Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2010

THE PARTIES ARE SUPPOSED TO DISAGREE.... I've never held House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) in high regard. But I couldn't agree more with something he said this morning.

Despite White House overtures for congressional Republicans to work with Democrats, the top GOP official in the House said Sunday that such opportunities are limited.

"There aren't that many places where we can come together," House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said on the NBC program "Meet the Press."

Republicans were elected to stand by their principles, and those principles are different than the "leftist proposals" offered by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, Boehner said. [...]

"Leadership is about standing on your principles and opposing those policies that we believe are bad for the country," Boehner said.

What's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing (except the part about President Obama pushing "leftist proposals," which is a silly assessment).

While I didn't see the exchange, if this report is accurate, Boehner argued that Republicans intend to push their ideas, and oppose the policies they find offensive. The goal for congressional Republicans isn't to find "common ground" or "bipartisan solutions" with those they completely disagree with; their goal is to fight for what they believe in, opposing the majority's agenda.

The remarks should make it pretty clear that Republicans have no interest in working with Democrats on finding solutions to pressing policy challenges. But here's the thing that so often gets lost in the discourse: Republicans are the minority party, which means it's their job to oppose the majority's agenda.

"There aren't that many places where [the two parties] can come together"? Well, no, of course not. Democrats and Republicans perceive reality in entirely different ways, and advocate for wildly different solutions to various problems (they don't even agree on which problems exist).

But if Boehner's right about this -- and I believe he is -- then why in the world is it incumbent on the Democratic majority to work with Republicans to find "bipartisan" answers to every question? If Boehner has no intention of "coming together" with Dems in the middle -- a reasonable, albeit rigid, position -- why must the political establishment maintain the fiction that the governing majority is doing something awful unless they bring the discredited minority on board with every proposal?

Ron Brownstein noted recently:

We are operating in what amounts to a parliamentary system without majority rule, a formula for futility.

In some respects, it's even worse than that. In nearly all modern democracies, parties that win elections get a shot -- they're able to do what they want to do, putting their party platform to work. If the policies are effective and voters are satisfied, the parties are rewarded. If not, they're punished.

The job of the minority party (or minority parities) in modern democracies is not to stop the majority from governing. Indeed, the very idea is practically absurd. Rather, minority parties consider it their job to criticize the majority, tell the electorate how they'd be doing things better, and hope voters agree when the next election rolls around.

But we're dealing with expectations and procedural tools in the U.S. that are inherently foolish. We can elect one party to lead, and then give the minority party the ability to stop the majority from leading. Worse, the political establishment tells voters -- and the public agrees -- that the majority is doing something intrinsically wrong if they advance policies that the minority disagrees with.

Boehner left no doubt this morning that he and his party don't want to work with Democrats on shaping legislation. That's fine. But with that in mind, can we let go of the ridiculous notion that Democrats are on the wrong track unless Boehner likes their ideas? And more importantly, can we abandon the absurd procedures that allow a small minority party to prevent the legislative process from functioning?

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

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STRANGEST HEADLINE OF THE DAY.... ABC News sent out an item this morning with this headline: "Steele Rules Out 2012 White House Run." I thought, "This couldn't possibly mean what I think it means."

But it did. ABC News actually asked Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele if he might run for president -- of the United States -- in a few years. He's apparently not interested.

"Come on, don't ask me that," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said when presented with the inevitable question about his 2012 intentions and if his political aspirations included running for the White House next time around. [...]

"In all honest-to-good seriousness, that is such silly Washington talk. It's just not even on my mind," Steele said about a possible presidential run.

Well, no, of course it's not on his mind. It shouldn't be -- Steele has failed in practically every endeavor he's attempted in his adult life. Talk of ousting him from his current job has been common for months, and most Republicans desperately hope he'll just stop talking altogether.

So why on earth is baseless speculation about a presidential campaign "the inevitable question"? Is anyone, anywhere, seriously thinking that a comically-inept RNC chair, whose entire record of government service is limited to one term as a lieutenant governor, is presidential material?

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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A CONTRARIAN DEFENSE OF THE 111TH CONGRESS.... The conventional wisdom on the current Congress seems pretty compelling. This is a Congress facing incredible challenges, and is struggling to rise to the occasion.

It's a perception I've largely bought into. When I think about what would be possible if legislation could be approved by majority rule in the House and Senate -- the way the legislative branch was designed to function, and the way it operated for nearly 200 years -- it's hard not to feel bitter disappointment.

The American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein challenges these perceptions in a surprisingly compelling Washington Post op-ed today, describing this Congress as being on "a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66."

Of particular interest was Ornstein's description of the scope of the stimulus package.

The productivity began with the stimulus package, which was far more than an injection of $787 billion in government spending to jump-start the ailing economy. More than one-third of it -- $288 billion -- came in the form of tax cuts, making it one of the largest tax cuts in history, with sizable credits for energy conservation and renewable-energy production as well as home-buying and college tuition. The stimulus also promised $19 billion for the critical policy arena of health-information technology, and more than $1 billion to advance research on the effectiveness of health-care treatments.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has leveraged some of the stimulus money to encourage wide-ranging reform in school districts across the country. There were also massive investments in green technologies, clean water and a smart grid for electricity, while the $70 billion or more in energy and environmental programs was perhaps the most ambitious advancement in these areas in modern times. As a bonus, more than $7 billion was allotted to expand broadband and wireless Internet access, a step toward the goal of universal access.

Any Congress that passed all these items separately would be considered enormously productive. Instead, this Congress did it in one bill.

And while the economic recovery package was the most important legislative accomplishment of the last year, Ornstein also highlights successful bills on expanding children's health insurance, providing stiff oversight of the TARP funds, regulating tobacco, the largest land conservation law in nearly two decades, a credit card holders' bill of rights, and defense procurement reform.

And the House, meanwhile, has approved a historic cap-and-trade bill, sweeping financial regulatory changes, a jobs bill, and health care reform -- and maybe some of these might manage to work their way through a dysfunctional Senate.

Democratic leaders, Ornstein, argues, "deserve great credit for these achievements."

I wouldn't want the governing majority to rest on its laurels -- for the love of God, pass health care reform -- but Ornstein's overview of the first year of the 111th Congress paints a pretty compelling picture. Dems who feel the need to be defensive may want to read it, share it, and push its conclusions.

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

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PAINFULLY, TANTALIZINGLY CLOSE.... It seems like a long time ago, but it was just a few weeks ago when House, Senate, and administration negotiators huddled in marathon negotiating sessions to put the finishing touches on a health care bill that was poised to become law before the State of the Union address.

According to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee, policymakers had actually completed their work. A deal, he said, had been reached and the long-sought goal was poised to be reached ... right up until Massachusetts happened.

Harkin (D-Iowa), who attended healthcare talks at the White House, said negotiators were on the cusp of bringing a bill back for final votes in the Senate and House.

Harkin said "we had an agreement, with the House, the White House and the Senate. We sent it to [the Congressional Budget Office] to get scored and then Tuesday happened and we didn't get it back." He said negotiators had an agreement in hand on Friday, Jan. 15.

Harkin made clear that negotiators had reached a final deal on the entire bill, not just the excise plans, which had been reported the previous day, Jan. 14.

Harkin said the deal covered the prescription-drug "donut hole," the level of federal insurance subsidies, national insurance exchanges and federal Medicaid assistance to states.

At face value, this is certainly painful to hear. Knowing how many millions of Americans have been counting on this legislation, recognizing how long the country has waited for reform, and then learning that a final deal was in place makes the last two weeks all the more gut-wrenching.

The most important policy breakthrough in a generation was at hand -- right up until Ted Kennedy's constituents chose to put his life's work in severe jeopardy.

But if Harkin's account is accurate, his version of events suggests getting another final deal in place now shouldn't be that difficult. After all, if the structure of a compromise was in place two weeks ago, that provides a pretty solid foundation for House-Senate talks now.

They just need to muster the courage and political will to walk through an open door.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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January 30, 2010

ACCOUNTABILITY AND CREDIBILITY STILL MATTER.... Clive Crook had an item the other day, in response to President Obama's State of the Union address, which raised a point that comes up from time to time.

True, that massive deficit is largely due to the Bush tax cuts -- only part of which, however, Obama intends to reverse. The tax cuts Obama intends to retain belong to him, and so does the corresponding part of the deficit. But the point is: who cares? ... What does it matter who caused the problem? Obama's job is to solve it.

I remember reading something similar a while back from The Moderate Voice:

Now, I'm just an average non-economist, but here's how I see this: It does not matter who did what in the past.... And, of course, it's much easier to point and blame than fix problems. [emphasis in the original]

I can see why this may have a certain, surface-level appeal for some people. Never mind what happened before; let's just focus on problem-solving in the present and future. To look backwards, point fingers, and assign blame doesn't get us anywhere.

But this approach is misguided in important ways. As regular readers may recall, one of my favorite scenes in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is when John Cleese's Sir Lancelot storms a castle, sword in hand, slaughtering most of a wedding party to save a damsel in distress. The castle owner, anxious to curry favor with Lancelot, encourages the survivors of the attack to let bygones be bygones. The castle owner tells his guests, "Let's not bicker and argue about who killed whom...."

In contemporary politics, conservatives are the castle owner, urging us not to bicker and argue about which party's rule was nearly catastrophic for the United States. As Clive Crook put it, "Who cares? ... What does it matter who caused the problem?"

Except, of course, "who did what in the past" matters very much. It's not about "finger-pointing"; it's about credibility. It's about understanding that those who are responsible for creating a mess deserve to be held accountable for their failures. It's about voters appreciating whose ideas work, whose ideas fail, and making electoral decisions accordingly.

It's about realizing who deserves to be taken seriously and who doesn't.

Andrew Sullivan had a good piece on this the other day.

Let me try to explain: it matters who caused the problem and why because if we do not understand the causes we cannot fix the problem and it matters because any adult judgment of a politician's first year that does not take into account the inheritance he was bequeathed is impossible.

It matters because the most important fact in American politics is the worst presidency in modern times that preceded Obama.

Two failed, unwinnable wars that continue to destroy lives and cripple our finances, a massive splurge in entitlement and discretionary spending, a huge increase in defense spending and massive tax cuts: this we now have to forget? This context should be removed from the picture?

It matters too because the very people who gave us this mess are now adamantly refusing to do anything to get us out of it, and pledge to return to exactly the same policies that got us there in the first place: more tax cuts, more war, more entitlement spending, more debt, no health insurance reform, no action on climate change. Clive acts as if there were some viable alternative out there. There isn't.

We have to begin to realize that accountability and credibility still matter.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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YET ANOTHER GROUP JOINS THE PARTY.... About a year before the 2008 election, many leading conservatives decided that what Republicans really needed were a plethora of organizations like MoveOn.org. So, groups were formed en masse. Freedom's Watch, the Coalition for a Conservative Majority, The Vanguard, Victory Caucus, some odd Gingrich outfit, FreedomWorks, Reagan 21, Move America Forward, and a revitalized Citizens For The Republic all got to work.

They failed rather spectacularly. None of these groups had any significant impact on the elections, and nearly all have since disappeared.

In 2009, many leading conservatives decided that what Republicans still needed were a plethora of organizations. As Dave Weigel noted last May, groups like the Center for Republican Renewal, Renewing American Leadership, Resurgent Republic, and the National Council for a New America (the so-called "rebranding" initiative), among others, all hoped to help Republicans thrive. As 2010 gets underway, few of these names will sound familiar even to the most well-informed political observers, and some of the groups have already disbanded.

But the drive to create new groups continues.

At least half a dozen leaders of the Republican Party have joined forces to create a new political group with the goal of organizing grass-roots support and raising funds ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, according to people familiar with the effort.

The organizational details of the group, expected to be called the American Action Network, are still being worked out, but it is expected to contain both a 501(c)3 and a 501(c)4 component. In simpler terms, a 501(c)3 can advocate on policy matters while a 501(c)4 is an election arm.

Republican leaders expected to be affiliated with the group include former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Bush adviser Karl Rove, Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, and Republican donor Fred Malek.

Some of these exact same GOP heavy-hitters were supposed to help shape the "re-branding" campaign last year, before it fell apart. How will the American Action Network succeed where the National Council for a New America failed? Who knows -- it's still very much unclear what these guys want to do, what they're going to do, and why anyone should care.

But I continue to question the model itself. Organizing grass-roots support makes sense; organizing grass-roots support from the top-down -- led by Bush, Rove, and Gillespie -- makes far less sense.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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SNOWE ACKNOWLEDGES HEALTH CARE TALKS.... There were reports this week that some Senate Democrats had once again decided to reach out to Maine's Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, about health care reform. Yesterday, Snowe acknowledged some talks had, in fact, already occurred.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said Friday that she has been in conversation with Democrats and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus about a way forward on health care reform.

"I have talked with several of my Democratic colleagues, including the chairman of the Finance Committee, just sorting through these issues, and the process, and what will unfold," Snowe told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC Friday afternoon. "Hopefully, [Democrats] will take measure of what needs to happen now, build some support, those things can happen so that it's not [so] breathtakingly expansive that [it] creates consternation by the American people at a time will can ill-afford intrinsic costs."

As a substantive matter, this is, at best, incomplete. Snowe didn't even want health care reform to get a vote in the Senate because it's "expansive"? This is a new concern -- she had been complaining about the slow process not being slow enough -- and without some additional details, it's not at all clear what Snowe would prefer in terms of expansiveness.

But it's worth noting that the final bill out of the Senate Finance Committee was pretty similar to the final bill considered on the Senate floor -- and Snowe voted with Democrats to support the measure in committee. A few months later, she voted to (1) block the Senate from have a floor debate on health care reform; (2) characterize health care reform as "unconstitutional"; and (3) prevent the Senate from voting up or down on the legislation itself.

And now Senate Dems are hoping to negotiate with her again? Maybe they know something I don't, but I feel like I've seen this production before, and it always ends with Lucy pulling the ball away and Charlie Brown falling on his ass.

In the larger context, though, the fact that Snowe and Baucus (among others) have even talked at all suggests senators are keeping a wide variety of options open. I'm not sure that's a good thing, necessarily, but it's preferable to letting health care reform die altogether.

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

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MCCAIN ADVISER TOUTS STIMULUS.... It's impossible to characterize economist Mark Zandi as some kind of liberal partisan -- he was an adviser to the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008.

With that in mind, it should carry a little more weight than usual when he credits Democratic recovery efforts with creating strong economic growth. Here was Zandi yesterday:

"I think stimulus was key to the 4th quarter. It was really critical to business fixed investment because there was a tax bonus depreciation in the stimulus that expired in December and juiced up fixed investment. And also, it was very critical to housing and residential investment because of the housing tax credit. And the decline in government spending would have been measurably greater without the money from the stimulus. So the stimulus was very, very important in the 4th quarter." [emphasis added]

This isn't exactly new. Last November, Zandi was saying the same thing, arguing that "the stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do -- it is contributing to ending the recession." He added, "In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P. would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent."

Maybe someone ought to let Tim Pawlenty know.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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WILLING TO TAKE THE RISK.... Congressional Republicans decided quite a while ago to reject compromise at all costs and block the Democratic majority from governing. Sam Stein reported yesterday that some in the GOP are starting to second guess the strategy.

Some senior Republican strategists and party veterans are beginning to fret that the party's refusal to work with President Obama, even when he crosses onto their own philosophical turf, could ultimately erode some of the political gains they've made this past year.

Over the past two weeks, Republicans in Congress have united in nearly unanimous opposition to a series of ideologically conservative policy suggestions, starting with a commission to reduce the deficit, a pay-go provision that would limit new expenditures, and a spending freeze on non-military programs.

Opposition has usually been based on specific policy concerns or complaints that the measures aren't going far enough. But the message being sent is that the GOP's sole mission is presidential destruction.

Now, some in the party are beginning to worry.

Well, sort of. Stein's piece is solid, but it quotes former lawmakers and GOP strategists, not sitting Republican lawmakers. It's one thing for party officials just outside the decision-making center to raise concerns; it's something else when someone with actual power and direct influence shares those concerns.

And at this point, Republicans realize that they're taking obstructionism to levels unprecedented in American history, and they realize that the public may disapprove, but they're willing to take the risk.

Indeed, this week should have made this abundantly clear -- Republican obstructionism has reached the level at which they oppose ideas they support.

I'm delighted that some in the GOP are "beginning to worry" about the reflexive, knee-jerk opposition to literally everything Democrats consider, but I'm at a loss as to how the majority is supposed to work constructively with a minority that would rather destroy the political process than approve its own proposals.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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PENCE ON THE GOP'S APPROACH TO COMPROMISE.... House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) appeared on "Hardball" yesterday, and Chris Matthews asked a reasonable question in response to Pence's stated willingness to "compromise" with the White House. "What compromise would you say 'yes' to on health care? What compromise? Tell me the package; give me the main details."

The exact wording of Pence's initial reply was, "Well, look, you know, I was, uh, yeah, yeah, look, uh." He went on to say (twice) that he was pleased to see the president express support for allowing consumers to buy insurance across state lines.

In other words, Pence's idea of compromising with Democrats is highlighting a provision that's already been in the Democratic health care plan for months.

Indeed, if Pence, one of Congress' dimmest bulbs, was paying attention to the substantive details, the president actually explained pretty well how the Democratic proposal incorporates the GOP idea in a way that actually works.

It's the difference between ideas that sound good and ideas that work well. Republicans focus on the former; Democrats actually think about the latter.

For Pence, the idea sounds simple: just let consumers pick policies from across state lines. But there's no real analysis behind the bumper-sticker approach to problem-solving.

Chris Matthews didn't know enough about the issue to engage Pence, but Matt Yglesias explained why this is more difficult than it sounds: "Right now, health insurance is regulated at the state level. That means that if you want to sell insurance in California, you need to develop an insurance policy that's compliant with California's insurance regulations. It might be a better idea to instead regulate health insurance at the federal level, and say that if you want to sell insurance in the United States of America you need to develop an insurance policy that's complaint with America's insurance regulations.

"Pence's proposal, however, is that one revenue-hungry state should cut a deal with insurers -- move your headquarters' to Sioux Falls (or just bribe enough state legislators) and we'll let your lobbyists write whatever lax regulations you like. Then next thing you know everyone is 'allowed' to buy this unregulated South Dakota health insurance and no other kind of insurance policies are available. This is what's been done with the credit card industry and it's the model that Pence wants to extent to health insurance."

It's why President Obama and congressional Democrats have approved the concept of buying across state lines, but have mandated minimum standards to prevent the so-called "race to the bottom" problem Mike Pence doesn't acknowledge.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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KSM TO SKIP NYC.... In November, when the Justice Department announced it would try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others connected to the 9/11 attacks in federal court in New York, far-right voices were apoplectic, but New Yorkers seemed largely unfazed. NYC didn't buy into the notion that a trial was something to fear -- the city has hosted terrorist trials before -- and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his support for the administration's decision.

In recent weeks, that changed. And as support evaporated, the Justice Department re-thought its plans.

The Obama administration on Friday gave up on its plan to try the Sept. 11 plotters in Lower Manhattan, bowing to almost unanimous pressure from New York officials and business leaders to move the terrorism trial elsewhere.

"I think I can acknowledge the obvious," an administration official said. "We're considering other options."

The reversal on whether to try the alleged 9/11 terrorists blocks from the former World Trade Center site seemed to come suddenly this week, after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg abandoned his strong support for the plan and said the cost and disruption would be too great.

It's worth noting that the shift appears unrelated to Republican hysteria -- remember the laughable "sketch artist" argument? -- and the Cheneys' oh-my-god-we're-all-going-to-die fear-mongering. Rather, New Yorkers began to appreciate the logistical hassles, and concluded the expenses and inconveniences weren't worth it.

More recently, in a series of presentations to business leaders, local elected officials and community representatives of Chinatown, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly laid out his plan for securing the trial: blanketing a swath of Lower Manhattan with police checkpoints, vehicle searches, rooftop snipers and canine patrols.

"They were not received well," said one city official.

New Yorkers aren't terrified; they're busy. They don't mind hosting a trial; they mind shutting down large swaths of lower Manhattan and shouldering an expensive burden.

Nevertheless, I think the general trend is deeply unfortunate. The American system of justice is strong enough to deal with monsters like KSM and his cohorts, and it's done so many, many times, but we're approaching a legal, political, and logistical dynamic that makes trials that used to be routine very difficult.

For years, this wasn't an issue at all. When we got Zacarias Moussaoui, we charged him, tried him in a courtroom not far from the Pentagon, convicted him, and locked him up for the remainder of his miserable life. No one threw a tantrum or fretted over logistics.

The same is true of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Richard Reid, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, Jose Padilla, Ali Saleh al-Marri, John Walker Lindh, and Masoud Khan. The U.S. justice system has tried, convicted, and imprisoned hundreds of terrorists in recent years. Not one has ever escaped; not one has ever tried to escape, and not one had a problematic trial.

It appears those days of a straightforward process are gone.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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January 29, 2010

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

* Sending FEMA trailers to Haiti may not be the best idea.

* Karzai appears to support these talks: "Members of the Taliban leadership met with a United Nations official earlier this month to discuss the possibility of entering into face-to-face peace talks with the Afghan government, American and United Nations officials said Friday."

* A reversal appears imminent: "The Obama administration appears to have abandoned plans to put Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and four co-conspirators on trial in Lower Manhattan, according to administration sources."

* Scott Roeder, guilty.

* Right-wing activist James O'Keefe comments for the first time since his arrest on his extremely odd Louisiana scheme.

* Dahlia Lithwick asks an excellent question: "Why is KBR so afraid of letting Jamie Leigh Jones have her day in court?"

* Colleges appear to be warming up to the idea of direct lending.

* Despite the dwindling line-up for the Tea Party convention a week from tomorrow, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) is still scheduled to deliver the keynote.

* Timothy Jost reminds us just how awful the House Republican health care plan really was.

* With the benefit of hindsight, House Republicans aren't so sure letting cameras in for today's Q&A with the president was a good idea.

* Fox News, in its latest bid to become a parody of itself, offered some truly ridiculous coverage of Obama's appearance with the GOP caucus.

* Many thanks to reader I.P. for registering PassTheDamnBill.com and having it redirect to a certain blogger's health care strategy memo.

* And finally, if you only watch one thing today, watch the president in Baltimore. If you're willing to watch two things today, also watch this absolutely brilliant clip of Charlie Brooker explaining "How To Report The News."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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CLOSING THE RHETORIC/REALITY GAP.... Perhaps the most noteworthy portion of today's event in Baltimore, during the Q&A between President Obama and House Republicans, came during an exchange on health care reform.

The president explained that the "component parts" of the Democratic reform plan are "pretty similar to what Howard Baker, Bob Dole and Tom Daschle proposed at the beginning of this debate last year." Obama reminded GOP lawmakers that they may or may not agree with those three, but by any measure, "that's not a radical bunch."

He added, "But if you were to listen to the debate, and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot. That's how you guys presented it.... I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this it's similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

"So all I'm saying is we've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality."

Hear, hear. The biggest irony of the entire health care debate is that Republicans had a complete meltdown -- and may have very well killed the best chance America has ever had to reform a dysfunctional system -- over an entirely moderate bill. Whether they actually believe their own nonsense is unclear, but Republicans managed to convince most of the country that the reform plan is a wildly-liberal, freedom-killing government takeover of one-sixth of the economy. It's tempting to think no one could possibly so dumb as to believe this, but it is, right now, the majority viewpoint in the United States.

But that's precisely why the president's comments were so important -- Americans probably should learn the truth about this at some point. The Democratic plan is exactly the kind of proposal that should have generated bipartisan support -- it cuts costs, lowers the deficit, and adds wildly popular consumer protections, while bringing coverage to tens of millions who need it. It includes provisions long-favored by Republicans and policy wonks of both parties.

Indeed, as I noted the other day, if you were to have assembled a bipartisan group of wonks a couple of years ago, and asked them to put together a comprehensive plan that incorporates ideas and long-sought goals from both parties, they would have crafted a plan that looks an awful lot like the current Democratic plan. That's just reality.

That the GOP considers this centrist proposal "a Bolshevik plot" only helps reinforce how fundamentally unserious they are about public policy.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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DON'T DELAY.... When something important is due, and it's not coming together there are different kinds of delays. Some are worthwhile, some aren't.

If, for example, I'm writing an article and get stuck, maybe I'll step away for an hour, clear my head, and come back to it with a fresh perspective. I won't miss my deadline, but the break may be constructive. This is an example of a brief, helpful delay.

When it comes to health care reform, many Democratic policymakers are suggesting that putting the issue on the backburner for a little while is the same thing -- they're not quitting, but they're tackling a few other things right now. They'll get back to health care, they assure us, with a clear head and fresh perspective.

But this approach is fraught with problems serious enough to make health care reform impossible. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, for example, is talking about a delay that's anything but brief and helpful. Dems, he said, can get back to healthcare, after tackling a jobs bill, deficit reduction, and Wall Street reform first.

Ezra Klein notes that these other issues will take months. "The longer this takes, the less likely it is to happen," he said. "And Emanuel just said that the administration's preference is to let it take longer. If I were a doctor, I'd downgrade health care's prognosis considerably atop this evidence." Jon Chait agrees.

Jonathan Cohn has a good piece about the larger context, and suggests that Emanuel might be floating a trial balloon -- which should get shot down.

Emanuel's qualms about strategic over-reach on health care are among Washington's worst kept secrets. It's always possible he was freelancing. But it's hard to imagine that, in a sit-down interview like this, Emanuel would toss out an idea like this without at least implicit approval from above.

Of course, the official White House line is that they're not easing up at all. Obama's public rhetoric backs that up and, privately, several officials say the same thing. The word from Capitol Hill is that leadership is making progress -- a lot of progress -- on crafting a new compromise between the two chambers.

But getting nervous Democrats in both houses to sign off on that compromise will be tough. A muddled message from the White House, whatever its backstory or intent, only makes that harder.

By the way, the point of trial balloons is to see whether they get shot down. So it might behoove liberals who want health care reform to make clear that lengthy delay is not acceptable. For a few days earlier this week, members of Congress were reportedly getting calls from constituents, urging them to "pass the bill." More of those calls might be helpful.

Maybe it's time for another list. There are at least five good reasons to make every effort to wrap up health care over the next few weeks.

1. The debate has run its course, and no one, anywhere, seriously wants to have this debate continue all over again in the spring and summer. Months of negotiations and machinations will only breed additional frustrations.

2. The basic facts won't change. Policymakers have been at this for a year, and know what they have to do. Negotiations went reasonably well this week, but there's no need for months of talks.

3. Nervous lawmakers get even more overcome by anxiety when a difficult election season gets closer. Some members who are prepared to vote for health care reform in February may feel differently in June.

4. The reconciliation instructions in last year's budget are due to expire with passage of the next budget.

5. Giving opponents of reform more time to undermine public support and trash necessary legislation hasn't worked up until now; it's unlikely to be effective while policymakers push the process into the spring (or later). What's more, given the insurance industry's money, those trying to kill reform have limitless resources, while supporters have already spent their budgets.

Time is of the essence. Pass the damn bill.

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

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THE 'CASH-AND-TRASH' STRATEGY.... At this afternoon's event in Baltimore, there was quite a bit of discussion about the stimulus and economic recovery efforts. Not surprisingly, Republicans weren't happy with the initiative, and President Obama presented a spirited defense.

Of particular interest, though, was the president reminding the stimulus' GOP detractors of a point they'd prefer to overlook: "[A] lot of you have gone to ribbon cuttings for the same projects that you voted against. I say all this not to re-litigate the past, but it's simply to state, the component parts of the recovery act are consistent with what many of you say are important things to do."

So true.

Congressional Republicans will make opposition to President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus plan a centerpiece of their 2010 campaign.

They're plying reporters with polls raising doubts about the stimulus, demanding that Democrats say whether they still support the stimulus and declaring, as Minority Whip Eric Cantor did on the "Today" show Wednesday, that "the stimulus hasn't worked."

There's just one catch: According to a tally kept by the White House, at least 65 congressional Republicans have touted the stimulus dollars that have flowed into their own states.

It's being called the "cash-and-trash strategy" -- Republicans hate the stimulus package and "trash" it at every available opportunity, but love the stimulus package and grab the "cash" when it comes to creating jobs in their own states/districts. It's been going on for a year now, but with 65 congressional Republicans making the list, it's getting pretty embarrassing.

The point isn't just to highlight GOP hypocrisy, though that is entertaining. The more important point is that, whether detractors like it or not, the recovery effort prevented a depression, generated economic growth, and created jobs -- even in districts represented by Republicans. The more proponents remind voters about this -- yesterday's HSR event in Tampa was a very good idea -- the better.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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MUST SEE TV.... As promised, President Obama appeared this afternoon at the House Republican caucus' retreat in Baltimore, delivering a short speech, followed by some fascinating Q&A. If you missed it -- the appearance was aired live on C-SPAN -- you'll really want to watch it when the video is posted online. It was simply fascinating.

During his speech, Obama went over themes from his State of the Union address this past Wednesday. At once, he simultaneously said that Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on issues such as a spending freeze and tax credits for small business, but he also went after the GOP for voting against the stimulus bill while attending ribbon-cuttings for projects in their districts, challenged them to work together on important issues, and called upon them to support his proposed fees on the bailed-out financial sector.

Then came the really interesting part. Obama began taking questions from Republican members of Congress, a sight that isn't normally seen on television in American politics.

There were some similarities to the British Parliamentary tradition of Prime Minister's Question Time -- minus the cheering and booing -- with a sense of political jousting between an incumbent president and the opposition, who for their part pitched one tough question after another.

I'm reasonably certain I've never seen anything like it. GOP House members were fairly respectful of the president, but pressed him on a variety of policy matters. The president didn't just respond effectively, he delivered a rather powerful, masterful performance.

It was like watching a town-hall forum where all of the questions were confrontational, but Obama nevertheless just ran circles around these guys. I can only assume caucus members, by the end of the Q&A, asked themselves, "Whose bright idea was it to invite the president and let him embarrass us on national television?"

Note, however, that this wasn't just about political theater -- it was an important back-and-forth between the president and his most forceful political detractors. They were bringing up routine far-right talking points that, most of the time, simply get repeated in the media unanswered. But in Baltimore, the president didn't just respond to the nonsense, he effectively debunked it.

Republicans thought they were throwing their toughest pitches, and Obama -- with no notes, no teleprompter, and no foreknowledge -- just kept knocking 'em out of the park.

It's easy to forget sometimes just how knowledgeable and thoughtful Obama can be on matters of substance. I don't imagine the House Republican caucus will forget anytime soon -- if the president is going to use their invitation to score big victories, he probably won't be invited back next year.

Nevertheless, the White House should schedule more of these. A lot more of these.

Update: Marc Ambinder noted, "Accepting the invitation to speak at the House GOP retreat may turn out to be the smartest decision the White House has made in months....I have not seen a better and perhaps more productive political discussion in this country in...a long time."

Second Update: Here's the video.

Third Update: And here's the transcript.

Fourth Update: The C-SPAN server appears to be having some trouble. Here's the video of the Q&A portion, from MSNBC:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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HATCH THREATENS 'WAR'.... Oh, for crying out loud.

GOP Senator Orrin Hatch is now warning that if Dems pass health care reform via reconciliation it will lead to permanent "war" between the two parties -- even though he voted for more than a half dozen GOP bills passed through the process known as ... reconciliation.

Specifically, Hatch, who's been around long enough to know better, said using the reconciliation process to make modifications to a health care bill would be "one of the worst grabs for power in the history of the country," and would create "outright war."

Greg Sargent ran a list of eight major pieces of legislation from the last decade that Hatch personally voted for, all of which were passed through reconciliation, and none of which prompted "outright war" between parties or lawmakers.

Maybe someone should encourage Hatch to read this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, on the use of reconciliation by Republicans. I spoke to a top House aide this morning who told me Speaker Pelosi literally read from the CBPP document during the last caucus meeting.

Hatch's threats are a rather pathetic joke. If he's still capable of shame, now would be a good time for some.

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

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THE MEGAPHONE GAP.... We talked earlier about a frustrating dynamic -- Republicans use obstructionist tactics to prevent the Democratic majority from governing, and the Dem majority doesn't raise much of a fuss. Kevin Drum followed up on this by raising an important point.

But take a step back: how are Democrats supposed to effectively raise a fuss? Republicans can do it easily: they just start bleating, and within a few hours their complaints are splashed across Drudge, repeated on a 24/7 loop on Fox News, the topic of email barrages from conservative interest groups, and the subject du jour of every talk radio show in the country. At that point the rest of the media picks up on the story because "people are talking about it." It's making waves. Which is true: it really is making waves because this kind of attention gets the conservative base genuinely outraged. And if something is getting lots of attention, then that by itself makes it a legitimate story regardless of its intrinsic merit.

But what megaphone do Democrats have? Virtually none. If they start complaining, some blogs will pick it up. Maybe Maddow and Olberman will talk about it. And that's it. There's no noise machine. And so there's nothing to force the rest of the media to bother with it unless they decide the underlying story itself is important.

That's entirely right. It may seem absurd, but Democrats can control the White House, House, and Senate, but it's Republicans who have the edge on the megaphone gap.

My first instinct was to note that the president has the most powerful megaphone of all -- the White House bully pulpit is still unrivaled -- but there's a qualitative difference. The president isn't a talk-show host and the White House isn't a cable network. Obama can try to help put an issue on the national radar, but there is no liberal noise machine to keep it there or make it persuasive to the electorate.

Indeed, there's even a qualitative difference in the kind of voice progressives provide. When Republicans want to push a talking point, they can rely on allies who are, for lack of a better word, hacks. Fox News isn't just conservative, it's Republican. Limbaugh, Drudge, et al care about helping their party, not just their ideology.

In contrast, President Obama and Democratic lawmakers may find a sympathetic ear among progressive bloggers and MSNBC's prime-time hosts, but notice the distinction -- Olbermann, Maddow, and bloggers are just as likely to criticize Dems as they are to praise them.

I'm not sure what to do about this, but the larger point occurred to me after a recent conversation with a Senate staffer. I raised the point that Republicans would simply not tolerate Democratic obstructionism on this scale, and asked why his boss isn't screaming bloody murder. He responded by sending me several instances in which his senator had complained about filibusters in remarks on the Senate floor.

Those speeches, however, no matter how persuasive, were easily ignored. In fact, every Democratic senator could give similar speeches, raising similar complaints, every day for the rest of the year, and they'd all be easily ignored.

But without a comparable noise machine, Dems seem to have limited options when it comes to expressing their outrage.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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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.

* Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer (R) this morning became the 15th House Republican to announce his retirement this term. The decision was likely motivated by serious ethics allegations surrounding Buyer, which he has struggled to explain. Given the district's history, it's expected to remain in GOP hands.

* It appears that the Republican National Committee's "purity resolution" will be scuttled, in favor of a compromise that would "require candidates to commit to a series of conservative positions."

* Ten months before the midterms, it appears Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is pretty safe. A new Rasmussen poll shows him leading Roxanne Conlin (D), a candidate Dems have been touting, by 28 points.

* In North Carolina, Sen. Richard Burr (R) still looks vulnerable, but a new Rasmussen poll nevertheless shows him with double-digit leads over his top Democratic challengers.

* Republicans in Connecticut have been struggling to find a top-tier gubernatorial candidate for this year's race, but it appears former Rep. Chris Shays (R), who narrowly lost re-election in 2008, is interested. One small problem: Shays no longer lives in Connecticut.

* It's still extremely unlikely, but speculation continues about whether Florida Gov. Charlie Crist might switch parties and run for the Senate as a Democrat. As a procedural matter, he would have until April 30, at the latest, to make up his mind.

* Arizona Dems hope Sen. John McCain and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth undermine each other so badly in their primary fight that Rodney Glassman, a Tucson councilman and Air Force JAG Reserve officer, has a shot at winning in November.

* And if former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) really does run for the Senate in New York, he's going to have a tough time living down his record of far-right rhetoric on immigration.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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HOW TO ACCOMMODATE AN UNINFORMED ELECTORATE.... If you're reading this blog, you're almost certainly well versed on the basics. You're well aware of the fact, for example, that Republicans have opposed health care reform en masse and that overcoming constant filibusters poses an almost insurmountable challenge.

But you're far more informed than the typical person. And there are consequences associated with an uninformed electorate.

The public has consistently expressed strong interest in the health care debate, but relatively few Americans can correctly answer two key questions related to the Senate's consideration of health care legislation.

In the latest installment of the Pew Research Center's News IQ Quiz, just 32% know that the Senate passed its version of the legislation without a single Republican vote. And, in what proved to be the most difficult question on the quiz, only about a quarter (26%) knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate and force a vote on a bill.

This obviously poses a serious political problem. Americans don't really know what's in the Democratic health care reform proposal, but just as important, the vast majority of Americans don't know what it takes to overcome a filibuster.

It creates a situation in which the public sees a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, and doesn't understand why more isn't getting done.

Democratic strategists and officials occasionally think Republicans will be punished for their unprecedented, reflexive obstructionism. But it's worth remembering that most of the public doesn't really follow this stuff. They don't know about the constant filibusters -- they may not know what a filibuster even is -- and generally don't care about procedural matters.

In other words, Republicans have embraced one simple tactic -- the single most important weapon in the GOP arsenal -- and used it to prevent the governing party from functioning. And Americans aren't really aware of that.

Ezra noted the repercussions.

It's a depressing poll, and for the White House, it should be a troubling one. Their argument essentially relies on a fairly deep level of procedural knowledge and interest. Enough, at least, to understand that the amount of governing the majority can do is dependent on how much governing the minority lets them do. It's not an easy argument to make, and it's even harder if the White House does not plan to make an issue out of its premises.

At the very least, that poll suggests that there will be little political sympathy for an unsuccessful Democratic majority. Republicans may be responsible if health-care reform fails, but Democrats will bear the blame.

It's a clever trick, isn't it? Voters give Democrats power, Republicans prevent Democrats from using the power, and the public, unaware of the details, gets annoyed and asks, "Why can't Dems get anything done? Aren't they in the majority?"

Greg Sargent added this morning, "Some will respond that it's only mathematically impossible [for the majority to govern] if Dems accept the filibuster as an inevitable fact of life, rather than something that might be campaigned against and changed."

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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SCREAM BLOODY MURDER.... It's worthwhile to recognize a frustrating political dynamic. It's even more worthwhile to try to do something about it.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) on Thursday admitted the "general feeling on the Democratic side" was that Republicans have so far been able to cast controversial protest votes and stall important legislation "with impunity."

He consequently seemed to suggest Republicans' behavior in Congress over the past year as hypocritical, as Democrats could never vote against important legislation and emerge unscathed.

"Some of the votes [Republicans] cast -- we would be on trial for treason if we had voted against defense appropriations in the midst of a war," he told reporters on his way to the Senate chamber. Durbin was referring to GOP members who tried to block the defense bill out of concern that a hate crimes bill was attached to it.

"They did it with impunity," Durbin lamented.

Durbin's right; they did. Every reckless, irresponsible, hypocritical, dangerous, and incoherent step Republicans take, they do so "with impunity."

They do so because they're pretty confident that Democrats won't effectively raise a fuss, the media won't care, and the public won't know. And they're right.

Let's look at this in a different light by imagining a hypothetical. Let's say Democrats ran the government for several years, and ran the country into a ditch. Disgusted, voters elected a Republican president with a huge mandate, gave Republicans the biggest House majority either party has had in 20 years, and the biggest Senate majority either party has had in 30 years.

Then imagine that, despite the overwhelming edge, Democrats decided -- during times of foreign and domestic crises -- that they simply would not allow the GOP majority to govern. Dems ignored the election results and reflexively opposed literally every bill, initiative, and nominee of any consequence, blocking anything and everything.

In this hypothetical, despite two wars, Democrats rejected funding for the troops. Despite a terrorist plot, Democrats rejected the qualified nominee to head the TSA. Despite an economic crisis, Democrats rejected economic recovery efforts, a jobs bill, and nominees to fill key Treasury Department posts.

Now, in this hypothetical, what do you suppose the political climate would look like? Would the huge Republican majority simply wring its hands? Would GOP officials decide it's time to try "bipartisan" governing? Would Republicans shrink from pursing their policy agenda?

Or would every single day be another opportunity for Republicans to be apoplectic about Democratic obstructionism? How many marches on Washington would Fox News organize, demanding that Democrats allow the governing majority to function?

Put simply, I'd like Democratic leaders to think about what Republicans would do if the situations were completely reversed. Then they should do that.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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STRONGEST ECONOMIC GROWTH IN SIX YEARS.... From Fall 2008 through Summer 2009, the nation's gross domestic product retreated. The four consecutive negative quarters was the longest since the government began keeping track six decades ago.

In the fourth quarter of 2009 -- from October to December -- the U.S. economy saw its best performance in a long while. There are, however, some caveats to the good news.

The United States economy grew at its fastest pace in over six years at the end of 2009, but a sluggish job market is still souring economists on the sustainability of the recovery.

Gross domestic product expanded at an annual rate of 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter, well above analysts' expectations. It had grown at an annualized rate of 2.2 percent in the previous quarter.

After struggling for so long, a 5.7% rate looks like an economy that's finally roaring back to life. The AP added that the growth is "the strongest evidence to date that the worst recession since the 1930s ended last year."

That's the good news. The bad news is that the 5.7% number, while obviously heartening, may be a little misleading. Expect to hear a lot about something called an "inventory bounce."

Many economists ... warn against reading too much into a jump in GDP figures for the last three months of 2009. Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research, said that even if there were no change in final sales of goods, the GDP figures would show a 4 percent increase simply because businesses that were emptying their warehouses a year ago are now buying enough goods to keep stockpiles steady.

Still, the 5.7% quarter exceeded several estimates. And with that, here's another home-made chart, showing GDP numbers by quarter since the recession began in late 2007.


* Update: Christina Romer, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, added, that the "inventory bounce, though likely to be transitory, is a normal part of healthy recoveries. As firms' confidence in the future increases, their desire to run down inventories wanes. This change in behavior is often a powerful force for growth early in a recovery."

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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PAYGO.... In case we needed additional evidence that bipartisanship is pretty much impossible, we got some yesterday.

The Senate took a vote on extending the federal debt ceiling -- without which the United States would go into default. All 40 Republicans voted no.

The Senate took a vote on requiring Congress not to pass legislation that it can't pay for. All 40 Republicans voted no.

The Senate took a final vote on passing the overall plan. Thirty-nine Republicans voted no. The 40th, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), skipped the vote.

The paygo vote was especially ridiculous. The idea is to "impose a requirement that key parts of the budget must be paid for with spending cuts or tax increases to prevent the federal deficit from increasing." It's known as the pay-as-you-go approach, or "paygo" -- if policymakers are going to increase spending or cut taxes, they have to figure out a way to pay for it at the time.

A similar rule was in place during the Clinton era, when the deficit was eliminated altogether. Republicans -- you know, the ones who claim to have the high ground on fiscal responsibility -- scrapped paygo in 2002. Soon after, GOP policymakers stopped trying to pay for their policies, and Republicans quickly added $5 trillion to the national debt, and left a $1.4 trillion deficit for Democrats to clean up.

As part of the effort to address the GOP's mess, Democrats have embraced paygo as a matter of common sense. President Obama, in his State of the Union address, urged Congress this week to "restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason for why we had record surpluses in the 1990s."

Just a few years ago, a handful of Senate Republicans -- Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, George Voinovich, and John McCain -- argued that paygo should be brought back. They were unsuccessful in persuading their Republican colleagues at the time, and yesterday, they voted with their Republican colleagues to reject the idea that they'd already embraced.

And that, in a nutshell, is why the notion of bipartisanship with a failed and discredited minority is so hard to take seriously. GOP lawmakers are so reflexive in saying "no" to everything, they end up opposing ideas they support, and at that point, reason has no meaning.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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HEALTH CARE REFORM LIVES -- MAYBE.... It can get a little confusing. Over the course of a few hours, political observers can find one report suggesting health care reform proponents may have "new reason to hope," followed soon after by another report arguing that "the grim reaper is starting to hover uncomfortably close by." One key Democratic senator suggests reform may be a lost cause, followed soon after by another key Democratic senator suggesting reform really will come together in the end.

And that's just since 3 p.m. yesterday.

Let's try to clear things up. Last week, in the immediate aftermath of the Massachusetts special election, health care reform barely had a pulse, and many Democrats were simply prepared to throw in the towel. This week, very few Dems are thinking along those lines -- on the contrary, the relevant players are nearly unanimous, publicly and privately, in their intention to succeed ... eventually.

But by all appearances, they're a little stuck, and there are no realistic hopes of getting this done quickly.

Democratic leaders in Congress voiced resolute optimism on Thursday that they would adopt major health care legislation this year, and they said that doing so was a crucial element of President Obama's broader agenda to create jobs, revive the economy and reduce federal budget deficits.

But legislative leaders conceded that they did not have an immediate strategy for advancing a health care measure and described their time frame as open-ended.

"We're going to do health care reform this year," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters. "The question is, at this stage, procedurally, how do we get where we need to go."

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairmen of the HELP and Finance committees, also sounded reasonably optimistic, with Baucus telling reporters reform is "going to be done before spring, summer." Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) added that the shift in emphasis is not a "cause for alarm."

We also heard a fair amount from the White House yesterday, with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel telling the NYT that Democratic policymakers would move on other economic issues -- including a jobs bill and Wall Street reform -- before returning to health care. "The good news is, nobody is saying 'Drop it.' Everybody is saying, 'Take the time to figure out how to get this done,''' Emanuel said. "Not doing it is not part of this conversation.''

David Axelrod added that it would be "a great political mistake to walk away" from health care reform, and that the president expects lawmakers to "go back at it soon."

So, a week after all hope appeared lost, key officials are at least saying good things, and have at least been talking about making progress, but they're nevertheless prepared to put reform on the backburner -- for an undetermined length of time. As much as it's heartening to know the commitment to success is still there, the delays may very well allow reform to die by neglect.

As we talked about yesterday, my biggest fear isn't that reform will come down to a life-or-death moment, where it either succeeds or fails. What's more likely is that this once-in-a-generation opportunity will simply fade away -- winter talks will be put on the backburner so policymakers can work on other things, which will lead to spring and a series of votes on those other issues. Spring will turn to summer, which is when leaders start telling reform proponents, "Well, we wanted to do something, but members don't want to vote on controversial issues so soon before the midterm elections."

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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January 28, 2010

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

* The Senate confirmed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to a second term today, following a 70 to 30. The margin may seem lopsided, but it was the closest-ever vote for a Fed chairman's confirmation.

* Iraq: "A key al-Qaida in Iraq figure involved in smuggling hundreds of suicide bombers across the border from Syria has been killed in a raid in northern Iraq, the U.S. military said Thursday."

* Ford: "Ford Motor Co posted its first full-year profit since 2005 on Thursday and said it expects to stay profitable in 2010 despite a still fragile economy and a debt heavy balance sheet."

* Still awful: "New claims for unemployment insurance dropped to 470,000 for the week ended Jan. 23, from 478,000 the previous week. The four-week moving average, which aims to smooth volatility in the data, rose by 9,500 to 456,250."

