Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2010

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

* Just a reminder, the Monthly's annual pledge drive is underway. We sincerely appreciate those of you who've already shown generous support, and hope other readers will take a moment to help out.

* European debt crisis: "Fears among European bondholders spread Tuesday from the weakest members of the euro zone to other countries, including Italy and Belgium, spurring a stepped-up search for a solution to a crisis that is increasingly putting political as well as financial strain on Europe's decade-old monetary union."

* It's pretty much impossible to feel optimistic about the global climate talks underway this week in Cancun.

* This almost certainly won't work, but I give Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) credit for trying: "Senate Democratic leaders will try to push through a one-year extension of federal unemployment benefits sometime Tuesday, although they are still expected to lapse at the end of the day, sources told The Hill."

* Comcast inadvertently helps make the case for net neutrality, as Senate Democrats push the FCC to act.

* It's good to see a boost in U.S. consumer confidence.

* Republicans and health insurance companies made all kinds of dire predictions about Medicare Advantage earlier this year. Republicans and health insurance companies were wrong.

* Did Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) suggest New START might yet get a vote during the lame-duck session? It sounded like it.

* Fred Kaplan argues that the revelations from the WikiLeaks documents actually make the Obama administration's foreign policy efforts look pretty good.

* Good: "An Oklahoma constitutional amendment aimed at stopping the use of Islamic law in its courts was dealt a serious blow on Monday when a federal judge temporarily blocked the state from putting it into effect."

* Pigford II is on its way to the president's desk. It's about time.

* The DNC's Organizing for America actually encouraged its members to write letter in support of a pay freeze for federal workers. I have no idea what the OFA is thinking.

* I'm starting to think Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is pretty racist.

* Idiotic conservatives will probably learn one of these days that CNN's Anderson Cooper isn't afraid to ask good questions on the air.

* Classes at community colleges aren't as open as they used to be.

* Adam Serwer flags a gem from a special operations soldier, quoted in the Pentagon's DADT report: "We have a gay guy [in the unit]. He's big, he's mean, and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay." Republicans think we'd be safer if the military kicked that guy out. I continue to think that's insane.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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IF ONLY THE RIGHT HAD A STRONGER AVERSION TO DISENFRANCHISEMENT.... Generally, when we talk about the right and varying degrees of support for voter disenfranchisement, we're dealing with sleazy tactics like voter caging. But once in a while, conservatives have a more historical perspective in mind.

Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for example, has raised objections to the Voting Rights Act. Colorado's Tom Tancredo has suggested literacy tests for voters have merit. And this month, Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips went back even further when talking about Americans' voting rights.

He explained that the founders of the country originally put "certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote." He continued, "One of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you're a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you're not a property owner, you know, I'm sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners."

There was no evidence to suggest he was kidding.

In the 18th century, American law limited voting rights to white men who owned property, perhaps assuming that attitudes like those of Judson Phillips were appropriate. But to hear someone in the 21st century suggesting disenfranchisement for people who rent their homes is more than a little jarring.

In the larger contemporary context, it's worth noting that a wide variety of far-right zealots, especially those who identify with the so-called Tea Party "movement," seriously believe that we've strayed from our constitutional origins, and need to turn back the clock, eliminating nearly all of the modern structure of the federal government and our legal ecosystem.

With Phillips' comments in mind, Jon Chait added, "The emergence of 'Constitutional conservatism' as a new aspect of right-wing thought is about nine-parts empty slogan and one-part actual idea. When you look at the actual idea, it's fairly scary. Conservatives are correct that the country has changed its original understanding of the Constitution. Those changes have primarily involved making the country more democratic -- we now get to elect Senators, a privilege many conservatives would like to remove. Another change is that the franchise is no longer restricted to white, male property owners."

That shouldn't even be considered noteworthy anymore, and yet, here's a prominent Tea Party leader, suggesting that the founding fathers had the right idea, and that only those wealthy enough to own property "actually have a vested stake in the community."

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

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WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS.... It's not exactly a secret that congressional Republicans and the Obama White House have a difference of opinion when it comes to tax policy. By GOP design, Bush-era tax rates are set to expire -- the president wants to keep the breaks for the middle class; Republicans want to protect breaks for the wealthy.

With the GOP holding middle-class cuts hostage, there's an impasse. Obama doesn't want to sign the Republican plan, and Republicans won't let the Senate vote on the Democratic plan.

Hoping to find some kind of common ground, the president today assigned Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and White House Budget Director Jacob Lew to oversee a working group, talking with four members of Congress -- one from each party in each chamber -- to try to, as Obama put it, "break through this logjam."

If we're laying odds, it's probably safe to assume the working group won't make any progress. Greg Sargent talked to a senior Republican aide who shared some details on this morning's discussion at the White House.

On the Bush tax cuts, Boehner agreed to a proposal from the President to create a working group to negotiate over the continuing standoff over how to proceed. [...]

But the GOP aide says that in the meeting, Boehner made it clear to the President and Dems that he "believes this is no substitute for immediate action to cut spending and stop the coming tax hikes -- for all taxpayers."

Does anyone seriously believe Boehner is prepared to approach this working group with an open mind, and with an eye towards reaching a compromise? He knows what he wants, and he'll accept nothing short of everything.

The same aide note that the president, talking about the nation's fiscal challenges, urged GOP leaders to think about the problems in terms of short-term, medium-turn, and long-term problems. Republicans rejected the formulation, insisting that these issues must be addressed "right away."

Anyone looking ahead with any modicum of optimism probably isn't paying close enough attention.

Steve Benen 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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GATES TO CONGRESS: TIME TO REPEAL DADT.... Thanks to a series of strategic leaks, we already had a very good sense that the Pentagon's troop survey on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" contained good news. But there were some lingering questions about exactly how encouraging the results would be, and how strong the repeal endorsement would be from military leaders.

By most standards, the news this afternoon is even better than expected.

The Pentagon's long-awaited report on gays in the military concludes that repealing the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" law would present only a low risk to the armed forces' ability to carry out their missions and that 70 percent of service members believe it would have little or no effect on their units.

The conclusions published in Tuesday's report give a boost to President Obama and Congressional Democrats seeking to eliminate the ban before the end of the year and undercut the arguments of social conservatives and lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who believe ending the law would harm the military as it conducts two wars.

"The risk of repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell to overall military effectiveness is low," said the report's co-authors, Defense Department General Counsel Jeh C. Johnson and Army Gen. Carter F. Ham. While ending the ban would likely bring about "limited and isolated disruption" to unit cohesion and retention, "we do not believe this disruption will be widespread or long-lasting," they said.

Nearly seven in ten U.S. troops said they served alongside someone in their unit who they believed to be gay or lesbian, and 92% of these servicemen and women said their unit's ability to work together was fine. What's more, 89% of Army combat units and 84% of Marine combat units saying they had good or neutral experiences working with gays and lesbians.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, after noting the non-existent risk to military readiness, "strongly" urged the Senate to pass the pending legislation "before the end of this year." He added that repeal "would not be the wrenching, traumatic change that many have feared and predicted."

Commenting on the Pentagon report, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added, "We treat people with dignity and respect in the armed forces, or we don't last long in the armed forces: No special cases, no special treatment."

Igor Volsky has more, including a variety of related highlights from the survey findings. The entire report has been published online here.

As for the larger legislative context, remember, Senate Republicans recently refused to even allow a debate on funding U.S. troops because they wanted to wait for this report. They took a gamble, of sorts -- maybe the survey results would show servicemen and women agreeing with the GOP's anti-gay animus, thus giving the party a boost fighting pro-repeal Democrats.

The gamble failed. We now know a majority of U.S. troops, a majority of U.S. civilians, a majority of the House, a majority of the Senate, the Commander in Chief, the Secretary of Defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs are all ready to see DADT repeal move forward.

If John McCain and other anti-gay senators hoped to gain some leverage, those hopes were in vain. They've run out of excuses. It's time for the Senate to do the right and decent thing.

Remember, Democrats only need two Republicans -- literally, just two -- to break ranks. These GOP senators, if they exist, don't even have to vote for the spending bill that includes the DADT provision; they just need to let the Senate vote up or own. If this report doesn't lead two Republicans to drop the nonsense, nothing will.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who remains an influential figure in Republican politics, chatted with a far-right news website yesterday, and characterized newly-elected conservatives hoping to shut down the government next year "a little naive."

"First of all, you can't shut down the government. There are public safety, national security issues, that override a well-intended point, I'm sure, that government is way too big. Better to have a plan on how you reduce the debt by reducing the deficit."

Jeb isn't the only one making comments like these. Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently said shutting down the government would be "a mistake," adding, "Nobody really wants that." Similarly, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was recently asked if we're likely to see a replay of 1995. "No. I don't think the country needs or wants a shutdown," Cantor said. He added that when it comes to pursuing their agenda, Republicans "have to be careful" or they'll be "seen as a bunch of yahoos."

What I like about this is the notion of prominent conservative Republicans characterizing a shutdown as unreasonable and extreme. With upcoming votes on the debt limit and the federal budget, and clamoring among GOP extremists to force a shutdown, public remarks that position a shutdown as beyond the pale help create an incentive for Republicans to avoid one.

And at this point, if GOP leaders hope to avoid a Gingrich replay, they're going to have to overcome some pretty intense conservative pressure -- from hard-liners inside Congress and out -- from rabid right-wing ideologues who've been told the party shouldn't compromise on anything with anyone.

With this in mind, keep Jeb Bush's quote handy.

Steve Benen 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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IT'S REALLY NOT THAT COMPLICATED.... At midnight, 2.5 million unemployed Americans will lose their benefits -- the first time in generations that jobless aid has expired with the unemployment rate this high. Democrats in Congress and the White House support an extension, but don't have the votes to pass one.

And as awful as this is for the struggling families who rely on these benefits, the expiration of the aid undermines the larger economy at the same time. On MSNBC this morning, Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) captured Republican confusion on this, in response to questions from Mike Barnicle.

BARNICLE: What about the fact that unemployment benefits pumped into the economy are an immediate benefit to the economy? Immediate...

SHADEGG: No, they're not! Unemployed people hire people? Really? I didn't know that.

BARNICLE: Unemployed people spend money Congressman, 'cause they have no money.

SHADEGG: Aha! So your answer is it's the spending of money that drives the economy and I don't think that's right. It's the creation of jobs that drives the economy.... Job creators create jobs.

Watching the video of the exchange, I'm inclined to believe Shadegg actually believed what he was saying. With that in mind, I have no interest in questioning his sincerity.

It's his intelligence I have a problem with. This really isn't complicated -- when the unemployed get a check, they spend it. When it comes to getting a strong bang for the buck, jobless benefits have proven to be one of the best economic stimuli in policymakers' tool-belt.

Shadegg believes job creation boosts the economy, but there's a little detail he's struggling with: businesses need customers. When 2.5 million people stop spending, businesses lose customers, which in turn makes them less likely to hire employees.

The data on this is incontrovertible. If Republicans want what's best for the economy, why can't they think this through?

Also note the larger, Dickensian context -- Republicans are fighting tooth and nail for $700 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country, but they're poised to kill extended unemployment benefits for those struggling to find work in a weak economy, at a fraction of the cost.

Raising taxes on the rich under these circumstances is considered madness. Leaving jobless Americans with no benefits and no buying power under these circumstances is considered responsible.

This isn't a surprise, of course. Republicans have repeatedly argued throughout the recession that those struggling to find work in the midst of a jobs crisis are lazy and quite possibly drug addicts. Of course they're prepared to screw over the people most in need of assistance; they just don't like the unemployed.

But as the recovery continues to struggle, Republican opposition to jobless aid only guarantees more struggling, weaker economic activity, and more poverty. It's an easily-preventable disaster, which GOP officials in Congress are willing to just watch unfold.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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SENATE BAN ON EARMARKS FALLS FAR SHORT.... Some conservative Republicans were already able to convince the Senate GOP caucus to support a self-imposed moratorium on earmarks, but the intra-party measure is non-binding and doesn't carry the force of law. This morning, they took the next step, pushing a proposal to ban earmarks altogether.

The Senate considered a similar measure in March, and it failed with only 29 votes. This morning, the proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) garnered far more support, but still fell far short, 39 to 56.

The vote did not fall along party lines. Eight Republicans -- Bennett, Cochran, Collins, Inhofe, Murkowski, Shelby, Lugar, and Voinovich -- broke ranks and opposed the measure. A closer look at this list reveals that two of the eight are retiring from the chamber, while the other six are members of the Appropriations Committee, which just happens to be responsible for handing out earmarks. Meanwhile, seven Democrats -- Bayh, Feingold, McCaskill, Bennet, Bill Nelson, Udall, and Warner -- voted for Coburn's measure.

But for the real entertainment, take a look at who voted against the earmark ban in March, only to turn around and vote for it this morning. Dave Weigel flags the highest profile example.

In March, an earmark moratorium went down 68-29, and [Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe] voted against it. Today the moratorium failed by a 56-39 vote, and Snowe was among the Republicans who switched her vote to [support a moratorium].

What changed? Bob Bennett, Mike Castle, and Lisa Murkowski lost Republican primaries. Tea Partiers have made it crystal clear that they're going to challenge Snowe in 2012, with a resurgent Republican electorate in that state clearly ready for the fight. This, again, is the real impact of the Tea Party movement. Whether it costs Republicans a seat or two is almost irrelevant. Its ability to force discipline and demand ideological concessions from Republicans is uncanny.

The same, by the way, can be said of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, who also switched positions, and who appears likely to face a primary challenger in 2012.

Tea Party zealots may be lacking in a lot of areas -- no clear agenda, no leadership, no internal structure, and no real areas of expertise -- but they've successfully scared the hell out of plenty of GOP lawmakers.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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

* In Alaska's still-unresolved U.S. Senate race, Joe Miller (R) tried to get a state judge to move his court case to his adopted hometown of Fairbanks. The judge refused, and the case will be heard in Juneau.

* Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), meanwhile, is urging Miller to give up. "I think that race is over," Coleman said. "I think the counting's been done." Given that Coleman kept his post-election fight going for eight months, he may be lacking some credibility on the issue.

* In the recount in Minnesota's gubernatorial race, Mark Dayton (D) said he gained 88 votes on the first day of the hand recount, while Tom Emmer (R) gained 51 votes. Dayton entered the recount with a lead of 8,770 votes out of about 2.1 million total ballots cast.

* Roll Call reported this morning that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is likely to accept the job of chairing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the next cycle. Party leaders have had more than a little trouble finding someone to take the job.

* Yet another Republican has kicked off a campaign to be the next RNC Chair: Ann Wagner, a former leader of the Missouri Republican Party, declared her intentions yesterday. Assuming Michael Steele seeks a second term, he'll have plenty of competition.

* Sarah Palin's political action committee raised a surprisingly-strong $469,000 between Oct. 13 and Nov. 22, bringing her total for the cycle to just under $4.5 million.

* In light of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's (R-Texas) failed gubernatorial campaign earlier this year, right-wing activists have vowed to find an even-more-conservative candidate to take her on in a GOP primary in 2012. Hutchison has not yet said whether she'll seek another term.

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

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THE ANNUAL PLEDGE DRIVE CONTINUES.... This is Day Two of the Monthly's annual fundraising drive. Our most sincere thanks to those of you who contributed yesterday, and for those who haven't, here's a reminder that your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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SENATE PASSES FOOD-SAFETY BILL.... The House easily passed an important overhaul of the nation's food safety safeguards over a year ago, before moving to the Senate, where it had six principal co-sponsors -- three Democrats and three Republicans. It appeared to be a no-brainer, especially after the nation saw at least 1,300 salmonella-related illnesses spanning 22 states over the summer.

But the Senate is the Senate, and a handful of far-right Republicans blocked action on the bill for months. Today, their efforts came to an end -- the good guys won one for a change.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety system, after recalls of tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach sickened thousands and led major food makers to join consumer advocates in demanding stronger government oversight.

The legislation, which passed by a vote of 73 to 25, would greatly strengthen the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that in recent decades focused more on policing medical products than ensuring the safety of foods. The bill is intended to get the government to crack down on unsafe foods before they harm people rather than after outbreaks occur.

The legislation isn't perfect, and doesn't go as far as it should, but the bill does grant the FDA new powers to "recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming."

Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, declared, "This is an historic moment. For the first time in over 70 years, the Senate has approved an overhaul of F.D.A.'s food safety law that will help ensure that the food we put on our kitchen tables will be safer."

For those of us who eat food, that's good news.

There is, however, one additional legislative problem: the House and Senate passed slightly different versions, and there's no time for a conference committee in the lame-duck session. Look for the House, which passed the superior version, to just swallow hard and approve the Senate bill as-is, sending it to the White House for the president's signature.

For all the Senate version's flaws, it's a big, overdue step in the right direction.

Part of the problem is the growing industrialization and globalization of the nation's food supply. Nearly a fifth of the nation's food supply and as much as three-quarters of its seafood are imported, but the F.D.A. inspects less than one pound in a million of such imported foods. The bill gives the F.D.A. more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.

And as food suppliers grow in size, problems at one facility can sicken thousands all over the country. The Peanut Corporation of America's contaminated paste was included in scores of cookies and snacks made by big and small companies. The legislation would raise standards at such plants by demanding that food companies write plans to manufacture foods safely and conduct routine tests to ensure that the plans are adequate.

The bill would give the F.D.A. the power to demand food recalls.... The legislation greatly increases the number of inspections the F.D.A. must conduct of food processing plants, with an emphasis on foods that are considered most high risk -- although figuring out which ones are riskiest is an uncertain science.

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

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SITTING DOWN WITH THE CRAZIES.... It's not unusual for congressional offices, especially those in the leadership, to chat with all kinds of interest groups and community leaders. It's not necessarily evidence of an endorsement when staffers for Rep. Smith has a meeting with representatives of Americans for America.

Having said that, one would like to hope that the incoming Speaker would keep dangerous radicals at arm's length. He's not.

It is no secret that Randall Terry is an attention-seeking right-wing zealot, always on the lookout for ways to get his name in the press.

From burning effigies of Nancy Pelosi or Lindsey Graham to destroying Korans and protesting outside the school attended by President Obama's daughters, Terry is constantly working to draw attention to his cause ... mainly as a means to draw attention to himself.

And all of that self-aggrandizement occasionally pays of, as it helps Terry to secure meetings with incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner's Chief of Staff....

Terry released a photo of the meeting, and then emailed his supporters, explaining that the anti-abortion extremist demanded that Boehner end all abortion rights in the country. "We Must Play Hard Ball," his email read. "They Must Fear Pro-Lifers!"

Terry has been around for a while, and his extremism has largely kept him from the Republican mainstream. Tanya Somanader also noted some of his recent antics:

During the health care reform debate, he was nearly arrested outside a Tennessee federal courthouse for stabbing baby dolls. During Justice Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation, Terry launched a "defeat Sotomayor" roadshow with fliers dubbing her the "Angel of Death." Turning on Democratic leadership, he also launched a contest "Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid BURN IN HELL!" video contest complete with demonstration. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also earned an effigy burning tour for voting to confirm Justice Elena Kagan.

Not satisfied with just focusing on politicians, Terry targeted President Obama's children by touting aborted baby pictures outside their school. He even blamed Dr. George Tiller -- a Kansas doctor murdered for administering abortions -- for his own death.

Again, I realize Boehner's office didn't endorse Terry's madness, but when an incoming House Speaker takes the time to meet in private with an extremist like this, it's unsettling. I'm trying to imagine a comparable situation -- it's surprisingly difficult to come up with comparable liberal radicals -- but I suppose one might wonder what the Republican/Fox News reaction would be if Speaker Pelosi's chief of staff chatted with the leadership of Earth First. I suspect it'd be a politically significant story worthy of quite a bit of complaints and attention.

If Boehner's office could simply acknowledge that the discussion with Terry was just a courtesy, and that the incoming Speaker has no tolerance for Terry's brand of extremism, I'm sure many of us would feel a bit better.

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

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U.S. TROOPS COMFORTABLE WITH DADT REPEAL.... It's a little anti-climactic, since previous leaks to the media had hinted at the survey results, but the AP reports this morning that the new report from the Defense Department will show American servicemen and women comfortable with the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

The Pentagon study that argues that gay troops could serve openly without hurting the military's ability to fight is expected to re-ignite debate this month on Capitol Hill over repealing the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Officials familiar with the 10-month study's results have said a clear majority of respondents don't care if gays serve openly, with 70 percent predicting that lifting the ban would have positive, mixed or no results. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the findings hadn't been released.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who have both said they support repealing the law, were scheduled to discuss the findings with Congress Tuesday morning and with reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Of course, this is just a top-line summary of the report, and the details, which will be fleshed out during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings later this week, will make all the difference.

Still, a variety of Senate Republicans insisted for months they couldn't even allow a vote on this until they heard from U.S. troops that they're comfortable with ending the existing policy. As of this morning, this final GOP excuse appears to have been eliminated.

Democrats only need two Republicans -- literally, just two -- to break ranks. These GOP senators, if they exist, don't even have to vote for the spending bill that includes the DADT provision; they just need to let the Senate vote up or own.

If they were waiting for the Pentagon's report, the wait is over. Whether there are two decent Senate Republicans willing to let the chamber vote remains to be seen, but as of today, they no longer have any excuses.

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

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DEFICIT, SCHMEFICIT, CONT'D.... The AP has a fairly detailed report this morning on the results of a new Associated Press-CNBC Poll purporting to show "widespread anxiety" about the federal budget deficit. Not surprisingly, the results of the survey suggest the public isn't sure how best to solve the problem -- folks seem to prefer spending cuts to tax increases, but balk at the idea of touching Social Security and Medicare.

One poll respondent told the AP, "I'm sure there's waste somewhere." Yeah, that's helpful.

For 16 paragraphs, the AP's report goes on and on about public attitudes on how best to close the budget shortfall, who should feel the burden, and the risk the deficit poses to future generations. Way down in the 17th paragraph, though, we get to the part that matters.

Even so, the public is not bristling to tackle the deficit. Of seven issues tested, the deficit was even with taxes as fifth most mentioned, well behind the economy.

Right. For all the talk about how to reduce the deficit, and commissions working out plans to reduce the deficit, and removing capital from the economy in order to reduce the deficit, there's one nagging detail: Americans want a stronger economy, and aren't all that concerned about reducing the deficit right now.

We keep seeing this same result. A recent CBS News poll asked Americans what they'd like to see Congress focus on next year. The results weren't close -- a 56% majority cited "economy/jobs" as the top issue. Health care was a distant second at 14%, while tackling the deficit/debt was a very distant third at 4%. A week later, Gallup found a combined 64% of the country cited "economy/jobs" as the top issue in the country, while the deficit was a distant fifth at 9%. The AP's poll is in line with the others.

The political world, in other words, continues to have the wrong conversation. Policymakers want to take steps that reduce the deficit, at the expense of the economy, despite the fact that the vast majority of the country seems to think that's backwards.

Emboldened Republicans, in particular, seem to be operating in some sort of bizarro world, putting deficit reduction at the top of their list of priorities -- except when they do the opposite, pushing for trillions of dollars in tax cuts -- even if it undermines the health of the economy. (That the deficit is largely the result of Republicans' own policies appears to be an ironic detail that they'd prefer we not mention.)

And just as an aside, also note that the same AP-CNBC poll asked the public about tax policy. It found 50% of Americans support extending Bush-era rates only for those earning under $250,000 a year, and an additional 14% who want all Bush-era rates to expire on schedule. Only a third supports the Republican plan.

With these numbers in mind, Democrats have public backing, but seem to be acting as if they don't, while Republicans have the unpopular position, while pretending the opposite.


Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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OBAMA, CONGRESSIONAL LEADERS TO GATHER FOR FACE-TO-FACE CHAT.... The original plan was for President Obama to host a longer, friendlier gathering at the White House with congressional leaders two weeks ago. Republicans balked, announced they were too busy, and postponed.

And with that constructive foundation already in place, they'll try again today, with the president hosting a meeting -- scheduled to last between 60 and 90 minutes -- with the top two members of both parties from both chambers. There's no set agenda for the get-together, and under the circumstances, everyone involved seems to agree on one thing: keep expectations low.

Obama has said he hopes to use the discussion to at least make some progress on New START ratification and tax policy, but by all appearances, GOP leaders aren't interested in cooperating with the White House at all, on anything other than their own agenda.

Indeed, to help set a certain tone going into the discussion, Speaker-to-be John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have an op-ed in today's Washington Post, presenting their perspective. The piece doesn't exactly send a seriousness-of-purpose message.

Republicans got the message voters have been delivering for more than a year. That's why we made a pledge to America to cut spending, rein in government, and permanently extend the current tax rates so small-business owners won't get hit with a massive tax hike at the end of December. That's what Americans want. And that's the message Republicans will bring to the meeting today. In other words, you'll have a voice at that table.

We can work together and accomplish these things, but the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress first will have to prioritize. It's time to choose struggling middle-class families and small businesses over the demands of the liberal base. It's time to get serious.

I'm still not sure if GOP leaders believe their own nonsense, but Boehner and McConnell seriously seem to believe the economy will improve, and middle-class families will benefit, if they take money out of the economy, undercut consumers' buying power, kill effective jobs programs, eliminate stimulative benefits, and keep Bush's failed tax policy in place. They also seem to seriously believe repeatedly debunked arguments about small businesses and taxes -- suggesting Boehner and McConnell are either illiterate, allergic to facts, or deliberately lying.

Their op-ed is a laundry list of ridiculous partisan garbage culminating in this conclusion:

If President Obama and Democratic leaders put forward a plan during the lame-duck session to cut spending and stop the tax hikes on all Americans, they can count on a positive response from Republicans. If the president and Democratic leaders don't act before the end of the year, however, House and Senate Republicans will work to get the job done in the new Congress. But we hope it doesn't come to that.

The voters want us to show that we heard them, and Republicans are ready to work with anyone who is willing to do just that.

Or to translate to English, "Give Republicans everything they want, and they'll be happy to cooperate." This is bound to help produce a constructive conversation this morning, right?

These guys really do think the public loves the GOP and embraces a far-right policy agenda, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. They're convinced they have a mandate, blissfully unaware of their own unpopularity.

The meeting, which should begin at 10:30 a.m., will be private, though participants will reportedly talk to the media afterwards.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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November 29, 2010

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

* Just a reminder, the Monthly's annual pledge drive began today. We sincerely appreciate those of you who've already shown generous support, and hope other readers will take a moment to help out.

* Crisis on the Korean peninsula: "On the heels of South Korea's threat to force the North to 'pay a dear price for further aggression,' the country's military appeared to step back from its confrontational stance and canceled live-fire artillery drills on an island in the Yellow Sea attacked by North Korea a week ago. Still, high-profile joint exercises between the South and the United States are under way within 125 miles of the island, a show of force meant to warn North Korea but that has drawn warnings from both the North and China."

* On a related note: "With its brazen daytime artillery barrage of a civilian-inhabited island, North Korea's reclusive leaders might have achieved one thing that had so far eluded South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak: uniting the South Korean public around a more aggressive policy toward the North."

* Tragedy in Afghanistan: "An Afghan border policeman killed six American servicemen during a training mission Monday, underscoring one of the risks in a U.S.-led program to educate enough recruits to turn over the lead for security to Afghan forces by 2014. The shooting in a remote area near the Pakistani border appeared to be the deadliest attack of its kind in at least two years." (thanks to R.P. for the tip)

* Tehran: "Motorcyclists attached bombs to cars carrying two of the country's top nuclear scientists early Monday, detonating them from afar. One scientist was killed and the other injured."

* The WikiLeaks fallout and a setback in America's diplomatic strength: "Diplomats and government officials around the world lamented the massive leak of U.S. diplomatic cables Monday and many predicted it would undercut their ability to deal with the United States on sensitive issues."

* On a related note, Anne Applebaum argues persuasively that the WikiLeaks document dump will end up creating more secrecy, not less.

* Iraqi refugees returned to their country in recent years as it grew more stable. Now, they're leaving again.

* The U.S. war in Afghanistan is now longer than the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan.

* Somehow, Brian Beutler managed to convince Josh to give him his own TPM-branded blog. Congrats to Brian, whose talent and hard work clearly warrants such an honor, but who nevertheless probably needs a haircut.

* The wound isn't yet healed, but go ahead and read Jeffrey Toobin's fantastic piece on the Supreme Court's tragic Bush v. Gore ruling.

* The DREAM Act deserves to pass. It probably won't.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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BROACHING THE INVIOLABLE MOTIVATIONS LINE.... E.J. Dionne Jr. considers Senate Republicans' tactics on blocking ratification of the pending arms treaty, New START, and concludes that Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and his cohorts are "playing Russian roulette with our nation's interests."

If this treaty is not ratified, the only winner will be Vladimir Putin. Is Kyl, who on "Meet the Press" Sunday reiterated his desire to delay consideration of the treaty, really willing to risk giving Putin and anti-American forces in Russia a leg up?

You don't have to believe me on this. As [neoconservative interventionist Robert Kagan] wrote this month in The Post, defeat of the treaty will "strengthen Vladimir Putin," who would use its demise "to stir more anti-Western nationalism, further weakening an already weak [President Dmitry] Medvedev and anyone else who stands for a more pro-Western approach." It's not my habit to agree with [Pat Buchanan], but he's right in saying: "Killing the treaty would morally disarm those Russians who see their future with the West."

And the Financial Times, hardly a left-wing newspaper, noted that Kyl's core arguments against the treaty are "so weak as to call into question Mr. Kyl's good faith." We don't need more time to consider it; the treaty has been debated for months. And the Obama administration has made a slew of concessions to Kyl to modernize our nuclear program. What, besides the identity of our current president, justifies this obstruction?

I can appreciate why it's unusual, if not downright reprehensible in some circles, to question politicians' motives. It's the inviolable line -- everyone is expected to be patriots acting in good faith, with sincere disagreements over the merits of competing policies. Without clear evidence of malicious intentions, motivations are supposed to be largely off limits in the civil discourse, especially when it comes to Republicans.

The problem with the GOP lately is that even those inclined to give the party the benefit of the doubt simply can't come up with a good-faith explanation for their actions -- which leads to awkward questions about whether they'd actually put their partisan goals ahead of the national interest. It's almost a modified, political version of Occam's Razor -- if one can't come up with a reasonable explanation for a party's actions on policy grounds, it necessarily makes questions about motivations plausible.

Dionne isn't the only one wondering about this. Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, can't figure out why his own party would be acting this way, leading him to assume Republican senators are putting "the desire for the president not to have a foreign policy victory" ahead of the nation's security interests.

AEI's Norm Ornstein, marveling at GOP's misconduct, said, "I cannot fathom why they are doing what they are doing." The Washington Post Dana Milbank noted last week that Republicans appear to be "trying to weaken Americans' security," concluding, "To borrow Bush's phrase, are Republicans not interested in the security of the American people?" Paul Krugman argued that the GOP is blocking ratification "not because of legitimate objections, but simply because it's an Obama administration initiative; if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it."

If Republicans care about squelching questions about their intentions, they should probably come up with at least mildly coherent talking points. Or they could drop the nonsense and endorse ratification, but that appears highly unlikely.

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CHENEY'S UNDERSTANDING OF 'GOVERNMENT HANDOUTS'.... As it turns out, Liz Cheney's grasp of economic policy is even worse than her understanding of foreign policy, a feat I hardly considered possible.

The right-wing activist and former State Department official appeared on "Fox News Sunday" yesterday, and insisted that the scheduled expiration of Bush-era tax rates would be awful for "small businesses." This is a popular lie, but the frequency with which it's repeated does not improve its accuracy. In Grown-Up Land, the argument has been debunked so often, one can only assume those who still repeat are deliberately trying to deceive the public.

But Cheney went on to say something even more interesting.

"What we've learned over the last 19, 20 months now of the Obama administration is that you cannot grow this economy, you can't stimulate the economy through government handouts. You've got to do it through the private sector."

Now, this is dumb on a variety of levels. Right off the bat, note that the Obama administration's Recovery Act did "grow" and "stimulate" the economy. The evidence is no longer open to debate.

Also note, dismissing public investments as "government handouts" is not only offensive, it's absurd. Cheney never got around to defining the term -- when the Bush/Cheney administration directed lucrative no-bid contracts to her dad's former corporation, do they count as "government handouts," too? -- but the fact remains some of the single most effective areas of economic stimulus have come in the form of direct aid to struggling individuals. Again, the evidence is so overwhelming, the point is incontrovertible.

One of the least effective ways to boost the economy is, incidentally, tax cuts for the wealthy.

And finally, Cheney insists that it's imperative to grow the economy "through the private sector," but what she may not realize is that this is already what's been going on. Since the Recovery Act helped end the recession, corporate profits have soared, and the private sector is where nearly all of the new jobs are being created.

So to summarize, Liz Cheney made a variety of claims, all of which are demonstrably false.

This will have no bearing whatsoever on her being invited back onto the television talk shows, because that's just not how our political discourse works.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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HOUSE DEMS POISED TO VOTE ON MIDDLE-CLASS-FIRST TAX PLAN?.... It's hard to guess exactly how the tax-policy debate will unfold in the coming weeks, since wary Democrats are still arguing and negotiating with themselves. Everything from sticking to the original plan to wholesale capitulation appears to be on the table.

This afternoon, however, Brian Beutler reports that House Dems are moving towards a vote on what I call the middle-class-first tax policy, first pushed by then-candidate Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

House Democrats are likely to hold a vote later this week on a tax plan that would allow the Bush tax cuts for high-income earners to expire at the end of the year, according to multiple aides.

Nothing's final, and the timing could change, as it often does. But Dem leaders will attempt to settle on a date at a private meeting on the Hill tonight.

Keep in mind, there's still a great deal of uncertainty about Dems' tax cut strategy. Through last week's congressional recess, neither House nor Senate Dem leaders had the votes to pass a plan like this, and leaders in both chambers were signaling pretty clearly that the coming vote will be both a symbolic political statement about GOP priorities, and a starting point for a negotiated compromise with Republicans and conservative members of their own party.

It's worth noting exactly what this plan entails. It's exactly the policy thought to be the Democratic plan all along: families making up to $250,000 would see a permanent reduction in their income tax rates. Everyone above that threshold would still get a tax cut, but on income above a quarter-million, they'd return to Clinton-era tax rates. It's also the approach polls suggest is pretty popular with the electorate.

I'm still shaking my head, by the way, on the fact that House Dems chose not to hold this vote before the midterm election.

And just for context, also note that Senate Dems are increasingly fond of a similar plan, but it would draw the line at $1 million, instead of $250,000, at a cost to the government of an additional $400 billion over the next decade.

Of course, if the House does vote on the middle-class-first policy, it's not clear if there will be enough votes to pass it, and if the leadership manages to cobble together 218 votes, Senate support for this approach is tepid, at best. At a minimum, though, it would lay down a marker, and set a benchmark for additional cross-party, cross-chamber talks.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE OFFENSIVE, MIND-NUMBING DEBATE OVER 'AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM'.... Karen Tumulty reports today on one of the Republicans' favorite attack lines targeting President Obama.

"American exceptionalism" is a phrase that, until recently, was rarely heard outside the confines of think tanks, opinion journals and university history departments.

But with Republicans and tea party activists accusing President Obama and the Democrats of turning the country toward socialism, the idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world's other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

That's not an exaggeration. Tumulty notes examples of GOP rhetoric on "exceptionalism" from Romney, Pence, Palin, Gingrich, Huckabee, and Santorum, and I've heard related rhetoric from like-minded Republican voices such as Liz Cheney.

The idea is pretty straightforward: those who accept American exceptionalism believe that the United States has a special and irreplaceable role in the world, quite possibly as a result of supernatural intervention, that gives us a unique character and identity.

For the right, those who resist the nationalistic impulse are failing to celebrate the greatness of the country. And with this in mind, the right appears to have a special fondness for a press conference President Obama participated in a year and a half ago in Strasbourg, France.

Obama was asked by Financial Times correspondent Ed Luce whether he subscribes, as his predecessors did, "to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world." The president responded, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

For conservatives, unconcerned with context, the response was evidence that Obama fails to see America as truly unique.

What they invariably ignore is the rest of Obama's response to the question.

Here's the portion of the president's answer conservatives pretend doesn't exist:

"I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

"And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

"Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

"And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

This context matters, which is why the president's right-wing detractors tend to ignore it. To see the actual, larger response, it becomes clear that Obama appreciates a special role for the U.S. in history and in world affairs, but doesn't see that as a barrier towards international cooperation.

But if we skip right past the rhetoric and petty swipes, we get to the point of these kinds of attacks. As Greg Sargent explained, "[T]he right intends this attack line as a proxy for their real argument: That Obama is not one of us.... [R]eally, the right doesn't intend this as a debate over what Obama really believes. Rather, it's part and parcel of a larger effort to advance an argument about Obama's cultural roots and identity."

There's an unhealthy ugliness to the right's presidential attacks, and this only helps underscore the malice. For the unhinged right, we have those who question the president's birthplace and faith. For the "respectable" right, we have those who obsess over the president's commitment to "exceptionalism."

