundits requires stiff penalties for those who neglect to hold both parties equally responsible for discouraging developments.)

Now, if reality has any relevance here, blaming Democrats for unanimous Republican opposition/obstructionism is pretty silly. Dems spent the entire year desperate -- arguably too much so -- to make health care reform "bipartisan." The GOP refused, rejecting compromises, opposing measures they used to support, trashing the very idea of improving the broken system, and declaring outright opposition irrespective of Democratic concessions.

But the talk will no doubt continue, with Republicans and many media voices raising questions about the legitimacy of the reform bill, if it passes with no (or next to no) GOP support.

It's worth remembering, then, that the political world's perspective has been skewed because the Republican minority is so unusually small.

Traditionally, when the Senate passes bills with "bipartisan" support, it's meant having one party reaching out to moderates from the other party to put together a reasonably good-sized majority. If the usual Senate majority has around 53 or 54 members, finding some moderates from the other side of the aisle meant passing a bill with, say, 57 or 58 votes. And if a bill had 60 supporters -- three fifths of the chamber -- it reflected a fairly broad base of support for the legislation.

And while filibuster abuse distorts the nature of the legislative process, the current circumstances also skew expectations -- Republicans have almost entirely excised moderates from their ranks, and voters have handed Democrats a huge majority. Whereas a 60-vote majority used to reflect widespread support for a bill, we're now told a 60-vote majority is wholly inadequate -- or in Gergen's words, a "tragedy."

The standard has become badly distorted. It's not the Democrats' fault Republicans have become too conservative, failed at governing, and were punished by voters. And it's certainly not Democrats' fault Republicans would rather obstruct than govern, reflexively rejecting anything the majority seeks.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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DIVINE PRECIPITATION.... Remember, as far as most of the Republican establishment is concerned, disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is the ultimate "ideas man," if not a bona fide "visionary." National Journal recently asked Republican insiders to name "the most creative thinker" in the GOP. Gingrich was easily the biggest vote getter.

If ol' Newt is the intellectual Republican powerhouse, the GOP has cause for concern.

Newt Gingrich became the latest to play the ridiculous "it's snowing so global warming must be a hoax" card. Gingrich took to Twitter -- where he's been schooled before -- on Saturday morning to share a few thoughts about the storm:

newtgingrich As callista and i watched what dc weather says will be 12 to 22 inches of snow i wondered if God was sending a message about copenhagen

Got that? A snowstorm along the East coast in December was, according to the former Speaker, a divine signal about international efforts to combat climate change. Seriously.

Other far-right voices, meanwhile, were convinced that the storm was evidence of divine opposition to health care reform.

Just so we're clear, in the 21st century, prominent conservative voices are exploring the hidden messages from God in winter storms.

Great.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE HISTORICAL DISCONNECT.... During the overnight debate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) emphasized the partisan nature of the health care proceedings. He reminded his colleagues that Social Security and Medicare passed with considerable GOP support, which, from McConnell's narrow perspective, necessarily means Democrats are doing something wrong now.

We've been through this a few times -- it was a standard conservative talking point over the summer -- but since it's about to come up a whole lot more often, it's worth reviewing how misguided the criticism is.

McConnell may have forgotten, but FDR and LBJ led during a time when moderate and liberal Republicans were still fairly common. Neither Democratic president had trouble finding sensible GOP lawmakers who were anxious to work towards progressive policy goals. President Obama, however, is stuck trying to find common ground with a right-wing reactionary party, and not surprisingly, the GOP minority prefers to slap away the outstretched hand.

Harold Meyerson had a good piece on this in July:

[B]ipartisanship ain't what it used to be, and for one fundamental reason: Republicans ain't what they used to be. It's true that there was considerable Republican congressional support, back in the day, for Social Security and Medicare. But in the '30s, there were progressive Republicans who stood to the left of the Democrats.... Today, no such Republicans exist.

Nicholas Beaudrot put it this way: "[I]t's simply not meaningful to compare the present circumstances to those faced by Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to bipartisanship.... Barack Obama faces partisan polarization not seen since Woodrow Wilson was President."

What's more, McConnell's choice of examples is striking. Is there any doubt that McConnell and his caucus would strongly reject Social Security and Medicare if they were proposed today?

Social Security and Medicare, of course, were government-run programs paid for by straight tax increases. They were far more offensive to conservatives than the current legislation, which funds a mostly-private sector health-care expansion by trimming the budget of Medicare, America's largest single-payer health-care system. [...]

Medicare could not be passed today because there would be no Republican votes, and too few Democratic votes. Social Security would be similarly hapless.... Tonight's vote was a moment of enormous progress for social justice, but evidence of enormous regression in our political system.

McConnell's argument made it sound as if Democrats are to blame for Republicans becoming too conservative. It's hardly a compelling pitch.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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CLEARING THE FIRST MAJOR HURDLE IN THE SENATE.... At 1:19 a.m. (ET), the Senate voted to end the debate on the Manager's Amendment to health care reform. It needed 60 votes to advance, and it passed, 60 to 40. Every member of the Democratic caucus voted for it, and every Republican voted against it. (The roll call is online here.)

Even as the debate continued last night, the quality of the GOP criticism has not improved.

"It's obvious why the majority has cooked up this amendment in secret, has introduced it in the middle of a snowstorm, has scheduled the Senate to come in session at midnight, has scheduled a vote for 1 a.m., is insisting that it be passed before Christmas -- because they don't want the American people to know what's in it," said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee.

Alexander has been around long enough to know that what he's saying is patently ridiculous. Regardless of whether one approves or disapproves of the reform bill, the odd voting times are the result of Republican obstructionism, not Democratic embarrassment.

In fact, I'm confident that if the GOP caucus would scrap its delaying tactics, the majority would agree to hold the debate in prime time before heading home for the holidays.

But that, of course, isn't going to happen. As Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters, Republicans feel the need to fight until the last possible minute on Christmas Eve. "There is nothing inevitable about this," Cornyn said.

Reality suggests otherwise. As Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put, "If the Republicans want to exercise every single right they have under the rules, they can keep us here until Christmas Eve, no doubt about it. But to what end, I ask? To what end? We're going to have the vote at 1 a.m. that requires 60 votes, and then why stay here until Christmas Eve to do what they know we're going to do?"

The debate itself was largely predictable, but Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.) remarks stood out, as they often do: "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight. That's what they ought to pray."

The veiled comment made it seem as if Coburn may have had nefarious intentions towards someone in the Democratic caucus. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) responded to Coburn by lamenting "the malignant and vindictive passions that have descended on the Senate." Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added that he was "troubled" by Coburn's remarks, and encouraged the right-wing senator to "come back to the floor and explain exactly what he meant."

Coburn did not.

Nevertheless, the process continues. We talked over the weekend about the schedule, but as a reminder, the next vote is expected tomorrow morning, around 7:30 a.m. (ET), when senators will vote, up or down, on the Manager's Amendment. Unless Republicans drop their delaying efforts, the chamber is still on track for an up-or-down vote on health care reform between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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December 20, 2009

PLEDGE WEEK CONTINUES.... The Monthly's annual fundraising drive is still underway. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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Steve Benen 6:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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POOR CHESS PLAYERS.... If it seemed as if the vast majority of Senate Democrats were acting with a stronger-than-expected commitment to getting health care done this year, it wasn't an accident.

Faced with Republican resistance that many Democrats saw as driven more by politics than policy disagreements, Senate Democrats in recent days gained new determination to bridge differences among themselves and prevail over the opposition.

Lawmakers who attended a private meeting between Mr. Obama and Senate Democrats at the White House on Tuesday pointed to remarks there by Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, as providing some new inspiration.

Mr. Bayh said that the health care measure was the kind of public policy he had come to Washington to work on, according to officials who attended the session, and that he did not want to see the satisfied looks on the faces of Republican leaders if they succeeded in blocking the measure.

Now, I happen to like that sentiment quite a bit, but let's pause to appreciate who made it: Evan Bayh? Senate Republicans have been so irresponsible, so petty, and so exasperating, they turned Evan Bayh into a Democratic partisan? The same Evan Bayh who said, as recently as July, he wouldn't rule out supporting a Republican filibuster?

It's a reminder that the GOP caucus doesn't include especially good chess players. Jon Chait notes the larger context:

At the outset of this debate, moderate Democrats were desperate for a bipartisan bill. They were willing to do almost anything to get it, including negotiate fruitlessly for months on end. We can't know for sure, but Democrats appeared willing to make enormous substantive concessions to win the assent of even a few Republicans. A few GOP defectors could have lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited than what President Obama is going to sign. And remember, it would have taken only one Democrat to agree to partial reform in order to kill comprehensive reform. I can easily imagine a scenario where Ben Nelson refused to vote for anything larger than, say, a $400 billion bill that Chuck Grassley and a couple other Republicans were offering.

But Republicans wouldn't make that deal.... The Republicans eschewed a halfway compromise and put all their chips on an all or nothing campaign to defeat health care and Obama's presidency. It was an audacious gamble. They lost. In the end, they'll walk away with nothing.

They may, however, make significant gains in the midterm elections, especially if long-time proponents of health care reform decide that this health care reform fails to meet their expectations, and, instead of fighting for policy improvements, decide to just stay home.

But since repeal of the policy is all but impossible, Republicans will still be stuck with a ambitious national health policy they could have made far more to their liking if they hadn't been such knee-jerk reactionaries.

As David Frum recently asked his fellow Republicans, "The furious rejectionist frenzy of the past 12 months is exacting a terrible price upon Republicans. We're getting worse and less conservative results out of Washington than we could have negotiated, if we had negotiated.... I hear a lot of talk about the importance of "principle." But what's the principle that obliges us to be stupid?"

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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A 'STARTER HOME'.... There's a sizable chasm between the failed health care status quo and the progressive ideal. This, at a minimum, contributes to the differences between progressive proponents of reform -- the same proposal can be seen by the same ostensible allies as both an important step forward and a bitter disappointment.

That said, Ezra Klein noted yesterday that the current Democratic health care bill "is, without doubt or competition, the single largest social policy advance since the Great Society." I found Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) description at a press conference yesterday pretty compelling, too. Jonathan Cohn reported:

This is not "a mansion," [Harkin] explained. It's a "starter home" -- with a solid foundation, a strong roof, and room for expansion.

A lot has been said about the flaws of the Senate health care bill, in this blog among other places. And that is because the flaws are many. From the protection against out-of-pocket costs, which could stand to be stronger, to the implementation timeline, which could stand to be quicker, it's easy to find things in this bill that could be better. [...]

But it shouldn't take away from what a huge accomplishment this is. As [Sen. Chris Dodd] reminded people in his remarks, this measure is going to make life better not just for millions, but tens of millions of people. Those without insurance will get it; those with it will have guarantees of financial security they never had before. The government will begin creating an infrastructure for making our health care system focus on better quality care, even as it tries to make the system less expensive.

And that's not the end of the story. There will be opportunities to improve this law even after it becomes law. Social Security evolved that way. Medicare too. Health care reform can too.

No, this legislation is not everything it could be. But Harkin is right: It's also not everything it will be.

As we've talked about recently, progressives have faced this situation before. When Medicaid passed, it did very little for low-income adults, which is now seen as the point of the program. When Medicare passed, it all but ignored people with disabilities. When Social Security passed, the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases.

These are, of course, some of the bedrock domestic policies of the 20th century, and some of the towering achievements of progressive lawmaking. But when they passed, they were wholly inadequate. There were likely liberal champions of the day who perceived the New Deal, the Great Society, FDR, LBJ, and their congressional Democratic majorities as disappointing and incompetent sell-outs who failed to take advantage of the opportunity before them, producing genuinely awful legislation.

But the programs passed, and once they were in place, they improved, expanded, and became integral to the American experience. It took years and perseverance, but progress happened after the initial programs became law.

The question -- if we're to assume that this bill will, in fact, survive -- then becomes what progressive champions of reform are prepared to do to build on the starter home's foundation.

Matt Yglesias had a good item on this, noting that "the crucial question going forward is whether it will be possible to further improve this legislation."

I think it's very possible, but only if the people who are disappointed by the shortcomings of this bill take appropriate action. First and foremost, that means working as hard as possible to produce as good an outcome as possible in the 2010 midterm elections. Recall that before 2006, SCHIP expansion couldn't pass the Senate. And before 2008, SCHIP expansion could pass the Senate but couldn't get signed into law by the President. Elections have consequences. Starting in January 2011 we might have new progressive senators representing Ohio, New Hampshire, and Missouri or we might have new conservative senators representing Nevada, Delaware, and Connecticut. This is a very big deal. Has Ned Lamont been able to beat Joe Lieberman back in 2006, this might have had a happier ending this year. Elections have consequences. [...]

[Y]ou accept compromises and then keep on working to build more political power. You do it by contacting members. You do it by urging friends and colleagues to contact members. You do it by donating to and volunteering for good candidates. You do it by turning out and voting for the better candidate in the race even when that candidate is disappointing. You do it by urging viable candidates to mount risky primary challenges against incumbents who don't reflect the real possibilities of their constituency. You do it by staying engaged, and working hard.

I think this is an excellent bill, all things considered, but whether you agree with that or not the most important thing is what does the progressive community do going forward to enact even better bills in the future.

The country can either go forward or backward. Those who wanted key provisions in this health care bill that were ultimately scuttled -- a public option, Medicare expansion, etc. -- can still achieve those goals, but not by throwing their arms up in despair or by deciding to register their frustration by staying home.

Remember: nothing becomes law in this Congress unless Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman approve. Literally, nothing. That's not an encouraging legislative dynamic, and it's a huge impediment to progressive lawmaking.

It's not within President Obama's power to change that. It's not within Harry Reid's and Nancy Pelosi's power to change that. It's entirely in the hands of voters, who can either decide to elect those who'll build on the foundation -- the way policymakers did after the creation of inadequate Medicare and Social Security bills -- or who can decide to directly or passive help those who'll take a bulldozer to the starter home shortly after it's completion.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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THE UNOBSERVANT SENATOR.... Just think, if John McCain wasn't on one of the Sunday morning talk shows every other week, we wouldn't be able to hear insightful whining like this.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ripped into the president on Sunday for abandoning his pledge to foster bipartisanship in Washington, accusing Obama of creating a more toxic political environment than that which existed during the Clinton administration.

"In some ways, of course, yeah," McCain told Fox News Sunday when asked if the Obama White House was more partisan than Bill Clinton's. "At least under Hillarycare they tried to seriously negotiate with Republicans. There has been no effort that I know of -- of serious across the table negotiations -- such as I have engaged in with other administrations. And that was the commitment that the president made."

That McCain actually seems to believe this demonstrates just far gone the poor guy really is.

In April, President Obama met with GOP leaders in the White House, and started talking about the kind of concessions he was prepared to make as part of a bipartisan compromise. He asked what Republicans might be willing to do in return. They offered literally nothing.

Since those meetings in the Spring, McCain and leading Republicans have trashed reform, lied to the public, whipped up angry mobs, and done everything possible to derail the larger effort. At one point, leading Republican negotiators started opposing ideas they'd already endorsed. By the fall, the Senate GOP leadership said plainly that no matter how many concessions Democrats made, Republican would still oppose health care reform.

All the while, President Obama encouraged the bipartisan "Gang of Six" talks, even though they needlessly delayed the process by months, and showered Olympia Snowe with attention and power, prepared to give her practically anything she wanted.

But this White House hasn't "tried to seriously negotiate with Republicans." Riiiiiiight.

It is interesting, though, to hear McCain compare the toxicity of American politics under Obama and Clinton -- skipping right over the failed president in between. The comparison matters in large part because of the parallels -- under Clinton, Republicans ran a scorched-earth campaign to destroy the president and his administration. Under Obama, Republicans are doing the same thing.

But it was Bush, Cheney, and Rove who deliberately chose a political strategy based on tearing the country in half, claiming the larger chunk. It was congressional Republicans who went to great lengths to ensure Democrats opposed legislation that could have passed with bipartisan support, because GOP leaders thought it would be easier to exploit divisions for electoral gains.

McCain's attacks are the height of stupidity. He is either so confused that he no longer remembers the last 20 years of American politics, or he assumes Fox News viewers just won't know the difference between reality and propaganda.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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BIDEN JOINS THE FULL-COURT PRESS.... Yesterday, we saw Vicki Kennedy's op-ed in support of Democratic health care reform plans in the Washington Post; today we see Vice President Biden's op-ed on the same subject in the New York Times.

While it is not perfect, the bill pending in the Senate today is not just good enough -- it is very good. Insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions or drop coverage when people get sick. Charging exorbitant premiums based on sex, age or health status will be outlawed. Annual and lifetime caps on benefits will be history. Those who already have insurance will be able to keep it, and will gain peace of mind knowing they won't be priced out of the market by skyrocketing premiums. And more than 30 million uninsured Americans will gain access to affordable health care coverage.