* Tehran: "Iran hanged two men convicted in the wake of the unrest that erupted after last year's disputed election, as a top opposition figure predicted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be ousted before the end of his term."

* Federal debt limit: "The Senate agreed Thursday to raise the legal limit on government borrowing to a record $14.3 trillion, a total that would permit the Treasury Department to cover the nation's bills through the end of this year."

* 48 million Americans tuned in to watch President Obama's State of the Union address. That's the most-watched SOTU since 2003, and it's good news for the White House.

* There's apparently some real tensions right now between the White House and the Supreme Court.

* I'm still having trouble figuring out exactly what right-wing activist James O'Keefe hoped to accomplish with regard to Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) phones.

* Right-wing Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) believes O'Keefe getting caught committing alleged crimes may be part of a liberal conspiracy. Or something. King is disturbed and it's hard to know what he's trying to say.

* In the meantime, O'Keefe has been ordered to move in with his parents. The future of conservative media, indeed.

* Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) wants to cut federal spending. But if you ask for details, he throws a bit of a tantrum.

* Fred Kaplan makes a very compelling argument that if we're looking to cut the budget, the Pentagon shouldn't be excluded.

* Weapons for professors?

* Bill O'Reilly likes the idea of the CIA kidnapping Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and possibly torturing the House Speaker.

* Saying goodbye to two legends, J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... If being obsessed with the status of health care reform is wrong, I don't want to be right.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters today that President Obama's remarks in support of reform in the State of the Union were "helpful" in moving the process forward, but added that discussions with the Senate are ongoing. On a discouraging note, the Speaker made it seem as if the differences with the Senate are considerable and hard to overcome: "I would not call them minor tweaks because that would imply there's something there that we could accept, except for some minor tweaks. No, it's more serious than that."

That's the bad news. The good news is, Pelosi reiterated just how committed she is to making reform a reality:

"You go through the gate. If the gate's closed, you go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we'll pole-vault in. If that doesn't work, we'll parachute in. But we're going to get health care reform passed for the American people."

Compare Pelosi's strength and determination with Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) whining today, and it's pretty clear who's truly serious about taking advantage of his once-in-a-generation opportunity.

As for Pelosi's counterpart in the other chamber, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scheduled a meeting this afternoon with Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- all key players in the Senate reform effort -- to discuss how best to proceed on the issue.

The fact that they're having this conversation is at least mildly encouraging -- at Tuesday's caucus meeting, health care reform didn't come up at all.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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MOVING FORWARD ON DADT REPEAL.... There were rumors that President Obama would address "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the State of the Union address last night, and fortunately, the scuttlebutt was true.

"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," Obama said. "It's the right thing to do." When the president made the remark, cameras showed Defense Secretary Robert Gates standing and applauding, along with many Democratic lawmakers.

Marc Ambinder reports today that the president's directive wasn't just rhetoric -- the administration is already moving forward with a plan to implement the new policy.

Before President Obama announced last night that he would work with Congress and the Pentagon to end the military's ban on service by gays and lesbians, the White House consulted Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to sign off on the language he planned to use, administration officials said. They did. "The Pentagon is with us," the official said.

And Geoff Morell, Gates's spokesman, e-mails me to say that "The Department leadership is actively working on an implementation plan and will have more to say about it next week." So -- Obama's pledge to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell was more than words -- he's instructed the military to get it done as soon as Congress repeals the law.

The plan, as far as I can tell, is still to complete the change through an amendment to the Defense budget, not through a free-standing bill -- the same way policymakers approved expanded hate-crime protections last year.

What kind of opposition can we expect? It's probably too soon to say. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a statement demanding that DADT stay in place, though, oddly enough, his statement didn't even try to explain why the policy is a good idea.

Nevertheless, nothing worthwhile ever comes easily, at least not in contemporary politics. Kevin Drum noted today, "Right now this seems like a very winnable fight, but that's because the pushback hasn't really started yet. But once Fox gets going, and op-eds get written, and the locker room tittering takes off, and FreedomWorks starts running TV ads, and Focus on the Family blankets their mailing list with dire fundraising letters, and disgruntled military brass start leaking -- well, that's a whole different ballgame."

That's probably right, though I'd note that the right really hated the hate-crimes expansion -- believe me, I'm on Dobson's mailing list -- and the opposition barely registered. I agree that there will be considerable pushback, but with backing from the White House and the Pentagon, I think the smart money is on DADT finally getting repealed by the spring.

Post Script: The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a key hearing on DADT on Tuesday. It's the first step in making this happen.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT.... I've spent an inordinate amount of time lately trying to ascertain/understand/guess what happens next on health care reform. Over the last week or so, there have been some encouraging signs and discouraging signs, but at this point, there are really only two things that are perfectly clear: (1) the relevant players really do seem to want to get this done; and (2) they haven't the foggiest idea when or how.

Last night, President Obama defended the Democratic reform plan during the State of the Union, and urged lawmakers not to give up. At an event in Tampa today, the president repeated a similar sentiment:

"[W]e will not stop fighting for a health care system that works for the American people, not just for the insurance industry. We won't stop.

"We want a system where you can't be denied care if you have a pre-existing condition. You can't get thrown off your insurance right at the time when you get seriously ill.

"We want a system where small businesses can get insurance at a price they can afford. Nobody pays more than small businesses and individuals who are self-employed in the insurance market, because they've got no leverage. We want to change that by allowing them to be able to set up a pool.

"We want to make sure that people who don't have coverage can find an affordable choice in a competitive marketplace.

"We want a system in which seniors don't have these huge gaps in their Medicare prescription drug coverage. And where Medicare itself is on a sounder financial footing.

'Those are the things that we're fighting for. And I'm not going to stop on this, because it's the right thing to do."

Sounds great. So, what's next? No one knows.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters today, "We're going to do health care reform this year. The question at this stage is procedurally how do we need to get where we need to go." Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added that Democrats are "thinking about it and how to move on it." What does that tell us? Not much.

Conservative members of the Senate caucus still aren't helping. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said reform is "on life support," and she's "hoping that in the next week or two" the president will give lawmakers marching orders.

My biggest fear isn't that reform will come down to a life-or-death moment, where it either succeeds or fails. What's more likely is that this once-in-a-generation opportunity will simply fade away -- winter talks will be put on the backburner so policymakers can work on other things, which will lead to spring and a series of votes on those other issues. Spring will turn to summer, which is when leaders start telling reform proponents, "Well, we wanted to do something, but members don't want to vote on controversial issues so soon before the midterm elections."

If this is going to succeed, the way to make it happen is to get it done very soon. As a practical matter, that means working out a plan, literally, over the next week or two. The longer it takes, the more likely failure becomes. And if it fails, the consequences -- for the country, the economy, the Democratic Party, the Obama presidency -- would surely be severe.

Also, I've been pushing the line pretty hard that congressional Democrats can/should realize what needs to be done, and not rely excessively on the White House to deliver marching orders. I still believe that, but it's also becoming clearer to me that expecting Congress to make these realizations is probably unrealistic -- the House and Senate are at odds, they don't seem to be getting anywhere, and without some presidential hand-holding, a way forward will likely never materialize.

The fate of reform, in other words, shouldn't necessarily fall on the president's shoulders, but it may anyway.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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TEA PARTY CONVENTION CONTINUES TO UNRAVEL.... A week from Saturday, a right-wing outfit Tea Party Nation will host the first-ever National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tenn. It's becoming less and less clear whether attendees will have any leaders on hand to follow.

Over the last week or so, three far-right co-sponsors of the event -- the National Precinct Alliance, the American Liberty Alliance, and American Majority -- all pulled out.

Today, the event suffered a more serious blow, losing two right-wing House Republicans from the guest list.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has become the latest to pull out of a scheduled speaking gig at the controversial National Tea Party Convention next year.

Like Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) earlier today, Bachmann's office cited concerns about the event's financial arrangements. Some Tea Partiers have accused the convention's organizer, Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation, of seeking to profit from the confab.

The announcements bring the total of sitting lawmakers speaking at the event to zero.

Former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) is still scheduled to be the keynote speaker -- and pick up a reported $100,000 check -- but the confused former V.P. nominee is under pressure to drop out, too.

Of course, with the guest list shrinking, it's also possible that attendees will decide that the event isn't worth the trip, making this apparent fiasco that much more embarrassing.

In fairness, I should emphasize that the unraveling of the Tea Party Convention doesn't necessarily reflect an unraveling of the larger right-wing "movement" -- this has more to do with one poorly-planned debacle than the relative strength of the collection of unhinged activists.

Still, the convention was intended to be a key strategizing moment for the upcoming elections, and at this point, it seems to be imploding.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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EVAN BAYH'S MORAL WRONGS.... The solution to the health care reform debate seems pretty obvious -- the House approves the Senate bill; the Senate agrees to improvements through reconciliation. One of the obstacles, of course, is the group of center-right Democrats who not only don't want to return to the issue, but are staunchly opposed to using reconciliation.

It's worth fully appreciating, though, why reconciliation is considered so distasteful. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) explained that the procedure should be avoided because it may bother Republicans. And if Republicans are bothered, they may not work with Democrats on bipartisan solutions. Seriously, that's the argument.

"There would be some real consequences from that for the legislative agenda for the rest of the year," Bayh told me last night, "the other things the president called for: cooperation on education, financial reform, a whole host of other things."

Bayh says he sees a real prospect for bipartisanship on those issues, but that Republicans will walk away if Democrats play hardball on health care.

"The problem with reconciliation is that it runs a real risk...of poisoning the well on progress on some of these areas," Bayh said.

This is so hopelessly misguided, it's hard to know where to start. I'd remind Bayh, for example, that reconciliation has been used plenty of times in recent years, and the institution and its members survived just fine. I'd also ask why on earth Bayh think Democrats giving up on their signature domestic policy initiative would suddenly make Republicans -- who've run a scorched-earth campaign since Day One -- open to bipartisan compromise on a whole host of issues.

But let's put all of that aside and characterize this in a way that too often goes overlooked. Bayh isn't just wrong about the legislative process; he's wrong about morality.

Getting reform done isn't just about passing some bill; it's about helping millions of Americans suffering under the current system. As anyone even passively familiar with the debate surely knows, the tens of millions of Americans with no coverage are struggling with a burden unseen in other major democracies. Thousands more join the ranks of the uninsured every day. Tens of thousands of Americans die every year because they have no insurance. Hundreds of thousands of others fall into medical bankruptcy -- and most of these medical bankruptcies involve people who have insurance, but whose coverage proves inadequate.

Bayh's argument, quite literally, is that those suffering under a dysfunctional status quo will just have to continue to suffer, because the legitimate legislative procedure needed to help them might annoy Republicans.

Helping those who are suffering isn't as high a priority as maybe getting some GOP help on a few issues?

It might take a little principled courage and compassion to help get reform finished. But Bayh would have us believe the millions counting on reform becoming law should just wait -- indefinitely.

How anyone could perceive this as anything but morally outrageous is a mystery to me. I want Evan Bayh to go to Indianapolis this weekend and meet with a family that lost their coverage because someone lost their job, or maybe a family that can't get coverage because someone has a pre-existing condition, or maybe a family going into bankruptcy because one of its members had the audacity to get sick. He should explain to them that they'll have to go without because he's worried that Republicans might be unhappy if Dems use a legislative procedure that Republicans have already used plenty of times.

Go ahead and ask them, Evan, if they think that's a reasonable way to go.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE POLITICS OF THE ALOHA STATE.... The Republican National Committee, for the first time, is holding a winter meeting at a sunny resort in Waikiki, Hawaii. RNC Chairman Michael Steele personally selected the locale.

I don't much care, but the political implications have become rather amusing.

The choice of venue is, not surprisingly, drawing a little bit of ribbing from Democrats, groaning from some Republicans (it is a very long 4,000 miles from, say, Washington D.C), and reminders of the political significance of this state, in the form of the "Obama's Oahu" maps on sale that provide a guide to all things Obama on this island, where the president grew up.

Mr. Steele, in an interview, leapt to defend the decision the moment the question was raised.

"It's been disappointing to me to hear people treat the 50th state of the Union as if it was some foreign land," he said, as he sat in the lounge of the Rainbow Tower, the smell of pineapple in the air and the breaking surf at his back.

Right. Who would make such a silly claim about Hawaii being "foreign"? Well, Republican campaign strategists, for one.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also wasn't thrilled with Steele's chosen destination: "[D]o I want voters to think that Republicans do nothing but go to beach resorts in January? No."

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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STOP GIVING RUDY THE CLOWN AIRTIME.... The problem with news outlets constantly turning to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for "political analysis" is three-fold. First, he's an irrelevant figure with predictable observations. Second, he says things that are clearly false. And third, he hasn't the foggiest idea what he's talking about, but he keeps getting invited back.

Take this morning, for example. Giuliani appeared on CNN and Fox News to attack the State of the Union, and made a variety of ridiculous claims. According to the former mayor, President Obama (1) "ignored national security" during the speech; (2) "didn't talk about the Christmas almost-bomber"; and (3) didn't use the word "Islamic terrorism."

In Grown-Up Land, these claims aren't just misleading, they're obvious lies.

First, the president didn't "ignore national security." Giuliani claims to have actually watched the speech, but if that's true, he would have noticed Obama talking about our "renewed focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation," the administration having "disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives," new security measures, and the success the U.S. has had capturing or killing terrorists. The president talked about the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, "taking the fight to al Qaeda," isolating North Korea, and the "growing consequences" Iran may face.

Second, Giuliani believes the president "didn't talk about the Christmas almost-bomber," but Obama clearly said, "We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence."

Third, as for Giuliani's obsession with word choice -- "Islamic terrorism" is two words, by the way, not one -- the president used the words "terrorist" (twice), "terrorism," "war" (seven times), "al Qaeda" (twice), and "national security" (three times).

And how much pushback did Giuliani receive this morning while making these bogus claims? None.

Remember, just a couple of weeks ago, Giuliani claimed, "We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We've had one under Obama." This was blisteringly stupid, but it hasn't affected his appearances.

And therein lies the point. I don't really blame Giuliani for routinely lying on television; he's just a hack doing what comes naturally. I do blame news outlets for rewarding his dishonesty with more scrutiny-free appearances.

Americans want to know more about national security. It's up to producers, editors, and other journalists to provide forums to those who will help the public better understand the world around them. Repeatedly giving Giuliani a microphone does a disservice to the nation.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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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 "purity test" to be considered by the Republican National Committee looks to be in trouble. Yesterday, RNC Chairman Michael Steele announced his formal opposition and state party chairs voted unanimously to kill the proposal.

* It appears that Rep. John Boozman (R) will soon announce his retirement from the House to run against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) in Arkansas this year. A formal decision is expected by the weekend.

* In Illinois, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) leading Rep. Mark Kirk (R) in this year's U.S. Senate race, 42% to 34%. In hypothetical match-ups, Kirk fares better against the other Democratic candidates. Both parties will host primary contests next week.

* A new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California shows former Rep. Tom Campbell (R) trailing Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) by just four points, 45% to 41%.

* Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) hasn't moved any closer to running for the Senate against incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold (D), but Rasmussen shows Thompson leading if he runs.

* And White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is still annoyed by the recent results in Massachusetts, telling CBS News' Katie Couric yesterday, "I don't want to re-litigate this, but there is no doubt in my mind we could have won that race."

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

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BISHOPS DON'T WANT TO SEE REFORM DIE.... I suppose it can't hurt.

Theology can make for confusing politics, especially in partisan Washington.

Just a few weeks ago the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was threatening to oppose the proposed health care overhaul because it could expand health insurance coverage of abortion.

Now that the legislation appears to be near death, the bishops are on the other side. They have sent a letter urging Congress to keep it alive.

Well, sort of. The Bishops' letter is online (pdf), and while they "strongly urge" lawmakers to "come together and recommit themselves to enacting genuine health care reform," and lament the fact that the debate "seems to have lost its central moral focus and policy priority," the USCCB sketches out a vision for what reform ought to look like.

* Ensures access to quality, affordable, life-giving health care for all;

* Retains longstanding requirements that federal funds not be used for elective abortions or plans that include them, and effectively protects conscience rights; and,

* Protects the access to health care that immigrants currently have and removes current barriers to access.

The Bishops' position hasn't changed at all, but recognizing the human suffering that will result from health care reform's demise, the USCCB insists, "Now is not the time to abandon this task."

They want, in other words, policymakers to keep trying to find a solution that would make the USCCB happy.

Since the alternative is watching the Bishops trying to kill reform, I suppose this is preferable.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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AT LEAST HE WAS BETTER THAN JINDAL.... Giving the official response to the State of the Union -- any president's State of the Union -- tends to be the kiss of death for any political figure of note. Given the recent history, I'm generally surprised when anyone even accepts the gig.

Virginia's newly elected governor, Bob McDonnell, made a good decision to offer his response in a better setting -- he spoke from the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates -- though as a friend of mine joked last night, following on the heels of State of the Union, McDonnell more or less came across as the president of a much smaller country.

As for the content, I've been trying to think of something noteworthy to write, but the speech was rather boilerplate. All McDonnell had to do was avoid embarrassing himself the way Bobby Jindal did last year, and I'm confident the Virginian cleared this very low bar.

In terms of substance, McDonnell was pretty conventional. We learned, for example, that when the government takes money out of the economy, it helps create jobs. That doesn't make any sense, but this was the official GOP response, where facts are irrelevant.

But more than anything else, McDonnell's comments on health care stood out.

"All Americans agree, we need a health care system that is affordable, accessible, and high quality. But most Americans do not want to turn over the best medical care system in the world to the federal government.

"Republicans in Congress have offered legislation to reform healthcare, without shifting Medicaid costs to the states, without cutting Medicare, and without raising your taxes.

"We will do that by implementing common sense reforms, like letting families and businesses buy health insurance policies across state lines, and ending frivolous lawsuits against doctors and hospitals that drive up the cost of your healthcare.

"And our solutions aren't thousand-page bills that no one has fully read, after being crafted behind closed doors with special interests."

A few quick things to keep in mind. First, the U.S. system isn't the "best in the world." That's just silly.

Second, the Democratic plan does not turn over medical care to the federal government. McDonnell probably should have looked into this before giving the speech.

Third, the Republican health care plan was a fairly transparent joke. It was an embarrassment to the GOP, not a plan to brag about.

And fourth, while the Republican proposal wasn't a 1,000-page bill "crafted behind closed doors with special interests," it was, in reality, a 700-page bill crafted behind closed doors with special interests.

Media Matters did some additional fact-checking, but on the whole, the address was largely forgettable. Given the history, though, it was largely a pass/fail test, so McDonnell should probably be pleased.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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ANOTHER EDITION FOR MATTHEWS'S 'GREATEST HITS'.... There was some memorable rhetoric in President Obama's State of the Union address, but one of the more notable remarks of the night came after the speech on MSNBC.

Chris Matthews, reflecting on what he'd seen, based his analysis on race. "I was trying to think about who he was tonight. It's interesting; he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour," the host of "Hardball" said. "He's gone a long way to become a leader of this country and past so much history in just a year or two. I mean it's something we don't even think about. I was watching and I said, wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people and there he is, president of the United States, and we've completely forgotten that tonight -- completely forgotten it."

Talking later to Rachel Maddow, Matthews tried to clarify matters, saying he was explaining an "epiphany" he had while watching the address, touting the president's ability to provide national leadership that gets Americans "beyond these divisions."

I want to give Matthews the benefit of the doubt, and I'm trying to understand his observation. After watching it a couple of times, I think Matthews is effectively trying to say how nice it is that the color of the president's skin is no longer relevant when evaluating his performance in office.

But it's hard not to notice that Matthews stepped on his own observation in a strikingly clumsy way. He's impressed by how irrelevant race is in evaluating Obama ... which leads him to immediately talk about race in evaluating Obama.

It's also troubling because of Matthews' history when it comes to his preoccupation with issues related to racial identity. During the 2008 campaign, for example, Matthews argued on the air that Obama's appeal may be limited to "people who come from the African-American community and from the people who have college or advanced degrees," but not with "regular people." It was an observation that was offensive on multiple levels.

He's going to have to do a lot better than this.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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EARLY POLLS SHOW POSITIVE SOTU REACTION.... Gauging public reactions to the State of the Union is more than a little tricky at this point. For one thing, it's only been 12 hours. For another, the audience isn't especially broad -- those who tune into a presidential speech like this one are more likely to be open to what he has to say.

But with those caveats in mind, the initial results suggest President Obama's speech was well received. CBS News, for example, published these results over night.

Of the randomly selected 522 speech viewers questioned by CBS, 83 percent said they approved of the proposals the President made. Just 17 percent disapproved -- typical of the high support a president generally receives among those who choose to watch the State of the Union. [...]

Six in 10 of those asked said they thought Mr. Obama conveyed a clear plan for creating jobs, and seven in 10 said his plans for the economy will help ordinary Americans. Another seven in 10 said President Obama has the same priorities for the country as they have.

The same individuals were interviewed both before and after Wednesday's State of the Union, and after the speech, 70 percent said Mr. Obama shares their priorities for the country, up from 57 percent before the speech.

Indeed, among those polled before and after, there were big jumps in support for the president on everything from jobs to health care to U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

CNN also released a poll last night, reflecting widespread support -- 48% had a very positive reaction to the speech, 30% had a somewhat positive response, and 21% had a negative response. CNN Polling Director Keating Holland added, "All in all, Obama had a definite affect on his audience."

And Mark Blumenthal noted that Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg's Democracy Corps conducted a "dial group" (focus group with dials) in Las Vegas, and found a "very positive response," most notably on "bank reform and wall street and special interests."

On the issue of whether he puts Wall Street ahead of the middle class, it was a 50 point shift on people saying that [doesn't describe him] well. There was a 40-point shift...on fighting special interests. On banking reform, on support, it was a 38 point shift in favor of that. And that's clearly, far and away the place where he showed the greatest strength and clarity.

These immediate reactions can shift, but it seems like the kind of positive response the White House can build on.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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GETTING HEALTH CARE BACK ON TRACK?.... Everyone in, near, or around the debate over the future of health care reform watched very closely last night, waiting for signals in President Obama's State of the Union address about the road ahead. Given some of the remarks from lawmakers earlier in the week, the fate of reform would be heavily influenced by what the president had to say.

So, did the president single-handedly save the struggling initiative with one section of one speech? Probably not, but that would be unrealistic anyway. Obama did, however, give reform a much-needed boost, and with some meaningful follow-up, the measure may yet succeed.

There's been some debate over the last 12 hours about whether the president did enough. It's not an unreasonable question -- the speech did not give lawmakers "marching orders," did not set a deadline for passage, and did not lay out a specific strategy for what to do next. But I'm not sure that's what the State of the Union is for, exactly.

Obama instead chose to "clear a few things up" about why reform is necessary, and why the Democratic plan has merit. (If he weren't still trying to get the proposal through, he wouldn't have bothered presenting a defense of it.) Indeed, there was a fairly detailed recitation of some of the key, easy-to-understand benefits of the bill that's so close to passage, and an explanation of why things will get worse if reform fails.

He wrapped up the point by urging passage.

"I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber.

"So, as temperatures cool, I want everyone to take another look at the plan we've proposed. There's a reason why many doctors, nurses, and health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo. But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know. Let me know. Let me know. I'm eager to see it.

"Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. Let's get it done."

Soon after, in a related reminder, the president told Democratic lawmakers, "I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."

Now, I've seen some suggest that by inviting others to present "a better approach," Obama was signaling his willingness to accept a watered-down bill. I actually thought it was the opposite. He set the goal posts in place -- lower premiums, deficit reduction, coverage for the uninsured, strengthening Medicare, strong consumer protections -- knowing full well that reform's critics can't present a plan that will meet these tests.

And what about the reactions? Brian Beutler talked to several Democratic lawmakers who said the president's remarks helped, but the House is still looking to the Senate to act, and vice versa. Jonathan Cohn added, "I canvassed about ten key sources on Capitol Hill, focusing on the members, staff, and advocates most committed to passing reform. Every one (literally) seemed relatively pleased and some seemed very pleased, even without the step-by-step instructions.... Obama gave reform advocates the support, and cover, they needed."

So, health care reform lives, at least for now. The White House is going to have to do more in the coming days to keep the effort on track, and pressure on Congress from the public will have to continue, but at a minimum, the State of the Union kept hope alive.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WHY IT WORKED.... I've been trying to put my finger on why I liked President Obama's State of the Union address so much. The content and delivery were strong, but that's to be expected. I think my very positive reaction has to do with the larger context and the pre-speech expectations.

Given the public's palpable frustrations and the struggles the nation endured in 2009, there was a sense that the president would have to be vaguely apologetic during the address. He'd have to explain himself, acknowledge mistakes, and lay a new course for the year ahead. The pundits' use of words like "reboot" and "scaled back" were ubiquitous going into the speech.

The president, though, decided not to follow the conventional script. When he was supposed to be meek, he showed confidence. When expected to be contrite, Obama seemed proud. When Republicans sought deference, the president responded with strength. Indeed, while the GOP believes electoral winds are at their backs, Obama didn't mind teasing, confronting, challenging, and even mocking them in a good-natured way.

The fear that the president might shrink from the moment was backwards -- Obama stepped up and seemed larger than ever.

There was an inherent challenge that falls on any president leading during hard times: conveying to the public that policies are working, and that things are getting/will get better, without appearing ignorant of their pain. I thought Obama threaded the needle extremely well -- highlighting not just the economic hardships, but the "deficit of trust" and the pettiness that contributes to American cynicism.

Also note, Democrats have appeared on the verge of a meltdown since Massachusetts's special election. The president not only leads the executive branch, but is also the head of the party, and made it clear to his compatriots last night that they're going to have take a deep breath and get back to work.

"To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."

Good advice. The underlying message of the night was that the president needs Democrats to follow his lead. Given the strength of the speech, it was an appeal that seems likely to work.

But perhaps the part of the speech that resonated most with me was the president's call to aim high.

"I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That's just how it is.

"Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what's necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what's best for the next generation.

"But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn't be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren."

It was as assertive as it was persuasive. If he can translate this vision and leadership style into a concrete action, 2010 will be far stronger than 2009.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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January 27, 2010

SOTU OPEN THREAD.... I'll have more on President Obama's State of the Union speech in the morning, and I'm usually awful at guessing how "everyone else" responds to speeches like these, but my first thought after it ended was, "Oh, right, this is why I voted for the guy."

We've been here before -- Obama gets in a jam, so a big speech is needed to set things right. It happened at Iowa's JJ dinner; it happened with the speech on race in Philadelphia; etc. I'm not convinced the presidency was veering off in the wrong direction, but if anything should help bring some renewed confidence to the White House, this State of the Union address should do the trick. There were high expectations, and Obama delivered.

And with that, let's open the floor to some discussion. What'd you think?

Steve Benen 10:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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SOTU LIVE-BLOGGING.... Rumor has it that Live-Tweeting has replaced Live-Blogging as That Which Bloggers Are Supposed To Do. But where's the fun in that? State of the Union thoughts in 140 characters? Pshaw.

The motorcade arrived on the Hill a few minutes ago, and President Obama will be heading into the House chamber in about 10 minutes. Here it goes....

[full live-blogging after the jump]

9:01: It's a minute after nine and the SOTU hasn't begun. I can only assume an RNC press release attacking the president for being "tardy, too" is on the way.

9:07: I find it interesting to think those folks camped out all day just to get those prime seats along the walkway. They even had a picnic this afternoon.

9:12: "Again, we are tested." Ain't that the truth.

9:15: Still no applause lines. Somber tone.

9:16: Making clear he gets it: "Some are frustrated; some are angry. They don't understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn't; or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness."

9:17: "I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight."

9:18: "Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit."

9:19: Yep, everyone really hates that bailout.

9:20: Notice that no one on the GOP stodd for this: "If these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need."

9:21: I think Obama wants us to understand something about cutting taxes.

9:23: Damn straight: stimulus works.

9:24: "Jobs must be our number one focus in 2010, and that is why I am calling for a new jobs bill tonight."

9:26: It's going to be tough to oppose this one: "I'm proposing that we take $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid and use it to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat."

9:28: High-speed rail rocks.

9:29: Straight out of the '08 stump speech: "It's time to finally slash the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas and give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs in the United States of America."

9:30: There's that theme again: New Foundation.

9:31: Good questions: "How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold?"

9:32: More of this, please: "China's not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany's not waiting. India's not waiting. These nations aren't standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well I do not accept second-place for the United States of America."

9:33: Financial reform comes first on the list.

9:34: Veto threat!

9:35: Sounds like Obama is on board with an all-of-above approach to energy policy.

9:37: Wait, there's "overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change"?

9:37: Thomas Friedman is smiling: "The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation."

9:39: Wonder why GOP applauded a lot less for this one: "Realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules."

9:40: "In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education."

9:41: This should be such a no-brainer: "To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer-subsidies that go to banks for student loans. Instead, let's take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for four years of college and increase Pell Grants."

9:42: "Because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college."

9:43: "It is precisely to relieve the burden on middle-class families that we still need health insurance reform."

9:44: "And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics." Cute.

9:45: Defense of the plan. Doesn't sound scary, does it?

9:46: HCR reduces the deficit? Why, that's a great idea!

9:47: "I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber."

9:48: This plan works. If you can do better, let's hear it.

9:50: Thanks, Bush, for screwing us all over.

9:52: "Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years." No applause from either side.

9:53: There's that deficit commission idea the president likes.

9:55: "That's how budgeting works." Not in the prepared text -- needling GOP.

9:56: Dear Republicans, we tried it your way. It failed. "It's time to try something new. Let's invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let's meet our responsibility to the citizens who sent us here. Let's try common sense."

9:57: "We face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust -- deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years."

9:58: Trashing a Supreme Court ruling in front of the justices. Awkward.

9:59: Earmark reform.

10:00: "Every day is Election Day."

10:01: Senate reform: "Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants should not be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual Senators."

10:02: Dear Dems, don't "run for the hills." Good advice.

10:03: Now we're talking: "If the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."

10:04: Dear Cheneys, "Let's leave behind the fear and division, and do what it takes to defend our nation and forge a more hopeful future -- for America and the world."

10:05: He probably should have said this twice: "In the last year, hundreds of Al Qaeda's fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed -- far more than in 2008."

10:07: "This war is ending, and all of our troops are coming home."

10:08: Real investment in taking care of returning troops and their families.

10:09: JFK and Reagan have the same approach on ridding the world of nukes.

10:10: Iran will "face growing consequences."

10:11: "As we meet here tonight, over 10,000 Americans are working with many nations to help the people of Haiti recover and rebuild."

10:12: "For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity."

10:13: Damn straight: "My Administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination."

10:14: About damn time: "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do."

10:16: President Grown-Up: "Each time a CEO rewards himself for failure, or a banker puts the rest of us at risk for his own selfish gain, people's doubts grow. Each time lobbyists game the system or politicians tear each other down instead of lifting this country up, we lose faith. The more that TV pundits reduce serious debates into silly arguments, and big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away. No wonder there's so much cynicism out there."

10:18: Can I get a witness? "The only reason we are is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and grandchildren."

10:20: "We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment -- to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more."

Steve Benen 8:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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

* Signs of life in Haiti? "As the United Nations dispatched thousands of earthquake survivors to clean the streets in a growing cash-for-work program, this devastated capital showed increasing signs of stirring back to life on Wednesday as Haitians restarted factory assembly lines, visited their barbers, sought replacement cell phones and even picked up their dry cleaning."

* New counter-terrorism efforts, approved by President Obama directly, in Yemen: "U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials."

* There was a CNBC report earlier that said Pelosi has 218 votes to pass the Senate health care bill. That report was wrong. Democratic leaders are, however, increasingly vocal about their commitment to getting something done.

* The reform problem is, however, nearly as complicated procedurally as it is politically.

* John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism advisor, isn't impressed with Joe Lieberman's Fort Hood concerns.

* Kabul: "The Afghan government is set to unveil an ambitious, far-reaching plan to persuade the Taliban's foot soldiers to abandon their fight and to offer an opening for the movement's leaders to return to politics in the country they once ruled."

* President Obama continues to work with Russia on START talks.

* Two months ago, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) was fine with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed being tried in New York. Now, Bloomberg is no longer pleased. (It seems to have more to do with the mayor's office looking for some additional federal funds, and less to do with the usual GOP fear-mongering.)

* Former CIA operative John Kiriakou has argued publicly that he has first-hand evidence on the efficacy of torture, and has been widely cited over the years by conservatives. It turns out, Kiriakou didn't know what he was talking about.

* The DCCC's new "State of the Union 'Fact Check Fox' Team" seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

* The new iPad looks pretty darn cool.

* The White House says its "budget freeze" won't hurt higher education.

* There's no easy way to say this, but Center for Military Readiness' Elaine Donnelly appears to be stark raving mad.

* When right-wing activist James O'Keefe was trying to destroy ACORN, Fox News thought he was extremely important. Now that O'Keefe is a suspected criminal, Fox News doesn't want to talk about him anymore.

* On a related note, what did Andrew Breitbart know about O'Keefe's activities and when did he know it?

* Mugshot: "James O'Keefe, the face of 'conservative journalism.'"

I'll be back in a few hours for some State of the Union live-blogging, but for now, consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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PAWLENTY DOESN'T KNOW WHAT A 'CREDIBLE ECONOMIST' IS.... Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's (R) hopes of undermining confidence in the economic recovery package are predictable -- he is, after all, planning to run against President Obama in 2012. It's his citation on Fox News today that irked me.

"I think most credible economists say it's not working," Pawlenty said.

Funny, I can't think of a credible economist who doubts it's working.

[W]ith roughly a quarter of the stimulus money out the door after nine months, the accumulation of hard data and real-life experience has allowed more dispassionate analysts to reach a consensus that the stimulus package, messy as it is, is working. [...]

In interviews, a broad range of economists said the White House and Congress were right to structure the package as a mix of tax cuts and spending, rather than just tax cuts as Republicans prefer or just spending as many Democrats do.

Among "credible economists," we seem awfully close to complete unanimity that the Democrats' recovery effort rescued the economy from collapse, created jobs, and generated economic growth that wouldn't have existed otherwise. Among the experts, this isn't even worth debating anymore -- it's simply an obvious truth that the stimulus was effective. (It would have been more effective had it been more ambitious, but "moderate" Republicans insisted that the package be smaller.)

Even the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that which enjoyed very close ties to the Bush White House, said that without the stimulus, the economy would not have grown at all in 2009. We've seen related reports over, and over, and over again. Any serious person who's looked at reality has to conclude that Pawlenty's vision for addressing the economic crisis would have made things worse, not better.

Which is why the politics of the economic debate can be so exasperating. To reiterate a point from a month ago, the Republicans' track record of uninterrupted failure is rather astounding.

The GOP said the stimulus package would fail to create jobs. We now know the Republicans were wrong.

The GOP said the recovery efforts would fail to generate economic growth. We now know the Republicans were wrong.

The GOP said the stimulus "failed." We now know the Republicans were wrong.

The GOP said the government should cancel unspent recovery funds. We now know the Republicans were wrong.

The GOP said tax cuts are more effective at stimulating the economy than government spending. We now know the Republicans were wrong.

Tim Pawlenty simply has no idea what he's talking about. His understanding isn't just backwards, it's dangerously confused.

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

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BEST BEHAVIOR.... It's a symptom of our toxic political environment that, for the first time, there are several media reports today questioning whether congressional Republicans will be able to behave themselves during the State of the Union. This used to be one of those civil niceties we took for granted, back when Republicans were grown-ups.

We've been assured, however, that GOP heckles and catcalls are unlikely.

House GOP leaders are urging fellow Republicans to control their tempers and avoid any repeat performances of Joe Wilson's "you lie" outburst at tonight's State of the Union speech.

House Republican leaders warned rank and file Republican members in a private meeting this morning to show the President "respect" during tonight's speech, two sources familiar with the meeting tell me.

House GOP leader John Boehner, minority whip Eric Cantor, and leading House conservative Mike Pence all stood up and delivered that message to the closed-door House GOP caucus meeting today.

There were no cameras on hand for the private meeting, but a certain "Saturday Night Live" skit keeps coming to mind.

As for Wilson, whose disrespectful outburst conduct made him a right-wing celebrity, the South Carolinian promises to behave himself. "That was a one-time incident," Wilson said. "I will continue, through my agreement with the White House, to discuss issues civilly."

But not too civilly -- Wilson is now apparently something of a "Birther," and still regrets that the birth-certificate "issue"' wasn't raised more during the presidential campaign.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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BEN NELSON SHARES DOUBLE-CROSS PLAN.... As the Senate was poised to approve its health care reform bill, there was a problem -- proponents had 59 votes. Sen. Ben Nelson (D), the chamber's most conservative Democrat, was the lone holdout, and his generally incoherent demands about indirect abortion funding very nearly killed the legislation. (He also demanded a little something known as the "Cornhusker Kickback," which proved to be problematic.)

In time, a compromise was struck. It was far from ideal, but it allowed the bill to advance. Nelson said at the time that if the House tried to mess with his deal on abortion financing, he'd block final passage.

Igor Volsky reports, however, that Nelson now claims he had a secret plan, and was prepared to oppose his own compromise.

[Y]esterday, in an interview with LifeSiteNews.com Nelson said that he agreed to the compromise to "get" the final bill into conference and planned to use his leverage as the 60th vote, to insert his original [Stupak-like] amendment into in the final conference report.

"[O]nce it went to conference, as part of the conference, there was still another 60 vote threshold, and that is when I would have insisted... for my last 60th vote, it has to have [Stupak-like language]," Nelson said.

Let's unpack this a bit. As Nelson describes it now, he struck a deal with his allies, but assures us that he was deliberately negotiating in bad faith. As Nelson now wants us to believe, he struck a deal and voted for it, but had every intention of going back on his word and betraying his party.

That's Nelson's defense.

It's also almost certainly a lie. Nelson is trying to bolster his reputation with conservative opponents of abortion rights, and figures this is the best way to do it. And since a final bill isn't going back to the Senate anyway, he can make the claim with impunity.

But that doesn't make it credible. If Nelson had a problem with his own compromise, he would have pushed for changes in the midst of the White House negotiations two weeks ago. Instead, Nelson never said a word. He's probably just hoping that abortion-rights opponents fall for his tall tale here.

Whether they believe him or not, I hope this comes to Harry Reid's attention: Nelson just admitted publicly that his word is no good and that he lies to the Senate leadership during negotiations. It's a detail the Majority Leader may want to keep in mind in the future.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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OBAMA WON'T ABANDON REFORM.... We won't know exactly what President Obama has to say on the subject until tonight -- from what I hear, the speech is still being tweaked -- but it looks like the White House isn't going to abandon health care reform.

In a conference call today with Congressional staff, the White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, said that President Obama will reiterate his commitment to a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's health care system in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday night.

Mr. Pfeiffer said that the president will share "additional details" but that the thrust of his message will be that he remains as resolute and committed to revamping the health care system as he was when he gave a speech to a joint session of Congress in early September.

Politico quoted a White House aide saying the president's "commitment to addressing this challenge in a comprehensive way is as strong today as it was when he stood in the same spot in September to address the nation on health care."

Greg Sargent, who had a similar report, added, "As for how strongly Obama will signal is preferred way forward on reform, the devil will obviously be in the 'additional details' he offers. But if his speech does in fact reaffirm his commitment to comprehensive reform as strongly as his September speech did, that could reassure a lot of people."

Quite right. These reports suggest President Obama intends to do the right thing tonight. He probably won't get too deep into the weeds on legislative procedure, but he is apparently poised take a stand in support of comprehensive reform. That's undoubtedly a good thing.

There is just one angle, though, that gives me pause -- I hope "comprehensive" means what I think it means. If you ask some of those advocating a watered-down, scaled-back half-measure if their plan constitutes "comprehensive" reform, they'll say, "It's close enough." They're mistaken.

Post Script: Paul Glastris, the Monthly's editor in chief, will be on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" in a few minutes, talking about this and other issues related to the State of the Union. (Paul served as President Clinton's chief speechwriter, and offers a great perspective on this.)

When I talked to Paul earlier, he told me the line he'd like to hear the president say tonight: "Health care reform is the Super Bowl of issues, we're on the one yard line, and the other team has walked off the field. Let's pick up the ball and walk across the goal line."

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THEM AGAIN?.... I remember Despair Inc. had a demotivational poster a while back that read, "Quitters Never Win, Winners Never Quit -- But Those Who Never Win and Never Quit Are Idiots."

The poster came to mind after reading this.

Centrist Democratic senators have circumvented party leadership to approach Maine GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins about reviving healthcare talks.

Democrats such as Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) have approached Snowe within the past week to discuss her potential support for various healthcare proposals. [...]

Snowe said Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance panel, approached her in the past week to get her general thinking on reviving healthcare reform.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, has had several general discussions with Collins, who said she would consider supporting a scaled-down version of healthcare reform.

For crying out loud. I can appreciate persistence as much as the next blogger, but c'mon.

Snowe and Collins were, I'll concede, the only two Republicans who at least pretended to care about passing a health care reform bill. In committee, Snowe even backed a Democratic bill. In the ensuing weeks, the White House practically begged them to play a constructive role in shaping the final bill.

But in the face of party pressure, both balked. Worse, they both voted on a measure to declare health care reform unconstitutional -- they both knew better, making this awfully cheap -- and when asked why she opposed the Democratic bill, Snowe couldn't explain her position.

And now some Dems are reaching out to them again? How many more times does Charlie Brown need to fall on his ass before he realizes that Lucy is going to pull away the ball?

There's a far better alternative, which would help more Americans in need and provide the nation with a stronger financial footing: the House passes the Senate bill, the Senate approves changes through reconciliation. They're this close to delivering on the promise of reform, following a century of efforts.

There's no reason for policymakers to look backwards and seek support from those who chose not to play a constructive role, especially when there's a better, more obvious way to go.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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WAITING FOR 'MARCHING ORDERS'.... At this point, there's some appetite among House Dems to pass the Senate health care bill, then make changes through reconciliation. There's also some appetite among Senate to give the House what it needs to get this done.

But both chambers are waiting for "legislative marching orders" from the White House. And no one has the foggiest idea what President Obama or his team want, are prepared to fight for, or will present tonight in the State of the Union.

There's been no clear message on the way forward for health-care reform. No clear articulation of preferences. No public leadership to speak of. The administration is taking temperatures rather than twisting arms. The White House press team is blasting out speeches where the president says he'll never stop fighting on health care but pointedly refuses to throw a punch. The president is giving interviews where he seems to endorse paring the bill back and also seems to argue against doing anything of the kind. The daily message has run from banks to freezes, and early leaks suggest that tonight's speech will focus on education.

According to multiple sources, there's an easy answer for the confusion: The White House is confused. Some in the president's inner circle, including Rahm Emanuel, want the bill pared back. Something is better than nothing, they say, and if Congress doesn't have the votes for the full bill, the White House can't be left fighting a losing battle. Others argue that the White House's refusal to lead is a self-fulfilling prophecy, killing a bill that's comprehensive enough to work and close enough to pass while pinning hopes to an unknown compromise bill that probably won't work and almost certainly won't get the liberal Democrats or moderate Republicans necessary for passage.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried. Recent signals from the White House (see here and here) lead me to believe the West Wing's instincts on this are wrong. Officials seem to think the "consensus" approach -- House passes Senate bill, Senate agrees to changes -- just won't have the necessary support and therefore isn't worth investing the time, energy, and capital needed to make it happen.

I genuinely believe that a full-throated, unapologetic defense of the health care proposal in the SOTU would boost its prospects enormously. But I have a hunch the president doesn't genuinely believe that at all, and sees no upside to sticking his neck out even more. If I had to bet money, I'd say the president will keep it vague tonight, endorsing "health care reform" generically, but coming up short of bold leadership on the issue.

But there's one angle here that often goes overlooked and bears repeating: lawmakers don't necessarily need "legislative marching orders" from the White House.

Congress is its own branch, with its own leaders. It's in members' interests -- and the public's interests, and the economy's interests -- to get this done. Congress should realize what needs to be done -- whether it gets instructions from the White House or not.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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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 Pennsylvania, a Franklin & Marshall poll shows former right-wing Rep. Pat Toomey (R) looking surprisingly strong in this year's Senate race, leading incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, 45% to 31%. In the Democratic primary, Specter leads Rep. Joe Sestak, though most voters remain undecided.

* A Rasmussen poll in Delaware shows Rep. Mike Castle (R) with a huge lead in this year's Senate race, topping New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D) by nearly 30 points. Coons nevertheless appears to be gearing up for the race.

* In Florida's gubernatorial race, state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) now leads state CFO Alex Sink (D) by 10 in the latest Quinnipiac poll, 51% to 41%.

* Speaking of Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) appears to have ruled out an independent Senate bid this year.

* Former right-wing Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who is taking on Sen. John McCain in a Republican primary in Arizona this year, is apparently a "Birther."

* In Illinois, the latest survey from Public Policy Polling shows state Comptroller Dan Hynes (D) taking the lead (pdf) in his primary challenge against incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn (D), 41% to 40%.

* Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) shot down retirement rumors today, and said he will seek re-election.

* And in Pennsylvania, Republicans have successfully recruited former U.S. Attorney Tom Marino (R) to run against Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.).

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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CAP-AND-TRADE'S BLEAK FUTURE.... The fate of health care reform is, of course, unclear. How about the climate bill? The NYT reports today that advocates are "turning their sights to a more modest package of climate and energy measures that they believe has a better chance of clearing Congress this year."

Their preferred approach, a cap-and-trade system to curb emissions of climate-changing gases, already faced a difficult road in a bruised and divided Senate. Its prospects grew dimmer after the special election in Massachusetts last week was won by Scott Brown, a Republican who repudiated the federal cap-and-trade proposal in his campaign.

Republicans, industry executives and some Democrats have already written cap and trade's obituary, at least for this year. And even some of the system's most ardent supporters now say they must scale back their ambitions and focus on job-creating energy projects and energy efficiency measures if they are to have any hope of dealing with climate change in this Congress.

"Realistically, the cap-and-trade bills in the House and the Senate are going nowhere," said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who is trying to fashion a bipartisan package of climate and energy measures.

Graham, who said cap-and-trade is "dead," is working with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on an energy/climate bill that ostensibly offers a little something for everyone.

For its part, the White House seems to approve of the Kerry/Graham/Lieberman approach, and is willing to support drilling and expanded nuclear plants in exchange for "some form of cap on emissions."

Expect to hear more about this in the State of the Union tonight.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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THE INCENTIVE FOR DEMS TO HELP THE WHITE HOUSE.... The latest NBC News/WSJ poll covers some familiar ground, but has a few interesting tidbits.

President Obama's approval rating is up a little to 50%, health care reform still isn't popular, and while both parties were tied in the last generic ballot question, Dems now enjoy a narrow lead.

But the two key takeaways from the poll are that Americans are in a deeply sour mood...

Only 28 percent believe the federal government is "working well" or even works "okay," versus seven in 10 who think it's "unhealthy," "stagnant" or needs large reforms. [...]