They are, however, related angles to the same odious strain.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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THE STATE OF PLAY FOR DADT REPEAL.... Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the leading anti-gay opponent of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," appeared on CNN yesterday to insist that the status quo is "working." It was an odd claim -- we're kicking fine soldiers out of the military, at a severe cost, without a good reason. Nothing about this "works."

Hoping to defend his incoherence, McCain went on to blast President Obama for even committing to the change in policy in the first place.

"The fact is, this was a political promise made by an inexperienced President or candidate for Presidency of the United States."

This is cheap, pathetic rhetoric. Obama didn't make a "political promise"; he outlined a policy agenda, which included this shift in service requirements. It has, in case McCain hasn't noticed, been endorsed by the Defense Secretary, the Joint Chiefs chairman, a majority of the public, a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate.

What's more, Obama's not "inexperienced"; he's been the president of the United States in a time of a crisis for the last 22 months -- giving him exactly 22 months more experience in the big chair than the senator from Arizona.

I don't imagine I'm the only one thinking the once-credible "maverick" is still a little bitter about losing the 2008 race (and what was left of his stature).

Still, if there was any hope that McCain might show some decency on this issue, and take seriously the wishes of the vast majority of the country, he made clear those hopes are in vain. It's legacy time, and McCain wants to be remembered as the anti-gay crusader who fought progress at all costs.

Of course, it's not just McCain. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also appeared on one of the Sunday shows, and insisted that DADT repeal was likely to die in the lame-duck session. As he sees it, it has "nowhere near" the Senate support it needs.

I guess we can debate the meaning of the word "near." As of today, the defense spending bill that includes the repeal provision has 58 supporters and 42 opponents. If two Republicans break ranks allow the Senate to fund the troops, repeal will pass. So where's this "nowhere near" talk coming from?

Nevertheless, these remarks underscore what will be a huge week in the larger DADT push. The Pentagon's report on military attitudes will be released tomorrow, followed by Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Thursday and Friday. Mark Thompson has a report on the state of play, including the fact that the final showdown on this may come as early as next week.

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OBAMA TO FREEZE PAY FOR CIVILIAN FEDERAL WORKFORCE.... President Obama announced this morning his call for a two-year pay freeze for civilian federal workers, as part of a larger effort to reduce spending and cut the deficit.

The president's proposal will effectively wipe out plans for a 1.4 percent across-the-board raise in 2011 for 2.1 million civilian federal government employees, including those working at the Defense Department, but the freeze would not affect the nation's uniformed military personnel. The president has frozen the salaries of his own top White House staff members since taking office 22 months ago.

"Clearly this is a difficult decision," said Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and the government's chief performance officer. "Federal workers are hard-working and dedicated." But given the deficit, Mr. Zients added, "we believe this is the first of many difficult steps ahead."

The pay freeze will save $2 billion in the current fiscal year that ends in September 2011, $28 billion over five years and more than $60 billion over 10 years, officials said. That represents just a tiny dent in a $1.3 trillion annual deficit, but it offers a symbolic gesture toward public anger over unemployment, the anemic economic recovery and rising national debt.

For all I know, this might poll well. The public in general may like the idea of freezing these workers' pay, and the move will likely generate at least tepid praise from congressional Republicans.

But it's exceedingly annoying anyway, and I wish the White House wouldn't do stuff like this.

For one thing, it's really not what the economy needs. Granted, we're not talking about a lot of money, but to grow the economy, we need workers to have more money in their pockets, not less. A pay freeze is an anti-stimulus.

For another, if the White House expects a political reward for this, officials are likely to be disappointed. Remember the discretionary spending freeze the administration talked up in January? If memory serves, the public didn't notice and congressional Republicans complained anyway.

But what I would have really preferred to see is some kind of trade. If the president is willing to accept a civilian pay freeze, fine. I wish he wouldn't, but that's where he's prepared to go. But in exchange for this concession, Obama appears to be getting literally nothing in return.

This week, the president will sit down with Republican leaders from the House and Senate, and will say something to the effect of, "Well, I signaled a willingness to make a tough concession with the pay freeze. What kind of concessions are you prepared to make?" Boehner and McConnell will reply, "We're not willing to make any concessions at all"; the meeting will end; and we'll be left with 2.1 million Americans with less buying power.

The president has some extraordinary strengths. Negotiating tactics do not appear to be among them.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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

* With Joe Miller (R) refusing to concede his U.S. Senate race in Alaska, the state Republican Party is quickly moving away from its nominee. Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich posted a statement to the party's website the other day, shooting down each of Miller's defenses for sticking around.

* Miller, however, shows no signs of going anywhere.

* Speaking of unresolved statewide races, the manual recount in Minnesota's gubernatorial race gets underway today. Mark Dayton (D) currently leads Tom Emmer (R) by about 9,000 votes out of 2.1 million ballots cast.

* The AP checked in with 51 members of the Republican National Committee, and found that 39 of them hope chairman Michael Steele isn't on the ballot when they choose their next chairperson in January.

* Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton continues to hint at his interest in running for president -- yes, of the United States -- in 2012.

* Disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley (R) is considering running for mayor in his hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida.

* And it's taken a while, but the Deep South's realignment is just about complete: "That the old Confederacy is shifting toward the GOP is, of course, nothing new. Southerners have been voting for Republican presidents, senators and governors for decades. But what this year's elections, and the subsequent party switching, have made unambiguously clear is that the last ramparts have fallen and political realignment has finally taken hold in one of the South's last citadels of Democratic strength: the statehouses."

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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KIRK CRYSTALLIZES CONTEMPORARY CONSERVATISM.... Mark Kirk (R), who will be sworn in as a U.S. senator today, recently boasted of his desire to join the chamber's "Mod Squad" -- his name for the small contingent of Republican moderates with great influence in the Senate.

But on economic policy, Kirk, perhaps best known for his borderline-pathological dishonesty about his background, is anything but moderate.

The Republican told MSNBC this morning, for example, that all of the Bush-era tax rates have to be extended "no matter what."

"We should extend the Bush tax cuts and make sure we don't have a double-dip recession. And I have the honor to be the first of ninety-five new Republicans, fiscal conservatives, to help right our ship of state."

And in the same interview, Kirk was asked whether he's against extending unemployment benefits for those still struggling in the weak economy. He replied:

"That's right. You could extend it if you found a way to pay for it. And I voted for that in the past. But these proposals to extend unemployment insurance by just adding it to the deficit are misguided."

And there it is in a nutshell -- massive tax cuts, adding trillions to the debt, should be passed without hesitation, and without thinking too much about the fact that they don't actually help the economy much. Aid to the jobless, however, which has enormous stimulative benefits, must be rejected, despite their much lower costs.

This couldn't offer a more clear contrast. On the one hand, we have hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts that will benefit millionaires and billionaires, and all of which would be added to the deficit. Kirk supports the cuts "no matter what."

On the other hand, we have 2.5 million Americans, all of whom are struggling badly, poised to lose jobless benefits. These benefits, which cost about $60 billion a year, tend to have an impressive stimulative effect -- when the unemployed get a check, they spend it -- which improves the larger economy. Kirk sees this as "misguided."

We can afford hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks that don't work, but we can't afford tens of billions of dollars in benefits that do work.

It's all about priorities.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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DRAWING THE TAX LINE AT $1 MILLION.... The first Democratic compromise plan on Bush-era tax rates was straightforward: a permanent lower rate for those making under $250,000; Clinton-era top rates for those making more. The second compromise floated by Dems was even more conservative: a permanent lower rate for those making under $250,000 and a temporary extension of existing rates for the wealthy. Congressional Republicans balked at both.

Now there's a third Democratic compromise plan.

Over the past few days, a growing number of lawmakers have publicly embraced the idea of extending expiring tax cuts for families making as much as $1 million a year. They include newly elected Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who argued on "Fox News Sunday" that "we should draw the line in the sand for millionaires."

The idea's chief proponent, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said that raising the income threshold from $250,000, as Obama has proposed, has the potential to unite fractious Democrats behind a single strategy on the tax cuts, which are set to expire Dec. 31 unless Congress acts.

Schumer also said the higher threshold would make it far more difficult for Republicans to say no.

Almost immediately thereafter, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said no.

Still, Schumer's pitch isn't ridiculous. "There's a strong view in the caucus that if we make the dividing line $1 million, it becomes a very simple argument: We are for giving the middle class a tax break; they're for tax cuts for millionaires," the New York senator said yesterday. At $250,000, the message is "too muddled," he said. "It's much clearer at $1 million. It unites our base and the independent voters we lost in this election."

The next question, of course, is how much this would cost, and Jonathan Cohn connected with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to get an answer.

The original Democratic policy (extending tax breaks to those below $250,000) would cost about $3.2 trillion over the next decade, whereas the Republican alternative (permanent Bush-era rates for everyone) would cost about $4 trillion. The Schumer-backed compromise, meanwhile, would come in with a price tag in between: $3.6 trillion.

For all the talk about deficit commissions, spending cuts, and austerity, no one in the political establishment seems to think it's odd that policymakers are having this discussion -- and that those who claim to be most concerned about the debt are the ones pushing the most expensive package.

That said, if Republicans continue to believe even a penny of tax increases applied to one person is a bridge too far, and they're prepared to kill middle-class cuts unless they get everything they want, all of this is probably moot. Dems think the GOP would feel embarrassed about fighting tooth and nail to protect millionaires and billionaires at the expense of everyone else? That assumes Republicans are capable of shame.

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

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IF THEY CAN'T BEAT 'EM, JOIN 'EM.... I tend to think these deficit commissions and panels are asking the wrong question at the wrong time -- when it comes to the economy, the focus should be on creating jobs and boosting growth, not tackling the deficit.

I suspect most center-left observers agree with this, but the larger discussion appears to have slipped away. The establishment wants this to be a top priority, so it is. The left has a choice: keep trying to move the conversation away from deficit reduction, or move the conversation about deficit reduction in a more constructive direction.

This week, Demos, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Century Foundation, followed by the Citizens' Commission on Jobs, Deficits and America's Economic Future, will pursue the latter.

As President Obama's fiscal commission faces a deadline this week for agreement on a plan to shrink the mounting national debt, liberal organizations will unveil debt-reduction proposals of their own in the next two days, seeking to sway the debate in favor of fewer reductions in domestic spending, more cuts in the military and higher taxes for the wealthy.

The proposals from two sets of liberal advocacy groups highlight the deep ideological divides surrounding efforts to deal with the nation's budgetary imbalances, even as Mr. Obama's bipartisan commission works to finalize its recommendations by Wednesday -- and struggles for a formula that would get the backing of at least 14 of its 18 members, the threshold for sending its proposal to Congress for a vote.

The liberal approaches have quite a few things going for them. They're fiscally responsible and have a realistic chance of achieving their goal, and just as importantly, they do so in a progressive way -- protecting Social Security and raising taxes primarily on the very wealthy.

Paul Krugman added, "I'll need to work through the proposal, but one thing it clearly does is to explode the myth that there is no alternative to the Bowles-Simpson-type regressive proposal. A lot of inside-the-Beltway types have been trying to sell the notion that a severely weakened social safety net is the only possibility; it isn't. And it's definitely worth noting that even with the revenue measures in the progressive plan, the US would have lower overall taxation than almost any other advanced country."

The larger benefit continues to be the ability to compare competing options. If deficit reduction is the goal -- it shouldn't be, necessarily, but if it is -- there are different avenues to the same destination. These liberal coalitions are offering a credible direction, which should stack up quite favorably against its more conservative competitors.

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

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OUR ANNUAL PLEDGE DRIVE.... Long-time "Political Animal" readers may recall that we here at the Monthly host an annual fundraising drive. It's back, and in this season of giving, your tax-deductible donation can make a big difference.

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

But to keep us going strong, we need a little help. With that in mind, the Monthly published this appeal this morning.

When Charles Peters launched the Washington Monthly in 1969, it was his notion to prod everyone to rethink liberal and conservative ideas, to look at our government, its leaders, and its institutions with fierce honesty -- and to make them better. He did not foresee how influential his magazine would become, changing policy debates on more than one occasion. Nor could he have foreseen the seismic shifts that have roiled the economy -- and the publishing world -- more than forty years later. But even though other magazines, newspapers, and Web sites are cutting back their coverage or shutting their doors altogether, we're still here in our cluttered little downtown DC office, still committed to providing -- in print and on the Web -- the cutting-edge reporting and analysis the country needs now more than ever.

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Your tax-deductible donation will make possible more of these kinds of stories, both in the magazine and on the Web. Any amount is welcome. But as you consider your donation, please think about what our society would be missing without stories like ours that keep a close watch on our government and its elected officials, and what your day would be like without your daily dose of Steve Benen's running commentary on "Political Animal."

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

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THE EFFORT TO MAKE KYL HAPPY.... On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Republican activist Ed Gillespie joined the roundtable discussion, and for some reason, was asked to reflect on his party's handling of the pending nuclear arms treaty, New START. He made a comment that was both important and wrong.

"You know, [Sen. Jon Kyl] has been asking legitimate questions for a long time about the START treaty," Gillespie said. "He's the number two Republican in the Senate, he is the leader in our party on these nuclear weapons issues, and the White House is essentially acted as if they're getting, you know, mail from a college intern working for a freshman House member."

To his credit, E.J. Dionne piped up and insisted that this is "not true." Regrettably, he wasn't given much of a chance to elaborate, and Gillespie insisted his version of reality is accurate.

It isn't. In Grown-Up Land, the Obama administration has been working with Kyl for months, trying to understand exactly what he's looking for, and making every effort to satisfy his demands. I don't really expect Gillespie to understand the issues he pops off on when appearing on national television, and David Gregory has already scoffed at the notion of fact-checking guests' on-air claims, but the truth is important here.

Over many months of negotiations, the administration committed to spending $80 billion to do that over the next 10 years, and on Friday offered to chip in $4.1 billion more over the next five years. As a gesture of commitment, the White House had made sure extra money for modernization was included in the stopgap spending resolution now keeping the government operating, even though almost no other program received an increase in money.

All told, White House officials counted 29 meetings, phone calls, briefings or letters involving Mr. Kyl or his staff. They said they thought they had given him everything he wanted, and were optimistic about completing a deal this week, only to learn about his decision on Tuesday from reporters.

An AP report added two weeks ago, "In a sign of the urgency of the administration's pitch, White House aides traveled to Kyl's home state of Arizona to brief him on the proposal" on modernization, the senator's top stated goal.

To argue that the administration has treated Kyl like "a college intern working for a freshman House member" is just insane.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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WIKILEAKS HAMPERS U.S. DIPLOMACY.... American officials were bracing for a massive WikiLeaks document dump, and late yesterday, it arrived.

A cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the past three years, provides an unprecedented look at back-room bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats.

Some of the cables, made available to The New York Times and several other news organizations, were written as recently as late February, revealing the Obama administration's exchanges over crises and conflicts. The material was originally obtained by WikiLeaks, an organization devoted to revealing secret documents. WikiLeaks posted 220 cables, some redacted to protect diplomatic sources, in the first installment of the archive on its Web site on Sunday.

The disclosure of the cables is sending shudders through the diplomatic establishment, and could strain relations with some countries, influencing international affairs in ways that are impossible to predict. [...]

The cables, a huge sampling of the daily traffic between the State Department and some 270 embassies and consulates, amount to a secret chronicle of the United States' relations with the world in an age of war and terrorism.

Some of the revelations aren't surprising at all. The fact that U.S. officials believe corruption is rampant in the Karzai government, for example, isn't exactly front-page news. Nor is it surprising to learn there's plenty of spying going on at the United Nations, U.S. officials have been anxious to find countries willing to take Gitmo detainees, and that the Bush Administration didn't want Germany to arrest CIA officials who accidentally kidnapped an innocent German citizen and held him for months in Afghanistan.

Plenty of other revelations, meanwhile, are rather startling. While details will likely be coming out for weeks as more people are able to go through more materials, it's already surprising, for example, to see how many foreign governments, including the Saudis, have been supportive of a U.S. military strike on Iran.

I'm not convinced that the release of these secret materials -- some have begun calling it "Cablegate" -- will be too devastating to international diplomacy, though it certainly makes the State Department's work much more difficult, especially in the short term. I don't doubt that foreign diplomats will be reluctant to engage their American allies for a while, which may very well undermine U.S. foreign policy, but we're still likely talking about bruised feelings and hurt egos, not blockbuster secrets from around the globe.

I would, however, like to know more about the motivations of the leaker (or leakers). Revealing secrets about crimes, abuses, and corruption obviously serves a larger good -- it shines a light on wrongdoing, leading (hopefully) to accountability, while creating an incentive for officials to play by the rules. Leaking diplomatic cables, however, is harder to understand -- the point seems to be to undermine American foreign policy, just for the sake of undermining American foreign policy. The role of whistleblowers has real value; dumping raw, secret diplomatic correspondence appears to be an exercise in pettiness and spite.

I've seen some suggestions that diplomats shouldn't write cables that they'd be embarrassed by later if they were made publicly. I find that unpersuasive. I'm not going to pretend to be an expert in the nuances of on-the-ground international affairs, but I am comfortable with the notion of some diplomatic efforts being kept secret. Quiet negotiations between countries can lead, and have led, to worthwhile foreign policy agreements, advancing noble causes.

If the argument from the leakers is that there should be no such thing as private diplomacy, they'll need a better excuse to justify this kind of recklessness.

Steve Benen 8:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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FROM THE HOLIDAY WEEKEND.... The days surrounding Thanksgiving are traditionally pretty slow, but we did cover some developments of note here at Political Animal.

On Sunday we covered, among other things, the disappearing influence of the old-guard GOP foreign-policy establishment within its own party; one of the more bizarre David Broder columns of the year; the Sunday shows' ongoing obsession with John McCain; the reemergence of culture-war issues at the state level; and the latest details of the alleged terrorist bomb plot in Portland, Oregon.

On Saturday we covered, among other things, President George H.W. Bush's NSA questioning his own party's motives on New START; David Gergen's unpersuasive defense of Tea Party activists; "This Week in God"; the silliness of relying on 2010 polling data to predict 2012 races; and Fox News' unfamiliarity with The Onion.

On Friday we covered, among other things, new data from the CBO on the efficacy of the Recovery Act; a response to Michael Gerson's criticism of one of my recent posts; and Tom DeLay's conviction on felony money laundering charges in Texas.

And on Wednesday we covered, among other things, Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Mo.) ridiculous understanding of the history of Thanksgiving; what the White House should do if congressional Republicans are prepared to undermine national progress deliberately; the lingering scourge of E coli conservatism; Glenn Beck's unintentionally amusing ideas about unionizing TSA officials; Rep. Gary Ackerman's (D-N.Y.) worthwhile HIPA-CRIT Act, which appears to be about three months too late; and discouraging economic growth projections from the Federal Reserve, which should prompt renewed efforts from policymakers, but aren't.

Steve Benen 7:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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November 28, 2010

WHEN ELDER STATESMEN NO LONGER HAVE THEIR PHONE CALLS RETURNED.... A couple of weeks ago, President Obama, commenting at the White House on the pending arms control treaty with Russia, noted, "It is a national security imperative that the United States ratify the New Start treaty this year. There is no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress."

More interesting than the comments, though, were the three men flanking the president at the time: Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Henry Kissinger, all veterans of modern Republican presidents, and members in good standing of Republican Foreign Policy Elder Statesmen, at least by the standards of the Republican establishment.

The point Obama and his team wanted to emphasize, of course, is that this treaty enjoys broad bipartisan support, just so long as one overlooks the Senate Republican caucus. It didn't matter; the GOP votes that count are the ones that refuse to even consider the consequences of their conduct.

There was a time, not too long ago, that the political world would look to these proxies as evidence of merit. If Lugar, Scowcroft, Kissinger, James Baker, Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz, Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan Chief of Staff Howard Baker, and Colin Powell endorsed a treaty related to national security -- and all of these Republicans have urged ratification of New START -- it stood to reason that the measure would enjoy enthusiastic Republican backing. When six former secretaries of state and five former secretaries of defense from both parties; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; seven former Strategic Command chiefs; national security advisers from both parties; and nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces were all on the same page -- as they are now on New START -- the proposal on the table would fairly be described as a "no-brainer."

But that was before. Before what, exactly? Well, before the contemporary Republican Party became the contemporary Republican Party. Now, figures are left to search in vain for someone GOP senators might actually listen to.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has reserved judgment on how she will vote until the resolution comes to the floor, said it could make a difference if Obama could get George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, both former presidents, to appear with him in support of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. [...]

"It would be wonderful if President [George H.W.] Bush would come out for the treaty. That would be so powerful and definitely help," Collins said in a telephone interview last week.

Really? All of these other Bush administration officials endorsing the treaty isn't quite enough to send a signal about the measure's merit?

Jacob Heilbrun recently explained that the GOP's handling of this debate offers us a chance to watch "the decline and fall of the Republican foreign-policy establishment." Ordinarily, sentences that include "Republican," "establishment," and "fall" might sound like an encouraging development, but in this case, it's really not -- the old-guard GOP foreign-policy establishment were the only folks left in the party still in touch with reality.

Their judgment is hardly unimpeachable -- cough, Iraq war, cough -- but they nevertheless offered at least some reasonable pushback to neoconservatism and the blind, knee-jerk partisanship that dominates Republican Party thinking.

Their influence, however, has disappeared. Republican policymakers are aware of the foreign policy old guard, but they prefer to ignore its members. It's an important development in the growing immaturity of GOP politics in the 21st century.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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NOTHING WRONG WITH SOME COUNTER-TERRORISM BOASTS.... About a year ago, in the immediate wake of the failed Abdulmutallab terror plot on Christmas Day, Marc Ambinder had an item about the deliberate White House strategy.

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

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

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

Around that time, Republicans and the political establishment decided this sensible approach was all wrong. When there's a serious terror plot, even an unsuccessful one, mature leadership, focused on denying lunatics p.r. victories and maintaining public calm, is the last thing we need -- or so we've been told.

I respect the fact that the White House has resisted exploitation and fear-mongering. But with Mohamed Osman Mohamud's thwarted terrorist plot in mind, I wonder if the president and his team might consider a little more political grandstanding

Administration officials have had quite a bit of success over the last two years in preventing domestic terror attacks, capturing would-be mass murderers, and keeping the public safe, but no one seems to talk about it, precisely because it's not this White House's style to chest-thump after a job well done.

But as a consequence, I suspect much of the country just doesn't hear about these developments.

Does the typical voter, or even the typical political reporter, know about the administration arresting would-be terrorists Najibullah Zazi, Talib Islam, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, and now Mohamed Osman Mohamud into custody before they could launch their planned attacks? Perhaps not. If similar developments had occurred in, say, 2006, we'd see considerable efforts from the Bush White House and the Attorney General's office to boast about their success stories. GOP officials in the previous administration decided to make this a political priority -- even when they were celebrating minor developments.

President Obama, by all appearances, finds shameless politicization of counter-terrorism offensive. And it is. But the White House's critics would have Americans believe this administration isn't succeeding on this front, and isn't even taking the threat seriously. With this in mind, maybe some shameless exploitation, just to help get the word out, is in order?

Sometimes, leaders acting like a grown-up can go over the political world's head.

Steve Benen 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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BRODER BEING BRODER.... A week ago, David Broder mentioned in his Washington Post column that, in the post-midterm environment, there hasn't been any hint of Republicans' "willingness to compromise." I was glad to see him notice.

But those insights didn't last. Today, Broder ponders whether President Obama will finally try bipartisan compromise with those who refuse to compromise.

What if Barack Obama is telling the truth about his own beliefs when he says that neither party by itself can realistically hope to solve the challenges facing the United States?

Suppose he means it when he says that after the shellacking he and his fellow Democrats received in the midterm elections, he is ready and willing to hear the Republicans' ideas for dealing with jobs, taxes, energy and even nuclear weapons control.

I know that is supposing a lot -- so much that it seems impossible. It's more like the script for a Broadway musical than a plausible plotline for Washington. But nonetheless, suppose that he is serious when he says, over and over, as he did on Thanksgiving Day, that if we want to "accelerate this recovery" and attack the backlog of lost jobs, "we won't do it as any one political party. We've got to do it as one people." [...]

Suppose there is a chance that he is serious -- that after two years of trying to govern through one party, a party that held commanding majorities in the House and Senate but now has lost them, two years with landmark accomplishments but ultimate frustration of his hopes to change Washington, he has reverted to his original philosophy of governing.


The assumption that the president somehow abandoned his original, bipartisan, politics-be-damned approach to policymaking is popular among establishment types, but I think a good-faith analysis of Obama's first two years reflects a very different reality. In reality, the president appeared almost desperate to generate bipartisan support for major initiatives, and to the consternation of his base, quick to make concessions in the hopes of crafting proposals with broad support.

But it wasn't his fault these efforts failed. Republicans made a conscious, deliberate decision, which they have freely acknowledged, not to cooperate with the process of governing. Prominent GOP leaders haven't even been shy on this point, leading to a party that balked at White House initiatives, even going so far as to reject their own ideas.

Broder makes it sound as if the White House chose to simply cut Republicans out of the debate, on purpose, as a partisan scheme. But that's demonstrably false, at least as far as intentions go -- Obama reached out to the GOP, only to find his hand slapped away by angry, bitter partisans.

But Broder really goes astray when exploring next steps.

The Post columnist insists it's incumbent on President Obama, not congressional Republicans, to start making concessions to the other side, and specially encourages GOP leaders to go to a White House meeting this week "with a set of challenges to Obama's seriousness."

Why is it, exactly, that there will be no test of Republicans' seriousness? Broder doesn't say.

They might start with an area that traditionally has been beyond politics: national security. The president has said it is a high priority for him to see the New START treaty with Russia ratified during this lame-duck session of Congress.

Jon Kyl, the Republican No. 2 in the Senate and its lead voice on nuclear policy, has raised a number of issues he says must be resolved before such approval is given. Kyl and Obama have been negotiating through intermediaries and have satisfied each other on most but not all points.

The Republicans could ask Obama to sit down directly with Kyl and see if they can compromise on the rest. That would be a fair first test of Obama's sincerity.

For goodness sakes. Maybe the Senate can ratify an arms treaty that advances American national security if Jon Kyl gets face time in the Oval Office? Administration officials have practically been tripping over one another, trying to figure out how to make Kyl happy. He presented some demands, the White House agreed to the terms, and Kyl still chose betrayal. A "fair first test of Obama's sincerity" is chatting with the far-right senator one on one? Here's an idea: maybe David Broder can offer some evidence of Jon Kyl's sincerity, since it appears to be hiding well.

Another involves the soon-to-expire Bush tax cuts. Almost everyone agrees they should be renewed for the 98 percent of American families earning below $250,000 a year. The president opposes but Republicans support extending them also for the top 2 percent.

That is another issue on which Boehner and McConnell would be justified in challenging Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to negotiate with them and the top Republicans on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees.

Again, I don't know which Capitol Hill Broder's been watching, but the White House has already offered two major compromise proposals on Bush-era tax rates. Both were rejected by Republicans, who said they're not open to compromise on this issue at all.

Broder's entire vision of current events appears to be filtered through a Republican lens. Obama reaches out, Republicans refuse, and Broder ponders when the president will get serious about bipartisan compromise.

Has the columnist not noticed current events for the last two years?

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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IF IT'S SUNDAY.... You'll never guess who's on one of the Sunday morning public affairs talk shows.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is calling for "regime change" in North Korea -- and blames the recent crisis on the failings of Pyongyang's lone international supporter, China.

"It's time we talked about regime change in North Korea -- and I do not mean military action -- but I do believe that this is a very unstable regime," McCain told Candy Crowley Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." [...]

McCain, in his first appearance on the show, lit into Beijing, while tepidly endorsing China's plan for emergency multi-party talks. [emphasis added]

As a substantive matter, McCain's foreign policy analysis was strikingly superficial, which should only come as a surprise to those in the Washington establishment who continue to mistake the senator for someone who has an expertise in international affairs.

But I especially liked that line about this being McCain's first-ever appearance on "State of the Union." That's only true if one plays some semantics games -- the conservative Arizonan has been on the show many times, just not since the rebranding and change in hosts.

Indeed, the words "John McCain" and "first appearance" clearly don't belong in the same sentence when we're talking about the Sunday shows. This morning's appearance was McCain 26th appearance on a Sunday show just since President Obama's inauguration.

Since the president took office 22 months ago, McCain has been on CBS's "Face the Nation" five times (1.24.10, 10.25.09, 8.30.09, 4.26.09, and 2.8.09), NBC's "Meet the Press" six times (11.14.10, 6.27.10, 2.28.10, 12.6.09, 7.12.09, and 3.29.09), ABC's "This Week" four times (7.4.10, 9.27.09, 8.23.09, and 5.10.09), and "Fox News Sunday" six times (9.5.10, 4.18.10, 12.20.09, 7.2.09, 3.8.09, and 1.25.09). His appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" this morning is his fifth since Obama took office (11.28.10, 1.10.10, 10.11.09, 8.2.09, and 2.15.09).

If there's a good explanation for bookers' obsession with the failed presidential candidate, I can't think of it.

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

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CULTURE WARRIORS PUT ON THEIR COMBAT BOOTS.... There's periodic talk from some Republican leaders about a "truce" in the culture war, and polls suggest most Americans want policymakers to focus on economic issues. Fresh off their midterm victories, however, many Republicans are poised to invest time and energy into hot-button social issues.

Although fixing the economy is the top priority, Republicans who won greater control of state governments in this month's election are considering how to pursue action on a range of social issues, including abortion, gun rights and even divorce laws.

Incoming GOP governors and legislative leaders across the nation insist they intend to focus initially on fiscal measures to spur the economy, cut spending and address state budget problems.

"At this point, the economy dominates everything, and until the economy is turned around and our fiscal house put in order, there's not going to be a lot of appetite for anything else," said Whit Ayres, a pollster in Alexandria, Va., whose firm did research for several GOP candidates in the midterm race.

But the pressure to go further, as soon as possible, is only slightly below the surface in states where conservatives' top social goals have been foiled for years by Democratic vetoes and legislative obstacles.

Nearly all of the culture war focus is going on at the state level. In Washington, Republicans would no doubt welcome the chance to tackle these issues, but a Democratic White House and Senate renders most of the far-right wish list irrelevant, at least for now.

But at state houses, conservatives have grand ambitions. The AP's report noted that Wisconsin, for example, will take up measures to restrict abortion rights, expanding concealed-weapon laws, and strip gay state employees and their domestic partners of their benefits. Kansas will tackle stem-cell and divorce policies, while making the state "as close to an abortion-free zone as possible." The far-right is demanding similar moves from newly-elected Republican administrations in Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, also reported recently that voters can expect related culture war fights elsewhere, including a battle of sex ed in North Carolina, and fights over gay rights in Minnesota and New Hampshire.

All of this is the result of voters giving Republicans more legislative control than the party has had since 1952.

Americans who thought they were voting on economic issues may be in for a rude awakening.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DANFORTH FEARS GOP MAY REACH POINT 'BEYOND REDEMPTION'.... With Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) inadvertently raising his nation profile lately, the New York Times notes an interesting larger context: the long-time conservative Hoosier isn't afraid to break party ranks when he thinks it's important.

Mavericks are not in vogue these days on Capitol Hill, a place where hyper-partisanship and obduracy seem to be their own rewards.

But Senator Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican who played that role long before it had a brand name, is standing against his party on a number of significant issues at a politically dangerous time to do so.

A reliable conservative for decades on every issue, he nonetheless fought President Ronald Reagan -- and prevailed -- on apartheid penalties and over the Philippine presidential election. He went head to head with Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990s over the nomination of William F. Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, as ambassador to Mexico.

Now, in the heat of the post-primary lame-duck Congressional session, he is defying his party on an earmark ban, a bill that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, a military spending authorization bill and an arms control treaty with Russia.

He even declined to sign a brief supporting state lawsuits against President Obama's health care law because he saw it as political posturing.

Good for him. In an era in which Republican lawmakers too often act like mindless partisan drones, principally concerned with what Rush Limbaugh and Fox News will say about their efforts, Lugar is an old-school statesman -- committed to his conservative beliefs, but willing to put national interests above party politics on issues he considers important. I probably disagree with Lugar about 90% of the time, but even I can appreciate the fact that the senator brings some integrity and seriousness of purpose to his work.

For his trouble, Lugar may very well face a primary challenger when he seeks re-election in 2012, a prospect some respected party leaders find chilling.

Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), who joined the Senate the same year as Lugar, told the Times, "If Dick Lugar, having served five terms in the U.S. Senate and being the most respected person in the Senate and the leading authority on foreign policy, is seriously challenged by anybody in the Republican Party, we have gone so far overboard that we are beyond redemption."

I'm not sure how much more evidence Danforth would need. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) faced a primary challenger in the 2010 cycle, as did Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and former Republican Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. In 2012, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) will very likely face an intra-party challenge of her own.

Hasn't the contemporary Republican Party already "gone overboard" in targeting members the base considers insufficiently right-wing?

Lugar, meanwhile, seems almost certain to face a primary challenger. A spokesperson for the Indianapolis Tea Party condemned Lugar for his "more moderate" voting record -- which seems pretty silly given how conservative he is -- and the chair of the Indiana Republican Party added that a primary race appears likely.

Given this, Danforth's concerns, which are more than reasonable, appear to be based on the fear that the unhinged right may soon completely dominate Republican politics. My only response to the retired senator is, his fears have already been realized.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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DETAILS EMERGE ON THWARTED OREGON BOMB PLOT.... Following up on yesterday's item, additional details are coming to light about Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old naturalized American citizen, who intended to detonate a car bomb at a packed Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.

From the outset, Mohamud, a Somali-born immigrant, was never close to actually obtaining dangerous materials, dealing with undercover law enforcement officials over the course of nearly six months. But there's little doubt that the would-be terrorist was, as one official put it, "absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale."

We're also learning how the accused came to the attention of the FBI in the first place.

The F.B.I.'s surveillance started in August 2009 after agents intercepted his e-mails with a man he had met in Oregon who had returned to the Middle East, according to a law enforcement official who described the man as a recruiter for terrorism. According to the affidavit, the man had moved to Yemen and then northwest Pakistan, a center of terrorism activity.

Mr. Mohamud was then placed on a watch list and stopped at the Portland airport in June 2010 when he tried to fly to Alaska for a summer job.

Later in June, aware of Mr. Mohamud's frustrated attempts to receive training as a jihadist overseas, an undercover agent first made contact with him, posing as an associate of the man in Pakistan. On the morning of July 30, the F.B.I. first met with Mr. Mohamud in person to initiate the sting operation.

The planning for the attack evolved from there, with Mr. Mohamud taking an aggressive role, insisting that he wanted to cause many deaths and selecting the Christmas target, according to federal agents. Reminded that many children and families would be at the ceremony, Mr. Mohamud said that he was looking for "a huge mass" of victims, according to the F.B.I.

The identity of the man Mohamud exchanged emails with is not yet clear.

Aware of entrapment legal defenses, undercover agents offered Mohamud multiple alternatives to mass murder, including mere prayer. But he insisted he wanted to play an "operational" role, and even picked his target. Told he'd likely kill a lot of children, Mohamud said, "Yeah, I mean that's what I'm looking for." Pushed him further on whether he's prepared to commit such an act, Mohamud told agents, "I want whoever is attending that event to leave, to leave either dead or injured."

That the law enforcement process appears to have worked flawlessly to stop this monster is very good news.

With that in mind, there appear to be some on the right who consider this story evidence of America getting "lucky" on counter-terrorism. I don't think good fortune had anything to do with it -- law enforcement identified, approached, apprehended, and charged a young man prepared to commit mass murder. If Mohamud had nearly detonated an actual car bomb, but screwed it up in some way, that might constitute "luck." But that's not what happened.

I realize there's a temptation on the right to discount the notion of Obama administration counter-terrorism successes, but when officials get it right, that's cause for congratulatory praise.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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November 27, 2010

SCOWCROFT GOES THERE.... Politico reports today on Sen. Dick Lugar (R) of Indiana, who has taken a strong leadership role on New START ratification, despite the larger partisan dynamic. That the treaty was negotiated by a president of the other party appears completely irrelevant to the respected former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But the article notes that the elder statesmen of the Republican Party have been left largely mystified by the blind partisanship of their party's senators. (via Ben Armbruster)

In an attempt to rally bipartisan support for the treaty, the White House has enlisted the kind of GOP foreign policy wise men that Lugar exemplifies -- among them former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker. But they have had no success with members of their own party, and it has left them scratching their heads over the source of the GOP opposition.

"It's not clear to me what it is," said Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush who noted that this START treaty is not very different from previous ones negotiated and ratified under Republican presidents. "I've got to think that it's the increasingly partisan nature and the desire for the president not to have a foreign policy victory."

This is no small observation. Scowcroft, one of the more respected Republican voices in the national security establishment, is noting, on the record, that he suspects his own party is putting their partisan interests above the needs of the nation. The underlying point of an observation like Scowcroft is that he sees his Republican Party putting petty partisanship above national security.