That is not all. President Obama and I know we have to put our fiscal house in order. This is why those who claim they oppose reform because they fear for our country's fiscal stability should finally acknowledge what the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office makes crystal clear: not only is the Senate bill paid for, it is this country's single largest deficit-reduction measure in a dozen years.

Biden expresses disappointment about the loss of the public option, and notes Howard Dean, by name, as a critic who wants to see the effort defeated. The V.P. responds, however, by emphasizing "the magnitude of what [this bill] has the potential to accomplish."

Those who would vote no on this bill need to look into the eyes of Americans who don't have health care now and tell them they're going to be better off without this bill -- better off continuing to live without health coverage. They should explain to all those Americans who are denied coverage because they have pre-existing conditions or whose insurance ran out because of lifetime caps that they don't need this bill. And they should tell the families who have insurance and the small-business owners who provide it that the relentless rise in their premiums without this bill will somehow make them glad it didn't pass. [...]

If the bill passes the Senate this week, there will be more chances to make changes to it before it becomes law. But if the bill dies this week, there is no second chance to vote yes. What those who care about health insurance reform need to realize is that unless we get 60 votes now, there will be no health care reform at all. Not this year, not in this Congress -- and maybe not for another generation.

A couple of things to note here. First, the target audience of Biden's piece seems to be Democrats, liberals, and proponents of health care reform. The message seems to suggest the White House is genuinely concerned that Democratic policymakers are poised to achieve the generation's most important progressive policy accomplishment -- a triumph decades in the making, overcoming fierce attacks from Republicans, the insurance industry, corporate lobbyists, and right-wing activists -- only to have the left feel disappointed, frustrated, and dejected by the success of health care reform.

And on a related note, if the White House is increasingly concerned about this, expect more messages like Biden's in the coming weeks and months. If the reform bill is signed into law, it's the preliminary end of the policy work. But as the op-ed reminds us, it's not the end of the sales job.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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CBO SCORE VS. PRICE.... Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released its score on the Senate health care proposal, and Republicans hoping for a negative report were left empty-handed. The Democratic plan, the CBO found, would cost $871 billion over the next 10 years and cover 31 million more Americans. It's also one of the biggest deficit-reduction proposals in recent history, reducing the deficit by $132 billion in the first decade, and about $1 trillion in the decade after that.

Rep. Tom Price (R) of Georgia, an ardent right-wing opponent of reform, responded to the news by noting that the CBO score found that the "Senate Democrat [sic] bill will increase spending in health care."

Seriously.

John Cole lamented the fact that "so many deeply stupid people are serving in Congress."

Spending in health care is going to increase no matter what happens. It is going to increase at a completely unsustainable rate if we do nothing. Which is why we've been talking about reforming health care for the last couple of decades, and precisely why we've been talking about it intently for the last two. It is why we have been talking about "getting health care costs under control" for years. It is why Republicans, for all my lifetime, have been screaming that Medicaid and Medicare are going to bankrupt us- that is, until a couple of weeks ago when in an act of sheer political cynicism, the RNC and the Republicans decided to guarantee unlimited and unchecked Medicare benefits forever.

It is almost like these Republicans are so damned stupid they have no idea what the hell we are even debating. How are they supposed to have a coherent response or be constructive participants if they can't even figure out the debate?

And that is Tom Price, the Chairman of the Republican Study Committee. The Republican "think tank" in Congress.

Yep, that about sums it up.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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MARVEL AT THE 'ARROGANCE' AND 'NAIVETE'.... CNN is telling me that Sarah Palin said something on Twitter.

In a late night posting on her Twitter feed, Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin continued to blast climate change believers Friday, calling the talks in Copenhagen, Denmark a representation of man's "arrogance," for believing people have an impact on nature.

"Arrogant&Naive2say man overpwers nature," Palin tweeted.

"Earth saw clmate chnge4 ions;will cont 2 c chnges.R duty2responsbly devlop resorces4humankind/not pollute&destroy;but cant alter naturl chng," the former Republican vice presidential nominee wrote.

Or, to translate into English, the former half-term governor believes it's "arrogant and naive" to think human activity is responsible for climate change, which she describes as "man overpowering nature."

I'm not sure what that phrase means, exactly. It's winter, which makes it cold in my office. I've turned on the heat, so I'm comfortable. Have I "overpowered nature," or is it possible that people can take steps that alter natural conditions?

Palin added that the climate has been changing "for ions" -- one assumes she means "eons," and wasn't actually referring to electrically charged particles* -- and will continue to change, regardless of the 90 million tons of carbon emissions we put into the air every day. We have a "responsibility," Palin added, to "responsibly develop resources for humankind, not pollute and destroy," but humans are incapable of "altering natural change."

What CNN did not tell me is that Palin said the exact opposite just last year, repeatedly arguing that human activity contributes to global warming, right around the time she endorsed caps on carbon emissions, which she now rejects.

I suppose the moral of the story, then, is that Sarah Palin believes Sarah Palin is "arrogant and naive."

* Update: I originally defined ions as electrically charged atoms, but an alert reader reminds that ions can be atoms or molecules. Fair enough.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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SNOWE'S WEAK EXCUSE.... By all appearances, the White House, from the outset, made an effort to garner bipartisan support for health care reform. At least in the Senate, that now appears impossible. Democrats no longer need Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-Maine) vote, but they sought it out anyway, to no avail.

Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican who had been considered a possible Democratic ally, said she would oppose the measure because it was being rushed. "It is a take-it-or-leave-it package," she said.

I just can't figure out what on earth Snowe is talking about. She voted with Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee reform plan, but now appears to be looking for an excuse to oppose the effort. But to sound even remotely credible, Snowe will have to do better than this.

For one thing, it's a "take-it-or-leave-it package"? Democrats have been willing to give Snowe just about anything she asked for. That's the opposite of a "take-it-or-leave-it package."

For another, nothing about this has been "rushed." Snowe has been complaining about the speed of the legislative process since July, but therein lies the point: how could this possibly get slower?

Congress and the White House have been debating health care reform since about March. It was debated last year during the presidential campaign. It was debated the year before during the presidential primaries. It was debated at length during the Clinton reform effort, which followed previous debates during previous presidents' efforts. America has been debating health care reform, off and on, since the days of Harry Truman.

Support the bill or don't, but complaining about speed is silly.

Just two months ago, when Snowe broke with her party and supported the Baucus health care bill, she said, "Is this bill all that I would want? Far from it. But when history calls, history calls."

History is still calling, and Snowe has decided to let it ring. She can't, however, seem to explain why.

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December 19, 2009

PLEDGE WEEK CONTINUES.... This is Day Four of the Monthly's annual fundraising drive. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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STUPAK'S OFFICE COORDINATES ATTACKS WITH GOP, RELIGIOUS RIGHT.... Rep. Bart Stupak (D. Mich.) held the House reform bill hostage in November, forcing an odious anti-abortion amendment into the legislation. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) worked very hard to insert the same language into the Senate bill -- and very nearly killed the entire health care reform initiative -- but came up short and had to settle for a compromise.

The compromise isn't exactly a pro-choice victory. While right-wing lawmakers have condemned the agreement, and progressive lawmakers have given it their blessing, the new measure places burdensome restrictions on women receiving coverage through federally subsidized insurance who may want to exercise their legally-protected reproductive rights. The burdens are severe enough that the National Organization for Women insists that the compromise be scuttled or the entire legislation should be killed.

And while NOW targets the compromise from the left, Stupak is working with an interesting group of friends to attack the compromise from the right.

An aide to Rep. Bart Stupak (D. Mich.) coordinated opposition to a Senate compromise on the place of abortion in health care legislation this morning with the Republican Senate leadership, the Conference Catholic Bishops, and other anti-abortion groups, according to a chain of frantic emails obtained this morning by POLITICO. [...]

Stupak is the leader of a group of pro-life Democrats who say they'll oppose the sweeping legislation if it uses government money to pay for abortion, while [Senate Minority Leader McConnell] is firmly committed to killing the legislation. The fact that their offices have made common cause against the Senates health care compromise will likely further infuriate Stupak's Democratic colleagues in the House, and demonstrates his willingness to stop any bill that doesn't pass his test.

Stupak's office, the emails show, coordinated first thing this morning with Republican leaders' offices, the Catholic Bishops, the National Right to Life, and the Family Research Council, a powerful religious right group.

The Michigan Democrat later disavowed his staffer's collaboration with the GOP leadership, but the damage appears to be done. When a Democratic lawmaker's office is coordinating attacks with Republicans and the religious right on the Democratic Party's signature domestic policy priority of the last seven decades, goodwill in the caucus is likely to disappear.

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CBO WEIGHS IN.... The Congressional Budget Office, at long last, released its score on the Senate health care proposal. Republicans hoping to use the score to attack the bill are likely to be disappointed.

The Senate's healthcare bill would cost $871 billion and cover 31 million more Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the bill.

The CBO said that the final legislation, unveiled Saturday by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, would cost $871 billion over the next 10 years and reduce the deficit by $132 billion over the same period. That's more than the first Senate bill had cost.

Roughly 31 million Americans would receive new coverage under the legislation.

The new score is higher than the $848 billion/10 year price tag the CBO gave Harry Reid's original reform bill -- the one that merged the HELP and Finance Committee bills -- but it does more.

Of particular interest, note that annual and lifetime caps on benefits have been eliminated, which is in keeping with President Obama's vision of necessary consumer protections. We learned this week that the original Senate bill allowed annual caps -- a provision that was added to keep premiums down across the board -- which drew intense criticism. The matter has been resolved, though the CBO found that the fix increases premiums a bit.

However, as Ezra noted, "There are also new rules prohibiting insurers from spending less than 85 percent of each premium dollar on medical care -- if they exceed that cap, they need to send customers a rebate. This lowers costs slightly."

On the whole, it's a CBO score reform proponents on the Hill are happy to have.

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BOTAX REPLACED BY BOEH-TAX.... Let the mockery begin.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has spared the cosmetic surgery industry.

The revised bill released Saturday morning subbed a widely-mocked "Botax" with a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning services.

This means anybody who uses tanning salons with beds that have "1 or more ultraviolet lamps" would see the tax on their bill starting July 1.

The focus on tanning salons will likely make House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) the butt of a lot of jokes.

I've already seen quite a few people note that the "Botax" has been replaced with a "Boeh-tax."

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IF IT'S SUNDAY.... "Fox News Sunday" is touting its line-up for tomorrow's show.

It's down to the wire as Senate Democrats race to meet a self-imposed deadline on passing a health care reform bill.

We'll get a sense of the Senate when Chris Wallace sits down for exclusive interviews with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

I guess it's time to update the big board.

For those keeping score at home, as of tomorrow, there will have been 50 Sundays since President Obama's inauguration. This will be John McCain's 17th appearance on a Sunday morning talk show since then, giving him an average of one appearance every 2.9 weeks in 2009. No other official in the country has been sought out this often.

Since the president took office, McCain has been on "Meet the Press" three times (December 6, July 12, and March 29), "This Week" three times (September 27, August 23, and May 10), CNN's "State of the Union" three times (October 11, August 2, and February 15), and "Face the Nation" four times (October 25, August 30, April 26, and February 8). His appearance on "Fox News Sunday" tomorrow will be his fourth (December 20, July 2, March 8, and January 25),

And who, exactly, is John McCain? He's the one who lost last year's presidential race badly, and is now just another conservative senator in the minority. He's not in the party leadership; he has no role in any important negotiations on any issue; and he's offered no significant pieces of legislation. By all appearances, McCain isn't even especially influential among his own GOP colleagues.

Best of all, tomorrow's "Fox News Sunday" focus is on health care reform -- a subject McCain doesn't even pretend to know anything about.

There's just no reason for the media's obsession with McCain. None. Seventeen Sunday-show appearances in 11 months? It's farcical.

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a look at something called the "prayercast," organized by Family Research Council Action PAC, a leading religious right outfit. The point of the event was to organize right-wing activists to pray for the failure of health care reform in the Senate.

It's hard to truly appreciate the true madness surrounding the event and its neo-theocratic organizers/participants, but I found Rachel Maddow's coverage helped capture some of the more disturbing elements.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Of particular note, remember that high-ranking, elected federal officials were integrally involved in this rather bizarre right-wing gathering. Alongside religious right heavyweights like Tony Perkins and James Dobson, Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) were on hand, and Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minn.) even helped lead attendees in prayer against health care reform.

Right Wing Watch had some of the best coverage of the "prayercast" anywhere, and posted some striking clips from the event, including this one in which Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) argues that the Bible should be a "blueprint" for American government, and this one in which James and Shirley Dobson ask God to "frustrate the plans of the Evil One."

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Megachurch pastor, televangelist, and John McCain ally the Rev. Rod Parsley is apparently hurting financially, in part because of an abuse lawsuit stemming from an incident at his church's daycare center. This week, Parsley claimed to be the victim of a "demonically inspired financial attack."

* An evangelical legend passed this week: "Evangelist Oral Roberts, founder of the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association and Oral Roberts University, died Tuesday from complications of pneumonia in Newport Beach, California, his spokeswoman said. He was 91."

* Citing a study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the New York Times' Charles Blow reported, "Democrats were almost twice as likely to believe in ghosts and to consult fortune-tellers than were Republicans, and the Democrats were 71 percent more likely to believe that they were in touch with the dead." (thanks to reader D.J. for the tip)

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THE COMPROMISE THAT SECURED NELSON'S SUPPORT.... Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) fought for the Stupak language to be added to the Senate bill. There was no way Senate Dems would go for this, and they didn't. But with limited ways to thread the needle, a compromise remained elusive.

That is, until last night, when Sens. Nelson, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) worked something out. Here's what they agreed to:

...Reid included a provision that allows states to prohibit abortion coverage in the insurance exchanges the bill creates. It's basically a state opt-out, which largely allows Democrats to sidestep the tricky issue by dumping it on the states.

The amendment also requires that health plans that provide abortion services segregate the premiums from any federal money so that federal funds don't pay for abortion services. Similar proposals have come under fire from pro-life groups who call the maneuver a shell game. They argue that because the insurance plans offered through the exchange are eligible for federal subsidies, taxpayer money is still paying for the coverage of abortion.

And while it still might not satisfy pro-life groups, the important point for Democrats today is that it wins Nelson's vote, which they need to pass a bill.

Sens. Boxer and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), both of whom are strong pro-choice lawmakers, endorsed the deal.

"We said all along that we wanted to ensure there was a firewall between private and public funds -- this compromise achieves that.

"We said we would not accept language that prohibited a woman from using her own private funds for her legal reproductive health care -- this compromise meets that test.

"And we said we would stop Stupak -- which we did. Let's be clear -- we were both much happier with the Capps language and the language in the underlying bill. But compromise was necessary to get a health care bill for the American people, and this compromise achieves that."

Nelson, not surprisingly, said if the House-Senate conference interferes with his deal, he'll join a GOP filibuster on the final approval vote.

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THE PRE-CHRISTMAS SCHEDULE IN THE SENATE.... So, as of right this minute, it looks like there are 60 votes in the Senate to pass a health care bill. The goal has been to pass the legislation by Christmas. Is that still on track? For the most part.

Right now, Republicans are forcing Senate clerks to read the entire text of the 383-page Manager's Amendment. To keep the schedule on track, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will have to start the clock on the first vote tonight, so the clerks will have to read rather quickly.

From there, here's the way things will play out, if all goes according to plan:

* Monday, Dec. 21, at 1 a.m. (ET): The Senate will vote to end debate on the Manager's Amendment. This will need a 60-vote majority. Almost immediately after, Reid will start the clock on the next cloture vote, which leads us to ...

* Tuesday, Dec. 22, at 7:30 a.m. (ET): The Senate will vote, up or down, on the Manager's Amendment. Almost immediately after, Reid will start the clock on the next cloture vote, which leads us to ...

* Wednesday, Dec. 23, around 2 p.m. (ET): After some procedural votes on the original health care proposal, as amended by the Manager's Amendment, the Senate will vote to end debate on the final health care bill. This will need a 60-vote majority. Almost immediately after, Reid will start the clock on the next cloture vote, which leads us to ...

* Thursday, Dec. 24, sometime between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. (ET): They will vote, up or down, on health care reform.

Keep in mind, it is within Republicans' power to shorten this schedule whenever they want. Indeed, the only reason it would be dragged out between today and late on Christmas Eve would be to overcome obstructionist hurdles put in place by Senate Republicans.

Put another way, the Senate could hold all of these votes in rapid succession, if only the GOP would allow it. But if they were to expedite things, the Republican base would accuse them of "rolling over" on health care, so the delays continue -even if that means keeping members voting literally on Christmas Eve.