What's more, a whopping 93 percent believe there's too much partisan infighting; 84 percent think the special interests have too much influence over legislation; nearly three-quarters say that not enough has been done to regulate Wall Street and the banking industry; and an equal 61 percent complain that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress aren't willing to compromise.

And the percentage who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction now stands at 58 percent, the highest level of Obama's presidency.

...but they're not necessarily blaming the president for their anguish.

[I]f the public is fed up with Washington, its anger isn't necessarily directed at President Obama.

Only 27 percent say they blame him for not being able to find solutions to the country's problems. By contrast, 48 percent blame Republicans in Congress and 41 percent blame congressional Democrats.

"The president has problems," Hart adds, "but the Congress has much bigger problems."

It reminds me of a point I've been meaning to make: as an objective matter, President Obama is still the most popular political figure in Washington, and enjoys more support than either political party and either congressional delegation.

For Republicans, this creates a strong incentive to block any and all progress -- the more they can destroy American politics, the more the president appears ineffective. Undermining Obama's presidency improves their chances of winning additional power.

For Democrats, this should create the opposite incentive -- the more successful Obama is, the better off they'll be. The more they argue amongst themselves, or delay (or deliberately kill) key parts of the party's agenda, the more they drag Obama's support down.

Dems' success is inextricably tied to Obama's standing. As Ezra noted last week, this should point Democratic lawmakers in the right direction on health care, though the message isn't getting through.

If health-care reform dies, the media will try and explain the Democrats' failure. That means they'll spend a lot of time talking about what Obama has done wrong. If Democrats had simply refused to freak out and moved quickly to pass the Senate bill, there would be endless stories on what Obama did right, and how the Democrats finally passed this longtime priority.

Even putting aside all the moral arguments for passing this bill -- all the lives and homes it will save -- a crassly political calculation should have left Democrats rushing towards passage.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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AN OBJECT LESSON IN GOP COMPROMISE.... The Senate voted yesterday on a proposal to create a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction. The effort failed -- "only" a 53-member majority supported the idea.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether the commission was a worthwhile idea, but if we put merit aside for a moment, it's worth noting what yesterday's vote tells us about Senate Republican attitudes right now.

Six GOP senators co-sponsored the legislation to create the commission, and then voted against their own idea. Asked for an explanation, the Republicans said the commission -- which was intended to push policymakers to make uncomfortable decisions -- might have told them what they didn't want to hear, and should therefore not exist.

Among those voting against it: Republicans Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mike Crapo of Idaho, John Ensign of Nevada, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona.

A spokesperson for McCain, who supports the partial spending freeze Obama plans to announce in his State of the Union address, said the senator became convinced the commission would be "kind of a back door" to a tax increase, which he thinks would be "the worst thing that can happen now." That was clear "once we saw the final legislation," the spokesperson said.

A Brownback spokesperson said: "He removed his co-sponsorship last week over concerns that the commission will be able to raise taxes."

Look, if the federal government is eventually going to address the budget deficit, policymakers are going to have to a) bring in more money; b) spend less money; or c) some combination of the two. There are no other choices. 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.

These six Republican senators said they'd welcome a commission -- it was, after all, their idea to co-sponsor the bill -- just so long as the GOP isn't asked to make concessions or compromises at all.

We've heard plenty of rhetoric of late about how President Obama just needs to reach out more to Republicans to strike bipartisan compromises. But how can anyone take such an approach seriously when leading GOP lawmakers oppose their own ideas because they may be asked to accept bipartisan concessions?

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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DOES OREGON COUNT AS A 'MESSAGE,' TOO?.... It's understandable that policymakers would look to statewide elections to get a sense of the public's mood. Last week, a narrow majority of Massachusetts voters chose a conservative senator, and the political establishment took that to mean the electorate is shifting to the right.

But if those results offered broader lessons about voters' attitudes, maybe this week's results in Oregon do, too.

Facing a budget crunch that threatened to close schools early, lay off teachers and slash healthcare benefits, Oregon voters ended two decades of tax scrimping Tuesday by approving higher taxes on corporations and wealthy families.

The two ballot measures passed handily in a referendum watched closely around the country as a signal of whether voters are ready to approve targeted tax hikes to bail out cash-starved state treasuries.

Oregon voters since 1990 have limited property taxes, rejected sales taxes and vetoed across-the-board income taxes. But with 87% of the ballots counted, the measure to raise income taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year, and individuals earning more than $125,000, was winning with 54.1%. A second measure to raise the state's corporate income tax was ahead with 53.6%.

One can only assume that Republicans will see these results, notice that usually-tax-averse voters just endorsed tax increases, and interpret Oregon's vote as "sending a signal" about the kind of economic policies Americans want to see right now.

Or maybe not.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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A THIRD-RATE BREAK-IN IN LOUISIANA.... James O'Keefe became something of a right-wing hero when he released a "heavily edited" video -- featuring him posing as a pimp -- intended to discredit ACORN. It now appears O'Keefe will be known for something entirely different.

The conservative young filmmaker whose undercover sting damaged a liberal activist group last year faces federal criminal charges in an alleged plot to bug the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

James O'Keefe was among four men who created a ruse to enter the lawmaker's downtown office, saying they needed to repair her telephones, according to court records unsealed Tuesday. O'Keefe used his cellphone to take pictures of two men, Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan, who are accused in an FBI agent's sworn affidavit of impersonating telephone company workers. Stanley Dai is accused of aiding the Jan. 25 plot.

All four were taken to a suburban New Orleans jail and charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony. If convicted, each man faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Keep in mind, O'Keefe was not just some random conservative gadfly. Just a few months ago, 31 far-right House Republicans introduced a congressional resolution to praise O'Keefe's work, claiming he was "setting an example for concerned citizens across America."

Yesterday, in light of the arrest, Rep. Pete Olson (R) of Texas said he still thinks O'Keefe is worthy of "praise," but said he does not "condone" unlawful behavior. Olson wouldn't say whether he would withdraw the resolution.

Support for the conservative activist extended beyond just the Hill. After ACORN sued O'Keefe and his cohorts for alleged "illegal videotaping" and distributing a doctored video, Sean Hannity, Andrew Breitbart, and other far-right figures helped raise money for their defense.

And Fox News, which went out of its way to help make O'Keefe a right-wing celebrity, hoped to downplay the significance of his arrest and apparent scheme. A network reporter told viewers that the scandal is a "very weird story that probably needs a lot of context."

Louisiana Democratic Party Chair Michael McHale, meanwhile, is having plenty of fun with this, calling it "a Louisiana Watergate."

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HOUSE LOOKS TO SENATE FOR HCR ASSURANCES.... The NYT reports that congressional Democrats have "no clear path forward on major health care legislation," and party leaders have "effectively slammed the brakes" on the entire policy initiative. The piece makes it sound as reform is all but dead.

From what I can gather after talking to a variety of sources, the Times has overstated matters. The road ahead is far from encouraging, but all hope is not lost.

Indeed, when it comes to the House, there's growing evidence that the chamber really can pass the Senate bill -- if only the Senate would give the House some signals about improvements that could be approved. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) made some encouraging remarks yesterday, and Brian Beutler's report after last night's caucus meeting offer additional hope.

Leading Democrats in the House still insist that "all options are on the table" to move ahead on health care. But for the first time since last Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts, it's clear that they're coalescing around the most widely discussed option: moving ahead with the Senate bill once it's clear that it will be changed through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process. Before they can move ahead, they need the Senate to make some real headway on their end of the bargain -- and they're not getting the signs they need.

Several leading House members, including Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said they're prepared to move forward with this approach.* "The hang up, they now say, is not on their end, but that they first need a high sign from the Senate that the two chambers can work in lockstep."

What's needed, then, is 50 Senate Democrats willing to agree to changes -- improvements senators were prepared to accept just two weeks ago -- that would finally produce a breakthrough.

That should be easy. It's not. While 60 Senate Democrats voted for a comprehensive reform just a month ago, there may not be 50 Senate Democrats willing to accept minor changes now. Why? Because they're scared after Massachusetts' special election.

Indeed, several knowledgeable sources have told me that pro-reform calls to the House have helped stiffen spines -- a week ago, 218 appeared impossible; now it appears doable -- but it's the overly-cautious, risk-averse Senate that needs to receive public pressure. The upper chamber has become so terrified, it's apparently reluctant to do or say much of anything -- so much so at yesterday's caucus meeting, senators literally didn't mention health care at all.

Over the last few days, every relevant player has come to realize that there are two real choices: (1) failure; or (2) House passes the Senate bill, Senate agrees to some minor changes. If you'd pressed me last week, I would have said there's a 5% chance this is going to work out. Now, I'd put the number at maybe 20%, higher if the White House starts trying to make this happen.

The odds are long, and the smart money is still on failure, but I'm not jumping out the window yet.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

* edited for clarity

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January 26, 2010

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

* Haiti: "The dusty soccer field lined with spacious tents is an oasis for earthquake survivors among Haiti's homeless sheltering by the hundreds of thousands in squalid camps. Competition for the canvas homes has boiled into arguments and machete fights, a sign of the desperation felt by the hundreds of thousands of people without homes struggling for shelter in this wrecked city. Haiti's president has asked the world for 200,000 tents and says he will sleep in one himself."

* Baghdad: "A suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives attacked the Iraqi Interior Ministry's forensics division Tuesday morning, killing at least 38 people. The attack, a day after coordinated bombings on three landmark hotels in the capital, drove up the death toll in Baghdad over the past 24 hours to nearly 75 people. In all, nearly 150 people were wounded in the explosions."

* The Senate today voted to reject a plan to create a deficit commission. The final vote was 53-46, but a majority of the Senate is no longer enough to pass legislation.

* Please tell me the Senate isn't going to screw up the possibility of progress on health care reform.

* A little boost in consumer confidence.

* Schadenfreude alert: "Alleging a plot to tamper with phones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's office in the Hale Boggs Federal Building in downtown New Orleans, the FBI arrested four people Monday, including James O'Keefe, 25, a conservative filmmaker whose undercover videos at ACORN field offices severely damaged the advocacy group's credibility."

* Fox News was despondent after learning of O'Keefe's arrest.

* Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wasn't impressed with the high court's ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

* On a related note, here's an interesting question: does Fox News' coverage constitute campaign contributions to Republicans?

* Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) was under a Justice Department investigation, but as of today, he's been cleared of any wrongdoing.

* Bill O'Reilly thinks the south side of Chicago is "like Haiti."

* New rules on colleges and federal aid.

* Michael Cohen ponders whether governing in the United States is still possible.

* South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (R), who recently compared low-income families to "stray animals," regrets his choice of words. What a prince.

* Quote of the day, from Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.):"There's a lot of populism going on in this country right now, and I'm tired of it."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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MAJORITY RULE ON BERNANKE?.... There's an ongoing head-count underway on whether the Senate will allow Ben Bernanke to stay on as chairman of the Federal Reserve. By most estimates, supporters outnumber opponents, but those planning to vote "aye" still aren't close to 60 votes.

Except, as Ryan Grim reported today, supporters apparently won't need 60 votes.

When it comes to progressive priorities in the Senate, there's one standard: 60 votes are needed. But for Ben Bernanke, there's a second standard: 50 will be just fine, thank you.

Democratic leaders in the Senate are asking colleagues who are reluctant to support Bernanke's nomination for a second term as Federal Reserve chairman to nevertheless vote with them to end a filibuster and allow a vote on the actual nomination. The reluctant members would then be free to vote no to express their displeasure. Several Democrats have committed to just that and others are considering it. [...]

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters on Monday afternoon after a meeting with Bernanke that some opponents of the chairman had pledged to support him on the first vote, but not on the second.

Oh, I see. Senators believe Bernanke should get an up-or-down vote in the Senate, and that there should be majority rule -- on this nomination.

Asked why senators would agree to majority rule on Bernanke but no on health care reform, Durbin replied, "I don't know. That's a good question."

If only there was a good answer. There's no reason in the world there should be one Senate standard for a vote on Bernanke confirmation and an entirely different Senate standard for votes on the entire policy agenda of the 111th Congress.

Matt Yglesias had a good item on how maddening this is: "This is just a depressing reminder that if Senate Democrats were even remotely serious about governing the country they would have adopted a 'vote with the leadership on cloture' policy as a standard principle. They refused to do so out of a selfish concern for their own petty power, but by doing so ironically created a situation in which it's been impossible for them to accomplish anything -- including effective economic recovery -- and now all their seats are endangered. Think how much better off they'd be, for example, if a larger stimulus had passed but with five or six vulnerable members able to 'break with their party' and vote no."

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CLYBURN SAYS REFORM DEAL STILL POSSIBLE.... It's a fairly big day for the fate of health care reform, and the Democratic leadership from both chambers are scheduled to get together for a chat in just a few minutes, in advance of a House caucus meeting this evening.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn's (D-S.C.) remarks this afternoon offer at least a small ray of hope that success is still possible.

An influential House Democrat is now predicting that House Dems will pass the Senate bill if they are persuaded they have a guarantee that it will be fixed in reconciliation -- a declaration that could give a boost of momentum for the prospects of getting reform done via this route.

In an interview with [Sargent], House majority whip James Clyburn also urged the President to throw his weight behind this approach during tomorrow's State of the Union Address, declaring that it would be "helpful."

The comments from Clyburn -- who's been canvassing opinion from members in recent days -- could contribute to a growing sense that this is course of action most likely to succeed, and could give ammo to those pressing this case.

"I feel certain that the House Democrats will pass health care reform if the fixes that we feel need to be made to the Senate bill are guaranteed," Clyburn said. Asked directly if the House votes would be there if this happened, Clyburn said: "Yes, sir."

OK, so health care reform becomes law if the House gets assurances from the Senate about improvements through reconciliation. That means at least 50 Senate Democrats have to be on board with accepting changes -- which, by the way, they were already on board with 10 days ago in the midst of White House negotiations.

This afternoon, three center-right Senate Dems -- Evan Bayh (Ind.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), and Ben Nelson (Neb.) -- all said they'd rather see health care reform die. But with a 59-member caucus, the leadership has votes to spare, and these three simply aren't in a position to derail this once-in-a-generation opportunity -- unless they pick up six allies from the caucus. (If we assume Lieberman and Landrieu join them, they'd still need four more.)

For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said there's "no rush" to complete the process. I strongly disagree. The debate that began in earnest 10 months ago has run its course, and the public is clearly ready to see Democrats pivot to other issues. Months of negotiations and machinations will only breed additional frustrations -- especially when a victory for the ages is one vote away.

Besides, giving opponents of reform more time to undermine public support and trash necessary legislation hasn't worked up until now; it's unlikely to be effective if policymakers tolerate additional delays.

With that in mind: Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

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INDEPENDENTS DAY.... Chris Cillizza notes this afternoon, "In the wake of Sen.-elect Scott Brown's (R) victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) in last week's Senate special election, a debate has been raging over independents."

And part of the underlying problem with that debate is that the definition of "independent" is far too vague to be of any real value.

John Sides' item earlier has been making the rounds, and I can only hope the political media takes notice. He refers back to the case he presented a couple of months ago:

[H]ere is the problem: Most independents are closet partisans. This has been well-known in political science since at least 1992, with the publication of The Myth of the Independent Voter.

When asked a follow-up question, the vast majority of independents state that they lean toward a political party. They are the "independent leaners." ... The number of pure independents is actually quite small -- perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s. [...]

The significance of independent leaners is this: they act like partisans.... There is very little difference between independent leaners and weak partisans. Approximately 75% of independent leaners are loyal partisans.

Most of the time, "independents" are thought of as a group of "moderate" or "centrist" voters -- as if the right sides with Republicans, the left sides with Democrats, and the middle stays "independent."

That's wrong. The Washington Post published a lengthy analysis of political independents in July 2007, based on a survey conducted by the Post in collaboration with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. The result was a pretty straightforward reminder: there's an enormous amount of political diversity among independents.

The survey data established five categories of independents: closet partisans on the left and right; ticket-splitters in the middle; those disillusioned with the system but still active politically; ideological straddlers whose positions on issues draw from both left and right; and a final group whose members are mostly disengaged from politics.

Appealing to "independents" is inherently tricky if "independents" don't even agree with one another.

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WHEN IS A FREEZE NOT A FREEZE?.... Following up on his much-discussed interview with Rachel Maddow last night, Jared Bernstein, chief economist and economic policy adviser to Vice President Biden, has an item on the White House blog this afternoon. You can probably guess the subject.

As part of an explanation about the spending freeze, Bernstein emphasizes that "no one [at the White House] is arguing that we should take our foot off the accelerator today, when the economic recovery remains fragile and job growth has yet to return." That's good to know.

So, what's the plan here?

[T]here are two ways to do a freeze like this: (1) an across-the-board freeze on every program outside of national security; and (2) a surgical approach where overall totals are frozen but some individual programs go up and others go down. In short, a hatchet versus a scalpel.

During the campaign, you may recall that John McCain touted option 1 -- the hatchet approach of an across-the-board freeze.

The President was critical of that approach then, and we would be critical of it now. It's not what we're proposing. To the contrary, the entire theory of the President's proposed freeze is to dial up the stuff that will support job growth and innovation while dialing down the stuff that doesn't. Under our plan, some discretionary spending will go up; some will go down. That's a big difference from a hatchet.

I guess the problem is that policy-focused Americans woke up yesterday with a rather unambiguous understanding of what a "spending freeze" is -- funding for programs stay at their current levels, even if they were supposed to get more, even if economic conditions dictate that they should get more.

What the White House is effectively saying is, "No, no, that's the old definition. Under the new spending freeze, some worthwhile investments will go up, and some wasteful ones will go down." Indeed, in his post today, Bernstein highlights the need for additional "investments in clean energy, health care, and education that will ensure that the next economic expansion is characterized by broadly shared prosperity."

The moment the discussion starts parsing the meaning of the word "freeze," it gets a little mind-numbing, I suppose the key takeaway here is that the White House is looking for some kind of overall spending cap on discretionary spending not related to national security, which is flexible enough to let the administration direct more funding to some programs, and less funding to others. Officials are calling this a "freeze."

And why, exactly, would the administration call this a "freeze," if it doesn't seem to be a "freeze"? Probably because officials see the polls, and believe the country is looking for assurances that the White House is taking fiscal responsibility seriously. "Freeze" is basically serving as some kind of shorthand.

But when we get past the rhetoric, we're still talking about a White House budget that sought to cut $11.5 billion in spending from the last budget, and will try to cut $15 billion from the new budget.

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THE RELATIVE PRICE TAG OF CHANGE.... Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who's been pushing aggressively for a spending freeze (despite being a model "deficit peacock"), appeared on MSNBC to tout the new administration proposal.

As part of his endorsement of the plan, Bayh also said the White House took the wrong tack on health care reform: "[G]oing with the large bill in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s and a major new expenditure at a time we were running a $30 trillion deficit just didn't resonate real well."

Igor Volsky noted how misguided this analysis really is.

Bayh is wrong to suggest that health care reform is antithetical to reducing the nation's $1.4 trillion deficit. After all, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) the Senate health care bill would reduce the deficit by $132 billion over 10 years (or up to $409 billion over 10 years according to a Commonwealth study) and lower Medicare spending per beneficiary from 8% growth rate to 6% growth rate. [...]

Health care reform would complement the administration's new focus on deficit reduction by slowing the fastest growing part of the deficit.... As he told Congress during his address in February, "Put simply, our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close. Nothing else."

In fact, one of the great ironies of the current political debate is that much of President Obama's domestic agenda -- all the talk about spending and deficits notwithstanding -- saves the country money. The biggest elements of the to-do list just aren't expensive (as compared to, say, huge tax cuts, Medicare expansion, and two foreign wars).

Health care reform would cut spending and reduce the deficit. The cap-and-trade proposal not only combats global warming and helps create new jobs in a burgeoning sector, it also lowers the deficit. The student-loan overhaul saves money. Cleaning up Wall Street doesn't cost much at all.

Lawmakers are feeling panicky and are desperate to prove how fiscally responsible they are. But in reality, this White House, unlike the last one, isn't asking Congress to be reckless with the public's money -- it's asking for key policy breakthroughs that put the nation on stronger financial footing.

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RNC 'PURITY TEST' STILL ON THE TABLE.... Just two months ago, some activists on the Republican National Committee came up with an idea: what the party really needs in 2010 is a "purity test."

The idea, pushed by right-wing lawyer James Bopp Jr., would mandate that all Republican candidates agree with at least eight of 10 points on a party platform. If you're deemed insufficiently conservative on three or more issues, no party backing for you.

The RNC is getting ready to ponder the matter this week at a meeting in Hawaii, and it's apparently occurred to some party officials that Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-Mass.), the party's new golden boy, probably would have failed the purity test and been ineligible for party support during the special election.

[S]ome moderate Republicans are circulating another e-mail arguing that in fact, a different reading of Mr. Brown's record -- a difference choice from his career of quotes and votes -- could lead to a his failing the Reagan test.

As much as he opposed Mr. Obama's health care plan, he voted for the law passed in Massachusetts that has provided the model for President Obama's proposal -- including a mandate on individuals to purchase insurance. [...]

Conservative leaders who say, in the light of victory, that Mr. Brown passed the test may have easily found the grounds to make precisely the opposite argument had he lost the vote last Tuesday. This is one of the reasons why officials of the Republican National Committee are quietly lobbying to kill the Bopp resolution and trying to come up with an alternative by the vote on Friday.

I still have a hard time believing the RNC will actually accept this -- it would likely block party backing for too many candidates Republicans need to win this year -- but the party has certainly done incomprehensible things before.

Kathleen Parker got this right, when she called the proposal a "suicide pact," that signals to Republican candidates, "Thinking people need not apply."

One can only assume the DNC is praying the resolution is approved.

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MCCAIN'S FUZZY MEMORY ON REAGAN.... Reporting on President Obama's intended "spending freeze," George Stephanopoulos interviewed John McCain this morning -- imagine that -- to ask about the senator's position. McCain expressed support for the idea, but added that the White House should also stop its economic recovery efforts.

As the Arizona Republican sees it, the best course is more "tax cuts" and "fiscal sanity." He added, "If you cut people's taxes I think it stimulates the economy. We certainly found that out with President Reagan."


To be sure, it's a mistake to pretend John McCain knows or cares about details, accuracy, and history. But this notion that Reagan offers a lesson for policymakers deserves additional scrutiny.

Consider this chart, which Paul Krugman posted last week. Reagan's first big tax cut was signed in August 1981. Over the next year or so, unemployment went from just over 7% to just under 11%. In September 1982, Reagan raised taxes, and unemployment fell.

We're all aware, of course, of the correlation/causation dynamic, but as Krugman noted, "[U]nemployment, which had been stable until Reagan cut taxes, soared during the 15 months that followed the tax cut; it didn't start falling until Reagan backtracked and raised taxes."

Indeed, Stephanopoulos didn't press McCain on the point -- imagine that -- but it'd be helpful if more Republicans were asked to consider the contemporary parallel. Conservatives believe Obama's stimulus didn't work, and as proof, they point to the unemployment numbers 11 months after the policy became law. But if that's the appropriate measure, wouldn't Republicans also have to believe that Reagan's 1981 tax-cut plan also failed, since unemployment went even higher the year after it passed?

McCain's worldview is obviously pretty simplistic, but given all the time he spends in television interviews, it's tempting to think someone would ask him about these things. As far as he's concerned, tax cuts = growth. Of course, Clinton raised taxes, and the economy soared. Bush cut taxes, and the economy collapsed. Obama's recovery package featured several elements, and the least stimulative part was ... you guessed it ... the tax cuts.

I'll just never know why anyone takes these guys seriously on economic policy.

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

* The latest Research 2000 poll in New York shows Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand leading former Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee in a Democratic primary, 41% to 27%. The same poll shows state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo leading incumbent Gov. David Paterson in a Democratic primary, 63% to 19%.

* Sen. Joe Lieberman (I- Conn.) said over the weekend that he's "likely" to remain an independent, but that's it's "possible" he could be a "good old-fashioned New England moderate Republican."

* Rep. Mike Pence (R) had been sought out by Republican leaders to challenge Sen. Evan Bayh (D) in Indiana next year, but Pence announced today that he will not run for the Senate this year. He is, however, still mulling a presidential campaign in 2012.

* In Nevada, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has been mulling an independent bid for governor for several months, but announced yesterday that he will skip the race.

* Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan recently said he was considering a gubernatorial campaign, but announced this morning that he will instead seek re-election to the House.

* With the leading Democratic contenders skipping the Senate race in Delaware this year, the most likely candidate appears to be New Castle County executive Chris Coons, who would take on the favorite, Rep. Mike Castle (R). Marc Ambinder noted a little history: "Back in 1972, no Democrat wanted to run against a popular Republican, so a young New Castle County Councilman with no money entered the race. His name: Joe Biden."

* And in Utah, a Salt Lake Tribune poll shows incumbent Gov. Gary Herbert (R) with a big lead over challenger Peter Corroon (D), 55% to 30%.

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HEATING UP IN FLORIDA.... The Republicans' Senate primary in Florida -- pitting Gov. Charlie Crist against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio -- has become something of a proxy for the larger fight within the GOP. The struggle pits conservative Republicans against very conservative Republicans.

And by all indications, the latter contingent is winning.

Rubio leads by just three percentage points -- 47-44 -- which is well within the error margin of the Quinnipiac University poll.

Crist has a large cash advantage over Rubio and ample time to catch up before the Aug. 24 primary. Yet the trend of Rubio's rise and Crist's fall is stark and troubling for the governor, who once looked like he would waltz into the Senate.

In October, Crist led 50-35 percent. In August, Crist's lead was even bigger (55-26) and in June the race looked like Crist would blow out Rubio by 54-23 percent.

"Who would have thunk it? A former state lawmaker virtually unknown outside of his South Florida home whose challenge to an exceedingly popular sitting governor for a U.S. Senate nomination had many insiders scratching their heads. He enters the race 31 points behind and seven months later sneaks into the lead," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

In match-ups against the leading Democrat, Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, Rubio leads by nine and Crist leads by 14 -- in part because Crist enjoys relatively stronger support among independents and some Florida Dems.

It's hard not to wonder if this race may yet take some unexpected twists. Meek became the Democratic frontrunner because no one else in the party wanted to take on Crist, who once looked unbeatable. Now that it appears likely that the right-wing Rubio will win the primary, is there a chance we'll see the Democratic race shift at the last minute?

Also note, Daily Kos fielded a poll in late November and found that Crist would be in a very strong position to win the Senate seat -- if he switches parties and runs as a Democrat. It prompted Markos to conclude that Crist's "cleanest path to a Senate seat" is "switching parties and making an earnest transition on the issues."

For the record, there hasn't been so much as a hint from Crist about a willingness to switch. On the contrary, he's been trying to convince Florida Republicans that he's really more conservative than he seems (which, incidentally, is what Arlen Specter did before he realized it was a lost cause and became a Dem). For that matter, it's not at all clear if Florida Democrats would accept Crist with open arms.

But it's fun to ponder, I suppose.

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UDALL JOINS FIGHT AGAINST OBSTRUCTIONISM.... Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is clearly trying to raise the profile of this issue, and it's good to see others stepping up.

Another Democratic senator is making a legislative push that could alter the use of the filibuster, this time by trying to give senators more authority to change the parliamentary rules that bind their actions.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced a resolution on Monday that would give the Senate the ability to vote on its own rules and regulations every two years, when a new Congress convenes. Such a resolution would mean that a future Senate body would not have to operate under the guidelines of its predecessors, such as the rule that 60 votes are needed to end debate on legislation. In short: the filibuster could be drastically changed from its current incarnation.

"We, as elected representatives, have a duty to our constituents. But partisan rancor and the Senate's own incapacitating rules often prevent us from fulfilling that duty," Udall said in his remarks on the floor of the Senate. "While I am convinced that our inability to function is our own fault, we have the authority within the Constitution to act."

Udall's Communications Director Marissa Padilla explained in a brief conversation with the Huffington Post that this was not a frontal attack on the filibuster itself. Rather, what the senator is trying to do is lift the burden of outdated parliamentary stipulations. Since 1959, it has been mandated that Senate rules continue from one Congress to the next. The only recourse for change is provided in Senate Rule XXII, which states that a two-thirds vote of all senators is required to limit debate on a proposed rule change.

This may seem convoluted, but what Udall is saying is that changing the filibuster rule would take 67 votes, which is exceedingly unlikely. Instead, he wants each Congress to set its own standards, giving lawmakers the chance to put the cloture threshold wherever they want at the start of the year.

"Essentially no rules can change or many rules can change," Padilla said. "The Senator is saying the Senate has the right to do it under the Constitution."

In his statement, Udall added a quote from former Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R): "To vote without debating is perilous, but to debate and never vote is imbecile."

Another effort to keep an eye on.

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TEABAGGERS' CONVENTION 'UNRAVELING'.... The news for the left hasn't been especially encouraging for a while, but if it's any consolation, things aren't exactly going smoothly for the Tea Party crowd, either.

Tea Party Nation's first national conference is coming right up -- it's scheduled to begin a week from Saturday -- and at this point, "its founders, former sponsors and participants are now trading accusations."

A Tea Party convention billed as the coming together of the grass-roots groups that began sprouting up around the country a year ago is unraveling as sponsors and participants pull out to protest its expense and express concerns about "profiteering."

The convention's difficulties highlight the fractiousness of the Tea Party groups, and the considerable suspicions among their members of anything that suggests the establishment.

The convention, to be held in Nashville in early February, made a splash by attracting big-name politicians. (Former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech.) But some groups have criticized the cost -- $549 per ticket and a $9.95 fee, plus hotel and airfare -- as out of reach for the average tea partier. And they have balked at Ms. Palin's speaking fee, which news reports have put at $100,000, a figure that organizers will not confirm or deny.

Late Sunday, the National Precinct Alliance, which seeks a right-wing takeover of the GOP from the precinct level up, withdrew its sponsorship of the event. The announcement came on the heels of the American Liberty Alliance and American Majority, two far-right outfits, pulling their support.

Complicating matters, the event has apparently spawned a counter-event for like-minded conservatives: "[A]bout 50 local tea party leaders from across Tennessee are planning to attend a sort of counter-convention caucus set for this Saturday in Nashville, while some activists are discussing staging protests outside next month's convention, which will be held at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center."

I still think these fissures matter, and go beyond just anger over excessive ticket prices. To reiterate a point from a couple of weeks ago, there are some pretty fundamental questions it seems the "movement" needs to address.

* What is it, exactly? Are Teabaggers a grassroots "movement," a marketing enterprise, a new activist organization, a political party, or something else altogether? Or some combination? It's unclear.

* What does it want? Do these activists intend to strengthen a wing of the Republican Party, or fight from outside the GOP structure?

* Where does it want to go? Some Tea Party folks are libertarian-minded, with an emphasis on the size of government. Others are religious-right-style activists, concerned about abortion and gays. Who's behind the wheel? Will there be two Tea Parties?

* What does it intend to offer? The Tea Party gang wants government to cut spending, but it doesn't say where. It wants policymakers to reduce the deficit, but it doesn't say how. Activists take all kinds of positions on all kinds of issues, but most of them seem misplaced and confused about basic details. Is there some kind of policy platform in the works, or will they stick to vague right-wing generalities?

These details matter. And given the divisions over the increasingly-bizarre National Tea Party Convention, the fissures may not be resolved anytime soon.

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STILL HOPING TO SNATCH VICTORY FROM THE JAWS OF DEFEAT.... As recently as Thursday, there was every reason to believe that health care reform was simply not going to happen. Democratic policymakers, stunned by the results in Massachusetts, were simply unwilling to keep fighting.

But as the shock wore off, and Dems began to realize the consequences of failure, the desire to move forward made a comeback. There's still a very real possibility that the effort will fail and reform will, once again, come up short. But at least officials are still trying.

Democratic congressional leaders are coalescing around their last hope for salvaging President Obama's sweeping health care overhaul -- legislation that has produced growing angst among consumers in a new poll.

Their plan is to pass the Senate bill with some changes to accommodate House Democrats, senior Democratic aides said Monday. The procedural route -- known as reconciliation -- would allow a majority of 51 senators to amend their bill to address some of the major substantive concerns raised by the House. That would circumvent the need for a 60-vote majority to hold off Republican delaying tactics.

Leaders will present the idea to the rank and file this week, but it's unclear whether they have enough votes to carry it out.

TPM reports this morning that congressional leaders will "continue to work toward a grand bargain: House and Senate leaders will huddle today at 4 p.m., House Democratic leadership will meet at 5 p.m. and then House leadership will hold a caucus meeting with rank-and-file members at 7 p.m."

It should be an important day.

In the meantime, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who just loved reconciliation in the Bush era, has said he and other Republicans would fight any and all efforts to modify the health care reform bill through the reconciliation process. "We would make it an extraordinarily difficult exercise," Gregg said.

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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'NO STUPID HOOVERISM AROUND HERE'.... If you have a few minutes this morning, I'd encourage folks to check out the discussion on MSNBC last night between Rachel Maddow and Jared Bernstein, chief economist and economic policy adviser to Vice President Biden. The topic was supposed to be the latest targeted proposals to help the middle class, but in light of the news about the proposed "spending freeze," the two shifted gears and had a spirited discussion.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I know some of you can't watch video clips from your work computers, and I'm looking for a transcript that I can link to, but in the meantime, the discussion was extremely informative. Rachel didn't hold back, explaining that it seems "completely insane" to have a spending freeze "in the middle of a recession."

Bernstein, one of the leading progressives in the White House economic team, explained that the "freeze" wouldn't take effect until 2011, wouldn't undermine recovery efforts, bears no resemblance to the Republican freeze proposals, and would allow some programs to receive more money, not less.

Borrowing a phrase Rachel had used earlier in the program, Bernstein assured viewers, "There`s going to be no stupid Hooverism around here."

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE BIG FREEZE.... I don't doubt that spending freezes poll well. A lot of Americans, perhaps even a healthy majority, are convinced that "big government spends too much money." There's a perception, fed by the media and Republicans, that things -- the deficit, the size of the budget -- have gotten "out of control." For all I know, President Obama's intention to call for a three-year freeze will make independents and centrists swoon.

But that doesn't make this a good idea.

President Obama will call for a three-year freeze in spending on many domestic programs, and for increases no greater than inflation after that, an initiative intended to signal his seriousness about cutting the budget deficit, administration officials said Monday. [...]

The freeze would cover the agencies and programs for which Congress allocates specific budgets each year, including air traffic control, farm subsidies, education, nutrition and national parks.

But it would exempt security-related budgets for the Pentagon, foreign aid, the Veterans Administration and homeland security, as well as the entitlement programs that make up the biggest and fastest-growing part of the federal budget: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The freeze intends to save $250 billion over 10 years.

Now, talk of spending freezes is not new. During the 2008 presidential campaign, it was one of the centerpieces of John McCain's campaign. A year later, it was the official Republican plan to deal with the financial crisis. Now, at least rhetorically, it's President Obama -- you know, the "radical socialist" -- who's waving the banner.

Though, in fairness, it's not quite the same thing. GOP freezes were across-the-board hatchet jobs, while administration officials are insisting the White House is eyeing a "surgical" freeze. Indeed, as part of the proposed freeze, the administration intends to increase some budgets while cutting others, which raises the question of whether this is really a "freeze" at all.

It's a cliche, but "the devil is in the details" certainly applies here. We've been told that the freeze would not only exclude defense and national security, but also economic recovery investment and health care reform (should it happen). The new jobs bill is still moving forward, too.

Indeed, while we wait for additional details -- an administration official said the cuts would target "duplicative," "ineffective," and "inefficient" spending -- I'm tempted to call the freeze idea symbolic, at best. In President Obama's first budget proposed cutting $11.5 billion in spending, and most of the cuts were approved by Congress. This next budget, including the freeze, is eyeing reductions between $10 billion to $15 billion.

So, if the proposal isn't really going to change much, why is this disappointing? Because it fully embraces the conservative narrative, instead of using the power of the bully pulpit to explain why conservatives have it wrong.

It may be even worse as a policy matter -- we just don't have enough details to say -- but that's distressing enough.

Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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January 25, 2010

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

* Putting together a long-term relief plan: "Haiti will ask the international conference meeting in Montreal on Monday for $3 billion to rebuild this city, left largely in ruins by the Jan. 12 earthquake, according to a senior Haitian government official."

* Baghdad: "A coordinated attack of vehicle bombs on Monday ripped through the perimeters of three hotel compounds known for housing foreign journalists, destroying a nearby apartment building and leaving at least 36 people dead."

* The Iraq bombings followed the execution of Ali Hassan al-Majid, a former Iraqi official best known as "Chemical Ali."

* Housing crisis: "Home sales slid in December, putting at least a temporary end to a gradually improving picture for real estate and deepening questions about the market's viability."

* President Obama re-emphasizes the middle-class agenda: "Promising repeatedly to 'keep fighting' for average Americans, President Obama rolled out new proposals Monday to help struggling middle-class families, setting the stage for his first State of the Union address Wednesday night."

* Soon after, congressional Republicans said they hate all of the president's ideas, including tax breaks favored by the White House.

* Taliban talks: "This -- to be very clear -- isn't a shift of position. Both Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO troops in the war, have said that they would support any outreach made by the Afghan government to reconcile with insurgents not linked to al-Qaeda."

* As of today, will Ben Bernanke get to keep his job at the Fed? Roll Call reports that a push from administration officials "has turned the tide" in the nominee's favor.

* House Majority Whip James Clyburn's (D-S.C.) frustration with the Senate is both understandable and growing.

* Fact checking the Sunday shows.

* Laurie Mylroie probably isn't the best choice to offer "expert" analysis to the Pentagon.

* The extent to which the Republican National Committee is willing to mislead Americans, even its own supporters, is limitless.

* Caps on student loan repayments?

* One of the best possible excuses for missing jury duty: busy running the executive branch of the federal government.

* And Sen. Jim DeMint has been so conditioned to say "Democrat Party," he can't even use the word "democratic" in other contexts. How sad.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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PTDB CALLS REACHING CAPITOL HILL.... For those who haven't seen his post yet, Mark Kleiman called his senator today with a "pass the damn bill" message, and had an interesting exchange.

Despite an initial tendency in Blue Blogistan to debate whether the recent reverses should be blamed on (1) progressives (2) centrists or (3) Barack Obama, a healthy consensus seems to be developing that we should (1) blame the Republicans and (2) do something about it, namely demand that our legislators Pass the Damned Bill. That would mean having the House pass the Senate bill under assurances that various points of dispute will be resolved satisfactorily to the House under the budget reconciliation process.

Today I called the Washington office of Sen. Diane Feinstein. (I'm reliably told that, for those without the time to make a personal visit either to Washington or to the local office of a legislator, faxes are best, calls second-best, and emails nowhere. Snailmail is effective -- more effective if handwritten -- but now very slow due to screening. There's a logic to this: the more effort a communication takes, the more impressive it is.)

The polite young man who answered the phone said that he could take a comment about a legislative matter, listened politely to about three polite sentences of Pass the Damned Bill and an expression of displeasure about DiFi's "slow down" comment, assured me that the Senator had voted for the bill and was eager to see it pass -- and then gave me the first ray of sunshine I've seen since the catastrophe in Massachusetts. He said that they'd been getting a lot of Pass the Damned Bill phone calls and wanted to know whether my call was part of an organized effort. [emphasis added]

I was curious to see whether, in the wake of last week's developments, reform advocates just threw up their arms in disgust and walked away. If Kleiman's experience is in any way similar to the norm, it suggests proponents are still willing to put some effort into making reform a reality.

I'm also curious to see whether there's a cumulative effect to all of this. Since, say, Wednesday or Thursday, Democratic policymakers have been urged to finish the deal by leading reform advocates, major union leaders, health care policy experts, and the nation's most influential progressive pundits, all of whom emphasized the exact same thing, giving Dems the exact same advice.

But at the end of the day, lawmakers are probably more likely to be influenced by their own constituents than anyone else. The more congressional Democrats hear PTDB, the more likely it is to happen.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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TRY CONFIDENCE.... In David Plouffe's op-ed piece, advising Democrats on how best to proceed in 2010, the former Obama campaign manager urges lawmakers to "pass a meaningful health insurance reform package without delay," adding, "It's a good plan that's become a demonized caricature."

It prompted Ezra to make a good point about the nature of confidence.

You'll notice that Plouffe doesn't spend a lot of time hedging that "this bill is not perfect, but it's better than nothing," or "this bill isn't Democrats' first choice, but it's still worth passing." Instead, he says it's a good plan that's been spun as a bad plan, and lists a lot of what it'll do to help families immediately. Democrats could take a lesson from that approach.

This isn't exactly a new observation, and Dems have burdened by this bad habit for a long time. They somehow manage to win a policy fight; Republicans trash the policy; and Dems get defensive and act sheepishly about their success.

In the face of Republican hysterics, Dems, more often than not, seem a little embarrassed by their victories.

Take the stimulus package, for example. Pressed on their vote, a few too many Dems will say something like, "Well, it was a necessary evil. No one likes spending that much, but it was probably necessary." The preferable message would be, "Of course the stimulus was a success. This recovery package -- which cut taxes, created jobs, and generated growth -- prevented a huge crisis. No one in their right mind could possibly think this was a mistake. For crying out loud, Republicans, who got us in this mess, wanted an insane five-year spending freeze that would have dug us into a deeper hole."

This was quite common in Massachusetts lately. Martha Coakley, when the pressure was on, became exceedingly timid -- on everything. Voters everywhere know the difference between candidates with the courage of their convictions and those who lack confidence.

The public is certainly less likely to back a health care reform bill when its leading proponents fail to give it a full-throated endorsement. The more Dems say, "You're damn right I fought for health care reform; why didn't you?" the more the stronger message resonates.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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FEWER VICTORIES = FEWER VICTORIES.... The other Sen. Nelson agrees that the Senate health care reform legislation is "a good bill" that deserves to be passed. He's right.

The problem is what Nelson recommends for the rest of the year.

"I think the President is going to have to scale back his agenda after we pass health care reform," he told ABC News in an interview that aired on Good Morning America. "Then I think some of those folks we think are in danger like Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, I think you'll see they're gonna win."

Nelson said "the president's instincts are right in the mainstream of America. I think he's allowed the left wing pull him too much in that direction. But he always comes back into the center."

First, I can't really think of any key instances in which "the left wing" has pulled President Obama away from the mainstream. Literally, none. I just don't know what Bill Nelson is thinking with a comment like that.

And second, how much more can policymakers "scale back"? The White House, at the start of this Congress, basically asked for four bills: health care, Wall Street reform, student loans, and a climate bill. A majority of the House and a majority of the Senate support all of four, but so far, zero have reached the president's desk.

Nelson's suggestion is in line with a certain kind of conservative (small "c") thinking: successful policymaking makes people uncomfortable. Don't move too fast, don't try too hard, don't aim too high. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) approaches politics the same way.

So, here's the follow-up question for Nelson and others who agree with his go-slow approach: later this year, voters are going to wonder what huge Democratic majorities and a Democratic president got done in 2009 and 2010. What does Nelson intend to tell them?

Opinions may vary, but I tend to think voters are impressed by accomplishments. It's very likely that fewer legislative victories will mean fewer electoral victories.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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OPEN TO PERSUASION.... When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi approached her caucus last week about possibly approving the Senate's health care reform bill, she heard more than a little resistance from House Democrats. Are they still open to persuasion?

Obviously, I hope so, and have written a strategy memo to make my case. But in the meantime, Greg Sargent reports that aides in both chambers still believe a breakthrough is possible, if enough House Dems believe that fixing the Senate bill through reconciliation "is procedurally realistic."

This gets at an aspect of this whole discussion that's been lost in the noise. Specifically, there's good reason for many House Dems to say right now that they can't vote for the Senate bill, even if it includes a "reconciliation fix": The leadership has not persuasively made the case -- yet -- that such a fix can actually work.

Dem leaders on both sides are feverishly exploring a range of options, one of which includes drawing up a series of fixes to the Senate bill that would be passed through the Senate via reconciliation along with the Senate bill passing the House -- the reconciliation "sidecar," as it has been called.

Aides on both sides think that House Dems might be persuaded to support this route if the procedural ins-and-outs are laid out for them convincingly in, say, a document. After all, why declare support for this course of action before this case is made?

That is an important point. By all accounts, several House Dems are looking to make a deal -- they'll support a reform bill they don't really like, and in exchange, they'll get some improvements to the bill (which were largely already negotiated before a certain recent special election) through reconciliation.

There's clearly some trust issues with the other chamber playing out here, but there's also just regular ol' negotiations at play -- the House doesn't want to give up its leverage, endorsing the Senate bill without knowing exactly what's being offered in return. They are, in effect, waiting for a piece of paper.

The gamble is serious -- if the negotiations stumble, reform dies, the nation suffers, and Dems are completely screwed. But there's obviously a logic behind the tactics, and reason to at least hope (a little) that progress is possible.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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STRATEGY MEMO.... Long-time observers of the health care reform debate may recall that about 16 years ago, Bill Kristol crafted a strategy memo for congressional Republicans, advising them on how best to deal with then-President Clinton's health care reform initiative. His memo offered a simple and clear direction: the GOP had to kill the Clinton reform plan at all costs. Republicans took the advice, and reaped the political rewards of the plan's demise.

It occurred to me that Democratic policymakers might benefit from a similar strategy memo -- offering the opposite advice -- while the party weighs its options. So I wrote one. It's online here.

While Kristol published his strategy in his capacity as the chairman of "Project for the Republican Future," I'm publishing mine as part of something I've labeled the "Project for a Healthy American Future."*

The memo presents a way forward, and explains why such a course is necessary: the House should quickly approve the reform bill passed by the Senate; the Senate should extend assurances to the House about proposed changes; and the White House should provide the leadership that brings the contingents together.

The arguments will no doubt seem familiar to those who've been following the process closely, but it's my hope that it will be valuable to have the totality of the argument in one document.

I've already been in contact with some congressional offices about bringing the strategy memo to the attention of lawmakers and administration officials. If readers wanted to help distribute the document, you can refer interested parties to the online version; you can copy and paste the text into an email, or you can make use of a pdf version, which is available at the bottom of the piece.

Americans have been talking about getting this done for a century now, and we're painfully close to delivering on the promise of reform. It is not too late for champions of reform to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity, and bring meaningful, life-saving change to a dysfunctional system.

Democrats have already paid a steep political price for proposing and working towards a solution; now it's time for policymakers to reap the rewards that come with completing the task.

* Post Script: Just to be clear, there is no actual "Project for a Healthy American Future." I came up with the name as a way to tweak/mock the Kristol letter. I'm just a blogger sharing some ideas about health care reform, not launching an advocacy group.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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

* In a major blow to the DSCC, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden (D) announced this morning that he will not run for the Senate this year. His decision makes it very likely that Rep. Mike Castle (R) will win in November, giving the GOP a key pick-up.

* There was some talk that after the Massachusetts special election, there would be a flood of Democratic retirements. That has not yet happened, but Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry (D) is poised to announce he's stepping down at the end of his term. He'll be the 12th House Dem incumbent to retire this year. There are 14 House Republicans retiring.