What's more, others in the political establishment are beginning to reach the same conclusion. AEI's Norm Ornstein, marveling at GOP's misconduct this week, said, "I cannot fathom why they are doing what they are doing." The Washington Post Dana Milbank noted last week that Republicans appear to be "trying to weaken Americans' security," concluding, "To borrow Bush's phrase, are Republicans not interested in the security of the American people?" Paul Krugman argued that the GOP is blocking ratification "not because of legitimate objections, but simply because it's an Obama administration initiative; if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it."

I can appreciate the reluctance of questioning politicians' motives, but there's an ongoing effort underway to try to understand why Republicans would choose to act this way. So far, a variety of observers from left to right seem to be having trouble identifying a good-faith rationale for the GOP's opposition. That some of this is coming from the likes of Brent Scowcroft should send a pretty loud signal to the rest of the political world.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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ARGUMENTUM AD POPULUM.... Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi recently hosted a post-midterm discussion with David Gergen and Gary Hart, and it led to an exchange I've been meaning to mention.

Taibbi: To me, the main thing about the Tea Party is that they're just crazy. If somebody is able to bridge the gap with those voters, it seems to me they will have to be a little bit crazy too. That's part of the Tea Party's litmus test: "How far will you go?"

Gergen: I flatly reject the idea that Tea Partiers are crazy. They had some eccentric candidates, there's no question about that. But I think they represent a broad swath of the American electorate that elites dismiss to their peril.

Hart: I agree with David. When two out of five people who voted last night say they consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party, we make a huge mistake to suggest that they are some sort of small fringe group and do not represent anybody else.

Taibbi: I'm not saying that they're small or a fringe group.

Gergen: You just think they're all crazy.

Taibbi: I do.

Gergen: So you're arguing, Matt, that 40 percent of those who voted last night are crazy?

Taibbi: I interview these people. They're not basing their positions on the facts — they're completely uninterested in the facts. They're voting completely on what they see and hear on Fox News and afternoon talk radio, and that's enough for them.

Gergen: The great unwashed are uneducated, so therefore their views are really beneath serious conversation?

Taibbi: I'm not saying they're beneath serious conversation. I'm saying that these people vote without acting on the evidence.

Gergen: I find it stunning that the conversation has taken this turn. I disagree with the Tea Party on a number of issues, but it misreads who they are to dismiss them as some kind of uneducated know-nothings who have somehow seized power in the American electorate. It is elitist to its core. We would all be better off if we spent more time listening to each other rather than simply writing them off.

I'm still not entirely sold on the idea of characterizing Tea Partiers as some kind of distinct political contingent, separate from the Republican base. It's not a "movement" in any meaningful sense. (If 40% of participating voters identified themselves as members of the Republican Party's conservative base, would anyone find that especially noteworthy?)

We're talking about an amorphous group of activists with no clear agenda, no leadership, no internal structure, and no real areas of expertise. Its passionate members, while probably well meaning, when they're not disagreeing with one another about what's important, appear to have no idea what they're talking about.

The Gergen/Hart argument is that their numbers lend them credibility. But isn't that a pretty clear example of argumentum ad populum? "Tea Partiers aren't crazy, because there's so many of them"? Taibbi argued that these are activists who aren't relying on evidence or reason to shape their political worldview. Gergen's response seems to be that this doesn't really matter, since a lot of people appear to no longer rely on evidence or reason.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to Gergen's criticism about elitism and resisting the urge to dismiss politically-engaged activists, simply because their ideas are without merit. If a huge chunk of the electorate is pushing the country in one direction, the political world should take that seriously.

But isn't the problem here that Taibbi's criticism is fair? Gergen wants Americans to listen to one another, which strikes me as more than reasonable. But what do we do when we're done listening, and we realize that a contingent is saying things that don't make sense?

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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TERROR PLOT THWARTED IN OREGON.... We've seen a fair number of incidents like these in recent years, and every time they occur, I'm reminded to be thankful for the effectiveness of law enforcement officials, who have a strong track record.

Federal agents in a sting operation arrested a Somali-born teenager just as he tried blowing up a van he believed was loaded with explosives at a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, authorities said.

The bomb was an elaborate fake supplied by the agents and the public was never in danger, authorities said.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested at 5:40 p.m. Friday just after he dialed a cell phone that he thought would set off the blast but instead brought federal agents and police swooping down on him.

As the AP's report explained, the plot was months in the making, and the would-be terrorist, a naturalized American citizen, was dead serious about his intentions. Mohamud fully expected to commit mass murder, and rebuffed opportunities to back out. Fortunately, he was dealing with undercover FBI agents from the outset.

"The threat was very real," said Arthur Balizan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon. "Our investigation shows that Mohamud was absolutely committed to carrying out an attack on a very grand scale."

Friday, an agent and Mohamud drove to downtown Portland in a white van that carried six 55-gallon drums with detonation cords and plastic caps, but all of them were inert, the complaint states.

They left the van near the downtown ceremony site and went to a train station where Mohamud was given a cell phone that he thought would blow up the vehicle, according to the complaint. There was no detonation when he dialed, and when he tried again federal agents and police made their move.

Congratulations are, of course, in order for all the officials involved. Success stories like these are heartening. I'd also note similar successes, which played in nearly identical ways.

As for the larger context, stories like these are yet another reminder about the nature of effective counter-terrorism. For years, Republicans insisted that combating terrorism was a matter of military might, and any suggestions to the contrary were evidence of weakness. Democrats have countered that keeping Americans safe also meant relying on intelligence gathering and law enforcement -- because the White House isn't exactly going to send a marine battalion into Portland.

Also note, Mohamed Osman Mohamud was identified, approached, apprehended, and charged, all without torturing anyone. Playing by the rules and preventing terror need not be in conflict.

The AP added that Mohamud has been charged with the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, "which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison." The accused will make his first court appearance on Monday.

Here's hoping Rudy Giuliani and Liz Cheney resist the urge to whine about his appearing in an American criminal court.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE GLOBAL-COMPETITION ARGUMENT.... There are obviously competing approaches to presenting agendas to the public, but I've generally been fond of framing challenges as matters of global competition.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) warned Thursday that America needs to embrace clean-energy technologies instead of focusing on oil drilling, "or China is going to eat our lunch."

Appearing on Fox News, Inslee said he supported a ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, arguing that the reserves there would barely make a dent in the country's oil needs.

But he stressed that the U.S. needed to shift the argument from where to drill to what energy technologies can replace drilling.

"China right now is preparing to roll out electric cars, lithium ion batteries, solar cells, cellulosic ethanol. This is where the future of energy is. We've a finite resource in oil, just like we had a finite resource in whale oil, and we made a transition," he said. "And we have to really focus our national energies in a bipartisan way, I would hope, on finding our way to compete with China to really build new energy sources of the future."

The point, in context, was Inslee making the case for the U.S. making a more serious commitment to innovation and clean energy. He's right about the limited effect of ANWR drilling, but more importantly, he's also right about global competitors making advances that should be happening here.

President Obama has made a similar case repeatedly in recent years, stressing the fact that countries like China and India "aren't playing for second place." There's a gut-level appeal to messages like these, at least there might be, targeting a certain nationalistic impulse -- advancing America's interests isn't just about a debate over the size of government, it's also about positioning the United States as a world leader in a competitive landscape.

When it comes to clean energy, then, Republicans will continue to make the case that science isn't to be believed and that tax cuts will solve all problems, but Dems have a compelling retort: the GOP way will allow China and other rivals to move pass us, and we shouldn't sit idly by while this happens.

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

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected announcement Pope Benedict XVI related to contraception and sexual health. By some measures, it's something of a breakthrough.

Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments about the use of condoms in select cases apply to women as well as men, the Vatican said Tuesday, a surprising first acknowledgment from the church that condom use can be part of a broader effort at AIDS prevention.

The clarification did not represent a change in church teaching on birth control, which remains forbidden, but it appeared to be a significant first response to critics who have long seen the church's ban on condoms as a moral failing in light of the AIDS crisis.

The window here is pretty narrow. Benedict was reportedly only referring to prostitutes, and the notion that condom use can help reduce the spread of disease, and in the process, be part of a "moralization" of sexuality.

His comments indicated that even though Benedict was not changing church doctrine, he was raising the possibility that condoms could be a responsible option if used to prevent disease. He was responding to a question about a controversy he set off last year. En route to Africa, Benedict had said that condoms worsened the spread of AIDS, and that it could be prevented only by abstinence and responsibility.

In expressing this new position, the pope, a theologian widely seen as conservative, showed himself to be at once doctrinaire and highly attuned to local realities.

A Vatican spokesperson said the remarks had been offered "colloquially," not necessarily reflecting the official teachings of the church.

Still, given where the Vatican has been on the issue, it was evidence of at least some progress.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R) of Florida incorporates his religiosity into his political persona, but there's some question about his religious identity. On the one hand, he describes himself as a "practicing and devout Roman Catholic." On the other hand, Rubio attends religious services at an evangelical megachurch, affiliated with Southern Baptists, with a theological worldview "plainly at odds with Catholic teaching."

* The Family Research Council is a religious-right powerhouse in the nation's capital, known for its hatred for the LGBT community. With FRC leaders escalating their anti-gay rhetoric in recent years, the Southern Poverty Law Center is now designating the Family Research Council as a "hate group."

* And with some far-right activists already complaining again about American society's "war on Christmas," it appears that the Republican National Committee has, surprisingly enough, sided with those rascally secular progressives. The RNC's website is now selling Republican tree ornaments that read, "Happy Holidays."

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

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THE POLITICAL WORLD SHOULD KNOW BETTER BY NOW.... Byron York's piece on 2012 in the Washington Examiner the other day generated some attention, so it's probably worth revisiting a fairly obvious point.

We're fast approaching the halfway point in Barack Obama's term. With Nov. 2 behind him, everything the president does will be calculated to boost, or at least not harm, his chances of re-election in 2012. What's not clear is whether he fully appreciates how badly the coalition he led to victory in 2008 has frayed in just two years. A look inside his poll numbers suggests that if he cannot turn around some key trends, he'll be a one-term president. [...]

At this point, it will be hard for Obama to save himself. He'll need a lot of help to win a second term in the White House.

I have absolutely no idea what the political landscape will look like in two years -- and neither does anyone else. It's why this kind of analysis is ultimately pointless. The problem isn't that York is relying on faulty data or misleading results; the problem is the absurdity of the exercise itself.

I'd hoped the political world would know better by now. Two years ago, the notion that Republicans would have a net gain of 63 U.S. House seats in the 2010 midterms was completely ridiculous, but that's precisely what happened. The developments were a reminder that two years is a long time in politics, and conditions can change quite a bit.

What's more, we've seen scenarios like this before. At this point in Bill Clinton's first term, a third of Democratic voters didn't want him to run for re-election. In a hypothetical match-up against Bob Dole, the Republican Senate leader led the president by double digits nationwide.

Though York skipped over the 40th president, Reagan was in abysmal shape two years into his presidency. In late 1982, a Gallup poll showed Reagan trailing then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) by 15 points, and behind Walter Mondale by 12 points. Immediately after the 1982 midterms, another poll showed 56% of the country did not want Reagan to seek a second term. Steve Kornacki recently noted that after the '82 midterms, "some outspoken conservatives even demanded -- publicly -- that [Reagan] be challenged in the '84 primaries if he went ahead and ran."

Two years before the 1992 race, it was assumed that George H. W. Bush would win in a landslide (he lost). Two years before the 1996 race, Clinton was a sure goner (he won easily). Two years before the 1984 race, Reagan was an embarrassing failure who had no shot at a second term (he won overwhelmingly). Maybe Obama's standing will improve, maybe not. But shouldn't recent history at least offer us hints about the wisdom of predictions two years out?

York briefly acknowledged that Clinton's fortunes improved in his third and fourth years in office, but he talked to Clinton pollster Doug Schoen who doesn't think Obama will see a similar recovery. In what may be the week's most hilarious political paragraph, it appears that, Schoen -- the Fox News "Democrat" who hates Democrats -- conducted a poll recently and found that voters aren't inclined to give Obama a second term.

Oh, well, in that case....

Look, Schoen may have done related polling in late 1994, and would have found similar results about Clinton. That's the point. Doing a poll two years before a presidential election offers skewed and unreliable results. Schoen and York are arguing that Clinton recovered after dreadful poll numbers in 1996, but Obama probably won't, because of dreadful poll numbers in 2010.

Is this supposed to be persuasive?

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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BLURRING THE SATIRICAL LINE.... Most half-way savvy news consumers know The Onion offers award-winning satire. It publishes items that look like news stories, but which are clearly intended to be funny.

With that in mind, an Onion piece this week headlined, "Frustrated Obama Sends Nation Rambling 75,000-Word E-Mail," drew some chuckles.

Having admittedly "reached the end of [his] rope," President Barack Obama sent a rambling 75,000-word e-mail to the entire nation Wednesday, revealing deep frustrations with America's political culture, his presidency, U.S. citizens, and himself.

The e-mail, which was titled "A couple things," addressed countless topics in a dense, stream-of-consciousness rant that often went on for hundreds of words without any punctuation or paragraph breaks. Throughout, the president expressed his aggravation on subjects as disparate as the war in Afghanistan, the sluggish economic recovery, his live-in mother-in-law, China's undervalued currency, Boston's Logan Airport, and tort reform.

According to its timestamp, the e-mail was sent at 4:26 a.m.

"Hey Everyone," read the first line of the president's note, which at 27 megabytes proved too large for millions of Americans' in-boxes....

It goes on from there, even including a copy of the nonexistent 75,000-word email.

Fox News' "Fox Nation" website, however, didn't get the joke. It ran this as an actual news story, including a link back to the satire-based site. Fox's commenters seemed overjoyed by the notion of an unbalanced president rambling in a semi-coherent email, unaware that they were all excited about a story that was quite literally a joke.

Hours later, Fox pulled its report, but made no effort to explain that it had fallen for a gag. Fox Nation simply deleted its entry without explanation. (Part of me isn't sure why they bothered. It's not like The Onion's piece was qualitatively less reliable than most of Fox's other "reporting.")

I am curious, though, how something like this could happen. Let's say, just for the sake of conversation, that Fox's editors have never heard of The Onion, or at a minimum, didn't realize the site is satirical. And let's also say that they found it plausible that President Obama would send a rambling, semi-coherent, 75,000-word email to the entire country.

Did it not occur to Fox's editors that neither they nor anyone they knew actually received this email? Did they not notice that literally no media outlets on the planet were talking about what would have been a big political story?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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November 26, 2010

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

* Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: "Tension mounted Friday near a South Korean island bombarded this week by North Korea, as the North's military again fired artillery, this time in what appeared to be a drill on its own territory. As an American aircraft carrier steamed toward the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea, the North's state-run media warned that the maneuvers could push the Korean Peninsula closer to 'the brink of war,' while China also raised objections."

* Following up on that last point: "This weekend's arrival of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea poses a dilemma for Beijing: Should it protest angrily and aggravate ties with Washington, or quietly accept the presence of a key symbol of American military pre-eminence off Chinese shores?"

* Europe can afford to bailout Greece. And Ireland. Perhaps even Portugal. Spain is a different story.

* Presidential stitches: "President Obama had to get 12 stitches in his lip after getting a blow from an opposing player's elbow during a basketball game Friday morning, White House officials said." (Lazy media folk looking for a metaphor: the president may get banged up, but at least he's not afraid to get in the game.)

* As if health care wasn't already facing political difficulties: "As the Obama administration presses ahead with the health care law, officials are bracing for the possibility that a federal judge in Virginia will soon reject its central provision as unconstitutional and, in the worst case for the White House, halt its enforcement until higher courts can rule."

* John Judis weighs the evidence and concludes, "[T]he Obama administration's failure to seize the political opportunity afforded by the Great Recession has not necessarily opened the way to a new Republican majority. More likely, it will lead to a period where the two parties exchange power, and where neither can establish a long-lasting majority."

* And based on Fox News' own standards, such as they are, shouldn't senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano "be fired immediately" for dipping his toe into 9/11 Trutherism? This week, the far-right analyst appeared on a radical radio show and declared that the attacks of 911 "couldn't possibly have been done the way the government told us."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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

* In Alaska's still-unresolved U.S. Senate race, Joe Miller (R) has sued the state of Alaska and the Alaska Division of Elections, prompting Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) to file a motion asking to be a party to the suit "to keep those thousands of voters from being disenfranchised by Mr. Miller."

* Late Wednesday, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris (D) was declared the winner of California's state attorney general race, edging past Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley (R) in the final tally. Harris' win solidifies her position as a rising star in Democratic politics, and gives California Dems a clean sweep of the statewide offices in an otherwise strong year for Republicans.

* On a related note, the latest L.A. Times/USC poll finds that California will likely be a lock for Democrats for a while -- nearly one in five Golden State voters said they would never cast a ballot for a Republican, nearly quadruple the figure for Democrats. What's more, nearly a third of Latino voters said the same thing about their attitudes towards the GOP.

* In still-more California-related news, incumbent Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) was declared the winner on Wednesday in his re-election in bid in the state's 11th district.

* At this point, there's only one unresolved U.S. House remaining: New York's 1st district. For now, incumbent Rep. Tim Bishop (D) has a very narrow, 235-vote lead over GOP challenger Randy Altschuler. Overall, the net Republican gains for the cycle is still 63 seats.

* Sen. Bob Casey (D) will seek re-election in 2012, and the first Republican to announce a campaign against him is Marc Scaringi, a former aide to former Sen. Rick Santorum (R).

* Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) will reportedly be sworn in on Monday, giving the Senate a 58-42 split for the remainder of the lame-duck session.

* And don't be too surprised if former wrestling executive Linda McMahon (R), who lost her U.S. Senate race in Connecticut by 12 points earlier this month, tries electoral politics again. She hasn't even ruled out running in 2012 against Sen. Joe Lieberman (I).

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

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STIMULUS FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS.... There's ample evidence that the public, in general, believes last year's Recovery Act was ineffective. Actual analyses paint a far different picture.

The massive U.S. stimulus package, widely viewed by voters to be ineffective, put 1.4 million to 3.6 million people to work between July and September, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also boosted national output by between 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent during that period, CBO said in its latest estimate.

CBO's estimates have consistently shown that the $814 billion package of tax cuts, state aid, construction spending and enhanced safety-net provisions has blunted the impact of the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s.

President Obama noted a couple of weeks ago, "The hardest argument to make in politics is, things would have been a lot worse if we hadn't done all those taken all these steps." Agreed, it is an awfully difficult argument -- people recognize the conditions in front of them, not the hypothetical circumstances on the road not traveled.

That said, those other circumstances are not a mystery. The unemployment rate is 9.6%, but without the Recovery Act, the Congressional Budget Office concluded it could have been as high as 11.6% right now. The economy grew at 2.5% in the last quarter, but in the absence of the stimulus, the CBO found that the economy likely would still be shrinking.

All told, as many as 3.6 million Americans have jobs right now, who would otherwise be out of work, thanks to the maligned Recovery Act.

House Appropriations Ranking Member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) insisted the other day that a top Republican priority next year will be identifying $12 billion in remaining stimulus funds and, instead of injecting it into the economy, ensuring that the money isn't spent at all.

How would that help the economy? Lewis didn't say.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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A (PARTIAL) PALIN DEFENSE.... The latest slip-up by a certain former half-term governor generated some attention the other day, but I'm not especially inclined to give her a hard time about it.

Sarah Palin made her latest verbal gaffe on Wednesday, claiming North Korea is one of America's allies on Glenn Beck's radio show when asked how she'd handle the recent escalation between the two Koreas. "This speaks to a bigger picture here that certainly scares me in terms of our national security policy," the former vice presidential candidate said on Wednesday. "But obviously we've gotta stand with our North Korean allies." The host corrected her. "South Korea," Beck said. "Eh, yeah. And we're also bound by prudence to stand with our South Korean allies, yes," Palin responded.

Oliver Willis posted the audio, and to be sure, she doesn't sound like she's especially well versed on the subject.

Palin offered a defense yesterday, noting "all too human slips-of-the-tongue," which seems reasonable. I know I've made mistakes like these before -- typing "Iraq" when I meant "Iran," accidentally misidentifying a politician's party affiliation, etc. -- so I find it easy to be charitable in a case like this.

But there is a relevant, larger context, which is that Palin's conspicuous unintelligence makes it harder to give her the benefit of the doubt. If Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) had misspoken while urging support for New START and referenced "Soviets," it wouldn't be much of a news story -- no one seriously believes Lugar is ignorant about counter-proliferation and Russian nuclear policy.

Palin, however, has a far different reputation. When she insists "we've gotta stand with our North Korean allies," fair-minded people might pause a moment to wonder if Palin might not know the difference between the countries on the Korean peninsula.

Indeed, as recently as 2008, Palin was a candidate for national office despite not knowing "why North and South Korea were separate countries." (John Heilemann later reported that McCain campaign aides acknowledged that Palin "didn't really understand why there was a North Korea and a South Korea.")

Did Palin just misspeak on Wednesday? Probably, yes, which is hardly a big deal. But it's her record of embarrassing ignorance that makes it so easy to believe the worst.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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GERSON MAKES HIS CASE.... It's not every day I'm called out in a Washington Post print column, so I suppose I'm compelled to return once again to the discussion surrounding Saturday's "sabotage" item.

Today, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who passed along a message on Twitter the other day calling me an "idiot," devotes much of his print column to the observation I raised. Not surprisingly, the Post columnist wasn't especially impressed by my presentation.

He suggests at the outset that my argument is somehow an attempt to avoid dealing with the "inadequacies" and "failure" of "liberalism." It's an odd line of reasoning -- Gerson's former boss bequeathed an economic catastrophe, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit, and a housing crisis, among other calamities. Democratic policymakers, scrambling to address the catastrophic failures of Bush-brand conservatism, have managed to create an economy that's growing, creating jobs, and generating private-sector profits, while stabilizing a financial system that teetered on collapse. (What's more, if Gerson believes the size and scope of the Obama administration's economic agenda are consistent with what "liberalism" has in mind, he knows far less about the ideology than he should.)

If Gerson is anxious to explore the "inadequacies" and "failures" of a modern political ideology, I might suggest he's looking in the wrong place.

But more importantly, Gerson's column takes issue with his perceptions of my argument.

[T]here is an alternative narrative, developed by those who can't shake their reverence for Obama. If a president of this quality and insight has failed, it must be because his opponents are uniquely evil, coordinated and effective. The problem is not Obama but the ruthless conspiracy against him.

So Matt Yglesias warns the White House to be prepared for "deliberate economic sabotage" from the GOP - as though Chamber of Commerce SWAT teams, no doubt funded by foreigners, are preparing attacks on the electrical grid. Paul Krugman contends that "Republicans want the economy to stay weak as long as there's a Democrat in the White House." Steve Benen explains, "We're talking about a major political party . . . possibly undermining the strength of the country -- on purpose, in public, without apology or shame -- for no other reason than to give themselves a campaign advantage in 2012." Benen's posting was titled "None Dare Call it Sabotage."

So what is the proof of this charge? It seems to have something to do with Republicans criticizing quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve. And opposing federal spending. And, according to Benen, creating "massive economic uncertainty by vowing to gut the national health care system."

That's incomplete, at best. Use of the phrase "seems to have something to do with" is Gerson's way of summarizing a larger argument that he may have struggled to fully understand.

So perhaps I should clarify matters.

We are, by all measures, in the midst of a fragile economic recovery. Under the circumstances, Americans very likely hope that policymakers in Washington are committed to improving economic conditions further.

It's against this backdrop that congressional Republicans have vowed to take capital out of the economy, create more public-sector unemployment, eliminate effective jobs programs, urge the Federal Reserve to stop focusing on lowering unemployment, and fight tooth and nail to protect a tax policy that's been tried for nearly a decade without success. By their own admission, GOP officials have said economic growth is not their priority; Hoover-like deficit reduction is.

While advocating this agenda, one of the most powerful Republican officials on Capitol Hill has argued, more than once, that his "top priority" isn't job creation, but rather, "denying President Obama a second term in office."

Taken together, I suggested it's time for an uncomfortable conversation. I obviously can't read the minds of GOP policymakers, but it seems at least worth talking about whether they're prioritizing the destruction of a presidency over the needs of the nation.

It's also worth emphasizing that my point about "uncertainty" was meant as a form of mockery. The right is obsessed with the debunked notion that "economic uncertainty" is responsible for the lack of robust growth, so in raising my observation, I noted that it's the Republican agenda that seems focused on adding to this uncertainty -- vowing to gut the national health care system, promising to re-write the rules overseeing the financial industry, vowing to re-write business regulations in general, considering a government shutdown, and even weighing the possibility of sending the United States into default.

What's more, I'm fascinated by the notion that I'm describing a "conspiracy" -- a word Gerson uses four times in his column. I made no such argument. There's no need for secret meetings in smoke-filled rooms; there's no reason to imagine a powerful cabal pulling strings behind the scenes. The proposition need not be fanciful at all -- a stronger economy would improve President Obama's re-election chances, so Republicans are resisting policies and ideas that would lead to this result.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn't especially cagey about his intentions: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.... Our single biggest political goal is to give [the Republican] nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful."

Given this, is it really that extraordinary to wonder if this might include rejecting proposals that would make President Obama look more successful on economic policy -- especially given the fact that McConnell's approach to the economy appears to be carefully crafted to do the opposite of what's needed? After Gerson's West Wing colleagues effectively accused Democrats of treason in 2005, is it beyond the pale to have a conversation about Republicans' inexplicable motivations?

I'd hoped my original argument would generate a larger discussion, and I suppose it has to a certain extent, but it's nevertheless striking to me that Gerson's column makes no effort whatsoever to respond with anything substantive. He finds it sufficient to dismiss the very idea casually, as if the observation merits a print column, but not a policy-focused refutation.

And that's a shame. It's not uncommon for Republican media personalities to make the transition from "loyal Bushies" to sanctimonious pundits, but I'd hoped Gerson, after having several days to think about it, would come up with a more compelling, more thoughtful, argument on an issue of national importance.

My hopes, alas, were in vain.

* Update: I'd originally included an incorrect sentence in this post about Gerson on Krugman, so I removed it. Apologies.

* Second Update: Greg Sargent raises some terrific points in response to Gerson, most notably the fact that GOP leaders have, repeatedly and on the record, said "they needed to deny Obama successes for their own political purposes."

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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TOM DELAY, CONVICTED FELON.... Late Wednesday afternoon, disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) picked up a new title: convicted felon. A New York Times editorial summarized the story nicely.

During his tenure leading House Republicans, Mr. DeLay established a new low in ethical conduct among Congressional leaders. He put family members on his campaign payroll, took lavish trips paid for by lobbyists and twisted the arms of K Street lobbyists to ante up and donate to his party's candidates and hire more Republicans. But his conviction on Wednesday came from something else entirely, a scheme to steer corporate contributions to Republicans in the Texas Legislature.

Texas bans corporations from giving money directly to state candidates, just as federal law does at the national level. But Mr. DeLay figured out a way around that barrier: In 2002, he used his state political action committee to channel $190,000 in corporate contributions to the Republican National Committee, which then donated the same amount to seven Texas House candidates.

The scheme wasn't lacking in ingenuity. Texas had completed its post-2000-census redistricting, but DeLay wasn't satisfied with the way in which state lawmakers had drawn the lines. So he hatched a plan without modern precedent, deciding to pursue re-redistricting. But in order to hatch his gambit, he'd need some more GOP allies in the Texas legislature, so he arranged to launder some corporate money into the accounts of seven Republican candidates.

Six of them won; re-redistricting occurred; and the GOP majority in Congress grew, just as DeLay had planned.

The minor flaw in all of this is that DeLay's scheme happened to be a felony, at least according to prosecutors and the members of a Texas jury. DeLay's defense was largely built around the notion that he didn't know about the money-laundering until after it had occurred, but prosecutors pointed to a 2005 interview with investigators in which the right-wing lawmaker said he was aware of the plan in advance. (DeLay later said he misspoke.)

At this point, DeLay is free on bail, leading up to his Dec. 20 sentencing. The convictions could carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, though no one considers that likely. DeLay's fate, at least in the short term, is in the hands of Senior Judge Pat Priest, who may end up giving him probation. In the meantime, of course, DeLay is appealing the ruling.

As for the larger context, it's hard not to feel a sense of schadenfreude about the developments. Tom DeLay has represented American politics at its worst -- corruption, sleaze, deception, and routine abuses of power. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, Wednesday's conviction couldn't have happened to a more appropriate person.

It's also worth noting that the political establishment's approach to DeLay was, in light of the jury's conclusion, quite wrong. We've been told for years that the case was a partisan witch-hunt, launched by a prosecutor intent on "criminalizing politics."

As of late Wednesday afternoon, the conventional wisdom on DeLay is in need of an overhaul.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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November 25, 2010

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

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

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

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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November 24, 2010

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

* Crisis on the Korean peninsula: "President Obama and South Korea's president agreed Tuesday night to hold joint military exercises as a first response to North Korea's deadly shelling of a South Korean military installation, as both countries struggled for the second time this year to keep a North Korean provocation from escalating into war."

* Obama administration succeeds in securing Israeli patience on Iran: "Some Israeli officials say the country's fingers are off the hair-trigger that would launch a strike on the Iranian nuclear program, but that convincing the United States to take a harder line on Iran remains a top national priority."

* Irish austerity: "Desperate to seal a deal for an international bailout, the government in Ireland on Wednesday unveiled a painful, four-year plan for $20 billion in spending cuts and new taxes that would slash unemployment benefits and cut welfare payments for the already hard-hit Irish public."

* Unusually good news on unemployment filings: "The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week to the lowest level since July 2008, a hopeful sign that improvement in the job market is accelerating. The Labor Department said Wednesday that weekly unemployment claims dropped by 34,000 to a seasonally adjusted 407,000 in the week ending Nov. 20."

* President Obama takes a compelling pitch to Kokomo, Indiana.

* Nearly 70% of the allocated TARP money has been "repaid, offset with profits, or canceled."

* The Pentagon will give Congress its DADT survey results on Tuesday. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings, including testimony from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, on Thursday and Friday.

* Remember the widely-mocked, color-coded terror-alert levels? They're on their way out.

* When has a country ever prospered by devaluing its currency? I'm glad you asked.

* Former right-wing Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) will now lead the American Bankers Association. (thanks to K.G. for the tip)

* Sarah Palin is now going after First Lady Michelle Obama for trying to combat childhood obesity.

* When it comes to student loans and crushing debt, stories like Kelli Space's shouldn't even exist.

* Salon War Room blog has been counting down its Hack 30 -- a list of "the worst pundits in America." The top choice was announced this afternoon, and it's hard to argue with the selection.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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JUST IN TIME FOR THANKSGIVING.... Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) thought he'd use some floor time on the U.S. House to share his understanding on Thanksgiving history and the travails of 17th-century Pilgrims. There are, however, a few problems with his version of events. (Fired Up Missouri warns that watching Akin's video "may make you dumber.")

The far-right lawmaker believes the Pilgrims were "a great bunch of Americans," who "came here with the idea that, after trying socialism, that it wasn't going to work. They realized that it was unbiblical and it was a form of theft. So they pitched socialism out; they learned that in the early 1620s."

This is, to be sure, a popular belief among conservatives. Those rascally Pilgrims tried socialism, only to suddenly realize that it was ineffective and "unbiblical." They discovered the error of their ways and embraced the virtues of capitalism soon after.

The problem is that Akin's wrong. The New York Times' Kate Zernike had an item on this the other day, citing the work of actual historians, rather than easily-confused right-wing politicians.

In our reality, the settlers agreed to hold their property in common, not as experiment in socialism, but as a short-term decision "in the interest of realizing a profit sooner." The Pilgrims "were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism."

In the right's version, the commonly-held property led to laziness and famine. That's wrong, too: "The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving."

The Pilgrims ultimately moved away from the system, not because of discoveries about their "unbiblical ways," but because settlers "spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness."

In the right's version, the Pilgrims flourished after moving away from communal property, which made the first Thanksgiving possible. In reality, the first Thanksgiving was held two years before the settlers gave up on holding their property in common.

Their production improved, not because they turned from a wicked economic system, but because the Pilgrims got better at farming crops like corn that they'd never seen before.

Brian at Right Wing Watch noted that Akin's not the only one caught up in the conservative-politically-correct myth on Thanksgiving's origins -- John Stossel and Phyllis Schlafly like the bogus version, too -- so don't be too surprised if your crazy uncle brings it up tomorrow at the dinner table.

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IF THERE IS 'SABOTAGE,' WHAT DOES THE WHITE HOUSE DO?.... It turns out there are quite a few folks who think it's plausible congressional Republicans may be tempted to keep the economy down on purpose to advance partisan goals. Greg Sargent suggests it's time to ask the next question: if that's true, what does the White House do about it?

To be sure, finding examples of observers who find the argument itself is plausible isn't hard. As I've noted, the list includes, to varying degrees, Yglesias, Krugman, Collender, and Serwer, among others. Andrew Sullivan argued the other day that congressional Republicans are "as close to organized vandalism as one can imagine," and reiterated the point today.

Greg asked in response to all of this:

If this is the case, however, what should Obama do about it? As Sullivan rightly notes, during his first two years Obama was able to accomplish an extraordinary amount despite GOP opposition. But now Republicans are set to take over the House, and the Dems' margin in the Senate has dwindled dramatically. So what should Obama do now? What new methods should he employ to use the power of the presidency to reckon with the new, emboldened opposition?

That's obviously fair. Noting that a major political party seems willing to place partisan goals ahead of the public interest is one thing; suggesting constructive courses of action is arguably more important.

So, here are a few thoughts on the next step:

* Govern around Congress: If emboldened congressional Republicans would rather destroy the president than govern, the White House should realize it can do quite a bit without Congress. Eugene Robinson recently noted, "Obama's focus should be on using all the tools at his disposal to move the country in the direction he believes it must go." John Podesta and Dan Froomkin have pieces that flesh this strategy out -- making use of executive orders, executive regulations, etc. -- in more detail.

* Adapt negotiating styles accordingly: If White House officials sit down with the GOP leadership to negotiate, expectations matter. If the president and his team assume Republicans are prepared to work in good faith to find effective solutions to agreed-upon challenges, they may present Democratic proposals with reasonable compromises in mind. If the president and his team assume Republicans are pursuing a scorched-earth campaign, willing to sacrifice the nation's needs in the hopes of destroying the Obama presidency, the compromise proposals -- and the duration of the talks -- would hopefully be pretty different.

* Make your case explicitly: It's one thing for a party to complain about the "Party of No"; it's another level of magnitude to suggest Republicans are willing to sabotage the country's interests to improve their odds in 2012. Any White House has to be cautious about attacking rivals' motives -- though the Bush White House effectively accused Dems of treason, and faced almost no pushback -- but voters need to at least be aware of the concerns. If Democrats believe Republicans may be sabotaging the president and endangering the nation, they're going to have to say so in order to initiate some kind of public conversation.

* Be prepared to run against a "Do-Nothing Congress": It worked for Truman.

I'm sure there are other ideas. What am I missing?

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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E COLI CONSERVATISM ISN'T GOING AWAY.... I'd really like to know how Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.) mind works. Take his opposition to a food-safety bill currently pending in the Senate.

Far from offering common-sense reforms, this bill doubles-down on the status quo -- which failed to prevent the salmonella outbreak -- with 250 pages of new bureaucracy and regulations. Expanding the Food and Drug Administration will harm small businesses and raise prices at the grocery store -- all without having a meaningful impact on food safety.

Throughout the debate, proponents have claimed we haven't modernized food safety laws in 100 years. That proves my point. For the past 100 years, the free market, not the government, has been the primary driver of innovation and improved safety. Consumer choice is a far more effective accountability mechanism than government bureaucracies.

Now, I realize Coburn is one of the most right-wing senators in modern history. I also realize he reflexively opposes government regulation, even when those regulations help protect those Americans who eat food.

But his reasoning here is incoherent. Follow the logic: our existing food safety measures are inadequate ... which leads to public-health hazards ... which means we should stop trying to improve food safety measures.

By that reasoning, if I'm lax in bringing my car in for routine maintenance, and as a result my car starts to break down, it's proof that routine auto maintenance isn't a good idea.

This makes perfect sense, if you're a crazy person.

Coburn seems at least partially aware of reality. Over the summer, there was a major egg recall, following at least 1,300 salmonella-related illnesses spanning 22 states. The Washington Post reported in August that the outbreak highlights the need to fix "the holes in the country's food safety net."

That truth was hard to deny, and even harder to ignore. As we learned more about the story, we saw that the salmonella problems stemmed from an uninspected producer in Iowa, with a record of health, safety, labor, and other violations that go back 20 years. The need for better regulations and enforcement has been obvious for decades, but conservative, anti-regulatory lawmakers have consistently put industry profits above public safety.

Coburn sees all of this, and thinks, "See? I told you consumer safeguards are a bad idea."

Walid Zafar explained yesterday, "Coburn reasons that since regulation didn't prevent the salmonella outbreak, it means we need less regulation, when in fact, it means the exact opposite."

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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

* As expected, Minnesota state Canvassing Board agreed yesterday to start a hand recount of all 2.1 million votescast in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election. At this point, Mark Dayton (D) leads Tom Emmer (R) by 8,770 votes.

* Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) conceded yesterday in his re-election bid, losing to Ann Marie Buerkle by 567 votes. Maffei had the option of asking for a hand recount of the more than 200,000 ballots cast, but chose to step aside instead. It brings the net gain for House Republicans to 63 seats. Buerkle, by the way, is a former spokesperson for Operation Rescue, a militant anti-choice and anti-gay organization.

* On a related note, Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) has narrowly won re-election, as vote counting yesterday showed him with an insurmountable lead over his GOP challenger, Andy Vidak.

* There are now just two unresolved U.S. House races: New York's 1st district and California's 11th district. Democratic incumbents currently lead in both contests.

* Don't be surprised if appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D), who'll give up his seat next week, becomes the 21st candidate to enter Chicago's mayoral race.

* Gentry Collins, the former RNC political director who's marveled publicly at Michael Steele's incompetence and mismanagement, will now take on his former boss in the race for the RNC's chairmanship.

* If Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) intends to stay in the Senate beyond 2012, it seems likely he'd have to seek the Republican nomination. "That's his only hope," said John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO and a former state Democratic chairman.

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

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ONLY GLENN BECK TRULY UNDERSTANDS THE TSA.... Complaints about airport security aren't really my beat, but I nevertheless enjoyed Glenn Beck's on-air tirade yesterday, in which he insisted that Americans are being forced to hate the TSA on purpose so workers would unionize and become President Obama's private army. Or something.

"I don't know what this TSA thing is. And I will tell you that Andy Stern and all his good friends, Richard Trumka and all these guys are now ratcheting up the TSA, and the TSA is now being courted by the unions. You know they are trying to unionize TSA and they are being courted by the unions. 'You need representation because people are starting to treat you poorly. If you don't if people don't take care of you, if the unions don't stand behind you, who's going to stand behind you?'

"This is as much of a play on the TSA as it is on you! Make the people hate the TSA and then the TSA employees are going to beg for somebody to protect them and represent them. And they'll run right into the arms of the union.

"You know when Barack Obama said he was creating his own private army? 'We need a private army just as well funded, just as well equipped.' There's a lot of people saying he was talking about some, I don't know, some diplomatic corps. Uh huh. Was he now? Some people say that it was AmeriCorps and whatever. It could be. I don't know what it is. I don't know what the hell this guy is doing. Nobody does. That's the point. But if you wanted to really have a security force, wouldn't a unionized TSA under the umbrella of Homeland Security be the best thing? I mean, why start a whole new security force when you already have one?"

Fact-checking Beck is an inherently silly exercise, but this notion that President Obama called for the creation of a "private army" continues to be a popular concept on the unhinged right, but it remains patently ridiculous.

Oliver Willis posted a transcript of what Obama actually said, and explained, "Obama was discussing the expansion of agencies like the foreign service and AmeriCorps, not any sort of private army -- and definitely not one comprised of unionized TSA agents."

Once in a while, I almost feel sorry for Beck's minions. Is it any wonder why they have such a twisted view of reality?

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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LOOKING FOR LEVERAGE ON NEW START.... For proponents of the pending arms control treaty with Russia, New START, much of the last several days have been spent trying to figure out who Senate Republicans will listen to, if anyone.

At this point, GOP opponents have blown off, if not explicitly rejected, the guidance of foreign policy experts from the Reagan and Bush eras, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, the intelligence and diplomatic communities, our European allies, and the American public in general. At this point, Senate Republicans don't seem to care, though they've struggled to explain why.

But the White House hasn't given up. Realizing that the only foreign governments who actually want to see New START fail are Iran and North Korea, administration officials have reportedly begun reaching out to pro-Israel and pro-Jewish organizations, urging them to help Republicans come to their senses.

Over the last three days, three major pro-Israel organizations issued strong statements of support for New START: the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the American Council for World Jewry (ACWJ).

"We are deeply concerned that failure to ratify the new START treaty will have national security consequences far beyond the subject of the treaty itself," the ADL said in a Nov. 19 letter sent to all senators. "The U.S. diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons requires a U.S.-Russia relationship of trust and cooperation."

NJDC President David Harris said this week, "To me the nexus is clear. Ratifying New START is should be a central objective of the entire pro-Israel community."

If this thinking has won over any Republicans, they're hiding it well. Yesterday, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would vote to kill the treaty, arguing that its verification measures are inadequate. What Bond may not realize -- the often-confused conservative tends to literally sleep through classified briefings related to national security -- is that there are currently no verifications measures in place, the provisions in this treaty would have the strongest verification language ever, and if he and his party kill New START, it may be years before we're actually monitoring Russia's nuclear arsenal again.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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WOULD REPUBLICANS FORGO THEIR OWN HEATH CARE BENEFITS?.... Rep.-elect Andy Harris (R-Md.) caused a bit of a stir last week. The conservative incoming freshman, after running on a platform opposed to health care reform, declared that he wanted his taxpayer subsidized coverage -- and he wanted it immediately.

It's never received a whole lot of attention, but members of Congress enjoy an attractive benefits package, including extensive options and taxpayer-subsidized insurance. In light of the Harris flap, a growing number of Democrats are asking a reasonable question: why don't anti-health care Republicans put their coverage where their mouths are?

Congressional Republicans who assailed the Democrats' healthcare law in the run-up to the midterm elections are facing pressure to decline government-provided coverage when they take office. [...]

On Tuesday, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to GOP leaders signed by 60 Democrats arguing that critics of a government-backed coverage expansion should "walk that walk" and also refuse their federally subsidized coverage.

"If your conference wants to deny millions of Americans affordable health care, your members should walk that walk," Crowley wrote in a letter to Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "You cannot enroll in the very kind of coverage that you want for yourselves, and then turn around and deny it to Americans who don't happen to be Members of Congress."

Outside groups are getting in on the act. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union that is among the biggest financial backers of Democrats, on Tuesday released a statement calling on lawmakers who campaigned on repeal to put their money where their mouths are.

"If they enroll in the taxpayer-funded healthcare system provided to members of Congress, they deserve to be denounced as hypocrites," AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said. "If you campaigned for repeal, you should go without taxpayer-funded coverage first."

A handful of incoming House Republicans have accepted the challenge and vowed to refuse congressional health care benefits, but this, in turn, only increases the pressure on the rest of the caucus.

Making matters slightly worse for the GOP, a new survey from Public Policy Polling found a majority of respondents believe Republicans who ran against health care reform should, as a sign of consistency, refuse government coverage. The sentiment was especially strong among Republicans.

The GOP leadership has already said this is a non-starter, and that members will not be asked or expected to give up coverage for them and their families, but it's a safe bet the outline of 2012 attack ads are already coming together.

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

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REMEMBER THE GOP'S EARMARK BAN?.... It's been about a week since Senate Republicans agreed to impose an earmark moratorium on themselves. How's it going to so far? Not well.

Senate Republicans' ban on earmarks -- money included in a bill by a lawmaker to benefit a home-state project or interest -- was short-lived.

Only three days after GOP senators and senators-elect renounced earmarks, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Senate Republican, got himself a whopping $200 million to settle an Arizona Indian tribe's water rights claim against the government.

Kyl slipped the measure into a larger bill sought by President Barack Obama and passed by the Senate on Friday to settle claims by black farmers and American Indians against the federal government.

Kyl's office insists the senator's earmark isn't an earmark. It's just a specific spending provision Kyl quietly inserted into an unrelated spending bill that would direct funds to people in his state.

And to think some would have the gall to call this an "earmark."

The money for the 15,000-member White Mountain Apache Tribe was one of four tribal water rights claims totaling almost $570 million that was added to the $5 billion-plus bill. [...]

The $200 million in Kyl's measure would be used to construct and maintain a drinking water project on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, including a dam, reservoir, treatment plant and delivery pipelines.

Knowing almost nothing about this, Kyl's earmark may be entirely worthwhile, and this may very well be money well spent. That's not really the point -- Kyl just threw his support to a sweeping moratorium on earmarks, which apparently didn't quite last a week.

And the larger point is that we're likely to see this quite a bit. Bradford Plumer explained recently that "the odds that this ban ever amounts to much are pretty slim," given the fact that Senate Republicans are likely to keep doing exactly what Kyl did.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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ACKERMAN'S 'PUT UP, OR SIT DOWN' CHALLENGE.... For months, public opinion has been pretty steady on health care -- Americans have been convinced not to like the Affordable Care Act, but those same Americans actually like what's in it. Even many of those who like the idea of repealing the new law balk when told about the popular benefits families would lose.

This has given one Democratic House member an idea.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) is daring Republicans to make good on one of their top legislative priorities: repealing the healthcare law.

Using a somewhat unusual tactic, Ackerman, a strong advocate for the healthcare reform law, vowed Tuesday to introduce a series of bills next week that would roll back some of the most popular provisions of the law.

The congressman said the legislation -- all titled the HIPA-CRIT (Health Insurance Protects America -- Can't Repeal IT) -- will give Republicans a chance to "put up, or sit down" on their campaign promise to repeal the eight-month-old law.

You'll notice, of course, that HIPA-CRIT, when spoken, is "hypocrite."

Touting his idea, Ackerman said, "This will be the big chance for Republicans to do what they've vowed to do. These bills will be their chance to at long last restore liberty and repeal the evil monster they've dubbed 'Obamacare.'" In his letter to his House colleagues, Ackerman practically taunted his rivals: "Go ahead, make my day. Become a cosponsor."

His plan, at this point, is for six separate votes under the HIPA-CRIT Act, forcing members to vote up or down on repealing (1) a ban on rescissions; (2) annual coverage limits; (3) lifetime coverage limits; (4) safeguards protecting adults with pre-existing conditions from discrimination; (5) safeguards protecting children with pre-existing conditions from discrimination; and (6) allowing young adults to stay on their parents' plans until age 26.

To repeal the Affordable Care Act, as so many Republicans are champing at the bit to do, would be to eliminate all of these benefits, each of which are extremely popular. Is the GOP willing to put their votes where their mouths are? Ackerman intends to find out. (This is consistent with the "repeal trap" strategy I outlined back in January.)

And as worthwhile as I think Ackerman's idea is, I can't help but wonder about one minor detail: the timing.

I don't mean to tell congressional Dems how to do their job, but wouldn't the HIPA-CRIT Act have been far more interesting if the votes were held in, say, September or October? Before, you know, the midterm elections?

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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PROJECTIONS IN NEED OF A RESPONSE.... About six months ago, the Fed made economic projections for the next couple of years. The Fed's board of governors and its regional bank presidents now have new projections, and they're slightly worse.

Unemployment is set to remain higher for longer than previously thought, according to new projections from the Federal Reserve that would mean more than 10 million Americans remain jobless through the 2012 elections - even as a separate report shows corporate profits reaching their highest levels ever.

Top Federal Reserve officials project that the unemployment rate, now 9.6 percent, will fall only to about 9 percent at the end of 2011 and about 8 percent when the next presidential election arrives, in late 2012. The central bankers had envisioned a more rapid decline in joblessness in their previous forecasts, prepared in June.

Economic news isn't all bad. Third quarter GDP was revised upwards; corporate profits certainly aren't a problem; and Neil Irwin's report added that there have been "solid readings in recent weeks on job creation, manufacturing and retail."

But the Fed's top policymakers nevertheless expect economic growth next year in the 3% to 3.6% range, which would relatively acceptable under normal circumstances, but which is wholly inadequate when trying to bounce back from a brutal recession. If these projections prove to be accurate, unemployment will be in the 8.9% to 9.1% by the end of 2011, and in the 7.7% to 8.2% range at the end of 2012.

And if the Fed's projections turn out to be a little too optimistic, as they were in June, these figures will end up being worse.

That said, it's the political response to all of this that leaves me shaking my head -- which is to say, there isn't a political response.

A discouraging report like this should, one would like to think, encourage policymakers in Washington to take steps to improve economic conditions. The Fed is effectively letting D.C. know that if Congress does nothing, we can expect tepid growth and painfully slow job growth for quite a long while.

But at this point, we'd actually be lucky if "nothing" is the worst response from Congress. Remember, congressional Republicans, by their own admission, have no plan to expand economic growth. They don't even intend to try. Their stated goals in this area include taking money out of the economy through spending cuts, focusing on deficit reduction, cutting off stimulative unemployment benefits, fighting for the same tax rates we already have, and weighing the possibly of sending the United States into default.

Ideally, policymakers would see bleak economic projections and want to try to do something. But we're so far from the ideal, we can't see it from here.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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November 23, 2010

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

* Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: "South Korea warned North Korea on Tuesday of 'enormous retaliation' if it took more aggressive steps after Pyongyang fired scores of artillery shells at a South Korean island in one of the heaviest attacks on its neighbor since the Korean War ended in 1953."

* For crying out loud: "For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement. But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all."

* Conditions in Ireland are deteriorating: "Political infighting engulfed Ireland on Tuesday, threatening to trigger a quick election and delay a massive EU-IMF bailout. Rebels from Prime Minister Brian Cowen's own party pressed to oust him and opposition leaders demanded an election before Christmas."

* Maybe someone should do something: "Top Federal Reserve officials expect the unemployment rate to remain around nine percent at the end of next year and eight percent at the end of 2012, according to internal forecasts that drove the central bank to take new efforts to boost the economy three weeks ago."

* Also not encouraging: "Sales of previously owned homes slipped slightly in October as the housing market struggled in the face of high unemployment and tight credit."

* When dealing with congressional Republicans, if Dems "hope for the best, and plan for the worst," they'll be on the right track.

* The dispute among Senate Republicans over ethanol subsidies continues to get even more interesting.

* The fact that incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is considered a leading Republican voice on economic policy is rather horrifying.

* Harold Pollack reports on encouraging developments in combating AIDS.

* After all this time, Marc Thiessen should probably know quite a bit more about the subjects he claims to care about.

* The Daily Caller's transition from credible to dubious to ignominious to cover-your-eyes-ridiculous was completed today.

* Daniel Luzer takes a closer look at some of the ethical issues surrounding Melanie Sloan's departure from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

* Fox News refuses to air paid advertising featuring U.S. troops, apparently because they don't like what the servicemen and women have to say about repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

* And last night, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) told Sean Hannity that Republicans shouldn't "just preach to the choir with Fox [News] viewers." I'm pretty sure that's not the network's official line, but accidental candor is better than none.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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BACHMANN'S 'TEACHER'.... The New York Times had an item the other day on Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and her plans for the next Congress, some of which are pretty ambitious. Reader C.W. reminded me of the significance of the last two paragraphs:

For now, [Bachmann's] plan for the caucus "is to start weekly classes on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," inviting everyone from Supreme Court justices to legal scholars to speak.

"As we're studying every week, let's say for instance the commerce clause, then as the legislation comes before us, we can apply through the grid of the Constitution the actual legislation that we're looking at," she said. "This is a tremendous real-time forum to be able to discuss these issues ahead of time, prior to the vote, in regard to principles of the Tea Party."

When asked who'll be lead these "classes," Bachmann tends to mention the far-right members of the Supreme Court -- who may not be interested in an unpaid teaching gig at a separate branch of government -- and an evangelical activist/Glenn Beck buddy by the name of David Barton.

Who's David Barton? He became a celebrity in the religious right in the '90s, serving as a pseudo-historian trying to convince fellow activists to reject the separation of church and state. Objective analysis of Barton's materials found glaring factual errors -- which often happens when someone pretends to be a historian.

More recently, Barton helped write the absurd Texas curriculum standards, despite his lack of credentials; became a faculty member at Glenn Beck's "university"; compared Tea Party activiststo Jesus Christ; and was the subject of a fairly devastating Keith Olbermann segment.

But that's really just scratching the surface. Check out this recent report from the Minnesota Independent, and this fairly devastating critique from People for the American Way.

And remember, as far as Bachmann is concerned, this guy is qualified to "teach" members of Congress about how they should interpret the Constitution.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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'I CANNOT FATHOM WHY THEY ARE DOING WHAT THEY ARE DOING'.... I think it's fair to say Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, isn't exactly a raging liberal.

So when he notes in his Roll Call column that Senate Republican tactics on the pending arms control treaty with Russia, New START, are "unsettling and depressing," I hope Ornstein's concerns are not only harder to dismiss, but are also taken seriously.

[Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)] has long been a Senator I admire for his seriousness of purpose, his intellect, and his decency. [Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)] is a thoughtful, solid and independent conservative, a rising star in the Senate, who voted for the treaty in the Foreign Relations Committee. [Sen.-elect Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)] brings real depth and experience from his position of leadership in the House; I always found him to be one who put national interest ahead of cheap shots, at least on the international front.

I cannot fathom why they are doing what they are doing. [Reagan Administration Secretary of State George Schultz] is not exactly a wimp when it comes to dealing with Russia or threats in the world. No one understands the dynamics of global relations and America's role in the world -- much less the dangers of nuclear proliferation -- more than [Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.)].

Our military leaders are not prone to wishful thinking or peace-at-any-price thinking. The stakes for America's national interest, including Iran and Afghanistan, are immense here. Please, guys, suck it up and find a way to make this work. [emphasis added]

I tend to disagree with some of Ornstein's assessments of the GOP players here -- Kyl conceded in August that he just assumed, falsely, that nuclear-site inspections were continuing while he held up New START, which does not speak well of his intellect or seriousness of purpose.

But Ornstein's larger point clearly has merit. Partisan games come and go, but we're talking about international affairs, nuclear proliferation, national security, and American credibility on the global stage. There are, in other words, some policy areas where even Republicans are supposed to be able to be grown-ups, and put the nation's needs first.

Except, that's not happening. Ornstein's good advice notwithstanding, a few too many Senate Republicans don't want to "suck it up"; they appear to want to undercut the U.S. government for partisan ends.

It's what lead Paul Krugman to sound pretty convincing when he wrote, "These days, national security experts are tearing their hair out over the decision of Senate Republicans to block a desperately needed new strategic arms treaty. And everyone knows that these Republicans oppose the treaty, not because of legitimate objections, but simply because it's an Obama administration initiative; if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it."

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE PARTY OF 'ORGANIZED VANDALISM'.... I don't intend to belabor the point too much more, but I've been encouraged this week by the broader discussion after my "sabotage" post from Saturday.

To briefly recap, I'd noticed some commentary of late suggesting an uncomfortable point about congressional Republicans: they may be tempted to keep the economy down on purpose to advance partisan goals. Matt Yglesias, for example, said the Obama White House should be prepared for "deliberate economic sabotage" from the GOP.

I made the case that this is worthy of discussion, which hasn't gone over well with conservatives (Michael Gerson thinks I'm an "idiot"), but which nevertheless generated some noteworthy coverage at outlets such as The Week and The Atlantic.

Paul Krugman's NYT column emphasized a related point yesterday, insisting that the Republican Party "isn't interested in helping the economy as long as a Democrat is in the White House." But similar arguments keep popping up. Here's an Andrew Sullivan item from the other day:

The ghastly truth is that we have one political party that is as close to organized vandalism as one can imagine. START, the debt ceiling, civil rights, real spending cuts and tax reform: all these will be subject to the pure nihilism of the will to power. Their goal is the destruction of Obama. That is all.

And here's Adam Serwer this morning:

[Congressional Republicans] use what power they have to prevent government from performing basic duties at any level of efficiency, and then turn around and argue that this reflects a failure of leadership on the part of the president. The pursuit of political power is more important to the party than civic responsibility. It's a testament to the power of low expectations that this hasn't produced more of an outrage, especially since they aren't even pretending otherwise.

It's interesting, in and of itself, that this sentiment has become fairly common. We are, after all, talking about prominent observers wondering aloud whether a major political party is putting its partisan hatred for an elected president ahead of the public good. There was a time such a suggestion was scandalous; now it's widespread enough to appear in a Nobel Laureate's print column in the paper of record.

For a slightly different angle, it's also worth considering Greg Sargent's take on this yesterday:

...I happen to think the "economic sabotage" argument is not going to work. Dems tried variations of this case for two years, and there's no evidence they bore any fruit. I just don't think voters will buy it, or if they do, they won't particularly care about it.

Also: At a certain point there's little percentage in making variations of the same old lament again and again that Republicans are out to defeat Obama politically at all costs and that it's folly for Obama to keep seeking bipartisan compromise. It seems like the better argument to be having at this point is over what Obama specifically should do to adjust to this new reality.

That seems fair, though I'd add that it's worth having the "sabotage" conversation, if for no other reason, than to make clear to the White House what it should expect from the president's partisan rivals.

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EVEN CONSERVATIVES COMPLAIN ABOUT THE CRISIS ON THE COURTS.... When it comes to confirming qualified judicial nominees, the status quo is unbefitting a mature, functioning system of government.

Republicans, engaging in tactics that no one has ever seen before, have brought the entire process to a generational standstill. It's untenable and arguably dangerous. It is no exaggeration to say the status quo is the worst it's ever been -- the Alliance For Justice recently reported that President Obama "has seen a smaller percentage of his nominees confirmed at this point in his presidency than any president in American history."

How bad is it? Ian Millhiser reports that seven Republican-appointed federal judges co-signed a letter last week, urged Senate Republicans to please allow votes on pending nominees. Their letter read:

"In order to do our work, and serve the public as Congress expects us to serve it, we need the resources to carry out our mission. While there are many areas of serious need, we write today to emphasize our desperate need for judges. Our need in that regard has been amply documented (See attached March 2009 Judicial Conference Recommendations for Additional Judgeships). Courts cannot do their work if authorized judicial positions remain vacant.

"While we could certainly use more judges, and hope that Congress will soon approve the additional judgeships requested by the Judicial Conference, we would be greatly assisted if our judicial vacancies-some of which have been open for several years and declared 'judicial emergencies' -- were to be filled promptly. We respectfully request that the Senate act on judicial nominees without delay."

As a rule, judges just don't take steps like these. It's a reminder of how dire the situation really is -- and how destructive Republicans' mindless recklessness has become to our system of government.

And while I realize this issue probably isn't sexy enough to generate widespread media attention, it's not just these Republican-appointed judges who've noticed the crisis on the courts. The Federal Bar Association wrote to the Senate leadership yesterday, imploring the chamber to "fulfill its constitutional responsibility" and hold votes on judicial nominees already approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This comes on the heels of the Washington Post editorial board, not exactly a bastion of liberalism, condemning Republicans for "offensive" and "unconscionable" delays on would-be judges.

Occasionally, this even trickles down to the local level. In North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer noticed that the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved hometown Judge Albert Diaz for a seat on the federal appeals bench -- 299 days ago. He can't get a floor vote, the Observer complained, because Senate Republicans won't allow one.

The status quo is simply untenable. This is no way to run a country.

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CORPORATE PROFITS AREN'T EXACTLY FALTERING.... Bloomberg News had an item a couple of weeks ago, reporting, "Investors around the world say President Barack Obama is bad for the bottom line."

The complaints are pretty laughable given reality.

The nation's workers may be struggling, but American companies just had their best quarter ever.

American businesses earned profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter, according to a Commerce Department report released Tuesday. That is the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago, at least in nominal or non-inflation-adjusted terms.

Corporate profits have been going gangbusters for a while. Since their cyclical low in the fourth quarter of 2008, profits have grown for seven consecutive quarters, at some of the fastest rates in history.

The point about adjusting these figures for inflation -- in adjusted terms, corporate profits are merely fantastic, as opposed to record-breaking.

Either way, the point is corporate profits aren't exactly faltering. Indeed, this data from the Commerce Department comes a month after a related report showing profits rising faster "than during any other 18-month period since the 1920s."

It makes the "bad for the bottom line" tack look pretty silly. In fact, it's pretty ironic that those complaining about the Obama administration's alleged "anti-business" policies also happen to making money hand over fist. Corporate profits are up; all of the major Wall Street indexes are up; and private-sector job growth is up, but fat-cat conservatives and corporate lobbyists nevertheless spent the entire year furiously raising money to elect Republicans. They were, apparently, outraged by the scourge of corporate prosperity.

Kevin Drum recently had a good item on the larger political dynamic.

What's remarkable about all this is that Obama is, patently, not anti-business. All of the corporate complaints above, when you dig an inch below the surface, amount to lashing out at phantasms. However, although Obama isn't anti-business, it is fair to say that he's not especially business friendly. And after decades of almost literally getting their every heart's desire from Republican presidents and congresses, this has come as something as a shock to the corporate community. When Obama puts a tax break in the stimulus bill, it's aimed mainly at the middle class, not the rich. When he hires a labor secretary, it's someone who actually thinks labor laws should be enforced. When he says he wants to pass a healthcare reform bill, he actually does it. (Its impact on big business is close to zero, but no matter.) There's no evidence at all that Obama wants to punish big business, but at the same time it's quite plain that he cares much more about the middle class than he does about the rich.

And that's pretty hard for them to take. So they're apoplectic.

I think that's exactly right. I also think the political world would be wise to ignore their apoplexy.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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

* As the recount process continues in Minnesota's gubernatorial race, the Minnesota Supreme Court yesterday rejected Tom Emmer's (R) initial salvo on eliminating votes. The state court justices ruled just two hours after hearing the Republican's argument.

* On a related note, Emmer's opponent, Democrat Mark Dayton, has hired Al Franken's legal team from the 2008 Senate recount and subsequent litigation.

* In Alaska's still unresolved U.S. Senate race, Joe Miller (R), as expected, filed suit in state court yesterday, hoping to derail certification of Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) apparent victory.

* Hoping to fight fire with fire, David Brock and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend are setting up American Bridge, intended to counteract the outside GOP groups, including Karl Rove's American Crossroads, that boosted Republicans in the midterms.

* In Texas' 27th congressional district, incumbent Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D) conceded the race last night. The net gain for House Republicans this year now stands at 62.

* There are, for those still counting, four unresolved U.S. House races -- two in California and two in New York. For what it's worth, the Democrat leads in three of the four, but the counting continues.

* The race to take on Michael Steele for the RNC's chairmanship continues to draw would-be party leaders. Former Bush administration official Maria Cino has created a 527 entity as part of her push to seek the position.

* And don't be too surprised if failed, radical Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R) tries again to reach Capitol Hill. If Rep. Dean Heller (R) launches a primary campaign against scandal-plagued incumbent Sen. John Ensign (R) in Nevada, Angle said she might run for Heller's U.S. House seat.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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THE MEDAL OF HONOR HAS NOT BEEN 'FEMINIZED' (WHATEVER THAT MEANS).... I'm a little behind on this one, but I've been meaning to mention some of the conservative reactions to Army Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, a genuine American hero, being awarded the Medal of Honor last week.

Giunta's story is extraordinary, and it's hard to imagine anyone seriously disagreeing with the award. That Giunta is the first living service member from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars to receive the honor makes last week that much more notable.

But a prominent religious right leader was apparently unimpressed, whining that the Medal of Honor, the nation's top military award, has been "feminized."

The Army's official citation details how Giunta "exposed himself to withering enemy fire" during a daring effort to engage the enemy and extract his wounded comrades from an ambush. But Bryan Fischer, a columnist for the American Family Association who has often provoked headlines and consternation with his commentaries, read the narrative as hardly the sort of thing American soldiers were once known for.

"When we think of heroism in battle, we used the think of our boys storming the beaches of Normandy under withering fire, climbing the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc while enemy soldiers fired straight down on them, and tossing grenades into pill boxes to take out gun emplacements," wrote Fischer, director of issue analysis for the AFA, a longtime lobby on the Christian right. "That kind of heroism has apparently become passe when it comes to awarding the Medal of Honor. We now award it only for preventing casualties, not for inflicting them."

"So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things, so our families can sleep safely at night?" he asked.

When Fischer faced some criticism for his bizarre complaint, he went on to argue that the Christian God honors those who inflict "massive casualties," in part because "Christianity is not a religion of pacifism."

We could note, just for the record, that Giunta directly engaged (i.e., fired at) the enemy during the ordeal, as he sought to rescue his fellow American troops, so the idea that he was not "inflicting" casualties isn't even true.

But at a certain level, the facts just don't matter anyway. We've reached the point at which prominent far-right activists can't even applaud an American war hero when he's awarded one of the nation's highest honors.

The long-held assumptions that the right somehow has the high ground when it comes to honoring and valuing the military are in desperate need of re-evaluation.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THE SENATE GOP'S INADVERTENT SUPPORT FOR IRAN.... Nearly all of America's international allies have offered their enthusiastic support the pending arms control treaty with Russia, New START. There are, however, some foreign leaders siding with congressional Republicans. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, is hoping the GOP succeeds.

Last week, Richard Burt, the chief U.S. negotiator for the START-1 treaty with the former Soviet Union in 1991, explained, "[T]here are only two governments in the world that wouldn't like to see this treaty ratified: the government in Tehran and the government in North Korea."

Similarly, Max Bergmann, a nuclear non-proliferation policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, has noted, "This is a pivotal moment in not just U.S.-Russia relations, but also in Iranian-Russian relations. We don't want to upset the current trajectory of where things are going, and that's exactly what Sen. Kyl threatens to do.

This is worth fleshing out in more detail, because the meaning may not be immediately obvious to everyone. Why would Iran benefit from Republicans' efforts? Elizabeth Weingarten explained this morning that solidifying U.S.-Russian ties leaves Iran even more isolated.

This past spring, Russia supported the UN Security Council Resolution to impose strict sanctions on Iran. In September, Medvedev agreed to not fulfill a standing contract of selling advanced air defense -- S-300 surface-to-air missiles -- to Iran. The contract was suspended, but not terminated. "Russia [was] willing to forgo money in order to make Iran's nuclear weapons infrastructure more vulnerable to attack," explains Micah Zenko, a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations. Russia pursued a tougher policy toward Iran in part because of the "reset" in its relationship with the U.S. This was a stark contrast to its earlier funding of Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor.

If the U.S. doesn't ratify New START, experts say it will prove to Russia that the U.S. can't deliver on its end of that "reset." Failing to ratify New START could mean a diminished incentive for Russia to formulate its Iran policy based on U.S. objectives, especially because Russia has both economic and geopolitical incentives for maintaining a positive relationship with Iran. Selling Iran weapons is lucrative, and positive ties with Iran means Russia has a geostrategic advantage in the region.

Even if it doesn't revive the surface-to-air missile contract, it could still back off on sanctions to Iran, and strengthen the Islamic Republic indirectly.... If foreign-policy analysts are right, waiting to ratify New START could have more serious consequences than those Republicans expect.

There's already been some evidence of Republicans' intending to sabotage the Obama administration's Iran policy, but scuttling New START would be far more serious, and have more dramatic foreign policy implications.

Given GOP rhetoric on Iran, it's tempting to think congressional Republicans wouldn't take steps to strengthen Ahmadinejad, even indirectly. And yet, here we are.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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AMERICANS, GOP AREN'T ON THE SAME REPEAL PAGE.... About a month ago, an Associated Press-GfK poll showed the public unhappy with the Affordable Care Act, but not in a way Republicans would like -- 37% adopted the far-right line and support a full repeal, but a nearly identical number, 36%, want revisions want reform that goes even further. These 36% aren't necessarily thrilled with the new law, but from their perspective, they want the reforms to be more expansive, not less.

Yet another poll points in a similar direction.

A majority of Americans want the Congress to keep the new health care law or actually expand it, despite Republican claims that they have a mandate from the people to kill it, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.

The post-election survey showed that 51 percent of registered voters want to keep the law or change it to do more, while 44 percent want to change it to do less or repeal it altogether.

Driving support for the law: Voters by margins of 2-1 or greater want to keep some of its best-known benefits, such as barring insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. One thing they don't like: the mandate that everyone must buy insurance.

Much of the public, like a few too many members of Congress, don't fully understand the policy implications -- the mandate makes coverage for pre-existing conditions possible -- but this isn't terribly unexpected.

The more important takeaway here is that congressional Republicans seriously believe the public is with them on health care policy, and voters will reward the GOP for pushing a full repeal of the new law. The evidence is overwhelming that this just isn't the case.

Indeed, this poll is nearly identical to most of the data we've seen for months -- if you ask Americans whether they like the Affordable Care Act, they say no. If you ask Americans whether they like what's in the Affordable Care Act, they say yes. McClatchy-Marist found clear majorities favoring new protections for those with pre-existing conditions, allowing young adults to stay on their parents' plan until age 26, and closing the "donut hole" in Medicare prescription drug coverage. Republicans have every intention of eliminating all of these provisions.

In related news, a majority of Americans also endorse the Democratic tax plan -- extending Bush-era rates only for those making less than $250,000 -- not the GOP tax plan.

So, on the Republicans' top two priorities, the public prefers the Democratic approach. It's not exactly the stuff "mandates" are made of, though I don't imagine Republican lawmakers will care.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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U.S. ECONOMIC GROWTH SLIGHTLY STRONGER THAN EXPECTED.... About a month ago, the initial estimate for third quarter economic growth, covering July through September, showed the U.S. economy expanding at 2%. Today, that number was revised in an encouraging direction, but we still clearly need to do much better.

Gross domestic product growth was revised up to an annualized rate of 2.5 percent from 2.0 percent as exports, and consumer and government spending were stronger than initially thought, the Commerce Department said in its second estimate.

Economists had expected GDP growth, which measures total goods and services output within U.S. borders, to be revised up to a 2.4 percent pace.

By any measure, better growth is good news. The third quarter was better than the second, and consumer spending was stronger in July through September than at any point in four years. We've now had five consecutive quarters of economic growth, which, given the severity of the Great Recession that began in 2007, is a streak we haven't seen in a while. Inflation, not surprisingly, is still nowhere to be found.

But the fact remains that 2.5% growth still isn't close to what we need for a robust economic recovery, nor is it enough to start making a serious dent in the unemployment rate.

Ideally, policymakers would see a report like this and conclude it's necessary to give the economy another boost, but that's proven problematic. The Fed is making an effort, but Republicans are blasting Bernanke for trying. What's more, an emboldened GOP, with its incoming House majority, opposes any and all stimulus efforts, intends to cut off stimulative unemployment benefits, rejects the single most effective jobs program of the last two years (the TANF Emergency Fund), and expects to fight aggressively to take more money out of the economy in the form of harsh budget cuts.

And with that, here's another home-made chart, showing GDP numbers by quarter since the Great Recession began. The red columns show the economy under the Bush administration; the blue columns show the economy under the Obama administration.


Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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GOP STILL HOPES TO KILL DREAM ACT.... Under saner political circumstances, the Dream Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) would pass easily. It was written by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), is co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), was endorsed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and enjoys the enthusiastic backing of most Democrats, immigrant advocates, and the Obama White House.

Alas, sanity is in short supply.

Every year, tens of thousands of young illegal immigrants graduate from American high schools, but are quickly stuck -- they can't qualify for college aid, and they can't work legally. America is the only home they've ever known -- in most cases, they were, at a very young age, brought into the country illegally by their parents -- but at 18, they have few options.

The DREAM Act provides a path to citizenship for these young immigrants -- graduate from high school, get conditional permanent residency status, go to college or serve in the military, and become eligible for citizenship.

But as Republicans have moved sharply to the right, their attitudes on the bill have shifted, too. Hatch and McCain, for example, have gone from championing the Dream Act to opposing it. And what was once a bipartisan, common-sense effort at decency has become a prime right-wing target.

Senate Republicans and their conservative allies are sharpening their attacks on the proposed DREAM Act that would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, declaring it would give "amnesty" to millions -- some of them criminals.

The legislation, which would apply to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, has been overshadowed by other big-ticket items on the lame-duck congressional calendar. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are now pushing for votes on it this year.

"This is about accountability, not amnesty," said a White House official who's been closely monitoring the DREAM Act. "It will take a few Republicans to get this through Congress, but they have to realize we can't keep kicking the can down the road. They have to help govern and to solve some of the problems."

They don't want to.

The push, by the way, comes on the heels of an announcement that one of the first issues the new House Republican majority will tackle next year is an obviously unconstitutional bill to end birthright citizenship. It's as if the GOP has decided to alienate as many minority communities as humanly possible.

As for the DREAM Act, it's also worth noting Republicans may get at least a little help from a conservative Democrat. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who's said he opposes filibusters on motions to proceed, has said he'll back the Republicans' filibuster on the motion to proceed.

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

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A SHARP ESCALATION OF TENSIONS ON THE KOREAN PENINSULA.... If North Korea decided to lash out violently in the hopes of getting the world's attention, it worked. Kim Jung-il's regime, unprovoked, shelled South Korea this morning, killing at least two and raising tensions on the peninsula to heights unseen in years.

North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire on Tuesday after dozens of shells fired from the North struck a South Korean island near the countries' disputed maritime border, South Korean military officials said. Two South Korean soldiers were killed, 15 were wounded and three civilians were injured, said Kiyheon Kwon, an official at the Defense Ministry.

The military went to "crisis status," and fighter planes were put on alert but did not take off. South Korean artillery units returned fire after the North's shells struck South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 p.m., said Mr. Kwon, adding that the North also fired numerous rounds into the Yellow Sea. News reports said dozens of houses were on fire, and TV footage showed large plumes of black smoke spiraling from the island.

North Korea claims South Korea "recklessly fired into our sea area. South Korea, which is holding annual military drills, acknowledged coastal test shots, but insists no artillery crossed the border.

North Korea's attack was "strongly condemned" by the Obama administration and the British Foreign Secretary. Chinese officials, who were apparently surprised by the developments, said they're "concerned."