And then what? Don't expect any ping-ponging. The House has some changes in mind, and rumor has it, the White House does, too.

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REID UNVEILS MANAGER'S AMENDMENT, NELSON ENDORSES REFORM.... Several Hill sources have told me this week, "When you see the Manager's Amendment, it means Reid has his 60."

Well, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did, in fact, unveil his Manager's Amendment -- encompassing a wide variety of changes intended to satisfy a wide variety of demands -- this morning. It's online here (pdf).

And what about the caucus' lone holdout? It took a long time, excruciating back-and-forth talks, and Harry Reid having the patience of Job, but Ben Nelson appears to be on board.

Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), the final Democratic holdout on health care, was prepared to announce to his caucus Saturday morning that he would support the Senate reform bill, clearing the way for final passage by Christmas.

"We're there," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), as he headed into a special meeting to announce the deal.

Asked this morning whether he was finally prepared to support the reform bill, Nelson told reporters, "Yeah."

As of about 25 minutes ago, Reid was briefing the entire caucus -- sans Lieberman, who is celebrating Hanukkah in Connecticut today -- on the contents of the Manager's Amendment. What's more, the entire text of the measure, which is nearly 400 pages, is being read on the Senate floor in its entirety right now.

We'll have a better sense of the Manager's Amendment's specific provisions in the coming hours, but a senior Democratic aide emailed me some talking points/bullets, which I've included below the fold.

From the background document:

The manager's amendment builds upon the strong bill we already have.

Protects our good coverage, cost, and affordability number

* Reduces Deficits -- estimated to save over $130 billion first ten and roughly $650 billion second ten

* Expands Coverage -- over 94 percent of Americans under 65 years of age, including over 31 million uninsured

* Reduces Costs -- most Americans will see their health care costs reduced relative to projected levels


Makes health care more affordable for Americans by expanding small business tax credits

* $12 billion increase

* Begins in 2010

* Expands wage thresholds for tax credits


Demands greater accountability from insurance companies/ creates more choice and competition

* Medical Loss Ratio 85/80 percent -- Insurance companies will be forced to spend more money on care and less money padding their bottom line.

* Starting immediately children cannot be denied health coverage due to pre-existing conditions

* Insurance companies who jack up their rates will be barred from competing in the exchange.

* Give patients the right to appeal to an independent board if an insurance company denies a coverage claim

* Health insurers will offer national plans to Americans under the supervision of the Office of Personnel Management, the same entity that oversees health plans for Members of Congress.

* Provides significant resources for Community Health Centers

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THE ONGOING SEARCH FOR 60.... There weren't a whole lot of developments in the health care reform debate yesterday, in part because so many of the players were engaged in negotiations. Where are we, as of right now? At least a little closer to the goal.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expressing confidence about the prospects for passage of historic health care legislation after daylong talks with Democratic holdout Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

In a statement issued late Friday night, Reid says he intends to unveil final revisions to the measure on Saturday and is confident they will prevail.

Nelson also said real progress had been made but said there was nothing final.

Nelson apparently left Reid's office at 9:40 p.m. (ET), and told reporters, "We are still talking and will have some more conversations tomorrow." He added that there is "certainly nothing final," but "there is progress."

Nelson has a variety of demands, but by most accounts, the notion of indirect funding for abortion continues to be the conservative Nebraskan's principal concern. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who also opposes abortion rights, has been working on language that satisfies Nelson's requirements -- the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals, offered specific praise of Casey's efforts.

Of course, from a pro-choice perspective, there's the obvious concern of who's trying to work out the deal: Reid, Casey, and Nelson, all of whom are Democrats, but all of whom oppose a woman's right to choose. To that end, Reid has Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, a leading proponent of abortion rights, involved in the talks.

For what it's worth, after last night's meeting ended, Boxer told reporters, "I'm optimistic that we can get 60 votes."

The discussions continue today, assuming senators can get to the Hill in a city that really doesn't deal well with snow.

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VICKI KENNEDY URGES SENATE TO PASS REFORM.... There was a point, about four months ago, when it seemed possible that Ted Kennedy's death might spur support for health care reform. While his absence was felt throughout the year, his passing stood to provide "the final moral impetus to accomplish one of the primary causes to which he dedicated his life."

One observer went so far as to argue that "it would be suicidal for the GOP to filibuster the culmination of the last Kennedy brother's lifelong crusade.... I suspect the coverage of Kennedy's death would silence healthcare reform critics and boost proponents in a way that netted at least a couple of wavering moderates."

We now know, of course, that as the weeks elapsed, the political relevance of Kennedy's passing faded. The talk of renaming the bill after the legendary senator, and getting this bill done to honor his legacy, was quickly drowned out by attacks against the initiative and prolonged threats of obstructionism.

To that end, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Ted Kennedy's widow, has a poignant op-ed in today's Washington Post, urging her late husband's colleagues not to back away from his life-long dream.

My late husband, Ted Kennedy, was passionate about health-care reform. It was the cause of his life. He believed that health care for all our citizens was a fundamental right, not a privilege, and that this year the stars -- and competing interests -- were finally aligned to allow our nation to move forward with fundamental reform. He believed that health-care reform was essential to the financial stability of our nation's working families and of our economy as a whole.

Still, Ted knew that accomplishing reform would be difficult. If it were easy, he told me, it would have been done a long time ago. He predicted that as the Senate got closer to a vote, compromises would be necessary, coalitions would falter and many ardent supporters of reform would want to walk away. He hoped that they wouldn't do so. He knew from experience, he told me, that this kind of opportunity to enact health-care reform wouldn't arise again for a generation.

Vicki Kennedy's piece doesn't break new policy ground, but it includes a variety of subtle (and some not-so subtle) reminders to Ted Kennedy's colleagues.

Ted Kennedy, she wrote, is "not here to urge us not to let this chance slip through our fingers. So I humbly ask his colleagues to finish the work of his life, the work of generations, to allow the vote to go forward and to pass health-care reform now."

Notice the importance of "allow the vote to go forward" -- it's a simple and straightforward rebuke to the notion of GOP obstructionism.

It's hard to say if the Kennedy op-ed will sway any wavering members, but it's well timed and it certainly can't hurt.

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December 18, 2009

PLEDGE WEEK CONTINUES.... This is Day Three of the Monthly's annual fundraising drive. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who have already contributed. For those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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

* Sounds like encouraging progress on START: "The United States and Russia have reached agreement on most major issues in a new treaty that would cut their deployed strategic nuclear warheads by one-fourth and allow each side to continue to verify the other's stockpiles, officials said Friday.... President Obama said that the two sides are 'quite close' to concluding a new version of the pact."

* Congressional Republicans will throw a fit, but for now, there's marriage equality in the nation's capital: "District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty signed a measure recognizing such marriages as legal.... Fenty signed the measure at All Souls Church, a Unitarian Universalist house of worship in the northwest part of the district that is known for its diversity and for the welcoming of same-sex couples."

* Keep an eye on this one: "The Iraqi government said Friday that Iranian troops had crossed the border and occupied a portion of an oil field situated on disputed land between the two countries, but Iranian officials immediately and vehemently disputed the account."

* If someone could please address this: "Militants in Iraq have used $26 off-the-shelf software to intercept live video feeds from U.S. Predator drones, potentially providing them with information they need to evade or monitor U.S. military operations." (thanks to reader R.M. for the tip)

* It doesn't sound like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will filibuster health care reform.

* Paul Krugman defends the Senate health care proposal: "[L]et's all take a deep breath, and consider just how much good this bill would do, if passed -- and how much better it would be than anything that seemed possible just a few years ago. With all its flaws, the Senate health bill would be the biggest expansion of the social safety net since Medicare, greatly improving the lives of millions. Getting this bill would be much, much better than watching health care reform fail."

* Jon Chait "defends" Bill Kristol from my pointed abuse.

* I guess congressional gridlock doesn't apply to college football's postseason.

* Remember Michael Zak, the right-wing author the Republican National Committee hired to write content for the new RNC website? This week, Zak compared President Obama to Hitler. Classy.

* I'm a little surprised to see Joe Trippi become a contributor to Fox News.

* Betsy McCaughey awarded the Health Care Misinformer of the Year prize. Well deserved.

* How ridiculous is right-wing radio host/GOP activist Laura Ingraham? Bill O'Reilly told her on the air, "You are a blind ideologue." Ouch.

* RNC Chairman Michael Steele is easily confused. Today, the poor guy argued that health care reform is "going to cost us over a trillion dollars a year." What a strange man.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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'MEANINGFUL' AGREEMENT STRUCK IN COPENHAGEN.... It looked for a while as if the international climate talks in Copenhagen would unravel altogether, producing nothing. But this afternoon, less than a half-day after President Obama arrived in Denmark, and on the final day of the 12-day, 193-nation summit, negotiators appear to have reached a deal. It's reportedly not a great deal, and it's probably a stretch to call it a good deal, but it's evidence of some progress.

World leaders reached a climate deal Friday night, according to an Obama administration official and other sources familiar with the talks. They said the deal provides a means to monitor and verify emissions cuts by developing countries but has less ambitious climate targets than the United States and European governments had initially sought.

An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a "meaningful agreement was reached" following a multilateral meeting between President Obama and the leaders of China, India and South Africa. "It's not sufficient to combat the threat of climate change, but it's an important first step," the official said.

"Developed and developing countries have now agreed to listing their national actions and commitments, a finance mechanism, to set a mitigation target of 2 degrees Celsius and to provide information on the implementation of their actions through national communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines," the official said. "No country is entirely satisfied with each element, but this is a meaningful and historic step forward and a foundation from which to make further progress."

The biggest shortfall, based on initial reports, appears to be the framework for future agreements: "The accord drops the expected goal of concluding a binding international treaty by the end of 2010, which leaves the implementation of its provisions uncertain. It is likely to undergo many months, perhaps years, of additional negotiation before it emerges in any internationally enforceable form."

Nevertheless, the circumstances that led to the deal sound pretty entertaining:

The deal came after a dramatic moment in which Mr. Obama burst into a meeting of the Chinese, Indian and Brazilian leaders, according to senior administration officials. Chinese protocol officers noisily protested, and Mr. Obama said he did not want them negotiating in secret. The intrusion led to new talks that cemented key terms of the deal, American officials said.

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WHY TALKS WITH NELSON GO POORLY.... To hear Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) put it, if even a small number of American women are able to get indirect subsidies for their reproductive choices, he'll have to kill health care reform. But as of yesterday, Nelson has other concerns, too.

Sounding suspiciously like someone who's read a few too many Republican talking points, Nelson added that a Medicaid expansion would "create an underfunded federal mandate for the state of Nebraska."

Alec MacGillis reports today that Nelson has it backwards -- under proposed Medicaid expansion, his home state stands to do very well.

As it now stands, states and the federal government share the cost of Medicaid on a scale based on their wealth, with richer states paying half and poorer states paying a quarter or less. Nebraska pays 40 percent. States have widely varying levels of eligibility for their residents.

Under the legislation, much of the extension of coverage would be accomplished by raising the threshold for Medicaid eligibility to a uniform level across the country -- to 133 percent of the poverty level in the Senate bill, and 150 percent of the poverty level in the House bill.

To keep this expansion from burdening already-strapped state governments, the bills call for the federal government to pick up nearly the entire cost of covering newly eligible people -- 91 percent of the cost in the House bill, and even more of it in the Senate bill.

The Senate bill would have the federal government cover all newly eligible people until 2016, at which point its share would begin to decline, to 92.8 percent by 2019 in the case of Nebraska. These terms would cover the first 10 years of the bill, then be revisited.

John Holahan of the Urban Institute told MacGillis states Nebraska "have to come up with the extra money, so you can view it as a burden, but on the other hand, a ton of federal dollars are coming in to pay for these people, so it's an economic gain in that sense. This is a really ridiculous thing for anybody to complain about... The bottom line is, Nebraska comes out great on this."

In the larger sense, the problem is not just that Nelson is a conservative Democrat, resisting a progressive policy goal. It's also the fact that Nelson has developed a reputation for ignoring substantive policy details. This makes it extremely difficult to explore compromise solutions with him -- Nelson tends not to understand what other senators are offering. When he raises a concern that troubles him, Nelson hears the explanation of why that concern isn't really a problem, but doesn't really believe it because he doesn't really understand it.

This is a classic example. Nelson probably heard a Republican tell him Nebraska would be hurt by Medicaid expansion. He believed it. When he raised the point with proponents, Nelson didn't understand that Nebraska would benefit from the Medicaid changes.

For what it's worth, Nelson huddled privately with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier today. After their meeting, Nelson told reporters, "Hopefully we're making progress. As I said, there's always a lot of room which you have to have between the bid and the ask, and we're seeing if we can close the gap."

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WHEN MCCAIN'S BAD MEMORY AND MCCAIN'S HYPOCRISY COLLIDE.... In a memorable exchange yesterday, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was pontificating on the Senate floor when he his allotted time elapsed. He asked Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who was presiding over the Senate at the time, for an additional minute. Franken, somewhat sheepishly, declined.

As it turns out, Franken had been instructed by the Senate leadership to run a tight ship yesterday, and not let senators exceed their allotted times. It wasn't personal or ideological -- Franken was following the leadership's instructions because of a very limited, pre-holiday schedule.

These pesky nuances (i.e., reality) are apparently lost on conservatives. Fox News bashed Franken today. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to the floor yesterday to express his outrage.

"I've been around here 20-some years. First time I've ever seen a member denied an extra minute or two to finish his remarks.... I just haven't seen it before myself. And I don't like it. And I think it harms the comity of the Senate not to allow one of our members at least a minute. I'm sure that time is urgent here, but I doubt that it would be that urgent."

As it too often the case, McCain didn't know what he was talking about. He was complaining without knowing about the instructions from the leadership, and worse, he made it seem as if Franken was the first to presiding officer to deny a senator additional time when other senators had also been denied additional time earlier that same day.

More to the point, Faiz Shakir found this great example.

Unfortunately, McCain's memory is suffering. In fact, McCain has engaged in the very same behavior that he was criticizing Franken for yesterday.

On October 10, 2002 -- just ahead of the looming mid-term elections -- the Senate rushed a debate on a war authorization giving President Bush the power to use force against Iraq. The resolution ultimately passed the Senate after midnight on an early Friday morning by a vote of 77-23.

During the course of the frenzied floor debate, then-Sen. Mark Dayton (D-MN) spoke in favor of an amendment offered by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) that would have restricted Bush's constitutional powers to wage war against Iraq. After a minute and a half, Dayton ran of time.

When Dayton requested 30 additional seconds, McCain refused. It wasn't personal; McCain was "strictly adhering to the rules" because of time restrictions.

McCain, in other words, lashed out at Franken for doing something routine -- which McCain himself has also done.

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NOONAN LAMENTS 'THE ADAM LAMBERT PROBLEM'.... Pollsters routinely ask Americans whether they believe the country is, in general, on the right track or the wrong track. Politicos tend to take the number pretty seriously -- it offers a peek into the public's overall attitudes on the economy, politics, the future, etc.

For the first third of the year, the right-track/wrong-track numbers were moving quickly in the right direction. But over the summer, they peaked, leveled off, and began to drift in a pessimistic direction again.

The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan thinks she knows why. (via Steve M.)

The economy has always had an impact on the general American mood, and the poll offered data to buttress the reader's assumption that economic concerns are driving pessimism.... But something tells me this isn't all about money. It's possible, and I can't help but think likely, that the poll is also about other things, and maybe even primarily about other things.

Sure, Americans are worried about long-term debt and endless deficits. We're worried about taxes and the burden we're bequeathing to our children, and their children.

But we are concerned about other things, too, and there are often signs in various polls that those things may dwarf economic concerns. Americans are worried about the core and character of the American nation, and about our culture.

It is one thing to grouse that dreadful people who don't care about us control our economy, but another, and in a way more personal, thing to say that people who don't care about us control our culture. In 2009 this was perhaps most vividly expressed in the Adam Lambert Problem.

I tend not to keep up such things, but it seems Adam Lambert is a singer, made popular by "American Idol." Lambert, who is gay, did some racy number on ABC several weeks ago; the network freaked out; and it caused a national stir for about a day and a half.

Noonan, however, sees a larger significance: "Mr. Lambert's act left viewers feeling not just offended but assaulted.... It cannot be exaggerated, how much Americans feel besieged by the culture of their own country, and to what lengths they have to go to protect their children from it."

All of this has a certain stay-off-my-lawn quality that's not especially compelling. It was more than a half-century ago, but I suspect a similar column must have run in 1956, when Elvis swung his hips a little too much on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Professional pollsters can probably speak to this more effectively than I can, but I imagine the right-track/wrong-track numbers have very little to do with a televised musical number that the vast majority of Americans didn't watch and barely remember. Rather, people probably feel more optimistic when the economy is stronger, jobs are more plentiful, families have health care coverage, parents can afford their kids' college tuition, and servicemen and women come home from war(s).