* Confirming long-rumored plans, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) has decided to give up his far-right radio talk show and take on Sen. John McCain in a Republican primary in Arizona next year.

* In Nevada, a new Research 2000 poll shows Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) trailing his GOP opponents by about 10 points each. If Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman runs as a Democrat, he leads those same Republican challengers by narrow margins.

* A new Ohio Newspaper Poll shows incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland (D) trailing former Rep. John Kasich (R) by six, 51% to 45%.

* With timing running out in Illinois's Senate primaries, a new Chicago Tribune poll shows state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) and Rep. Mark Kirk (R) leading their respective fields.

* A new Rasmussen poll shows Sen. Evan Bayh (D) with narrow leads over his Republican challengers, but if right-wing Rep. Mike Pence (R) runs, Rasmussen shows him leading Bayh by three, 47% to 44%.

* Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) of Arkansas trails state Sen. Gilbert Baker (R), her top GOP opponent, by 4 points in the latest Mason-Dixon poll, 43% to 39%.

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

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THE EFFECTS OF READING FROM THE WRONG SCRIPT.... After the failed Christmas terrorist plot, Republicans and conservative detractors of the administration worked quickly to characterize the unsuccessful attack as a "success" -- a word both Brit Hume and Bill Kristol used soon after the decidedly unsuccessful incident. The point, of course, was to try to further undermine the administration.

Adam Serwer noted this morning that the rhetoric has, not surprisingly, bolstered terrorist propaganda.

Alleged underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab didn't hurt anyone but himself, and he was quickly subdued by unarmed civilian passengers. But the Republican reaction -- hyping the failed bombing as a victory -- was so successful that Osama bin Laden claimed the failed operation in a recent videotaped message.

Marc Lynch added:

Osama bin Laden has released a new tape to al-Jazeera claiming responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing, linking it to Gaza and declaring that America would not be secure until Palestinians were truly secure. Bin Laden's ability to frame an entire tape around a failed bombing attempt demonstrates how badly the American public's over-reaction played into al-Qaeda's hands. It should not be surprising that bin Laden would claim responsibility on behalf of al-Qaeda Central or threaten new attacks, whether or not it's actually true. [emphasis added]

The point isn't to characterize the Cheneys and other GOP attack dogs as terrorist sympathizers; it's to note that, in their zeal to weaken Obama's presidency, they're inadvertently giving U.S. enemies exactly what they're looking for.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jay Bookman recently explained, "Cheney, Kristol and a lot of top Republicans in Washington are acting as unpaid PR agents for al Qaida, trying to turn even its failures into successes."

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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FORD'S ADVICE TO IGNORE.... Yesterday, David Plouffe, President Obama's campaign manager from 2008, published some very good advice for the Democratic Party. Today, former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D), apparently planning a Senate campaign in New York, offered Dems some advice of his own. After reading his op-ed, it's even more difficult to take Ford seriously than before.

Ford identifies "four simple steps we must take immediately to put us, and the nation, on a better course." The list includes dropping the kind of comprehensive health care reform that Democrats have already voted for -- he thinks protections for those with pre-existing conditions can be done on its own, proving he hasn't done his homework -- and also promotes passing immigration reform.

But the real fun was noticing how the other two of the four points complement one another. Ford, for example, believes Democrats should cut taxes some more...

[C]ut taxes for businesses -- big and small -- and find innovative ways to get Americans back to work. We can start by giving any companies that are less than five years old an exemption from payroll taxes for six months; extending the current capital gains and dividend tax rates through 2012; giving permanent tax credits for businesses that invest in research and development; and reducing the top corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent.

...and a few paragraphs later, Ford goes on to encourage Democrats to focus on deficit reduction.

[W]e need to address budget deficits now rather than waiting for some ideal future economic situation.

That cutting taxes makes deficit reduction largely impossible doesn't seem to bother the former congressman, probably because he's not especially serious about public policy.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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NOW THAT THE TIDE ISN'T ADVANCING.... When President Obama was inaugurated a year ago, there were 58 Senate Dems and 257 House Dems -- the largest majorities in decades, but not filibuster-proof. Few observers expected at the time that legislative gridlock was impossible to avoid. It's not as if folks were running around saying, "President Obama can't expect get anything done with 'only' 58 Democrats in the Senate."

There had to be some kind of plan in mind. In an interesting WaPo piece yesterday, we get a sense of what that plan looked like. The White House apparently intended to move its agenda through Congress on an "advancing tide" theory.

Democrats would start with bills that targeted relatively narrow problems, such as expanding health care for low-income children, reforming Pentagon contracting practices and curbing abuses by credit-card companies. Republicans would see the victories stack up and would want to take credit alongside a popular president. As momentum built, larger bipartisan coalitions would form to tackle more ambitious initiatives.

The president stacked his administration with Capitol Hill veterans to help get the job done. Vice President Biden had served in the Senate since 1972. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had been a rising star in the House. Senior advisers Pete Rouse and Jim Messina, budget director Peter Orszag and legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro had close ties to key lawmakers.

By the end of June, Congress had sent 10 major bills to Obama, including tougher tobacco regulations, a new public service initiative, and recession-related efforts to provide mortgage relief and curb predatory banking practices.

But Republican votes never materialized.

Well, no, they didn't. The White House must have hoped otherwise, but Republican lawmakers decided early on to pursue a scorched-earth strategy -- no compromise, no constructive role, no mercy. It was a calculated gamble -- if the Democrats' agenda proved successful, the GOP wouldn't benefit. The congressional minority felt compelled, then, to do whatever it could to undermine public policy, stoke the partisan fires, and be more obstructionist than any minority in American history.

The "advancing tide" theory sounded reasonable enough -- I'm not sure what the alternative would have been -- but in the face of unrelenting partisan obstinacy, generating momentum isn't a credible option.

So, 2010 starts the way 2009 began, at least insofar as there's a Democratic president with a long to-do list, dealing with large Democratic majorities in both chambers, but not "supermajorities." The difference is, the tide appears to be receding, not advancing.

Was there a back-up plan?

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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PERCEPTIONS VS REALITY ON STIMULUS.... Congressional Republicans have invested considerable energy over the last year in trying to convince the country that economic recovery efforts were a mistake. The stimulus, the GOP insists, didn't work.

The repetition, coupled with a still-struggling economy, has proven persuasive to much of the public -- a new CNN poll finds that a majority of Americans believes the investments were wasted or spent for political reasons, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Among economists, however, we seem awfully close to complete unanimity that the Democrats' recovery effort rescued the economy from collapse, created jobs, and generated economic growth that wouldn't have existed otherwise. Among the experts, this isn't even worth debating anymore -- it's simply an obvious truth that the stimulus was effective.

USA Today published an item today after surveying a panel of economists.

President Obama's stimulus package saved jobs -- but the government still needs to do more to breathe life into the economy, according to USA TODAY's quarterly survey of 50 economists.

Unemployment would have hit 10.8% -- higher than December's 10% rate -- without Obama's $787 billion stimulus program, according to the economists' median estimate. The difference would translate into another 1.2 million lost jobs.

Not surprisingly, the economists believe there should be more stimulus, not less, including increased spending on infrastructure.

But that's almost certainly impossible, because of public opinion as reflected in the CNN poll.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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WORK CONTINUES BEHIND THE SCENES.... Is there enough support in the House to pass the Senate health care reform bill? By every measure, not yet. In fact, Newsweek reports that the Democratic leadership isn't just short of a majority, they're "way short."

That's the bad news. The good news is they're still working on it. (via Kevin Drum)

For now, senior lawmakers are working the phones furiously to talk up the idea of the Senate promising to retroactively unravel several distasteful components. If House Democrats make the good-faith deal, Pelosi is arguing that the Senate promise would be easy to keep. Reconciliation votes require only a 51-vote majority. Or even 50, in which case Vice President Biden could break the tie.

This aide says that leadership considers reconciliation, with the House conditioning its support on promised fixes in the Senate, as the much more strategic route than breaking the package into parts, which isn't ideal because all of the parts are interlocking. Asked what the timetable would be for that, this aide says weeks, not months.

I'm not getting my hopes up, but this at least suggests some of the Powers That Be are considering the right solution.

It's not that complicated -- the House passes the Senate bill, the Senate agrees to approve key changes through reconciliation, and the White House keeps the players together. Everyone wins (except insurance companies and the Republican Party).

So, what's in the Senate version that would need to come out? The House wants a deal on the excise-tax financing, which shouldn't be too difficult since a compromise was reached nearly two weeks ago. The House also wants to see the "Cornhusker Kickback" scuttled, which also should be fairly straightforward -- the measure was necessary to bribe win over Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), and even he's not willing to stand by his ransom anymore.

There's been a lot of pressure on the House to pass the Senate bill, and for good reason. But the sooner the Senate steps up and extends meaningful assurances to the House about clear-cut changes that can be made -- and can't be filibustered -- the sooner policymakers can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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LET'S PUT THEM SIDE BY SIDE.... Throughout the lengthy debate on health care reform, Republicans refused to negotiate in good faith. Compromises were considered out of the question. Blatantly, demonstrably false claims were the norm. Perhaps worst of all, GOP leaders would embrace specific reform ideas, and when Democrats would agree, those same GOP leaders would reject the same measures they'd already endorsed.

And yet, now that reform is hanging by a thread, congressional Republicans are arguing with a straight face that legislation can still pass -- just as soon as the Democratic majority approves the GOP reform plan.

Last week, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) "made it clear that the only starting point for bipartisan compromise would be for Dems to drop their health care plan and embrace the GOP one." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) made the same offer yesterday.

John McCain took a similar line yesterday, suggesting that the only ideas that can pass in a Democratic Congress are those that come from Republicans.

Mr. McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said on the CBS news program "Face the Nation" that President Obama should sit down with Republican leaders and begin adopting some of their ideas for improving the nation's health care system such as overhauling medical malpractice lawsuits, allowing residents of one state to buy health insurance from a company in another state, and granting tax credits for people who purchase health insurance on their own.

Perhaps now would be a good time to look back at the official Republican health care reform plan, as it was unveiled in November. It was largely lost in the shuffle -- and het media largely ignored it because reporters knew it had no chance of passing -- but it told us a great deal about how the GOP approaches this issue.

The Republican plan was nothing short of laughable -- it did nothing for the uninsured, nothing for those with pre-existing conditions, and nothing for those worried about losing coverage when it's needed most. It was an entirely partisan plan, written in secret. The Republican proposal sought to create a system that "works better for people who don't need health care services, and much worse for people who actually are sick or who become sick in the future. It's basically a health un-insurance policy." And as we learned in November, the plan included provisions that "mirror the suggestions put forth by the lobbying entity of the private insurance industry way back in December 2008."

Indeed, the official Republican plan didn't even offer modest provisions that the party used to support. Roll Call reported at the time, "Under the GOP plan, insurance companies would still be allowed to exclude anyone with a pre-existing medical condition from coverage, there would be no national insurance exchange and businesses would not face any mandate to provide insurance nor individuals to buy it. Boehner also left out tax credits to help the poor and middle class buy insurance -- a central pillar of most GOP reform proposals and a key feature of a four-page outline Republican leaders released in June."

The plan was quickly labeled "a major embarrassment."

Now, Cantor, McCain, and McConnell are labeling their approach "the bipartisan solution."

Ideally, the public could see the two plans, side by side, and see for themselves which party offered the more sensible solution.

It often goes unsaid, but if you were to have assembled a bipartisan group of policy wonks a couple of years ago, and asked them to put together a comprehensive plan that incorporates ideas from both parties, that expands coverage and cuts costs, they would have crafted a plan that looks an awful lot like the current Senate bill.

It's not the majority's fault that Republicans have lost their minds.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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January 24, 2010

STRATEGERY AND THE SHIFTING POLITICAL WINDS.... As most observers have no doubt noticed, political winds can turn pretty quickly. I was doing some research the other day and found a piece noting that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as recently as May, thought it was likely that Democrats would expand their Senate majority in 2010.

As recently as late July, House Dems were believed to be "sitting pretty" for the midterms.

...CQ reports that the 2010 outlook for Democrats actually looks pretty good and "the only three contests in which CQ Politics rates an advantage to the challenging party are all for seats now held by the Republicans and targeted by the Democrats." [...]

Meanwhile, the geography of the 2010 Senate races is also highly favorable to the Democrats. And given the contrast between ironclad discipline on the GOP side and the "anything goes" attitude on the Democratic side, it looks like for a while yet we may be in a California-style dynamic where Republicans can't win elections but Democrats can't actually pass a governing agenda.

Now, I'm not trying to pick on Matt for this post; that's really what the landscape looked like at the time and it's what CQ actually reported. My point is there's an ebb and flow to political fortunes, not that predictions can look mistaken six months later.

Last summer, it seemed possible, if not likely, that the Democratic majority in the Senate would be larger in 2011. After all, between vulnerable incumbents and GOP retirements, seats in Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Missouri, and North Carolina looked like strong pick-up opportunities. How significantly have things changed? Nate Silver put together an item weighing the possibility that the Dems' 59-seat majority may completely disappear by next year.

In the House, we've gone from a scenario in which a dominant Democratic House majority was practically a given after the midterms, to a landscape in which the list of vulnerable House Dem incumbents is almost limitless.

So, is there anything Dems can do to get the winds to blow back in the other direction? Some aspects of the campaign season are hard to predict -- the strength of the economy will make a big difference, no matter what strategy the parties pursue.

That said, when it comes to Dems and their agenda, we talked earlier about David Plouffe's advice to the party, with suggestions that struck me as sound: "pass a meaningful health insurance reform package without delay"; create jobs; stand by the stimulus; emphasize reform issues; run great campaigns; and avoid "bed-wetting."

That's a positive, affirming approach. I'm wondering, though, about some of the possible attacks on Republicans.

The GOP isn't in power right now, but the party still has vulnerabilities to exploit.

* Those guys really screwed up the last time.

Republican rule during the Bush/Cheney was a fiasco unlike anything America has seen in a very long time. The party, however, hasn't changed at all -- it's deliberately fought any efforts to improve -- so to reward the GOP in 2010 would be to endorse the same failures. I still don't know why Democrats never chose to label this the "Republican Recession."

* Why turn back the clock?

Nearly every crisis and policy challenge facing the United States right now -- the recession, two wars, a disastrous job market, a massive federal budget 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, a severely tarnished global reputation, etc. -- is the result of Republican mismanagement, neglect, corruption, or some combination thereof.

The Dem line seems fairly obvious: if the country needs to put out fires, why vote for a team of arsonists?

* "Party of No"

As a rule, voters tend to like candidates/officials who at least pretend to be interested in problem-solving. "Whatever Dems are for, we're against" shouldn't resonate. Most of the American mainstream seems unimpressed by a party that reflexively rejects every idea, regardless of merit, while offering nothing substantive of its own.

* Worst. Ideas. Ever.

Republicans haven't been in power, but they occasionally have presented some genuinely ridiculous ideas over the last year. Resolving the financial crisis with a spending freeze? Voting for an alternative budget that would privatize Medicare out of existence? Pretending global warming isn't real? And remember the truly laughable GOP "health care plan"? C'mon. It's no wonder the RNC's own chairman questioned whether Republicans are ready to be in the majority again.

* "Party of Crazy"

Republicans have spent a year trying to drive away moderates, and taking orders from a drug-addled radio talk-show blowhard. Instead of moderating its message and direction in the wake of humiliating failures in 2006 and 2008, today's GOP moved even further to the right -- becoming the home to Tea Partiers, Birthers, Deathers, Oathers, and "Freedom Fighters."

As far as 2010 is concerned, it would seem Republicans have positioned themselves just outside the political mainstream. (As Charles Barkley said in 2006, "I was a Republican until they lost their minds." It's the kind of sentiment Democratic officials may be tempted to broadcast more.)

Any other possible campaign narratives come to mind?

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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AXELROD SIGNALS SUPPORT FOR WEAKER, SCALED-BACK BILL.... I keep waiting for the White House to step up and urge the House to pass the Senate health care reform bill, and to urge the Senate to give the House assurances about improvements to be made through reconciliation. It's the solution that so many reform advocates keep emphasizing, and they could use some help.

But at least publicly, that's not happening. David Axelrod appeared on ABC's "This Week" earlier, and Terry Moran asked if health care reform is "dead," in light of some of the comments President Obama made to George Stephanopoulos this week. Axelrod responded:

"No, that's not true at all. I think what he's saying is let's take a look at this. There are so many elements of this -- tax breaks for small business, extending the life of Medicare, more assistance for seniors with their prescription drugs, a cap on out-of-pocket expenses, help for people with pre-existing conditions -- that are too important to walk away from. What he's saying is, let's get back to it."


The rest of the reform bill is "too important to walk away from," too. If the House passes the Senate bill, Americans can benefit from the tax breaks for small business, the strengthening of Medicare, the help for seniors -- and so much more. It just takes one roll-call vote in the House to deliver a victory for the ages.

And that victory may not happen unless the White House intervenes to help make it happen. It may be up to Obama to personally facilitate a deal.

That said, it doesn't have to be on the president's shoulders. As we talked about yesterday, Congress is its own branch, with its own leaders. It's in members' interests to get this done. Congress should realize the importance of delivering on the promise of reform -- whether it gets instructions from the White House or not should be irrelevant.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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SO MUCH FOR COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM.... The idea was always shallow and more about rhetoric than reality, but it looks like the notion of "compassionate conservatism" is officially dead. Take the latest rhetoric out of South Carolina, for example.

South Carolina Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said Saturday he could have chosen his words more carefully when he compared people who take public assistance to stray animals Friday. [...]

Friday, Bauer said giving food to needy people means encouraging dependence. It also gives the recipients a license to have children who will also be dependent on public aid, he said.

"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals," Bauer told a Greenville-area crowd. "You know why? Because they breed.

"You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."

This is, by the way, not only the sitting lieutenant governor, but also one of the leading gubernatorial candidates in South Carolina this year.

"It amazes me how some Republican politicians claim a monopoly on Christianity and then go out and say and do some of the most un-Christian things imaginable," said Charleston attorney Mullins McLeod (D), who participated in a candidates' forum yesterday. He added, "Bauer's comments are despicable and the total opposite of the Christian values Bauer espouses."

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

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'HEALTH CARE REFORM IS A JOBS BILL'.... This week, it's been frustratingly common to see congressional Democrats who believe they can't win a policy argument on health care reform -- despite being right on the merits.

It was encouraging, then, to see Rep. Paul Hodes (D), running for the Senate in New Hampshire, emphasize a point that's gone largely overlooked -- health care reform is critical to job growth.

"I've been very, very straightforward with the folks in New Hampshire about the importance of substantial health care reform. We've got to have lower costs, [increase] quality and putting the folks of New Hampshire and this country back in control of their health care, instead of the health insurance companies," Hodes said.

"And health care reform is a jobs bill, and that's what I've been telling the folks all over the state that I've been talking to, and they get it here. Small business is big business in New Hampshire and small businesses in New Hampshire are getting pummeled by double-digit premium costs going up every year. They can't afford it. They know we need health care reform, and I'm finding a lot of fertile ground because people get that health care reform is a jobs bill, especially for small business."

More of this, please.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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PLOUFFE'S SOUND ADVICE.... David Plouffe, as President Obama's campaign manager, earned a strong reputation as a smart, strategic thinker. One would like to think his advice for the party would be taken seriously, especially given his new role as an outside political adviser to the White House.

In a Washington Post op-ed today, Plouffe acknowledges the Democrats' "challenging election year," but said the looming disaster can be avoided if "Democrats do what the American people sent them to Washington to do." To strengthen Dems' election-year hand, he recommends, among other things:

* Pass a meaningful health insurance reform package without delay. Americans' health and our nation's long-term fiscal health depend on it. I know that the short-term politics are bad. It's a good plan that's become a demonized caricature. But politically speaking, if we do not pass it, the GOP will continue attacking the plan as if we did anyway, and voters will have no ability to measure its upside. If we do pass it, dozens of protections and benefits take effect this year. Parents won't have to worry their children will be denied coverage just because they have a preexisting condition. Workers won't have to worry that their coverage will be dropped because they get sick. Seniors will feel relief from prescription costs. Only if the plan becomes law will the American people see that all the scary things Sarah Palin and others have predicted -- such as the so-called death panels -- were baseless. We own the bill and the health-care votes. We need to get some of the upside. (P.S.: Health care is a jobs creator.)

* We need to show that we not just are focused on jobs but also create them. Even without a difficult fiscal situation, the government can have only so much direct impact on job creation, on top of the millions of jobs created by the president's early efforts to restart the economy. There are some terrific ideas that we can implement, from tax credits for small businesses to more incentives for green jobs, but full recovery will happen only when the private sector begins hiring in earnest. That's why Democrats must create a strong foundation for long-term growth by addressing health care, energy and education reform. We must also show real leadership by passing some politically difficult measures to help stabilize the economy in the short term. Voters are always smarter than they are given credit for. We need to make our case on the economy and jobs -- and yes, we can remind voters where Republican policies led us -- and if we do, without apology and with force, it will have impact.

* Make sure voters understand what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act did for the economy. Rarely does a congressional vote or issue lend itself to this kind of powerful localization. If GOP challengers want to run ads criticizing the recovery act as wasteful, Democratic candidates should lift up the police officers, teachers and construction workers in their state or district, those who are protecting our communities, teaching our children and repairing our roads thanks to the Democrats' leadership. Highlight the small-business owners who have kept their doors open through projects funded by the act.

The recovery act has been stigmatized. We need to paint the real picture, in human terms, of what it meant in 2010. In future elections, it will be clear to all that instead of another Great Depression, Democrats broke the back of the recession with not a single Republican vote in the House. In the long run, this will haunt Republicans, especially since they made the mess. [...]

* No bed-wetting. This will be a tough election for our party and for many Republican incumbents as well. Instead of fearing what may happen, let's prove that we have more than just the brains to govern -- that we have the guts to govern. Let's fight like hell, not because we want to preserve our status, but because we sincerely believe too many everyday Americans will continue to lose if Republicans and special interests win.

Sounds like good advice to me. It seems the preferred alternative -- crawl into a fetal position and hope the storm blows over -- isn't a recipe for success.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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January 23, 2010

NOTHING GOOD HAPPENS IN 'PAUSE MODE'.... The NYT reports today on the president and his team planning ahead for the rest of the year. On the matter where things stand with regard to health care reform, the report was very discouraging.

It remains an open question how much new legislation will pass Congress, but the coming months will help frame the campaigns. While some form of financial regulation and job creation measures may pass, Obama aides said, the larger initiatives like health care, a cap on carbon emissions and an immigration overhaul may have to wait, even though the White House denies trimming its ambitions. [...]

The administration is still exploring options with Congressional leaders to salvage a wide-reaching health care bill, but one adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy said, "I think they're coming to the realization that we may be in a pause mode."

"Pause mode" is not a good place to be. Nothing happens in "pause mode." There is no progress is "pause mode." No one finds real, meaningful change in "pause mode."

This is one of those times when the fierce urgency of now would be awfully helpful.

Now, I didn't hear the context of the quote -- maybe "pause mode" refers to the White House's short-term interests in focusing on the State of the Union address. Maybe "pause mode" ends later this week if/when the president brings the principals together to wrap up a deal.

But that's probably just wishful thinking. I interpret "pause mode" to more likely mean, "Let's kick this down the road a couple of months and see if the polls look any different."

This would be a terrible mistake. Dragging out the process, when it can be resolved with one, simple roll-call vote in the House, is the exact opposite of what's needed right now.

Giving opponents of reform more time to undermine public support and trash necessary legislation hasn't worked up until now; it's unlikely to work while policymakers are in "pause mode."

Ideally, the president and his team would be working the phones, facilitating a deal. If, however, the White House is going to remain detached -- and for all I know, congressional leaders may have specifically asked Obama to let them work this out themselves -- that doesn't mean lawmakers can't do their job.

Congress is its own branch, with its own leaders. It's in members' interests to get this done. Congress should realize what needs to be done -- whether it gets instructions from the White House or not should be irrelevant.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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MORE INFORMATION MEANS MORE SUPPORT.... Public opinion on health care reform has been shaped in large part by right-wing advertising, public anxiety and confusion, and major media outlets that aren't especially good at helping news consumers separate fact from fiction. As a result, the current push for comprehensive reform has come under intense attack -- just like every other major attempt at health care reform over the last century, each of which was derailed by lobbyists and scare tactics.

With that in mind, pay particular attention to the Kaiser Family Foundation's latest research. It notes that Americans are evenly divided in their feelings about the reform proposals. But the report show that support for the plan grows when Americans actually learn what's in it.

A significant majority of the respondents said they were more likely to support the bill when the following features were described: tax credits for small businesses that want to offer coverage to their employees, health insurance exchanges, the elimination of insurance denials based on pre-existing conditions, help in closing the Medicare "doughnut hole," and a tax hike on couples making more than $1 million a year to pay for the changes in health care.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with key elements of the major bills passed by the House and Senate. Among the least known elements of the legislation is that the Congressional Budget Office has said health care reform would reduce the deficit. Sixty percent expect the legislation to increase the deficit, but almost as many, 56 percent, said that reducing "the federal deficit by at least $132 billion over 10 years" would make them more supportive of the health care proposal.

This is hardly unprecedented. Over the summer, in the middle of the right-wing freak-out, a NBC/WSJ poll found that 36% of Americans approved of the plan. When the plan was actually described, support jumped to 53%.

So, what we have here is ... a failure to communicate. Americans don't like the proposal, until they learn what the proposal actually entails and realize the scare tactics aren't true. ("Wait, you mean there are no death panels and this isn't a government takeover? Well, in that case....")

The importance of this cannot be overstated.

Yesterday, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told Greg Sargent that the Senate bill may have been irrevocably tarnished, making it "unacceptable in its current form to many voters," and leaving House Dems unwilling to pass it.

But this is based on faulty assumptions. The House could pass the Senate bill, make changes through reconciliation, and get rid of measures like the Nebraska Medicaid deal through a freestanding bill. Van Hollen's instincts are backwards.

The point is, public perceptions can change -- if Democrats give success a chance. The polls are discouraging, but failure, weakness, and delays won't improve matters. Van Hollen's message, in a nutshell, is, "We can't deliver on the most important piece of legislation in a generation because Republicans lied to the country; we can't overcome that; so we'll have to shape our policy accordingly."

That's madness. That's weakness. That's electoral suicide.

Again, what I'm suggesting is that they give success a chance. The polls are far more likely to recover if lawmakers do what they said they would do, pass the most important domestic policy legislation in generations, reap the rewards of a historic victory, and then get out there and sell their handiwork -- making clear to the country that the scare tactics were wrong. Once the bill is signed, the media won't just have a major signing ceremony to cover, but there will be plenty of reports about what the new law does and does not do -- "How the new health care law affects you" -- which would further help debunk the myths.

Van Hollen thinks the public has soured on the plan. There's ample evidence to support that. But Americans feel a lot better about the plan when they learn what it is, and they're far more likely to learn what it is if it passes.

Dems can either deliver or break their promise. They can either help Americans who need support or let them suffer. They can either help turn the polls around or watch them fall further. They can either prove their ability to govern or prove themselves inept. They can either satisfy the expectations of those who elected them or demoralize those who are counting on them. They can either watch the media cover their once-in-a-generation breakthrough or watch the media scrutinize a fiasco for the ages.

They can either look like victorious heroes who remained strong when the going got tough or they can look weak.

They can either fix a broken system and save lives or watch a dysfunctional system get considerably worse.

They can either succeed or fail.

How is it not obvious that Dems need to pass ... the ... damn ... bill?

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a pretty big dust-up over the use of U.S. military rifle scopes featuring inscriptions with New Testament citations.

The scopes are obviously problematic, not only on church-state grounds, but for undermining the American position that our conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not about religion. Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation said this week, "It allows the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the insurrectionists and jihadists to claim they're being shot by Jesus rifles." Gen. David Petraeus, Central Command's top officer, called the practice "disturbing," and said the scopes represent a "serious concern to me and the other commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Late Thursday, the matter was resolved when the manufacturer reversed course.

A Michigan defense contractor will voluntarily stop stamping references to Bible verses on combat rifle sights made for the U.S. military, a major buyer of the company's gear.

In a statement released Thursday, Trijicon of Wixom, Mich., says it is also providing to the armed forces free of charge modification kits to remove the Scripture citations from the telescoping sights already in use. Through multimillion dollar contracts, the Marine Corps and Army have more than 300,000 Trijicon sights.

Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Geraldine Carey said the service "is making every effort to remove these markings from all of our scopes and will ensure that all future procurement of these scopes will not have these types of markings."

Also from the God Machine this week:

* A Gallup poll released Thursday found that "more than 4 in 10 Americans (43%) admit to feeling at least 'a little' prejudice toward Muslims -- more than twice the number who say the same about Christians (18%), Jews (15%) and Buddhists (14%)."

* And in related news, a report released by the Pew Research Center found that "most Americans accept interracial marriage, but many people of faith say they would be troubled by a family member's decision to marry an atheist." Specially, a 43% plurality said they would be bothered by a family member's marriage to an atheist, but would probably accept the marriage eventually. However, 27% said they would be bothered and would never accept the marriage.

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

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FOCUS ON THE FAMILY'S AIRTIME.... For much of the Bush era, progressive voices found it surprisingly difficult to purchase television advertising time. MoveOn.org tried to buy an ad on GOP corruption, but NBC wouldn't air it. The Center for Constitutional Rights tried to buy an ad about torture, but Fox News wouldn't air it. The progressive United Church of Christ put together an ad that told viewers, "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here." All of the major networks refused to run it.

And in 2004, MoveOn.org raised enough money to buy an ad during the Super Bowl, but CBS rejected it, noting its "long-term policy not to air issue ads anywhere on the network." The spot was about the Bush/Cheney deficits, which the network described as "divisive."

It looks like conservative voices are having more luck now.

Will television viewers take issue with issue advertising during a Super Bowl?

That is what CBS will find out as it gets ready to broadcast Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7. An evangelical organization, Focus on the Family, that takes stands on issues like abortion and gay marriage -- the organization opposes both -- is buying a commercial during the game.

Issue ads are rare during Super Bowls, partly because almost all the time is bought by marketers of consumer products and partly because the networks have strict policies regarding the discussion of contentious issues in national commercials.

The Focus on the Family ad will reportedly feature college football player Tim Tebow and his mother, both of whom have spoken publicly about their opposition to abortion rights.

It creates an interesting situation. Does Focus spend a lot of money on a commercial with a vague, watered-down message? Does Focus push the envelope and force CBS to reject the spot?

Or are we left with a situation in which issue/advocacy advertising on television is fine, so just so long as it's a conservative message?

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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IF IT'S SUNDAY.... CBS News's "Face the Nation" is touting its line-up for tomorrow's show.

Coming Up: Jan. 24, 2010: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

And a roundtable discussion on the Supreme Court campaign ad ruling with CBS News' Nancy Cordes and Jan Crawford.

Yes, we've reached the first anniversary of President Obama's inauguration, so it's time once again to have John McCain appear on yet another Sunday morning talk show.

For those keeping score, this will be McCain's 19th appearance on a Sunday morning talk show since Obama took office 12 months ago. That's an average of one appearance every 2.9 weeks for a year -- more than any other public official in the country.

Since the president's inauguration, 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), "Fox News Sunday" four times (December 20, July 2, March 8, and January 25), and CNN's "State of the Union" four times (January 10, October 11, August 2, and February 15). His appearance on "Face the Nation" will be his fifth in the last year (January 24, October 25, August 30, April 26, and February 8).

Congratulations, "Face the Nation," you're now in the lead.

And who, exactly, is John McCain? He's the one who lost the 2008 presidential race badly, and is now just another reactionary 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.

There's just no reason for the media's obsession with McCain. None. Nineteen Sunday-show appearances in 12 months? It's farcical.

Of course, if "Face the Nation" is going to go to the trouble of having McCain on once again, Bob Schieffer could, in theory, ask the senator to explain why he humiliated himself during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing this week. For those who missed it, McCain insisted that Christmas/underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab bought a one-way ticket from Nigeria to Detroit. That's completely wrong. When National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter tried to explain reality, McCain became visibly annoyed, forcing Leiter to apologize for being correct.

If our media culture made sense, television producers wouldn't reward this.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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STERN ADVICE.... Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, is one of the more influential figures in progressive politics, and is one of the nation's leading champions of health care reform. In light of talk that some congressional Dems are considering a weaker, "scaled-down" health care reform bill -- even with a stronger, more effective bill one vote away from passage -- Stern is insisting that this isn't good enough.

SEIU chief Andy Stern took a hard shot at Dem leaders just now for considering a scaled-down health care bill, strongly hinting that labor might not work as hard for Dem candidates in 2010 if they failed to deliver real and comprehensive reform.

"It's gonna be incredibly difficult to stay focused on national politics if by the end of 2010 we have minimal health care and minimal changes on what's important to our members," he said in an interview, ridiculing the emerging Dem approach as "fear masquerading as a strategy."

Stern unloaded on Dem leaders in response to reports today that they're mulling either a scaled down bill to win GOPers or a broken up bill passed in pieces. His anger suggests Dems risk paying a big price with labor if they fail to figure out how to pass the Senate bill and fix it later, as labor wants.

Stern concluded, "For the 31 million people who don't have health care, for the 14,000 who lose it every day, for the 120 people who die every day, they elected this Congress to make change, not to set their sights lower when the going gets tough."

What I find interesting is the sizable group of progressive champions -- allies of the Democratic Party who have no interest in steering Dems in the wrong direction -- who are all urging the House to do the right thing, pass the Senate bill, and make improvements through reconciliation. Leading reform advocates, major union leaders, health care policy experts, and the nation's most influential progressive pundits are all saying the exact same thing, giving Dems the exact same advice.

On the other hand, Republicans and right-wing activist outlets are urging Dems to scrap all the progress they've made, give up, start over, and/or pursue a weaker, ineffective bill (which the GOP would end up opposing anyway).

Why on earth would Dems follow the advice of those who want to destroy them?

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE TALKS THAT MAY SAVE HEALTH CARE REFORM.... Over the last few days, it's become increasingly evident that congressional Democrats aren't sure how, when, or whether to move forward on health care reform. There is an obvious course that would deliver an extraordinary victory -- the House passes the Senate bill, then approves changes through reconciliation -- but fear is driving reluctance.

Politico reports that there will apparently be some talks this weekend that may save health care reform (and save the Democratic Party, and save the lives of uninsured Americans, and save countless families from bankruptcy).

Struggling to salvage health reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have begun considering a list of changes to the Senate bill in hopes of making it acceptable to liberal House members, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The changes could be included in separate legislation that, if passed, would pave the way for House approval of the Senate bill -- a move that would preserve President Barack Obama's vision of a sweeping health reform plan. [...]

The changes are being worked on this weekend with plans for Pelosi to present them to her caucus next week, according to sources familiar with the situation. But, sources stressed, neither Reid nor Pelosi know if this strategy can win the support of their members, but they are attempting it because it is the quickest path to passage.

As recently as last week, in the midst of lengthy discussions at the White House, a wide variety of changes were agreed upon by House and Senate negotiators. The idea, of course, was to craft a final bill to be approved by both chambers. Voters in Massachusetts have since made this approach impossible.

But if Reid and Pelosi can package those already-discussed improvements, and agree to approve them through reconciliation after the House passes the Senate bill, then there's still hope that a fiasco for the ages can be avoided.

The changes being considered track closely with the agreements House and Senate leaders made in White House meetings last week, according to a source. They include the deal with labor unions to ease the tax on high-end insurance plans, additional Medicare cuts and taxes, the elimination of a special Medicaid funding deal for Nebraska and a move to help cover the gap in seniors' prescription drug coverage. Pelosi is also working to change the Senate provision that sets up state insurance exchanges. The House prefers a single, national exchange.

Discussions, a Pelosi spokesperson said, "are ongoing ... but no final decisions have been made."

Once more with feeling: Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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January 22, 2010

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

* Haiti: "Haitians are fleeing their quake-ravaged capital by the hundreds of thousands, aid officials said Friday, as their government promised to help nearly a half-million more move from squalid camps on curbsides and vacant lots into safer, cleaner tent cities."

* New tensions in Baghdad: "The two biggest secular coalitions were hit hardest by this month's decision to bar about 500 candidates from parliamentary elections in March, a top election official said Thursday, as efforts to resolve what has become a political crisis intensified.... In an early effort to resolve the crisis, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. suggested that the list of the disqualified be set aside until after the elections, so that only those on the list who won would have to be examined for Baathist ties, according to Iraqi officials."

* President Obama pushes a jobs bill, among other things, in Ohio.

* Are Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke's prospects for a second term in real trouble? Actually, yes.

* China really doesn't take criticism well.

* Gitmo: "A presidentially created task force has recommended about three dozen Guantanamo Bay detainees face trial or military commissions, two government officials said Friday. Such prosecutions would almost certainly take place in the United States. The two officials said that a task force has recommended 35 Guantanamo Bay detainees for prosecution. Attorney General Eric Holder has already decided that five of those will be tried in New York federal court for their alleged roles in the 2001 terror attacks. Another six have been chosen to face military commissions."

* As Obama goes after banks with a populist pitch, Republicans bring "class warfare" back from the rhetorical trash heap.

* It was only a matter of time before more conservatives starting criticizing Haiti for not having been colonized long enough.

* Tuition-free, online higher ed?

* Dear Jewish air-travelers: using a tefillin is apparently going to cause some trouble.

* I absolutely loved Tom Toles's latest gem. Clip it, save it, send it to your representative.

* Pass the damn bill: "59 out of 59 Democratic incumbent Senators voted for the Obama health care plan. And 218 Democratic House incumbents voted for the Obama health care plan. This plan does not poll well today. And if the narrative about the plan in the media becomes a narrative of failure, all about why Obamacare went down, it will poll even worse.... The votes cannot be untaken. But it is still possible to (a) accomplish something for the American people, (b) at least have a chance at turning the narrative around, and (c) avoid demoralizing those people who do like the health care plan."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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DINGELL POINTS THE WAY FORWARD.... Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan has been fighting for a health care reform bill since the day he got to Congress -- 55 years ago. His father fought for a health care reform bill before him, alongside Harry Truman. This is not some passing interesting for Dean of the House Conference and the third longest-serving member of Congress ever.

And he agrees with the strategy that seems obvious to every except his House Democratic colleagues.

Dingell ... thinks Democrats should first put Republicans on the spot opposing the bill, then move ahead without them.

"They can go to conference," Dingell told me in an interview this afternoon. "Bring the Republicans in. They've been whining about the need to have transparency, let them get up there and say that they oppose this bill before the people."

Once that exercise is over, though, Dingell says Democrats should bare (sic) down and pass the Senate bill. "I don't foreclose the utilization of the adoption of the Senate bill, accompanied by an agreed to piece of legislation to be embodied in the reconciliation package," Dingell says. "And just tell the Republicans that you have a chance to co-operate with us, and if you don't we'll be proceeding.

He also told Brian Beutler, "There is only a limited amount of time to address this."

On the other hand, there's Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who suggested today that Congress just delay the consideration of health care altogether for up to six weeks.

I suspect Dodd means well -- he's helped get reform this far -- but that's a recipe for failure. The bill isn't going to improve over the next month and a half. Giving more opponents more time to attack, extending a debate no one wants to hear anymore, is a dreadfully bad idea.

Update: Bill Galston tends to oppose ambitious progressive activism in nearly every instance, and has never been especially supportive of the reform initiative itself, but even he thinks the House needs to step up and pass the Senate bill quickly.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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IRRATIONAL EXUBERANCE?.... The only thing political reporters love more than accepting the conventional wisdom without question? Writing the contrarian piece that questions the conventional wisdom. With that in mind, the lead story at Politico today has this headline: "Why the GOP should still be nervous."

Obviously, a lot of Republicans are going to scoff at this. For that matter, so will Dems. This has been an incredibly difficult week; Democrats feel demoralized; and Republicans feel giddy. Dems have a still-popular president and huge majorities in both chambers, but it's the minority that's feeling all of the momentum right now. To deny this is to deny reality.

But the various caveats are important. Less than 20% of the country actually approves of the direction of the Republican Party. The latest NBC/WSJ poll, released earlier this week, found those approving of the way President Obama is handling health care way down -- but it's still 12 points higher than those approving of the way congressional Republicans are handling the issue. Indeed, on pure favorability, Obama is 22 points higher than the GOP.

With that in mind, the piece from Jim VandeHei and James Hohmann is counter-intuitive, but not ridiculous.

Republicans are riding high in the wake of Scott Brown's win, talking up an authentic resurgence for their party and a real chance for reclaiming power.

Don't bet on it. [...]

POLITICO talked with many of the country's most experienced political operatives, and each one warned Republicans against irrational exuberance.

It may seem easy to forget, but the Republican brand is still awful, and the problems Democrats are struggling to fix right now were caused by the GOP. As angry as people are, the number of people who like and trust the Republican Party is still very small. That, coupled with internal divisions, weak fundraising, weak leadership, and the total absence of a policy agenda constitute meaningful hurdles for the GOP's "comeback."

Of course, the obstacles may not matter if recent trends continue. If the Democratic base is demoralized, and the Teabaggers don't tear each other apart, Republicans will enjoy extraordinary gains by default -- no matter how ridiculous, irresponsible, and wrong they've been.

But those who measure the drapes in January can be disappointed in November. Matthew Dowd, who consulted for former President George W. Bush and voted for President Barack Obama, said, "If any Republicans are running around town celebrating in jubilation, they should remember that in the country's constant state of change, neither party gets more than a moment."

Know what would really make things easier for Dems? If the House passes the Senate health care bill, and Democrats prove they're capable of delivering on their agenda.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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OBAMA: 'I AM NOT GOING TO WALK AWAY'.... I've obtained an advance text of the remarks President Obama will deliver in Elyria, Ohio, this afternoon. The emphasis on the remarks and the town-hall event will be the economy and jobs, but the president will address the health care issue.

"...I had no illusions when I took on health care. It was always going to be hard. I knew from the beginning that seven Presidents had tried it and seven Presidents had failed. But I also knew that insurance premiums had more than doubled in the past decade, that out-of-pocket expenses had skyrocketed, that millions more people had lost their insurance, and that it would only get worse.

"I took this up because I want to ease the burdens on all the families and small businesses that can't afford to pay outrageous rates. I want to protect mothers, fathers, children from being targeted by the worst practices of the insurance industry.

"Now, we've gotten pretty far down the road, but I have to admit, we've run into a bit of a buzz saw along the way. The long process of getting things done runs headlong into the special interests, their armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And the longer it's taken, the uglier the process has looked.

"I know folks in Washington are in a little bit of a frenzy this week, trying to figure out what the election in Massachusetts the other day means for health insurance reform, for Republicans and Democrats, and for me. This is what they love to do.

"But this isn't about me. It's about you. I didn't take up this issue to boost my poll numbers or score political points -- believe me, if I were, I would have picked something a lot easier than this. No, I'm trying to solve the problems that folks here in Elyria and across this country face every day. And I am not going to walk away just because it's hard. We're going to keep on working to get this done with Democrats, Republicans -- anyone who is willing to step up. Because I am not going to watch more people get crushed by costs, or denied the care they need by insurance company bureaucrats, or partisan politics, or special interest power in Washington." [emphasis added]

The remarks did not point to a specific course of action the president prefers -- though that may come up during the Q&A -- but it sounds as if Obama remains committed to finishing the job.

I'm torn about whether the White House has dealt with the issue appropriately this week, in part because I haven't gotten a strong sense of exactly how much work has been done behind the scenes.

There may be some value to the president taking a hands-off approach for a few days, letting lawmakers calm down and giving the process some breathing room.

That said, if the House is going to pass the Senate bill -- as it should -- and end the reform debate on a positive note, the White House is going to have to play a major role in making that happen. Letting the "dust settle" is fine, but the clock is ticking. The faster the president and his team step up, the better off we'll be.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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CONNECTING THE SOLUTION AND THE PROBLEM-SOLVERS.... The problem is obvious: we need health care reform. The solution is obvious: the House passes the Senate bill, and then makes improvements through reconciliation. The mechanism is obvious: one roll-call vote in the House.

The one thing that isn't obvious is how to connect those responsible for solving the problem to the solution.

The pundits want the House to pass the Senate bill. Leading reform advocates want the House to pass the Senate bill. Major union leaders want the House to pass the Senate bill. And now dozens of leading health care policy experts also want the House to pass the Senate bill.

Nearly four dozen of the nation's leading health care luminaries--including Jacob Hacker, the man who brought the public option to light--are urging the House of Representatives to pass the Senate health care bill, and quickly pass a separate bill to modify it: an approach favored by some members of Democratic leadership, major unions, and reform advocates.

In a stark message to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and her health care lieutenants -- Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-NY), Henry Waxman (D-CA), and George Miller (D-CA) -- the experts say it's time for the House to act.

"Both houses of Congress have adopted legislation that would provide health coverage to tens of millions of Americans, begin to control health care costs that seriously threaten our economy, and improve the quality of health care for every American," reads a letter, obtained by TPMDC. "These bills are imperfect. Yet they represent a huge step forward in creating a more humane, effective, and sustainable health care system for every American. We have come further than we have ever come before. Only two steps remain. The House must adopt the Senate bill, and the President must sign it."

"Some differences between the bills, such as the scope of the tax on high-cost plans and the allocation of premium subsidies, should be repaired through the reconciliation process," the experts say. "Key elements of this repair enjoy broad support in both houses. Other limitations of the Senate bill can be addressed through other means."

The estimable Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago posted the entire text of the letter, which was apparently just drafted yesterday, along with a full list of signatories.

I wish I knew what it would take. House Dems presumably want to succeed, and realize that the brass ring is hanging in front of them, waiting to be embraced. They're now being encouraged by policy experts, union leaders, leading reform advocates, and pundits, all of whom recommend the same course of action.

The only other contingent outside of government that might help is the electorate itself -- Kevin Drum and Balloon Juice are actively encouraging voters to contact their representatives, urging them to do the right thing and pass the Senate bill. The calls may be the only thing that really works.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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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.

* In an interesting twist in Texas, former President George H.W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush are throwing their support to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in her Republican gubernatorial primary against Gov. Rick Perry. Twelve years ago, the Bushes were prominent Perry backers.

* In Pennsylvania, a Rasmussen poll shows former Rep. Pat Toomey, a far-right Republican, leading both Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak in hypothetical general election match-ups.

* Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) is making taking steps in Arizona to challenge Sen. John McCain in a primary, but the challenger would start as a long-shot -- Rasmussen shows McCain up by 22 points.

* One of the Dems' better gubernatorial pick-up opportunities is in, oddly enough, Georgia. A Rasmussen poll shows former Gov. Roy Barnes (D), seeking his old job back, leading most of the GOP field, and trailing the Republican frontrunner, John Oxendine, by just two, 44% to 42%.

* In California, the latest Field Poll shows state Attorney General Jerry Brown (D) with fairly comfortable leads in this year's gubernatorial campaign. The same poll shows Meg Whitman as the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination.