The escalation also follows closely on the heels of North Korea disclosing new uranium enriching facilities, suggesting the regime is expanding its nuclear arsenal that grew steadily during the Bush/Cheney years.

It also comes less than a year after 46 South Korean sailors were killed after an attack on one of its naval vessels -- violence believed to have been launched by North Korea.

South Korea, not surprisingly, considers today's attack as a significant provocation, and has raised its military alert level.

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

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November 22, 2010

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

* A calculated revelation: "North Korea showed a visiting American nuclear scientist earlier this month a vast new facility it secretly and rapidly built to enrich uranium, confronting the Obama administration with the prospect that the country is preparing to expand its nuclear arsenal or build a far more powerful type of atomic bomb."

* On a related note, North Korea officials are arguing that it's simply trying to build nuclear power plants. No one believes them.

* Ireland formally applied for a rescue package yesterday. It's likely to total $109 billion to $123 billion U.S.

* Insider trading: "The FBI raided three hedge funds in connection with a widening probe into insider trading, the Wall Street Journal said on Monday."

* Another installment of the White House White Board, this time featuring Nancy-Ann DeParle explaining the medical-loss ratio in an easy-to-understand way. (Dear WH staff, please keep doing these. Maybe they'll one day be considered the fireside chats of the Obama era?)

* If conservatives are hoping to exploit the families of victims of the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa to push for more military commissions, the right will apparently be disappointed.

* Motor Trend's Todd Lassa did a very nice job making Rush Limbaugh look like a buffoon (yes, even more so than usual).

* Add "Social Security policy" to the list of things Eric Cantor (R-Va.) pretends to understand but doesn't.

* That food safety bill we've been waiting for might still pass, but the vote has been delayed to next week.

* Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is still the target of multiple investigations, and may yet face criminal charges, but the hush money his parents paid his mistress' family has been cleared by the Federal Election Commission.

* Matt Yglesias: "Worth noting that [incoming House Budget Committee Chairman] Paul Ryan is a dangerous madman, with monetary views well to the right of Milton Friedman."

* Jon Chait referred to today's GOP this morning as "an intransigent and largely insane party."

* Edward Luce, a reporter for The Financial Times, believes there is "a greater hatred of Obama" among congressional Republican "than there is a love of American national security."

* Rebooting Buffy strikes me as a remarkably bad idea. Rebooting Buffy without Joss Whedon strikes me as a spectacularly bad idea.

* MSNBC giving Lawrence O'Donnell a show was clearly a good idea. (thanks to reader V.S. for the tip)

* I don't want to alarm anyone, but Newt Gingrich really does lie a lot.

* The number of online courses is growing rapidly. Whether these courses are any good is a separate matter entirely.

* And you may have heard rumors about the TSA "strip searching" a young boy at the Salt Lake City International Airport. The "story" made the rounds after a Drudge push, but it's total nonsense. Someday, news outlets will stop taking Drudge stories seriously, but that I'm afraid that day is nowhere in sight.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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SIDING WITH 'FOREIGN CENTRAL BANKS'.... Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the outgoing chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, slammed Republicans today for siding with "foreign central banks" in debates over monetary policy.

I suppose that may sound inflammatory to some, but I don't think it's especially controversial, either. The Federal Reserve acted to (hopefully) improve the U.S. economy, a move that generated criticism from some international powerhouses, most notably China and Germany. Congressional Republican, perhaps afraid that the Fed's efforts would succeed and the American economy would benefit, said China and Germany are right, and U.S. officials are wrong.

With this in mind, Frank's concerns warrant attention.

"What's striking to me, frankly ... you said that Republicans are criticizing [Federal Reserve Chairman] Ben Bernanke. That's part of it. The Republicans are joining the Central Bank of China in attacking Bernanke. This is really distressing to me," he told Bloomberg Television's Margaret Brennan.

Republicans have recently come out against the Fed's asset-purchase program because they say it will cause a rise in inflation. Among those who have sent letters of opposition to Bernanke are Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and several Reagan-era economic officials.

"[W]hat they're saying," Frank said Monday, "is that America as the world's leader hasn't got a right to look at our own economic needs and somehow has to defer to everybody else. And I'm appalled by that ... One argument is [that] this might lower our currency and that's unfair to China. But having China complain about currency manipulation is like being called silly by the Three Stooges."

He added that the "talk radio right wing" would be "shattering the atmosphere" if Democrats took the same position.

Does anyone seriously believe otherwise?

On a related point, David Frum would like to hear what the Fed's Republican critics would propose as an alternative to QE2. Come to think of it, so would I.

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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IF CLIMATE DENIERS WANT TO TALK ABOUT SCHOLARLY INTEGRITY.... For all the conservative hysterics targeting evidence of global warming, this seems like a fairly significant, ignominious development.

An influential 2006 congressional report that raised questions about the validity of global warming research was partly based on material copied from textbooks, Wikipedia and the writings of one of the scientists criticized in the report, plagiarism experts say.

Review of the 91-page report by three experts contacted by USA TODAY found repeated instances of passages lifted word for word and what appear to be thinly disguised paraphrases.

Skip Garner, a plagiarism expert at Virginia Tech, told USA Today, "It kind of undermines the credibility of your work criticizing others' integrity when you don't conform to the basic rules of scholarship."

Yep, it kind of does.

The whole point of the original report, called the Wegman report for George Mason University statistician Edward Wegman, was to cast doubt on the quality of the scholarship used by climate scientists. It was quite effective -- Republicans and other deniers seized on the findings in 2006 to attack scientists and raise public doubts about the climate crisis.

But a closer analysis of the Wegman report found that 35 of the report's 91 pages "are mostly plagiarized text, but often injected with errors, bias and changes of meaning."

When USA Today showed the findings to other plagiarism experts characterized the evidence of wrongdoing as "fairly obvious" and "fairly shocking."

The Wegman report was requested by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Congress' most ardent pro-pollution member, who relied on the document to go after climate scientists publicly.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess Republicans will not hold additional hearings on the quality of the Wegman report's scholarship. Call it a hunch.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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'WE NEED TO LET THE ETHANOL SUBSIDIES EXPIRE'.... Following up on an item from two weeks ago, there are two existing ethanol subsidies that are due to expire at the end of the calendar year, which means Congress may have to act during the lame-duck session to save them -- if they're to be saved.

The question is what conservative Republicans are prepared to do about it. Greg Sargent reported today that there may be "a new intra-GOP war brewing" over this issue -- by some measures, more intense than the earmark fight -- and he talked to a couple of leading far-right senators who'll likely lead the way.

Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, two leading conservative Senators who have pushed the GOP to be serious about its anti-spending rhetoric, told me they are calling on fellow Republicans to urge Congress to allow ethanol subsidies to expire -- something that could put other leading GOP Senators in an awkward spot, and could put them in the cross-hairs of the Tea Party. [...]

With billions in ethanol subsidies set to expire this year, including a 45-cent-a-gallon tax credit for ethanol blenders that heaped nearly $5 billion on to the deficit last year, it appears senators DeMint and Coburn are dead serious about pressing the point.

Neither conservative left much in the way of wiggle room. DeMint said supporters of the subsidies are "just protecting a parochial interest ahead of the national interest." Coburn added a continuation of the subsidies would be the opposite of what the Tea Party base wants from the GOP.

I continue to think this will be fun to watch. On the one hand, congressional Republicans inclined to do what corporate lobbyists tell them to do, and the lobbyists naturally want the industry subsidies to continue. The American Future Fund is a shadowy right-wing group that raised all kinds of secret money to help Republicans win midterm elections, and it just so happens to have been created in large part by a wealthy executive of an ethanol producer. It's a safe bet he'll expect his GOP friends to repay his assistance.

On the other, the subsides are expensive, unnecessary, and ultimately counter-productive, and a prime target for anyone who cares even a little about spending cuts.

Also watch to see the extent to which this divides the GOP caucus. With earmarks, the vast majority of Republicans weren't willing to stick their necks out and reject the base's demands. But high-profile senators like Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are in a much tougher spot -- they want to prove their fiscal conservatism, but they've been strong supporters of subsidies like these for years. Iowans, in particular, expect Grassley to deliver.

I continue to think this could be a carefully-applied wedge, driving divisions between the party's activists and the party's corporate benefactors. That is, if Dems play it right.

As for the Democratic strategy on this, as far as I can tell, their attention is elsewhere and there is no game plan in place. One possibility is of Dems to kick the can down the road a bit -- extending the subsidies for, say, six months -- and letting the next Congress deal with the issue.

Or better yet, Dems can simply allow the subsidies to expire this year, and let the next Congress decide whether to resuscitate them. I'd look forward to seeing how the far-right GOP House majority deals with an issue like this one.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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MANDATED HYPOCRISY.... A couple of weeks ago, Ezra Klein had a helpful summary, noting the historical trajectory of the debate over health care reform in America. The significance of the evolution in Republicans' thinking still matters.

To briefly summarize, when Truman tried to pass what was, in effect, Medicare for all, Republicans balked and said they preferred a more market-based pay-or-play system. When Clinton endorsed the market-based pay-or-play system, Republicans balked again, saying that they preferred a mandate/subsidies kind of system. When Obama endorsed the mandate/subsidies system crafted by Republicans in the '90s and adopted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, Republicans balked again, this time saying they don't want to address the problem at all.

But it's that mandate that continues to be the key area of interest. It was, whether conservatives like it or not, a Republican idea, eventually (grudgingly) incorporated into the Democratic proposal. And yet, it was the central point of a court filing last week filed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), arguing that the mandate is unconstitutional.

The Kentucky Republican filed the brief last week in federal court in Florida, arguing that the individual mandate portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is unconstitutional because it gives Congress too much power to regulate citizens' activities. Thirty-one fellow Senate GOPers joined him. The rest did not.

"Where, as in this case with respect to the PPACA's Individual Mandate, Congress legislates without authority, it damages its institutional legitimacy and precipitates divisive federalism conflicts like the instant litigation," argues the senators in the brief. "The long term harms that the PPACA may do to our governmental institutions and constitutional architecture are at least as important as are the specific consequences of the PPACA."

The Huffington explores an interesting angle to this: the brief was endorsed by 32 Senate Republicans, led by McConnell. But the article explores why the other nine GOP senators decided to withhold their support -- and the fact that some of them don't want to talk about it.

What I find especially noteworthy, though, are double-dippers -- those Republicans who endorsed (and in several cases, co-sponsored) legislation to make an individual health care mandate the law of the land, but nevertheless signed onto McConnell's brief declaring an individual health care mandate unconstitutional.

It's quite a motley crew: Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and John Thune (R-S.D.). All seven supported the individual mandate, right up until Democrats agreed with them, at which point they decided their own idea was unconstitutional. (My personal favorite is Grassley, who proclaimed on Fox News, during the fight over Obama's plan, "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandate.")

I realize that congressional Republicans are just lashing out wildly, and aren't concerned about niceties like intellectual consistency, but if you're going to co-sponsor legislation on an individual mandate, it takes a fair amount of chutzpah to turn around and sign McConnell's brief.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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TWO SPONSORS, ONE DEBATE, NO CANDIDATES, AND PLENTY OF COMPLAINTS.... I continue to think speculation about the 2012 presidential race is kind of silly, but the fact remains that early in the new year, the GOP field will begin to take shape. And with that in mind, NBC and Politico announced two weeks ago that they will co-host the first debate for Republican presidential candidates in spring 2011 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif.

There are already complaints about the event, not because it's launching the campaign so early, but because a growing number of Republicans disapprove of the media sponsors.

Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, proclaimed yesterday that he would refuse to participate if Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews were asking questions of candidates. "I'd be glad to do it at the Reagan library but without the kind of Mickey Mouse questions asked by hostile news media," Gingrich said.

This appears to be an increasingly common sentiment.

Conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, in fact, penned a widely-circulated column in which he told probable GOP candidates to "just say no to Nancy Reagan".

"Can we be honest? They are all liberals. All of them. Not one of the questioners that could or would be proposed by Politico or NBC would be remotely in touch with the cares, concerns, and passions of the GOP's primary electorate," wrote Hewitt.

The Daily Caller's report went on to note that Grover Norquist disapproves of "nitpicking from left-of-center journalists asking questions that will impress their fellow journalists." Far-right activist Brent Bozell was similarly displeased: "When, oh when will Republicans learn? Every four years the presidential debate season takes place. Republicans dutifully line up for debates moderated by liberal 'moderators' except there's nothing moderate about these moderators who mercilessly attack them."

Just at the surface, blasting NBC News and Politico as "liberal" seems pretty silly. MSNBC has some liberal hosts in primetime, but NBC News itself doesn't appear to have any political agenda to speak of. Politico, meanwhile, appears to me to lean pretty clearly in Republicans' favor.

Indeed, in 2007, there was an NBC/Politico event, and the moderators were practically deferential towards the candidates, asking one softball after another.

That said, I don't much care either way whether the event takes place, or whether anyone shows up. What's more interesting to me is the competing partisan standards. A year before the 2008 presidential election, you may recall, Fox News was scheduled to host a debate for Democratic presidential candidates. The highest-profile Dems quickly balked at participating in an event aired and organized by a Republican propaganda outlet, and the debate was scrapped.

But it was the reaction from the right that stood out. Bill O'Reilly compared Democratic presidential campaigns to Goebbels; Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes said Dems were guilty of "Stalinism"; and Fox News president Roger Ailes argued in all seriousness, "The candidates that can't face Fox, can't face Al Qaeda."

And yet, here we are. Republicans are complaining about an NBC/Politico event, and at this point, aren't facing any pushback at all.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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HOUSE GOP TO TARGET BIRTHRIGHT CITIZENSHIP.... The 112th Congress won't waste any time getting right to some misguided initiatives.

As one of its first acts, the new Congress will consider denying citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who are born in the United States.

Those children, who are now automatically granted citizenship at birth, will be one of the first targets of the Republican-led House when it convenes in January.

GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees immigration, is expected to push a bill that would deny "birthright citizenship" to such children.

There are a few ways to look at this, but let's first consider the substance. As you've probably heard, the 14th Amendment says, in effect, that if you're born in the United States, you're a natural-born American citizen. There's very little wiggle room in the language, and Supreme Court precedents are clear. Conservatives don't care for this, of course, because of immigration -- if a couple is in the U.S. illegally and have a baby, that couple's child is an American citizen.

And so those who consider themselves "constitutional conservatives" want to push, early in the new year, a measure that appears to violate the Constitution rather blatantly.

But before any such effort could get struck down by the courts, the bill would have to get through the Senate and its Democratic majority, and pick up President Obama's signature, neither of which seems even remotely likely. House Republicans, in other words, intend to push a misguided culture-war bill right out of the gate in 2011, knowing full well that they're simply wasting time.

And that in turn raises the larger question of how, exactly, Republicans intend to use their new House majority. Common sense suggests GOP leaders would want to get off on the right foot, tackling issues that Americans care about, proving that they're serious about policymaking, even if it is far-right policymaking.

By all appearances, that's not going to happen.

It's going to be a long two years.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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BOEHNER STRUGGLES TO FIND 'ADULTS' WITHIN HIS PARTY.... Incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is well aware of the fact that his chamber is going to have to extend the federal debt limit. Late last week, he noted that's already "made it pretty clear" to his own caucus that Republicans are "going to have to deal with it as adults." He added, "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."

How's that working out so far? Not too well.

Rep.-elect Bill Johnson of Ohio said those who ran on such messages didn't intend to reverse themselves now. "Most of us agreed that to increase the limit would be a betrayal of what we told voters we would do," he said. GOP leaders hope to package a debt-limit vote with significant spending cuts, making it easier for Republicans to vote for it. But it isn't clear that will be enough for many of the GOP freshmen.

What's fascinating about this to me is the twisted notion of popular support. If lawmakers balk and refuse to raise the debt limit, the United States goes into default, signaling to the world that the country isn't in a position to repay its debts. U.S. treasuries, considered the safest investment on the planet, would no longer have the backing of the full faith and credit of the United States. The result is a government shutdown -- and quite possibly a massive catastrophe.

And as far as guys like Bill Johnson are concerned, the electorate will be fine with all of this.

Also note the likelihood of an extortion/hostage dynamic. To hear the Ohio freshman put it, Republicans may tell the White House, "Slash spending the way we want or the global economic system gets it right between the eyes." But also note the next sentence in that paragraph -- even if the president paid the ransom, some Republicans still may not be willing to do the right thing.

It's not just the House, either. Sen.-elect Mike Lee (R) of Utah has vowed to oppose any efforts to raise the debt ceiling. Told that his approach would likely create a global disaster, Lee said, "That presupposes that we continue spending at unsustainable rates. I'm not going to vote to increase the debt ceiling."

The incoming House Speaker wants his fellow Republicans to act like "adults"? That sounds like a good idea, but the child-to-grown-up ratio in the GOP caucuses suggests Boehner's challenge isn't going to be easy.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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

* The U.S. Senate race in Alaska isn't wrapping up quite yet, with a federal judge announcing late Friday that he's halting the certification of Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) write-in victory. The court didn't rule on the merits, but paused the process until a state court could hear Joe Miller's (R) case. With that in mind, Miller will likely go to state court in Alaska today.

* Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), apparently unconcerned with alienating Murkowski further, is still pushing far-right activists to send money to Miller to help pay for his lawsuits.

* The latest count shows Rep. Tim Bishop (D) inching ahead of GOP challenger Randy Altschuler in their still unresolved U.S. House race on Long Island. The final outcome is still probably weeks away.

* Speaking of lingering House races, Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.), perhaps best known for being ambushed on video by Republican operatives earlier this year, conceded defeat the other day. The incumbent lost to anti-Muslim nurse Renee Ellmers.

* The Virginia Republican Party will choose its 2012 Senate candidate in a primary, rather than at a state convention. This will likely improve former Sen. George Allen's (R) odds.

* Maryland's gubernatorial race was home to one of the year's ugliest voter-suppression schemes. Former Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich (R), the intended beneficiary, doesn't want to talk about the controversy.

* Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) will replace Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) as the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

* Former senator and presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun (D) has entered Chicago's mayoral race, making the competitive contest that much more crowded.

* In 2012 news, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) both made it sound as if they're not running for president, but few actually believe them.

* And on a related note, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested yesterday she's done seeking elected office altogether.

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

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HOUSE GOP QUIETLY EYEING ETHICS OFFICE FOR ELIMINATION.... The last time Republicans had a congressional majority in either chamber, the results weren't pretty -- the infamous "culture of corruption," especially in the House, ended up putting members of Congress literally behind bars. The widespread misconduct very likely contributed to the Democratic wave of 2006.

Most voters have probably forgotten all about this, or for those who do remember GOP corruption, at least hope Republicans won't go back to their nefarious ways. But just a few weeks after the midterm elections, one of the first orders of business appears to be Republicans quietly eyeing the elimination of the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Despite publicly promising more transparency and disclosure of the inner workings of Congress, behind closed doors, the GOP leadership has made moves indicating the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) may be targeted for cuts or extinction.

According to an email seen by ABC News, Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., called the OCE on Friday, Nov. 5, just three days after the midterm elections in which Republicans regained a majority and control of the House. During that phone conversation, ABC's source said, the California representative asked for justification of its continued existence.

A 22-member transition team has been convened to craft operating rules for the new GOP-led House, but it's worth noting that some of the members of this team -- most notably Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and John Campbell (R-Calif.) -- have themselves been targets of ethics investigations.

To clarify, the Office of Congressional Ethics is tasked with reviewing complaints against lawmakers, and deciding whether to refer the disputes to the House ethics committee (technically, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct) for investigation. If Republicans shut down OCE, the process of holding members accountable for ethics transgressions would either have to be immediately replaced with a new system, or the process would simply cease to function.

It's not surprising, of course, that some Republicans would want to scrap the office; one assumes arsonists would want to shut down fire departments, too. But the effort, if it proceeds, should send quite a message to voters about GOP priorities -- the party promised to change the way Congress operates, but voters may not have realized that meant making it easier for representatives to get away with ethics violations.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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KRUGMAN FEARS 'MAKING AMERICA UNGOVERNABLE'.... I'd noticed recently that some credible political observers have been making the same uncomfortable point about congressional Republicans: they may be tempted to keep the economy down on purpose to advance partisan goals.

Matt Yglesias, for example, said the Obama White House should be prepared for "deliberate economic sabotage." Budget expert Stan Collender has predicted that Republicans perceive "economic hardship as the path to election glory." Paul Krugman noted in his column last week that Republicans "want the economy to stay weak as long as there's a Democrat in the White House."

I tied all of this together in an item on Saturday, noting that their collective points are at least worthy of discussion. The response from the right was less than kind -- the post generated far more conservative anger than I'm usually accustomed to dealing with. (My personal favorite: Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson passing along a message on Twitter calling me an "idiot.")

That's fine, of course; criticism is just part of the job. It's obviously a provocative argument, and I didn't expect conservatives to like it. I'm not entirely sure why the right was more angered by me than by Krugman, Collender, and Yglesias, but I suppose I should be flattered by the attention.

With all of this in mind, I was glad to see Paul Krugman return to the general subject in his print column today, embracing a line similar to mine. In fact, Krugman seemed at least as intemperate about the issue as I was, insisting that the Republican Party "isn't interested in helping the economy as long as a Democrat is in the White House."

The fact is that one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it's doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party's cooperation -- cooperation that won't be forthcoming. [...]

On one side, Republicans oppose just about everything that might reduce structural deficits: they demand that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent while demagoguing efforts to limit the rise in Medicare costs, which are essential to any attempts to get the budget under control. On the other, the G.O.P. opposes anything that might help sustain demand in a depressed economy -- even aid to small businesses, which the party claims to love.

Right now, in particular, Republicans are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits -- an action that will both cause immense hardship and drain purchasing power from an already sputtering economy. But there's no point appealing to the better angels of their nature; America just doesn't work that way anymore.

And opposition for the sake of opposition isn't limited to economic policy. Politics, they used to tell us, stops at the water's edge -- but that was then.

These days, national security experts are tearing their hair out over the decision of Senate Republicans to block a desperately needed new strategic arms treaty. And everyone knows that these Republicans oppose the treaty, not because of legitimate objections, but simply because it's an Obama administration initiative; if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it.

There's that word again, "sabotage."

To be sure, I'm not saying my point has merit because Paul Krugman is on the same page. As far as I know, the Nobel Laureate and I might both be, to use Gerson's word, "idiots."

But after a weekend of unpleasant criticism from the right, I find it fairly reassuring to know Krugman and I are thinking along the same lines.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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BUFFETT ISN'T BUYING GOP LINE ON TAX CUTS.... I wouldn't necessarily characterize Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett as someone with enormous political influence, but his success in business has at least given him some credibility on the economy.

And right now, his message on taxes couldn't be much clearer.

In an exclusive interview on "This Week," Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, told Christiane Amanpour that the rich should be paying more taxes and that the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy should be left to expire at the end of December.

"If anything, taxes for the lower and middle class and maybe even the upper middle class should even probably be cut further," Buffett said. "But I think that people at the high end -- people like myself -- should be paying a lot more in taxes. We have it better than we've ever had it."

The full Buffett interview will air on a special Thanksgiving edition of "This Week" focused on The Giving Pledge, a major philanthropic effort spearheaded by Buffet, and Bill and Melinda Gates.

What about the line that Clinton-era rates for the wealthy would undermine the economy?

"The rich are always going to say that, you know, 'Just give us more money and we'll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.' But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on," Buffett explained.

I'll look forward to Glenn Beck's expose, characterizing Buffett as a radical Marxist, hell bent on destroying the economy.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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WILD, WILD WEST.... Last week's episode of "Meet the Press" featured an interview with a Democrat, an interview with a Republican, and a four-person roundtable featuring three conservatives and a journalist. (The Republican guest, by the way, was John McCain, who appears on the show so often, he's had his mail forwarded to the green room.)

This week's episode was similar: an interview with a Democrat, an interview with a Republican, and a four person roundtable featuring two conservatives, a journalist, and a vaguely center-left author.

But that's really only part of the problem. Only one lawmaker was included on the program, and given who received the invitation, it's hard to imagine what the bookers were thinking.

[Yesterday] morning on NBC's Meet the Press, Rep.-elect Allen West (R-FL) somewhat puzzlingly joined the show's panel, which also featured Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, author and reporter Richard Wolffe, and the New York Times' Robert Draper. West is not yet a member of Congress, and is known mostly for his history of extreme statements targeting Islam, liberals, women -- all issues host David Gregory chose not to explore with West, instead asking him somewhat banal questions about things like TSA screenings and a possible Sarah Palin candidacy. [...]

If Meet the Press is going to ask extremists like Allen West to offer political analysis, it's their responsibility to let viewers understand West's philosophy clearly, so they can consider his views in the proper context.

That seems more than reasonable.

West's inclusion on the panel is just bizarre. If the name seems familiar, West first gained notoriety during his military service in Iraq, when he was forced to retire from the Army for engaging in abusive interrogation techniques. More recently, he incorporated violent rhetoric into his campaign speeches, and made demonstrably ridiculous claims about his own background. Last month, we learned about West's ties to a violent gang of criminals, which the Justice Department believes is involved in drug running, arson, prostitution, robbery, and murder.

Soon after his election, West announced his choice to be his chief of staff: a right-wing radio talk-show host who hates immigrants, hates Muslims, and has raised the prospect of an armed insurrection against the United States government. (The host soon after said she would not join West's staff after all, but the fact that she was hired in the first place told us a great deal about the congressman-elect's judgment.)

Under saner circumstances, West would be considered a fringe crackpot. Under our circumstances, West is an invited guest on "Meet the Press" -- before he even casts a vote -- where he faced no scrutiny for his borderline-dangerous background.

I realize finding guests the Sunday before a major holiday might be difficult, but "Meet the Press" has to have higher standards than this, doesn't it?

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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PENTAGON MOVES UP DADT SURVEY RELEASE.... With U.S. military leaders increasingly at odds with congressional Republicans over a variety of defense-related policies, it's worth remembering New START isn't the only point of contention.

The Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs also want to see the GOP drop their filibuster of the National Defense Authorization Act, a spending bill that funds U.S. troops, including its provision on repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. To that end, the Pentagon is expediting -- just a little -- the release of its DADT survey.

Signaling the growing seriousness of the Obama administration's commitment this year to ending the military's ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces, the Defense Department said Sunday that it will release a long-awaited report on the matter earlier than planned because senators are eager to vote on whether to repeal the policy.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has ordered the report to be released on Nov. 30, one day earlier than planned, "to support Congress's wish to consider repeal before they adjourn," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Sunday. [...]

Gates "has instructed his staff, without cutting any corners, to have everything ready a day sooner because he wants to ensure members of the Armed Services Committee are able to read and consider the complex, lengthy report before holding hearings with its authors and the Joint Chiefs of Staff," Morrell said in a statement.

Now, a fair amount of the report's findings have already been leaked, and based on these accounts, it appears the Pentagon found that servicemen and women are comfortable with ending the existing DADT policy, and that its repeal would not undermine military readiness, unit cohesion, or morale.

But Senate leaders, most notably Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have promised a hearing to review the results of the Pentagon's findings -- results that some Senate Republicans have said will dictate whether they allow the chamber to vote on the troop-funding bill as-is or not.

The hope, apparently, is that by giving senators an additional day, the chamber will have a little more time to read the report, hold a hearing, and vote on the bill. And the larger point, of course, is that Pentagon leaders really want to see the Senate get this done fairly soon -- as in, during the lame-duck session.

To date, Senate Republicans have been inclined to ignore the military leaders' pleas. After Nov. 30, that may prove to be more difficult.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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FROM THE WEEKEND.... We covered quite a bit of ground over the weekend here at Political Animal. Here's a recap of what we covered.

On Sunday, we talked about:

* U.S. military leaders and Republican leaders on the Hill are increasingly at odds over key defense-related policies, and GOP foot-dragging on New START ratification is making the differences even starker.

* President Obama has adopted a far-less contentious tone with Senate Republicans over national security than George W. Bush did in his second year in office.

* Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) insists she's a voracious reader. That seems hard to believe, and the dubious claim is probably unnecessary anyway.

* Congressional Republicans fully intend to go after the Affordable Care Act, but intra-party differences remain over whether to pursue "full" or "partial" repeal.

* Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said he'd withhold support for New START unless it had the backing of our "allies throughout Europe." Good news: Europe desperately wants to see the treaty ratified.

* Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is convinced an individual health care mandate is "clearly unconstitutional." This is the same Orrin Hatch who co-sponsored legislation to create an individual health care mandate.

* The presidential nominee's wishes notwithstanding, the McCain-Lieberman '08 ticket just wasn't going to work out.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* Krugman, Collender, and Yglesias have all argued congressional Republicans may try to keep the economy down on purpose to advance partisan goals. I argued it's worthy of discussion (and you wouldn't believe the hate-mail I received in response).

* Some moderate Republicans want their party to take global warming seriously. I'm afraid they're a little late.

* In "This Week in God," we covered quite a bit of ground, including Pope Benedict XVI making the case that governments have a moral responsibility to guarantee access to health care for all of their citizens.

* Mike Huckabee seems a little confused about separation of powers.

* Congress could privatize TSA screeners at airports, but it wouldn't make any difference.

* On New START, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) urges his Republican colleagues, "Do your duty for your country." I don't think they're listening.

* A couple of unexpected GOP votes may be available on DADT repeal, but their support would come at a high lame-duck price.

Steve Benen 7:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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November 21, 2010

THE ONGOING SPLIT BETWEEN GOP AND MILITARY LEADERS.... It wasn't too long ago that there were certain expectations about political and military policy. If, in the midst of two wars, the Pentagon asked Congress for some help, lawmakers were likely to oblige. This was especially true of Republicans, who took pride in characterizing themselves as the "pro-military" party.

This week, we received yet another reminder that these partisan assumptions are in need of revision.

An unusual split has opened between conservative Republicans and the American military leadership over the U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty, with current and former generals urging swift passage but politicians expressing far more skepticism.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) "essential to our future security." Retired generals have been so concerned about getting it ratified that some have traveled around the country promoting it.

Seven of eight former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces have urged the Senate to approve the treaty.

But five Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in a recent report that New START was "a bad deal." They added that U.S. military leaders had made assumptions about the pact -- including that Russia will honor it -- that are "optimistic in the extreme."

Meanwhile, the conservative Heritage Foundation's grass-roots lobbying arm is targeting Republican senators with mailings warning that the treaty "benefits Russia's interests, not ours."

Retired Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson, the former deputy commander of U.S. nuclear forces, told the Washington Post that it's "puzzling" that the advice military leaders are giving Republicans is being "ignored." Jameson added, "I don't know what that says about the trust that people have and the confidence they have in our military."

Democrats, I suspect, aren't willing to make the case in these terms, but that's why it's all the more important when someone like Jameson is making these arguments publicly. He's effectively arguing that most Senate Republicans are blowing off the judgment of America's military leadership -- a charge that used to be unthinkable.

But what's especially noteworthy here is the consistency in which we've seen this pattern. On New START, obviously, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense are actively urging Senate ratification, but the GOP is convinced they're mistaken. Mullen, Gates, and other military leaders also want to see Republicans end their filibuster of the National Defense Authorization Act, but the GOP is ignoring this request, too.

In fact, the U.S. military leadership and congressional Republicans are also on opposite sides of everything from civilian trials for terrorist suspects to closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay to Iran to torture to how the U.S. perceives the Middle East peace process in the context of our national security interests. GOP lawmakers haven't even fared well on some veterans' groups congressional scorecards.

The notion of Republicans siding with the military is supposed to be one of those assumed truths that we're all supposed to just accept. But over the last two years, on most of the major policy disputes related to national security and defense, it's been Democrats (on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue), not Republicans, who've been siding with U.S. military leaders.

Those old partisan assumptions just don't apply anymore.

Steve Benen 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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A TALE OF TWO TONES.... Not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a variety of Democratic lawmakers proposed creating the Department of Homeland Security. George W. Bush, at least initially, balked, fearing a cabinet agency would lead to more oversight.

In time, Bush reversed course, and embraced the idea. But when it came to labor laws and the new DHS, the White House and the Democratic Senate majority were on opposite sites. As the dispute intensified, Bush ultimately gave a speech on Sept. 23, 2002, insisting, "The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people."

The remarks are perhaps best remembered for prompting then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), infuriated by the president's accusation, to just about blow a gasket.

Eight years later, Dana Milbank reflects on the incident while noting that it's Republicans who are "blocking a Senate vote on a treaty with Russia that is critical to securing loose nukes and keeping Iran from gaining the bomb."

For Democrats, the opposition's gamesmanship with security should present an opportunity. Republicans seem to have entered a post-post-9/11 era, in which national security is no longer a higher priority than their interest in undermining President Obama. There's no need to resort to the demagoguery once used against Democrats, but neither would it hurt the White House and congressional Democrats to point out that their opponents are trying to weaken Americans' security. [...]

Let's start with START, the proposed nuclear pact with Russia that Senate Republicans such as Jon Kyl (Ariz.) are attempting to derail, at least until the next Congress. Since the expiration of the previous START treaty last December, there have been no U.S. inspectors in Russia to keep an eye on the country's thousands of nuclear warheads. If the Senate doesn't come up with the 67 votes needed for ratification, says Travis Sharp of the Center for a New American Security, there's a risk Russia will retaliate by removing its logistical support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, abandoning its cooperation in preventing nuclear proliferation, and thwarting U.S. efforts to keep Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. [...]

To borrow Bush's phrase, are Republicans not interested in the security of the American people?

Milbank suggests if the situations were reversed, and Democrats were blocking a nuclear arms treaty negotiated by Bush, the Republican president would not only be questioning Dems' motives, but Republicans "would no doubt be running ads juxtaposing Democrats with Osama bin Laden, or alleging, as they did then, that Democrats are giving 'comfort to America's enemies.'"

That isn't happening, obviously. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the Obama White House and Democrats in general just don't play the game this way. But the other part of this is that it wouldn't necessarily have the same kind of impact -- in 2002, national security was arguably the preeminent issue of the day. In 2010, three years after the start of the Great Recession, the economy is not only paramount, but most Americans probably haven't heard much, if anything, about New START or Republican tactics on the issue. If Obama said Republicans "aren't interested in the security of the American people," few would have any idea what he was referring to.

And so we hear a very different tone. Eight years ago, Bush said Democrats don't care if we live or die. Yesterday, President Obama said of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), "I believe that Senator Kyl wants a safe and secure America, just like I do, and is well-motivated." Obama added, "Senator Kyl has never said to me that he does not want to see START ratified. ... What he said is, is that he just felt like there wasn't enough time to get it done in the lame duck. And I take him at his word."

That's a degree of graciousness Kyl almost certainly doesn't deserve, and one Bush never even considered.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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AN UNLIKELY VORACIOUS READER.... The New York Times' Sunday magazine has a lengthy piece from Robert Draper today on a certain former half-term governor. The piece covers quite a bit of ground -- and should probably dispel any lingering doubts about Sarah Palin's national ambitions -- but a couple of things stood out.

Palin was asked, for example, about why she initially ran in Alaska as someone interested in bipartisanship, but then abandoned that approach. As Palin sees it, she learned a lesson "when John McCain chose me for the nomination for vice president."

"[W]hat it showed me about the left: they go home," she said. "It doesn't matter what you do. It was the left that came out attacking me. They showed me their hypocrisy; they showed me they weren't willing to work in a bipartisan way. I learned my lesson. Once bitten, twice shy. I will never trust that they are not hypocrites until they show me they're sincere."

So, in Palin's mind, she doesn't want to work with Democrats because Democrats criticized a Republican candidate during a competitive presidential campaign. I get the sense that Palin may not fully appreciate the meaning of the word "hypocrisy."

But it was an exchange towards the very end of the piece that was probably the most memorable.

Palin became testy when I asked her about the books I heard she had been reading. "I've been reading since I was a little girl," she snapped. "And my mom is standing 15 feet away from me, and I should put her on the phone with you right now so she can tell you. That's what happens when you grow up in a house full of teachers -- you read; and I always have. Just because -- and," she continued, though in a less blistering tone, "I don't want to come across sounding caustic or annoyed by this issue: because of one roll-of-the-eye answer to a question I gave, I'm still dealing with this," she said, referring to her interview with Katie Couric.

"There's nothing different today than there was in the last 43 years of my life since I first started reading. I continue to read all that I can get my hands on -- and reading biographies of, yes, Thatcher for instance, and of course Reagan and the John Adams letters, and I'm just thinking of a couple that are on my bedside, I go back to C.S. Lewis for inspiration, there's such a variety, because books have always been important in my life." She went on: "I'm reading [the conservative radio host] Mark Levin's book; I'll get ahold of Glenn Beck's new book -- and now because I'm opening up," she finished warily, "I'm afraid I'm going to get reporters saying, Oh, she only reads books by Glenn Beck."

Isaac Chotiner, noting the same paragraphs, asked, "Does anyone find this remotely believable?"

Put me down for a "no." It sounds like the books Palin happens to have on her bedside are intended to score carefully chosen political points -- a Thatcher biography, C.S. Lewis, the letters of a founding father, and "of course" Reagan, as if it's to be assumed that conservatives are reading a biography of the 40th president at all times.