This year, the numbers faded, not because of a culture conflict, but because people had higher expectations of how quickly the country would recover from last year's disasters. When progress was slower than was hoped, optimism for many faded.

About a year ago, the right-track/wrong-track number was the lowest it's been since the dawn of modern polling -- the right-track number fell, frighteningly enough, into the single digits in some major national polls. It wasn't because wholesome families saw something they perceived as lewd on the American Music Awards show; it was because Noonan's friends in the Bush White House had run the country into a deep ditch, one which we're still crawling out of.

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INHOFE WASTES A TRANSATLANTIC TRIP.... In September, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) announced that he would travel to Copenhagen for the international climate change talks, for the purpose of undermining the Obama administration's position. It's not particularly common for American elected officials to travel abroad to sabotage the position of the United States government, but Inhofe is ... what's the word ... special.

His plan was fairly straightforward -- U.S. officials would assure world leaders that America is ready to act to combat global warming, and intends to pass legislation to reduce emissions. Inhofe, the Senate's leading opponent of science, reason, and evidence, set out to explain to foreign governments that U.S. officials are not to be believed, in part because he would personally make U.S. policymaking on climate change impossible.

So, was his trip successful? Not so much.

Sen. Jim Inhofe flew across the Atlantic and -- on little sleep -- braved the snow, the cold and the dark to deliver his skeptical message at the international climate conference.

What he found when he got here: a few aides and a single reporter.

"I think he's going to be a little disappointed," one of his aides remarked.

Inhofe scheduled a brief visit to Copenhagen -- arrive, spread nonsense, fly back -- but his stay was poorly timed. When the right-wing Oklahoman got there, it was early morning, and no one was around. He was able to arrange zero meetings, met no foreign officials, and had no discussions with U.S. negotiators.

Eventually, Inhofe aides were able to corral some journalists into attending a hastily-arranged media availability, where the strange senator proceeded to share his belief that the United Nations came up with global warming as an elaborate hoax, and only the "Hollywood elite" believe the scientific evidence.

A reporter from Der Spiegel told the senator, "You're ridiculous."

Soon after, Inhofe dashed back to the airport for the nine-hour flight back to D.C., having accomplished nothing.

If he wasn't such a dangerous clown, and the most ridiculous senator of his generation, I might even feel sorry for the guy.

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STAY OFF MY SIDE.... We've been talking quite a bit this week about the policy dispute between progressives, some of whom believe the Senate Democratic health care plan is worth passing, some of whom believe it should be scrapped. Greg Sargent reports today that some -- not all, some -- in the center-left media establishment have decided that the latter contingent is not only wrong, but is not to be taken seriously at all.

Ronald Brownstein, for one, is actually trying to claim that Howard Dean opposes the bill because he's a "wine track" Democrat who doesn't lack insurance and hence has the luxury to indulge in ideological struggles.

Brownstein writes that Dean and the "digital left" are able to "casually dismiss" the bill because "they operate in an environment where so few people need to worry about access to insurance." He adds that for these critics, the debate is "largely an abstraction" and merely a crusade to "crush Republicans and ideologically cleanse the Democrats."

Brownstein doesn't meaningfully respond to any of Dean's substantive policy objections to the bill. If he did, he could no longer claim Dean's critique is purely "ideological."

He's not the only one making this claim. Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The Times today wrote that "ideology" is "smacking the pragmatic president in the face," presumably meaning that the word "ideology" is a good catch-all for all criticism of the bill. And Joe Klein has dismissed critics for being in the grip of "ideological fetishes."

Look, I've been clear about where I come down on this -- I think the remaining health care reform policy has merit and should be passed (and then improved upon). To that limited extent, Brownstein & Co. have come to the same conclusion that I have on the value of the Senate proposal.

But their mockery of progressives who've criticized the bill is absurd. I suppose it's possible to find some liberal, somewhere, who recommended killing the Senate plan for purely ideological/political reasons, but as I've pointed out several times this week, any fair reading of concerns raised by most progressive opponents shows a great deal of specific, substantive, policy-centered concerns.

To argue otherwise is to ignore the readily-available text.

I should also note, of course, that there are reflexive, knee-jerk opponents of health care reform, who seem more concerned with an ideological agenda than the nation's needs. You won't find them on Daily Kos or FireDogLake -- these opponents include Tea Party activists, Fox News' on-air personalities, and the vast majority of the Republican caucuses in both chambers of Congress.

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BILL KRISTOL, PUBLIC SAFETY ADVOCATE.... Bill Kristol makes no secret of the fact that he hopes to see Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) kill health care reform. But today, the Weekly Standard editor came up with a new reason for Nelson, not just to kill the bill, but to do so today.

There's a really big snowstorm coming to D.C.tonight. It would be unsafe to ask all the staffers and Hill employees who'd be needed at the Capitol if Congress stays open all hours this weekend, as Harry Reid intends, to drive to and from work--especially since many will have to do so at night, and they won't be well-rested. So from the point of view of public safety and personal well-being, Ben Nelson can do everyone a favor, announce today he won't vote for cloture, and let everyone stay home this weekend.

Yes, Bill Kristol wants support for a Republican filibuster because it's likely to snow.

Kristol, you may recall, was the far-right activist/media figure who advised congressional Republicans 15 years ago to overlook the policy and the consequences for Americans, and just "kill" the Clinton health care reform initiative outright. To do otherwise, Kristol said, would be to risk more Democratic gains, and put Republicans in a difficult electoral position for the indefinite future. Republicans, for their own good, had to put the party's interests above the country's, he said.

This is also the same Kristol who argued in July that Republican lawmakers should "resist the temptation" to work with Democrats on a bipartisan solution to the broken status quo. "Go for the kill," he advised the GOP, adding, "Throw the kitchen sink at the legislation now on the table, drive a stake through its heart (I apologize for the mixed metaphors), and kill it."

And now he's been reduced to relying on the weather as an excuse. How sad.

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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.

* MoveOn.org launched a fundraising campaign this week, collecting funds to be used against Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) in 2012. The initial goal was $400,000. In less than 48 hours, donations topped $1 million.

* The NRCC hopes to help House Republicans win a majority in next year's midterms, but the campaign committee's fundraising is surprisingly weak at this point.

* In Pennsylvania, a new Quinnipiac poll shows Sen. Arlen Specter looking unexpectedly strong in his Democratic primary race against Rep. Joe Sestak, with the incumbent senator now leading by 23 points, 53% to 30%. In a general election match-up against former Rep. Pat Toomey, the poll showed the candidates tied at 44% each.

* While a Rasmussen poll this week showed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist tied in his Republican Senate primary against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, a new Zogby poll shows Crist up by nine, 45% to 36%.

* In California's gubernatorial race, a new statewide poll shows former eBay CEO Meg Whitman leads the Republican field, but state Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) leads all GOP candidates in hypothetical match-ups.

* President Obama has taken an interest in Wisconsin's gubernatorial race, and is signaling his support for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

* Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) continues to show an interest in challenging Sen. John McCain in a Republican primary next year, and was in D.C. yesterday for some meetings with possible supporters.

* Rand Paul's Senate campaign in Kentucky suffered a humiliating setback yesterday, when his chief spokesperson, Christopher Hightower, had to resign. Hightower was shown to have posted "disturbing images" and a series of racist comments on his MySpace page.

* Don't be too surprised if former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson (R), who's something of a political gadfly, runs for president in 2012.

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'HISTORY' IS STILL CALLING.... With the health care reform bill seemingly stuck, for now, at "only" 59 votes, there are effectively two additional votes that are considered "in play." One is Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who's been showered with attention. The other is Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who isn't exactly feeling lonely, either.

If there were any doubts that Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine has earned a special place in the hearts of Democrats by being the only Senate Republican to vote for any form of the major health legislation, just consider how she spent her Thursday: First she attended a meeting at the White House for roughly 80 to 90 minutes, a good portion of it one-on-one with President Obama. Later, she and Mr. Obama had a half-hour follow-up call.

By any measure, that is a substantial chunk of the president's day.

It is, indeed. It's also a reflection of the fact that the White House believes the White House believes Snowe is at least willing to listen. Indeed, the moderate Maine senator told the NYT that her discussions with the president have been constructive: "We have a chance to share our views. So I get a better understanding of his vantage point, his perspective, where he's coming from on these issues, and likewise he gets to hear my concerns and what I'm thinking at this moment in time. It helps to keep those lines of communications open. We have good free-flowing, straightforward, constructive, productive conversations.... He's very familiar, very knowledgeable, very much aware of the circumstances, changing events."

That's all very nice. But is she any closer to supporting the bill (or, at a minimum, letting the Senate vote on it)?

Let's not forget that just two months ago, Snowe broke with her party and supported the Baucus health care bill in the Senate Finance Committee. "Is this bill all that I would want? Far from it," Snowe told her committee colleagues at the time. "But when history calls, history calls."

Two months later, history is back on the line, hoping she'll pick up.

A reader asked me via email last night what I thought the White House and the Senate leadership would have to do to earn Snowe's support before Christmas. It quickly occurred to me that I have no idea. It was clear what Lieberman wanted (and got). It's fairly clear what Ben Nelson wants (but can't have). But even now, Snowe is withholding support, and it's not altogether clear why.

She supported the Finance Committee bill, but moved away when the bill included a public option (and, later, a Medicare buy-in). But both of those measures have been removed, at Lieberman's behest.

What is Snowe is holding out for? If there's a wish list, the senator has kept it awfully quiet.

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MATTHEWS STILL DOESN'T GET IT.... On "Hardball" yesterday, New York writer John Heilemann noted that President Obama and his health care reform effort have come under fire from "the Democratic left." Host Chris Matthews was dismissive of the critics:

"I don't consider them Democrats. I consider them netroots, and they're different. If I see that they vote in every election or most elections, I'll be worried. But I'm not sure they're regular, grown-up Democrats. I think a lot of those people are troublemakers who love to sit in the back seat and complain. They're not interested in governing this country. They never ran for office, they're not interested in working for somebody in public office. They get their giggles out of sitting in the back seat and bitching."

Whether Matthews likes the netroots or not is of no real consequence, but it's probably worth taking a moment to highlight some of the flaws in his thinking.

For example, arguably the highest profile Democratic detractor on health care is Howard Dean, who's "run for office" many times, including having served five terms as a governor. There are plenty of other netroots voices who've also sought elected office. Similarly, there are plenty of bloggers and blog readers who have ample experience "working for somebody in public office." Former Hill staffers and campaign aides are a staple of the community. Matthews is condemning a group he knows very little about.

Just as important, though, it's striking to hear Matthews condemn those who "sit in the back seat and complain." The last time I checked, Matthews receives several million dollars a year to do exactly that.

I get the impression that Matthews, even now, considers media professionals who publish political commentary and analysis online to be pajama-wearing, basement-dwelling amateurs -- who apparently don't vote, aren't "grown up," and have no background in professional politics.

It's nearly 2010. Shouldn't we be past this by now?

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AXELROD PRESSES NELSON ON HEALTH CARE VOTE.... White House Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle and Senior Advisor David Axelrod hosted a 30-minute conference call with bloggers last night (I was one of several who participated) to discuss the reform bill. They covered a fair amount of ground, but there was one response from Axelrod that stood out.

Susie Madrak posted the audio of the conference call, and wrote up a detailed report on the discussion topics, which included re-importation, enforcement of new insurance regulations, annual caps on health care expenses, and recent polling data.

Of particular interest, though, was Axelrod's response to a question about Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who continues to threaten to hold health care hostage.

"We are working hard to persuade Senator Nelson that this is in the best interest of Nebraska and his constituents and the country. And we will continue to do that as we will with other members of the Senate," Axelrod said. "And the main thing I would say to him and others members of the Senate is that after a long, long, long and thorough debate, let us have a vote.

"What we are arguing about today is not whether a majority support the bill in the Senate," Axelrod added. "A majority does. What we are arguing about is whether they will have a chance to express themselves and vote -- or whether a minority will thwart the majority and keep that vote from happening.

"And so my hope is that for Senator Nelson, who has always said under Republican administrations that we shouldn't use procedural maneuvers to try and keep bills from coming to the floor, that he will not allow that to happen here."

That's probably about as critical as any White House official has been of Nelson during the process. It's also a good point.

I don't doubt that all of the relevant players are well aware of this, but I still think the strongest possible pitch with Nelson is "just let the Senate vote." Whether he meant it or not is unclear, but Nelson has always denounced obstructionism. Now he can prove his sincerity.

Nelson doesn't have to like the bill; he doesn't even have to vote on the bill. He just has to clear the way for his colleagues to have a say after a grueling year.

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OBAMA PRESSES FOR CLIMATE PACT.... As promised, President Obama traveled to Copenhagen this morning, calling on the 119 world leaders to, at long last, reach an international climate change agreement.

The president wasted no time during his visit: Within an hour of Air Force One's touchdown in Copenhagen on Friday morning, Mr. Obama was in a meeting with a high-level group of leaders representing some 20 countries and organizations. But that earlier meeting was most notable in that the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, elected not to attend, instead sending the vice foreign minister, He Yafei, a snub that left both American and European officials seething.

After his speech, however, Obama did meet with Wen privately for nearly an hour, where the two reportedly made some "progress."

But the speech itself was notable in that the president sounded impatient with the delays. Indeed, at one point early on, Obama strayed from his prepared text, telling the audience, "The question ... before us is no longer the nature of the challenge -- the question is our capacity to meet it. For while the reality of climate change is not in doubt, I have to be honest, as the world watches us today, I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now, and it hangs in the balance."

Also of interest, the president emphasized the importance of a mechanism through which nations would be held accountable, proving that countries are doing what they claim to reduce emissions. "These measures need not be intrusive, or infringe upon sovereignty," Obama said. "They must, however, ensure that an accord is credible, and that we're living up to our obligations. Without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page. I don't know how you have an international agreement where we all are not sharing information and ensuring that we are meeting our commitments. That doesn't make sense. It would be a hollow victory." (China, I think he's talking to you.)

Acknowledging the divisions between developing nations and major powers, the president concluded, "We know the fault lines because we've been imprisoned by them for years. These international discussions have essentially taken place now for almost two decades, and we have very little to show for it other than an increased acceleration of the climate change phenomenon. The time for talk is over. This is the bottom line: We can embrace this accord, take a substantial step forward, continue to refine it and build upon its foundation. We can do that, and everyone who is in this room will be part of a historic endeavor -- one that makes life better for our children and our grandchildren. Or we can choose delay, falling back into the same divisions that have stood in the way of action for years. And we will be back having the same stale arguments month after month, year after year, perhaps decade after decade, all while the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible."

The similarity between what the president tells the world about climate change and what the president tells Congress about health care is striking.

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IF NELSON IS SEEKING ATTENTION, HE'S GOT IT.... By most head-counts, the Senate Democratic health care proposal has 59 votes. Because the Senate can be an absurd institution, legislation with 59 supporters out of 100 members necessarily fails.

The only holdout in the Democratic caucus -- the one who continues to hold reform hostage -- is, of course, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. He not only continues to oppose the bill, he's prepared to join a Republican filibuster, preventing the Senate from even voting on health care reform at all.

As the NYT noted this morning, the conservative Nebraskan is the subject of considerable attention right now.

Mr. Nelson, a former governor, state insurance commissioner and insurance company executive now serving his second Senate term, is the focus of increasingly intense entreaties by Mr. Reid and the White House. He has met personally with President Obama three times in the last nine days, and daily with Mr. Reid.

Pete Rouse, a senior White House adviser, has been assigned specifically to address Mr. Nelson's concerns. Senator Bob Casey, a freshman Democrat from Pennsylvania and a prominent opponent of abortion rights, was tapped to devise some sort of compromise language on coverage for abortions to bring Mr. Nelson on board. [...]

To help divine Mr. Nelson's thinking, a wide array of Democrats have reached out to him in recent days, including former Senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

To date, Nelson has rejected compromise language, and compromises on the compromises. As of yesterday, he threw cold water on the idea of approving a bill by Christmas, and even raised the specter of scaling back whole portions of the bill, which would likely delay the process for months, and probably kill it altogether.

What's interesting, though, is that after reading Nelson's remarks yesterday, I was inclined to think the game is up -- reform by Christmas was an impossibility, and the entire effort may very well die at the hands of a Republican filibuster (with Nelson's help). But notice: everyone on the Hill keeps working towards the reform-by-Christmas goal. The leadership is well aware of what Nelson said and what Nelson has threatened, but Reid, Durbin, and others continue to work towards their deadline, and occasionally yesterday even sounded vaguely optimistic.