* In Connecticut's wide-open gubernatorial race, a Quinnipiac poll shows Ned Lamont (D) as the early frontrunner in the Democratic primary and general election.

* Sen. Richard Burr's (R-N.C.) approval rating is just 36%, but the latest survey from Public Policy Polling nevertheless shows him leading his top Democratic challengers by seven to nine points.

* Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (D) and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) appeared on a radio show yesterday at the same time. It didn't go well.

* And CNBC's Larry Kudlow considered a Republican Senate campaign in Connecticut a few months ago, before deciding not to pursue it. With no top-tier Republicans running for the Senate in New York this year, Kudlow's name is, oddly enough, once again in the mix.

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

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HARKIN EYES FILIBUSTER REFORM.... Nearly 15 years ago, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) presented a plan to eliminate the Senate filibuster and allow Congress to pass bills by majority rule. The bill failed miserably, 76 to 19.

Now that obstructionist abuse has reached levels unprecedented in American history -- now, literally every bill of any significance needs 60 votes -- the need for reform is overwhelming. Harkin signaled a month ago that he intends to revisit the issue, and he's poised to follow through.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) intends in the next few weeks to introduce legislation that would take away the minority's power to filibuster legislation.

Harkin has wanted to change the filibuster for years, but his move would come in the wake of Republican Scott Brown's dramatic victory in Massachusetts. Brown's victory cost Democrats their 60th vote in the Senate, and may have dealt a death blow to their hopes to move a massive healthcare overhaul. It could also limit President Barack Obama's ability to move other pieces of his agenda forward. [...]

In a Jan. 4 letter to his colleagues, Harkin noted that filibusters were used just once per Congress in the 1950s, compared to 139 times in the last Congress.

"At issue is a fundamental principle basic to our democracy -- rule of the majority as a legislative body," Harkin wrote. "Elections should have consequences. Yet the Senate's current rules allow for a minority as small as one to make elections meaningless."

Harkin proposes a new procedural model: the first go-around, the minority could demand a 60-vote majority, as is the case now. But if 60 votes aren't there to end debate, a week or so later, 57 votes could bring the bill to the floor for a vote. If 57 votes aren't there, it drops again and again, and after a month or so, a bare majority could approve cloture.

It would take 67 votes to approve Harkin's measure, which makes it extremely unlikely that this will succeed. But the debate is worth having, especially if it lets more of the public understand that governing and tackling difficult issues is almost impossible with mandatory supermajorities.

I would also, by the way, encourage Harkin's office to come up with a helpful frame for the debate. I recommend: restoration of "majority rule." When a bill reaches the Senate floor, they should count up the "yea" votes, count up the "nea" votes, and the bigger total wins.

That sounds fair, doesn't it?

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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DON'T LET A POLL FEED THE PANIC.... The new Gallup poll won't help, but it's not a surprise, either -- a 55% majority would prefer to see lawmakers hit the brakes on health care and "consider alternative bills that can receive more Republican support."

At face value, I think the wording of the poll may skew the results a bit -- Americans say they love "bipartisanship," so if you ask the public whether Dems should seek out GOP support, it's easy to expect a majority. If, however, the same poll asked Americans to choose between Democratic policy ideas and Republican policy ideas, the GOP would lose badly.

But even if we accept the poll as entirely reliable and an accurate reflection of public attitudes, Democrats would still be crazy to retreat because of it. Greg Sargent had a good item on this.

[I]f Dems don't pass reform, they will never have a chance to sell a completed package to the public -- and to try to convince the public that they were right, and Republicans were wrong. People will never have a chance to decide that their fears about reform were unwarranted.

Not passing reform won't stop Republicans from attacking Dems for trying to jam an unpopular bill down the public's throat. And failure would give Republicans more ammo, not less. It would allow the GOP to take credit for blocking reform, to present itself as an effective and relevant opposition, and to paint Dems -- accurately -- as ineffective and unable to lead.

Look, I can appreciate why Dems are feeling anxiety, but if they take a deep breath and think about it, what's the best way to turn the polls around? Do they think public opinion will turn in their favor if they cower in fear and fail to deliver? After they've already voted for health care reform?

What I'm suggesting is that they give success a chance. The polls are far more likely to recover if lawmakers do what they said they would do, pass the most important domestic policy legislation in generations, reap the rewards of a historic victory, and then get out there and sell their handiwork -- making clear to the country that the scare tactics were wrong. Once the bill is signed, the media won't just have a major signing ceremony to cover, but there will be plenty of reports about what the new law does and does not do, which would further help debunk the myths.

How is this not obvious? In what universe do the polls improve after politicians fail to deliver on their promises?

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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GOOD ADVICE, CONT'D.... I have no idea whose advice would be most likely to influence congressional Dems on health care reform, but Paul Krugman was recently named the most influential commentator in the nation, so here's hoping his message gets through: "Stop whining, and do what needs to be done."

A message to House Democrats: This is your moment of truth. You can do the right thing and pass the Senate health care bill. Or you can look for an easy way out, make excuses and fail the test of history.

Tuesday's Republican victory in the Massachusetts special election means that Democrats can't send a modified health care bill back to the Senate. That's a shame because the bill that would have emerged from House-Senate negotiations would have been better than the bill the Senate has already passed. But the Senate bill is much, much better than nothing. And all that has to happen to make it law is for the House to pass the same bill, and send it to President Obama's desk.

Right now, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, says that she doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate bill. But there is no good alternative. [...]

[S]ome Democrats want to just give up on the whole thing. That would be an act of utter political folly. It wouldn't protect Democrats from charges that they voted for "socialist" health care -- remember, both houses of Congress have already passed reform. All it would do is solidify the public perception of Democrats as hapless and ineffectual.

Americans have been waiting for this for a century. The top domestic policy priority of the Democratic Party for generations is right there in front of them, just waiting for a single roll-call vote.

House passage of the Senate bill would help millions suffering under the dysfunctional status quo. It would prove that Democrats can deliver on their agenda. It would take advantage of a once-in-a-generation opportunity and be a historic achievement. It would steer clear of electoral suicide that would cost Democrats their majority and leave the country much worse off.

The solution is so goddamn obvious it's literally unbelievable that Dems aren't rushing to embrace it.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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'THEY STARTED IT'.... "Fox & Friends" is often a source of unintentional comedy, but one of Steve Doocy's gems from yesterday was one of my favorites in a long while.

At issue is the use of U.S. military rifle scopes featuring inscriptions with New Testament citations. The scopes are obviously problematic, not only on church-state grounds, but for undermining the American position that our conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not about religion. Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation told ABC, "It allows the Mujahedeen, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the insurrectionists and jihadists to claim they're being shot by Jesus rifles."

The Biblical scopes, in other words, undermine our national security interests. Steve Doocy, however, relying on elementary-school logic, has a powerful rejoinder.

"My wife made a good observation yesterday when we were talking about this story, and that is, 'Hey, wait a minute, the Taliban and the extremists -- what is it they say just before they blow themselves up which kills somebody, they say, 'Allahu Akbar.'' So if anybody's making this a religious thing, they started it," Doocy said.

I'd like to think the flawed judgment here is obvious, but just in case, let's spell it out -- we're supposed to be better than the terrorists. It doesn't matter who "started it"; it matters that we hold ourselves to a higher standard than the Taliban.

Doocy's argument, while foolish, is not especially unique. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal and throughout the "debate" on the merit of torture, it was fairly common to hear Republican activists on Fox News and elsewhere argue that terrorists torture those they capture, so there's no reason we should remove the torture option from the table.

Putting Americans on the same moral plane as terrorists just doesn't seem to bother the right as much as it should.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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IF SNOWE'S THE MOST REASONABLE ONE THEY'VE GOT.... For much of the fall, Democratic leaders treated Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) like one of the most important people on earth. She received more face-time with the president than most of his staff and cabinet. The hope was that Snowe, who seemed sincere about her willingness to support health care reform, could be persuaded.

In the end, she balked. Despite supporting a very similar bill in committee, Snowe not only opposed reform, but opposed letting the Senate even vote on the bill. Asked why, Snowe struggled to explain herself, saying only that the laborious, painstaking, nine-month process had moved "too fast."

Now that the initiative is near death, Snowe is preparing to dance on the grave.

For months, Democrats, including President Obama, courted Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, hoping to win her vote for major health care legislation. And now that the legislation is stalled, following the Republican victory in the Massachusetts special election on Tuesday, Ms. Snowe said she tried to warn Democrats, including Mr. Obama, that they were pushing too hard too fast. [...]

Ms. Snowe said that it was up to Mr. Obama and legislative leaders to decide how to proceed, but that she did not see any way to move forward on the health care bill without starting over and putting together a smaller package that could win bipartisan backing.

"We just really have to peel back the layers of the onion here, so to speak, and go back to the drawing board and try to see what essentially could be a basis for consensus," Ms. Snowe said.

You've got to be kidding me. "Back to the drawing board"? She already voted for a version of the Democratic health care bill. For months, Dems shaped the bill with her demands in mind. Snowe is effectively saying that she wants to scrap the bill that she's already supported.

I suppose an apology is in order. Last year, there were times that I believed Snowe was serious about the reform process, and genuinely wanted to solve the problem. I was mistaken.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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WHAT A SCALED-BACK BILL MIGHT LOOK LIKE.... The entire health care reform debate could end with a successful resolution if the House were to pass the Senate bill. But the House doesn't want to, at least not yet.

But all of the relevant players still want to avoid complete failure, so competing options continue to be mulled over. The easiest, most direct, and most effective approach -- the House passes the Senate bill, then approves improvements through reconciliation -- is still struggling, for reasons that defy comprehension. Some House Dems want to break reform into parts and pace it piecemeal, which still doesn't make sense.

And then there's the possibility of a smaller, "scaled-back" reform plan that would bring health coverage to maybe 12 million to 15 million people, instead of the 30 million in the bills already approved by the House and Senate. What would the pared-back approach look like? The NYT report offered the most details:

Lawmakers, Congressional aides and health policy experts said the package might plausibly include these elements:

* Insurers could not deny coverage to children under the age of 19 on account of pre-existing medical conditions.

* Insurers would have to offer policyholders an opportunity to continue coverage for children through age 25 or 26.

* The federal government would offer financial incentives to states to expand Medicaid to cover childless adults and parents.

* The federal government would offer grants to states to establish regulated markets known as insurance exchanges, where consumers and small businesses could buy coverage.

* The federal government would offer tax credits to small businesses to help them defray the cost of providing health benefits to workers.

* If a health plan provided care through a network of doctors and hospitals, it could not charge patients more for going outside the network in an emergency. Co-payments for emergency care would have to be the same, regardless of whether a hospital was in the insurer's network of preferred providers.

There are at least three obvious reasons why this is a bad idea. First, the scaled-back plan is considerably worse than the Senate bill, and would help far fewer Americans. This may seem like a radical concept, but if House Dems have a choice between two approaches, and one is superior to the other, they should probably support the better one.

Second, working on the scaled-back plan -- in effect, writing a whole new, weaker bill -- would take quite a bit of time. Indeed, it could add months to the process. Nothing is to be gained from dragging this out even further.

And third, if the House passed a weaker bill, it would then go to the Senate, where no one wants to even think about health care reform anymore, and where it would almost certainly be blocked by Republican obstructionism anyway.

As for the bigger picture, health care reform isn't quite dead. It's hanging by a thread -- a weak, tattered, struggling thread -- but there's still a chance. Jonathan Cohn noted that "the key players -- congressional leadership, labor leaders, and so on -- keep leaving open the option of the Senate bill plus amendments via reconciliation, which remains the most viable path forward. Interest groups are starting to rally, too. The American Cancer Society Action Network, for example, just put out a statement urging Congress to move forward."

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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January 21, 2010

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

* Haiti: "Aid flowed into the ravaged Haitian capital on Thursday, and relief workers began shifting their focus to longer-term challenges, primary among them providing shelter for as many as a million people displaced by last week's earthquake."

* Mass relocation for Haiti's homeless: "Haitian officials launched Thursday a huge operation to move hundreds of thousands of homeless outside the ruined capital, as medics worked feverishly to treat the countless injured. In a bid to house an estimated 500,000 left destitute by the January 12 quake, the Haitian government said it was seeking to relocate them out of squalid, stinking tent cities into accommodation outside Port-au-Prince."

* Looks like Wall Street doesn't care for calls for additional accountability on Wall Street.

* Good advice: "The reform campaign Health Care for America Now has taken stock of the week's events, and have a simple message for Democrats: As leadership, and leading members and labor groups are suggesting, pass the Senate health care bill, tie it to a separate bill enacting key fixes. But more importantly: Get it done. Now."

* Good stuff from Clinton on Internet freedoms: "Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Thursday for unfettered access to the Internet around the globe after several incidents of online censorship and cyber attacks have presented new questions for the role of technology in diplomacy."

* Not good: "More Americans than anticipated filed claims for unemployment benefits last week, reflecting a backlog of applications from the year-end holidays."

* Republicans are "overjoyed" at the "unprecedented influence corporations will now have in federal campaigns" in the wake of the Citizens United ruling from the Supreme Court.

* Air America Radio is no more.

* The Anti-Defamation League isn't pleased with Rush Limbaugh's casual anti-Semitism.

* Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) isn't exactly in a rush to help those suffering from a broken health care system.

* Today's college freshmen seem awfully nervous about the future.

* A newspaper in Philly ran a photo of Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R) today, with a caption that read, "How will Dems recover after losing majority?"

* Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who was just inaugurated last week, will deliver the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address on Wednesday.

* Be on the lookout for a new right-wing talking point: Obama "invaded" Haiti without congressional approval.

* And it was a bit of a surprise to see Cindy McCain, Sen. John McCain's wife, endorse gay marriage and publicly protest California's Prop 8.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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THE ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE IN WHICH CONGRESS FUNCTIONS.... Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) hopes this week's special election in Massachusetts serves "as a wake-up call to the wing of the Democratic Party that wants the federal government to overreach and overspend."

Matt Yglesias's response reminded me of a point I've been meaning to make.

You can easily imagine an alternate universe in which the Senate Democratic Caucus took an oath of party loyalty, that all 60 Democrats would vote for cloture on all leadership-supported bills, allowing measures to pass with just 51 votes. Had that happened, we would have gotten a bigger, more liberal-friendly stimulus. And the Senate would have finished up with a more liberal version of health reform some time ago. And the Senate probably would have passed some other liberal stuff in the meantime. Had that happened, and had the voters been displeased with it, then it might make perfect sense for Landrieu to complain about some non-Landrieu "wing" of the Democratic Party.

But in the world that exists, the only "wing" that matters is the Mary Landrieu wing.

I suspect just about every politically-engaged Democrat in the country has spent a fair amount of time this week lamenting the fact that the party -- perhaps more so than at any point in recent memory -- seems feckless, ineffective, and weak. "If huge Democratic majorities and a Democratic president can't deliver on their own agenda, what possible good are they?"

The answer seems like a cop-out, so go ahead and blast me for writing it, but it's worth emphasizing the alternate universe Matt described. If a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate could approve legislation -- if, in other words, Congress could function the way it used to and the way it was designed to -- Democrats would have finished an ambitious heath care reform bill months ago. The stimulus would have been bigger and more effective. The prospects for a climate bill and reform of Wall Street would be excellent. The progressive productivity of this Congress would rival that of the New Deal and Great Society eras.

But that's not the legislative dynamic we're dealing with. Instead we have unprecedented obstructionism from a right-wing minority, which tries to block voting on literally every bill of any significance -- a situation that has never existed before in American history -- and a small handful of Senate Democrats -- including Mary Landrieu and her "wing" -- willing to help them.

The principal hurdle, in other words, standing in the way of the party delivering on its agenda is a dysfunctional system that empowers a small congressional minority to kill the majority's agenda -- and creates an electoral incentive for the minority to do just that.

This has exactly zero resonance with the public, which cares about results, not procedural hurdles. But it's painful to realize what would be possible -- how much change policymakers could deliver -- if Congress simply returned to majority rule, the way the institution was intended to operate.

Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, and Evan Bayh could do as they please -- they could even vote with Republicans on everything that matters -- and no one would suffer because of it. Instead, thanks to indefensible and undemocratic Republican tactics, literally nothing passes without the approval of these center-right Dems.

Dems have every reason to be angry and frustrated, but Dems should also remember who is most deserving of their ire.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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CREATING A 'FREE-FOR-ALL' POLITICAL SYSTEM.... Rick Hasen has a very good piece in Slate today on today's Supreme Court ruling, and the significance of the 5-4 decision.

It is time for everyone to drop all the talk about the Roberts court's "judicial minimalism," with Chief Justice Roberts as an "umpire" who just calls balls and strikes. Make no mistake, this is an activist court that is well on its way to recrafting constitutional law in its image. The best example of that is this morning's transformative opinion in Citizens United v. FEC. Today the court struck down decades-old limits on corporate and union spending in elections (including judicial elections) and opened up our political system to a money free-for-all. [...]

What is so striking today is how avoidable this political tsunami was. The court has long adhered to a doctrine of "constitutional avoidance," by which it avoids deciding tough constitutional questions when there is a plausible way to make a narrower ruling based on a plain old statute.... What we have in Citizens United is anti-avoidance. Kennedy's majority had to go out and grab this one.

Of particular interest, Hasen notes that Kennedy's ruling "wrongly assumes that corporations or unions can throw money at public officials without corrupting them. Could a candidate for judicial office, for example, be swayed to rule in favor of a contributor who donated $3 million to an independent campaign to get the candidate elected to the state supreme court?"

Dahlia Lithwick added, "Even former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once warned that treating corporate spending as the First Amendment equivalent of individual free speech is 'to confuse metaphor with reality.' Today that metaphor won a very real victory at the Supreme Court. And as a consequence some very real corporations are feeling very, very good."

Obviously, the other branches of government cannot overturn Supreme Court rulings, but it's worth noting that Democratic leaders on the Hill intend to "push legislation to limit the impact of Thursday's Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on corporate spending in politics." Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in particular, plans to "hold hearings to explore ways to limit corporate spending on elections."

For his part, President Obama also issued a statement, lamenting the fact that the Supreme Court has "given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington -- while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates." The statement added the administration would work with Congress to "develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less."

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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GOOD ADVICE.... I hope lawmakers are listening.

A top Democratic pollster said today if Congress fails to pass health care it will be a "disaster" this fall.

Celinda Lake, who most recently served as the pollster for Attorney General Martha Coakley's losing campaign in Massachusetts, said there is deep frustration with Washington but moving away from health care would be the worst decision.

"We can't talk about it for a year and deliver nothing, that would be a disaster," Lake said. "We should pass it and then we have to go sell it. We have to tell people what is in it."

In all candor, the only reason -- literally, the only one -- that I hold out any hope at all that health care reform can still pass is that members of Congress are self-interested creatures. After the initial, post-Massachusetts shock settles, I hold out a sliver of hope that lawmakers will come to realize, "Hmm, if health care reform dies, my career, my party, and the country are all screwed."

There are a lot of straightforward questions Dems should be asking themselves right now, but the one I'd really love to hear the answer to is, "Why in the world would a Democratic voter show up in November if huge Democratic majorities managed to pass a health care reform in both chambers, but then let it die?"

This would be a debacle from which the party would not recover quickly.

Maybe Dems are weighing a variety of options right now -- including the foolish notion of passing reform piecemeal -- because they just wanted to get a sense of their choices. If so, it shouldn't take too long to realize there really is no choice: either the House passes the Senate bill and works on improvements through reconciliation, or this becomes the generation's biggest debacle and Democrats lose everything.

And for lawmakers who are still concerned more with the public than electoral politics, try to remember why this debate began in the first place: "Letting this process die ... would be staggeringly cruel to the people that this bill is meant to help, and who need this bill's help. Covering 30 million and protecting countless millions more is not just a talking point. It's the reason for this whole enterprise. To abandon those people because Brown won in Massachusetts is simply indecent, and would prove the Democratic Party worse than ineffective. It would prove the party unconcerned."

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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OBAMA PUSHES NEW LIMITS ON BANKS.... Now, there's a good soundbite from the president: "[I]f these folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have."

The comment came during a White House event this morning, in which President Obama proposed some new restrictions on some of the nation's largest banks, including "The Volcker Rule," named after former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, which says that "banks will no longer be allowed to own, invest or sponsor hedge funds, private equity funds, or proprietary trading operations for their own profit unrelated to serving their customers."

Obama added, "I'm also proposing that we prevent the further consolidation of our financial system. There has long been a deposit cap in place to guard against too much risk being concentrated in a single bank. The same principle should apply to wider forms of funding employed by large financial institutions in today's economy. The American people will not be served by a financial system that comprises just a few massive firms. That's not good for consumers; it's not good for the economy. And through this policy, that is an outcome we will avoid.... Never again will the American taxpayer be held hostage by a bank that is 'too big to fail.'"

But it was the rhetoric towards the end that signals a shift in emphasis from the White House: "So if these folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have. And my resolve is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see soaring profits and obscene bonuses at some of the very firms claiming that they can't lend more to small business, they can't keep credit card rates low, they can't pay a fee to refund taxpayers for the bailout without passing on the cost to shareholders or customers -- that's the claims they're making. It's exactly this kind of irresponsibility that makes clear reform is necessary.

"We've come through a terrible crisis. The American people have paid a very high price. We simply cannot return to business as usual."

It's seemed as if Volcker was on the outside looking in for much of the last year. I think that's changing.

Steve Benen 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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PELOSI SAYS SHE LACKS THE VOTES.... I like to think that the House Democratic caucus is made up of some reasonably intelligent, self-interested, logical people. It's why I'm simply astounded their judgment could be this bad.

The House lacks the votes to pass the Senate's healthcare bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday.

Pelosi threw cold water on the idea that the House could muster enough support to pass the Senate's health bill, which includes a number of provisions liberals in the House find distasteful.

"I don't see the votes for it at this time," Pelosi told reporters during her weekly press conference. "The members have been very clear."

Pelosi added that the caucus realizes that "we have to get a bill passed," but didn't say when, how, or what a bill might look like. She only knows that the Senate bill, which is just sitting there, ready to be approved, lacks the votes.

This really is crazy. The finish line is right there. Here's Jonathan Cohn again from yesterday:

For all of the panic in Democratic ranks right now, the reality of the situation is stunningly simple. In the span of twenty-four hours, the House of Representatives -- the House in which Democrats command a huge majority, in which liberals actually have some sway, and in which leadership actually has power -- could put health care reform on the president's desk for signing.

One lousy vote. One lousy, stinking roll call vote. That's the only hurdle in the way of health care reform.

Are Democrats really willing to give up now?

Now, I realize that Pelosi said she doesn't have the votes "at this time." Maybe they'll come together later? Maybe House members are waiting for some assurances about reconciliation? Maybe the House has some kind of bizarre expectation that the Senate will make its bill better? I don't know; Pelosi didn't say.

I do know that the House has already passed one reform bill. It just needs one more vote -- the debate would be done; the bill would be law; the landmark breakthrough would be complete; Dems would have demonstrated their ability to deliver; and policymakers could finally move on to other issues.

Allowing this to fail now is insane.

Pass. The. Damn. Bill.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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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.

* In New York, the latest Rasmussen poll shows Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) leads former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) in a Democratic primary, 48% to 23%. If Ford runs as an independent, Gillibrand leads the race with 39%, followed by an unnamed Republican with 34%, and Ford with 10%.

* In Missouri, generally considered one of the Dems' best Senate pick-up opportunities, a new Rasmussen poll shows Rep. Roy Blunt (R) leading Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D), 49% to 43%.

* In Pennsylvania, Rasmussen shows Sen. Arlen Specter doing surprisingly well in his Democratic primary against Rep. Joe Sestak, leading 53% to 32%.

* Just a week after ending his gubernatorial campaign in California, former Rep. Tom Campbell (R) now leads the Republican field in this year's Senate race.

* Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway (D) officially kicked off his Senate campaign yesterday. It's an open-seat contest, with Sen. Jim Bunning (R) retiring.

* Emboldened by the results in Massachusetts, Tea Party activists are targeting Rep. Mark Kirk (R), hoping to defeat his Senate campaign in Illinois.

* And in Nevada, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki (R) had decided not to run against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), but is now reconsidering his decision.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told his colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee today how much he loves the idea of racial and ethnic profiling.

"I'm, for one -- I know it's not politically correct to say it -- I believe in racial and ethnic profiling. I think if you're looking at people getting on an airplane and you have X amount of resources to get into it, you get at the targets, and not my wife. And I just think it's something that should be looked into. The statement that's made, it's probably 90 percent true with some exceptions like the Murrah federal office building in my state, Oklahoma. Those people, they were not Muslims, they were not Middle Easterners.

"But when you hear that not all Middle Easterners or Muslims between the age of 20 and 35 are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims or Middle Easterners between the age of 20 and 35, that's by and large true. And I think that sometime we're going to have to -- at least, I'm going to have to have a better answer than I give the people back home, when people board planes or get into environments such as the environment we're dealing with with this report."

Oddly enough, just two weeks ago, former Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff offered a pretty compelling explanation of why the right-wing push on this is misguided. Chertoff, not exactly an ACLU member, said "relying on preconceptions or stereotypes is actually kind of misleading and arguably dangerous," in part because terrorist networks deliberately recruit those "who don't fit the stereotype."

I realize that for many conservatives, reactionary racism seems easier than thinking. Some young, Middle-Eastern men tried to commit acts of terror, so let's consider all Middle-Eastern men to be suspected terrorists. You know, just in case.

Putting aside the fact that such an approach doesn't actually keep us safer, and putting aside the fact that such an approach is fundamentally at odds with our principles and who we are as a people, I wonder if Inhofe is capable of thinking about U.S. policy in the global sense.

There are 300 million Americans, with hundreds of millions of allies, while al Qaeda membership is in the thousands. Who benefits if the U.S. government decides to start treating Muslims and Middle-Eastern young people like second-class citizens? What does it signal to the world about the American character when we deliberately target groups of people on the basis of narrow-minded, right-wing intolerance?

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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CITIZENS UNITED V. FEC.... And the hits just keep on coming.

The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations may spend freely to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress, easing decades-old limits on their participation in federal campaigns.

The court on Thursday overturned a 20-year-old ruling that said corporations can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to pay for campaign ads. The decision almost certainly will also allow labor unions to participate more freely in campaigns and threatens similar limits imposed by 24 states.

The justices also struck down part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.

The full 183-page ruling is online (pdf). It was, of course, a 5-4 ruling. Aren't they all?

This is not exactly my area of expertise, but at issue is whether corporations and unions can run independent expenditure campaigns for and against candidates. Now, it appears, they can, suggesting that entire system of financing political campaigns in the United States just received a rather dramatic -- and more than a little radical -- jolt.

Before the ruling, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said the decision had the potential to take the country "not just back to a pre-McCain-Feingold era, but back to the era of the robber barons in the 19th century."

At first blush, that's seems to be what the high court has done, clearing the way for unrestricted corporate spending in campaigns. (Remember, if it's corporations pitted against labor unions, it's not much of a contest -- an ExxonMobil-based independent expenditure campaign in support of a far-right candidate will easily trump anything SEIU or the AFL-CIO might even hope to try.)

For more background on the case, I found this article helpful. I'll have more on this later.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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FEINSTEIN POINTS IN THE WRONG DIRECTION.... Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California has long been one of the most cautious members of the caucus. Don't move too fast, don't try too hard, don't aim too high.

It's not surprising, then, that in the wake of Massachusetts's special election, Feinstein is helping lead the antsy brigade in the wrong direction.

"I think we do go slower on health care. People do not understand it. It is so big it is beyond their comprehension. And if you don't understand it when somebody tells you it does this or it does that and it's not true, you tend to believe it, even though it isn't true. It's hard to debunk all of the myths that are out there."

"I think we do go slower on health care." Right. As if the real problem with the process is how quick and efficient it's been. What Americans really want is for policymakers to go even slower?

Feinstein's right when she says there are a lot of "myths that are out there." Much of the public opposition to the plan is based on the misguided belief that it's a "government takeover" of the system that may lead to killing grandma. And sure, it is tough to debunk every lie when the insurance industry and right-wing groups are engaged in the most aggressive, sophisticated scare-tactic campaign anyone has seen in a long while. It's precisely why Americans have been debating this issue for a century without resolution -- whenever anyone tries to fix it, powerful interests rise up to undermine the public's interests.

But Feinstein's mistaken about the next step. Going "slower" doesn't help. Giving in doesn't help.

Telling people the truth helps. Passing the much-needed legislation and proving the critics wrong helps. Social programs that seem scary when under attack end up being quite popular -- Social Security and Medicare, for example -- after they're implemented.

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

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MASSACHUSETTS PUTS CLIMATE BILL IN PERIL.... The House passed a climate bill months ago, but in the Senate, it's been an uphill climb. Efforts have been ongoing, however, and there was hope that the bill would come to the floor in the spring.

Those hopes were largely dashed by Massachusetts voters this week, who not only may have killed health care reform, but also imperiled a bill to address climate change. Bradford Plumer reports:

Brown's victory means Democrats are down yet another vote for any bill that curtails carbon-dioxide emissions. (Back when he was a state legislator, Brown voted for cap-and-trade, but he's long since reversed himself, and who knows if he'll actually tack leftward yet again to keep his seat.) Granted, a Senate climate bill was always going to require a handful of Republican votes, so the fact that Democrats no longer have a supermajority isn't, on its own, a fatal blow. But there's also the fact that a lot of swing senators like Evan Bayh are crawling into the fetal position right now and don't seem inclined to take up any major legislation.

So we'll see.

In the meantime, some conservative Dems -- the ones who aren't in a fetal position -- are poised to make efforts to combat global warming even more difficult. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has been fighting to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate carbon emissions through the Clean Air Act. Yesterday, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) announced she is not only endorsing Murkowski's approach, but will help craft the language on what some have dubbed the "Dirty Air Act."

Advocates of addressing the climate crisis need every congressional ally and vote they can get. Regrettably, a narrow of majority of Massachusetts voters have made it significantly more likely that Congress won't address the problem at all. Proponents focused on solutions have vowed to "persist," but Massachusetts has made a difficult situation considerably worse.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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REFORM DOESN'T WORK PIECEMEAL.... One of the less reasonable health care options raised yesterday by panicky Democratic lawmakers was the notion of breaking the package into pieces. The "incremental" strategy would make it easier to approve some of the more popular elements of the larger legislation.

This is a very bad idea.

For one thing, it would drag out the reform debate for several more months, which isn't exactly what the public is clamoring for. The goal should be to wrap up the process, not make it longer. For another, Republicans won't be any more cooperative when rejecting reform's component parts than they were when rejecting the sum total.

But most importantly, health care reform doesn't actually work that way. The parts are interdependent. Usually, it's conservatives confused about this; House Dems should know better. If, for example, you force insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions, but you do so with no mandate, insurance companies would pay more without the benefit of a wider risk pool, including healthy people who pay in premiums but do not need treatment. One without the other would make care more expensive for everyone.

President Obama explained this fairly well yesterday to George Stephanopoulos.

"I don't know how we avoid taking on these big problems. Let me just give you a very simple example, just so you get a sense of why these things are so important.

"If you ask the American people about health care, one of the things that drives them crazy is insurance companies denying people coverage because of preexisting conditions. Well, it turns out that if you don't ... make sure that everybody has health insurance, then you ... can't stop insurance companies from discriminating against people because of preexisting conditions. Well, if you're going to give everybody health insurance, you've got to make sure it's affordable. So it turns out that a lot of these things are interconnected.

"Now, I could have said, 'Well, we'll just do what's safe. We'll just take on those things that are completely noncontroversial.' The problem is the things that are noncontroversial end up being the things that don't solve the problem."

Exactly. As Jon Chait explained, "Cantor does say he wants to ban discrimination against people with preexisting conditions, but for reasons I've explained over and over again, you can't do that without an individual mandate, and you can't do that without subsidies for those who can't afford the mandate. So the preexisting condition stuff is just a way of posturing for a popular goal without admitting you oppose the necessary steps to accomplish it."

This can't be done piecemeal -- taking out one major provision causes the other provisions to fail.

Chait also noted that House Dems are tired and frustrated, but added, "If they fail to pull themselves together, future generations will look back at them, note that Congress had passed comprehensive reform in both chambers, had the backing of an eager Democratic president, and could finish the deal by getting 218 of their 256 Democratic members to sign on, and somehow refused. I still find the idea that they'll allow this to happen unfathomable. If they do succumb, it will be because some deep and recurrent character flaw rose to the surface at the worst time, once again."

Kevin Drum added, "It's beyond belief that we could get this close to a century-old goal of liberalism -- we are, literally, just a hair's breadth from the finish line -- and then allow the most significant social legislation of the past 40 years to slip from our grasp just because we're tired and pissed. All we need is one roll call vote in the House. That's how close we are to passing this genuinely historic bill. One vote. Then the next day we can start in on the next 20 years work of improving and finishing what we've begun. We can't allow this to fail now. We can't let the Fox/Drudge/Rush axis win. So call your congressman. Go organize a rally. Write a letter to the editor. Lobby your union president. Do something. Do it now."

Pass the damn bill.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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ON LIFE SUPPORT -- BUT BREATHING.... On Tuesday night, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the more influential progressives on the Hill, issued a surprisingly dour press statement, sounding defeatist and resigned to failure on health care reform. Frank's comments were Exhibit A that a narrow majority of Massachusetts's voters may have in fact killed the year-long effort to deal with the nation's dysfunctional health care system.

Yesterday, Frank told Brian Beutler that he was "upset" when he wrote the statement and now realizes he "overstated the pessimism." Most notably, Frank also signaled a willingness to support the Senate bill, with assurances that changes would be made through reconciliation.

"I'm easy. I'm strongly inclined to vote for the thing, even though I don't like the health care tax thing," Frank told me. "But you know, I was ready to vote for the bill when I had people on the left yelling at me not to vote for it. So you know I'll vote for any of it... to try and move the process along."

Frank was quick to qualify his remarks, though, noting that a vote from him would require promises from leadership and the White House that at least one controversial element of the legislation would be fixed in subsequent legislation. "I take it back...I would want assurances that we were going to amend the health care tax piece," Frank said.

This continues to be the most obvious resolution, though it's not even close to clear whether there are 218 votes in the House to get this done. Blue Dogs, the most conservative Dems, are, not surprisingly, opposed. So, too, are the most liberal Dems.

That said, if Frank is signaling his support for the pass-then-reconciliation strategy, some of the House Democratic leadership believe the idea has merit, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad is open to the idea, and unions are on board with the underlying approach, then it's at least a possibility.

As for the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the NYT reported, "Inside the White House, top aides to the president said Mr. Obama had made no decision on how to proceed, and insisted that his preference was still to win passage of a far-reaching health care measure, like the House and Senate bills, which would extend coverage to more than 30 million people by 2019."

Republicans, meanwhile, continue to express absolutely no interest in playing a constructive, problem-solving role. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ostensibly one of the "moderates" in the GOP caucus, urged the White House yesterday to completely scrap the year's worth of work and "start from scratch."

That's obviously not an option.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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January 20, 2010

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

* Haiti suffers once again: "A 6.1 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti Wednesday morning, shaking buildings and sending panicked people running into the streets only eight days after the country's capital was devastated by a previous quake."

* Relief efforts nevertheless continued apace: "A strong aftershock rattled nerves but didn't stop a struggling relief effort that saw some positive signs Wednesday -- among them the arrival of a U.S. hospital ship, the restoration of running water at Haiti's largest hospital and news that 2,000 more U.S. Marines were being sent to the quake zone."

* President Obama reinforced "his support for an independent agency to protect consumers against lending abuses that contributed to the financial crisis" yesterday, telling Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) that a Consumer Financial Protection Agency is "nonnegotiable."

* Speaker Pelosi vows: "We will move forward."

* The House Dems' caucus meeting was pushed to tomorrow.

* Another tragic shooting in Virginia: "Police with dogs and heat-sensing equipment hunted for a man they say shot eight people to death Tuesday and then nearly took down a police helicopter that was trying to flush him out of the woods near this central Virginia town."

* Was the Massachusetts race a referendum on the Obama agenda? Not according to a key GOP pollster, it wasn't.

* Is Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) really open to using reconciliation on health care? That seems hard to believe.

* President Obama's approval rating in the new AP poll: 56%.

* The paper's last experiment on this didn't go well: "The New York Times announced Wednesday that it intended to charge frequent readers for access to its Web site, a step being debated across the industry that nearly every major newspaper has so far feared to take."

* Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) claims to be "frustrated" with Washington. Wasn't it his sweetheart deal for his home state, after holding health care reform hostage, that offended so many people?

* I'd assumed no one would seriously defend Pat Robertson's comments last week on Haiti. I stand corrected.

* The true cost of college.

* Roy Edroso's headline -- "Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate" -- is probably the most important 12 words written today.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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A YEAR LATER.... Jan. 20, 2009, one year ago today, was a pretty exciting day for a lot of Americans, and the promise of a brighter future brought hope to much of the country.

I've spent a fair amount of time trying to imagine what my reaction would have been if someone had told me one year ago today....

* Voters in Massachusetts, who still support President Obama, would elect a dim-witted conservative Republican to the Senate seat once held by John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy.

* Republicans and much of the political establishment would decide that a 59-seat Senate majority -- the largest in a generation -- is not only too small to be effective, but would have to do more to cater to the demands of the 41-seat minority.

* A core group of prominent liberal bloggers would be almost desperate to kill the Democrats' health care reform plan.

* The economic recovery package that prevented a depression, generated growth, created jobs, and brought some stability to the economy would be deemed a failure.

* Dick Cheney would be considered such a credible national figure, news outlets would run his missives without scrutiny, and major media outlets would hang on his daughter's every word.

* Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum would signal their serious interest in the next presidential campaign, without inviting widespread laughter.

* A landmark health care reform bill would pass both the House and Senate, only to find its fate in great peril.

* The Democrats' health bill would have no public option and no Medicare expansion. It would also feature considerable cuts to spending and the budget deficit, but would nevertheless be deemed "too liberal" by large swaths of the country, a majority of whom have no idea what is and isn't in the proposal.

It's certainly possible I picked the wrong field to study.

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WHEN VOTERS HAND YOU LEMONS.... For all the talk about the Democratic caucus's 60-vote supermajority, it's easy to forget that this "magical" number didn't exist a year ago.

When President Obama was inaugurated one year ago today, there were 58 Senate Dems and 257 House Dems. The moment Scott Brown is sworn in, there will be 59 Senate Dems and 256 House Dems (Wexler's Democratic seat in Florida is vacant). Democrats, in other words, are slightly better off now than a year ago.

By the summer, Congress, with "only" 58 Senate Dems, had passed a recovery package that rescued the economy from a depression, the most progressive budget bill in a generation, a national service bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, new regulations of the credit card industry, and new regulations of the tobacco industry.

Governing, in other words, is still possible.

New DSCC talking points note, "It is mathematically impossible for Democrats to pass legislation on our own." As a technical matter, sure, I suppose that's true. If literally every Republican refuses to consider literally every bill, then the legislative process will produce nothing this year. And while the talking point conveys a certain weakness -- Greg Sargent asks, "Can you imagine Republicans in the majority ever saying such a thing?" -- there's certainly a possibility that the GOP will simply not let the Senate function in 2010.

But if the congressional makeup gave Dems a chance a year ago, it gives Dems a chance now. They can use Scott Brown's win as an excuse to walk away from the party's commitments, but that would clearly be a tragic mistake. As Ezra Klein put it:

So they lost their 60th seat in the Senate. Bummer. But ... Democrats are left with the second-largest Senate majority either party has enjoyed in 30 years. They have a 40-vote margin in the House. The filibuster is a problem, to be sure, but the Senate has already passed the health-care bill and the House could simply ratify that legislation and send it off to the president. [...]

For Democrats to sacrifice their most important legislative priority on the altar of Martha Coakley's underperformance in Massachusetts is so absurd even the [Monty] Python crew wouldn't believe it.

When there were 58 Senate Dems and 257 House Dems, everyone agreed that health care reform was at least possible, and likely enough to pass that it was worth pursuing.

Now the Dems' congressional majority is a little bigger. It just takes a little courage to resist the urge to run away.

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'JOBS, JOBS, JOBS'.... If Democratic policymakers want to focus their energies on creating jobs, I'm delighted.

"It's another wake-up call," said Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, who is one of about 40 House Democrats facing tough re-election battles this year. "We've got to be about jobs, jobs, jobs."

There's a lot of this going around.

So what's next for the Senate? Leaders and rank and file members say: Jobs, jobs, jobs.

"The country is speaking to us, and we will show we hear them in the agenda we pursue over the next year," reads a statement from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to TPMDC. "Our focus must be on jobs, the economy and delivering for the middle class."

It's been going around for a while, too. There was this item from November:

Rep. Bob Etheridge (D), a centrist contemplating a run for Senate in North Carolina, helped Democratic leaders in the summer by voting for climate change legislation on the House floor.

He now wants Democratic leaders to narrow their focus on jobs and the economy. "Three things ought to be the top priority: jobs, jobs and jobs," he said.

Sounds good, right? Unemployment is, to a very real extent, at the heart of public discontent. It also undermines the economy, weakens businesses, strains families, hurts communities, etc.

But while "prioritizing" and "focusing on" job creation is obviously a worthwhile goal, the problem policymakers tend to downplay is that these job-creating efforts aren't free.

With Dems afraid of their own shadow right now, they're overly cautious about taking any prudent steps. They could invest in infrastructure and struggling states, but then a little voice in their head says, "You know, the public is against more government spending right now." They could pass a jobs bill through deficit financing, but the same whispered voice says, "No, the public has decided it doesn't like deficits anymore." They could raise taxes to pay for more money on public investment bills that would create jobs, but the voice starts screaming, "Tax increases are out of the question."

So, sure, "jobs, jobs, jobs" is a nice sentiment. When policymakers figure out how to pursue this admirable goal with an effective plan that doesn't increase spending, raise taxes, or increase the deficit, I'll be very impressed.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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HOW THE PARTIES HANDLE SETBACKS.... Political parties are going to experience highs and lows, victories and setbacks. And while the ebbs and flows of shifting electoral fortunes are hard to avoid, how a party responds to adversity says something about their commitments and fortitude.

With that in mind, consider a few examples from recent history.

* In 1998, voters were unimpressed, to put it mildly, with the Republican crusade against Bill Clinton. In the midterms, voters sent a message -- in a historical rarity, the party that controlled the White House gained congressional seats in the sixth year of a presidency. It was a stinging rebuke of the GOP and its excesses.

House Republicans responded by impeaching the president anyway. In fact, they did so quickly, ramming impeachment through the chamber before newly-elected lawmakers could take office.

* In 2006, voters were widely dissatisfied with the war in Iraq, and wanted to see a withdrawal. In the midterms, the Republican majority didn't just suffer setbacks; they lost both the House and Senate. It was an overwhelming rejection of GOP rule.

In response, Republicans endorsed escalating the conflict anyway, and approved funding for the "surge."

* In 2008, Democrats took the White House and expanded their congressional majorities to heights unseen in a generation. After years of witnessing abject failure, the electorate wanted nothing to do with the GOP.

Republicans responded by changing literally nothing about their agenda, ideas, ideology, rhetoric, tone, attitude, or approach to politics.

* In 2009, there were five congressional special elections. Democrats won all five -- including one district that hadn't been represented by a Democrat since the 1800s. Despite frustrations about the pace of change in D.C., voters still weren't buying what the GOP was selling.

Republicans again responded by changing literally nothing about their agenda, ideas, ideology, rhetoric, tone, attitude, or approach to politics.

* In 2010, Democrats lost a special election in Massachusetts. In response, Dems are having a meltdown and seem to have gone into scream/cry/panic mode. Many leading figures in the congressional delegation are prepared to give up on their policy agenda altogether.

The difference in the way the two parties handle setbacks is hard to miss. Nothing conveys weakness like running for the hills at the first sign of trouble.

* edited for clarity

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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'STUNNINGLY SIMPLE'.... This isn't exactly breaking new ground, but I just liked the way Jonathan Cohn put this.

For all of the panic in Democratic ranks right now, the reality of the situation is stunningly simple. In the span of twenty-four hours, the House of Representatives -- the House in which Democrats command a huge majority, in which liberals actually have some sway, and in which leadership actually has power -- could put health care reform on the president's desk for signing.

One lousy vote. One lousy, stinking roll call vote. That's the only hurdle in the way of health care reform.

Are Democrats really willing to give up now?

This may sound overly-simplistic. It's not. The House could pass the Senate bill by the weekend, and then take up improvements negotiated over last week through reconciliation. The debate would be done; the bill would be law; the landmark breakthrough would be complete; Dems would have demonstrated their ability to deliver; and policymakers could finally move on to other issues.

"One lousy vote. One lousy, stinking roll call vote."

Labor isn't exactly on board with this plan, but Andy Stern, the president of the SEIU, wants the House to do just this -- pass the Senate bill, then use the budget reconciliation process to make changes.

Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, the expert generally credited for coming up with the public option idea, also thinks the House should pass the Senate bill. Another expert, Timothy Jost, made the same case this morning.

Will House Dems deliver? There's a caucus meeting this afternoon, but by all indications, they're on the wrong track.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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THE 'MODERATE' ALTERNATIVE ON HEALTH REFORM.... We've all read the polls. We've seen the election results. We know that for many Americans, the idea of health care reform sounds great, but they don't like what they've heard about the Democratic plan.

For some of the plan's detractors, the problem is that the proposal doesn't go far enough -- they want a more progressive, more ambitious plan. But for most reform opponents, the media, and the political establishment, the problem with the Democratic plan is that it's just too darn liberal.

With that in mind, I have an idea -- Dems should quickly rally around a moderate health care reform proposal that's more in line with Americans' expectations and wishes. It's about time policymakers get the message and deliver the kind of plan the public really wants.

Now, I know what you're thinking, but hear me out.

Here's what my middle-of-the-road approach would look like:

* Americans are obviously worried about fiscal irresponsibility, so a more moderate reform plan would lower the deficit and "bend the curve" on health care spending -- without increasing taxes on the middle class.

* Americans have come to believe that reform represents a "government takeover." We know that's not true, but to alleviate fears, a more moderate reform plan would have to scrap the public option and eliminate a Medicare buy-in provision.

* Americans love Medicare, a socialized-medicine program, and are concerned that reform would undermine the system. To address these fears, a more moderate reform plan would have to strengthen Medicare's finances, leave benefits untouched, and shrink the "donut hole" that hurts so many middle-income seniors.

* Americans have grown to resent powerful insurance companies that put their profits ahead of patients, so a more moderate reform plan would force insurers to accept all comers, regardless of pre-existing conditions; fully cover regular checkups and preventative care; eliminate annual and lifetime caps; and give folks the ability to go to emergency rooms without prior approval.

* Americans perceive politicians as ignoring "the little guy" during tough times. To let working families know policymakers are looking out for them, a more moderate reform plan would let parents keep their kids on the family plan well past high school (until the kids are 26), expand Medicaid, and provide subsidies for low- and middle-income workers to get coverage.