But more importantly, it's the defensive qualities of her response that stand out. Likely presidential candidates aren't usually so worried about perceptions of their intellect that they're tempted to tell journalists to check with their parents about their reading habits as a child.

I don't imagine Palin would care about my advice, but my suggestion would nevertheless be to just stop trying, because it's probably a pointless exercise anyway. Those who've watched Palin and been unimpressed aren't going to believe she's a voracious reader, and those who worship her don't care about her conspicuous unintelligence.

Palin has worked hard to cultivate an image as a "regular" person. She's never been about book learnin'; Palin is about shooting from the hip with folksy tweets and semi-coherent Facebook posts.

"I continue to read all that I can get my hands on"? I can appreciate why Palin may want to improve her reputation, but this is both literally unbelievable and entirely pointless.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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FULL VS. PARTIAL VS. NEITHER.... Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the incoming House Majority Leader, gave a speech in Virginia yesterday, assuring several hundred state GOP leaders that the party won't "compromise" on its principles. According to a Roll Call report, Cantor also vowed to push "a full repeal of the health care reform bill."

"Many in the press have asked all of us and have asked me as the next Majority Leader in Congress whether we're actually going to work with President Obama next year. And my answer is: not if the President continues to support deficits into the trillions that will burden our children and theirs," he said.

"If he continues to insist to support Obamacare that threatens to bankrupt this Commonwealth and this country," Cantor continued, "we will all stand up and say no."

Just at the surface level, it seems Cantor is still oddly confused. It was, after all, his Republican Party that created the budget mess in the first place. For that matter, the Affordable Care Act reduces the deficit Cantor claims to be so worried about. Repealing it would make the budget mess worse, not better. After all this time and debate, even Cantor should be able to grasp these basic details.

But putting all of that aside, it's interesting that Cantor spoke about "a full repeal," at least according to the Roll Call report. Because just the other day, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who's likely to chair the House Rules Committee in the next Congress, said a "full" repeal isn't really the plan. He told NPR on Friday:

"We have said all along that we want to make sure that provisions there that are in fact beneficial in ensuring that people have access, without a huge expansion of government, we don't want to repeal."

The accuracy of this assessment depends on how Dreier defines "we." Dreier, for example, signed a petition demanding a full repeal, which makes his remarks about what the position has been "all along" rather amusing.

But the inconsistency is much broader than just a couple of confused conservative lawmakers. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) told her fans earlier this year, "You better believe it, baby.... We're about repealing all of Obama-care." Around the same time, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) conceded, "We're not gonna repeal everything." Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has demanded "100 percent repeal of Obamacare," while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he's really only interested in repealing the "egregious parts."

This might get a little messy. The thinking all along has been that the Republican drive to gut the entire system may ultimately lead to a government shutdown, but it's also worth watching to see the intra-party dispute among GOP officials themselves.

If I had to guess, I'd say the party's far-right base won't be pleased if Republicans only pursue a "partial" repeal. As Josh Marshall noted awhile back, "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."

GOP leaders have put themselves in an awkward spot. Not only would they have to fight to repeal popular provisions Americans actually want, but they have to work around their own rhetorical record. Republicans who've characterized the law as "Armageddon" may grudgingly come to believe some parts of Armageddon may not be that bad after all.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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EUROPEAN ALLIES BACK OBAMA ON NEW START.... Officials hoping to see the Senate ratify the pending arms control treaty with Russia, New START, considered retiring Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio the kind of Republican who might be amenable to good-faith outreach. Getting to 67 is proving to be far more difficult than it should, but if eight Senate Republicans are to be found, Voinovich seemed like the kind of member who might be reasonable.

It was terribly disappointing, then, to see Voinovich speak on the Senate floor on Wednesday, insisting that the treaty might imperil "captive nations" in Eastern Europe. The Ohio Republican added that he would need assurances that our "allies throughout Europe" would benefit from the policy.

I have no idea if Voinovich was being sincere, or if he's looking for an excuse to oppose a worthwhile policy, but if Voinovich meant what he said, I have good news.

Nations on the front lines of the old Cold War divide made clear here Saturday that they want the Senate to ratify the new U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty, and said that Republican concerns about their well-being were misplaced.

In an unannounced group appearance at the end of an administration background briefing on Afghanistan, six European foreign ministers took the stage with a message for Congress.

"Don't stop START before it's started," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said.

Danish Foreign Minister Lene Espersen emphasized not only his support, but his conservative bona fides. "I'm also the chairman of the Conservative Party of Denmark," Espersen said. "Nobody can ever accuse me of being soft on security." He then enthusiastically endorsed the treaty, to "at least make the Republican Party [aware] of how important this is."

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi added, "We advocate ratification of START. It is in the interest of my nation, of Europe and most importantly for the trans-Atlantic alliance." He then added his ideological stamp of approval: "We're all conservatives."

Leaders from Poland, Bulgaria, and Norway also threw their support behind ratification.

And if all of those countries is a little too far west in Europe to impress Republicans, also note that leaders in Latvia and Lithunia are also anxious to see Republicans do the right thing on New START.

So, Sen. Voinovich, what do you say? If you were worried about European reactions, and Europe's on board, can we count on your "yes" vote?

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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HATCH WAS FOR A MANDATE BEFORE HE WAS AGAINST IT.... When it comes to intellectual dishonesty on health care policy, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has arguably been even worse than most, but this tack, in particular, suggests he's growing increasingly unhinged.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) argued on Friday that under the Constitution the government cannot force consumers to buy health insurance and said he has joined a legal challenge of the individual mandate in Florida.

"This is not an activity, this is forcing people to buy something they may or may not want to buy and forcing them to buy a certain level of something that they may not want to buy also," Hatch told Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren. "If the government can do that to us -- in other words, if Congress can do that to us, then there's nothing that the government can't do to us."

First of all, a health care insurance mandate isn't a recipe for unlimited government power over the citizenry, any more so than mandates on mandatory car insurance or mandatory flood insurance for homeowners in some coastal areas. Characterizing this as some kind of creeping "totalitarianism" is a little silly.

But more importantly, maybe now would be a good time to note that none other than Orrin Hatch not only endorsed an individual health care mandate in the '90s, he literally cosponsored legislation to make it law. Hatch was on national television, railing against a policy he personally tried to use his power in government to enact.

Hatch does realize Google exists, doesn't he? That his record is fairly easy to look up?

He went on to tell Van Susteren that the Affordable Care Act would "bankrupt the country," which is an odd argument given that the law reduces the deficit, and that the new system is "socialized medicine," which is ridiculous on its face.

But hearing Hatch's hysterics is a reminder about public attitudes towards the new law. I often find it confusing to understand what it is about health care reform Republicans hate so much, but Hatch's unhinged rant helps make the answer clear -- they believe things that aren't true, because prominent public officials like Hatch are lying to them.

Steve Benen 8:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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WHY MCCAIN-LIEBERMAN '08 WASN'T GOING TO WORK OUT.... In August 2008, before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had chosen a running mate for the Republicans' national ticket, there was widespread chatter about McCain asking Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to come aboard.

We've since learned that the GOP nominee really did favor Lieberman, who was touted by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) among others, before going in a very different direction. But Ben Smith had an interesting item yesterday on some of the research that scuttled the idea.

Former McCain veep vetter and Washington power lawyer A.B. Culvahouse made clear in remarks before a Republican lawyers group today that the campaign had investigated the legal issues surrounding putting Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman on the GOP ticket last year and determined it would be a difficult task.

"Five states have sore loser statutes ... [making] it very difficult for someone who's not a member of the Republican Party to become the vice presidential nominee if they only switch parties to become a Republican shortly before the convention,' Culvahouse said in public remarks at the Republican National Lawyers Association annual meeting aired on C-SPAN.

The lawyer noted that the issue was so legally problematic, it likely would have required a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in the midst of a competitive presidential election, was "not particularly appetizing."

Smith added that, independent of the legal difficulties, Republican activists had also "warned of a revolt on the convention floor," which seemed like a credible threat. Much of the right was already skeptical about McCain, and picking Al Gore's pro-choice running mate probably would have caused even more widespread problems within the party.

This is just speculation, but I imagine McCain thought the trade-off would have worked in his favor -- he'd lose some of the far-right, but make up for it with independents who might have found the bipartisan ticket appealing -- but the legal issues Culvahouse explained very likely made the strategy a moot point.

As for the larger takeaway, there are a few related angles to keep in mind. First, this probably means "fusion" tickets are an impossibility for the foreseeable future, unless states start changing their election laws. Second, I find it rather interesting that McCain went from considering a running mate who supports gay rights to becoming one of the Senate's leading anti-gay members.

And third, if the McCain-Lieberman ticket had worked out, how many Americans outside Alaska would have any idea who Sarah Palin is right now?

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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November 20, 2010

NONE DARE CALL IT SABOTAGE.... Consider a thought experiment. Imagine you actively disliked the United States, and wanted to deliberately undermine its economy. What kind of positions would you take to do the most damage?

You might start with rejecting the advice of economists and oppose any kind of stimulus investments. You'd also want to cut spending and take money out of the economy, while blocking funds to states and municipalities, forcing them to lay off more workers. You'd no doubt want to cut off stimulative unemployment benefits, and identify the single most effective jobs program of the last two years (the TANF Emergency Fund) so you could kill it.

You might then take steps to stop the Federal Reserve from trying to lower the unemployment rate. You'd also no doubt want to create massive economic uncertainty by vowing to gut the national health care system, promising to re-write the rules overseeing the financial industry, vowing re-write business regulations in general, considering a government shutdown, and even weighing the possibly of sending the United States into default.

You might want to cover your tracks a bit, and say you have an economic plan that would help -- a tax policy that's already been tried -- but you'd do so knowing that such a plan has already proven not to work.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Matt Yglesias had an item the other day that went largely unnoticed, but which I found pretty important.

...I know that tangible improvements in the economy are key to Obama's re-election chances. And Douglas Hibbs knows that it's key. And senior administration officials know that its key. So is it so unreasonable to think that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner may also know that it's key? That rank and file Republicans know that it's key? McConnell has clarified that his key goal in the Senate is to cause Barack Obama to lose in 2012 which if McConnell understands the situation correctly means doing everything in his power to reduce economic growth. Boehner has distanced himself from this theory, but many members of his caucus may agree with McConnell.

Which is just to say that specifically the White House needs to be prepared not just for rough political tactics from the opposition (what else is new?) but for a true worst case scenario of deliberate economic sabotage.

Budget expert Stan Collender has predicted that Republicans perceive "economic hardship as the path to election glory." Paul Krugman noted in his column yesterday that Republicans "want the economy to stay weak as long as there's a Democrat in the White House."

As best as I can tell, none of this analysis -- all from prominent observers -- generated significant pushback. The notion of GOP officials deliberately damaging the economy didn't, for example, spark widespread outrage or calls for apologies from Matt or anyone else.

And that, in and of itself, strikes me as remarkable. We're talking about a major political party, which will control much of Congress next year, possibly undermining the strength of the country -- on purpose, in public, without apology or shame -- for no other reason than to give themselves a campaign advantage in 2012.

Maybe now would be a good time to pause and ask a straightforward question: are Americans O.K. with this?

For months in 2009, conservatives debated amongst themselves about whether it's acceptable to actively root against President Obama as he dealt with a variety of pressing emergencies. Led by Rush Limbaugh and others, the right generally seemed to agree that there was nothing wrong with rooting against our leaders' success, even in a time of crisis.

But we're talking about a significantly different dynamic now. This general approach has shifted from hoping conditions don't improve to taking steps to ensure conditions don't improve. We've gone from Republicans rooting for failure to Republicans trying to guarantee failure.

Over the summer, this general topic came up briefly, and Jon Chait suggested observers should be cautious about ascribing motives.

Establishing motive is always very hard to prove. What's more, the notion of deliberate sabotage presumes a conscious awareness that doesn't square with human psychology as I understand it. People are extraordinarily deft at making their principles -- not just their stated principles, but their actual principles -- comport with their interests. The old Upton Sinclair quote -- "It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it" -- has a lot of wisdom to it.

I don't think many Republicans are actually trying to stop legislation that might help the economy recover because they know that a slow economy is their best route to regaining power. I think that when they're in power, consequences like an economic slowdown or a collapsing industry seem very dire, and policies to prevent this are going to sound compelling. When you're out of power, arguments against such policies are going to sound more compelling.

That seems largely fair. Under this line of thought, Republicans have simply lied to themselves, convincing one another that worthwhile ideas should be rejected because they're not actually worthwhile anymore.

But Jon's benefit-of-the-doubt approach would be more persuasive if (a) the same Republicans weren't rejecting ideas they used to support; and (b) GOP leaders weren't boasting publicly about prioritizing Obama's destruction above all else, including the health of the country.

Indeed, we can even go a little further with this and note that apparent sabotage isn't limited to economic policy. Why would Republican senators, without reason or explanation, oppose a nuclear arms treaty that advances U.S. national security interests? When the treaty enjoys support from the GOP elder statesmen and the Pentagon, and is only opposed by Iran, North Korea, and Senate Republicans, it leads to questions about the party's intentions that give one pause.

Historically, lawmakers from both parties have resisted any kind of temptations along these lines for one simple reason: they didn't think they'd get away with it. If members of Congress set out to undermine the strength of the country, deliberately, just to weaken an elected president, they risked a brutal backlash -- the media would excoriate them, and the punishment from voters would be severe.

But I get the sense Republicans no longer have any such fears. The media tends to avoid holding congressional parties accountable, and voters aren't really paying attention anyway. The Boehner/McConnell GOP appears willing to gamble: if they can hold the country back, voters will just blame the president in the end. And that's quite possibly a safe assumption.

If that's the case, though, then it's time for a very public, albeit uncomfortable, conversation. If a major, powerful political party is making a conscious decision about sabotage, the political world should probably take the time to consider whether this is acceptable, whether it meets the bare minimum standards for patriotism, and whether it's a healthy development in our system of government.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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MODERATE REPUBLICANS ARE A LITTLE LATE ON CLIMATE CHANGE.... Despite an aggressive effort to convince Republicans to reject the entirety of climate science, there are apparently a handful of overwhelmed moderates who haven't completely rejected reason.

It's not quite an outright backlash yet, but some GOP moderates are beginning to publicly attack the widespread climate skepticism in their party's ranks.

Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) -- who led the House Science Committee from 2001 to 2006 -- took his party to task in a Friday Washington Post column headlined "Science the GOP can't wish away."

"Watching the raft of newly elected GOP lawmakers converge on Washington, I couldn't help thinking about an issue I hope our party will better address. I call on my fellow Republicans to open their minds to rethinking what has largely become our party's line: denying that climate change and global warming are occurring and that they are largely due to human activities," writes Boehlert, whose post-Congress work includes advising the Project on Climate Science.

He later adds: "There is a natural aversion to more government regulation. But that should be included in the debate about how to respond to climate change, not as an excuse to deny the problem's existence. The current practice of disparaging the science and the scientists only clouds our understanding and delays a solution."

Boehlert's push came two days after outgoing Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) also lamented the fact that his party has its head in the sand when it comes to global warming.

That's helpful, I suppose, in helping push back against the notion that only the left is allowed to take science and evidence seriously, but it's worth noting that Boehlert is a former congressman, not a current one. Inglis is still a member for a few more weeks, but he lost a GOP primary by 40 points precisely because he's occasionally interested in reality.

If Republicans like Boehlert and Inglis are going to have any kind of impact on their party, they're going to need a lot of help.

At this point, the battle appears all but lost. Of every Republican U.S. candidate this year, all but one rejected the evidence of climate change. In the Senate next year, more than three-fourths of the caucus will be climate deniers. In the House, more than half of the Republicans question the science to one degree or another.

And those are just the politicians. We also learned this week that among the rank and file, just 38% of Republicans say there is solid evidence the earth is warming. Among "Tea Party" Republicans, 70% have concluded that climate science is wrong.

It didn't used to be this way. As recently as a few years ago, Republican voters, by and large, believed what the mainstream believed when it came to climate science. Then their party, its candidates, and its media outlets told these voters to stop believing the facts -- and rank-and-file Republicans did as they were told.

If there are still some GOP "moderates" in positions of influence who care about reality, I'm delighted and I can only hope they speak up. But they're pretty late to the game, and the rout is already on.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a fascinating policy announcement from Pope Benedict XVI, who stated unequivocally that all nations have a moral responsibility to guarantee access to health care for all of their citizens, "regardless of social and economic status or their ability to pay."

Access to adequate medical attention, the pope said in a written message Nov. 18, was one of the "inalienable rights" of man. [...]

The pope lamented the great inequalities in health care around the globe.... Because an individual's health is a "precious asset" to society as well as to himself, governments and other agencies should seek to protect it by "dedicating the equipment, resources and energy so that the greatest number of people can have access."

Not surprisingly, some of this message was less progressive in nature. The pope, for example, isn't on board with euthanasia or embryonic research. But he nevertheless concluded that "justice in health care should be a priority of governments and international institutions."

With this in mind, I can only hope to see Pope Benedict XVI work his way onto Glenn Beck's chalkboard, denounced by the right as a radical communist bent on Hitler-like tyranny over American taxpayers. Indeed, Media Matters flagged this Beck quote uttered during the debate over the Affordable Care Act.

"We have a right to health care, really? God doesn't give health care. Man provides health care. So how can it be a right. If you are endowed by your Creator with certain unalienable rights, how can a God-given right be health care, unless Jesus comes down and starts to open up a clinic and heal us himself? There cannot be a right to health care, because the rights come to God."

It looks like politically conservative Roman Catholics will have to decide which of these two interpretations caries more moral weight.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* President Obama signed an executive order this week reforming the rules governing the White House's faith-based office. The order takes some worthwhile steps clarifying Bush-era ambiguities, and received generally, but not universal, high-marks. The nine-page order, however, sidestepped arguably the most contentious issue in the debate: whether faith-based groups can accept public grants and still discriminate in hiring. (thanks to D.J. for the tip)

* In Phoenix, Arizona, the Light of the World church is in the process of building a Christian house of worship with modern architecture. But because the church features a dome, the congregation's leaders are drawing fire from locals who fear it's a mosque.

* On a related note, a judge in Tennessee ruled this week that the construction of a mosque in middle Tennessee can continue, despite demands from local bigots to block the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

* Religious right leaders recently met to strategize on how best to defeat President Obama in 2012. A similar confab was held in 1979, and that one worked out pretty well for them.

* The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops elected Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York to be its president this week. The announcement was something of a surprise, which "reaffirmed the conservative direction of the Roman Catholic Church in America."

* And this holiday season, anyone inclined to think Christians are persecuted because some clerk at the mall wished them a "Happy Holidays" should consider what Christians are facing in Iraq right now.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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HUCKABEE NEEDS A SIXTH-GRADE CIVICS CLASS.... I realize Mike Huckabee wants to be president. I also realize that desire pushes Huckabee to say some pretty foolish things in order to impress his party's far-right base.

But even with these considerations in mind, Huckabee's approach to court rulings he doesn't like is pretty out there.

"A president has certainly got to respect a ruling of the court, but if the ruling of a court is wrong, and it's fundamentally wrong, and you have two branches of the government that determine that it's wrong, then those other two branches supersede the one.... The two branches of government, legislative and executive, have every right to make it clear to the Supreme Court that their interpretation is wrong. And whether they do that by constitutional amendment to spell it out to the court, or by passage of further amplification of law, there are many means, I think, at hand to do that."

Um, no.

Constitutional amendments are an option, I suppose, when elected officials have a problem with a Supreme Court ruling, but I sure would like to hear Huckabee's definition of "supersede."

While he's at it, maybe Huckabee, the governor turned Fox News personality, could also elaborate on what it means for other branches of government to "further amplify" the law. How would that work, exactly? Congress passes legislation, a president signs it into law, and the courts find it unconstitutional. But if it's a "fundamentally wrong" ruling, Huckabee thinks Congress and the White House can pursue "further amplification" to get what they want?

And who's to decide which rulings are the "fundamentally wrong" ones?

Huckabee has already demonstrated, repeatedly, that economics and foreign policy aren't his strong suits. I think we can add constitutional law to the list of issues he needs to work on before the next national campaign.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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GOP FLOATS TSA PRIVATIZATION.... In recent months, we've heard Republicans raise the specter of privatizing a wide variety of services. Social Security, Medicare, Veterans Administration hospitals, and even the Centers for Disease Control all became targets.

But as travelers grow more frustrated with heightened airport security, it appears Republicans are opening a new front on the privatization crusade.

A Republican lawmaker, who is faulting big government spending, is suggesting that airports dump the Transportation Security Administration altogether, and opt instead to privatize security.

And some airports, fed up with poor service in a climate where travelers are outraged about the prospect of full-body scanners, are listening.

The consideration comes after Florida Republican Rep. John Mica -- a longtime critic of the TSA -- wrote letters to the country's 100 busiest airports earlier this month asking them to switch to private security.

Mica is poised to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, so he'll be in a position to advance this issue.

There are a variety of angles to consider here. Note, for example, that private companies that stand to benefit from privatization also happen to be generous campaign contributors to Mica's re-election campaign.

Even more importantly, several domestic airports already use private screeners, but it's still the TSA that establishes mandatory security standards. If Mica or other Republicans want to have a conversation about whether those security measures are appropriate, that's fine. But whether those doing the screening are public employees or private contractors doesn't change the standards themselves. Selling this as some sort of cure-all for frustrated travelers is silly.

As Josh Marshall joked yesterday, "Watching cable TV this morning it seems like the new idea is that this would all be better if private sector workers rather than government employees were inspecting Americans' crotches, boobs, etc."

But via email, reader V.S. noted another angle that's worth paying attention to: legal restrictions. Existing standards, as written by federal officials, have to take constitutional issues into consideration. If Mica scrapped the TSA and let airports hire Blackwater-style private security to screen passengers, it's easy to imagine legal safeguards -- against racial profiling, for example -- suddenly being cast aside.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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LUGAR TO GOP: 'PLEASE DO YOUR DUTY FOR YOUR COUNTRY'.... The pending arms control treaty with Russia, New START, has no greater Republican champion than Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana. Lugar, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long been Congress' most respected and most credible GOP voice on international affairs, and his unyielding support for the measure should carry considerable weight in Republican circles.

What I find especially interesting this week, however, has been Lugar's willingness to raise the volume of that voice. On Wednesday, the mild-mannered-to-a-fault senator appeared at a press conference alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and was surprisingly animated about the importance of ratification.

Yesterday, Lugar appeared on MSNBC, and again made his case in a more forceful way than is usually expected of him.

"Please do your duty for your country," Lugar said in a message to his colleagues. "We do not have verification of the Russian nuclear posture right now. We're not going to have it until we sign the START treaty. We're not going to be able to get rid of further missiles and warheads aimed at us.

"I state it candidly to my colleagues, one of those warheads ... could demolish my city of Indianapolis -- obliterate it! Now Americans may have forgotten that. I've not forgotten it and I think that most people who are concentrating on the START treaty want to move ahead to move down the ladder of the number of weapons aimed at us."

Urging Republicans to "do their duty" for their country is good advice. If only they weren't so inclined to place party over patriotism.

Watching Lugar this week, it seems the quiet, reserved senior senator is just frustrated. I don't know Lugar personally, but seeing his passion on New START, I wouldn't be surprised if he's noticing that he seems to be the only Republican senator on the Hill who isn't afraid to put our national security needs over petty, partisan nonsense.

For the record, on the vast majority of the major issues of the day, I completely disagree with Lugar's positions. The way in which he's conducted himself during this debate, however, is a reminder that Lugar may be well to my right, but he tends to conduct himself in an honorable way.

Congress would be a less infuriating institution if we could say the same about his Republican colleagues.

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

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PICKING UP GOP VOTES ON DADT REPEAL?.... This week, the Senate Democratic leadership had to decide how to proceed on a must-pass the military spending bill (the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA). Would Dems keep a provision on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," or would they back down to Republicans, scrap the provision, and pass the rest of the bill?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Wednesday Dems wouldn't cave on this, setting up a December showdown. The strategy means, of course, that Dems will need at least two Republican votes to support funding for the troops when the measure reaches the floor.

Usually, at this point, attention would immediately turn to the Maine moderates (Collins and Snowe), but as of yesterday, two other players were in the mix.

The first was Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who appears to have won re-election in Alaska, and who told reporters late Thursday that if repeal "doesn't hurt the performance, the morale, the recruitment" of the military, according to the upcoming Pentagon survey, she would not block repeal. Though she later hedged a bit on CNN, Murkowski's vote in support of the spending bill appears to be a real possibility.

Yesterday, another GOP vote appeared to be in play, and this one was even more unexpected.

In a letter to constituents who have inquired about his position on DADT, GOP Senator John Ensign strongly suggests he is leaning towards supporting repeal of the policy, another sign that there may be enough tacit GOP support in the Senate for repeal to get it past a GOP filibuster.

"It is my firm belief that Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be able to fight and risk their lives in defense of this great nation," Ensign writes in the letter, which I've obtained. "As a nation currently engaged in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the focus of all decisions affecting military readiness, recruiting and retention, and unit cohesion should be to maximize the success of ongoing operations."

Ensign's office later walked this back, at least a little, emphasizing the need to wait for the Pentagon survey's release, but given the original, in-writing statement, the conservative Nevadan's vote certainly looks obtainable.

This is encouraging, and continues to suggest the GOP-mandated supermajority will be there when all is said and done. The downside, however, remains the same: the way to get the 60+ votes is for Dems to allow a two-week debate in December. With a severely limited lame-duck calendar, this would leave very little time for a variety of other priorities.

That said, if Dems bite the bullet and commit the time, the odds of final passage appear to be growing. Indeed, if Murkowki and Ensign break ranks, along with Collins and Snowe, I wouldn't be too surprised if an even larger Republican contingent saw which way the winds were blowing, and decided there's no point in ignoring public opinion on DADT and opposing troop funding during two wars.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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November 19, 2010

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

* POTUS in Lisbon: "President Obama and dozens of other world leaders began a NATO summit meeting Friday to set strategy in Afghanistan for the next four years and agree to a new global mission to take the alliance into the 21st century. In the opening session of the two-day meeting, the 28 alliance members plan to adopt a new Strategic Concept, their first in more than a decade."

* Our NATO allies want the U.S. Senate to ratify the New START treaty. Republicans seem more inclined to make Iran and North Korea happy.

* Irish rescue gets a price tag: "The financial support program being discussed between Ireland and potential donors should amount to at least 50 billion euros, officials with knowledge of the talks said Friday."

* Have I mentioned how much I love the White House White Board? I really do, and I'm delighted Austan Goolsbee keeps doing them. (If I worked in the White House, this is exactly the kind of stuff I'd be pushing all the time.)

* The utility of the Stuxnet worm: "Experts dissecting the computer worm suspected of being aimed at Iran's nuclear program have determined that it was precisely calibrated in a way that could send nuclear centrifuges wildly out of control."

* A day after recommending censure for Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the House ethics committee delayed indefinitely a trial for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

* It's probably fair to say the Transportation Security Administration's more aggressive pat-downs of passengers at airport security checkpoints isn't going over well with the traveling public.

* Most of the country doesn't know that there will be a Republican majority in the House next year. Have I mentioned lately that informed electorate is a prerequisite to a thriving democratic system of government?

* It wasn't easy, but the Senate approved the Pigford II settlement. It's about time.

* Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) wants Attorney General Eric Holder to resign. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is either pretty dumb, or he's pretending to be pretty dumb to curry favor with the GOP base.

* Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) really needs to go away and enjoy a lengthy period of quiet time.

* CREW's Melanie Sloan is going where? Glenn Greenwald noted, "Leaving CREW to work for Lanny Davis would be like leaving the ACLU to work for Dick Cheney."

* I've heard of creative campus protests before, but a "yawn in" is a new one.

* David Frum finds Sarah Palin's tweets rather horrifying. He's not alone.

* And I'd find Glenn Beck less scary if he didn't do things like suggest military coups against America's elected leadership.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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LANDrIEU YIELDS, LEW GETS TO WORK.... I noted yesterday that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), still hoping to help the oil industry with coastal drilling, had not yet lifted her ridiculous hold on Jack Lew's OMB nomination.

It's only fair to note, then, that a few hours later, the center-right Louisianan finally relented.

The Office of Management and Budget has a director again -- and he looks familiar.

Jacob J. Lew, confirmed for the position tonight on a voice vote in the Senate, will be coming back to the office he left in January 2001, turning over to his success about $236 billion in surplus funds. [...]

The confirmation of Mr. Lew, currently a deputy secretary of state, had been delayed by a hold placed by Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, in protest of the Obama administration's
moratorium on deep-water oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a statement tonight, she said she had released the hold because she had "received a commitment from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to provide certainty and regulatory clarity to an industry that has operated in the dark for months with shifting rules."

How gracious of her to let the Senate do its job.

In explaining her ridiculous behavior, Landrieu added, "I figured it would get [the administration's] attention and I think it has."

Perhaps. But it's also gotten the rest of our attention, too, and made clear that Landrieu will do the oil industry's bidding, even if it means throwing an irresponsible tantrum.

The Office of Management and Budget is poised to start writing the 2012 budget, and it needs a budget director. Now that Landrieu's reckless stunt has come to an end, Lew and his team can finally get to work.

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

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KLINE CRYSTALLIZES CONTEMPORARY CONSERVATISM.... Rep. John Kline (R) is poised to become chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, giving him quite a bit of power over issues of great concern to the public. He'll be succeeding Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who's proven himself to be an exceptional champion of working families.

Kline prefers a different approach.

Yesterday, the conservative Republican talked with Minnesota Public Radio about his opposition to extended unemployment benefits, pointing to the budget deficit. Specifically, he was asked, "[W]hat do you tell those folks hanging on by a thread who really need those benefits?" Kline responded:

"Well, they, heh, the best thing to do for them is to get the economy back on track and get businesses hiring so that they have a job that they can go to. We simply don't have the money to keep extending unemployment benefits indefinitely. We just don't have the money."

He added, "We can't fund everything."

In general, that's true; we can't "fund everything." It's up to policymakers in a position of power to exercise good judgment and choose between competing priorities.

On the one hand, we have hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts that will benefit millionaires and billionaires, and all of which would be added to the deficit. Kline supports the cuts enthusiastically. America, apparently, "has the money."

On the other hand, we have 2.5 million Americans, all of whom are struggling badly, poised to lose jobless benefits. These benefits tend to have an impressive stimulative effect -- when the unemployed get a check, they spend it -- which improves the larger economy. Kline opposes the benefits, and voted against them yesterday. America, apparently, "doesn't have the money."

As Kline sees it, we need to get the economy "back on track." I agree wholeheartedly. But here's the follow-up Minnesota Public Radio didn't ask: when 2.5 million Americans lose their buying power and spend less money, how would that help the economy get "back on track"?

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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MSNBC said Friday that it is suspending "Morning Joe" co-host Joe Scarborough for two days after he acknowledged giving eight previously unknown $500 contributions to friends and family members running for state and local offices during his tenure at the network, a violation of parent NBC's ban on political contributions by employees without specific permission from the network president.

"I recognize that I have a responsibility to honor the guidelines and conditions of my employment, and I regret that I failed to do so in this matter," Scarborough said in a statement. "I apologize to MSNBC and to anyone who has been negatively affected by my actions," said, adding that after he was made aware of some of the contributions, he called MSNBC president Phil Griffin "and agreed with Phil's immediate demand of a two-day suspension without pay."

So, let me get this straight. MSNBC hired a former Republican congressman to host a show in which he freely shares his opinions, and endorses the GOP line on most issues. But if he makes fairly modest contributions to Republican candidates -- not in secret to the Chamber of Commerce, but fully disclosed, legal donations -- it warrants a suspension without pay?

Obviously, this comes on the heels of the recent Keith Olbermann controversy, and I have a hard time believing Scarborough would have faced this punishment if the "Countdown" host hadn't just faced the identical rebuke.

The point, though, is that the Olbermann suspension was a mistake. This is, too.

In fairness to MSNBC, the Scarborough matter may be slightly worse, not just because there were a few more donations, but because the "Morning Joe" host was asked by MSNBC president Phil Griffin about political activities, and Scarborough didn't disclose these contributions. Scarborough apparently forgot about them, and I'm not in a position to know whether it was an innocent lapse or a deliberate effort to deceive. (Since some of the donations go back a few years, I'm not inclined to give Scarborough the benefit of the doubt here.)

But really, either way, the punishment strikes me as unwarranted. Maybe it's time to revisit those network standards?

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE LESSONS LEARNED FROM 'LIGHTBULBGATE'.... House Republicans have not yet decided who'll chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but we're down to three finalists. The competition tells us quite a bit about the state of the GOP caucus.

A leading contender is currently the committee's ranking member, Texas' Joe Barton, best known for apologizing to BP for its oil spill and being Congress' most pro-pollution lawmaker. He'll fight for the gavel with Illinois' John Shimkus, who's made a name for himself by refuting science with his understanding of the Bible.

The third competitor is Michigan's Fred Upton, a conservative Republican, but a relative moderate by 2010 standards. He's facing far-right attacks this week over, of all things, light bulbs.

Hoping to counter attacks from his right, Rep. Fred Upton is promising to reexamine a controversial ban on incandescent light bulbs if he becomes chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Michigan Republican told POLITICO on Thursday that he's not afraid to go back after an issue he once supported but that has come under withering assault on the conservative airwaves, including on Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck's talk shows.

"If I become chairman, we'll be reexamining the light bulb issue, no problem," Upton said.

Upton's bid to be the next Energy and Commerce Committee leader has been rocked by allegations that he's too moderate for the post.

Beck called him "all socialist" for cosponsoring legislation phasing out incandescent light bulbs that made it into a 2007 energy law signed by President George W. Bush. An unsigned 22-page document highlighting Upton's voting record on a range of fiscal, social and policy has also been circulating around Capitol Hill this month.

Just so we're clear, one of the central issues for Republicans in the 21st century, when picking a lawmaker to chair a committee dealing with energy, is protection for a 19th-century-style light bulb.

For the record, Upton did some admirable work on this in 2007, putting in place a phase-out of the energy-inefficient incandescent bulbs. The provision was approved with bipartisan support, and the larger legislation was easily passed and signed by President Bush.

But that was 2007, and the party has moved even further to the right since. Now, in order to even be considered for a post, Upton not only has to endure attacks from the likes of Limbaugh and Beck, he also has to promise to revisit his sensible bill. Dave Weigel jokingly referred to this as "Lightbulbgate."

The lesson, apparently, for congressional Republicans: if you intend to get ahead on the Hill, never do anything the right-wing might not like.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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'RUSSIANS ARE MYSTIFIED'.... I find it genuinely insane that Senate Republicans would ignore U.S. national security interests and kill the pending arms control treaty with Russia, New START.

But imagine how Russia feels.

Russians are mystified. They can't quite believe that the U.S. Senate might fail to ratify the nuclear arms treaty, and they see no good from such an outcome.

The list of possible harmful effects they cite encompasses a minefield of global concerns: no more cooperation on Iran, a setback for progressive tendencies in Russia, new hurdles for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, a terrible example for nuclear countries such as China and India, dim prospects for better NATO relations. And to top it off, the United States and its president would look ridiculous.

Sergei M. Rogov, director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, told the Post he simply didn't believe Republicans would go through with this, unambiguous threats notwithstanding. "In arms control, Russian and American cooperation is crucial," Rogov said. "I really don't think Republicans want to kill arms control."

The problem, I suspect, is that much of the world assumes Republican officials in the United States place the country's well being above all else. International observers, in other words, believe elected American politicians want to do things that would benefit America. It's a simple matter of self-interest, which tends to motivate practically everyone in international affairs.

In this case, we're talking about a treaty that would keep tabs on Russia's long-range nuclear bases, bolster American credibility around the globe, weaken Iran and North Korea, improve Russian cooperation in Afghanistan, and diminish the political strength of hard-liners in Moscow. For Americans who want to help America, it's a no-brainer.

But Obama Derangement Syndrome doesn't just lead right-wing activists to believe ridiculous things, it's also a sickness that causes powerful Republican officials to put partisanship over patriotism.

Note that Senate Republicans who intend to kill New START can't even explain themselves. They're not holding out for some new concession; they don't have a list of demands; they haven't identified flaws in the measure they find intolerable. Their opposition is simply mindless. The White House needs the treaty to improve our national security, so Republicans are against it to deny the White House a victory.

No wonder Russians are "mystified." Since when do American leaders deliberately act against American interests? The world is watching Washington, assuming that President Obama can't convince Americans to do the right thing. But the problem isn't with the country; it's with a few dozen people in the Senate, whose partisan hatred has clouded their judgment in ways that are literally hard to believe.

In related news, we also learned this morning that the U.S. intelligence community will likely have to move spy satellites away from Iraq and Afghanistan, and towards Russia as a consequence of GOP obstinacy on New START.

It's tempting to think Republicans would hear this and want to prevent it. But that would presume that they actually care.

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

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

* Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) appears to have won re-election in Alaska, but Republican nominee Joe Miller has asked a federal judge for an injunction stopping state officials from certifying the election. It's not clear what more evidence Miller needs that he lost, and the state party has already urged him to stop fighting the results.