It's enough to make observers wonder, "Do they know something the rest of us don't?" The answer, apparently, is, "Maybe."

Sometime very soon -- and by that I mean, possibly today -- one of three things will have to happen. Either a) someone can convince Nelson to change his mind, possibly with yet another compromise offer; b) someone can convince Nelson to oppose the bill but let the Senate vote on it; or c) Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) will break ranks.

The Senate leadership must think one of those three remains possible, or they wouldn't be working so hard to reach the Christmas deadline. That said, I simply have no idea which of those three has even the slightest chance of happening.

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ONE HURDLE DOWN, A WHOLE LOT TO GO.... If there's any chance at all to see health care reform clear the Senate by Christmas, there are a series of hoops, most of them procedural, the chamber will have to jump through. The first came in the wee hours of the morning.

Temporary funding for U.S. troops is set to expire tonight at midnight, so the Senate leadership was anxious to approve a Defense spending bill with the strict deadline in mind. Senate Republicans had a different idea -- if they could delay consideration of the Pentagon budget, they could in turn delay consideration of health care.

They weren't even subtle about it. Asked if he would vote for the Defense bill, which Republicans routinely support, Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas replied, "No. I don't want health care."

So, GOP members, in a rather brazen move, actually launched a filibuster against troop funding, not because they're against the bill, but because they want to derail the health care debate. About seven hours ago, the effort failed.

At least for now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has managed to stay on schedule to pass health care legislation by Christmas after the Senate early Friday morning agreed to vote on the Defense spending bill and get it out of the way.

The 63-33 cloture vote, which began just after 1 a.m. Friday morning, capped a turbulent day in which Reid came close to being undone thanks to an unlikely confluence of events.

Some of the drama surrounded Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, arguably the fiercest Democratic critic of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Feingold made it clear that he wanted to oppose cloture on Pentagon spending, but he also saw very clearly that Republicans were playing a ridiculous game. Feingold refused to play along -- he announced that he would vote for cloture, preventing additional delays on health care, and then oppose the Defense spending bill in the up-or-down vote.

If only the rest of the Senate appreciated the distinction between procedural votes -- letting the Senate have its say on a measure -- and the underlying bill.

This doesn't mean the Senate will vote on health care reform by Christmas -- I'd say the odds are still pretty discouraging -- but it at least keeps Reid and the rest of the leadership on track for the possibility, shameful GOP obstructionism notwithstanding.

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December 17, 2009

PLEDGE WEEK CONTINUES.... This is Day Two of the Monthly's annual fundraising drive. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who contributed yesterday, and for those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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

* Trying to give the Copenhagen talks a shot in the arm: "With time running out, the United States sought Thursday to inject new momentum into talks here aimed at reaching a global agreement to control greenhouse gases, backing a proposal to create an international pot of money for developing countries that could be worth more than $100 billion a year by the end of the next decade."

* In addition, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the talks, reminded China that it must agree to monitoring if a deal is to be reached. An international agreement, Clinton added, would be impossible "in the absence of transparency from the second-biggest emitter" in the world -- in other words, China.

* China doesn't sound like it's ready to strike a deal.

* At least one right-wing member of Congress is on China's side on this.

* House passes jobs bill, 217 to 212: "Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) muscled a $154 billion jobs bill through the House on Wednesday evening just before Congress departed for a holiday recess. With the vote in serious doubt until seconds before it was gaveled to a close, Pelosi worked the floor furiously, imploring her caucus to stick with her and move the measure through." It received zero GOP votes.

* The AFL-CIO is really unsatisfied with the Senate health care bill. SEIU President Andy Stern doesn't like the bill, but nevertheless believes "it is time for the Senate to send this bill on to conference."

* Perhaps today's single most gratifying moment was watching Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) cut off Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), not letting him finish a speech.

* The Senate Banking Committee approved Ben Bernanke's Federal Reserve nomination, 16 to 7.

* Paul Krugman wants the reform bill to pass: "By all means criticize the administration. But don't take it out on the tens of millions of Americans who will have health insurance if this bill passes, but will be out of luck -- and, in some cases, dead -- if it doesn't."

* John Podesta makes the progressive case for the reform bill.

* David Plouffe is weighing in, too.

* I've seen some commenters ask how the Senate bill controls health care costs without a public option. Ezra offers five good examples.

* Lee Fang raises a compelling point about Howard Dean's evolving standards on what constitutes "real" reform.

* Taking the gamble out of student loans.

* Some on the right are calling for an immigration moratorium. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis slammed the idea.

* Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was asked about his former friendship with Al Gore. Perry said he'd personally seen the light on carbon emissions, while the former vice president has "gone to hell."

* And for some in the political media establishment, it will always, always be 1998.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NEEDING A VOTE AND NOT.... The more aggressive Howard Dean became in fighting to kill the Senate health care bill, the more the White House communications operation pushed back. By yesterday afternoon, Robert Gibbs told reporters, "I don't think any rational person would say killing [the health care reform] bill makes a whole lot of sense at this point."

Now that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is threatening to kill the bill altogether, Jed Lewison asks if the conservative Nebraskan will "get the Howard Dean treatment."

So here's a question: Will the White House come down as hard on Ben Nelson as they have on Howard Dean?

I've seen this come up in a few places today, but I think it's extremely unlikely that the White House will be even mildly, indirectly critical of Nelson -- but it's not because the president's team is somehow playing favorites or coming down harder on liberals.

The truth is, this week, we've seen some progressive senators -- first Roland Burris, then Bernie Sanders -- make fairly explicit threats, too, and the White House didn't say a discouraging word about them, either.

The difference is, the White House doesn't need Howard Dean's vote -- he doesn't have one in Congress. The administration does need Nelson, Burris, Sanders, and every other member of the Senate Democratic caucus to vote for cloture.

Now, one could make the argument that harsh public criticism of these senators might intimidate them and make them more likely to go along with the reform agenda, but I suspect that the opposite is likely true -- if Robert Gibbs started trashing Ben Nelson from the briefing room podium, any chance Dems had of picking up his vote would quickly disappear.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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'TAKE IT FROM SOMEONE WHO KNOWS'.... Former President Bill Clinton releases a statement this afternoon:

"America stands at a historic crossroads. At last, we are close to making real health insurance reform a reality. We face one critical, final choice, between action and inaction. We know where the path of inaction leads to: more uninsured Americans, more families struggling to keep up with skyrocketing premiums, higher federal budget deficits, and health costs so much higher than any other country's they will cripple us economically.

"Our only responsible choice is the path of action. Does this bill read exactly how I would write it? No. Does it contain everything everyone wants? Of course not. But America can't afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

"And this is a good bill: it increases the security of those who already have insurance and gives every American access to affordable coverage; and contains comprehensive efforts to control costs and improve quality, with more information on best practices, and comparative costs and results. The bill will shift the power away from the insurance companies and into the hands of consumers.

"Take it from someone who knows: these chances don't come around every day. Allowing this effort to fall short now would be a colossal blunder -- both politically for our party and, far more important, for the physical, fiscal, and economic health of our country."

As I recall, Clinton has some experience with this issue, and saw first-hand what happened to his presidency, his party, and the country after the last real effort to improve the system came up short.

If memory serves, this is the first formal policy statement the former president has issued since President Obama took office in January. Whether it has an effect remains to be seen, but it certainly can't hurt.

Any chance the Big Dog has any sway with Ben Nelson?

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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THE CREDIBILITY VACUUM.... Ted Kennedy's absence has been felt in a variety of ways all year, but Matt Yglesias raises a good point today about the role the Liberal Lion could play right about now.

I'm confident that were he still alive, he'd be saying what Sherrod Brown and Jay Rockefeller are saying -- namely that when a deal like this is on the table, you say yes, pretend to like Joe Lieberman, get the thing done, do some good for the American people, and move on to other priorities. But he's not alive. And I can't prove that's what he'd say. So we're left instead with other folks like Brown and Rockefeller or just don't have the same high profile or credibility. Needed to help sell people on this arrangement.

Whether Kennedy would have backed this bill enthusiastically probably isn't in doubt. Kevin and Ezra point to some of the evidence, but I'd add that Kennedy was a strong backer of Mitt Romney's health plan when it passed in Massachusetts, which offers a pretty strong hint about what the late, great senator would be thinking right about now.

But Matt's underlying point is an important one. There were plenty of times throughout Kennedy's career when he would be part of important negotiations in which he championed the progressive cause. If the resulting bill fell short of liberal expectations, Kennedy would communicate to the left, "This is the best bill we could get." Progressive groups would believe him -- because he was Ted Kennedy. They had confidence that he would fight as hard as he could, and would get the best possible deal. If he said it was worth embracing, it was almost certainly worth embracing.

There is no equivalent today. There are plenty of senators who've taken the lead in fighting for progressive elements of the health care reform proposal -- Brown, Rockefeller, Schumer, Dodd -- but when they tell progressive groups, "This is the best bill we could get," it simply doesn't carry the same weight. They're recognized as progressive champions, but liberals still wonder if they just weren't tough/smart/strong enough to get a better deal.

What's more, it's not just the Senate and it's not just health care -- I don't think there's a Democratic officeholder in the country who has a Kennedy-level of credibility with the base. Speaker Pelosi probably comes the closest.

Perhaps it doesn't matter. If Kennedy were alive today and endorsed this health care bill enthusiastically, its opponents would likely still be its opponents.

But the fact that there's no one with commanding credibility with the progressive base is hard to miss.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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NELSON PREPARED TO JOIN GOP FILIBUSTER.... Going into the week, Senate Democrats were still hoping to get support for health care reform from Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). After making some very painful concessions, Lieberman seemed happy.

Nelson, meanwhile, isn't willing to compromise, and is prepared to kill the entire year-long effort.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson -- the moderate Democrat whose opposition is holding up the Senate's health care bill -- says new language on abortion doesn't satisfy his concerns.

Nelson told KLIN radio in Lincoln, Nebraska, Thursday that an attempt at compromise doesn't get to the fundamental issue of barring federal funding for abortions.

Nelson says without further changes the compromise isn't sufficient.

Remember, literally one month ago today, CNN reported that Nelson was satisfied with the compromise language from the Senate Finance Committee. Now he's decided the Finance Committee compromise not only isn't good enough, but he's also prepared to kill health care reform over it.

What's more, let's also not forget that while Nelson isn't making any real effort to seek common ground, he's also rejecting compromises of compromises -- Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), another pro-life Dem, offered Nelson a new proposal with additional restrictions on federal financing of abortion. As of today, Nelson said the compromise on a compromise still isn't good enough, and he won't even let the Senate vote on the bill because of it.

And while we're at it, let's also not forget that just a few weeks ago, Nelson 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." It suggested this wasn't the issue he was prepared to kill health care reform over. And now it is.

Indeed, as of today, Nelson sounded like he's giving up altogether. He said Democratic offers are "not enough," and suggested it might be time to go "back to the drawing board in some areas."

The hope was that Nelson would, when push came to shove, not want to be the one responsible for killing health care. But as the deadline approaches, the conservative Democrat no longer seems to care, putting this once-in-a-generation opportunity in peril.

Where does that leave us? Either a) someone can convince Nelson to change his mind; b) someone can convince Nelson to oppose the bill but let the Senate vote on it; or c) Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) breaks ranks.

If the Christmas deadline is going to be reached, one of these three will have to happen over the next 24 hours. If the bill is going to survive at all, one of these three will have to happen eventually or the entire initiative fails.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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IT'S NOT REALLY A 'PARTY'.... This is kind of silly.

The loosely organized group made of up mostly conservative activists and independent voters that's come to be known as the Tea Party movement currently boasts higher favorability ratings than either the Democratic or Republican Parties, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll coming out later today.

More than four in 10, 41%, of respondents said they had a very or somewhat favorable view of the Tea Party movement, while 24% said they had a somewhat or very negative view of the group. The Tea Party movement gained notoriety over the summer following a series of protests in Washington, D.C. and other cities over government spending and other U.S. economic policies.

For the WSJ, the key is the comparison -- 41% have a favorable view of the "Tea Party," while Democrats have a 35% positive rating and Republicans have a 28% positive rating. The moral of the story, apparently, is that Teabaggers are more popular than the two major parties.

Except that's not exactly the best way to read the poll. Looking at the internals (pdf), the poll also asked respondents, "How much do you know about the Tea Party movement: do you know a great deal about this, a fair amount, just some, very little, or nothing at all?" About half the country has no idea what the "Tea Party movement" is. Only 7% said they know a great deal about the effort.

For those of us who follow politics at the granular level, keeping up closely with day-to-day details, the right-wing Teabagging rallies were hard to miss. For the typical Americans, who don't follow political developments closely, "Tea Party" is far more reminiscent of Boston Harbor in 1773 than a bunch of Fox News viewers carrying signs of the president with a Hitler mustache.

With that in mind, comparing a "party" most of the country doesn't recognize with Democrats and Republicans doesn't make a lot of sense.

For that matter, Eric Boehlert questioned the utility of polling a "party" that doesn't, you know, exist (it has no candidates, no platform, no organizational structure, no ballot line, etc.).

I'm not surprised because the Tea Party is a faceless movement that has doesn't actually stand for anything specific, so people can pretend it's whatever they want it to be. It's an utterly pointless polling exercise because people have an ingrained idea of who the Democrats are and what they stand for politically. Same with Republicans. But the non-existent Tea Party, for now, can be whatever voters want it to be.

But put a specific face on it (i.e. Sarah Palin or Dick Armey) and start pressing poll respondents to choose, and the results will change. [...]

If there's truly a third party movement afoot and Democrats and Republicans are about to get steamrolled by it, so be it. It just seems odd for news orgs to poll people about a political party that doesn't actually exist.


Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE KIND OF DEBATE THAT'S LONG OVERDUE.... Maybe this is an esoteric point, but it occurs to me that the quality of the policy debate between competing progressive contingents is infinitely better and more interesting than the policy debate between Democrats and Republicans we witnessed over the last eight or nine months. It's probably an inconsequential observation, but I think it nevertheless speaks to a larger truth.

The thought came to me after reading two op-eds this morning -- Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) attacking health care reform from the right in the Wall Street Journal, and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) going after reform from the left in the Washington Post. Both called for the defeat of the Senate Democratic plan, and both were written by leading figures on their respective side of the ideological fence, but only one had something sensible to offer.

Coburn's piece was absurd, wildly misleading, and included arguments that seemed oddly detached from the substantive reality of the debate. Dean's piece, which I personally disagree with, was nevertheless policy focused, serious, and credible. Dean's piece conveys the concerns of someone who cares deeply about health care and improving the dysfunctional system, while Coburn's piece reads like someone auditioning to be Sean Hannity's fill-in guest host.

Of course, it's not just two op-eds on a Thursday that bolster the point. Much has been made this week of the often-intense dispute between activists and wonks -- progressive reform advocates who think the Democratic plan has merit and is worth passing, and progressive reform advocates who think the Democratic plan is a failure and should be defeated. It's an important dispute, with significant implications.

But notice the quality of the debate. Note that Howard Dean, Markos Moulitsas, much of the FireDogLake team and others are raising important questions and pointing to real flaws. At the same time, note that Ezra Klein, Jonathan Cohn, Nate Silver and others are offering meaningful defenses of the Democratic plan, based on substantive evaluations.

Progressive activists and progressive wonks are at each other's throats this week, but they want largely the same goals. Their differences are sincere and significant, but the intensity of their dispute is matched by the potency of their arguments.

And then turn your attention to the other side of the divide, and notice the quality of the arguments conservatives and Republicans have offered -- and continue to offer -- in this debate. Death panels. Socialism. Hitler. Government takeover. Socialized medicine. Incomprehensible charts. Incessant whining about the number of pages in a proposal.

The United States could have had a great debate this year about one of the most important domestic policies of them all. But Americans were denied that debate, because the right didn't have an A game to bring. Intellectual bankruptcy left conservatives with empty rhetorical quivers.

But as it turns out, it's not too late for the debate, we were just looking in the wrong place. We expected the fight of the generation to occur between the right and left, when the more relevant and interesting dispute was between left and left.

Time will tell who'll win, and no matter what happens, the argument will continue beyond this one piece of legislation. But regardless what side of the dispute you're on, it's worth appreciating the vibrancy, energy, and seriousness with which progressives are engaging in the debate, as compared to the incoherent, ridiculous, and dull qualities our friends on the right have brought to the table.

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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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.

* The DSCC continues to have high hopes targeting freshman Sen. Richard Burr (R) in North Carolina next year. The latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows the incumbent with a 35% approval rating -- most of the state doesn't seem to know who he is -- and against a generic Democrat, Burr only leads by one, 42% to 41%.