Unlike the liberal plan Americans are clearly uncomfortable with, this more modest, middle-of-the-road approach is the kind of reform package that should resonate with the American mainstream.

Except, of course, there's a catch -- I've just described the existing Democratic plan. The more moderate approach is already on the table, waiting for a vote.

Those who are convinced that Dems are proposing some radical-leftist scheme probably don't realize how much they'd like the current plan, which has been trashed by industry ads and right-wing liars, and which they know very little about.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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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.

* Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) took another step closer to a Senate campaign in New York yesterday, taking "a leave of absence from his Wall Street job so he can have more time to travel around New York State and decide whether to challenge Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand in the Democratic primary."

* Despite his humiliating prostitution scandal, Sen. David Vitter, a family-values Republican in Louisiana, leads Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) in a Rasmussen poll, 53% to 35%.

* Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) has been running for his old job for a couple of months, but yesterday, he formally announced his candidacy. He'll take on Gov. Chet Culver (D) in November, with early polls showing Branstad leading.

* Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is likely to face a rematch this year against former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), but a new poll shows the incumbent leading by nine, 48% to 39%.

* In Hawaii, a Mason-Dixon poll shows the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates -- Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann -- with modest leads over the leading Republican, Duke Aiona. In the Democratic primary, Abercrombie has a three-point lead, but most Hawaii Dems remain undecided.

* And Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) announced this morning that Sarah Palin will campaign for her on April 7. Should be an interesting event.

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

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NO TSA CHIEF FOR YOU.... Several months ago, President Obama nominated Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and a counterterrorism expert, to head the TSA. 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 -- Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina hates unions, and held the nomination hostage, seeking assurances that TSA workers wouldn't have collective-bargaining rights. As a result, even after the attempted terrorist plot on Christmas, there's been no progress.

Today, Southers got tired of waiting and decided to give up, saying his nomination was "obstructed by political ideology."

"I was extremely excited about the opportunity to lead the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and fulfill Secretary [Janet] Napolitano's objective to develop it into the best organization of its kind in the world," Southers said in a statement released by the White House on Wednesday. "However, it is apparent that this path has been obstructed by political ideology. I have decided, after deep reflection and in consultation with my family and friends to respectfully withdraw my name from consideration for confirmation as the assistant secretary for the TSA."

"It is clear that my nomination has become a lightning rod for those who have chosen to push a political agenda at the risk of the safety and security of the American people," Southers said. "This partisan climate is unacceptable and I refuse to allow myself to remain part of their dialogue. The TSA has important work to be done and I regret I will not be part of their success."

"Today our national security system lost a skilled law enforcement officer with needed expertise and leadership qualities because of political games -- and that is a real shame," Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said. "I urge my colleagues to more carefully focus on America's security not partisanship."

Except, we know that won't happen. Why focus on Americans' security when there's an administration to undermine and a presidency to destroy? What incentive will right-wing senators have to be more responsible now that DeMint has won and Southers has withdrawn?

For those keeping score, the TSA job is one of 177 positions -- many seeking to fill key posts relating to the economy, foreign policy, and national security -- in which a nomination has been made, but the nominee remains stuck in Senate limbo because Republicans are trying to break the government. And if yesterday's results in Massachusetts are any indication, their recklessness and puerile behavior will be rewarded by the electorate.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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PASS THE DAMN BILL.... Panic and despair can easily cloud the judgment of people who are otherwise reasonable. Today, a few too many congressional Democrats are losing their cool and concluding they'll be better off if health care reform dies.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, that's backward. David Axelrod talked to Sam Stein, and offered a more sensible assessment.

"We need to move forward aggressively, continuing on job creation, and on financial regulatory reform," White House senior adviser David Axelrod told the Huffington Post. "But we should finish health care because the caricature of that bill is there and everyone who voted for it will have to live with that. The way to deal with that is to pass the bill and let people see... the value of it."

"It is not just getting the achievement under the belt," Axelrod added. "I think there are tangible benefits that people will accrue across this country as soon as this bill is signed. They will have more leverage, have more prescription drug coverage, Medicare is going to be extended by a decade... If we don't pass it and [Obama] doesn't sign it than the caricature created by the insurance industry and opponents in Congress will prevail and everyone will have to live with that. There is no political sense to that and I hope people will see that and move forward."

I'd hoped that this would be obvious. It's not. The need for Congress to pass health care reform has actually gotten stronger, not weaker, in the wake of the Massachusetts results.

Let's review the reasons:

1. The health care status quo is still broken, and Americans still need relief.

Policymakers have been talking about fixing our dysfunctional health care system for 98 years because American families, communities, and businesses need help. If congressional Democrats quit on their signature issue, tens of millions of Americans will still have no coverage; tens of thousands of Americans with no insurance will die; medical bankruptcies will continue to soar; premiums will still strain Americans' wallets; wages will remain stunted; seniors stuck in the "donut hole" will still suffer; and unsustainable costs will still cripple businesses and government budgets. The problem won't get better just because the insurance industry and right-wing political forces have convinced much of the country to fear and detest a reasonable solution. If the scare tactics win, Americans lose.

2. The political risks are much greater if Dems throw in the towel.

Congressional Democrats have already voted for the controversial health care reform bill. Do they seriously believe the electorate will be impressed if they spend a year doing the hard work of tackling this seemingly-impossible challenge, pass the landmark legislation, and then let it die? They think that's the smart political move that increases their chance of wining re-election?

Failure begets failure. Choosing to walk away would be electoral suicide -- the attacks from the right will only be more intense for Dems who voted for reform before deciding to throw in the towel.

The reform initiative has obviously suffered in the face of an intense misinformation campaign. But Dems stand a far better chance of persevering if they at least take their case to the public, and explain the strengths of the proposal. There is literally no upside to the majority party asking voters for support after failing to do what they said they would do. Democrats were elected to finally pass health care reform; there will be no reward for turning success into a fiasco.

As Paul Begala said last night, "If it's the end of health care, it's the end of the Democratic majority." Josh Marshall added, "The Dems have no choice but to finish the job. No choice."

3. This is why Democrats exist.

I'll just quote Ezra on this one: "[A] Democratic Party that would abandon their central initiative this quickly isn't a Democratic Party that deserves to hold power. If they don't believe in the importance of their policies, why should anyone who's skeptical change their mind? If they're not interested in actually passing their agenda, why should voters who agree with Democrats on the issues work to elect them? A commitment provisional on Ted Kennedy not dying and Martha Coakley not running a terrible campaign is not much of a commitment at all."

As Kennedy reminded his party 30 years ago, "If the Democrats run for cover, if we become pale carbon copies of the opposition, we will lose -- and deserve to lose. The last thing this country needs is two Republican parties."

4. Democrats need to show they can govern and get something done.

Voters want to see progress. They want to see the change they voted for. They want proof that policymakers can identify a problem, work on a solution, and then pass legislation. Voters are more impressed with results than excuses.

To come this far before fumbling on the one-yard line only reinforces the worst of the attacks -- a huge Democratic majority fought for a year to pass their top domestic policy priority, but then quit when things got tough. The adjectives aren't hard to guess: weak, incompetent, and ineffective. It's not exactly the image the party should try to convey in already-difficult year.

5. This is probably a now-or-never situation.

Politicians, by their nature, tend to be a little cowardly. Once in a while, a leader will step up, take a risk, and tackle a chronic problem that policymakers would prefer to ignore. Every time professional liars intervene to crush the solution, the cowardice is reinforced and leaders are reminded not to try to make things better.

If health care reform dies, it'll be another 20 years before anyone tries again, and all the while, the dysfunctional status quo will get even worse and more Americans will suffer.

Here's the bottom line for Democrats: show some backbone, remember why you're there, and pass the damn bill. Americans are counting on you; don't let them down.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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NARROWING THE OPTIONS.... The need for health care reform hasn't changed, the political calculus obvious has. With a Coakley victory in Massachusetts, the landmark legislation was a near-certainty. In the wake of Brown's victory, the once-in-a-generation opportunity is hanging by a thread.

As policymakers began to realize over the last week or so that Massachusetts was moving in the wrong direction, a variety of backup plans were considered. One possibility was wrapping up the negotiations on combining the House and Senate bills, and approving the bill before Brown takes office.

That option, which was a long shot anyway, was quickly taken off the table last night.

Less than 15 minutes after the race was called for Republican Scott Brown, the first of what could be many conservative Democrats asks for leadership to put the brakes on health care reform.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) congratulated Brown on his win and delivered a zinger: "...I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated."

Indeed, the very idea of the Senate approving any health care bill anytime soon seems largely impossible. Proponents would still need 60 votes in the face of Republican obstructionism. The Democratic caucus is down to 59, and there's evidence that several of those 59 aren't prepared to support a reform bill if it comes back to the chamber. Joe Lieberman, for example, is already distancing himself from the bill he helped make worse. Somehow convincing Olympia Snowe, in other words, is no longer good enough.

Another option, preferred by some progressive activists, is to literally start over in both chambers, pursuing a more ambitious reform through reconciliation. This seemed exceedingly unlikely before the special election in Massachusetts, and the odds are far worse now. Lawmakers are ready to move on to other issues, not spend the next few months on a new bill.

Which brings us back to the most obvious, most direct, and most promising avenue: the House approves the Senate bill, and sends it to the president for his signature. Democratic leaders in the House still hold out hope that this is a viable alternative -- especially when additional improvements to the bill can be made through the upcoming budget reconciliation process.

The question is whether rank-and-file House Dems have the stomach for it. As of right now, they appear ready to throw in the towel and accept defeat. "If it comes down to that Senate bill or nothing, I think we're going to end up with nothing, because I don't hear a lot of support on our side for that bill," Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said.

The NYT added a similar assessment, reporting that "the prospect of passing the health care overhaul by pushing the Senate plan through the House appeared to significantly diminish."

To be sure, it's early. The results in Massachusetts were called 12 hours ago, and the dust has not yet settled. The political world will catch its breath, take a closer look at its options, and decide how (and whether) to proceed.

But if the House rejects the most promising path -- pass the Senate bill, make improvements through reconciliation -- they're making a devastating mistake and risking electoral suicide. More on this later.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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THE PREDICTABLE EVAN BAYH.... Sen. Evan Bayh's (D-Ind.) latest efforts to trash his party began in earnest over the weekend, complaining that "congressional elites" may have "mistook their mandate."

About two hours before the polls closed in Massachusetts, Bayh, who is up for re-election this year in a traditionally "red" state, was at it again, warning Democrats of "catastrophe." In the most predictable and self-serving response possible, the Indiana Democrat who is constantly urging his party to shift to the right is now insisting the party has to shift to the right.

"There's going to be a tendency on the part of our people to be in denial about all this," Bayh told ABC News, but "if you lose Massachusetts and that's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of waking up."

What is the lesson of Massachusetts -- where Democrats face the prospects of losing a Senate seat they've held since 1952? For Senator Bayh the lesson is that the party pushed an agenda that is too far to the left, alienating moderate and independent voters. [...]

"The only we are able to govern successfully in this country is by liberals and progressives making common cause with independents and moderates," Bayh said. "Whenever you have just the furthest left elements of the Dem party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country -- that's not going to work too well."

I have to assume the political establishment will quickly embrace this as the conventional wisdom -- Dems moved to the left, the public got nervous, so they lost Kennedy's Senate seat.

But I have a couple of follow-up questions for Bayh. First, when exactly did the furthest left elements of the Democratic Party start imposing their will on the rest of the country? I like to think I pay fairly close attention to current events, and I don't recall the furthest left elements of the Democratic Party calling the shots over the last year. Indeed, the furthest left elements of the Democratic Party tend to be livid at how little they've won, generating widespread frustrations at the party's base.

Second, what would Bayh recommend for the rest of the year? Not delivering on the platform Democrats promised voters? I can see the ads now: "Vote for me -- I abandoned my agenda, ignored my mandate, and ran for the hills at the first sign of trouble."

Look, Martha Coakley was an awful candidate who ran an awful campaign. This, coupled with public frustration over the economy and the pace of change in Washington became a toxic combination.

But to hear Bayh tell it, the electorate will reward Democrats if the party gives up on the agenda that got them elected -- and gave them the largest majorities in a generation -- and simply becomes Republican-lite. That seems like very bad advice.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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A NOTICEABLE DROP-OFF IN QUALITY.... Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-Mass.) offered an interesting peek into his worldview last night during his victory speech.

" In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them.

"Raising taxes, taking over our health care, and giving new rights to terrorists is the wrong agenda for our country."

Perhaps now would be a good time to note that this is a Senate seat once held by John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Quincy Adams, among others.

It now belongs to Scott Brown -- a conservative who supports torture, opposes Wall Street accountability, supports more tax cuts for the wealthy, opposes economic recovery efforts, opposes Ted Kennedy's life's work on health care reform, and doubts that global climate change is the result of human activity.

And says things like, "In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them."

It's admittedly tiresome to hear any political observer say, "In the good old days...." Those days were rarely as good as anyone remembers, and prominent thinkers of the day have been complaining about the next generation being less impressive than the last for as long as we've had the printed word.

But a once-storied Senate seat that belonged to Adams and Kennedy is now filled by a dim-witted wingnut, and that's a real shame -- for Massachusetts, for the Senate, and for all of us.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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LESSONS LEARNED.... Given that the results in Massachusetts were not quite what the political world was expecting as of, say, two weeks ago, there will be plenty of "what just happened?" questions over the next several days. We're already hearing ample talk about what lessons Democrats should have learned from this painful defeat.

I think it's probably a mistake to overstate the larger significance of a special election 10 months before the midterms, but it'd be foolish to pretend Scott Brown's victory was some random fluke, never to be repeated again.

With that in mind, here are my Top 5 lessons to be learned from the Mess in Massachusetts.

1. Successful candidates hit the campaign trail. Candidates seeking office should probably campaign while voters are making up their minds. It's old-fashioned thinking, I know, but winning a primary and then dropping out of sight -- while your opponent is working hard to reach out to voters -- tends to be a bad idea.

For much of the post-primary period, the campaign calendar on the Coakley website was blank. Dave Weigel noted yesterday, "From the primary through last Sunday, Scott Brown held 66 events of varying size. Coakley held 19." Part of this is because Brown had to introduce himself to voters who had no idea who he was, while Coakley was already well known. But 19 events in 40 days is evidence of a Senate candidate who was taking victory for granted -- and in the process, throwing victory away.

2. Voters like likeable candidates. Some voters care more about policy and substance than which candidate they most want to have a beer with, but these voters tend to be outnumbered. We've all seen races in which the thoughtful, hard-working, experienced candidate who emphasizes substantive issues loses out to the fun, likable opponent (see 2000, presidential election of).

The Massachusetts race fits this model nicely. Chris Good noted this week, "[W]hile Coakley focused on the issues in this race, Brown can credit his lead in multiple polls to his own personality and personal image, which he crafted with a series of successful ads portraying him as an average, likable guy." It's tempting to think voters in a mature democracy, especially in a state like Massachusetts, would prioritize policy over personality, and appreciate the candidate who "focused on the issues." But yesterday was the latest in a series of reminders that personal qualities often trump everything else.

3. Saying dumb things will undermine public support. When the pressure was on, Coakley insulted Red Sox fans -- twice. She kinda sorta said there are "no terrorists in Afghanistan," and that "devout Catholics" may not want to work in emergency rooms. When the Democratic campaign realized it was in deep trouble, and readied an effort to turn things around, it had trouble overcoming the distractions caused by the candidate's public remarks.

Maybe, if the campaign had been in gear throughout the post-primary process, Coakley would have been sharper on the stump, had more message discipline, and been less likely to make these costly, distracting errors.

4. Learn something about your opponent. Because the Democratic campaign assumed it would win, it didn't invest much energy in understanding its opponent (who, incidentally, won). They didn't identify Brown's weak points, and seemed to know practically nothing about his background. When the race grew competitive, nearly all of the damaging stories about the Republican candidate came from well-researched blog posts, not the campaign's opposition research team. "Get to know your opponent" is one of those lessons taught on the first day of Campaign 101, and campaigns that forget it are going to struggle.

5. Enthusiasm matters. No matter how confused and uninformed Brown's supporters seemed, they were also motivated. Dems liked Coakley, but they weren't, to borrow a phrase, fired up and ready to go.

Looking ahead, chances are pretty good that organized right-wing voters will be mobilized and itching to vote in November. They certainly were yesterday. Democrats can't expect to do well with an unmotivated, listless party base.

Steve Benen 6:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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January 19, 2010

MASSACHUSETTS OPEN THREAD.... The polls will close in the Bay State in just a few minutes, and results will be coming in from across Massachusetts over the next couple of hours. There are no exit polls -- local outlets had to decide weeks ago whether to invest in them, and no one seemed to think it'd be worth it -- so the political world will just have to wait.

Though, it may not have to wait too long.

It seems like a good night for an election-related open thread for those of you watching "American Idol" keeping an eye on the vote tallies.

Any predictions? Any noteworthy media coverage? Any surprises?

And here's the odd question I've been kicking around all day: if all the polls show one candidate is going to win, and everyone fully expects that candidate to win, is it really a "huge upset" when that candidate actually wins?

The floor is yours.

Steve Benen 7:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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

* Haiti: "U.S. troops landed on the lawn of Haiti's shattered presidential palace to the cheers of quake victims on Tuesday, and the U.N. said it would throw more police and soldiers into the sluggish global effort to aid the devastated country. The U.N. forces are aimed at quelling the outbursts of violence that have slowed distribution of supplies, leaving many Haitians still without help a week after the magnitude-7.0 quake killed an estimated 200,000 people."

* Turnout in Massachusetts's special election is reportedly higher than expected. While higher turnout usually benefits the Democrat, no one in the party seems to think this maxim applies today.

* In case you're curious, there are no exit polls.

* President Obama focused on schools this morning: "Obama traveled to an elementary school in the Virginia suburbs to make a pitch for Congress to expand his signature education initiative, Race to the Top. Mr. Obama said he would ask lawmakers to approve an additional $1.3 billion for the initiative, a grant competition that is intended to spur innovation in schools by requiring states to pledge adherence to stricter standards."

* A "Fox & Friends" host encouraged viewers, on the air, to "make a call to Massachusetts and get some people out to the polls" because, as she put it, Scott Brown may help investors' stock portfolios.

* Interesting story about Defense Secretary Robert Gates encouraging his military aides to stop wearing combat fatigues to work.

* The problem with tuition freezes.

* Bill O'Reilly is genuinely disappointed about who can and cannot make fun of: "48 years ago in this country we could make fun of Arabs.... We could make fun of people in a general way, and certainly, Ahab was the Arab was a general parody. But now, we can't. What has changed in America?" He wasn't kidding.

* And if you're looking for a little something to feel good about today, take a look at this video, showing a search-and-rescue team from Los Angeles, freeing a woman in Haiti who'd been trapped under a collapsed hotel. A crowd assembled, and cheered, "U.S.A., U.S.A."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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'BUCKLE UP'.... We talked earlier about a quote from an administration official, who told Mike Allen about the White House engaging with Republicans after the results in Massachusetts are announced. Republicans, the official said, will face "pressure ... to participate in the process in a meaningful way."

My argument is that this assumption -- which the media establishment will likely trumpet incessantly in the coming weeks and months -- is, at best, naive. GOP lawmakers aren't interested in compromise and bipartisan problem-solving; they're interested in destroying Democrats.

Kevin Drum is right to emphasize, however, that the crux of the Politico article wasn't really about White House outreach to Republicans, but rather, the president and his team planning "a combative response" in the wake of the Massachusetts debacle.

"This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt," a senior administration official said. "It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard." [...]

There won't be any grand proclamation that "the era of Big Government is over" -- the words President Bill Clinton uttered after Republicans won the Congress in the 1990s and he was forced to trim a once-ambitious agenda.

"The response will not be to do incremental things and try to salvage a few seats in the fall," a presidential adviser said. "The best political route also happens to be the boldest rhetorical route, which is to go out and fight and let the chips fall where they may. We can say, 'At least we fought for these things, and the Republicans said no.'"

The White House rallying cry, according to one Obama confidant, will be, "Buckle up -- let's get some stuff done."

I hope this is true. More important, I hope congressional Democrats realize that crawling into a defensive crouch, waiting for the storm to blow over, would be a misread of public discontent.

Even after Massachusetts, Democrats will have a fairly popular president and the largest congressional majority in a generation. If they want to go through the motions and see if any Republicans might be willing to play a constructive role, fine, just so long as they keep expectations low. But Dems weren't given the reins with the expectation they'd do nothing with them.

Even after Brown is sworn in, Dems will have an opportunity to deliver and make a positive difference in the lives of Americans. What better way to respond to a pounding than to bounce off the ropes, taking a few swings? Pass a jobs bill, go after irresponsible banks, bring some safeguards to Wall Street, repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Prove to the country that Dems are at least trying to legislate, and demonstrate that a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president have the wherewithal to tackle the issues that matter.

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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WHAT AN AMERICAN 'LOOKS LIKE'?.... Five wealthy white people sat around a table on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" earlier, and talked a bit about ethnic politics and the Senate race in Massachusetts. It was a rather discouraging display.

Donny Deutsch got the ball rolling, suggesting that voters may be "going back to basics" after electing an African-American president and seeing "the female candidates and whatnot." Scott Brown, Deutsch added, "looks like the traditional view of a candidate," which may bring a "visceral comfort" to voters.

Mike Barnicle found value in the observation, saying that "there's something to it."

The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan added that Brown is "a regular guy" who "looks like an American."

None of all-white participants in this discussion explained exactly what "an American" actually "looks like," but apparently it has something to do with being white, male, and handsome. Sorry, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, I guess you don't meet the criteria for looking American.

This is, of course, the same program that told us some months ago that "real Americans" like Sarah Palin and don't live in cities.

Tell me again, media establishment, about how MSNBC is a liberal bastion that's shifted to the left, on par with Fox News being a propaganda outlet for the Republican Party.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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HEALTH CARE FAILURE CAN'T BE AN OPTION.... Sam Stein reports today that "a host of Democratic lawmakers and health care observers insisted that health care legislation will be passed into law in some form or another," even after the expected results from Massachusetts are announced, "if for no other reason than because it has to."

One top Democrat said it would be a moderately simple sell to get the House to pass the Senate's bill, provided the assurances were there to change it down the road.

"The pieces that need to be fixed -- the affordability and Cadillac tax -- are all budget issues, which you can do in reconciliation," the official said.

Brian Beutler reported earlier that at least one House leader already sounds amenable to the most straightforward of the available options.

At his weekly press conference this morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told reporters that the Senate health care bill would be better than no reform at all. He also insisted that, if Republican Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts Senate special election tonight, Congress can act to pass reform in the approximately 15-day window between tonight and when Republican Scott Brown is officially seated.

I asked Hoyer whether he believes the Senate's health care bill would be better than no bill at all.

"I think the Senate bill clearly is better than nothing," Hoyer said.

This strikes me as something of a no-brainer. If Dems think the midterms will be difficult, they should try to imagine how much worse it will be if they spend a year working on health care reform, get a bill passed by both chambers, and then run for re-election on the heels of failure.

The quickest, most direct path to getting back on track is passing the reform bill. Once it's signed into law, and Democrats have demonstrated an ability to deliver on its agenda, lawmakers can move on to other issues, and the White House can try to change public attitudes about the accomplishment.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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ENSIGN'S SEX SCANDAL DRAWS FBI INTEREST.... Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) doesn't want to talk about his sex scandal, but federal investigators may not give him much of a choice.

Federal agents have started interviewing people connected to Sen. John Ensign's sex scandal, a potential sign that the Nevada Republican could face a criminal probe over the matter, according to several sources familiar with the matter.

The FBI has contacted former aides to Ensign -- in both Las Vegas and in Washington, the sources said. The sources said it appears that the FBI has begun a preliminary review of the case, and there's no evidence yet that it will become a full-fledged criminal investigation into the senator's conduct. At the same time, the Senate Ethics Committee has already launched an inquiry, issuing subpoenas last month to a slew of former Ensign aides.

"Yes, the FBI has contacted witnesses -- in this case, former aides," said one source familiar with the matter. "We'll see where it leads."

It may not lead anywhere good for the far-right senator. To briefly recap, Ensign's humiliation came to public attention in June, when we learned the conservative, "family values" lawmaker carried on a lengthy extra-marital affair with one of his aides, who happened to be married to another one of his aides. Ensign's parents tried to pay off the mistress' family.

The scandal grew far worse in October, when we learned that the Republican senator pushed his political and corporate allies to give lobbying contracts to his mistress's husband. Despite laws prohibiting aides from lobbying for a year after leaving the Hill, Ensign and the aggrieved husband seemed to ignore the rule, and the senator used his office to cater to the needs of those who hired his mistress's spouse.

There's some evidence to suggest Ensign's constituents are unmoved by the scandal, but for FBI investigators who believe the senator may have broken a law or two, taking a pass isn't really an option.

A former Justice Department prosecutor recently noted, "I think, at a minimum, a grand jury will be empaneled, and Ensign and Hampton will be called in to testify." Peter Zeiderberg, a former Public Integrity prosecutor for the DoJ noted that a criminal investigation of Ensign "is likely."

Maybe then the media will take a greater interest? It's hard to say what might capture Villagers' attention, but a federal criminal probe of a sitting senator, caught up in a humiliating sex scandal, ought to be worth some coverage.

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

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NO WAY TO RUN A GOVERNMENT.... We learned a few weeks ago that the Senate wants to confirm President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) -- a seemingly important post when terrorists are trying to blow up American passenger airplanes -- but can't. A majority would confirm the nominee, but a right-wing senator (Jim DeMint) won't let the chamber vote.

This is playing out throughout the government. The president has also nominated a variety of well-qualified officials to fill key posts in the Treasury Department, including positions with jurisdiction over tax policy and international finance. Their nominations would be approved if the Senate were allowed to vote on them, but Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) won't let confirmation votes happen.

It's creating something of an easily-avoided, indefensible crisis. Annie Lowrey has this report:

Congressional dithering on nominees is, in and of itself, nothing new.... But President Barack Obama's first year has brought an unusual number of holds, and on unusually prominent positions. One year into the Bush administration, there were 70 appointees awaiting confirmation. One year into the Obama administration, there are 177. And dozens of those holds are directly affecting the agencies responsible for the United States' security and foreign policy, amid two wars and an amped-up terrorism threat. The United States has no ambassador to Ethiopia, no head of the Office of Legal Counsel, no director at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, no agricultural trade representative.

Indeed, the TSA spot wasn't the only one left empty when it was most needed. For instance, during the worst of the Honduran constitutional crisis, in June, the United States had no assistant undersecretary for the Western Hemisphere -- the position responsible for coordinating the response of the United States' policymakers for South America. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, had slapped a hold on Georgetown University professor and longtime diplomat Arturo Valenzuela to protest the Obama administration's relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and its response to Honduras.

In the midst of a global financial crisis, Treasury Department offices sit empty because Senate Republicans have holds on nominations. In midst of a terrorist threat, a variety of a national security posts remain unfilled because Senate Republicans have holds on nominations.

Most of the time, the far-right senators blocking the process aren't even especially concerned about nominees themselves, but have some larger point to make. In perhaps the most breathtakingly stupid example of 2009, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) blocked an important U.S. trade representative for months because he was worried about Canadians' ability to buy candy-flavored cigarettes.

A functioning democracy simply can't operate this way and expect to perform as it should. But Republicans do it anyway, in large part because they realize the public won't hear about this, and there will be no electoral consequences for their recklessness.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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LUCY, CHARLIE BROWN, AND THE BIPARTISAN FOOTBALL.... This notion, which I suspect we're about to hear a whole lot of, strikes me as wildly misguided.

The narrower majority will force more White House engagement with Republicans, which could actually help restore a bit of the post-partisan image that was a fundamental ingredient of his appeal to voters.

"Now everything that gets done in the Senate will have the imprimatur of bipartisanship," another administration official said. "The benefits of that will accrue to the president and the Democratic Senate. It adds to the pressure on Republicans to participate in the process in a meaningful way, which so far they have refused to do."

This is a great idea, isn't it? All the White House and Democratic congressional leaders have to do is continue to work on their policy agenda, while reaching out in good faith to earn support from congressional Republicans. Bills will start passing with bipartisan support; the public will be impressed; David Broder will start dancing in front of the Washington Post building; a season of goodwill and comity will bloom on Capitol Hill; and Lucy really will let Charlie Brown kick the ball.

Or maybe not.

Look, much of the political landscape has changed over the last year, but if there's one thing that's been consistent throughout, it's that congressional Republicans aren't interested in working with Democrats on bipartisan policy solutions. Boehner, McConnell, Cantor, & Co. have a list of priorities -- destroy the Obama presidency, block the legislative process by any means necessary, undermine confidence in American leaders and institutions, rally the right-wing base -- but "getting things done" isn't on it.

Will that change after Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts? The only rational expectation is that the scorched-earth strategy of the last year will get worse -- they'll be less interested in "participating in the process in a meaningful way" when they smell blood in the water and have the votes to filibuster literally everything.

The Republican establishment no doubt realizes that, as the midterms approach, there will be two competing messages:

* GOP: Dems ran Congress, pushed liberal ideas, and couldn't deliver.

* Dem: The "Party of No" wouldn't let us govern. Maybe, with a few more votes, if Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman don't mind, things will get better.

If Republicans have to choose between this message match-up and working with Dems on bipartisan problem-solving, the choice has already been made. Hoping for a different outcome is unrealistic.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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

* In New York, a Seina poll (pdf) shows Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) with a big lead over Harold Ford in a likely primary match-up, but the appointed senator trailing former Gov. George Pataki (R) in a hypothetical general election.

* In keeping with other recent data, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (D) enjoys big leads over the Republican field in the latest Research 2000 poll of the upcoming Senate race.

* In Florida, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), the party's leading candidate in the upcoming Senate race, has temporarily suspended his campaign to travel to Haiti to help with relief efforts. Meek's district has one of the nation's highest Haitian-American populations.

* A Research 2000 poll in Colorado shows Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (D) and former Rep. Scott McInnis (R) tied at 43% in this year's gubernatorial race.

* On a related note, the same poll shows appointed Sen. Mike Bennet (D) leading former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R), 40% to 39%.

* In Texas, a Rasmussen poll shows Gov. Rick Perry leading Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in their GOP gubernatorial primary race, 43% to 33%.

* Republicans in New Mexico have struggled to find a credible gubernatorial candidate, but have persuaded Pete Domenici Jr. to run. Domenici is the son of a longtime retired New Mexico senator, but Jr. has never sought elected office at any level before.

* Dispelling retirement rumors, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) announced that he will seek re-election.

* And with Rep. Vic Snyder (D) retiring in Arkansas this year, will Dems find a credible candidate to step up? Apparently, they have two: both Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark (D) are interested.

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

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THE CAUSE OF KENNEDY'S LIFE.... A source on the Hill emails this morning to let me know about this video, put together a few days ago, about Ted Kennedy and his decades of work to get a health care reform bill signed into law. Occasionally, some of the web videos put together by congressional offices are a little weak and have poor production values, but this one is one of the best I've seen.

It's ironic, I suppose, that Ted Kennedy's constituents -- the very families and communities that supported Kennedy's cause for so long -- would put his life's work in jeopardy so soon after his passing. Nevertheless, I think the video is worth watching, especially if you're a member of Congress ready to walk away from this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

No matter what happens in Massachusetts today, the need for the legislation is stronger now than it's ever been -- and policymakers have been talking about the problem for 98 years. Ted Kennedy understood that; here's hoping his former colleagues haven't forgotten.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE INEVITABLE ABUSES.... Try to contain your surprise.

The FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. telephone call records between 2002 and 2006 by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist or simply persuading phone companies to provide records, according to internal bureau memos and interviews. FBI officials issued approvals after the fact to justify their actions.

E-mails obtained by The Washington Post detail how counterterrorism officials inside FBI headquarters did not follow their own procedures that were put in place to protect civil liberties. The stream of urgent requests for phone records also overwhelmed the FBI communications analysis unit with work that ultimately was not connected to imminent threats.

A Justice Department inspector general's report due out this month is expected to conclude that the FBI frequently violated the law with its emergency requests, bureau officials confirmed.

Bush administration officials used the cloak of counter-terrorism to abuse civil liberties, ignore the law, and violate Americans' privacy? Imagine that.

Remind me again, conservatives, about how the public is worried about President Obama increasing the size of government and infringing on the public's rights.

Post Script: The WaPo article was co-written by John Solomon, up until recently the editor of the far-right Washington Times. He's listed as a "freelance journalist," but I have to admit, I didn't expect to see him be welcomed back into the fold so quickly.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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HAROLD FORD HAS 'ISSUES'.... Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) of Tennessee continues to move forward with his plans to run for the Senate in New York, less than four years after losing a Senate campaign in his home state, 800 miles away. Yesterday, he chatted with the New York Daily News, under some unusual preconditions.

The interview -- granted under the condition that the questions be limited to his rationale for running, and not issues -- comes at the end of a rocky first week of buzz surrounding his potential candidacy.

The NYDN noted that Ford "gets regular pedicures, takes a chauffeur-driven car to work on most days and had been to Staten Island only once -- by helicopter." Two paragraphs later, we learn from Ford, "This race isn't about feet, it's about issues."

It's about "issues" ... which Ford won't discuss with reporters?

I suppose this shouldn't be too big a surprise. Ford discussed issues with the New York Times last week, and his answers -- on health care, gun control, taxes, abortion -- were a bit of a mess.

But if Ford wants to inspire confidence, this probably isn't the way to do it.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE BACKUP PLAN, CONT'D.... With Democratic leaders now expecting to see the Senate caucus shrink from 60 to 59 seats, the dominant question of the week is over the fate of health care reform. There are some Dems who believe the entire initiative will implode the moment Scott Brown is declared the winner (if he's declared the winner) in Massachusetts. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) suggested as much this morning.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn't see it that way at all. "Let's remove all doubt," Pelosi told reporters yesterday. "We will have health care one way or another.... Certainly the dynamic will change depending on what happens in Massachusetts. Just the question of how we would proceed. But it doesn't mean we won't have a health care bill."

The New York Times added that Democratic leaders have already "begun laying the groundwork to ask House Democrats to approve the Senate version of the bill and send it directly to President Obama for his signature."

To be sure, this House Dems do not like this idea -- at all. But with severely limited options, and with the prospect of making changes through the budget reconciliation process, this option at least remains a possibility, pending results in the Bay State.

My hope is that hand-wringing Democrats are able to put aside their electoral panic just long enough to realize that failure on health care reform cannot be an option. If Ezra's piece this morning isn't being emailed around on the Hill yet, it should be.

Democrats should pass health-care reform because it's the right thing to do. They should pass health-care reform because between 18,000 and 45,000 people die each year because they don't have health-care insurance, and this bill will save many of those lives. They should pass health-care reform because it will prevent countless medical bankruptcies and an enormous amount of needless chronic pain and infirmity. They should pass it because it will take important steps towards cost control. They should pass health-care reform, as my friend Chris Hayes says, because it's important for the American people to see their government doing more than starting wars and bailing out banks. They should pass health-care reform because it's the right thing to do, both for the millions of people whom it will directly affect and for the country as a whole.

The status quo is broken. The health care system doesn't work. We pay too much and get too little. The system is bankrupting families, undermining businesses, and placing ridiculous burdens on government at every level. It's simply unsustainable for a country that hopes to have a fiscally sane, competitive future.

These inconvenient facts won't disappear simply because Martha Coakley is the Bill Buckner of Senate candidates and because some Massachusetts voters experienced a dramatic lapse in judgment.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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SOTU SET FOR JAN. 27.... There's been a fair amount of chatter in recent weeks about when, exactly, President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address. Will he push it off until February? Wait until health care reform is finished? Interrupt the season premier of "Lost"?

We got our answer late yesterday.

President Obama will deliver his first State of the Union address on Jan. 27. The White House announced Monday afternoon that the president would speak to a joint session of Congress next Wednesday at 9 p.m.

In the televised speech to the nation, Mr. Obama will outline his priorities for the coming year as well as recount what he believes are the achievements from his first year in office. Speech writers have been working on the address for weeks, but the date had not been set, pending the outcome of the health insurance legislation in Congress.

In general, weeks of White House planning go into the SOTU event, so it's hard to say with any certainty what political factors, if any, played a role in picking this date.

But for those of us inclined to speculate, the decision doesn't seem all that mysterious. The West Wing has been counting on the SOTU to shift the trajectory a bit, giving Obama a chance to make his case, tout his successes, launch some new arguments, and alter the course of the national conversation. With the White House expecting to see the Democrats' 60-vote Senate majority end this week, scheduling the prime-time speech for next week -- as compared to early February -- also gives the president and his team a chance to change the subject and put the Massachusetts Mess behind them.

What's more, if there's a genuine panic among Democratic lawmakers in the wake of the special election in Massachusetts, and hysterical members wake up tomorrow and start typing their retirement announcements, the timing of the SOTU at least gives the leadership something to offer: "The speech is just a week away. Before there's an exodus, let's wait and see what the president has to say."

And then there's health care. Assuming the Senate Dem caucus goes from 60 to 59 seats, as is likely, there will be renewed pressure on the House to wrap up the process, pass the Senate bill as-is, and get reform signed into law quickly. If Democratic leaders prioritize completion by the SOTU, this would give the House a week, which, if 218 House members were so inclined, would be more than enough time.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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ELECTION DAY IN MASSACHUSETTS.... It's a phrase you've read so many times over the last two weeks, you probably roll your eyes when you see it: special elections are notoriously hard to poll. A few months ago in New York's 23rd, nearly all of the final polls showed Doug Hoffman leading. He ended up losing by three.

The "polls can be wrong" adage notwithstanding, when it comes to the statewide special election in Massachusetts today, every available piece of evidence points to Scott Brown (R) defeating Martha Coakley (D). In the seven statewide polls conducted since Thursday, Coakley doesn't lead in any of them. What's more, Suffolk surveyed three bellwether counties in Massachusetts over the weekend, and Brown's leads ranged from 14 to 17 points.

Nate Silver presented his case late yesterday.

The FiveThirtyEight Senate Forecasting Model, which correctly predicted the outcome of all 35 Senate races in 2008, now regards Republican Scott Brown as a 74 percent favorite to win the Senate seat in Massachusetts on the basis of new polling from ARG, Research 2000 and InsiderAdvantage which show worsening numbers for Brown's opponent, Martha Coakley. We have traditionally categorized races in which one side has between a 60 and 80 percent chance of winning as "leaning" toward that candidate, and so that is how we categorize this race now: Lean GOP. [...]

Coakley's odds are substantially worse than they appeared to be 24 hours ago, when there were fewer credible polls to evaluate and there appeared to be some chance that her numbers were bottoming out and perhaps reversing. However, the ARG and Research 2000 polls both show clear and recent trends against her. Indeed the model, which was optimized for regular rather than special elections, may be too slow to incorporate new information and may understate the magnitude of the trend toward Brown.

With another one of those eye-rolling adages that everyone is no doubt tired of seeing, Scott Rasmussen's analysis noted, "[N]obody really knows who will win because it all comes down to turnout."

It's a cliche because it's grounded in fact. And to be sure, surprises certainly happen. Maybe some of the enthusiasm surrounding Brown is from out-of-state right-wing activists. Maybe there's a core group of smart voters focused on substance and issues who've been underrepresented in the polls. Maybe Democratic GOTV efforts will be more effective than anyone realizes.

But given what we know, it seems unlikely.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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January 18, 2010

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

* Haiti: "Troops, doctors and aid workers flowed into Haiti on Monday and officials said billions of dollars more will be needed following the quake that killed an estimated 200,000 people and left many still struggling to find a cup of water or a handful of food."

* Afghanistan: "A team of militants launched a spectacular assault at the heart of the Afghan government Monday, with two men detonating suicide bombs and the rest fighting to the death only 50 yards from the gates of the presidential palace. The attacks, the latest in a series targeting the Afghan capital, paralyzed the city for hours, as hundreds of Afghan commandos converged and opened fire."

* Iraq: "Saddam Hussein's notorious cousin 'Chemical Ali' was convicted Sunday of crimes against humanity, receiving a death sentence for his involvement in a poison gas attack on Halabja -- one of several hanging over him."

* Policymakers in Washington will transition from health care to financial regulatory reform.

* Fact-checking the Sunday shows.

* PhD salaries are still sinking.

* Scott Horton has quite a story about the suspected cover-up of Gitmo detainees who died in 2006 after being subjected to torture.

* South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) may have some steep legal bills, but much to his chagrin, he can't stick taxpayers with the tab. Sanford will "have to tap his campaign fund to pay $28,000 in legal bills after the state attorney general's office denied a request to use taxpayer money to pay the bills."

* Utah's Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack (R) resigned over the weekend, following a DUI arrest. (thanks to V.S. for the tip)

* It looks like the New York Times will soon start charging for content. (As I recall, the last experiment on this front, "TimesSelect" didn't go well.)

* President Obama delivered a pretty fascinating speech yesterday on "Martin Luther King and the Challenges of a New Age" at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

* And finally, in light of the significance of the day, I'd recommend taking some time to read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" again. As thoughtful as any piece of writing in the 20th century, King's correspondence represents the most powerful summary of his vision available.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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COMPETING NARRATIVES.... The root of the nation's economic problems aren't hard to discern. And intellectually, most Americans probably realize that the systemic failures -- lack of oversight, lack of accountability, flawed tax structure, mindless fiscal irresponsibility, minimal infrastructure investment, a weak foundation on societal pillars such as health care, education, and energy -- are the result of years of poor decision making and misguided priorities.

But as we struggle with the consequences, President Obama bears the brunt, not because the crises are his fault, but because he's in charge as we deal with the wake of the Bush/Cheney debacle. Obama is the fire chief cleaning up after arsonists, with an impatient public wondering why the fires are still simmering. That Obama wasn't responsible for lighting the fires doesn't matter -- he's stuck with the mess, even if the other guy dropped the match.

E.J. Dionne Jr. has an interesting column today, arguing that a large part of the problem is the competing narratives of American politics. Dionne suggests, persuasively that conservatives' narrative -- government, spending, and services are necessarily bad -- keeps winning, even after conservative attempts at governing fail. It's this success that serves as a drag on the president's poll numbers and even the unfolding fiasco in Massachusetts.

[T]he success of the conservative narrative ought to trouble liberals and the Obama administration. The president has had to "own" the economic catastrophe much earlier than he should have. Most Americans understand that the mess we are in started before Obama got to the White House. Yet many, especially political independents, are upset that the government has had to spend so much and that things have not turned around as fast as they had hoped.

It's also striking that most conservatives, through a method that might be called the audacity of audacity, have acted as if absolutely nothing went wrong with their economic theories. They speak and act as if they had nothing to do with the large deficits they now bemoan and say we will all be saved if only we return to the very policies that should already be discredited. [...]

Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right's narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.

The president's supporters comfort themselves that Obama's numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan's numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper's method to offer their own critique of the conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics, as we are learning in Massachusetts, than it ought to be.

There are, of course, competing ideas about how to change the nature of the narrative competition -- Dems can start by rejecting with confidence some of the underlying premises, such as the inherent merit behind lower taxes, less spending, and fewer services, and stop being defensive about being right -- but Kevin Drum's point about the persistence of the right's narrative through the media "noise machine" is worth emphasizing:

There's simply no liberal counterpart to Drudge and Fox and Rush: a conservative commentariat that concedes nothing, pounds home its points like a jackhammer, repeats its themes relentlessly, and has the ear of the Washington mainstream press in a way that liberal commentators don't.

Also note that leading liberal media figures approach the discourse in an entirely different way. The conservative machine -- Fox News, Limbaugh, et al -- serves to help Republicans, carrying GOP water when it has to. Progressive media voices, on the other hand, tend to be some of the Democrats' most persistent critics, rebuking President Obama and other leading Dems for falling short of progressive ideals and expectations.

Update: Paul Waldman has a smart take on this, noting that "the fact that the years 2001-2008 provided a near-perfect test" of conservative economic ideas, "and those ideas failed miserably." And yet "the debate is being shaped not by the president but by the opposition. We're talking about whether government has gotten too big, not how to correct the mistakes of the Bush years and make it work better."

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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THE TEXAS TEXTBOOK TUSSLE, CONT'D.... Over the last several months, the Monthly has been keeping an eye on the Texas Board of Education, which has been working on a social studies curricula steeped in conservative Republican ideology. It's a rather remarkable story: board members -- 10 Republicans to 5 Democrats -- have recommended downplaying the contributions of civil rights leaders, minimizing an "emphasis on multiculturalism," and trying to "exonerate" Joe McCarthy.

The first draft of the standards mandated that Texans be taught to "identify significant conservative advocacy organizations and individuals" -- with no comparable progressive leaders or groups.

The ridiculous crusade continues apace.

The conservative bloc on the Texas State Board of Education won a string of victories Friday, obtaining approval for an amendment requiring high school U.S. history students to know about Phyllis Schlafly and the Contract with America as well as inserting a clause that aims to justify McCarthyism.

Outspoken conservative board member Don McLeroy, who reportedly spent over three hours personally proposing changes to the textbook standards, even wanted to cut "hip-hop" in favor of "country" in a section about the impact of cultural movements. That amendment failed.

The board also voted to delay further debate on the nationally influential standards until March, with a final adoption vote now scheduled for May.

In the meantime, the draft curriculum is practically a parody of itself. Students, for example, will be asked to "describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association." The proposed standards mandate lessons on McCarthyism include "discussions" on "confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government."

References to the word "imperialism" were replaced with "expansionism." Ironically enough, Republican board members also demanded that references to "propaganda" in a section on World War I be removed .

The Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based group which monitors public education in Texas, complained about "blatant politicization of social studies curriculum." The TFN's Kathy Miller added, "When partisan politicians take a wrecking ball to the work of teachers and scholars, you get a document that looks more like a party platform than a social studies curriculum."

There may be a temptation for those of us outside Texas to dismiss this as a localized setback for knowledge and modernity, which will undermine schools in the Lone Star State. But let's not forget, as Mariah Blake explains in the new print edition of the Monthly, Texans won't be the only ones who suffer as a result of this board's ignorance and ideological agenda: "McLeroy and his ultraconservative crew have unparalleled power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come."

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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DON'T CLAIM A MANTLE YOU CAN'T CARRY.... As long as the Republican National Committee wants to pretend that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message is "rooted in ideals and principles that the Republican Party has advocated since its inception" -- a claim that's as wrong as it is audacious -- perhaps now would be a good time to note the roll call on the vote to honor King as an annual holiday.

The battle of MLK Day went on for years, with state-by-state flare-ups dragging on for years after Senate and House overwhelmingly passed the holiday in Oct. 1983.

President Reagan, who initially opposed it, relented and signed the bill -- and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), then a congressman, voted against it. He recanted in 1990 and backed an unsuccessful state referendum to honor the civil rights leader and has since regretted his decision.

A dozen Senators who voted on the measure are still in the upper chamber -- ten who voted yes, and two Republicans who voted against the holiday, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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COAKLEY'S CLOSING STATEMENT.... State Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), an accomplished attorney and public advocate, knows the importance of a strong closing statement. So, the day before the special election in Massachusetts, Coakley is turning her final message to voters over to President Obama.