* Senate Democrats have struggled, to an almost embarrassing extent, to find a chair for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2012. In the latest push, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and White House officials are leaning hard on Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to accept the position.

* Two of the six unresolved U.S. House races are in New York, and in both cases, Democratic incumbents saw their vote totals inch higher yesterday. Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) picked up more than 500 votes, and now trails by 303 votes. Also, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) has gained more than 100 votes, and now trails by 272 votes.

* On a related note, Bishop discovered this week that his GOP challenger, Randy Altschuler, is trying to disqualify the votes of the congressman's 86-year-old parents. Classy.

* Sen. James Webb (D) would be quite competitive if he seeks re-election, but if he retires, who would Dems turn to? Former governor and current DNC chair Tim Kaine would probably be the top choice, but keep an eye on recently-defeated Rep. Tom Perriello.

* And Vice President Biden appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning, where the hosts showed him a clip of former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) telling Barbara Waters she thinks she could beat President Obama in 2012. Biden literally laughed, before telling the hosts he should say no more.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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NORQUIST THINKS THE GOP WILL WIN FROM ANOTHER SHUTDOWN.... In August, sleazy GOP consultant Dick Morris told a far-right group that in the next Congress, Republicans should do exactly as Gingrich/Dole did 15 years ago, but this time it'll work out better.

"There's going to be a government shutdown, just like in '95 and '96 but we're going to win it this time and I'll be fightin' on your side," Morris boasted.

Grover Norquist is giving his party the same advice.

The head of the influential Americans for Tax Reform is encouraging the new House Republican majority to adopt a take-no-prisoners approach to federal spending -- and if that leads to a 1995-style government shutdown, so be it.

Midterm voters "were voting to stop the Obama spendathon, and that's what people were sent to Washington to do," Norquist said in an interview.

These guys seriously believe that the public would credit Republicans for shutting down the government. Some even think Republicans ended up benefiting from the '95 and '96 efforts.

Going forward, there are two main angles to keep an eye on. The first is whether Republican leaders are crazy enough to think this is a good idea. There's some evidence that GOP officials consider the Gingrich shutdowns to be a mistake -- one they don't intend to repeat. Just this week, Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said shutting down the government would be "a mistake," adding, "Nobody really wants that." Similarly, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was recently asked if we're likely to see a replay of 1995. "No. I don't think the country needs or wants a shutdown," Cantor said. He added that when it comes to pursuing their agenda, Republicans "have to be careful" or they'll be "seen as a bunch of yahoos."

The other is whether Republican leaders are going to have much of a choice. The party has told its base that it will not compromise on anything with anyone. It has a legion of freshman joining the ranks on the Hill, and nearly all are rabid right-wing ideologues, who expect Boehner, Cantor, et al, to wage a fierce, partisan war.

Politico noted that Boehner was a Gingrich loyalist in '95, and "people close to him today say he has scant interest in reliving that fight."

Whether the incoming Speaker has the ability to lead his caucus away from that cliff remains to be seen. Norquist and his ilk will surely be making ridiculous demands, and making of the rank-and-file members of the caucus will find those calls compelling.

I hope Republican leaders like the monster they created.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE WRONG QUESTION AT THE WRONG TIME.... CBS News sent around a press release yesterday afternoon about a special "In Focus: Debt and Deficit," hosted by Katie Couric.

The release noted, "With this year's record-breaking deficit of $1.5 trillion -- the biggest ever in U.S. history -- and the national debt reaching a whopping $14 trillion, Americans are now faced with making tough choices in order for the country to dig itself out of its national financial mess."

The press release happened to be wrong. The deficit isn't $1.5 trillion; it's $1.29 trillion. The deficit also isn't "the biggest ever in U.S. history," neither in real terms nor in percentage of GDP. The national debt hasn't reached a "whopping $14 trillion" yet, either. All of these errors were in the first paragraph.

But while the mistakes were glaring and important, I was more troubled by the basis of the report itself. The deficit matters, but not nearly as much as the ongoing employment crisis. Where's our "In Focus: Jobs and Economic Growth"?

The media/political establishment keeps asking the wrong question. Even Fareed Zakaria has fallen for it, arguing this week that "the fate" of the United States is dependent on policymakers tackling deficit reduction.

The establishment tends to ignore liberal hippies on this, but maybe they'll listen to Time's Joe Klein, an establishment member in good standing, who asks this week, "Why are we spending so much time and effort bloviating about long-term deficits and so little trying to untangle the immediate economic mess that we're in?"

Ezra Klein emphasized a similar point the other day.

This is partly why I consider the cramped focus of the deficit commission a mistake. We should've had a broader commission looking at getting the economy back on track. Then there could've been recommendations to accelerate short-term growth (like the stimulus proposals that have appeared in the fiscal plans from both Rep. Jan Schakowsky and the Bipartisan Policy Center), reduce the deficit and put us on sustainable long-term footing (think tax reform, education reform, basic-research funding, etc).

It may not have worked, or passed. But then, you can say much the same for the Simpson-Bowles commission, which looks unlikely to report out a consensus proposal, much less pass it through Congress. And the reality is that liberals would be more likely to sign on to long-term austerity if it were paired with short-term stimulus.

Poll after poll lately has shown the same, consistent result: the public wants policymakers to focus on jobs and the economy, not deficits and the debt.

The conversation seems to have gotten wildly off track in Washington, and it's not getting better. Republicans' first post-election priority yesterday was going after NPR and opposing unemployment aid that boosts the economy. Going forward, the emboldened GOP wants to gut health care, cut spending, and protect a failed tax policy -- but creating jobs isn't part of the gameplan.

It'll be up to President Obama and congressional Dems to try to get the political world focused again.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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WHEN DOES EUROPE COUNT?.... There are a growing number of deficit-reduction reports garnering attention in D.C. lately, but the Rivlin/Domenici approach is of particular interest when it comes to taxes.

Former OMB Director Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) would lower income taxes, and offset the costs with a 6.5% national sales tax and an excise tax on sugar drinks like soda.

Any chance Republicans might consider something along these lines? Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told the Wall Street Journal there's a problem with this kind of approach.

[Cantor] said Tuesday that many lawmakers wouldn't support VAT-type tax because its ties to Europe might make it politically poisonous in Washington.

"I don't think any of us want us to go the direction of the social welfare states around the world," Mr. Cantor said at the CEO Council.

This is what passes for substantive policy analysis from Eric Cantor. We could debate the relative merits of a consumption tax, or we could dismiss it for sounding "European."

It would be helpful if, at some point, Republicans could get together and let everyone know when Europe is allowed to be considered. This week, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said he doesn't want to ratify a nuclear arms treaty until he's satisfied that Europe approves of it. Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) said last week that quantitative easing from the Fed must be a bad idea if Europe doesn't like it. For News president Roger Ailes said this week that President Obama should take his cues on monetary policy from Europe.

So, Republicans, what's it going to be? Are European approaches to be ignored or embraced? Mixed messages aren't helpful.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... We talked yesterday about the ways in which the Republican tax policy of the Bush era clearly didn't work. While GOP leaders insisted that the massive tax cuts, geared towards the wealthy, would create jobs, generate robust growth, and balance the budget, none of those predictions came true. They actually had it backwards.

Oddly enough, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), currently the House Republican conference chairman, suggested yesterday that he doesn't think his party's tax policies worked, either.

"Jim DeMint and I are offering legislation on Capitol Hill today to say, look, let's make all the current tax rates permanent, uh, and then let's start to work from there toward putting in place the kind of policies that'll really get this economy moving again. You know, I think it's fair to say, if the current tax rates were enough to create jobs and generate economic growth we'd have a growing economy. It's not working now. Let's at least give some certainty there and then we'll fight for more tax relief."

Those who watch Pence regularly know he's not the sharpest crayon in the box, but this quote is pretty amazing, even for him.

Pence thought Bush's tax cuts would work wonders. He was wrong. This leads Pence to now believe we should keep the policy that he knows didn't work, and then do more of it. It's the patented "fail and fail again" approach to economic policy.

The 112th Congress really is going to be a national nightmare.

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

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BOEHNER WANTS CONGRESS TO TACKLE DEBT LIMIT 'AS ADULTS'.... During the campaign season leading up to the midterms, Republicans reveled in using the federal debt ceiling for partisan demagoguery.

But now the elections are behind us, and GOP leaders realize their new majority is going to have to swallow hard and approve the same kind of debt limit extension they bashed Democrats for passing.

Many of the new Republican lawmakers harshly criticized their Democratic opponents during the campaign for voting to raise the limit in the past, citing it as an example of the Democrats' recklessness with federal tax dollars.

But on Thursday, Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) said he's been talking to the newly elected GOP lawmakers about the need to raise the federal debt ceiling when it comes up early next year.

"I've made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it's pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with this," Mr. Boehner, who is slated to become House speaker in January, told reporters.

"We're going to have to deal with it as adults," he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."

Oh, now Boehner wants Republicans to be mature? What convenient timing.

To be sure, Congress doesn't have much of a choice here. If lawmakers balk and refuse to raise the debt limit, the United States goes into default, signaling to the world that the country isn't in a position to repay its debts. U.S. treasuries, considered the safest investment on the planet, would no longer have the backing of the full faith and credit of the United States. The result is a government shutdown -- and a whole lot more.

But the new House GOP majority has been told not to care. For months, if not years, Republicans have stoked these fires, convincing the party's candidates and its base that routine extensions of the debt ceiling are downright evil.

Maybe they should have thought this through a little better, appreciating the fact that mindless demagoguery often comes with consequences.

As for what to expect next, there are multiple angles to keep an eye on. First, Boehner & Co. will try to convince rabid, right-wing freshman to be responsible on this, which will be a tough sell. Second, watch for some leading Republicans to try to strike some bizarre deals -- Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), a member of the leadership, has suggested Republicans will extend the debt limit if the White House agrees to a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act. That's both insane and unrealistic, but the push will happen anyway.

And third, pay careful attention to how House Dems handle this. Democrats won't be in any hurry to help Boehner out, since it was Republicans who used this as a campaign cudgel throughout 2010. Indeed, Boehner may assume that getting to 218 shouldn't be too difficult -- if the 190 (or so) House Democrats are prepared to do the responsible thing, the GOP leadership will only need a small fraction of the Republican caucus to get this done.

But there's no way on earth Pelosi and the Dems go along with such a scheme. Even if an extension is endorsed by Republican leaders, Democrats aren't about to open themselves up to another round of attacks on this issue. It seems quite likely, then, that Pelosi will have a direct message for her GOP counterpart: you made this bed, so you'll have to lie in it - to avoid a global catastrophe, find the votes on your side of the aisle.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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REID'S TAX STRATEGY TAKES SHAPE.... Yesterday, House Democrats signaled their support for a lame-duck tax strategy: vote on the middle-class-first policy originally proposed by President Obama. But what about the Senate? We're starting to get a sense of what the leadership has in mind there, too.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has adopted a hardball strategy for dealing with Republicans on the expiring Bush-era tax cuts.

Reid will force a vote on extending tax cuts for families earning below $250,000 and individuals below $200,000 that would allow tax rates on the wealthy to expire. But it's not clear whether that vote will be on a permanent or temporary extension because of a split in the Democratic caucus, a notable change since the election.

Senate Republicans, of course, want their policy -- a permanent extension of all Bush-era rates -- to be brought to the floor for consideration. Reid, confident it wouldn't pass, is happy to hold just a vote. But the Democratic leadership would then also hold votes on Democratic alternatives, focused more on permanent breaks for the middle class, not the wealthy.

"We want an opportunity and -- and we mean plural -- to vote once, twice, whatever it takes to show the American people that we support the middle class," Reid told reporters late yesterday. He added there could be "multiple variations" on how to proceed on the cuts for wealthier Americans, presumably including temporary extensions.

For Reid and Democrats, part of the goal is to get Senate Republicans on record trying to kill a permanent extension of middle-class tax cuts. At this point, that seems pretty likely.

But one major unknown hangs over all of this: what will senators do if/when all of these plans come up short? As has been the case, this is easier in the House -- for a few more weeks, the Democratic majority may be large enough to push the smart middle-class-first plan and pass it. In the Senate, however, Dems are already less united around a single approach -- about a half-dozen Democrats are on board with the Republicans' "compromise" of extending all of the cuts temporarily -- which makes it that much more difficult to pass a Democratic plan.

Looking ahead, then, the most likely scenario is that Reid will bring up the GOP plan, and it'll fail, at which point Reid will bring up the Democratic plan (the one favored by the House), and it'll fail, too.

What's Plan B? No one seems to have the foggiest idea.

All of this is poised to come up the week after Thanksgiving.

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

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November 18, 2010

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

* The first step is admitting you have a problem: "Irish officials acknowledged for the first time Thursday that Ireland was seeking aid from international lenders to try to end the debt crisis stemming from the country's failed banks that has hurt confidence in its long-term finances and renewed doubts about the stability of the euro."

* A slight uptick, but in line with expectations: "New U.S. claims for unemployment benefits rose slightly last week as expected, a government report showed on Thursday, but the underlying trend remained tilted toward a gradual improvement in the labor market."

* Congressional Republicans just don't like the unemployed: "An extension of jobless benefits enacted this summer expires Dec. 1, and on Thursday, a bill to extend them for three months failed in the House. Democrats brought the bill to the floor under fast-track rules that required a two-thirds vote to pass. Republicans opposed the legislation because they were denied a chance to attach spending cuts, so the measure fell despite winning a 258-154 majority."

* The House Ethics Committee has recommended censure for Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).

* The first post-election Republican measure in the House was a proposal to de-fund NPR. It failed.

* Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), to his enormous credit, is showing some passion in urging the Senate to ratify New START. He's talking, of course, to members of his own caucus. The White House, meanwhile, is getting more involved with each passing day.

* Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf wants a second term. He deserves one, but House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) may block Elmendorf because he's published budget reports that Republicans didn't find helpful. Remember, GOP officials only want to hear evidence they already agree with.

* Remember that Rand Paul supporter who stomped on a defenseless woman's head? He's pleading not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge.

* Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) suggests a message for Democrats: "Americans do not negotiate with hostage-takers." That seems like a reasonable maxim. (Republicans, I think he's talking about you.) [Update: Link fixed.)

* The Heritage Foundation's opposition to funding the Pell Grant program really doesn't make any sense.

* The things Fox News pundits say about Sarah Palin are a lot more interesting during commercial breaks, when they think no one's listening.

* And in Arkansas, a new Republican state lawmaker and champion of the Confederate Battle Flag, was asked this week what that flag means to him. "It's a symbol of Jesus Christ above all else," Loy Mauch said. "It's a symbol of Biblical government." I think he was serious.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE MIDDLE-CLASS-FIRST PLAN DOESN'T LEAVE OUT THE WEALTHY.... Following up on the last item, I described the middle-class-first tax plan as a proposal that would give permanent cuts to those making less than $250,000, but bring the wealthy back to Clinton-era rates. An emailer reminds me that this shorthand description isn't quite detailed enough.


It's a fair point, so let's be more precise. Under the proposal that Greg Sargent reports is under consideration, House Democrats would hold a vote on the same plan President Obama has pushed for years. The rates that are due to expire, by Republican design, at year's end would be extended permanently for those making under $250,000. The top rates for the wealthy would return to Clinton-era rates, but that's all that would go up -- these folks would still get tax breaks on their first quarter-million in income.

This chart, published by the Washington Post back in August, continues to be the best illustration I've seen on who would benefit by the competing plans in 2011. The columns show the size of the tax break by income level, and you'll no doubt notice that both the Democratic and Republican approaches would give breaks to every income group. The difference, of course, is with which groups get the biggest break.

The column on the left shows what I've been calling the middle-class-first approach -- everyone gets a tax cut, but the benefits are spread out, with a focus on the middle. The column on the right shows the Republican alternative -- a permanent extension of Bush's failed policy -- which clearly directs the bulk of money to the very wealthy.

The right insists that the column on the left isn't good enough, because it doesn't do enough to help the rich. Indeed, some have even suggested the middle-class-first plan is a "tax hike," despite the fact that everyone would actually get a tax cut.

It should set up a compelling political fight (which would have been smarter before the election): Dems fighting for the middle class, while Republicans fight for the rich. Indeed, Dems fighting for permanent middle-class tax cuts, which also help the wealthy, while Republicans hold the whole package hostage until the rich get more.

It's not every day the two parties' approaches to government get spelled out so clearly.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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HOUSE DEMS SIGNAL SUPPORT FOR SMART TAX POLICY.... I'm reluctant to get my hopes up, because something will almost certainly come along to screw this up, but Greg Sargent reports that House Democrats will hold a vote on the middle-class-first tax breaks many of us have recommended.

Steny Hoyer, the number two in the House Dem leadership, told Democrats at a caucus meeting this morning that they would get to vote this year on just extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, a senior Dem aide tells me, signaling support for a confrontational move towards the GOP that liberals have been pushing.

Asked if Democrats would definitely get a chance to hold this vote, the senior aide responded: "Definitely."

Hoyer's declaration comes as Democrats have been debating the way forward on the Bush tax cuts, and another aide tells me that "more than half" of the Dem caucus supports this course of action.

Assuming the aide is right, and this smart approach is garnering caucus support, there are any number of things that can still go wrong. First, there's the question whether House Dems will really stick to their guns, even after Republicans push an awkward "motion to recommit." We haven't even heard an endorsement of this approach from anyone in the leadership.

Second, there's the Senate, where a grand total of two members (Wyden and Feinstein) have expressed public support for the middle-class-first approach. Third, there's the White House, which hasn't necessarily signaled its support for any one alternative, waiting to see how this shakes out.

Having said all that, Greg's report suggests Dems are at least moving in a smart direction.

To briefly recap for those just joining us, Democrats are committed to a permanent tax break for the middle class. Republicans have said this is simply out of the question unless Dems agree to help millionaires and billionaires at the same time.

The resulting strategy should be pretty easy. The approach originally backed by President Obama remains the best one: permanent breaks for those making under $250,000, Clinton-era rates for the wealthy. Dems can and should bring this package of middle-class tax cuts to the floor and dare Republicans to kill them. If the GOP caves, Dems get the policy they want. If the GOP kills the whole thing, Clinton-era rates return for everyone, which is probably the policy Dems should want anyway, and the headlines read, "Republicans kill tax cut compromise; higher rates kick in Jan. 1."

Democrats have been on the defensive for no apparent reason. The middle-class-first option gives them a chance to get off the ropes and put the GOP on the defensive.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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DESTROYING PELOSI'S REPUTATION: A CASE STUDY.... The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked respondents whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of various political figures and parties. President Obama continues to have the highest positive ratings, and Democrats continue to enjoy more popularity than Republicans.

But it's the ratings for congressional leaders that stand out. The leader with the very lowest positive ratings is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- only 11% have a favorable view -- but that's only because most Americans have no idea who he is. Among the recognized figures, it's outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who fares the worst -- 24% have a favorable opinion of her, but literally twice as many, 48%, hold her in low regard.

This is in keeping with what Nate Silver's analysis found yesterday. In terms of favorability ratings, the American political figures with the highest positives are Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Al Gore, in that order. The figure with the highest negative is Pelosi.

After going through the available data, Silver concluded the current House Speaker is "among the least popular politicians in America today -- perhaps the single least popular one that maintains an active political role."

A party leader's principal goal isn't necessarily to be popular, and Ms. Pelosi was exceptionally successful at advancing legislation through the House in 2009 and 2010, whipping votes to pass a stimulus package, an energy bill, and a health care bill (twice!), among many other pieces of the Democratic agenda.

Still, the role of the party leader changes when a party goes from being in the majority to the minority. And it noteworthy that, of the several reasons that Jonathan Allen and John F. Harris at Politico cite for why Ms. Pelosi is likely to retain her top position in spite of her poor public image, almost none have to do with any tactical or strategic advantage the Democrats might gain from selecting her; instead, they have to do with institutional politics.

I don't mention this to bash Pelosi. On the contrary, I've long considered myself a great admirer of the Speaker.

Rather, I mention this as something of a case study. When Republicans decided they'd try to destroy Pelosi's reputation in 2008, I scoffed. The vast majority of voters didn't necessarily know who Pelosi was or what she stood for, so the crusade to tear down her name seemed like a waste of time. If people don't know who Pelosi is, why invest resources in attacking her?

But Republicans have a knack for not accepting political circumstances as they are, but rather, using blunt force to create new political circumstances more to their liking. The GOP and its allies stuck with their anti-Pelosi campaign, directing as much fire at her as anyone, including President Obama. They set out to destroy her reputation, using "Pelosi" as a synonym for "radical liberalism," and in time their efforts paid off. Today, the House Speaker is poised to depart her post very unpopular, not because of any scandals, misjudgments, or mistakes, but because of a coordinated effort to convince the country Pelosi offends their values.

It's almost impressive as a p.r. strategy -- and by "impressive," I mean that in the same sense that it's also impressive that tobacco companies manage to convince teenagers to smoke.

This can also serve as a reminder to Democrats. There was about a month in which Dems decided they'd try to make John Boehner something of a villain. It didn't really go far, and most Americans still don't know who he is. The point, though, is that it takes time and determination to sully a leader's reputation in Americans' eyes. Republicans were patient when it came to turning Pelosi into a monster; are Dems prepared to take their time with the new Speaker?

Steve Benen 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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IRAN, NORTH KOREA, AND THE GOP CAUCUS ROOM.... Richard Burt was the chief U.S. negotiator for the START-1 treaty with the former Soviet Union in 1991, and appeared on PBS's "Newshour" last night to talk about the pending arms control treaty with Russia, New START. His perspective is worth paying attention to. (via Matt Duss)

"[I]n thinking about the problem of ratification or non-ratification, we have to look at the consequences of what happens if this treaty goes down. We lose the verification system that has already lapsed under the treaty that I negotiated. We miss the opportunity to improve relations with the Russians, who have supported us on Iran, and U.N. sanctions, and increasingly in Afghanistan. And we lose all credibility on the problem of stopping nuclear proliferation.

"...[T]here are only two governments in the world that wouldn't like to see this treaty ratified: the government in Tehran and the government in North Korea."

That's not hyperbole. If one were to visualize international affairs as a series of axes, we'd see Iran and North Korea together, hoping to see the ratification fail. And as it turns out, much of the Senate Republican caucus is on the same side, though they're obviously driven by very different motivations.

And not just current Senate Republicans, either. As if proponents needed a reminder as to why time is of the essence, all 10 incoming freshman Republican senators wrote a joint letter today, urging their future colleagues not to ratify the treaty in the lame-duck session.

Sure. Of course. Republican games are only delaying inspection of Russia's long-range nuclear bases and making things easier on Ahmadinejad. Why rush?

As for what's next, Slate's Fred Kaplan believes New START ratification is still possible, and presents some worthwhile ideas to make it happen.

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

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A FINE TIME FOR A VICTORY LAP.... General Motors launched a successful IPO this morning, marking not only the end of the government's role as a majority shareholder, but also one of the great, contemporary corporate success stories, thanks entirely to a well-executed public-private partnership.

It was a partnership that Republicans and leading conservative voices insisted would fail. Newsweek ran an item yesterday, noting the plain fact that the right was wrong.

What could have happened is that today, General Motors would be in the 15th month of its bankruptcy, no end in sight, with consumers shying away from its products and tens of thousands of automobile industry workers either laid off or despairing for their futures.

Instead we have an IPO that is the talk of Wall Street, loans being repaid with stock sale proceeds, an auto company that makes money at the bottom of a cycle and new products that are widely applauded.

So it's a simple call. The Tea Party ... simply got it wrong.

Yes, they did, as did their Republican friends in Congress and in the media, many of whom literally predicted "disaster."

But what's especially astounding here is that the right continues to resist reality. Those who were wrong not only won't admit, they continue to insist they were right, their lying eyes notwithstanding. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) condemned Obama's rescue of the automotive industry two weeks ago, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) did the same thing this morning.

Why conservatives insist on whining about an American success story is beyond me. Conservative predictions were plainly wrong. Leaner, stronger auto manufacturers are seeing their profits grow, and they're creating jobs again, all while paying back taxpayers.

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Edmunds.com, said this week that opposition to the rescue "sounds great on principle," but we now know it was necessary. "The failure of GM would have had a domino effect," Krebs said. "It would have crippled the supplier base and all of the other manufacturers who build here would also have been hurt or shut down."

And yet, even now, the right thinks the president made the wrong call. It's a striking reminder of the failure of conservative ideology -- even when presented with evidence of a program that constitutes an "unqualified success," the right can't admit it worked, because the initiative runs counter to their ideological demands.

It's almost sad to see an entire school of political thought reach this level of intellectual bankruptcy.

For his part, President Obama noted this morning that GM's stock offering "marks a major milestone in the turnaround of not just an iconic company but the entire American auto industry.... Supporting the American auto industry required tough decisions and shared sacrifices, but it helped save jobs, rescue an industry at the heart of America's manufacturing sector, and make it more competitive for the future."

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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AILES SPEAKS.... Roger Ailes spent years as a Republican operative before becoming president of Fox News, which when you think about it, is largely the same thing. But for all of Ailes' influence, he doesn't do a lot of interviews himself, letting his Republican hosts get his message out.

It was interesting, then, to see Ailes speak freely with the Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz. Yesterday, that meant trashing President Obama. In today's report, it meant going after those in media Ailes disapproves of.

For example, Ailes lashed out at Jon Stewart, saying "The Daily Show" host "openly admits he's sort of an atheist and a socialist."

"He hates conservative views. He hates conservative thoughts. He hates conservative verbiage. He hates conservatives."

There was more. "He's crazy. If it wasn't polarized, he couldn't make a living. He makes a living by attacking conservatives and stirring up a liberal base against it."

I tried to interrupt.

"He loves polarization. He depends on it. If liberals and conservatives are all getting along, how good would that show be? It'd be a bomb."

Hmm. Stewart is "crazy" and relies on "polarization"? Isn't that what's popularly known as "projection"?

But Ailes saves his real vitriol for the executives at NPR.

"They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don't want any other point of view. They don't even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda."

There's a lot of madness in those 40 words, but I'd note that using "Nazi" isn't just a slip of the tongue when one uses it three times. I'd also note that, every time I turn on NPR, the "point of view" tends to be that of one of its many Republican guests.

As for Ailes' concerns about "propaganda," the irony is rich.

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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DON'T REPEAT FAILURE AND EXPECT SUCCESS.... When Republican policymakers slashed taxes early in George W. Bush's first term, they had high hopes about what the policy would achieve. Americans were told, for example, that these tax cuts would create millions of jobs, keep a balanced budget, and generate robust economic growth.

As this tax policy gets ready to expire next month, it's worth noting that the Republican plan failed rather spectacularly. On job creation, Bush's record was the worst since the Great Depression. On balancing the budget, Bush racked up the biggest deficits ever, and added $5 trillion to the debt, en route to being labeled "the most fiscally irresponsible president in the history of the republic" by his comptroller general.

But what about economic growth? Did the Republican tax policy generate the robust economy Bush promised? David Leonhardt, responding to a Fox News item, sets the record straight.

Those tax cuts passed in 2001 amid big promises about what they would do for the economy. What followed? The decade with the slowest average annual growth since World War II. Amazingly, that statement is true even if you forget about the Great Recession and simply look at 2001-7.

The competition for slowest growth is not even close, either. Growth from 2001 to 2007 averaged 2.39 percent a year (and growth from 2001 through the third quarter of 2010 averaged 1.66 percent). The decade with the second-worst showing for growth was 1971 to 1980 -- the dreaded 1970s -- but it still had 3.21 percent average growth.

The picture does not change if you instead look at five-year periods.

This isn't a subjective question open to debate; we tried a policy and we can evaluate its results. In this case, Republicans said Bush's tax policy would produce wonders for the economy, and they got exactly what they wanted. We now know, however, that the policy didn't generate robust growth, didn't create millions of new jobs, didn't spur entrepreneurship and innovation, and certainly didn't keep a balanced budget.

And now, as the failed tax policy is set to expire, what's the new Republican message? That this policy must be extended at all costs, and anyone who disagrees is putting the economy at risk.

They not only say this with a straight face, the argument in support of a policy we already know didn't work manages to scare a whole lot of Dems.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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

* After Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) declared victory in Alaska last night, the Republican Party of Alaska issued a statement calling on their nominee, Joe Miller, to "respect the will of the voters and end his campaign in a dignified manner."

* Miller, at this point, appears to have other plans. The Republican extremist has not conceded, and told Fox News last night that he has concerns about the vote-counting process in Alaska. Miller has not ruled out calling for a statewide hand recount.

* RNC Chairman Michael Steele still hopes to win another term, but some powerful Republican players continue to work to prevent it. Yesterday, Govs. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) and Rick Perry (R-Texas) -- the outgoing and income chairmen of the Republican Governors Association -- both called for Steele to be replaced.

* Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will have to run for a full term in just two years, and Republicans still hope to convince Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) to run against him. Capito, who considered the 2010 race over the summer before deciding to seek re-election to the House, said yesterday of the 2012 Senate race, "I'm not ruling it out by any stretch."

* Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who announced this week that he'll seek another term in 2012, remains the most popular political figure in Indiana. Whether that's enough for him to avoid a right-wing primary challenger remains to be seen.

* Freshmen congressional lawmakers won't actually cast votes until next year, but they're already trying to raise money, some to retire campaign debts, some in preparation for the next election.

* And there was some debate recently about whether former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) intended to run for president in 2012, and I was in the "of course she's running" camp. As of yesterday, it looks like my side was correct.

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

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HOW TO BE A BAD SENATOR.... A month ago, the Obama administration lifted the moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which at a minimum, should have meant that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) would finally lift her ridiculous hold on Jack Lew's OMB nomination.

Lew was poised to be confirmed easily as White House Office of Management and Budget's new director, but Landrieu intervened, blocking the nomination until the drilling moratorium was overturned. What do Lew and the OMB have to do with drilling? Nothing. She was looking for a hostage, and he was a convenient choice.

More than a month later, the center-right Louisianan, still inclined to put the oil industry's needs above all else, still can't bring herself to do the responsible thing.

"My position is unchanged," Landrieu, of Louisiana, told reporters on a conference call. "I'm very sympathetic to the administration's position. I understand how difficult it is to go without a point person for the budget."

Landrieu said she would consider lifting her block on Lew when a "clear path forward" is made for issuing permits for deepwater drilling in the Gulf.

"When that happens, I'll consider releasing my hold," she said.

Landrieu first demanded that the moratorium be lifted, and it was. But now she won't release her hostage until she's satisfied with the rate at which drilling permits are released -- at which point she'll "consider" letting the government function again as it should.

Keep in mind, Landrieu doesn't object to Jack Lew. On the contrary, she's described him as an "outstanding" choice to head the OMB, and would be more than happy to vote for his confirmation -- just as soon as the oil industry seems fully satisfied. Until then, she just doesn't care about the consequences.

In this case, those consequences aren't just minor inconveniences. The Office of Management and Budget is poised to start writing the 2012 budget, and it needs a budget director. But there is no budget director, because Mary Landrieu, in a move that's been fairly described as "both absurd and irresponsible," has decided her demands are more important the administration's ability to govern.

Landrieu's reckless stunt is an embarrassment to the institution, and makes the need for Senate reform even more painfully obvious.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BELIEVING WHAT THEY'RE TOLD TO BELIEVE.... A new report this week from the Pew Research Center shows what we probably could have guessed: conservatives in America reject evidence of global warming. But Pew study also raises an important related point: it didn't use to be this way.

Pew found that a 53% majority of self-identified Republicans believe there is no solid evidence the earth is warming. Among "Tea Party" Republicans, the results were even worse, with 70% concluding that the climate science is wrong. This isn't exactly surprising.

But reader H.S. flagged a key detail about the trend in attitudes:

Disbelief in global warming in the GOP is a recent occurrence. Just a few years ago, in 2007, a 62%-majority of Republicans said there is solid evidence of global warming, while less than a third (31%) said there is no solid evidence. Currently, just 38% of Republicans say there is solid evidence the earth is warming, and only 16% say that warming is caused by human activity. In 2007, three-in-ten Republicans said global warming was the result of human activity.

The national trend is discouraging enough. As recently as July 2006, a whopping 79% of the country believed there's solid evidence pointing to global warming. Four years later, as the evidence has grown stronger, Americans' beliefs have grown weaker -- now only 59% believe there's solid evidence.

But the trend is largely a partisan one -- fewer Americans accept the science because the right has rejected reality so thoroughly.

The larger point to keep in mind is the effect of the discourse. A few years ago, Republican voters, by and large, believed what the mainstream believed when it came to climate science. Then their party, its candidates, and its media outlets told these voters to stop believing the facts -- and rank-and-file Republicans did as they were told. In effect, partisans on the right outsourced their evaluation of evidence to their party, and Republicans decided climate science is no longer worthy of support.

This happens more than it should. If I had to guess, if you asked regular ol' Republican voters several years ago whether the United States should engage in torture, they probably would have said no. But then their party told them to change their mind, and they did. If you asked these GOP voters whether a health care mandate, in line with Republican proposals, was a reasonable policy, they probably would have said yes. But then their party told them to change their mind, and they did.

This really isn't healthy.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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THE MOST PROLIFIC AUTHOR OF OUR TIME.... An interesting press release made the rounds yesterday, announcing the upcoming release of a new book called, "Seven Wonders That Will Change Your Life."

Glenn Beck and Dr. Keith Ablow -- two of the most popular and influential personalities in American media today -- have joined forces to present a powerful guide to personal transformation and fulfillment that is as unique as their own unlikely partnership. They are called the "7 Wonders" and they can be used by anyone who has made the decision that they are ready to change their life. [...]

Where does the courage to persevere come from when everything seems hopeless? Why is it nearly impossible to succeed with faith? How much do family and friendships matter in our journey? How do we break down our walls and reveal our inner truths? What does having compassion really mean? How do you tell real friends apart from those who are holding you back? If there's no one to blame for my past, what do you do with your anger and resentment?

Some of those wonders don't sound especially wondrous, but I suppose that doesn't much matter -- someone willing to drop $24.99 on a Glenn Beck self-help book probably has some deeper issues anyway.

What struck me as noteworthy, though, is Beck's remarkable ability to churn out books for his minions to buy.

It started in late 2007, with "An Inconvenient Book." A year later, Beck released a Christmas book. He released his next book in June 2009, and then another in September 2009. He released an audio book in May 2009, and another audio book in February 2010. Late last year, Beck even released a photo-companion book to his Christmas book.

His novel was published in June, which was followed by "Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure" in October. This "Seven Wonders" self-help book comes out in January.

In the 20 months spanning May 2009 to January 2011, Beck will have published five print books, a photo book, and two audio books.

For a guy who seems to read at a third-grade level -- remember, he thinks the word "OLIGARH" is missing a "y" -- Beck may very well be America's most prolific author.

By some estimates, Beck takes in as much as $32 million a year. Does he really need to exploit his followers so shamelessly? I guess so.

Steve M's recent assessment continues to ring true: "So now we see what Glenn Beck really is: He's basically a televangelist. A huckster. A late-night pitchman selling seminars and book/DVD/audio combo packages that will allegedly help you get rich through flipping real estate. A human-potential-movement cult leader who promises life breakthroughs in exchange for participation in costly 'religious' or 'therapy' programs."

Update: In case there's any confusion about this, of course I don't think Beck actually wrote any of these books. When I describe as an "author," I'm kidding. The guy can barely spell, better yet write six books in a year and a half.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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ABOUT THAT GHAILANI VERDICT.... Ahmed Ghailani, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, was convicted yesterday in a federal criminal court on terrorist conspiracy charges. That, however, is a small part of a much larger story.

Ghailani was actually facing 284 other counts of terrorism-related charges, but a civilian jury acquitted him on all of those other charges. The defendant could be sentenced to life in prison for the conviction, but Ghailani being cleared of 284 out of 285 charges is likely to have a considerable political impact.

Specifically, the Obama administration has argued, accurately, that trying Guantanamo detainees in U.S. civilian courts is the appropriate course. Conservatives, and some scared Democrats, have said convictions are more difficult in American courts, and prefer military commissions.

And given yesterday's outcome, the right is back to having a field day.

"This is a tragic wake-up call to the Obama Administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantanamo terrorists" in federal civilian courts, said Representative Peter King, Republican of New York. "We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantánamo." [...]

Several other soon-to-be-powerful Republican lawmakers -- including Lamar Smith of Texas, in the incoming Judiciary Committee chairman -- made similar statements denouncing the use of civilian courts to prosecute terrorism cases.

Now, the obvious response is to note that Republicans' case is unpersuasive. Not only was Ghailani convicted of a charge that will likely lead to life behind bars, but the track record with military commissions is pretty awful. As Colin Powell noted earlier this year, "In eight years the military commissions have put three people on trial. Two of them served relatively short sentences and are free. One guy is in jail. Meanwhile, the federal courts -- our Article III, regular legal court system -- has put dozens of terrorists in jail and they're fully capable of doing it."

But we can go even further here. Note, for example, what a senior administration official told ABC's Jake Tapper.