* Speaking of the Senate race in North Carolina, it appears the White House is signaling its support for former state senator and Iraq war veteran Cal Cunningham in the Democratic primary.

* In Missouri's closely watched Senate race, a new Rasmussen poll shows Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) narrowly leading Rep. Roy Blunt (R), 46% to 44%.

* Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) has an uphill climb in seeking re-election next year, but she's getting help from Bill Clinton, who knows a bit about Arkansas.

* In Florida, Rep. Kendrick Meek, the leading Democrat in next year's Senate race, continues to trail both GOP candidates in the latest Rasmussen poll, but he fares better against Gov. Charlie Crist than former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

* Speaking of Florida, Allen West, a Republican candidate in the 22nd Congressional District, explained this week, "There are three words I hate to hear used. I hate big-tent. I hate inclusiveness. And I hate outreach."

* Tom Wiggans, the likely Democratic candidate in Kansas' gubernatorial race next year, ended his campaign yesterday. The state party would prefer not to let Sen. Sam Brownback (R) run unopposed.

* The Republican primary in Georgia's gubernatorial race is very crowded, but it appears John Oxendine, the state's fire and insurance commissioner, is the early frontrunner.

* In Pennsylvania, a new Quinnipiac poll shows state Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) as the early favorite in next year's gubernatorial campaign.

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

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DR. NO PLAYS DR. WRONG.... The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed today from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), fresh off his stint as the Senate's leading obstructionist. The headline reads, "The Health Bill Is Scary." Yes, the eye-rolling can begin before one even starts reading the column itself.

"My 25 years as a practicing physician have shown me what happens when government attempts to practice medicine: Doctors respond to government coercion instead of patient cues, and patients die prematurely. Even if the public option is eliminated from the bill, these onerous rationing provisions will remain intact."

So, we're still stuck with the healthy-care-reform-might-kill-you argument. The progress of the discourse remains elusive.

I really was tempted to go through the entire 900-word piece, pointing out every error of fact and judgment, but it turns out the Media Matters Action Network beat me to it. MMAN concludes that Coburn "relied on GOP-approved talking points instead of anything resembling factual information."

It really is quite remarkable how many falsehoods were packed into this one piece. Coburn lies about everything from IMAC to comparative effectiveness research to physician reimbursement rates. In one instance, one of the claims relies on the senator's apparent illiteracy.

To borrow Sen. Franken's assessment, it appears that Coburn isn't particularly "familiar" with the health care reform policy at hand.

DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan responded to Coburn's nonsense: "As a United States Senator and a medical professional, Tom Coburn should be ashamed of the blatantly false claims he offers in this op-ed. The only thing more misguided than the notion that Tom Coburn has any credibility on this issue is the Republican Party's assumption that their attempts to kill health insurance reform will be looked upon favorably by the American people."

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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AGAIN WITH THE WAR BONDS?.... Maybe this polls well, or maybe there's some hidden policy value that eludes me, but this talk about war bonds continues to seem misplaced.

Lawmakers in both houses of Congress have introduced legislation to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by using a method that's a throwback to prior U.S. conflicts: war bonds.

Saying that it would "promote national shared sacrifice and responsibility," Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., introduced a bill Wednesday in the House of Representatives that would authorize the treasury secretary to issue and sell war bonds to Americans to fund the wars.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., filed companion legislation in the Senate earlier this week.

Atrios added, "I have no idea how people voluntarily buying rate-earning war bonds is 'shared sacrifice.'" Neither do I.

We already finance our debt through selling bonds. Calling a bond a "war bond," like calling fried strips of potatoes "freedom fries," is a gimmick, not a policy.

Alex Koppelman's recent explanation was nice and simple: "The problem with this logic is that bonds -- even war bonds -- aren't free money. At some point, those who invested expect to be paid back, and with interest. In order to accomplish that, the government has to use money it gets from ... well, from tax dollars."

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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CBO SCORES KERRY/BOXER CLIMATE BILL.... If deficit reduction is an important goal, policymakers can take comfort in knowing that a cap-and-trade bill is fiscally responsible.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office today released an analysis finding that the major climate and energy bill the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved in November would reduce the budget deficit by $21 billion over the next decade.

The cap-and-trade bill is sponsored by EPW Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). It would require U.S. emissions curbs of 20 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. The committee approved the bill with no GOP support.

The nonpartisan CBO added that the bill would continue to be in the black even as the cap it creates tightens.

Let's see, the bill combats global warming, reduces pollution, helps create new jobs in a burgeoning sector, and lowers the deficit, all at the same time. Sounds awful.

Of course, the CBO score applies to the Kerry/Boxer bill -- which seems to be far short of overcoming a Republican filibuster -- not the compromise Kerry is working on with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Nevertheless, the larger takeaway here is that the climate bill can help address the budget issue while also addressing the energy issue. As Boxer said in a statement, "The CBO score shows that there is a way to design a clean energy and climate bill that is fiscally responsible and gets the job done - while protecting the health of our families and the planet."

The CBO's report is online here.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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LOOK WHO'S COMING TO CPAC.... In February, the Conservative Political Action Conference will get underway in D.C., and because CPAC has become the right-wing event of the year, the conservative movement's heavy hitters are anxious to be a part of it.

But let's note who, exactly, has become part of the conservative movement. For example, the 2010 CPAC gathering will be co-sponsored by the hyper-conservative John Birch Society. While JBS was, not too long ago, considered far too ridiculous for the American mainstream -- even Republicans considered Birchers a political pariah -- the bizarre group has slowly been welcomed into the fold as conservatives have become more extreme.

When Glenn Beck embraced the Birchers two years ago, Alex Koppelman reminded us, "The JBS is, after all, the group that believed fluoridated drinking water was a Communist mind-control plot. Oh, and its founder, Robert Welch, once accused Dwight Eisenhower -- and no, we are not kidding -- of being 'a dedicated conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.'"

And now the John Birch Society is co-sponsoring CPAC. When I talk about radicalism being mainstreamed by the right, this is what I'm talking about.

And speaking of CPAC and co-sponsors, there's another controversy bubbling up.

Earlier this year, GOProud, a new gay conservative group, appeared on the scene intent on finding ways to sell the conservative agenda to gays.

Their approach has been to eschew the "traditional" gay issues like hate crimes protections or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in favor arguing that healthcare reform would be bad for gays, that "the inheritance tax is really a gay tax," or claiming that the best way to stop hate crimes is to expand gun ownership.

But GOProud does also support things like marriage equality and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell ... and for that reason the Religious Right's professional anti-gay activists at Americans for Truth and the Liberty Counsel are now threatening to boycott the annual CPAC conference if GOProud is allowed to serve as an official co-sponsor.

As intolerant hatred goes, this is pretty impressive. These religious right groups want to be part of CPAC, but if conservative gays are helping support the conference, the groups are boycotting the event.

The religious right groups are, however, fine with John Birch Society.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE DUMBEST STORY OF THE WEEK.... The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb "reported" Tuesday that the White House is playing hardball with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on health care. Citing an anonymous "Senate aide," Goldfarb, a former blogger for the McCain/Palin campaign, said the Obama team "is now threatening to put Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base on the BRAC list if Nelson doesn't fall into line."

Now, after watching this White House operate for 11 months, this certainly doesn't sound like the kind of thing the Obama team would do. Have we seen any evidence of these kinds of strong-arm tactics this year? Goldfarb noted that Offutt "is the headquarters for US Strategic Command, the successor to Strategic Air Command," and was placed in Nebraska for strategic, national security reasons. Obama would threaten to close it over a cloture vote? Without some credible evidence, it's the kind of dubious story from an unreliable writer that few serious people would find credible.

In case anyone was inclined to believe the suspect claim, Nelson's spokesperson told reporters, "The rumor is not true. This misinformation is coming from inside-the-Beltway partisans who only want to derail health care reform." Soon after, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer added, "To be perfectly clear: these rumors are completely baseless and false."

So, that's it, right? Time to move on? Fat chance.

Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, and a variety of right-wing personalities quickly started spreading the rumor around. On his Fox News show yesterday, Glenn Beck not only suggested the rumor is true, but equated the non-existent threat with "treason" -- three times.

But wait, it gets dumber. Much dumber.

Nebraska's Sen. Mike Johanns and 19 other Republican senators Wednesday called for a hearing into reports that the Obama administration used the future of Offutt Air Force Base as bargaining chip in the health care debate.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has said the rumors are completely false. The White House has called them "absurd."

A defense analyst said Wednesday that base closures simply don't work that way. Even Johanns himself said he doesn't believe the rumors.

Then why on earth should the Senate Armed Forces Committee hold a hearing to explore a baseless right-wing rumor, unsupported by even the slightest evidence? Why would 20 Republican senators -- half of the entire Senate GOP caucus -- be so recklessly foolish? Because hyping lies may pay political dividends, and that's all that matters.

Helping demonstrate the absurdities of conservative thinking, the GOP senators and Goldfarb are now arguing that if the uncorroborated rumor isn't true, the White House shouldn't mind a federal investigation into the matter. (The Senate Armed Forces Committee, apparently, should operate as a fact-checker for right-wing blogs.) Goldfarb argued yesterday that the unequivocal denials of the rumor make him more inclined to believe its accuracy.

Just think, if Republicans take back Congress, far-right bloggers will publish nonsense on a Monday, and congressional committees will spend the rest of the week investigating the nonsense. It will be the mid-90s all over again.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THE SEARCH FOR 60 CONTINUES.... Last night on the Fox Business Channel, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) raised a few eyebrows when he said he's inclined to vote against the health care bill. It's worth keeping in mind, though, what Sanders means.

"I'm struggling with this. As of this point, I'm not voting for the bill.... I'm going to do my best to make this bill a better bill, a bill that I can vote for, but I've indicated both to the White House and the Democratic leadership that my vote is not secure at this point."

Any scenario in which the bill gets 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster would almost certainly rely on Sanders' vote, so his remarks raised new concerns about the feasibility of the legislation.

But before opponents of the health care plan get too encouraged, keep in mind that Sanders hates Republican filibusters. When he says he's "not voting for the bill," Sanders is almost certainly talking about the final bill -- unlike center-right members of the caucus, Sanders makes a distinction between the procedural vote and the legislative vote.

Indeed, he always has. In July, the Vermont senator said, "I think the strategy should be that every Democrat, no matter whether or not they ultimately end up voting for the final bill, is to say we are going to vote together to stop a Republican filibuster." He repeated the sentiment in October, arguing that it's incumbent on "every member of the Democratic caucus to vote yes to stop Republican filibusters."

It's extremely unlikely that Sanders would reverse course on this commitment.

The more daunting challenge, at this point, is Sen. Ben Nelson's (D-Neb.) vote, who is willing to join a Republican filibuster. His concern continues to be language on indirect abortion subsidies (language that he's changed his mind on more than once).

As of yesterday afternoon, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), another pro-life Dem, delivered to Nelson a new proposal with additional restrictions on federal financing of abortion. Will it be good enough? The Washington Post reported, "Nelson also told reporters that he is waiting for antiabortion groups back home in Nebraska to weigh in."

In other words, instead of reading the Casey measure and making up his mind, Nelson wants to know if opponents of abortion rights back home will accept it -- effectively letting the Nebraska Right to Life Committee decide whether the U.S. Senate can vote up or down on health care reform.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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December 16, 2009

PLEDGE WEEK.... Long-time "Political Animal" readers may recall that we here at the Monthly host an annual fundraising drive. It's back, and in this season of giving, your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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

* It was a close, 218-214 vote: "The House on Wednesday passed legislation giving the federal government the ability to borrow a whopping $290 billion to finance its operations for just six additional weeks."

* Pushing tensions further: "Iran on Wednesday test-fired an upgraded version of its most advanced missile, which is capable of hitting Israel and parts of Europe, in a new show of strength aimed at preventing any military strike against it amid the nuclear standoff with the West."

* On a related note, the House approved last night new sanctions aimed at Iran's nuclear program, 412 to 12.

* Can't hurt to try, I suppose: "President Obama wrote a personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that a U.S. envoy delivered, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday."

* Don't expect to see the Fed increase interest rates for a long time.

* On a related note, I wouldn't have chosen Ben Bernanke as Time's Person of the Year, but the magazine didn't ask me.

* Howard Dean thinks the health care reform plan would be a "dream" for insurance companies; the White House responds. Ezra has more on this.

* On a related note, Nate Silver has 20 questions for progressives who want to kill the health care reform plan.

* When the Monthly reported that tropical forests would be central to the climate talks in Copenhagen, we were right.

* That Joe Arpaio is real, and not some over-the-top character in a Grisham novel, is rather disturbing.

* Paul Krugman weighs in on whether cutting minimum wage would be good for the economy. (Hint: it wouldn't.)

* Right-wing activists sure do love those reform/Holocaust comparisons, don't they?

* "Moonlight Madness" -- the practice of being a full-time student and full-time worker simultaneously.

* Is it a two-fer if you defraud disabled veterans and the government at the same time?

* The least Dick Armey can do is get Rachel Maddow's name right.

* Fine, I'll admit it. The ukulele kid brings a smile to my face.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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THAT INDIVIDUAL MANDATE.... For health care reform proponents who now want to see the Senate's reform plan defeated, most of the opposition is based on what's not in the bill, namely a public option. But over the last 48 hours or so, there's been a renewed push from progressive activists on something that's still in the Democratic proposal.

The provision, of course, is the individual mandate.

You may recall that, during the Democratic presidential primaries, the Clinton and Edwards campaign unveiled plans that guaranteed expansive coverage through an individual mandate, while Obama's plan did not. Clinton was right, Obama was wrong, and as the debate got underway in earnest this year, the president conceded that he'd changed his mind on this point.

Now it appears that many high-profile progressive activists would like to see him change it back. The argument is pretty straightforward: if consumers are required to purchase coverage, and there's no public option, the new reform plan would necessarily require Americans to get insurance through private companies with a record of screwing over their customers. (I've seen some progressive criticism about this provision turning Americans into possible "criminals," which, oddly enough, was a major right-wing talking point up until very recently.)

There are, however, some reasons to question the argument. For example, what was left of the public option in the Senate bill was so narrowly tailored that a large majority of the uninsured would have been required to purchase coverage but weren't going to be eligible to choose a public plan anyway. Scuttling a watered down public option with a state opt-out doesn't change the picture much.

But more to the point, does the policy itself have value? Kevin Drum noted that the "purpose" of an individual mandate is "sound," because "it keeps the insurance pool broad and insurance rates down." Ezra Klein fleshes this out in more detail this afternoon.

Pick your favorite system. Socialized medicine in Britain. Single-payer in Canada. Multi-payer with a government floor in France. Private plans with heavy public regulation in Sweden, Germany and elsewhere. None of these plans are "voluntary." In some, there's an individual mandate forcing you to pay premiums to insurance companies. In some, there's a system of taxation forcing you to pay premiums to the government. In all of them, at least so far as I know, participation is required except in very limited and uncommon circumstances.

Holding the price of insurance equal, insurance is gamble on both sides. From the insurer's perspective, it's a better deal to insure people who won't need to use their insurance. From the customer's perspective, it's precisely the reverse.

Right now, the insurer sets the rules. It collects background information on applicants and then varies the price and availability of insurance to discriminate against those who are likely to use it. Health-care reform is going to render those practices illegal. An insurer will have to offer insurance at the same price to a diabetic and a triathlete.

But if you remove the individual mandate, you're caught in the reverse of our current problem: The triathlete doesn't buy insurance. Fine, you might say. Let the insurer get gamed. They deserve it.

The insurers, however, are not the ones who will be gamed. The sick are. Imagine the triathlete's expected medical cost for a year is $200 and the diabetic's cost is $20,000. And imagine we have three more people who are normal risks, and their expected cost in $6,000. If they all purchase coverage, the cost of insurance is $7,640. Let the triathlete walk away and the cost is $9,500. Now, one of the younger folks at normal cost just can't afford that. He drops out. Now the average cost is $10,600. This prices out the diabetic, so now she's uninsured. Or maybe it prices out the next normal-cost person, so costs jump to $13,000.

This is called an insurance death spiral. If the people who think they're healthy now decide to wait until they need insurance to purchase it, the cost increases, which means the next healthiest group leaves, which jacks up costs again, and so forth.

No individual mandate means higher premiums, less affordable coverage, and fewer options to control costs. It may be unpopular -- though the polling is interesting on this -- but it's necessary.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (130)

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A PEEK INTO GOP PRIORITIES.... House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) office is already slamming the new jobs bill proposed by Democrats, but, to its credit, the Whip's office is getting specific in its objections.

For example, Cantor pointed to several key provisions favored by Democrats that he considers worthy of criticism, including "extension of unemployment benefits through June of 2010;" "extension of COBRA subsidies through June of 2010;" and "extension of the refundable child tax credit to those with income less than $3,000."