This new ad, released about an hour ago, takes footage from yesterday's campaign rally, and features the president telling voters, "Martha knows the struggles Massachusetts's working families face because she's lived those struggles. She's fought for the people of Massachusetts every single day. As attorney general, she took on Wall Street, recovered millions for Massachusetts taxpayers. She went after big insurance companies, took on predatory lenders. That's what Martha Coakley's about."

In the ad's conclusion, Obama reminds voters, "Every vote matters. Every voice matters. We need you on Tuesday." Not surprisingly, the new commercial makes no reference to Coakley's opponent.

As far as 11th-hour polling, the Democratic campaign's internals reportedly show Coakley up by two -- those same internals showed her trailing by a few points late last week. As for Research 2000, the outfit conducted a poll in Massachusetts last week that showed Coakley leading conservative Republican Scott Brown by eight, 49% to 41%. Over the weekend, R2K ran another poll, showing the two candidates tied at 48% each. Noting the results, Laura Clawson added, "As we keep saying, this one comes down to GOTV."

And speaking of GOTV, the Republican Party in Massachusetts tends to have weak organizational infrastructure, and as a result, Brown's campaign is reportedly "hiring scores of paid temp workers from temp agencies to help staff Brown's get-out-the-vote effort, work that's typically handled by unpaid volunteers."

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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SUING, INSTEAD OF THANKING.... Now that major banks and financial institutions are seeing huge profits, and paying out multi-million-dollar bonuses, President Obama has proposed a new "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee." The industry is not fond of the idea.

The president believes the banks accepted the bailout money when they were on the verge of collapse, but have since recovered nicely, so it's time for the industry to pay Americans back for the money we loaned them.

To show their gratitude for Americans bailing them out after their irresponsibility brought the global system to its knees, Wall Street executives are considering a lawsuit to fight the fee proposed by Obama.

Wall Street's main lobbying arm has hired a top Supreme Court litigator to study a possible legal battle against a bank tax proposed by the Obama administration, on the theory that it would be unconstitutional, according to three industry officials briefed on the matter.

In an e-mail message sent last week to the heads of Wall Street legal departments, executives of the lobbying group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, wrote that a bank tax might be unconstitutional because it would unfairly single out and penalize big banks, according to these officials, who did not want to be identified to preserve relationships with the group's members.

Paul Krugman added, "[T]his isn't quite the classic definition of chutzpah, which is when you murder your parents, then plead for mercy because you're an orphan. It's more like being a drunk driver who, after killing a number of pedestrians, received life-saving treatment at a nearby hospital -- and responds by suing the doctor."

As for the politics, I continue to marvel at the fact that conservative Republicans, including Scott Brown, are taking the banks' side on this. It's tempting to think Americans would reject such nonsense, but then again, Massachusetts seems poised to elect Brown anyway, and the GOP seems largely unafraid of pretending to be populist while fighting to shield Wall Street from burdens -- such as paying us back for the money we spent to rescue them from their own recklessness.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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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 final poll in Massachusetts from Public Policy Polling shows Republican Scott Brown leading Democrat Martha Coakley by five, 51% to 46%.

* Independent political handicapper Stu Rothenberg rates the race a "Lean Takeover," and predicted this morning that Brown is "headed for a comfortable win."

* Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R), who was considered the Republican frontrunner in this year's gubernatorial race in Minnesota, has decided not to run this year. State lawmakers Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer are now considered the two most competitive remaining Republicans.

* In New York, a Marist Poll shows Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) leading former Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) in a hypothetical primary, 43% to 24%. A third of Dems polled were undecided.

* The latest Rasmussen poll in California shows Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) with fairly narrow leads over her likely GOP challengers.

* In Colorado, the latest Rasmussen poll shows former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton (R) leading appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in this year's Senate race, 49% to 37%, despite Norton's shift to the hard right.

* Sen. Russ Feingold's (D) re-election prospects in Wisconsin improved when it was reported that his Republican challenger failed to pay state income tax in four of the last five years.

* And in Nebraska, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) isn't up for re-election until 2012, but in the meantime, his approval rating has dropped to 42% in a new Omaha World-Herald poll. The drop is attributed to public attitudes about Nelson and the health care reform bill.

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

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THE BACKUP PLAN.... No one can say with confidence what voters in Massachusetts will do tomorrow, or how members of Congress will react to the results. But it's hardly a stretch to suspect that health care reform, Ted Kennedy's life's work and a policy goal sought for decades by lawmakers from both parties, would suffer a devastating blow if Scott Brown (R) comes out on top.

Of course, if Martha Coakley (D) wins, reform becomes a near certainty. But with the outcome in Massachusetts very much in doubt, there was quite a bit of talk over the weekend about the backup plan -- what Democratic policymakers would do if Bay State voters ignore their values and give Senate Republicans the votes needed to block the legislative process for the rest of the year.

At this point, the approach generating the most attention is the most straightforward -- the House passes the Senate bill, sends it to the president for his signature, and Congress moves on to other issues while making changes to the health policy in the budget bill. This, the NYT, is the "favored fallback" among some Democratic leaders.

Of course, we know the Senate bill isn't exactly popular in the House, especially among the more progressive members of the caucus. Left with limited alternatives, and facing the this-or-nothing possibility, would they accept it anyway?

Jonathan Cohn ponders the likelihood, emphasizing the fact that the entire health care reform debate could end as quickly as this week -- the House passes the bill by Friday, the president puts his signature on it soon after.

Would House Democrats go along? It's hardly a given. Centrists, many of them as ambivalent about reform as their Senate counterparts, would be tempted to use Coakley's defeat as an excuse for voting "no." Liberals, meanwhile, would chafe at supporting a bill that includes so many unpleasant compromises.

But there are good substantive reasons why both sides should be willing to vote "yes." And there are some good political reasons, as well.

For centrists, the substantive reason is that the Senate bill is, in most respects, closer to what they originally wanted anyway. Centrist Democrats skittish about the House bill typically complained that it was just too much -- too much spending and too much regulation. But the Senate bill has less of both. [...]

[T]he arguments for voting for the final House-Senate compromise are just as relevant here: Flawed though it is, the Senate bill would represent a monumental policy achievement, one that would benefit tens of millions. And House Democrats could always try to fix the bill later on -- maybe even quickly, if they can take advantage of the reconciliation process, which would remain available.

Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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BIDEN HIGHLIGHTS OBSTRUCTIONISM.... It can use all the attention it can get.

Joe Biden, seeming to lay the groundwork for the case for moving health care legislation forward without 60 votes in the Senate, described the supermajority rule as a perversion of the Constitution.

"As long as I have served ... I've never seen, as my uncle once said, the Constitution stood on its head as they've done. This is the first time every single solitary decisions has required 60 senators," he said at a Florida fundraiser, according to the pool report. "No democracy has survived needing a super majority."

It's an unsustainable course for our political system. Policymakers, when given power by the electorate, need to be able to govern.

We have a system that allows the voters to reject a failed minority, but nevertheless allows that minority to stop the majority from advancing its agenda. Indeed, the system has a built-in incentive that encourages and empowers the minority to guarantee the failure of the majority.

Sure, the procedural mechanisms have been in place for quite a long while, but we're dealing with a new legislative dynamic now, which has no precedent -- a mandatory Senate supermajority on literally every vote of consequence.

This just can't last as a political system.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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GOP TALKING POINT WATCH: BUSH RESCUED ECONOMY.... On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Time's Mark Halperin raised a fairly provocative observation about President Obama -- that the knock on him from the 2008 presidential campaign was largely backwards.

As a young senator running for the White House, Obama was derided by detractors as someone who could inspire people with a great speech, but wasn't prepared to lead an administration. Halperin argued that one year in, the opposite appears to be true.

"He's done, I think, an extraordinary job running the government ... under difficult circumstances. He managed the economic crisis and kept the world from going into a depression. He staffed the government with very quality, quality people. He showed he could be commander-in-chief and manage these two difficult wars. What I think, ironically, the problem has been is he's not inspired the country to feel a sense of optimism and renewal and to be unified in a bipartisan way. Those are the things I think people thought he would excel at."

Now, there's obviously something contrarian about this. Halperin's description of President Obama's first year, in effect, is that he's a capable, competent technocrat who should be giving more feel-good speeches. I don't imagine many people expected Halperin would be saying this a year ago.

But what was especially interesting was the knee-jerk partisanship of former Bush aide Karen Hughes, who responded to Halperin by saying, twice, that Obama "misread the country" by trying to enact the agenda he ran on, thereby "exacerbating" the public's "anxiety." She added:

"I have to disagree with you, Mark, about rescuing the economy, I think that happened before President Bush left office when they took the action that they did on TARP, and the banks have now repaid much of that money, but that's what stabilized the economy and prevented the collapse of the financial system."

Be on the lookout for this one -- as the economy improves and the Bush Recession ends, Republicans will try to convince people that Bush, not Obama, deserves credit for rescuing the economy. While the evidence is overwhelming that it was the stimulus that created economic growth and pulled the economy bank from the brink, Karen Hughes -- and soon, her cohorts -- would us believe that the economy had already been rescued before Obama took office.

They're truly shameless, but I can only assume this will be a major talking point fairly soon.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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40 AND 44.... During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama reflected a bit on the historical model he had in mind for his presidency. He would occasionally reference Ronald Reagan, not because the Democrat wanted to emulate the conservative policies of the '80s, but because of the 40th president "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not."

As Paul Glastris, the Monthly's editor in chief, noted in the new issue, "Over the past year, Obama has reportedly become more and more convinced of, and reassured by, the parallels between himself and the fortieth president.... The parallels are indeed hard to miss. Both men took the oath of office amid worst-since-the-Depression recessions, handed to them by administrations widely considered to have been ineffectual. As a result, both were able to pass major pieces of legislation that represented ideologically bold breaks with the past. But both also ended their first year weakened by sagging poll numbers driven by high unemployment."


This came to mind because the new ABC News/Washington Post poll took particular note of the fact that President's Obama's "course in approval almost precisely matches that of the last president to take office in the tempest of a recession, Ronald Reagan, who went from 68 percent job approval shortly after he took office to 52 percent at the one-year mark. Obama's gone from 68 percent to 53 percent in the comparable period."

The WaPo's Dan Balz added that these similarities have not only been noticed by White House aides, but that the parallels are considered important: "After the New Deal and the Great Society, Reagan made government the enemy and, through tax cuts and generally unsuccessful attempts to cut spending, sought to scale down the size and power of Washington. What Obama proposed -- for the economy, health care and energy -- amounted to an attempt to reverse much of what Reagan had done. As Reagan transformed his political era, Obama hoped to transform his."

Of course, in 1982, Reagan's GOP suffered some major midterm setback, but it prompted the White House to deal with Democratic leaders like Tip O'Neill, who were serious about policy and problem solving. Obama, meanwhile, is confronted with an opposition party that doesn't understand (or even want to understand) public policy.

Nevertheless, Reagan seized the opportunity of his circumstances to change the way Americans felt about government's role in public life, which is to say, the then-president labeled government "the problem." Obama's challenge is to seize his opportunity to make the opposite case -- after conservatism failed on every possible front, the country could finally be receptive to the notion that competent, effective government is a tool that can be used to create economic growth and global stability.

So far, it's not going well, and Obama's message is struggling. In January 1981, Republicans were saying the same thing.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE DAY.... On CNN's "Reliable Sources" yesterday, host Howard Kurtz noted the preponderance of high-profile personalities who go back and forth between media and politics. Conservative radio host Michael Medved highlighted the line-up on one cable network in particular.

"I do think that one thing that is going to be tougher now with Sarah Palin playing such an active role [on Fox News] is the slogan 'fair and balanced,'" Medved said. "What does that mean, when the two leading Republican candidates, according to polls, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, are both on your network regularly?"

I don't mean to nitpick, because Medved's point is a good one, but I have to wonder -- it's going to be "tougher" to justify "fair and balanced" now that Fox News is paying Palin? Wasn't it pretty tough to defend the silly slogan before the network hired her?

We're not just talking about GOP figures who are on the network regularly. At this point, the Fox News payroll includes Palin, who certainly intends to run for president; Rick Santorum, who's practically thrown his hat in the ring; Newt Gingrich, who keeps talking up his interest in the campaign; and Mike Huckabee, who by some accounts is the still-really-early frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

Then there's the stable of Republican operatives also on the Fox News payroll, including Karl Rove.

Will it be "tougher" going forward for Fox News to pretend the pretense of professionalism and independence? Yeah, I suppose you could say that.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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January 17, 2010

QUOTE OF THE DAY.... In Massachusetts this morning, Scott Brown campaigned in West Springfield, where the conservative Senate hopeful complained about the tone of the campaign.

"I'll tell you what," Brown said, using a megaphone to address the crowd. "There's negative campaigning, and then there's malicious campaigning."

"She's malicious!" a man in the crowd cried out. "She's a phony!" shouted another. "Shove a curling iron up her butt!" a third man interjected a few moments later.

Yes, because it's not ironic at all to complain about "malicious" campaigning while your supporters call for assaulting the state Attorney General with a curling iron.

As for the rest of the afternoon, President Obama is scheduled to campaign alongside Martha Coakley in about an hour. Around the same time, Brown will host a rally with a retired baseball player, a retired football player, and the guy who played a mailman on "Cheers" 20 years ago.

As for the controversy surrounding Brown's comments about President Obama's family, a spokesperson for the conservative Republican said Brown "doesn't believe" that Obama's parents were unmarried when he was born. The GOP campaign did not, however, apologize for the ugly remarks.

DNC spokesperson Hari Sevugan added: "Why did he say it then? Whether it's on this issue, or choice or taxes, Scott Brown has a disturbing and telling history of saying one thing at one time, and another thing later on. The only thing that's clear is that Scott Brown is not who he says he is."

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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ON THE EVE OF THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY.... With the release of a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, the network's summary of the landscape seems fairly reasonable.

Bruised if unbroken, Barack Obama faces shrinking public confidence, increasingly negative views of the country's direction and far lower ratings than those he carried triumphantly into the White House a year ago this week.

But it could be worse.

Despite their disappointments, 53 percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of Obama's job performance overall -- 15 points lower than his opening grade, but still just over half at the one-year mark. He remains personally popular, if far less so. And confidence in his leadership, as weakened as it is, greatly exceeds that in the Republicans in Congress, or, for that matter, in his own party.

The president's 53% approval rating is up a few points from December, and his personal qualities still remain relatively strong -- 57% believe Obama understands the problems of people like them, and 63% consider him a strong leader. A 58% majority have a favorable view of the president personally. Notwithstanding the assumptions of Dowd, Gerson, and other Villagers, 55% approve of the president's handling of the terrorist threat, and 62% approve of his handling of the failed Christmas-day terror plot. Looks like the Cheneys' efforts to undermine the administration fell flat.

For the White House, that's the good news. The bad news is the public remains in a deeply sour mood, and has grown increasingly impatient. Obama's numbers have dropped below the 50% threshold on the economy and health care, and the number of Americans who believe the country is on the right track is lower than it's been since February. Ouch.

But in keeping with the year-long trend, Republicans are simply not the beneficiary (pdf) of public discontent. Only 24% of the public has confidence in congressional Republicans "to make the right decisions for the country's future." The number for congressional Democrats is at least a little better at 32%, while the president's number is nearly double that of the GOP at 47%.

What's more, "when it comes to assigning blame for the nation's economic woes, about twice as many fault the George W. Bush administration as do Obama's."

Different people will look at these numbers and draw different lessons, but for me, the bottom line remains pretty straightforward: the Obama presidency still has incredible opportunities. The president has led at a time of painful economic difficulties; he's tackled the most challenging domestic policy debate of the last 75 years; and he's faced a relentless, odious opposition that has been focused on destroying his presidency since the day of the inauguration. And he still has a 53% approval rating.

The success of Year Two will, oddly enough, be dictated in part by the voters of Massachusetts in just a couple of days. But for all the potholes and hurdles that remain, President Obama has pulled the nation out of a deep ditch. His standing, like the public's optimism, will improve if stays on track and resists the urge to slam on the brake.

Steve Benen 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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A MONEY-MAKING OPPORTUNITY.... RNC Chairman Michael Steele is using his role in the Republican Party to generate quite a bit of money for himself, most notably through his outside paid speeches and secretly-written book. Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin is using her role in the Republican Party to generate quite a bit of money for herself, most notably through her new Fox News gig, her own paid speeches, and her striking payday for a photo shoot.

And, of course, Tea Party organizers are generating quite a bit of money for themselves, putting together a National Tea Party Convention with rather exorbitant ticket prices.

Taken together, the NYT's Frank Rich raises a good point -- we're witnessing "the rise of buckrakers who are exploiting the party's anarchic confusion and divisions to cash in."

Tea partiers hate the G.O.P. establishment and its Wall Street allies, starting with the Bushies who created TARP, almost as much as they do Obama and his Wall Street pals. When Steele and Palin pay lip service to the movement, they are happy to glom on to its anti-tax, anti-Obama, anti-government, anti-big-bank vitriol. But they don't call for any actual action against the bailed-out perpetrators of the financial crisis. They'd never ask for investments to put ordinary Americans back to work. They have no policies to forestall foreclosures or protect health insurance for the tea partiers who've been shafted by hard times. Their only economic principle beside tax cuts is vilification of the stimulus that did save countless jobs for firefighters, police officers and teachers at the state and local level.

The Democrats' efforts to counter the deprivation and bitterness spawned by the Great Recession are indeed timid and imperfect. The right has a point when it says that the Senate health care votes of Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were bought with pork. But at least their constituents can share the pigout. Hustlers like Steele and Palin take the money and run. All their followers get in exchange is a lousy tea party T-shirt. Or a ghost-written self-promotional book.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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GORE CALLS OUT MURKOWSKI.... We learned this week that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska is weighing a measure to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate and limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The amendment Murkowski is pushing was written by corporate lobbyists representing energy companies.

It went largely below the radar, but Al Gore wrote an email message this week, through the Climate Protection Action Fund, that came fairly close to the former vice president accusing Murkowski of corruption.

Efforts like [Murkowski's] are designed to do one thing and one thing only -- slow our transition to a clean energy economy that will create millions of new jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and solve the climate crisis. [...]

The very last thing we should do in the fight to end the climate crisis is throw away tools that we already know are effective at reducing pollution. But that's exactly what Senator Murkowski's proposal does.

For decades, the Clean Air Act has kept millions of tons of pollutants out of our air and water. Senator Murkowski's proposal would create an Alaska-sized loophole in the Clean Air Act, giving a pass to the biggest carbon polluters.

When it comes to former vice presidents, only Dick Cheney gets to have his emails republished as news articles. That said, it's not every day that Al Gore calls out a sitting senator like this, blasting a lawmaker for pushing a "toxic" amendment "literally drafted with lobbyists for the oil and coal industry."

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

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A FEATURED GUEST IN VIRGINIA.... This week, radical TV preacher Pat Robertson told his national television audience that Haiti is "cursed" because the country "swore a pact to the devil" in order to rid itself of "Napoleon the third, or whatever." It generated widespread revulsion among reasonable people everywhere.

But it also generated a legitimate question, especially among conservatives, "Pat who?" To hear many on the right tell it, the crazed televangelist may have been relevant in the past -- Robertson defeated sitting V.P. H.W. Bush in the Iowa caucuses two decades ago -- but to argue that Virginia's radical cleric still has any significance in the contemporary conservative movement is a mistake.

At least, that's the argument. There is evidence to the contrary.

For those wondering if controversial Rev. Pat Robertson would be in attendance at today's Inauguration of [Virginia] Gov. Bob McDonnell, we've got an answer: Yes, indeed. Here he is at the first event of the day, a prayer breakfast held this morning at the Richmond Marriott, being greeted by Dr. Steve Long of Richmond.

However, according to McDonnell's aides, Robertson has not been given the honor of an invitation to sit behind McDonnell on the portico of the Capitol during the swearing-in. Despite McDonnell's long time friendship with the Virginia Beach televanglist, this marks a departure from the Inauguration of Virginia's last Republican governor, when Robertson was seated not far behind incoming Gov. Jim Gilmore. He also attended the inauguration of Gov. George Allen in 1994.

McDonnell has known Robertson for more than 20 years, since the incoming governor attended the law school founded by the minister.

Under the circumstances, one might have expected the new governor and his aides to ask Robertson to stay home, rather than make an appearance at the prayer breakfast. But the new governor and the radical TV preacher are obviously close.

I don't want to exaggerate matters. Robertson's power and influence in Republican circles has clearly waned since the heyday of the Christian Coalition. But as his appearance at a McDonnell inaugural event yesterday shows, the televangelist is still a relevant figure -- a fact further bolstered by Republicans' willingness to appear on the "700 Club," and seek out Robertson's political support. What's more, George W. Bush, who only left office a year ago, appeared at two Robertson-hosted Christian Coalition events and the then-president even met with Robertson in early 2003 to discuss the war in Iraq.

For most of the country, this crazed TV preacher should be excluded from polite company. The Republican Party of the 21st century disagrees.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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BAYH NEEDS BETTER TALKING POINTS.... The NYT's Adam Nagourney has an item today that hints at a meme that the media establishment will be eager to embrace: when Democrats were swept into office, they misread their mandate.

Some of the party's least progressive leaders seem anxious to help.

Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, said the atmosphere was a serious threat to Democrats. "I do think there's a chance that Congressional elites mistook their mandate," Mr. Bayh said. "I don't think the American people last year voted for higher taxes, higher deficits and a more intrusive government. But there's a perception that that is what they are getting."

Perhaps. But wouldn't that "perception," which is clearly wrong, be easier to correct if leading senators like Evan Bayh were more forcefully setting the record straight?

I obviously didn't hear the full exchange between Bayh and Nagourney; maybe the Hoosier offered a strong defense of the party that didn't make the article. But the quote is a bit of a mess. After all, Obama and congressional Dems cut taxes with the recovery package; the huge deficits were inherited from Bush/Cheney fiscal irresponsibility; and the government isn't becoming more "intrusive," especially when compared to the GOP officials who endorsed warrantless surveillance of Americans' communications.

There are, no doubt, widespread misperceptions about the public policy landscape. What Republicans lack in reason and governing abilities they make up for with an unparalleled ability to get people to believe things that aren't true. But isn't that why it's up to prominent Democratic lawmakers like Evan Bayh to help highlight the truth?

As for the bigger picture, I'm not entirely sure what the larger point -- the "mistook their mandate" tack -- even means. Democrats presented voters with a policy agenda, and the electorate handed the party the reins. Since then, despite unprecedented obstructionism from Republicans, Dems have gone about trying to pass the agenda the party ran on.

Isn't that what majority parties are supposed to do? How would Bayh have preferred to see Democrats govern in 2009?

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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BASTARD.... As the Senate special election in Massachusetts has intensified over the last couple of weeks, voters have learned some unpleasant things about Republican Scott Brown. Yesterday's revelation, however, is probably the ugliest.

As was first reported by Blue Mass Group, a Massachusetts-based political blog, Brown did an interview in 2008, around the time of Republican National Convention, to defend Sarah Palin as a candidate for national office. The interviewer raised the issue of the Alaska governor's family, so the conservative state senator decided to go after Barack Obama's parents.

"Barack's mom had him when she was, what, 18 years old?" Brown asked, drawing a parallel between Obama's mother and Palin's pregnant teenage daughter. When the interviewer noted that Obama's parents were married, Brown replied, "Well, I don't know about that."

The context is important here -- around the time of the interview, unhinged right-wing activists were pushing the line that Obama's parents weren't married, a claim that became central to the bizarre Birther conspiracy theory. Brown wasn't just attacking the future president and his parents during the interview; he was also lending credence to fringe right-wing stupidity.

For the record, there's ample documentation to show that Obama's parents were, in fact, married when he was born in Hawaii in 1961.

As for the Senate race, this clip has the potential to be damaging to Brown, in large part because it makes him seem like a nut. As Jon Chait noted, "By showing Brown endorsing a fringe right-wing pet theory ... it's more evidence of the fact that Brown is anything but the good government, uniter-not-a-divider moderate he pretends to be.... [O]n a visceral level, to watch him chortling as he calls Obama illegitimate is just gross and offensive. To me it exposes the man far more deeply than Coakley not knowing who Curt Schilling is."

Much of yesterday was spent discussing Brown failing to offer health care coverage to his own staff. That's interesting, I suppose, but defending Sarah Palin while attacking Barack Obama's parents and endorsing a fringe right-wing conspiracy theory seems to be far more devastating in showing who Scott Brown really is.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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January 16, 2010

A POPULIST WEDGE?.... The "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee" proposed by President Obama is hardly a draconian cudgel, swung at irresponsible banks. It's about repaying a debt to the public -- as the president put it this week in a message to the industry, "We want our money back."

There was some speculation this week about the politics: "[I]t does put Republicans in a box. It forces them to make a choice of siding with the banks or not. And who is going to want to argue that banks shouldn't pay for their own bailout?"

About a nano-second after the White House unveiled the proposal, Republicans -- the ones who hoped to position themselves as populist champions -- immediately denounced the fee as outrageous, and swore to fight to protect those responsible for the crisis from bearing any burdens. Atrios noted that the fee is too modest, but added, "[P]olitics-wise, I'm struck by how little it takes to actually call Republicans on their 'populist' bluff."

In a preview of an argument we're likely to hear quite a bit of in the coming months, President Obama used his weekly address this morning to get the debate started in earnest.

The president laid the blame for much of the financial crisis where it belonged: "Much of the turmoil of this recession was caused by the irresponsibility of banks and financial institutions on Wall Street. These financial firms took huge, reckless risks in pursuit of short-term profits and soaring bonuses. They gambled with borrowed money, without enough oversight or regard for the consequences."

Obama added that this made TARP a necessary evil, though it was his administration that made sure the cost of the program was cut and that most of the money was recovered. But that's not good enough: "We want the taxpayers' money back, and we're going to collect every dime."

The president went on to make his case, which should, at least in theory, put Republicans in a tougher position:

"That is why, this week, I proposed a new fee on major financial firms to compensate the American people for the extraordinary assistance they provided to the financial industry. And the fee would be in place until the American taxpayer is made whole. Only the largest financial firms with more than $50 billion in assets will be affected, not community banks. And the bigger the firm -- and the more debt it holds -- the larger the fee. Because we are not only going to recover our money and help close our deficits; we are going to attack some of the banking practices that led to the crisis.

"That's important. The fact is, financial firms play an essential role in our economy. They provide capital and credit to families purchasing homes, students attending college, businesses looking to start up or expand. This is critical to our recovery. That is why our goal with this fee -- and with the common-sense financial reforms we seek -- is not to punish the financial industry. Our goal is to prevent the abuse and excess that nearly led to its collapse. Our goal is to promote fair dealings while punishing those who game the system; to encourage sustained growth while discouraging the speculative bubbles that inevitably burst. Ultimately, that is in the shared interest of the financial industry and the American people.

"Of course, I would like the banks to embrace this sense of mutual responsibility. So far, though, they have ferociously fought financial reform. The industry has even joined forces with the opposition party to launch a massive lobbying campaign against common-sense rules to protect consumers and prevent another crisis.

"Now, like clockwork, the banks and politicians who curry their favor are already trying to stop this fee from going into effect. The very same firms reaping billions of dollars in profits, and reportedly handing out more money in bonuses and compensation than ever before in history, are now pleading poverty. It's a sight to see.

"Those who oppose this fee say the banks can't afford to pay back the American people without passing on the costs to their shareholders and customers. But that's hard to believe when there are reports that Wall Street is going to hand out more money in bonuses and compensation just this year than the cost of this fee over the next ten years. If the big financial firms can afford massive bonuses, they can afford to pay back the American people.

"Those who oppose this fee have also had the audacity to suggest that it is somehow unfair. That because these firms have already returned what they borrowed directly, their obligation is fulfilled. But this willfully ignores the fact that the entire industry benefited not only from the bailout, but from the assistance extended to AIG and homeowners, and from the many unprecedented emergency actions taken by the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and others to prevent a financial collapse. And it ignores a far greater unfairness: sticking the American taxpayer with the bill.

"That is unacceptable to me, and to the American people. We're not going to let Wall Street take the money and run. We're going to pass this fee into law. And I'm going to continue to work with Congress on common-sense financial reforms to protect people and the economy from the kind of costly and painful crisis we've just been through. Because after a very tough two years, after a crisis that has caused so much havoc, if there is one lesson that we can learn, it's this: we cannot return to business as usual."

I have a suggestion for the WH speechwriters working on the SOTU: "There are those who say we can't possibly ask anything of the very financial institutions that brought us to the brink of collapse. But I've got news for them, too: Yes. We. Can."

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a follow-up look at a story we started following about a month ago, with the religious right complaining about gay Republican groups being allowed to have a presence at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

A fairly new group called GOProud signed on as an official co-sponsor of CPAC, arguably the year's largest far-right gathering, touting its opposition to health care reform and the estate tax. Some religious right groups, whose hatred for gays trumps every other policy concern, threatened to boycott the annual conservative event unless GOProud was excluded.

This week, a Virginia law school created by the late Jerry Falwell followed through on the threat.

CPAC has resisted the far right's efforts to pressure it to drop GOProud as a co-sponsor of the popular conference, even though some groups have threatened to boycott the event. Last month, CPAC director Lisa De Pasquale told Hot Air that she was "satisfied" that GOProud "do not represent a 'radical leftist agenda' and thus "should not be rejected as a CPAC cosponsor. David Keene, the head of CPAC's main organizing group, assured the far right that GOProud would not be allowed to have any speakers at the conference.

These concessions weren't enough for Liberty University Law School. Last month, Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Liberty Law School Dean Mat Staver, joined by other conservative evangelical leaders, wrote a letter to Keene with their objections. Staver has now announced that since they never received a "formal response," they are dropping their co-sponsorship.

It's probably not too big a loss for CPAC -- it's not hurting for right-wing sponsors, and the Liberty University Law School isn't exactly a powerhouse in the conservative movement -- but it's a reminder that for some in the religious right, a gay conservative ally is no ally at all.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* In Alabama, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bradley Byrne got himself into considerable trouble recently when he said publicly, "I believe there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be literally true and parts that are not." This seemingly reasonable observation generated intense right-wing pushback, and threatened to derail his statewide campaign. Byrne has since backpedaled, assuring voters, "I believe the Bible is true. Every word of it."

* The Vatican newspaper and radio station have denounced the film "Avatar," accusing it of promoting "the worship of nature."

* Malaysian officials hope to contain a spate of recent attacks on Christian churches.

* And a scholar on Vodou reflects on the faith tradition and this week's devastating earthquake in Haiti. (thanks to reader A.C. for the tip)

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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TEA PARTY TAKEOVER.... The inmates are eyeing new ways to seize control of the asylum.

The Tea Party movement ignited a year ago, fueled by anti-establishment anger. Now, Tea Party activists are trying to take over the establishment, ground up.

Across the country, they are signing up to be Republican precinct leaders, a position so low-level that it often remains vacant, but which comes with the ability to vote for the party executives who endorse candidates, approve platforms and decide where the party spends money.

A new group called the National Precinct Alliance says it has a coordinator in nearly every state to recruit Tea Party activists to fill the positions and has already swelled the number of like-minded members in Republican Party committees in Arizona and Nevada. Its mantra is this: take the precinct, take the state, take the party -- and force it to nominate conservatives rather than people they see as liberals in Republican clothing.

It's who these folks consider "liberals in Republican clothing" that's perhaps most striking. Today's Republican establishment is, as far as this crowd is concerned, a bunch of sellouts. Just as the Republican Party has become as far-right and stridently ideological as it's ever been, this still-fringe "movement" insists even conservatives aren't conservative enough.

We're talking about a well-intentioned, passionate, and deeply confused group of people -- the folks who believe Democrats are "fascists," the president is Hitler, and programs like Social Security and Medicare are socialist, unconstitutional boondoggles that need to be abolished -- who are now intent on dragging an already far-right party over the cliff.

There's nothing wrong with passionate citizens getting involved in the political process. But the American mainstream may not appreciate the fact that uninformed crazies -- who think death panels are real, but global warming isn't -- intend to take over the Republican infrastructure, more than they already have.

Under normal circumstances, the American mainstream would see this and be repelled in the other direction. A Republican brand that was already in tatters after the extraordinary and spectacular failures of Bush, Cheney, DeLay, et al, would suffer in the eyes of the public as the right-wing fringe gained more influence.

But that's what makes 2010 dangerous -- the mainstream doesn't realize the radical nature of the Tea Party "movement"; Democratic voters feel underwhelmed by the pace of progress; and the electorate may very well reward radicalization.

The consequences of the rise of nihilists are hard to predict, but the possibilities are chilling.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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GETTING BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM RIGHT-WING FRIENDS.... Massachusetts is obviously right smack in the middle of the political world this weekend, with Bay State voters poised to decide on Tuesday whether legislating will be possible for the foreseeable future. To help Republican Scott Brown secure a victory, some pretty unsavory characters are investing considerable resources in his campaign.

Mike Madden reported this week, for example, that Brown has received the backing of far-right anti-immigration and anti-gay organizations. As Madden noted, "[S]upport from fringe groups does underscore the point national Democrats and labor groups have been trying to make about Brown over the last week, as they leap to rescue Coakley's campaign: he's far too conservative for Massachusetts voters."

Lee Fang added yesterday that it's not just far-right culture warriors rallying behind Brown's candidacy -- the corporate/lobbyist wing of the conservative movement sees Brown as someone who'll stand in the way of accountability for Wall Street, especially after he announced his opposition to a financial crisis responsibility fee on large banks.

Brown's defense of the financial industry has not been ignored by Wall Street. Wall Street's two largest political enforcers are also out fighting to elect him:

* The Wall Street front group FreedomWorks is mobilizing get out the vote efforts for Brown this weekend. FreedomWorks organized the very first tea party protests, and has used its extensive staff and resources to mobilize rallies and advocacy campaigns on behalf of corporate interests. Dick Armey, who as a corporate lobbyist represented AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch during the bailouit, is the leader of FreedomWorks. FreedomWorks is also funded and chaired by Steve Forbes and Frank Sands of Sands Capital Management.

* The Wall Street front group Club for Growth is strongly "boosting" Brown and is expected to run ads in support for him. According to recent disclosures, the Club for Growth is funded by a $1.4 million dollar donation from investor Stephen Jacksons of Stephens Groups Inc, a $1.4 million dollar donation from broker Richard Gilder, and $210,000-$630,000 donations from at least 10 other investors and financial industry professionals. The Club is also supporting a slate of candidates to repeal health reform, while its other endorsed candidates have opposed a financial truth commission.

I'm not in Massachusetts and have no idea if voters are aware of who's helping Brown and why, but it seems like the kind of details that might have an effect on the outcome.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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WILL BIOLOGICS POLICY PUSH PHRMA AWAY?.... It looks like President Obama has decided to annoy the big pharmaceutical companies in a big way, enough to possibly push PhRMA, which has supported the reform initiative, into the opposition camp.

At issue is the president's support for a specific measure that would shorten the time that expensive biotechnology drugs would be shielded from generic competition.

Any White House intervention would be welcome news to generic pharmaceutical companies, as well as to some consumer groups, insurers and big employers, which have complained that the proposed House and Senate bills would not allow for robust competition. [...]

Both the House and Senate bills would for the first time create rules by which so-called biologic drugs, which are made in living cells, would be subject to copycat competition, saving the health care system billions of dollars over 10 years.

The drugs, which include big sellers like the cancer drug Avastin and the arthritis drug Enbrel, can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. Biologics are not governed by the Hatch-Waxman Act, which covers generic competition for more conventional drugs made from chemicals, like Prozac or Lipitor. After the patent on a biologic drug expires, competitors may produce similar products, but they are treated by the health care system as if they were entirely new drugs, not substitutes like generics.

To retain incentives for innovation, both the House and Senate bills would provide a brand-name biologic drug with 12 years of protection from competition, even if the drug's patents expire before that.

The matter appeared settled when the House and Senate passed their versions, but the president personally intervened on this point during this week's negotiations, pushing to make the exclusivity window smaller than the industry wants. For PhRMA, that means fewer profits. For consumers, especially those fighting cancer, it means more competition and lower prices. In other words, Obama is making the final bill even better.

To put it mildly, the drug manufacturers' lobby isn't happy, and is now threatening to pull its support for health care reform. But as Josh Marshall noted, it's a little late in the game: "Everyone's already voted. In both chambers. Perhaps someone could change their position if one of the big ticket compromise issues -- taxes, abortion, exchanges, etc. -- didn't go their way. But here, is the idea that someone is going to change their vote based on a small revision to the number of years of patent protection against generics because Billy Tauzin giving the ceremonial thumbs down? There's not even really time or ambiguity enough to come up with a good cover for changing positions on this basis."

Of course, if voters in Massachusetts decide on Tuesday to kill this once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve a dysfunctional system that punishes millions, it may be a moot point.

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

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AND THEN THERE WERE 11.... At least for now, retirements among congressional Republicans outnumber those among congressional Democrats, and this week, we saw the numbers grow for both.

On Thursday, Rep. John Shadegg, a far-right Republican from Arizona, announced he would not seek re-election, making him the 14th GOP House member to retire before November's midterms. Yesterday, Rep. Vic Snyder, a center-left Democrat from Arkansas, followed suit.

"2010 will be a robust election year during which great forces collide to set the direction for our country for another two years," Mr. Snyder, 62, said in a statement. "I have concluded that these election-year forces are no match for the persuasive and powerful attraction of our three one-year old boys under the leadership of their three-year old brother, and I have decided not to run for re-election." [...]

Mr. Snyder has won past re-election bids comfortably, but his district has become increasingly conservative during his tenure, voting for 54 percent to 44 percent for John McCain in 2008.

Snyder is the 11th House Dem to forgo re-election this cycle, though five of the 11 are seeking higher office.

He was poised to face former Bush administration prosecutor Tim Griffin (R), a Karl Rove protege who was near the center of the U.S. Attorney "Purge" scandal, and the former head of the RNC's opposition research operation, where he developed a reputation as an amoral attack dog intent on destroying Democrats at all costs.

Republicans will no doubt look at Arkansas' 2nd district as a key pickup opportunity -- indeed, the NRCC was already targeting Snyder -- but National Journal notes that the district is arguably the friendliest in the state for Democrats, and there are a variety of credible Dem candidates, including state Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, who will be considered strong candidates if they choose to run.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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January 15, 2010

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

* Addressing the misery in Haiti: "Hundreds of U.S. troops touched down in earthquake-shattered Port-au-Prince overnight and were soon handing out food and water to stricken survivors, as relief groups struggled to deliver aid Friday and fears spread of unrest in Haiti's fourth day of desperation."

* Afghanistan: "A suicide bomber on Thursday walked into a crowded bazaar in the town of Deh Rawood, in Uruzgan province, and detonated his explosives, killing at least 16 civilians -- many of them women and children -- and wounding more than a dozen others, the province's governor and NATO military officials said. It was the largest insurgent attack against civilians since September. Meanwhile, a suicide car bombing in restive Helmand province killed an Afghan police officer and wounded four other officers and a civilian, according to NATO officials."

* Discouraging retail numbers from December. They were better than 2008, but that's not saying much.

* Report on Hasan shooting: "The military's defenses against threats from inside its own ranks are outdated and ineffective, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on Friday as he described the findings of a Pentagon review of the Nov. 5 shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas."

* Pentagon officials are aware of the possible repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" this year, and are engaged in internal discussions about implementation.

* On a related note, those fighting for fairness and improved military readiness will not get any help from Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who inexplicably still supports DADT.

* This seems like an issue that might have some potency in an election: "As Obama and progressives stand up to recover the money paid by hardworking Americans, conservatives are already showing signs they will fight to shield the Wall Street bankers who helped cause the crisis."

* Senate to consider climate bill in the spring?

* Nice to see that E&P is back, though it's missing some familiar faces.

* Paul Krugman follows up on the controversy surrounding Jon Gruber and his HHS contract.

* As institutions of higher ed struggle financially across the country, some universities are thinking about raising tuition rates just to pay for their athletic programs.

* And it was good to see the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists push their Doomsday Clock back one minute, in light of President Obama's sound foreign policy.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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A RACE TO THE BOTTOM.... With right-wing radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh and radical TV preacher Pat Robertson leading the way, it's been a painful week for far-right rhetoric, especially relating to the nightmarish disaster in Haiti.

But the offensive disaster-related rhetoric isn't done yet. I'm trying to decide which of these two is more nauseating. Was it this quote from Glenn Beck, blasting President Obama for responding quickly to the catastrophe...

"I also believe this is dividing the nation ... to where the nation sees him react so rapidly on Haiti and yet he couldn't react rapidly on Afghanistan. He couldn't react rapidly on Ft. Hood. He couldn't react rapidly on our own airplanes with an underwear bomber ... it doesn't make sense. [...]

"Three different events and Haiti is the only one. I think personally that it deepens he divide to see him react this rapidly to Haiti."

...or this quote from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), urging the Obama administration to quickly deport Haitian immigrants who reached the U.S. illegally.

"This sounds to me like open borders advocates exercising the Rahm Emanuel axiom: 'Never let a crisis go to waste,'" Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said in an e-mail message to ABCNews. "Illegal immigrants from Haiti have no reason to fear deportation, but if they are deported, Haiti is in great need of relief workers and many of them could be a big help to their fellow Haitians."

The Obama administration, fortunately, has no intention of listening to this kind of advice.

Nevertheless, I'm trying to decide which of these truly insulting remarks is more odious. It's a tough call.

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

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WHO VOTES AGAINST HELP FOR 9/11 RECOVERY WORKERS?.... It's a little late in the game to introduce a game-changing issue into the Senate special election in Massachusetts -- the election is Tuesday, after all -- but this revelation nevertheless tells voters something pretty important about Republican Scott Brown.

One month after the September 11th attacks, Scott Brown was one of only three Massachusetts State Representatives to vote against a bill to provide financial assistance to Red Cross workers who had volunteered with 9/11 recovery efforts, we've learned.

The Brown campaign acknowledged the vote to us, claiming the measure would have taxed already-strained state finances. [...]

On October 17th, 2001, Brown voted against a bill that would authorize "leaves of absence for certain Red Cross employees participating in Red Cross emergencies." The bill gave 15 days of paid leave each year to state workers called up by the Red Cross to respond to disasters. At the time, state workers called for such emergencies were required to use sick and vacation days.

This suggests an almost-stunning callousness. It's all the more galling that Brown knew it was going to pass -- 148 to 3 -- but opposed it anyway, just to make a point.

I shudder to think what Republicans would say about a Democratic lawmaker who cast a vote like this just a month after the 9/11 attacks

The Brown campaign has said the vote was about fiscal responsibility -- Massachusetts couldn't afford assistance for Red Cross workers who had volunteered with 9/11 recovery efforts.

That's not a bad line, I suppose, but here's my follow-up question: why, then, does Scott Brown recommend tax cuts now that the nation can't afford? Why would tax cuts for the wealthy be more important than help for 9/11 recovery volunteers?

DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz told Greg Sargent, "On a day with Scott Brown bringing in Rudy Giuliani, he ought to give the people of Massachusetts an explanation as to why he voted against relief for 9/11 workers. We knew Scott Brown was a shill for Wall Street and corporate interests, but I cannot imagine what excuse he comes up with for this vote. He ought to be ashamed of himself and he ought to apologize to the Mayor of New York."

It also reinforces the fact that Brown, a favorite of the Tea Party crowd, isn't even close to being a moderate. He's pretty far to the right on everything from torture to taxes, health care to the economy, Wall Street accountability to global warming.

But this 9/11 vote may lead on-the-fence voters to wonder whether Brown represents "a new day," or the worst of yesterday.

Update: On a related note, if the media is making a big deal about a DSCC ad that inadvertently showed the World Trade Center (the ad was pulled), Brown's vote on 9/11 recovery volunteers is at least as important, if not more so.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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OBAMA TO HIT THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL IN MASSACHUSETTS.... How serious is the threat of Massachusetts electing a far-right Republican to the Senate next week? Serious enough to send President Obama to the state to try to prevent it.

President Barack Obama will travel to Massachusetts to campaign with state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) on Sunday, a sign of the import the White House is attaching to the Senate special election race that could determine the fate of the Administration's health care bill.

The Obama visit is the clearest signal yet that the race, which was once expected to be a cakewalk for Coakley, has turned into a toss up with just four days of campaigning before ballots are cast on Tuesday. [...]

In dispatching the President to the Bay State, Democratic strategists are hoping to energize their party's base, which, to date, has been largely apathetic about the race generally and Coakley's candidacy specifically. Obama, on Friday, also recorded an automated phone call as well in an effort to gin up turnout for Coakley.

Rahm Emanuel reportedly started reaching out to party leaders in Massachusetts this week, asking if a presidential visit was necessary. We now know what he heard in response.

There is, of course, a political risk involved in having Obama, who remains a popular figure in Massachusetts, hit the campaign trail in support of a struggling candidate -- if Coakley loses after a presidential visit, it makes Obama look bad, and may suggest to other Dems that the president can't save them if they run into electoral trouble.

But the risks associated with a Coakley defeat are far more serious -- thanks to Republican obstructionism, a GOP victory on Tuesday would effectively end legislative progress for the rest of the year. After all, Dems would "only" have 59 votes, and because the Senate is broken, 41 members trump 59.

Time will tell if the president is able to make a difference, but the recent trajectory suggests Coakley needs something to motivate Democrats -- the campaign's internal polling, which showed Coakley up by a few points earlier this week now show her trailing by four points.

It's also worth emphasizing that there may be some misconceptions about GOP nominee Scott Brown. Massachusetts Republicans, after all, have a reputation for being relatively moderate on key issues, and it's possible that some voters think Brown may be more of an Olympia-Snowe-like senator, caucusing with the opposition party but willing to engage with the majority.

That's clearly not the case. Brown is surprisingly conservative -- he supports torture, opposes Wall Street accountability, supports more tax cuts for the wealthy, supports restrictions on abortion rights, opposes economic recovery efforts, opposes modest health care reform efforts, and doubts that global climate change is the result of human activity.

Brown doesn't intend to go to the Senate to play a constructive role in solving problems; he intends to go the Senate to push the Bush/Cheney agenda. That's not spin or rhetoric -- that's what he's effectively promised the voters of Massachusetts.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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HIGH INFIDELITY.... When it comes to political sex scandals, the electoral implications are entirely counter-intuitive. It's tempting to think that, even when the public is predisposed to overlook personal failings, Americans would be repulsed by hypocrisy -- those who boast of their pro-family values, condemn those who fail to meet their alleged high moral standards, and nevertheless get caught up in humiliating affairs.

But that rarely seems to happen. Take Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), for example.

The new survey of Nevada by Public Policy Polling (D) has a startling result about Republican Sen. John Ensign: Despite the sex scandal that obliterated his presidential ambitions last year, and has raised questions about payments made by Ensign's parents to the family of his ex-mistress, Ensign could still get reelected in 2012.