Now, to be clear, Cantor isn't questioning the funding within these programs -- he hasn't, in other words, said that there's waste or abuse in COBRA subsidies -- he's criticizing the funding for the programs themselves.

Dave Weigel was surprised to see Cantor's admission.

Those are all pretty popular programs, and ones that voters would notice if they suddenly vanished. Attacking this stuff -- and implying that a Republican majority would cut off these benefits -- is something an opposition party can do, but something very hard to imagine a Republican congressional majority getting away with. See 1995 for evidence.

Matt Yglesias added:

It's also probably worth trying to remind the potentially demoralized that worse things can happen in the world than disappointment at not-as-progressive-as-I'd-like legislation being signed into law. [...]

[On the merits], with unemployment at 10 percent it's not like we're talking about handouts to people who are too lazy and shiftless to get a job. Millions of Americans were happily working away, when deteriorating global financial conditions they had no control over and nothing to do with caused them to be laid off. Making sure that they're still able to get health care and provide shelter for their families and such strikes me as basic fairness.

Right, and to Cantor the spending strikes him as basic "big government." That safety-net spending is inherently stimulative -- people struggling tend to spend unemployment benefits on things like groceries, not stick the money in their 401k -- is apparently irrelevant.

It's a surprisingly helpful preview of what the public could expect if Republicans reclaim the House majority in next year's midterms. When GOP leaders talk about "cutting spending," they usually pretty vague. Cantor is offering a reminder of what he and his colleagues will target: the safety net Americans rely on when they're most vulnerable.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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DELAYS FOR DELAYS' SAKE.... The Senate remains at a standstill, thanks to Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.) latest stunt, forcing the full reading of Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) 767-page amendment on single-payer.

It's apparently all part of the GOP plan.

August was bad for Democrats, and Republicans aiming to delay the Senate health care bill until after Christmas hope the holiday break will be even worse.

TPMDC checked in with Republican sources and some Democrats who say lawmakers could face the cold shoulder at best or angry constituents reminiscent of the summer town halls at worst if they leave town without voting on the bill.

Typical. It's not about substance, policy, or the public's needs -- it's about scoring some cheap points, delaying the process, and giving the Teabaggers something to do over the holidays.

But in this case, there's a temporary spending measure that's funding U.S. troops, which will end at midnight Friday. Coburn's little stunt, if it continues, means the Senate won't be able to take up a Defense spending bill until Saturday morning.

There was a point not too long ago -- I believe it's referred to as "when Republicans were in the majority" -- that playing procedural games that threaten troop funding during two wars was considered about the most loathsome thing a lawmaker could do.

Coburn doesn't seem to care. Killing health care is the priority.

* Update: Demonstrating, once again, who the bigger man is, Sanders pulled his amendment, rather than let the delays continue. He called the GOP tactics an "outrage," which seems like the appropriate description.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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SERIOUSLY, FORGET THE RECALL.... Yesterday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said she believes that Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) "ought to be recalled." Today, filmmaker Michael Moore goes a little further.

Michael Moore is threatening the state of Connecticut with a boycott if they don't recall Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) -- which would put Connecticut's economy in a very tight spot, considering they couldn't recall him even if they wanted to.

Moore posted this on Twitter: "People of Connecticut: What have u done 2 this country? We hold u responsible. Start recall of Lieberman 2day or we'll boycott your state."

I can appreciate the appeal of the idea, but to reiterate a point from yesterday, this is not an option. Connecticut has no recall mechanism, and even if it did, members of Congress can't be legally recalled anyway.

Now, after I posted this yesterday, I received a little pushback from some readers who questioned whether the matter has really been settled. Reader D.H. emailed, "The question is not clearly addressed by the Constitution," and what the courts might say is unpredictable.

For the record, the Congressional Research Service published the authoritative report* on this issue six years ago, reviewing the law, the history, the states' limited authority over federal office's qualifications, and the relevant court rulings. The CRS's conclusion was clear: once elected, a member serves out his or her term unless in the case of a) resignation; b) death; or c) expulsion.

The 13-page report reads in part, "[T]he United States Constitution does not provide for nor authorize the recall of United States officers such as Senators, Representatives, or the President or Vice President, and thus no Member of Congress has ever been recalled in the history of the United States. The recall of Members was considered during the time of the drafting of the federal Constitution in 1787, but no such provisions were included in the final version sent to the States for ratification, and the specific drafting and ratifying debates indicate an express understanding of the Framers and ratifiers that no right or power to recall a Senator or Representative from the United States Congress exists under the Constitution."

Voters in Connecticut elected Lieberman. They'll have another chance in 2012. There can be no recall.

* Interesting side note: the CRS report on this was published, originally, on Joe Lieberman's Senate website. Seriously.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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COBURN SLAMS HIS FOOT ON THE BRAKE.... There was a point, about a month ago, in which Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) threatened to ignore institutional norms and force the reading of the entire health care bill, just to delay the process. Fortunately, he backed off.

But today, Coburn is playing these games again, and the consequences matter a great deal.

Senate Republicans fulfilled a threat on Wednesday to require chamber staffers to read Democrats' healthcare amendments aloud on the floor of the Senate.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took the floor to begin debate on his proposal to establish a single-payer healthcare system, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) interjected on behalf of his party, requesting Sanders's 767-page amendment be read in full.

Although Sanders responded by asking the chairman to dispense of the reading, Coburn again objected, invoking regular order and forcing the Senate clerk to resume his daunting task.

It was supposed to be a productive day on the Senate floor. Coburn has instead brought the chamber to a halt until around midnight. (It's a page out of Sen. Judd Gregg's (R-N.H.) obstructionist manual.)

And here's why it matters: the Senate leadership planned to file cloture on a Defense spending bill today, because existing troop funding expires Friday night. Coburn's little stunt will cause delays that will push off the vote on the Pentagon spending bill, possibly to Saturday.

In an emailed statement, Harry Reid spokesperson Jim Manley said, "The only thing that Sen. Coburn's stunt achieves is to stop us from moving to the DoD appropriations bill that funds our troops -- not exactly the kind of Christmas gift that our troops were expecting from Dr. No."

Coburn's little stunt also delays the process on health care, and makes the Christmas deadline that much more difficult to reach.

More delays for the sake of delays -- it's pretty much all the GOP has to offer at this point.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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BEYOND CUTTING EDGE.... Back in February, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said he intended improve his party's image by taking advantage of technological opportunities. Explaining his vision, Steele said, "It will be avant garde, technically. It will come to table with things that will surprise everyone -- off the hook."

Asked if he imagined a cutting-edge approach, Steele replied, "I don't do 'cutting-edge.' That's what Democrats are doing. We're going beyond cutting edge."

Easier said than done. The rollout of the new RNC website didn't go well a couple of months ago. This week, the RNC unveiled a new link-shortening tool -- called GOP.am -- that also caused some trouble for the party. (thanks to reader H.H. for the tip)

Possibly the first branded URL shortener, GOP.am was designed by the RNC's new media consultants, Political Media, to work somewhat like bit.ly, in that it shortens URLs so that they can be more easily exchanged through short messaging services like Twitter. Google launched its own URL shortener Monday afternoon, and Facebook now has one, too.

But unlike bit.ly, GOP.am includes a toolbar at the top of the screen that follows users as they click through to see whatever pages the links go to. It also sports an animation of RNC chairman Michael Steele walking around on the lower right as if he's showing off the website -- particularly awkward when that website is the alt.com bondage site.

Yes, it wasn't long after the Republican National Committee launched its link-shortening tool before the fairly obvious misuse of the tool became common. As Wired noted, "Pranksters almost immediately began using the service to link to controversial or ironically intended websites, such as the official site of the American Communist Party, a bondage website and a webpage advertising a sex toy in the likeness of Barack Obama. GOP.am apparently started blocking such links at some point Tuesday morning, and the GOP.am homepage was taken offline."

It's back, and the party and its design company are working on filtering out problematic sites "on an hourly basis."

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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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's Republican Senate primary, Gov. Charlie Crist was, just a few months ago, considered the prohibitive favorite. A new Rasmussen poll now shows him tied with former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, with each garnering 43% support.

* After four House Dems announced their retirements over four weeks, GOP leaders are starting rumors about other possible departures. It prompted several prominent Democratic incumbents to announce yesterday that they will run for re-election next year, despite rumors to the contrary.

* The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put together a new video, going after five Republican lawmakers -- Dan Lungren and Mary Bono Mack of California, Lee Terry of Nebraska, Joe Wilson of South Carolina, and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania -- for voting against reforming Wall Street.

* In Florida's open gubernatorial race, state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) leads state CFO Alex Sink (D) in a new Rasmussen poll, 44% to 39%. McCollum's five point lead was 11 points in a Rasmussen poll a couple of months ago.

* Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) has reportedly been thinking about taking on Sen. John McCain (R) in a primary in Arizona next year, but he may not be quite as competitive as he thought -- a new poll shows McCain leading in a hypothetical match up by 20 points.

* Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) continues to move quickly away from his moderate record in advance of his Senate campaign. Just two months ago, Kirk supported transferring detainees out of Gitmo. Yesterday, he reversed course.

* In Colorado, former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R), hoping to pick up right-wing support for her Senate campaign, has announced her support for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education.

* Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) apparently intends to seek another term in 2012, and he hasn't ruled out running as a Republican.

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

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CREATING AN INCENTIVE TO LIE, CONT'D.... There are a few interesting angles to the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, but the key results point to the health care reform effort getting less popular as more people come to believe some of the attacks against the plan.

As the Senate struggles to meet a self-imposed, year-end deadline to complete work on legislation to overhaul the nation's health-care system, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds the public generally fearful that a revamped system would bring higher costs while worsening the quality of their care.

A bare majority of Americans still believe government action is needed to control runaway health-care costs and expand coverage to the roughly 46 million people without insurance. But after a year of exhortation by President Obama and Democratic leaders and a high-octane national debate, there is minimal public enthusiasm for the kind of comprehensive changes in health care now under consideration. [...]

Obama and the Democrats have had decidedly less success convincing the public that their health proposals will bring positive change. More than half of those polled, 53 percent, see higher costs for themselves if the proposed changes go into effect than if the current system remains intact. About as many (55 percent) say the overall cost of the national health-care system would go up more sharply. Moreover, just 37 percent say the quality of their care would be better under a new system; 50 percent see it as better under the current set-up.

Even among those who presumably stand to benefit most from a major restructuring of the insurance market -- the nearly one in 5 adults without coverage -- there are doubts about the changes under consideration. Those without insurance are evenly divided on the question of whether their care would be better if the system were overhauled.

Think about that last point for a moment -- among those who have no insurance whatsoever, a position that puts them in considerable peril, they're split on whether reform is a good idea.

It suggests the political campaign against health care reform has been pretty damn effective. There's ample evidence that reform would lower the deficit, but the public has been convinced otherwise. There's ample evidence that reform would make medical more affordable, but the public has been convinced otherwise. There's ample evidence that reform would strengthen Medicare, but the public has been convinced otherwise. There's ample evidence that reform would get spending under control, but the public has been convinced otherwise.

Once again, the moral of the story is to lie like crazy during policy debates. An apprehensive public is likely to believe false claims, and most news outlets will simply pass blatant lies along with "he said, she said" reporting. The incentive to make up bogus claims is reinforced when most of the country believes them.

Another angle to keep in mind is that if/when reform becomes law, the sales work is going to have to continue -- folks just don't realize what's in the plan and they get confused by the conflicting information. If/when they learned the details, their support will grow considerably, and it'll be largely up to the White House to get the message to the public once the debate ends.

While most of the data will be discouraging to Democrats, the party can take at least some comfort in knowing that the public is still not turning to Republicans as a better alternative. President Obama is trusted more than the GOP on handling the economy (48% to 36%), health care (46% to 39%), U.S. policy in Afghanistan (47% to 35%), and energy policy (46% to 36%).

To be sure, those margins are closer than they were at the beginning of the year, but the larger trend is still true -- there's growing skepticism of the Democratic agenda, but Republicans are not yet capitalizing.

Post Script: It's highly unlikely to make a difference at this point in the process, but I should also note that the two most popular measures in the health care reform debate -- the public option and the Medicare buy-in -- are the two provisions that apparently have to be scuttled. In this poll, 63% approved of the idea of giving those aged 55 to 64 access to Medicare.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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THE SOURCE OF THE DEFICIT MESS.... Republican lawmakers and far-right activists have suddenly discovered, after eight years of dramatic fiscal irresponsibility, that they care deeply about deficit reduction again. Worse, they're absolutely convinced that President Obama and those free-spending Democrats are responsible, putting a terrible burden on future generations.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report today, analyzing the existing deficit in detail, and what factors created it. Here's hoping Republicans and Teabaggers are paying attention.

Some critics charge that the new policies pursued by President Obama and the 111th Congress generated the huge federal budget deficits that the nation now faces. In fact, the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic downturn together explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years.

12-16-09bud-f1-infocus-landing.jpg

The deficit for fiscal 2009 was $1.4 trillion and, at an estimated 10 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was the largest deficit relative to the size of the economy since the end of World War II. Under current policies, deficits will likely exceed $1 trillion in 2010 and 2011 and remain near that figure thereafter.

The events and policies that have pushed deficits to astronomical levels in the near term, however, were largely outside the new Administration's control. If not for the tax cuts enacted during the Presidency of George W. Bush that Congress did not pay for, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that began during that period, and the effects of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression (including the cost of steps necessary to combat it), we would not be facing these huge deficits in the near term.

This isn't just about pointing fingers for self-satisfaction or partisan vanity. It's important for the public to realize who's responsible, in large part because it's important for the public to weigh policymakers' credibility. If GOP lawmakers embraced policies that are almost entirely responsible for the deficit those same lawmakers are now complaining about, it's a relevant detail.

And on a related note, for those who believe deficit reduction must be a top national priority -- a group that's apparently pretty large -- it's important to recognize which party's proposals are effective in improving, or not, the fiscal landscape.

President Obama will deserve plenty of blame over the course of his presidency, but holding him responsible for getting us into this budgetary mess doesn't make sense.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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WHERE DEAN STANDS, WHERE DEAN STOOD.... We talked yesterday about the debate among supporters of health care reform -- progressive activists/operatives who believe the existing plan should be defeated, and progressive wonks who believe the plan advances the cause of reform and still needs to pass.

Howard Dean, who was largely on board with trading a public option for a Medicare buy-in, yesterday sided with the activists/operatives: "Honestly the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill, go back to the House, start the reconciliation process, where you only need 51 votes and it would be a much simpler bill."

Kevin Drum argues that Dean is living in a "dreamland."

If you don't like the Senate bill, fine. Don't support it. But in what universe will healthcare reform get revived anytime soon if it dies this year? 2010? With the legislative plate already jammed, healthcare reform probably polling in the mid 30s, and midterms coming up? 2011? After Republicans have gained a bunch of seats in both the House and Senate thanks to public disgust with Democratic disarray? 2012? A presidential election year? 2013? 2014? [...]

[T]he fate of failed major initiatives is so obvious that I can't believe anyone is taking this seriously. When big legislative efforts go down in flames, they almost never spring back onto the calendar anytime soon -- and that's especially true when big healthcare bills fail.... If healthcare reform dies this year, it dies for a good long time. Say what you will about the Democratic leadership, but Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi, and Steny Hoyer all know this perfectly well. So do John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. (Boy do they know it.)

When reform bills go down, health care tends to be too hot to touch for about 20 years. And when the issue is brought back, it's less ambitious than the previous effort. As Ezra explained last month, "Failure does not bring with it a better chance for future success. It brings a trimming of future ambitions."

What's more, let's not forget that the existing Senate Democratic plan -- with no public option and no Medicare buy-in -- is already far more ambitious and much more progressive than what Howard Dean was proposing just five years ago. Go ahead and read Dean's 2004 health reform plan -- his signature issue -- and notice that it features no competition for private insurers, fewer consumer protections, and would cover fewer of the uninsured.

This is not to disparage Dean, who has done as much personally to advance the cause of health care reform as anyone in the country, but rather to highlight just how far we've come in a short period of time. In 2004, Dean, considered a liberal firebrand, offered a health care plan that even he would dismiss as weak and tepid today. If Republicans presented Dean's 2004 plan today, Democrats would laugh them out of the room.

Five years later, a Democratic president has a vastly better, more ambitious, more liberal reform plan nearing the finish line ... and Dean wants to kill it?

Kevin's piece summarized some of the strengths of the Democratic plan:

* Insurers have to take all comers. They can't turn you down for a preexisting condition or cut you off after you get sick.

* Community rating. Within a few broad classes, everyone gets charged the same amount for insurance.

* Individual mandate. I know a lot of liberals hate this, but how is it different from a tax? And its purpose is sound: it keeps the insurance pool broad and insurance rates down.

* A significant expansion of Medicaid.

* Subsidies for low and middle income workers that keeps premium costs under 10% of income.

* Limits on ER charges to low-income uninsured emergency patients.

* Caps on out-of-pocket expenses.

* A broad range of cost-containment measures.

* A dedicated revenue stream to support all this.

What's more, for the first time we get a national commitment to providing healthcare coverage for everyone.

And we get a strong foundation that can be built upon going forward, just as Social Security and Medicare were expanded in time, and just as every other country that has universal coverage has done in other industrialized democracies.

To let this rare opportunity slip away would be a mistake.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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GIBBS 1, BOEHNER 0.... House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) probably realizes his rhetoric about closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is ridiculous. But now that detainees are being transferred from Gitmo to Thomson, Illinois, Boehner has a story to exploit, whether it makes sense or not.

And with that in mind, Boehner issued a press release asking, "How will importing dangerous terrorists make America safer?"

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs answered that question during yesterday's briefing. Jake Tapper had this report:

"If there are concerns for security reasons, I would hope some of those people would address why they think the military can do what they're doing at Guantanamo and can't do it at Thomson," Gibbs said at his daily briefing today.

Continued Gibbs, "I will say this. I have seen some far crazier comments today -- comments from people like John Boehner. Here's what I would suggest for John Boehner. Call up Leon Panetta or Denny Blair at the CIA or the director of national intelligence. Ask them if he can come down and watch a video put out by Al Qaida senior leadership like -- the names that we recognize, (Ayman al-) Zawahiri. Thirty-two times since 2001 and four times this year alone, senior Al Qaida leadership in recruiting videos have used the prison at Guantanamo Bay as a clarion call to bring extremists from around the world to join their effort." [...]

Gibbs today said the move, in closing Guantanamo Bay, will make the country safer, and suggested if Boehner -- or anybody -- is confused by that, they should go to the members of the previous administration such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and ask "why they support closing Guantanamo Bay and support today's decision."

This should be easy enough for even congressional Republicans to understand.

Of course, I suspect they do understand it -- notice, these clowns didn't whine like children when Bush announced his preference to close Gitmo, too -- but hope to play the American public for fools. It's the height of cynicism.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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DIE-IN STRUGGLES TO COME TO LIFE.... The Teabagging crowd came up with another protest idea recently: a "die-in" protest.

As Tea Party organizer Mark Meckler put it, "The intention is to go inside the Senate offices and hallways, and play out the role of patients waiting for treatment in government controlled medical facilities. As the day goes on some of us will pretend to die from our untreated illnesses and collapse on the floor."

Now, as a substantive matter, this is unusually dumb. The only "government-controlled medical facilities" in the country are V.A. hospitals, and they offer some of the best medical care in the country. Health care reform doesn't create "government-controlled medical facilities" where people will suffer from "untreated illnesses"; it will address the problem that tens of thousands of Americans die every year because they lack insurance.

But reality has never been part of the Tea Party agenda, so the right-wing crowd organized its "die-in" anyway, and hit the Capitol yesterday. How'd it go? Dave Weigel reports:

"Is this it?" some asked.

The few dozen Tea Party activists who made it to upper Senate Park in Washington this morning were confused at the size of the crowd. The night before, some of them had attended a FreedomWorks-sponsored workshop about the day's events -- a "die-in" during which activists would pretend to experience the effects of government health care in Senate offices, and a 1:30 p.m. "red alert" rally outside the Capitol. Either everyone was waiting on the latter event or they were lost.

Eventually, the crowd grew to about 60 people, several of whom were journalists covering the protest.

The participants visited Senate offices, but no one "pretended to die from our untreated illnesses and collapsed on the floor."

Confused, ill-informed Teabaggers can only organize so many Capitol Hill events before diminishing returns kick in.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE SEARCH FOR 60.... President Obama brought the entire Senate Democratic caucus to the White House, reminding the lawmakers how close they are to the health care finish line, and imploring them not to screw up this opportunity.

According to one of the senators, the president explained, "This is the moment of our legislative lifetimes. This is why people run for public office, to be here at the creation of something really big."

The meeting became necessary in large part because Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was holding reform hostage. He spoke briefly at yesterday's event, and according those in attendance, it produced this interesting exchange.

"What's happening is not any fun for me," Mr. Lieberman said.

[Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio], who has championed the public option, turned to Mr. Lieberman and said, "You know, Joe, it's not fun for us either."

At that point, Mr. Obama stepped in.

"Why don't we all begin to have some fun?" he said. "Let's pass the bill."

Determining exactly how close Democrats are to doing just that isn't as easy as it may sound.

The goal, obviously, is 60 votes to cut off a Republican filibuster. From the left, Sherrod Brown is on board, telling reporters yesterday, "I'm going to vote for it." From the right, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is also on board.

So, who's left? Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin has not yet committed to the bill, and voiced his disappointment about the new round of concessions. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont and Roland Burris (D) of Illinois have also not said if they're prepared to support the reform plan.

And then there's Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, the caucus' most conservative member, who had private meetings yesterday with both the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). He told reporters after the White House event yesterday, "I'm not on the bill. I have spoken with the president and he knows they are not wrapped up today. I think everybody understands they are not wrapped up today and that impression will not be given."

If Nelson backs the Republican filibuster, Democrats would need one GOP senator to break ranks in order to even have a vote on health care reform. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) made it sound yesterday like she won't be that vote, even if Democrats approve her proposed amendments.

And that leaves Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who has been talking to Reid, but who seems -- for unknown reasons -- to want to push off a vote until 2010. Snowe did, however, vote for the Finance Committee bill, and there's still reason to believe her vote is at least in play.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said late yesterday, "We are moving toward 60 -- we think we'll have it by next week." Stay tuned.

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

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December 15, 2009

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

* Kabul: "A suicide bomber struck outside a hotel popular with foreigners on Tuesday, killing at least eight people and wounding 40 others, the Afghan authorities said."

* Baghdad: "A series of car bombs exploded in central Baghdad on Tuesday morning near the Green Zone, government ministries and the Iranian Embassy, killing four people and wounding at least 14 others, Iraqi police officials said."

* Marriage equality in the nation's capital: "The D.C. Council gave final approval Tuesday to a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, setting off a wave of excitement in the gay community even as opponents vow to continue the fight on Capitol Hill."

* Is Olympia Snowe's vote on health care in play? As of this afternoon, she still has "misgivings."

* President Obama met with the Senate Democratic caucus today about health care, and sounded optimistic afterwards.

* AARP endorses Senate health reform bill.

* GM's new leadership intends to repay federal loans by the end of June.

* Speaker Pelosi intends to pass a new jobs bill by the State of the Union in January.

* Obama continues to promote "cash for caulkers."

* Not bad: "A solid majority of Americans support the idea of a global treaty that would require the United States to reduce significantly greenhouse gas emissions, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, although many also express concern about the potential impact on the economy."

* Resurrecting Glass-Steagall?

* Kevin Drum thinks the remaining health plan is actually quite good: "[T]his is still a huge achievement that will benefits tens of millions of people in very concrete ways and will do it without expanding our long-term deficit. Either with or without a public option, this is more than Bill Clinton ever did, more than Teddy Kennedy did, more than LBJ did, more than Truman did, and more than FDR did. There won't be many other times in our lives any of us will be able to say that. So pass the bill. The longer we wait, the worse it will get. Pass it now."

* Chuck Lane probably shouldn't have picked a fight with Ezra Klein.

* Funny money in higher education.

* And finally, Keith Olbermann considers whether conservatives have a voice in the media.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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BECK EXPLAINS THREE-FIFTHS CLAUSE AS ONLY HE CAN.... On his radio show today, Glenn Beck fielded a call from a listener who questioned Beck on the framers of the constitution. As the caller put it, "[M]ost of those guys were slave owners, the Constitution that they wrote up, they didn't even recognize my people as even human."

Beck belittled the caller a bit, encouraged him to read a history textbook that "wasn't written by progressives," and insisted that the three-fifths clause was motivated by abolitionist attitudes.

"The reason why they wanted [the three-fifths clause] is because of the balance of power," Beck said. "The South could control the numbers in Congress. Their representation would go through the roof.... That's why, in the Constitution, African Americans were deemed three-fifths people, because the Founders wanted to end slavery and they knew if the South could count slaves as full individuals you would never get the control to be able to abolish it."

I don't know if I've ever heard a major media figure offer a defense of the three-fifths clause, which would seem to put Glenn Beck in a league of his own. Of course, I suppose we already knew that.

Alex Seitz-Wald takes all of this apart quite nicely.

This is another example of Beck distorting history to fit his contemporary agenda. Beck paints a picture of infallible Founders fighting evil Southerners who want to keep their slaves. The problem with this is, of course, is that many of the Founders were from the South and about half of the Constitution's framers -- including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson -- owned slaves.

Beck also distorts the motives of the Founders to whitewash their actions by suggesting that Northerners allowed the three-fifths rule purely as an eventual means to ending slavery. But his theory doesn't explain why the Constitution prohibited outlawing the Atlantic slave trade for twenty years after ratification nor why it included a clause requiring runaway slaves be returned to their owners.

What's more, let's also not forget that this isn't the first time Beck has drawn incomprehensible conclusions about 18th century slave policies in the United States.

That Beck manages to keep his sponsors is quite an accomplishment.

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

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THERE IS NO RECALL OPTION.... This may seem like a nice sentiment, but there is no legal mechanism in place to make it possible in reality.

A House Democrat from Connecticut said Tuesday that Sen. Joe Lieberman should be recalled from office over his opposition to the Senate health care bill.

"No individual should hold health care hostage, including Joe Lieberman, and I'll say it flat out, I think he ought to be recalled," Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told POLITICO.

This has come up from time to time, but there's no such thing as a "recall" for senators. Connecticut has no recall law, and more importantly, states with recall laws don't include members of Congress because that would be unconstitutional.

Members of the Senate can be expelled from the institution for serious wrongdoing -- it takes a two-thirds majority -- and members can resign. But short of this, once voters elect a senator, he/she is there for six years.

Connecticut voters had their chance three years ago, and 563,725 of them sent Lieberman back to Congress. We're living with the consequences.

Nevertheless, Rosa DeLauro's comments speak to the severe frustration being felt by some of Lieberman's former allies.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who has frequently defended Lieberman, added, "It goes beyond frustration in Connecticut in terms of the way people feel. I have a great deal of respect and I have long admired Joe Lieberman. This goes against the grain of most of what he's fought for and stood for all of his life. It's thoroughly frustrating and disappointing for so many of us."

By all appearances, Lieberman doesn't care.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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LEAVE THE MINIMUM WAGE ALONE.... In these difficult economic times, there's nothing wrong with some outside-the-box thinking. But it seems the Conservative Idea of the Week is to improve the economy but slashing the minimum wage. And there's something definitely wrong with that.

The Washington Post's Charles Lane recommended a minimum-wage cut in an op-ed yesterday. Fox News quickly embraced the idea.

Pat Garofalo sets the record straight.

[N]one of the anchors mentions that almost all of the economic research on the subject shows that the minimum wage has little to no effect on employment. The most well-known researchers on the subject -- David Card and Alan Krueger -- examined a minimum wage increase in New Jersey, and found that "employment actually expanded in New Jersey relative to Pennsylvania, where the minimum wage was constant." [...]

[I]f the minimum wage were decreased, how many employers would simply cut the wages of their current workers, at a time when consumer demand is already low? There are plenty of job creation ideas being bounced around these days, but you can count on Fox News to seize on one that would mean less money and a lower standard of living for workers.

As far as I can tell, congressional Republicans have not yet embraced the idea -- given that the minimum wage tends to be pretty popular, the GOP would have to tread carefully -- but it's something to keep an eye on. Indeed, if anyone sees GOP lawmakers call for cutting the minimum wage, let me know.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE FIGHT OVER THE FIGHT.... For the last several months, there's been a relatively quiet debate among progressive supporters of health care reform. While the participants tend to agree on nearly all of the relevant policy details, there's been an important point of division: whether a bill that lacks key liberal goals should be passed anyway, or whether such a bill should be scrapped altogether.

In light of recent events, this fight is getting significantly louder. As Greg Sargent noted, the dividing line seems fairly clear: "[O]ne thing that's interesting is how cleanly it breaks down as a disagreement between operatives and wonks. The bloggers who are focused on political organizing and pulling Dems to the left mostly seem to want to kill the bill, while the wonkier types want to salvage it because they think it contains real reform and can act as a foundation for further achievements."

Quite right. Leading progressive activists now consider the reform bill a failure worthy of defeat. The group includes, but is by no means limited to, MoveOn.org, Markos Moulitsas, and much of the FireDogLake team.

Leading progressive wonks take a far different view.

Nate Silver:

For any "progressive" who is concerned about the inequality of wealth, income and opportunity in America, this bill would be an absolutely monumental achievement.

Jonathan Cohn:

Disappointed progressives may be wondering whether their efforts were a waste. They most decidedly were not. The campaign for the public option pushed the entire debate to the left--and, to use a military metaphor, it diverted enemy fire away from the rest of the bill. If Lieberman and his allies didn't have the public option to attack, they would have tried to gut the subsidies, the exchanges, or some other key element. They would have hacked away at the bill, until it left more people uninsured and more people under-insured. The public option is the reason that didn't happen.

And if public option supporters lost in the Congress, they won in the country as a whole. The underlying political problem for liberals remains what it has been for a generation: profound and widespread distrust of government. But polls consistently showed voters thought the public option advocates were right--that, at least when it comes to health insurance, government can be trusted. It was a small victory, but it's on top of such small victories that political movements are built.

Paul Starr:

The moment of decision on health-care reform is arriving for progressives in Congress. Some of them have insisted they will refuse to vote for any bill without a public option, and that is now the only bill that has any chance of passing. If they hold to their position, the most significant social reform on behalf of low-income Americans in 40 years will go down to defeat.

Ezra Klein:

A lot of progressives woke up this morning feeling like they lost. They didn't. The public option and its compromised iterations were a battle that came to seem like a war. But they weren't the war. The bill itself was. When liberals talked about the dream of universal health-care insurance 10, 20 and 30 years ago, they talked about the plight of the uninsured, not the necessity of a limited public option in competition with private insurers.

"This is a good bill," Sen. Sherrod Brown said on Countdown last night. "Not a great bill, but a good bill." That's about right. But the other piece to remember is that more than it's a good bill, it's a good start.... On its own terms, the bill is the most important social policy achievement since the Great Society. It will save a lot of lives and prevent a lot of suffering. But moving forward, it also makes future improvements and expansions easier.

I want to emphasize that the distinction between activist/operatives and wonks is often blurred. To argue that Markos and Jane Hamsher, for example, don't care about substantive policy details is absurd. Likewise, to think that Nate and Ezra are blithe to the concerns of the larger progressive movement is equally mistaken. I'm noting the distinction/debate here, but I'm using terms like "activist leaders" and "wonks" loosely.

I should also emphasize that there is no actual "bill" as yet, so it's probably premature to give a still-unfinished product the thumbs up or thumbs down.

That said, as far as I'm concerned, the question is whether the reform framework in the Senate is a step backward or an incremental step forward. Does it make the status quo worse, or does it make improvements with the promise of additional progress? If it's killed now, are reform proponents more or less likely to have success in the years to come?

Given what we think we know about the state of the legislation, I think the effort is clearly a step forward. It's not the bill I'd write if I were dictator, but it advances the cause of reform, and creates a foundation that can be built on in the future. If this bill were to fail, I suspect it would be decades before anyone even tried to improve the broken status quo. In the meantime, the effects on those suffering under the current system would get worse.

As we've talked about recently, progressives have faced this situation before. When Medicaid passed, it did very little for low-income adults. When Medicare passed, it all but ignored people with disabilities. When Social Security passed, the benefits were negligible, and the program excluded agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, railroad employees, government employees, clergy, and those who worked for non-profits. The original Social Security bill offered no benefits for dependents or survivors, and included no cost-of-living increases.

These are, of course, some of the bedrock domestic policies of the 20th century, and some of the towering achievements of progressive lawmaking. But when they passed, they were wholly inadequate. There were likely liberal champions of the day who perceived the New Deal, the Great Society, FDR, LBJ, and their congressional Democratic majorities as disappointing and incompetent sell-outs who failed to take advantage of the opportunity before them.

But the programs passed, and once they were in place, they improved, expanded, and became integral to the American experience. It took years and perseverance, but progress happened after the initial programs became law.

The key, in each instance, is creating the new foundation. The Democratic reform plan does just that.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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WEINER SCARED LIEBERMAN AWAY?.... Sens. Joe Lieb