Only 38% of Nevada voters approve of Ensign's job performance, with 44% disapproving. However, he still leads three Democrats in hypothetical match-ups. He leads Rep. Shelly Berkley by 49%-40%. He leads Secretary of State Ross Miller by 47%-36%. And he edges out Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman by 43%-41%, within the ±3.6% margin of error.

PPP's communications director joked, "Cheating on your wife is a deal breaker for Republican voters -- but only if you're a Democrat."

That's a good line, but it's worth emphasizing how accurate it is.

In Ensign's case, his humiliation initially broke in June, when we learned the conservative, "family values" senator carried on a lengthy extra-marital affair with one of his aides, who happened to be married to another one of his aides. Ensign's parents tried to pay off the mistress' family.

The scandal grew far worse in October, when we learned that the Republican senator pushed his political and corporate allies to give lobbying contracts to his mistress' husband. Despite laws prohibiting aides from lobbying for a year after leaving the Hill, Ensign and the aggrieved husband seemed to ignore the rule, and the senator used his office to cater to the needs of those who hired his mistress' spouse.

It's a scandal in which Ensign violated his family's trust, contradicted all of his purported values, and probably violated congressional ethics rules. Confronted with this, a plurality of the senator's constituents seem to think, "No biggie."

The same is true in Louisiana, where right-wing Sen. David Vitter (R) not only cheated on his wife while claiming to be a "family values" conservative, he did so with at least one prostitute. He's now favored to win re-election anyway.

On the national level, Newt Gingrich is still taken seriously in some GOP circles as a presidential candidate despite his sex scandals, and in 2008, John McCain was the first ever admitted adulterer to win a major party's presidential nomination.

But notice the standards applied to the other side of the aisle. Eliot Spitzer resigned fairly quickly as governor of New York after his sex scandal, and John Edwards' reputation is likely tarnished forever in the wake of his affair.

The moral of the story: adultery is fine, and hypocrisy is fine, just so long as you have an "R" after your name.

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

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FAILING TO 'FOCUS LIKE A LASER BEAM'?.... There's a fair amount of attention today on this piece from political analyst Charlie Cook, who believes Democratic leaders made a "miscalculation" by trying to pass their policy agenda in 2009, instead of focusing all of their efforts on the economy.

Honorable and intelligent people can disagree over the substance and details of what President Obama and congressional Democrats are trying to do on health care reform and climate change. But nearly a year after Obama's inauguration, judging by where the Democrats stand today, it's clear that they have made a colossal miscalculation.

The latest unemployment and housing numbers underscore the folly of their decision to pay so much attention to health care and climate change instead of focusing on the economy "like a laser beam," as President Clinton pledged to do during his 1992 campaign. Although no one can fairly accuse Obama and his party's leaders of ignoring the economy, they certainly haven't focused on it like a laser beam.

Like Kevin Drum, I honestly don't know what this means.

Immediately upon taking office, President Obama began crafting an economic recovery package, and succeeded in getting one passed. Despite hysterical shrieks from Republicans and the Tea Party crowd -- both of which still believe tax cuts and spending cuts would have been more effective, reality notwithstanding -- the stimulus effort worked in improving the economy and preventing a depression. Among credible, independent economists, this isn't even controversial anymore.

To hear Cook tell it, Obama and congressional Dems should have pivoted from focusing on the economy to ... focusing some more on the economy. I'm wondering what it is, exactly, Cook has in mind. Policymakers had to wait as the recovery initiative began to improve the economy, and all the while, the administration not only pumped the funds into the system, while the Treasury and the Fed worked to bring stability to the system. As a result, the crisis has passed, and the economy is significantly stronger than it was.

What, literally, would Cook have had policymakers do differently? Wait for photographers to take pictures of the president and his team staring at charts? Give a bunch of speeches?

To be sure, the stimulus package should have been bigger and more ambitious, and the federal housing policy fell short in some key areas. But that's not the point Cook is making here -- he's saying major policy initiatives such as health care and energy, despite their direct impact on the economy and growth, should have been put off indefinitely while leaders "focused" on the economy.

It's obviously an argument made with hindsight, but in retrospect, the "miscalculation" wasn't tackling health care reform, it was taking so long to bring it to a vote.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE '80-20 STRATEGY'.... House Republicans have a plan in mind for the 2010 elections.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, one of 10 leaders who attended a strategy session in Annapolis, Md., this week, said the party will attack Democrats relentlessly for the stimulus, health care and cap-and-trade bills. Internally, Republicans call it the "80-20 strategy," which, loosely interpreted, means spending 80 percent of the time whacking Democrats and the remainder talking up their own ideas. [...]

Cantor conceded that the public is far from thrilled with the GOP -- in fact, the party's image is worse than the Democrats' -- but he argues that Republicans will benefit most from the public loathing of Washington.

This, Cantor believes, is the key to Republicans taking Congress -- all they have to do is devote 80% of their time bashing policies that work, and downplay their own failed ideas.

And as Jon Chait added, if this works, "they'll immediately claim a mandate to implement those ideas."

As for the 20%, I don't imagine anyone seriously believes GOP candidates will devote a fifth of their time presenting a credible policy agenda and/or a substantive vision for the future. On its face, the idea is almost laughable. Republicans occasionally even admit they don't have a policy agenda, and most of the ideas they take seriously -- more tax cuts for the rich, privatizing Social Security, hating gays, banning reproductive rights -- are so unpopular, they can't be used as the basis for a campaign.

Which is why the 80-20 strategy will almost certainly be, at best, the 95-5 strategy. The GOP doesn't really know any other way, and probably doesn't have much of a choice if it intends to overcome its spectacular recent failures.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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

* A new Suffolk University poll in Massachusetts shows Scott Brown (R) leading Martha Coakley (D) by four, 50% to 46%. Independent Joe Kennedy was at 3%. A Research 2000 poll released a few hours earlier showed Coakley up by eight, 49% to 41%, but the Suffolk poll is being taken more seriously, and the panic in Democratic circles nationwide is palpable.

* Vicki Kennedy filmed a new television ad for Coakley, which was released this morning and will be on Massachusetts TV sets soon.

* President Obama filmed a video message and a new robocall message on Coakley's behalf. There are also unconfirmed rumors about a possible presidential visit to the Bay State before Tuesday.

* Ted Kennedy Jr. is also appealing to voters, yesterday releasing an emotional email message in support of Coakley.

* In North Dakota, a new Research 2000 poll shows Gov. John Hoeven (R) with huge leads over his Democratic challengers in this year's open Senate race. Hoeven's closest competitor, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, trails him by 21 points.

* In light of the difficulties from earlier this week, the Senate Majority Leader is probably pleased to see the launch of "African-Americans for Senator Harry Reid."

* Taegan Goddard ponders the possibility of former Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) running for the Senate in New York as an independent. This morning, Ford sounded open to the idea.

* And speaking of New York, if state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) runs for governor as expected, money won't be an issue for his campaign -- Cuomo has more than $16 million in his coffers, more than five times the size of Gov. David Paterson's (D) war chest.

* And in South Carolina, don't be surprised if Strom Thurmond's youngest son, the 33-year-old Paul Thurmond, runs for Congress this year.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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MICHAEL STEELE, TIME TRAVELER.... Last week, RNC Chairman Michael Steele insisted that he wrote his new book "before I became chairman" last January. That seemed like an odd claim, given that much of the book includes descriptions of major events that happened throughout 2009.

Yesterday, the time traveling chairman was at it again.

In June 2009, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) announced at a press conference that in the previous year he had "violated the vows" of his marriage by carrying on an affair with one of his campaign staffers, who was married to one of his Senate staffers. It was later revealed that Ensign had his parents pay the couple $96,000 and arranged for his former legislative assistant, Doug Hampton, "to join a political consulting firm and lined up several donors as his lobbying clients." Ensign and his staff then "repeatedly intervened on the companies' behalf with federal agencies, often after urging from Mr. Hampton."

In an interview with RNC Chairman Michael Steele taped this week for "Face to Face With Jon Ralston," Ralston asked Steele if he would be "outraged" if "a Democratic senator had an affair with a staffer, had his parents pay her off, fired both her and her husband who worked for him and then tried to get the husband jobs." First, Steele claimed he didn't know who Ralston was talking about. But when Ralston said it was Ensign, Steele said it didn't have an "opinion" on it because he "wasn't chairman of the party at the time all that took place."

Ralston said, "What are you talking about? It took place last year." To which Steele responded, "I wasn't chairman of the party."

Here's my follow-up: if it wasn't him, who does Steele think was the RNC chair last summer?

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

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AXELROD SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT.... The Washington Post recently invited various politicos to offer the Democratic Party advice for 2010. The paper ran a 211-word missive from Karl Rove, which blamed Democrats for creating the "mess" his former boss left for Dems to clean up. In particular, Rove blasted Democrats for "running up" the debt.

Today, David Axelrod, after noting the irony of the Post inviting Rove to give Democrats suggestions, sets the record straight in the same paper.

The day the Bush administration took over from President Bill Clinton in 2001, America enjoyed a $236 billion budget surplus -- with a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. When the Bush administration left office, it handed President Obama a $1.3 trillion deficit -- and projected shortfalls of $8 trillion for the next decade. During eight years in office, the Bush administration passed two major tax cuts skewed to the wealthiest Americans, enacted a costly Medicare prescription-drug benefit and waged two wars, without paying for any of it.

To put the breathtaking scope of this irresponsibility in perspective, the Bush administration's swing from surpluses to deficits added more debt in its eight years than all the previous administrations in the history of our republic combined. And its spending spree is the unwelcome gift that keeps on giving: Going forward, these unpaid-for policies will continue to add trillions to our deficit.

This fiscal irresponsibility -- and a laissez-faire attitude toward the excesses of the financial industry -- helped create the conditions for the deepest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.

Well, sure, if you want to bring reality into the debate.

Rumor has it the WaPo has already agreed to publish Rove's response to Axelrod's response to Rove's initial claim.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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MEDIA HANDPICKED BY TEABAGGERS.... A group called "Tea Party Nation" is hosting a national convention for right-wing activists next month, and the assumption that organizers would want to generate as much media attention as possible is proving false.

Reporters from around the world have expressed an interest in covering the event, but organizers announced this week that the convention would be closed to the press -- except for a few "selected" outlets.

Yesterday, Tea Party Nation announced the lucky few who'll be able to cover the festivities. It's quite a collection: Fox News, Breitbart.com, Townhall.com, the Wall Street Journal, and WorldNetDaily. That's one cable news network, one newspaper, and three websites, one of which (WND) publishes radical conspiracy theories on a daily basis.

This isn't especially surprising, and it's not difficult to figure out why these five were hand-picked -- right-wing activists want favorable coverage, so they chose outlets most likely to stick to the script. Why allow a professional journalist from an independent outlet to cover an event, if he/she may publish reports that organizers don't like?

Michael Calderone noted the larger context:

While organizers will claim ideology isn't a part of the selection, the result is that out of hundreds of outlets from around the world, three right-leaning websites and two Rupert Murdoch-owned news organizations are the only ones being let in.

Fox News heavily promoted tea party rallies around the country last year, but it's difficult to argue that the Journal's news pages have covered the movement much more than many other news outlets that may have tried to get a pass.

And considering that both Fox News and the Journal regularly balk at claims that their news product -- as opposed to commentary -- is partisan, will they join three right-leaning outlets while other non-partisan outlets aren't granted access?

I assume Fox News and the WSJ will accept their special Teabagging status, but in truth, this is a rather humiliating moment for both. It's no doubt intended to be flattering, but Tea Party Nation is effectively signaling to Fox News and the WSJ that the right considers them partisan and unprofessional, on par with WorldNetDaily, a radical website recently described by a conservative blogger as peddling "fringe idiocy."

Ideally, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal would feel insulted and reject the invitations. I kind of doubt that will happen.

Update: A reliable source tells me that no one from the news site of the WSJ will be at the Tea Party convention, so if someone from the paper accepts the invitation, it would be from the far-right editorial page. This hasn't been confirmed yet, but it's something to keep in mind.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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BLAME GAME.... Fox News has a new national poll (pdf) out, putting President Obama's approval rating at 50%, with 42% disapproving. The results are largely identical to the Fox News polls from December, October, and September.

But the fun part of Fox News polls tends to be the wacky questions they include, which most major news outlets wouldn't bother with. Alas, the new survey lacked the usual flare. That said, there was one question that stood out.

"Who do you think is more responsible for the current state of the economy -- President Obama, former President Bush or Congress?"

Only 6% held Obama responsible, while 36% blamed Bush. Congress was blamed by 30%, while 20% said it was some combination of the choices. That six times as many Americans blame Bush than Obama is probably good news for the White House, but given that Bush and Congress scored similarly, this still speaks to a dangerous dynamic for incumbents.

Among self-identified Republicans, 9% blamed Obama, and 13% held Bush responsible, but 50% of GOPers blamed Congress for the economy. I'm not sure how they reached that conclusion, exactly, but I suppose it's the easiest choice for Republicans to take.

As for Obama, that he isn't blamed for the mess is only a partial victory -- the poll didn't mention it, but Americans can still expect him to do more to clean up the mess, even if they know he wasn't the one to make it.

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

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OBAMA HINTS AT ELECTION-YEAR MESSAGE WITH HOUSE DEMS.... President Obama delivered a speech to the House Democratic Caucus Retreat late yesterday afternoon, and made it clear why the chamber is his favorite. He noted that it's "amazing" that "out of the major initiatives we were talking about before we took office, you've either completed or set the stage for almost all of them."

Indeed, the House's to-do list features a lot of checkmarks, which the president was only too pleased to emphasize: economic recovery, health care, cap and trade, Wall Street reform, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay act, SCHIP, reducing Pentagon waste, cutting spending, reforming credit card rules, regulating the tobacco industry, a new national service bill, expanded hate-crime protections, new investments in education, etc. "In one of America's darkest hours, you answered the call," the president said. "Time and again you stood up and you led."

Specifically on health care, Obama acknowledged "how big a lift this has been." He conceded that he's seen the polls and the "occasional blog post or cable clip that breathlessly declares what something means for a political party, without really talking much about what it means for a country." But the president is nevertheless confident in the message he and other Dems can take to the country:

"The American people will suddenly learn that this bill does things they like and doesn't do things that people have been trying to say it does. Their worst fears will prove groundless, and the American people's hope for a fair shake from their insurance companies for quality, affordable health care they need will finally be realized.

"This year alone, this reform will ban some of the worst practices of the insurance industry forever. They'll no longer be allowed to refuse coverage for preexisting conditions for children or drop coverage when folks get sick and need it the most. They'll no longer be allowed to impose restrictive annual limits on the amount of coverage that you receive, lifetime limits on the amounts of benefits received. They'll be required to offer free preventive care -- like checkups and routine tests and mammograms -- at no cost. Patients will have rights. They will get what they pay for. And that's just the beginning."

And what about the politics of the debate and the 2010 elections?

"Well, let me tell you something. If Republicans want to campaign against what we've done by standing up for the status quo and for insurance companies over American families and businesses, that is a fight I want to have. If their best idea is to return to the bad policies and the bad ideas of yesterday, they are going to lose that argument. What are they going to say? 'Well, you know, the old system really worked well; let's go back to the way it was'? That's not going to appeal to seniors who are now seeing the possibility of that doughnut hole finally closing and so they can finally get discounts on their prescriptions. That's not going to appeal to the small businesses who find out all the tax credits that they're going to get for doing right by their employees -- something that they have been wanting to do, but may not have been able to afford. It's not going to be very appealing to Americans who for the first time are going to find out that they can provide coverage to their children, their dependents, all the way up to the age of 26 or 27.

"And that's why I'll be out there waging a great campaign from one end of the country to the other, telling Americans with insurance or without what they stand to gain; about the arsenal of consumer protections; about the long-awaited stability that they're going to begin to experience. And I'm going to tell them that I am proud we are putting the future of America before the politics of the moment -- the next generation before the next election. And that, after all, is what we were sent up here to do: standing up for the American people against the special interests; solve problems that we've been talking about for decades; make their lives a little bit better; make tough choices sometimes when they're unpopular. And that's something that every one of you who support this bill can be proud to campaign on in November."

It's not a bad message for the electorate over the next 10 or so months.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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LATE-NIGHT TALKS INCH CLOSER TO HEALTH DEAL.... After a slow start, the White House has its foot on the gas, steering closer to a final health care reform bill that can pass both chambers.

On Wednesday, we saw key policymakers meet for more than eight hours, addressing several key areas of disagreement. Yesterday afternoon, it appeared White House officials had reached a compromise with union leaders over health care financing. And last night, the president once again brought congressional leaders back to the White House to help inch even closer to the finish line.

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats stand within days if not hours of striking final deals on historic health care legislation after key labor unions won concessions and pledged their support. [...]

Dozens of issues still needed to be finalized to reconcile bills passed separately by the House and Senate, but several lawmakers said that in the wake of the deal on the insurance plan tax, they felt a logjam had been broken.

Negotiators arrived for additional talks at the White House around 9 p.m. (ET), with the president on hand for the discussions. Participants reportedly wrapped up around 1:30 a.m. this morning, after having made "solid progress," according to a statement released to the media.

I wouldn't put money on it, but there's at least a possibility that the talks could produce a package ready for Congressional Budget Office scrutiny today. The CBO review would likely take about a week.

Of course, it's worth emphasizing that Democratic talks are proceeding under the assumption that the 60-vote caucus in the Senate will remain intact. There is a very real possibility that Massachusetts will elect a conservative Republican to replace Ted Kennedy next week, handing the GOP an opportunity to block the entire Democratic agenda for the rest of the year, including health care reform.

The question, then, is whether health care reform dies if Martha Coakley loses on Tuesday. The answer is unclear, but the initiative's chances would deteriorate greatly. To salvage the bill, reform proponents would have to: a) convince the House to pass the Senate bill, as is; b) convince one Senate Republican to let the Senate vote up or down on the legislation; or c) wrap up the process very quickly, before the newly elected Republican is sworn into office.

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

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January 14, 2010

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

* The Red Cross believes the death toll in Haiti may reach 50,000 people.

* President Obama delivered a message to the Haitian people this morning, saying he could understand why they would "look up and ask have we somehow been forsaken." He added, "You have not been forsaken. You have not been forgotten. Today you must know help is arriving." The president went on to explain that the U.S. is launching "one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history," but he acknowledged it may be an excruciating few days before it can arrive where it's needed because "roads are impassable, the main port is badly damaged and communication is just coming on line."

* On a related note, international relief and emergency aid is reaching Haiti, but helping victims is proving to be a "logistical nightmare."

* Obama is calling on his two immediate predecessors -- George W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- to help lead the nation's humanitarian and relief efforts in Haiti.

* Bill Clinton also has an op-ed in the WaPo today on what the U.S. can do to help Haiti, both in the short term and beyond.

* In Iraq: "Three bombs exploded in quick succession after sunset Thursday in the southern holy city of Najaf, killing up to 25 people and wounding scores of others, Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said. "

* Plaudits: "Google's surprising decision this week to abandon cooperation with Chinese government censors -- and, possibly, its four-year effort to do business here -- is galvanizing an unusually broad coalition of foreigners who hope for a fresh chance to rein in the conduct of an emerging great power."

* Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who apparently has never heard of Rolling Stone magazine, was disappointed that its new issue didn't name him the #1 enemy of the planet. He was #7.

* Kevin Drum sketches out a pretty straightforward plan for tackling long-term deficit reduction.

* A college in Maine is taking the idea of "four-year degree" seriously.

* And on MSNBC this morning, co-host Mika Brzezinski joined her colleagues in mocking Sarah Palin's inability to choose a favorite among the nation's founders. Brzezinski suggested her favorite was Abraham Lincoln, and I can only hope she was kidding.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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WHITE HOUSE, LABOR STRIKE PRELIMINARY DEAL.... Earlier this week, health care reform appeared stalled, with progress nowhere in sight. Over the last 24 hours, its fortunes have improved considerably.

The White House has reached a tentative agreement with labor leaders to tax high-cost health insurance policies, sources said Thursday. The agreement clears one of the last major obstacles on the path to final passage of comprehensive health care legislation.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said health care negotiators are "very, very close" to an overall deal and hope to have resolved most of their differences by day's end. But White House officials privately cautioned that their optimism does not mean that a final health care deal will be formally announced Thursday.

Four labor negotiators briefed lawmakers on the parameters of the deal at a luncheon at the Capitol. Lawmakers said the agreement would raise the cost of unusually generous health policies and ignore secondary coverage, such as vision and dental plans. Health plans negotiated as part of collective-bargaining agreements would be exempt for two years after the 2013 effective date, giving labor leaders time to negotiate new contracts.

The NYT's David Herszenhorn has more on the structure of the compromise and who it would affect.

Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) said of the excise tax impasse, "This was a very critical issue that had to be resolved, and I think it has been." That said, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), a leading opponent of the provision, said he has not yet approved any deals.

Robert Gibbs told reporters today that a final day may not be ironed out until early next week, but that yesterday's marathon discussions generated "tremendous progress."

The wait may be even shorter than Gibbs suggested -- some House leaders hinted earlier that a bill may be sent to the Congressional Budget Office for a score by Saturday.

We're close enough to the finish line that the House Democratic leadership reminded observers today that it will put the final reform bill online for 72 hours before the chamber votes on it, so it can be reviewed by lawmakers and the public.

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

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LIMBAUGH'S HAITI COMMENTS DRAW FIRE.... Obviously, radical TV preacher Pat Robertson's remarks on the devastation in Haiti have generated widespread revulsion. Alas, it probably won't change his leading role in conservative Republican politics.

But he's not only the only extremist who's made outlandish remarks regarding the Haitian disaster. There's also Rush Limbaugh, who told his radio audience yesterday:

"Yes, I think in the Haiti earthquake, ladies and gentlemen -- in the words of Rahm Emanuel -- we have another crisis simply too good to waste. This will play right into Obama's hands. He's humanitarian, compassionate. They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, 'credibility' with the black community -- in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It's made-to-order for them. That's why he couldn't wait to get out there, could not wait to get out there."

He also rejected suggestions that people contribute to relief efforts: "We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax."

While the remarks have generated some criticism, including some pushback from the White House, no one seems especially surprised by Limbaugh's callousness. Limbaugh spews bile on a daily basis, and is richly rewarded. This is just who he is.

But Kevin Drum asked the same question I always ponder every time the right-wing, drug-addled radio host crosses the decency line: "I wonder what it takes to get the conservative movement to disown this guy?"

I wonder the same thing, but it simply never happens. On the other side of the ideological divide, when a Democratic lawmaker works with MoveOn.org or appears at Netroots Nation, there's ample criticism from the right about Dems associating with "liberal extremists."

And yet, no matter how loathsome a figure Limbaugh becomes, top Republican officials not only reach out to the right-wing talk-show host, but effectively treat him as the de facto head of their political party. Indeed, in the rare instances in which a Republican actually offers subtle disapproval of Limbaugh, they invariably apologize to him and kiss his proverbial ring.

The GOP effectively lets Rush Limbaugh call the shots, and when he says disgusting things, Republicans don't dare disagree with their boss.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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THEY'RE 'DROPPING LIKE FLIES'.... Last week, much of the media decided that retirements among congressional Democrats were evidence of shifting political winds that will greatly benefit Republicans. In one report from ABC News, two Democratic retirements in the Senate was characterized as Dems "dropping like flies."

In the meantime, Republican retirements not only outnumber Democrats, the GOP total keeps growing.

Arizona Rep. John Shadegg announced this afternoon that he will not seek re-election, the 14th Republican to step aside so far in the 111th Congress. [...]

Shadegg has long coveted a spot in the Senate and was widely seen as at the front of the line in the event Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) had been elected president in 2008. His 3rd district, which takes in much of Phoenix's northern suburbs, gave native son McCain a 14 point margin in 2008 and went for President George W. Bush by 17 points four years earlier.

Despite the spate of stories detailing Democratic retirement problems, Shadegg is the third straight Republican House member to announce his departure -- joining Reps. Henry Brown (S.C.) and George Radanovich (Calif.) on the sidelines.

I guess they're "dropping like flies," right?

In a statement, the DCCC's Ryan Rudominer said, "[I]nstead of drinking Eric Cantor and the NRCC's Kool-Aid, House Republicans continue to show a lack of confidence in their ability to take back the House as Republican retirements are mounting and their own members refuse to invest in the NRCC."

As for Shadegg, his seat will be a difficult pick-up opportunity for Democrats, but his absence on the Hill will probably be most felt by those chronicling ridiculous remarks from right-wing lawmakers. It was, for example, Shadegg who recently called Dems' health care reform efforts "Soviet-style gulag health care." A month later, he condemned NYC Michael Bloomberg for supporting trials for suspected 9/11 terrorists. Shadegg raised the specter of Bloomberg's children getting kidnapped.

Not exactly an elevate-the-discourse kind of guy.

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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FALLING IN THE REPEAL TRAP?.... Democrats really seem to hope that Republicans will not only attack health care reform in the 2010 elections, but will demand a full repeal of the legislation. To the Dems' delight, the GOP seems willing to play along.

Republicans candidates must run on repealing Democrats' healthcare reform bill in 2010, one of their top House members said Wednesday night.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, encouraged candidates to run on full-scale repeal of health reform, which he conceded was likely to pass.

"As Republicans present the nation with an alternative in 2010, our message on healthcare cannot be: 'We can fix and reform this bill,' " Ryan said at a lecture in Washington organized by the Michigan-based conservative Hillsdale College. "Our message must be: 'We will repeal and replace this government takeover masked as healthcare reform.'"

Ryan's comments coincide with the right-wing Club for Growth launching a "Repeal It!" campaign, which includes urging Republican congressional candidates to sign a pledge vowing to "sponsor and support" legislation to "repeal" the reform plan.

This is, to be sure, what the GOP's far-right base demands. Last month, Newt Gingrich said on "Meet the Press" that "every Republican in 2010 and 2012 will run on an absolute pledge to repeal this bill." The sentiment has been echoed on right-wing blogs and talk radio.

It's exactly what Democrats are hoping for.

Remember, while several provisions of the health care reform initiative wouldn't kick in until 2014, some really popular measures would kick in almost immediately. 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 a 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 recently, "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 Republicans say "no," they alienate the GOP activists who will settle for nothing but a full repeal. If Republicans say "yes," they alienate the mainstream electorate.

It's why Dems seem only too pleased today to highlight Paul Ryan's and the Club for Growth's latest efforts. As far as Democrats are concerned, there's a repeal trap, and the GOP is going to fall into it.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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OBAMA MORE EFFECTIVE ON SPENDING CUTS.... When George W. Bush was in the White House, he'd do what lots of presidents would do: talk about cutting federal spending. Of course, there's a big difference between talking about something and actually doing it.

President Obama notched substantial successes in spending cuts last year, winning 60 percent of his proposed cuts and managing to get Congress to ax several programs that had bedeviled President George W. Bush for years.

The administration says Congress accepted at least $6.9 billion of the $11.3 billion in discretionary spending cuts Mr. Obama proposed for the current fiscal year. An analysis by The Washington Times found that Mr. Obama was victorious in getting Congress to slash 24 programs and achieved some level of success in reducing nine other programs.

Among the president's victories are canceling the multibillion-dollar F-22 Raptor program, ending the LORAN-C radio-based ship navigation system and culling a series of low-dollar education grants. In each of those cases, Mr. Obama succeeded in eliminating programs that Mr. Bush repeatedly failed to end.

"This is a very strong beginning for the president's efforts to shape a budget that invests in programs that work and that ends programs that don't," said Tom Gavin, a spokesman for the White House budget office. "The Congress has approved more than 60 percent of the president's proposals, and that's a high mark, that's a strong beginning."

It obviously helps that we have a Democratic president working with a Democratic Congress, but note that when there was a Republican president basically telling a Republican Congress what to do, GOP policymakers didn't cut spending as much as Obama did last year.

It's also worth keeping in mind that Republican lawmakers -- the ones who claim to be more aggressive when it comes to cutting spending -- also fought bitterly last year against every proposed reduction offered by the White House, most notably when it came to health care.

What's more, when the president reached out to Republicans over the summer, urging them to put together a list of spending cuts they'd like to see, the GOP caucus came up with $23 billion in proposed cuts over five years -- far less than the White House plan to reduce spending over the same period.

For all the complaining from the Tea Party crowd, there's an odd disconnect. These folks applauded a Republican president who increased the deficit and increased the size of government, but they literally take to the streets to denounce a Democratic president who has cut taxes, cut spending, and makes sure his proposals are paid for. Why throw a fit over the more fiscally responsible president?

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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OBAMA TELLS BANKS: 'WE WANT OUR MONEY BACK'.... When it comes to Wall Street and the financial industry, President Obama has a lot of changes in mind. He wants new rules to prevent future catastrophes; he wants banks to start increasing the loans they're willing to make; and he wants to see the TARP funds repaid.

Obama tackled the last of these three today. At a White House event, the president said:

"We want our money back, and we're going to get it. That's why I'm proposing a Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee to be imposed on major financial firms until the American people are fully compensated for the extraordinary assistance they provided to Wall Street. If these companies are in good enough shape to afford massive bonuses, they are surely in good enough shape to afford paying back every penny to taxpayers."

The plan is to raise $90 billion over the next decade -- which, for this industry, isn't exactly an overwhelming burden -- with this new "fee." It would be applied to about 50 banks, insurance companies, and Wall Street trading houses with assets of more than $50 billion. The tax would remain in place until the funds are recovered, though it would be scrapped before the end of the decade if the $90 billion is returned ahead of schedule.

Would the costs prove counter-productive if/when the banks passed along the costs to customers? The Obama administration doesn't believe so: "Firms that raised prices would give smaller rivals a competitive advantage, creating an incentive for companies instead to swallow the cost, potentially by reducing employee pay."

"It is in many ways offensive for those at our major financial institutions to suggest that they can today afford excessive, often outlandish bonuses for their top executives but cannot afford to make whole the taxpayers," a senior administration official said. The new fee, the official said, is "the least they could do."

Given that the plan requires congressional approval, it will be fairly interesting to see Republicans come up with a way to sound populist while siding with Wall Street and fighting against the "we want our money back" message. NBC speculated this morning, "[I]t does put Republicans in a box. It forces them to make a choice of siding with the banks or not. And who is going to want to argue that banks shouldn't pay for their own bailout?"

And given that the "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee" is actually quite modest, it makes inevitable GOP opposition that much less defensible.

I suspect the DCCC is already drawing up the ads: "After Bush bailed out Wall Street, Obama said the banks should put paying us back ahead of their fat-cat bonuses. Rep. Smith sided with Wall Street, instead of you...."

Jon Chait has a good piece on the new White House policy, including an explanation on how it helps level the playing field between large and small financial institutions.

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

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

* As of early this morning, Vicky Kennedy's "Let's Do It For Ted" email appeal for Martha Coakley's Senate campaign in Massachusetts had raised over $520,000 in less than a day. By mid-morning, sources tell me the total cleared $600,000.

* On a related note, Coakley won six endorsements yesterday from newspaper editorial boards in Massachusetts, including the Boston Globe, the state's largest paper.

* Also in Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown has positioned himself as a regular guy, driving a truck with 200,000 miles on it, but we learned yesterday that he has nearly as many homes as John McCain.

* Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) doesn't sound especially intimidated by former Rep. Harold Ford's (D-Tenn.) interest in a primary challenge. "If Harold Ford wants to move from Tennessee and run in New York, he is welcome to do so," she said yesterday. "His record of being anti-choice, anti-marriage equality and now opposed to President Obama's health care legislation may be right for Tennessee" but not New York, she added.

* In Ohio, a new Rasmussen poll shows former Bush budget director Rob Portman (R) leading both of his Democratic opponents in this year's Senate race. While Lee Fisher (D) is expected to win the Democratic nod over Jennifer Brunner (D), at this point, Portman leads Fisher by seven and Brunner by three.

* Republican hopes of flipping Connecticut's Senate seat after Sen. Chris Dodd's (D) retirement appear to be fading fast -- Quinnipiac shows state AG Richard Blumenthal (D) crushing the GOP field in general election match-ups.

* In New Hampshire, a new Rasmussen poll shows Rep. Paul Hodes (D) trailing former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) in a hypothetical match-up, but leading the other Republicans facing Ayotte in a primary.

* The gubernatorial race in Minnesota is still in flux, but a Rasmussen poll shows a couple of former senators -- Norm Coleman (R) and Mark Dayton (D) -- leading their respective fields.

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

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BROUN'S FAMILIAR MADNESS.... Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) has a habit of making truly deranged remarks on the House floor, but his speech this week on health care reform was especially noteworthy.

"It's absolutely critical," Broun said, "that the American people stand up and speak to the leadership and demand something different, and that the American people demand that nothing is passed, particularly on health care....

"This health care plan can tell us what kind of car to drive, whether we can own guns or not to protect ourselves in our home, whether we can teach our children the way that we as parents believe our children ought to be taught. This is the largest takeover of liberty and freedom this country has ever seen."

This is obviously very foolish. Not quite as foolish as the time Broun said President Obama reminds him of Hitler and that the Democratic president might establish a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship on Americans, but it's awfully close.

But listening to Broun's meandering nonsense, it reminded me how similar the right-wing critiques of health care reform are to the right-wing critiques of Medicare a half-century ago.

It was, after all, Ronald Reagan who said in 1961 that JFK's proposed Medicare plan would lead federal officials to dictate where physicians could practice medicine, and open the door to government control over where Americans were allowed to live. In fact, Reagan warned that if Medicare became law, there was a real possibility that the federal government would control where Americans go and what they do for a living.

Reagan added, "[I]f you don't [stop Medicare] and I don't do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free."

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know these crazy warnings were pretty silly. In Broun's case, we don't even have to wait 49 years before realizing how preposterous his panicky warnings are.

But the similarities nevertheless remind us that right-wing hysteria has a certain timeless quality. A half-century ago, Medicare, we were told, would give the government control over where we go, live, and work. Today we're told a modest health care reform bill would give the government control over children's upbringing, firearm ownership, and transportation decisions.

These guys never get tired of being wrong.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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WHAT PALIN AND BART SIMPSON HAVE IN COMMON.... About 12 years ago, there was an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Bart was supposed to deliver an oral report on Libya. Bart, of course, hadn't done his homework and had no idea what to say. He stood up, cleared his throat, looked at the blank page in front of him, and winged it.

"The exports in Libya are numerous in amount," Bart said earnestly. "One thing they export is corn, or as the Indians call it, maize. Another famous Indian was Crazy Horse. In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast. Thank you."

None of this made any sense, but Bart couldn't just stand up and say, "I have no idea what I'm talking about because I'm unprepared." He had to say something, so he made up some silliness and got the ordeal over with as quickly as possible.

Every time I hear Sarah Palin try to answer any question on any subject, it immediately reminds me of Bart's classroom presentation. Take yesterday, for example, when Glenn Beck asked Palin, "Who's your favorite Founder?"

This isn't the former half-term governor's best subject. Palin did, after all, boast not too long ago that the Founding Fathers wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. But like Bart, she couldn't just take a pass, so she told Beck, "You know, well, all of them, because they came collectively together with so much ... so much diverse and so much diversity in terms of belief, but collectively they came together."

She eventually said, "And they were led by, of course George Washington." I kept waiting for her to say, "Or as the Indians called him, George Washington."

If "all of them" sounds like a familiar response, it's because Katie Couric asked Palin about which newspapers she reads. "Um, all of them," she replied.

I realize right-wing activists adore the former governor, but her conspicuous unintelligence should be obvious to anyone above the age of 4.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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BROWN FORGETS HIS FRIENDS [Updated].... The Tea Party "movement" isn't especially influential in Massachusetts, but the Teabagging crowd is doing what it can to elect Scott Brown, a surprisingly conservative Republican, to the U.S. Senate next week. Yesterday, however, the GOP hopeful not only had no opinion about the right-wing faction, Brown pretended to have no idea what the Tea Party even is.

Since Saturday, the group behind TeaPartyExpress.org has spent at least $32,000 supporting Scott Brown, the Republican candidate for the Massachusetts Senate seat, federal records show. Brown's own campaign Web site highlights a fundraiser held a couple weeks ago called the "Friends of the Tea Party Scott Brown reception," where paying $500 earned supporters the label "American Revolutionary" (for a mere 25 bucks, you could be a "Patriot"). The conservative blogs that help fuel the tea party movement have been abuzz over Brown for weeks, eager to see the GOP candidate pull an upset win over Democrat Martha Coakley.

Which makes Brown's statement to the Boston Globe Wednesday about all the fuss a bit of a surprise. "I'm a Scott Brown Republican," Brown told the paper when asked about his ideological alliances. When a reporter asked him about the support from the tea party groups, he apparently demurred. "He also claimed that he was unfamiliar with the 'Tea Party movement,' when asked by a reporter," the Globe reports.

Look, Brown is running in Massachusetts, and if wants to take a pass on condemning the far-right Teabaggers, that's understandable. But for a statewide political candidate to insist, with a straight face, that he's "unfamiliar" with the Tea Party crowd almost certainly reflects blatant dishonesty.

Indeed, there's not much ambiguity about the veracity of Brown's comments -- he's accepted money from Tea Party fundraisers; he's accepted Tea Party endorsements; and his campaign website features several photographs and event listings of the candidate "addressing Tea Party groups on the campaign trail."

Scott Brown may be embarrassed by his association with the Tea Party crowd, but pretending not to know they exist is just sad.

One other key angle here: are Teabaggers, who've been busting their butts to get Brown elected, going to tolerate a slap in the face like this? Tea Party groups are rallying the troops and emptying their wallets to help Brown, and their candidate doesn't even want to acknowledge their existence in public?

Update: Or maybe the Globe's reporting wasn't quite as fair as it should have been. Greg Sargent has the audio and the transcript of Brown's comments on this. When he said, "I'm not quite sure what you are referring to," the context makes it seem as if he's commenting on Tea Party efforts to take down moderate Republicans, not the existence of the Tea Party "movement" itself.

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

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ROBERTSON SPARKS OUTRAGE.... Yesterday, radical TV preacher Pat Robertson told his national television audience that Haiti is "cursed" because the country "swore a pact to the devil" in order to rid itself of "Napoleon the third, or whatever." In what Robertson insisted was a "true story," Haitians agreed to "serve" Satan in exchange for independence, and are now feeling the effects of his "curse."

To put it mildly, this has not gone over well with the American mainstream, which sometimes forgets how truly deranged the religious right movement can be. Robertson's on-air remarks even came to the attention of the White House.

Robertson's words instantly triggered a firestorm on the airwaves and online, including a rebuke from senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett on "Good Morning America" today.

"I'm kind of speechless about that kind of remark," Jarrett said. "Our heart goes out to the people of Haiti ... That's not the attitude that expresses the spirit of the president or the American people, so I thought it was a pretty stunning comment to make."

For its part, the Christian Broadcasting Network issued a statement, arguing that Haitians "allegedly made a famous pact with the devil," but Robertson "never stated that the earthquake was God's wrath."

No, of course not. All he said is that is Haiti agreed to "serve" Satan, became "cursed," and is now burdened by a disaster. Why would anyone draw a connection from that?

As for the history, Matt Yglesias has a good item describing the background of the Bois Caiman Ceremony that in Haitian national mythology initiated the revolution. It wasn't a deal with Satan, and Napoleon III didn't lead France until a half-century later.

As for the politics, I can only assume that Robertson has disgraced himself once again in the eyes of the American mainstream, but conservatives and Republicans won't care. Robertson blamed 9/11 on Americans, and he remained a prominent leader on the right. He also blamed Americans for Hurricane Katrina, and was not ostracized from the conservative movement.

The right's tolerance for insanity knows no bounds.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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THE U.S. RESPONSE TO HAITI'S CATASTROPHE.... The Obama administration is preparing a "massive military response" to the devastation in Haiti, including "ships, helicopters, transport planes and a 2,000-member Marine unit" that are either en route to Haiti or will be soon. Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of U.S. Southern Command, added that "one of the U.S. Navy's large amphibious ships will likely head to Haiti with a Marine expeditionary unit aboard."

Regrettably, Newsweek's Howard Fineman wants to draw parallels between President Obama's response to Haiti and George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina. "[T]he Obama administration's competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context -- and with a much worse infrastructure," Fineman wrote yesterday.

As John Cole noted, the comparison is poor. We could see Hurricane Katrina headed towards Louisiana long before it hit land; the earthquake in Haiti was unpredictable. Louisiana is part of the United States; Haiti is a foreign country.

Nevertheless, if Fineman and the media establishment have decided that the Haitian crisis is the latest political test for the White House, Michael Scherer reports on the intensity of the president's response.

A White House aide tells me that President Obama issued a clear order Tuesday night, just before 6 p.m., when his national security aide Denis McDonough told him there had been an earthquake in Haiti: He told McDonough that he wanted an aggressive and highly coordinated response.

Aggressive it has been. He was briefed twice on Tuesday night, and briefed again by four different agencies and individuals before 10 a.m. Wednesday. He cancelled a planned speech on clean energy jobs, along with a side trip to Maryland, and spent the afternoon working the phones, talking to the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, to Secretary of State, to the USAID administrator and the leaders of Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile and the United Nations. The White House website has been turned into a fundraising hub for the Red Cross, and the White House has emailed its list with an appeal to give money.

The full horror of the catastrophe is not yet clear, and it could be weeks before we truly know how effective the U.S. government response has been. But there is little doubt that Obama is seizing the moment to demonstrate, for the second time in the New Year, that he can perform as a crisis president.

That probably won't stop the usual suspects from complaining -- about what, I don't know -- but like the post-Christmas whining, it almost certainly won't be substantive or policy oriented.

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

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WHITE HOUSE HOSTS 'MARATHON' SESSION ON HEALTH CARE.... Several congressional leaders and their staffs headed to the White House yesterday for some discussions on the state of the health care reform bill. They probably had no idea what they were about to endure.

What began as some scheduled negotiations at around 10:30 am (ET) ended up lasting, at the president's urging, for more than eight hours. By all appearances, President Obama is ready to see this process end.

With Democratic bickering threatening to imperil enactment of health care reform this year, President Barack Obama tried to stem the tide of intraparty unrest Wednesday by insisting that House and Senate leaders huddle at the White House until they had reached agreements on key issues.

Top party leaders and key committee chairmen emerged from a marathon negotiating session at the White House around 6:45 p.m. Wednesday night, but they planned to meet again Thursday. [....]

Obama, Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a joint statement Wednesday evening, saying, "Today we made significant progress in bridging the remaining gaps between the two health insurance reform bills. We're encouraged and energized, and we're resolved to deliver reform legislation that provides more stability and security for those with insurance, extends coverage to those who don't have coverage, and lowers costs for families, businesses, and governments."

These were not casual talks. Top lawmakers huddled in the Cabinet room, with the president, vice president, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Director of Legislative Affairs Phil Schiliro, and health care adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle on hand. Staffers huddled next door in the Roosevelt Room. Every participant in both rooms were told they must leave their phones and BlackBerrys at the door, so as to not be distracted from the task at hand.

The NYT noted, "By all accounts, the session was extraordinary." Politico added, "[T]he marathon session signaled that House and Senate leaders — with the president in the room for much of the day -- were far closer to resolution on the issues that have divided the two chambers for months."

The main sticking point, of course, continues to be financing. No surprise there.

The talks will continue today, with the president continuing to maintain a greater hands-on role than at any point in the process to date. Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said of Obama, "He's really got his sleeves rolled up. I think he's picking the right moment to be engaged."

The president will also address the House Democratic Caucus retreat this afternoon. By all appearances, they can probably use a pep talk.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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January 13, 2010

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

* The latest out of Haiti, where the national government appears to be paralyzed.

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the devastation in Haiti as a tragedy of "biblical proportions."

* Digby posted a list of relief/humanitarian agencies on the ground in Haiti.

* U.S. and Russia are "really close" to a new arms treaty, replacing START, which has expired.

* According to the Federal Reserve, there is economic growth in 10 of its 12 districts.

* Wall Street CEOs on the defensive: "Challenged by a skeptical special commission, top Wall Street bankers apologized Wednesday for risky behavior that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But they still declared it seemed appropriate at the time."

* The New York Post has very odd priorities.

* Harry Reid thinks it was a waste of time pleading with Olympia Snowe to be reasonable on health care reform. He's probably right.

* One of the right-wing founders of the Tea Party movement is pulling out of the Tea Party Convention. These fissures really do matter.

* The South Carolina state House voted today to censure it's scandal-plagued governor, Mark Sanford (R).

* On health care reform, the Senate wants state-based exchanges; the House wants a national exchange. President Obama is siding with the House -- and he's right.

* African Americans are more optimistic about their prospects for the future in the Obama era.

* Google may give up on China altogether.

* The story of President Obama's first veto sounds like an interesting topic, but it's not really.

* The U.S. military is under the impression that it's under no obligation to clean up the environmental messes it's leaving in Iraq. The news echoes a point we here at the Monthly reported recently.

* Why college rankings never change much.

* I sometimes get the impression that Shep Smith should move to a real network. Today was one of those days.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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VICKI KENNEDY LENDS ANOTHER HAND IN MASS.... While the Kennedy family remained neutral during the Senate primary and much of the election process in Massachusetts, last week, Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy's widow, appeared publicly to endorse Martha Coakley's (D) campaign. With the outcome in doubt, Kennedy is lending a hand again today, writing a fundraising letter for the Democratic candidate, less than week before the special election. It reads in part:

"Throughout my husband Ted's life, you were always there for him, for me and for the entire Kennedy family. We are tremendously grateful for your friendship and support in the past, and we ask you to stand with us now to support Martha Coakley in the crucial race to fill Ted's remaining term.

"This Tuesday, January 19 everything is on the line. The people of Massachusetts will decide who will be their next Senator, and we need Martha Coakley.

"The importance of having a voice and a vote that you can count on in Washington has never been more evident than during this ongoing health care debate. And we're going to need every vote again.

"Ted fought for national health care reform for 40 years. He believed that every American deserved their chance at the American dream, but that as long as an illness or preexisting condition could bankrupt an American family, that great goal could never become a reality. We need Martha Coakley to continue our shared fight for national health reform, to reduce costs for businesses and families and increase coverage in Massachusetts and throughout this country. This race will be very close and we need you to get us to victory.

"We have just 6 days to do the hard work of electing Martha Coakley so that we can continue the agenda that Ted made the fight of his life -- reforming health care, ensuring equality and justice for all, protecting our seniors, and rebuilding our economy to allow everyone to prosper. That fight for working families cannot stop -- not now, not when so much is at stake for Massachusetts and America. And that's why I'm asking you to ensure that we are victorious this Tuesday." [emphasis in the original throughout]

Sources tell me that the response to the Kennedy letter from donors has been very strong. A "Win This For Teddy" theme may be one of the more powerful messages available under the circumstances, especially when it comes to the Democratic base.

It's taken a while -- perhaps too long, and perhaps it's too late -- but there's ample evidence that progressives are fully engaged in the Massachusetts race. It didn't seem necessary up until quite recently, but with so much on the line, and with the right playing to win, the left finally seems to be going all in. That's evident with the Kennedy letter, the new SEIU ad, the AFL-CIO maili