"He was convicted by a jury of a count which carries a 20-year minimum sentence," the official says. "He will very likely be sentenced to something closer to life. (The judge can, and very likely will, take into account things that the jury did not, and he can and will consider conduct that the jury found him not guilty of -- e.g., murder). He will never be paroled (there is no parole in the federal system). There are very few federal crimes that carry a mandatory MINIMUM of 20 years. What that means is that he was convicted of a crime that is a very big deal."

"So, we tried a guy (who the Bush Admin tortured and then held at GTMO for 4-plus years with no end game whatsoever) in a federal court before a NY jury with full transparency and international legitimacy and -- despite all of the legacy problems of the case (i.e., evidence getting thrown out because of Bush-Admin torture, etc,) we were STILL able to convict him and INCAPACITATE him for essentially the rest of his natural life, AND there was not one -- not one -- security problem associated with the trial."

"Would it have been better optically if he had been convicted of more counts? Sure. Would it have made any practical difference? No."

You can expect Republicans to take the offensive on this today. You can also expect their arguments to be entirely wrong.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE SUDDENLY-UNPOPULAR APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE.... For years, members of the House, from both parties, desperately wanted to be assigned to the Appropriations Committee. And why not? It was the panel that allowed members to steer funds to their districts, which tended to make them pretty popular back home.

But as the 112th Congress takes shape, it appears no one's anxious to accept this once-plum committee assignment.

A band of conservative rebels has taken over the House, vowing to slash spending, cut the deficit and kill earmarks.

And of course they'd love a seat on the powerhouse Appropriations Committee so they can translate their campaign zeal into action, right?

Not really.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was asked to be an appropriator and said thanks, but no thanks. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a tea party favorite, turned down a shot at Appropriations, which controls all discretionary spending. So did conservatives like Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an ambitious newcomer who will lead the influential Republican Study Committee.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who hopes to be the committee's chairman, noted, "Anybody who's a Republican right now, come June, is going to be accused of hating seniors, hating education, hating children, hating clean air and probably hating the military and farmers, too.... There's going to be a lot of tough votes. So some people may want to shy away from the committee. I understand it."

At Daily Kos, Susan Gardner added yesterday, "Yeah, be careful what you ask for. You get elected grandstanding about government overspending, you might actually have to ... you know, put your name to specifics on where to cut government spending. And no one wants to run two years down the line on killing popular programs -- and every program has some constituency that actually uses it, benefits from it, feels allegiance to it."

Quite right. It wasn't an accident that, throughout the campaign season, Republican candidates balked when asked to talk about what they intended to cut if given power. For all their bravado about how the "American people" just love cutting spending, and elected Republiacns to do just that, many GOP officials are well aware of the dirty little secret -- spending cuts can not only undermine economic growth, they also tend to be pretty unpopular.

Kingston's quote actually telegraphed where Republicans intend to go -- the GOP is looking to cut funding for schools, seniors, clean air, farmers, and the military.

The 30-second ads for 2012 will practically write themselves. If I were a Republican lawmaker, beholden to an unhinged base, I'd probably want to avoid the Appropriations Committee, too.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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DEMS SET STAGE FOR DADT SHOWDOWN IN DECEMBER.... As recently as last week, there was quite a bit of talk about Senate Democrats caving on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal. Leaders knew they have to pass the military spending bill (the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA), and if Republicans were prepared to kill the measure over DADT, Dems looked like they'd blink first.

This week, there's been a shift in the other direction. President Obama has reportedly been working the phones, urging "dozens of Senators from both sides of the aisle" to approve the spending bill just as it is, leaving the repeal language intact.

By late yesterday, the Senate leadership announced it's not caving, setting the stage for a December showdown

In a direct challenge to Republicans who support the "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said he would push ahead with a military policy bill that includes language authorizing the Pentagon to repeal the ban. [...]

[T]he White House on Wednesday repeated President Obama's commitment to repealing the ban. In a statement later in the day, Mr. Reid said he would bring the bill to the floor, with the repeal language in place. "We need to repeal this discriminatory policy so that any American who wants to defend our country can do so," Mr. Reid said.

Senate Democratic aides said Mr. Reid would try to take up the bill sometime in December, meaning after the Pentagon is due to release a report on how it would carry out a repeal. The report includes a survey of active-duty forces and their families, which shows that a majority do not care if gay men and women serve openly.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who supports DADT repeal but was rumored to be in talks to concede to Republican demands, applauded Reid's announcement. Levin will hold (hopefully brief) hearings on the Pentagon survey immediately after its release, to be followed by a floor vote on the overall spending bill.

The trick, of course, will be getting to 60, since Senate Republicans, led by leading anti-gay Sen. John McCain, won't allow the chamber to vote on troop funding if the DADT provision remains in the bill. Making matters slightly worse, by the time of the vote, the Senate will be split 58-42 in Dems' favor, instead of the current 59-41, meaning the majority will need two Republicans to break ranks, not just one.

On that front, the key will be Reid's willingness to have an extended debate. Greg Sargent reported yesterday that a handful of Senate Republicans would be willing to help Dems overcome a filibuster if the majority leadership allows Republicans to offer a series of amendments -- a move that could take two weeks out of an already-brief lame-duck session.

With that in mind, the Washington Post reported today, "In a key concession to moderate Republicans seeking a fair debate on the measure, Reid is expected to allow senators of both parties to offer amendments to the bill, aides said. The move could lead to the support of at least some senators who have said they would vote to end the ban if Reid permits them to offer amendments."

It seems a little foolish to think moderate Republicans would kill troop funding and allow DADT discrimination to continue based on a procedural dispute over unknown legislative amendments, but that's apparently the dynamic we're dealing with.

All it will take, then, is two Republicans willing to do the right thing.

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

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November 17, 2010

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

* Hoping to prevent a disaster in Ireland: "A top British finance official said Wednesday that his country would help prop up Ireland's ailing finances - even as a team from the International Monetary Fund and European Union prepared to travel here to address the crisis and the Irish government signaled, for the first time, that it might be willing to accept a bailout."

* It wasn't as one-sided as some had guessed, but House Democrats today chose Nancy Pelosi to be the House Minority leader next year. She won with 150 votes from caucus members, 107 more than Heath Shuler received.

* On the other side of the aisle, House Republicans unanimously chose their leadership team today, including John Boehner for Speaker and Eric Cantor for Majority Leader.

* A big day for GM tomorrow.

* Is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal dead? Not just yet.

* It looks like a real long-shot, but President Obama thinks Congress can and should pass the DREAM Act during the lame-duck session.

* More petty gamesmanship: "House Republicans announced Wednesday they plan to force a floor vote on defunding NPR in response to the firing of analyst Juan Williams last month."

* Warren Buffett uses an op-ed to thank government, specifically the Bush administration, for pulling the country back from financial doom during the financial crisis of 2008.

* All of those far-right cranks worried about inflation? They're deeply confused.

* I'm starting to think some of the far-right's opposition to President Obama is racist. Take Rush Limbaugh, for example.

* Birtherism in the Texas legislature is very likely a sign of things to come.

* Good question: "Exactly what ... would be an inappropriate amount of money to spend on college?"

* "Negotiation," by Clay Bennett, is one of my favorite political cartoons of the year.

* I'm really sorry to see the Washington Independent close its virtual doors. It did some amazing work over the last three years, served as a launching pad for some terrific journalists, and it'll be missed.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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WE NEED A STRONG POLITICAL SYSTEM.... Following up on an earlier item, Matt Cooper's report on Sen. Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) betrayal on the new arms control treaty with Russia, New START, included a tidbit that's worth emphasizing.

Coming after a disappointing Asian trip for the president, the debacle can't help Obama's standing abroad. For instance, part of the reason he failed to secure a trade deal with South Korea on his recent trip was Seoul's concern about ratification prospects in the Senate. This kind of blow can only heighten those concerns in South Korea and in other nations that have treaties pending with the U.S.

After South Korea pulled back from its trade deal with the U.S. last week, there was plenty of talk about how President Obama couldn't "close the deal." What was largely overlooked is the fact that South Korea officials are well aware of the political circumstances in Washington, and they weren't prepared to trust our legislative branch of government to do the right thing.

After all, if Republican lawmakers are prepared to kill a strong nuclear arms treaty that advances America's national security interests, why would South Korea, or any other country, expect those same Republican lawmakers to be responsible when it comes to issues like trade?

I tend to dismiss talk about "American decline" and phrases like "once-great superpower," because I have genuine confidence in the strength of the country. I have no doubt that it's within our power to make wise decisions and remain the global leader. But the talk of decline seems harder to just casually disregard when we see the way our legislative branch ceases to function and the extent to which one of our major political party descends into madness.

The United States still has the most dynamic economy, the strongest military, the best universities, and the most creative entrepreneurs, but our future depends in part on the health of our political system. And right now, Republicans are taking a sledgehammer to this component of the American foundation -- and they do so without embarrassment, in part because they're overwhelmed by a misguided ideology, and in part because they loathe our elected president.

This debate over New START drives the point home nicely. Top officials from the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations have pleaded with Republicans to be grown-ups about this, and do right by American national security. At this point, GOP officials refuse -- and can't explain why. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) announced today he'll oppose the treaty because he fears the "Soviet" threat. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), an alleged moderate, said today he's inclined to kill the treaty out of a fear that it "diminishes the national security of our friends and allies throughout Europe" -- apparently unaware that our friends and allies throughout Europe support ratification of the treaty Voinovich is prepared to destroy.

South Korean leaders see this and resist trade deals. Russian leaders see this and it emboldens their hard-liners. Countries around the world watch our deliberations, shake their heads, and wonder why the U.S. would choose to allow such political dysfunction to continue.

And best of all, this will get considerably worse in just a couple of months, thanks to the midterm elections.

We really have to do better than this.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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MURKOWSKI WINS IMPROBABLE WRITE-IN CAMPAIGN.... As a rule, candidates don't win statewide campaigns unless their names actually appear on the ballot. There are, however, exceptions.

Write-in candidate Sen. Lisa Murkowski has won the Alaska Senate race, according to the Associated Press.

The win became official when Alaska Elections officials announced that there were only 700 votes left, giving Murkowski a 10,000 vote lead over her opponent, Republican nominee Joe Miller.

The Miller campaign contested 8,153 write-in ballots that were counted for Murkowski, but she is still ahead by enough unchallenged votes to win the race.

Miller hasn't conceded, and has talked about seeking a statewide hand recount, but Murkowski has scheduled an event for this afternoon in Anchorage, where she's expected to declare victory.

Murkowski is only the second U.S. Senate candidate to win by way of a write-in campaign in modern American history. The only other example came in 1954, with Strom Thurmond's (R) first Senate bid in South Carolina.

With the AP's announcement this afternoon, there are no remaining unresolved Senate races. Next year's Senate will have 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, and two Independents who caucus with Democrats.

But before we move on, let's briefly revisit some Twitter messages from Joe Miller, published about a month before the election.

"Think I'll do some house hunting while I'm in DC," one of them read.

And then: "Guess I should pick out some office furniture, as well ..."

Plus: "Then there's matter of a name plaque for the door."

A fourth tweet referred to Senate Republicans as his "future colleagues."

The messages were pretty obnoxious at the time. Seven weeks later, they're hilarious.

As for Murkowski, it'll be interesting to see her partisan postures, or lack thereof, in the near future. Remember, she's probably not thrilled with how the primary shook out, how some of her own colleagues (Jim DeMint, she's looking at you) backed Miller's challenge, how her party was still fundraising in support of Miller's campaign days after the election, with subtle allegations that Murkowski would use underhanded tactics to win. For that matter, Murkowski may also realize she won in part thanks to support from Democratic voters, who considered her a reasonable alternative to Miller.

Don't be too surprised if Murkowski, when she returns to the Senate, is slightly more open to Democratic outreach than she has been.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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SENATE REPUBLICANS KILL PAYCHECK FAIRNESS ACT.... In the last Congress, the House approved the Paycheck Fairness Act, only to see it die in the face of a Republican filibuster. This year, it's happened again.

The first bill President Obama signed after taking office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to seek justice for pay discrimination. At the time, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) joined with Democrats to overcome strong Republican opposition to the bill.

But today, all three Republican senators voted against a motion to proceed on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that "would further strengthen current laws against gender-based wage discrimination." [...]

Women earn barely three-quarters of what their male counterparts make for the same work, but conservatives have invented a number of ludicrous reasons for opposing equal pay legislation. For example, the Heritage Foundation has suggested that equal pay laws actually hurt women because businesses simply won't hire them if they are required to pay them fair wages. And Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has claimed that women would receive better compensation if they just had more "education and training."

The final tally was 58 senators supporting the measure, and 41 opposing. Because our Senate is often ridiculous, 41 trumps 58.

What's more, note that this was only a vote on the motion to proceed. In other words, opponents didn't just disagree with the proposal, they filibustered a measure that would have let the Senate debate the idea.

And what did those opponents have in common? Looking at the roll call, every Republican in the chamber voted to kill the Paycheck Fairness Act, while every Democratic except one supported it. The lone exception was, of course, Ben Nelson.

Soon after, President Obama issued a statement, noting, "I am deeply disappointed that a minority of Senators have prevented the Paycheck Fairness Act from finally being brought up for a debate and receiving a vote. This bill passed in the House almost two years ago; today, it had 58 votes to move forward, the support of the majority of Senate, and the support of the majority of Americans. As we emerge from one of the worst recessions in history, this bill would ensure that American women and their families aren't bringing home smaller paychecks because of discrimination. It also helps businesses that pay equal wages as they struggle to compete against discriminatory competition. But a partisan minority of Senators blocked this commonsense law. Despite today's vote, my Administration will continue to fight for a woman's right to equal pay for equal work."

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE EASILY-FORGOTTEN PLEDGE.... Popular lore tells us that Newt Gingrich & Co. boldly unveiled the "Contract with America" in 1994, and soon after, Republicans claimed House and Senate majorities. We're supposed to see a causal relationship -- the GOP thrived because of the "Contract."

A closer look suggests otherwise. Most Americans had no idea the "Contract" existed before Election Day, and there's very little evidence to suggest the poll-tested document made any real difference in the results.

Sixteen years later, House Republicans unveiled the "Pledge to America." Chris Cillizza noted yesterday that some are asking whether history repeated itself.

Two weeks removed from an election that saw their party gain at least 60 seats and recapture control of the House, Republicans are engaged in an active debate over whether their much-hyped "Pledge to America" deserves credit for the victory. [...]

"The pledge significantly strengthened the fall campaign," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the architect of the 1994 Contract. Gingrich estimated that the Pledge "may have added 20 seats" to the Republican pickup on Nov. 2.

Even for Republicans, this is deeply silly. GOP leaders unveiled their "Pledge," and then largely forgot about it. Republican candidates weren't running around touting their support for the agenda; it wasn't included in any major advertising; and if I had to guess, I'd say independent polling would show a tiny percentage of Americans who said their vote was actually influenced by the widely-panned 21-page document.

Indeed, we don't really have to guess. Less than a month before Election Day, and two weeks after the "Pledge" was released, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of the country had no idea what the "Pledge" was. In fact, only 37% of self-identified Republicans had heard of their own party's 2010 agenda. What's more, among those who had heard of the "Pledge," the proposal hadn't won anyone over -- 45% said the agenda doesn't make any difference, 29% said it makes them less likely to vote Republican, and 23% said it makes a GOP vote more likely.

To argue with a straight face that this contributed to Republican successes is absurd. The "Pledge" was forgotten almost immediately after it was unveiled.

What I suspect is going on here is that some Republicans want to pretend they have a mandate -- they presented old, tired, failed, and discredited ideas; then they won; therefore Americans want Congress to adopt those old, tired, failed, and discredited ideas.

But this only works if the electorate actually knew of the document and liked its contents.

A senior Republican consultant told Cillizza that "if we didn't have the Pledge to America we would have picked up the exact same number of seats....it didn't get or lose us a vote."

That's clearly true.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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MAYBE CONGRESS SHOULD LISTEN TO THEM.... Congress is poised to take up some pretty weighty issues during the lame-duck session, and at this point, a new CNN poll shows Americans siding with Democrats on all of them.

Only a third of all Americans think Bush-era tax cuts should be extended for families regardless of how much money they make, according to a new national poll.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Wednesday also indicates a vast majority of the public is in favor of allowing openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military. Both issues are high on the agenda for federal lawmakers who have returned to the nation's capitol this week for the lame duck session of Congress.

Republicans feel like they have the upper hand on taxes, but only a third of the country supports the GOP approach. Likewise, Republicans appear positioned to kill a key nuclear arms treaty, but 73% support Senate ratification of New START.

But it's the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" results that really stand out. The top-line results are pretty one-sided -- 72% want DADT to end, while 23% want it left in place. The country is pretty divided right now, and 72% of Americans don't agree on much, but Americans have been hearing about this issue for quite a while, and they seem to have made up their minds.

But also look at the internals -- support for DADT repeal is so broad, it spans both genders, every race, every age group, every region, every party, every ideology, and every level of education. Even among Republicans, the Democratic position enjoys overwhelming support (64% to 31%). This is about as close as we get to "consensus."

And yet, despite this, GOP officials on the Hill are still planning to kill repeal this year, and keep the unpopular policy intact for years to come. Adding insult to injury, those on the left are largely fighting amongst themselves, instead of going after Republican lawmakers who stand in the way of success.

Putting that aside, though, in the post-election environment, Republicans have been going around quite a bit lately, insisting that policymakers need to "listen to the American people." I guess that sentiment doesn't apply when Republicans don't like what they hear.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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SELF-PARODY WATCH.... "Of Thee I Sing," a children's book written by President Obama, was released this week. It was written, apparently, before the president's inauguration last year, and proceeds will go to a fund helping children of wounded and killed servicemen and women.

As a political matter, the book wouldn't seem particularly controversial. The book is a letter from a father to his daughters, highlighting 13 legendary American figures, whose greatest qualities Obama sees in today's youth. The point is to celebrate "the characteristics that unite all Americans, from our nation's founders to generations to come."

Amidst the stories on George Washington, Jackie Robinson, and Georgia O'Keeffe, Obama also noted Sitting Bull, noting, "Sitting Bull was a Sioux medicine man who healed broken hearts and broken promises. It is fine that we are different, he said, 'for peace, it is not necessary for eagles to be crows.' Though he was put in prison, his spirit soared free on the plains, and his wisdom touched the generations."

Fox News ran a report on the book yesterday. The headline read:

Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General

Seriously. That really was the headline on a report on the president's children's book.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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INSURERS SPENT HEAVILY TO KILL HEALTH CARE REFORM.... I know there are some critics of the Affordable Care Act on the left who considered the entire reform initiative a "giveaway" to insurance companies.

But private insurers really didn't see it that way.

Health insurers last year gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $86.2 million that was used to oppose the health-care overhaul law, according to tax records and people familiar with the donation.

The insurance lobby, whose members include Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Philadelphia-based Cigna Corp., gave the money to the Chamber in 2009 as Democrats were increasing their criticism of the industry, according to one person who requested anonymity because laws don't require identifying funding sources. The Chamber of Commerce received the money from the Washington-based America's Health Insurance Plans when the industry was urging Congress to drop a plan to create a competing public insurance option.

The spending exceeded the insurer group's entire budget from a year earlier and accounted for 40 percent of the Chamber's $214.6 million in 2009 spending.

According to a Chamber of Commerce spokesperson, the business lobby used the insurance industry's $86.2 million to pay for "advertisements, polling and grass roots events to drum up opposition to the bill."

Keep in mind, this only covers anti-reform spending in 2009 -- the crusade to kill the initiative grew even more intense earlier this year, in the months leading up to March passage, though those spending figures are not yet available.

What's more, the $86.2 million from insurance companies only reflects the money the industry quietly gave to the Chamber, all while saying publicly that insurers would play a constructive role.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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

* It looks like the U.S. Senate race in Alaska is just about done with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) taking a 10,400-vote lead over Joe Miller (R). There are still 8,153 ballots Miller's team is challenging, but they wouldn't be enough to give him a victory.

* As of this morning, though, Miller was still questioning the tally. He suggested a statewide hand-recount may be in order.

* Rep. Melissa Bean (D) conceded defeat yesterday, after final tallies showed Rep.-elect Joe Walsh (R) with a 291-vote lead. Overall, the net gain for House Republicans in the midterms now stands at 61 seats.

* Sen. John Ensign (R) will apparently seek re-election in Nevada, unless he's imprisoned for his corruption scandal, which would probably interfere with his campaign schedule.

* To say that Republican leaders on the Hill want Michael Steele replaced as RNC chairman would appear to be an understatement.

* It seems awfully early to look at polls for a race that's two years away, but for what it's worth, a new survey in Virginia from Public Policy Polling shows Sen. Jim Webb (D) leading former Sen. George Allen (R) in a hypothetical match-up, 49% to 45%. Webb, of course, has not yet said whether he intends to seek a second term, but Allen has made no secret of his comeback intentions.

* Perhaps the most sought after GOP endorsement in Iowa's presidential caucuses is failed former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats', who's creating a right-wing organization in the Hawkeye State.

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

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CREATE JOBS, LOWER THE DEFICIT.... For all the talk about tax rates and government spending, with deficit fears hanging over head, there's one sure-fire way to improve the nation's finances. As David Leonhardt explained today, it's a largely-overlooked approach called "economic growth."

We look back on the late 1990s as a rare time when the federal government ran budget surpluses. We tend to forget that those surpluses came as a surprise to almost everybody.

As late as 1998, the Congressional Budget Office was predicting a deficit for 1999. In fact, Washington ran its biggest surplus in five decades.

What happened? Above all, economic growth. And that may be a big part of the answer to our current problems.

Yes, the government became more fiscally conservative in the 1990s. Both President George H. W. Bush (who doesn't get enough credit) and President Bill Clinton, working with Congress, raised taxes to attack the 1980s deficits.

But those tax increases were the second most important reason for the surpluses that followed. The most important was the fact that the economy grew more rapidly than expected. The faster growth pushed up incomes and caused more tax revenue to flow into the Treasury.

Given the size of the current deficit, growth almost certainly won't be enough to balance the budget anytime soon, even if the economy grows much faster than expected, which seems unlikely. But growth was responsible for reducing the deficit over the last year, and the more things improved, the lower the deficit will be -- without slashing spending.

Indeed, perhaps the most astounding aspect of Republican rhetoric on the economy lately is how contradictory it is. On the one hand, a top GOP goal is, at least in theory, deficit reduction. On the other hand, those same Republicans want more tax cuts (which makes the deficit worse), and spending cuts that would likely slow the economy (which also makes the deficit worse).

Digby added, "Why Democrats haven't been saying 'jobs=deficit reduction' on a loop, I don't know. I guess they figure it's just too complicated to explain that when people aren't working they aren't paying taxes so the government doesn't have as much money."

I'm guessing the same thing. It's easier to talk about "belt tightening" during a downturn than it is to explain how economic growth leads to revenues leads to deficit reduction.

But I'd sure like to see Dems talk up this idea anyway. It's not that complicated; the 1990s offer a recent model of success; and no one outside the far-right really wants those brutal spending cuts anyway.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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IT'S AS IF THEY WANT TO MAKE UNEMPLOYMENT WORSE.... In times of economic distress and high unemployment, policymakers in Washington have a few options. Congress, for example, can make investments that spur growth and create jobs. Ideally, that's what we'd be seeing more of right now, but Republicans staunchly oppose any such efforts.

With stimulus off the table, we tend to look to the Federal Reserve, which is tasked not only with combating inflation, but also with a mandate to keep unemployment low.

Republicans have apparently decided this week that they disapprove of this, too.

Criticism of the Federal Reserve intensified on Tuesday as conservative Republican lawmakers called for limiting the central bank's mandate to keeping inflation low. They said that the Fed should stop trying to pursue the twin goals of balancing inflation and unemployment, as it has been required to do since 1977.

The Republican proposal was the latest example of the increasingly partisan antipathy toward the Fed's decision on Nov. 3 to inject $600 billion into the economy in an effort to lower long-term interest rates.

The legislation would be anathema to most Democrats, who say they believe that low inflation and low unemployment should be given equal weight. The latest proposal appears to be gathering support among Republicans, who will control the House starting in January, but is all but certain to be blocked by Democrats if it reaches the Senate.

It's tough to fully grasp exactly why the GOP would want this, but the rationale appears to go something like this: the Fed has intervened in the economy to help prevent massive unemployment, joblessness is still high, so the Fed should no longer try to prevent massive unemployment.

The perpetually confused Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said "the onus for growing jobs in this country should not fall on the Fed, it should fall on policy makers in this administration and in this, and the coming, Congress."

First of all, that's a nice idea, but as a practical matter, that's impossible. Second of all, with unemployment as high as it is, there's plenty of room for all kinds of institutions to try to improve conditions.

Steven Pearlstein noted today, "It's not exactly clear how unemployed workers would benefit from the Fed's benign neglect."

The answer, of course, is that unemployed workers wouldn't benefit at all, but that's irrelevant to Republican goals. Theirs is an ideological crusade; what works and who benefits makes no difference whatsoever.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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MAYBE GEORGE WILL SHOULD STEER CLEAR OF CAR COLUMNS.... A year ago, soon after the rescue of the American automotive industry, President Obama noted there's no reason the Japanese can design an affordable, well-designed hybrid car, but we can't.

George Will was unimpressed. "I assume the president is talking about the Prius," Will said. "It's affordable because Toyota sells it at a loss, and it can afford to sell it at a loss because it is selling twice as many gas-guzzling pickup trucks of the sort our president detests."

As it turned out, Will was confused. Toyota used to sell hybrids at a loss back in 1997, but as industry and consumer trends changed, so too did profit margins. Toyota started making a profit on each Prius sold way back in 2001. Will wanted to take a cheap shot at the president over automotive policy, but he didn't bother to get his facts straight.

This week, Will returned to his thoughts on cars, blasting the Chevy Volt as having been "conceived to appease the automotive engineers in Congress, which knows that people will have to be bribed, with other people's money, to buy this $41,000 car that seats only four people (the 435-pound battery eats up space)."


The Volt absolutely delivers on the promise of the vehicle concept as originally outlined by GM, combining the smooth, silent, efficient, low-emissions capability of an electric motor with the range and flexibility of an internal combustion engine.

It is a fully functional, no-compromise compact automobile that offers consumers real benefits in terms of lower running costs.

The more we think about the Volt, the more convinced we are this vehicle represents a real breakthrough. The genius of the Volt's powertrain is that it is actually capable of operating as a pure EV, a series hybrid, or as a parallel hybrid to deliver the best possible efficiency, depending on your duty cycle. For want of a better technical descriptor, this is world's first intelligent hybrid. And the investment in the technology that drives this car is also an investment in the long-term future of automaking in America.

Moonshot. Game-changer. A car of the future that you can drive today, and every day. So what should we call Chevrolet's astonishing Volt? How about, simply, Motor Trend's 2011 Car of the Year.

Jon Chait mocked: "Will sneers at 'the automotive engineers in Congress,' though apparently his own automotive engineering sensibility towers above Motor Trend. Why has he been denying us his expert automobile criticism?"

The underlying concern, I suspect, is that Will didn't like Obama's rescue of the automotive industry, and hoped to see it fail. Rush Limbaugh was explicit on this point, insisting that conservative Americans "do not want [the president's] policy to work here."

But it did work. And if the Chevy Volt is a success, it means the industry bailout really did save GM and generate worthwhile results. It leads to columns like George Will's, which happen to be wrong.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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A DELAY IN THE WHITE HOUSE'S BIPARTISAN CONFAB.... President Obama had scheduled a gathering at the White House for this week, featuring the leaders of both parties in both chambers. Yesterday, the meeting some reporters are calling the "Slurpee Summit" was postponed until Nov. 30, with congressional Republicans citing scheduling difficulties.

That, at face value, wouldn't be especially interesting. Meetings in D.C. get delayed all the time. But Politico reported last night that the postponement is the result of still more petty nonsense.

The roots of the partisan standoff that led to the postponement of the bipartisan White House summit scheduled for Thursday date back to January, when President Barack Obama crashed a GOP meeting in Baltimore to deliver a humiliating rebuke of House Republicans.

Obama's last-minute decision to address the House GOP retreat -- and the one-sided televised presidential lecture many Republicans decried as a political ambush -- has left a lingering distrust of Obama invitations and a wariness about accommodating every scheduling request emanating from the West Wing, aides tell POLITICO.

"He has a ways to go to rebuild the trust," said a top Republican Hill staffer. "The Baltimore thing was unbelievable. There were [House Republicans] who only knew Obama was coming when they saw Secret Service guys scouting out the place."

Now, the Politico piece has since been republished with a different lede, not because Republicans changed their story, but because the reporter realized the GOP version of events was demonstrably false.

Regardless, it's worth appreciating how bizarre this is. In January, House Republican leaders extended an invitation to the president, and he accepted. The arrangements were made weeks in advance, and Obama showed up on time, as expected. That Republicans would characterize this as a "last-minute decision" to "crash" their gathering suggests GOP officials have suffered some kind of head trauma. That Politico published their plainly untrue version of events without checking isn't much better.

But putting aside the fact that GOP memories have manufactured imaginary developments, what on earth does this have to do with the discussion scheduled for this week? Mitch McConnell postponed a meeting in November because the president made House Republicans look foolish in January?

At some point, it'd be great if the GOP leadership realized that Congress is not a junior high's student government.

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

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HOW TO CAPITALIZE ON GOP TAX POLICY OBSTINACY.... As far as Republican leaders on the Hill are concerned, a permanent tax break for the middle class is simply out of the question unless Dems agree to help millionaires and billionaires.

This is true in the Senate...

Republicans won't agree to allow a split in votes to extend expiring tax cuts, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday.

McConnell suggested that any vote to extend the tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of the year were an all-or-nothing proposition, and that Republicans wouldn't agree to a separate vote on the extension of tax cuts for the highest income bracket.

"There's only one thing that's acceptable and that's to not raise taxes on anyone," McConnell said on conservative talker Sean Hannity's radio show. "We're not interested in bifurcating it."

...and it's true in the House.

The Republicans' top tax guy in the House threatened in the clearest possible terms today that he and the rest of the GOP would vote to block any tax cut for the middle class during the lame duck session unless tax cuts for the wealthy are extended for the same period of time.

In a policy speech at the business-friendly Tax Council today, incoming Ways and Means Committee chairman David Camp called the Democratic plan for tax cuts -- a permanent tax cut extension for all income up to $200,000, and a temporary extension for income above that level -- "a terrible idea and a total nonstarter."

In other words, nothing has changed. Dems wanted permanent breaks for the middle class, and Republicans are holding them hostage -- give us breaks for the wealthy, they say, or we'll kill the whole deal.

The more obstinacy from Republicans, the better this should be for Democrats. We're talking about aggressive, unyielding GOP opposition to middle-class tax cuts. If Republicans are intent on killing them, why on earth would Dems try to stop them?

As we talked about the other day, this should be pretty easy: bring middle-class tax cuts to the floor and dare Republicans to kill them. If the GOP caves, Dems get the policy they want. If the GOP kills the tax-cut package, Clinton-era rates return for everyone, which is probably the policy Dems should want anyway, and the headlines read, "Republicans kill tax cut compromise; higher rates kick in Jan. 1."

I've never seen a party so afraid of doing the obvious, popular thing that puts their rivals on the defensive. It's a gift-wrapped present that Dems seem afraid to open.

For his part, President Obama spoke to the Democratic leadership yesterday about the tax debate, which was intended to "get Democrats moving in the same direction after a week of seemingly conflicting messages." It was a private discussion, but according to accounts, the president reiterated his support for a permanent extension of lower rates "only for the middle class."

It's just scuttlebutt, but I also heard rumors yesterday that some Dems have a back-up plan in mind: if the party can hold firm on the middle-class-first policy and Republicans kill it, the White House can come back in January with a new package of "Obama tax cuts" that specifically target those families making $250,000 or less. Something to keep an eye on.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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THE FALLOUT OF KYL'S BETRAYAL.... The optimism hadn't been expressed publicly, but the White House really did think it finally had a deal in place for Senate ratification of the new arms control treaty with Russia, New START.

Republicans had made Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) their point man on the issue -- it's not clear why, since Kyl has no background or working knowledge of the issue -- and he made specific objections to the Obama administration clear. Officials, in response, gave Kyl what we asked for. The deal, they thought, was done.

Over many months of negotiations, the administration committed to spending $80 billion to do that over the next 10 years, and on Friday offered to chip in $4.1 billion more over the next five years. As a gesture of commitment, the White House had made sure extra money for modernization was included in the stopgap spending resolution now keeping the government operating, even though almost no other program received an increase in money.

All told, White House officials counted 29 meetings, phone calls, briefings or letters involving Mr. Kyl or his staff. They said they thought they had given him everything he wanted, and were optimistic about completing a deal this week, only to learn about his decision on Tuesday from reporters.

Kyl wouldn't even give the White House the courtesy of a phone call to let them know he was betraying them and the nation's national security needs. Worse, the dimwitted Kyl, with the future of American foreign policy in his hands, couldn't even give a coherent rationale for why he'd made the decision -- his office would only say "there doesn't appear to be enough time" in the lame-duck session.

This is what happens when serious officials try to negotiate in good faith with Republicans -- they refuse to take "yes" for an answer, they don't have intellectual capacity to explain why, and the entire country has to suffer the consequences.

The bulk of the Republican foreign policy apparatus enthusiastically supports this treaty, as does the entirety of America's military, diplomatic, and intelligence leadership. Matt Cooper noted late yesterday:

Indeed, Republicans will need to explain why they want to sit on a treaty that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has described this way: "I believe -- and the rest of the military leadership in this country believes -- that this treaty is essential to our future security. I believe it enhances and ensures that security. And I hope the Senate will ratify it quickly." [...]

There are risks for Republicans who follow Kyl and find themselves on the opposite side of the military and diplomatic community on ratification of the treaty.

There should be risks, but they don't really exist. Let me put this plainly: They. Don't. Care. They disregard the pleas of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and listen to the confused misjudgments of a buffoon from Arizona. They assume the public isn't paying attention, so there won't be political consequences. They expect this to hurt the foreign policy power of the United States, but they're fine with that since there's a Democratic president.

When it comes to Russia, inspection of the country's long-range nuclear bases will remain suspended indefinitely; the country's hard-liners will be emboldened; and Russia's willingness to cooperate with U.S. on Iran or on Afghanistan will likely disappear.

But in the bigger picture, countries around the globe will see this as a reminder that negotiating with the United States is pointless, since the country is burdened with a Republican Party that puts partisan hatred above the country's interests. It hurts American credibility in ways that are hard to even gauge.

Sleep well, Jon Kyl. Dream of the time when the United States had the respect and stature to lead the world.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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November 16, 2010

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

* Remember the European debt crisis? It's not over: "Ireland's Prime Minister acknowledged Tuesday that the country has been all but shut out from further borrowing on world bond markets as European leaders continued crisis talks over a possible rescue for the heavily indebted nation."

* Continental concerns are growing: "European officials, increasingly concerned that the Continent's debt crisis will spread, are warning that any new rescue plans may need to cover Portugal as well as Ireland to contain the problem they tried to resolve six months ago."

* Rangel's guilty: "A House panel on Tuesday found Representative Charles B. Rangel guilty of 11 counts of ethical violations, ruling that his failure to pay taxes, improper solicitation of fund-raising donations and failure to accurately report his personal income had brought dishonor on the House."

* Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) appears to be the first Dem in the Senate to endorse a tax plan that would only extend cuts for the middle class.

* A well-deserved, hard-earned honor for an American hero, Salvatore Giunta: "An Army staff sergeant who stepped into the line of fire to help a pair of comrades on the Afghan battlefield has been given a Medal of Honor, the nation's top military award." Giunta is the first living service member from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars to be so honored.

* Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinks the neocon line on Iran is crazy. He's right.

* I don't expect much in the way of decency from right-wing provocateur James O'Keefe, but his smearing of a special-ed schoolteacher in New Jersey is truly loathsome, even by his bottom-of-the-barrel standards.

* Rep. Louie Gohmert's (R) role in the firing of a college art galleries director in Texas wasn't much better.

* I find it pretty easy to believe that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), in the midst of health care reform negotiations, could get everything he wanted from the White House, and still refuse to support the proposal. The whole debate was about the GOP not taking "yes" for an answer.

* Everything you need to know about Gov.-elect Rick Scott's (R-Fla.) judgment: "Scott has announced that his team of economic advisers will include former Reagan advisor Art Laffer."

* Teacher training programs clearly still need some work.

* Ted Koppel raised some eyebrows the other day with a lengthy diatribe on modern media, but I found Keith Olbermann's response last night pretty compelling.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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Congress is unlikely to agree to extend jobless benefits for two million unemployed workers by the time the program begins to lapse in two weeks, as lawmakers struggle with a packed lame-duck session and voter antipathy toward government spending.

But cutting off benefits could drag on a fragile economic recovery by reducing consumer spending, economists say, and Democrats are looking for a compromise that could put the program back on track before Christmas.

The program, which provides aid for up to 99 weeks after workers are laid off, has been extended seven times during the economic downturn. Last summer when Congress extended it, the battle was so pitched that benefits lapsed for over a month.

The larger dynamic is practically Dickensian -- Republicans are fighting tooth and nail for $700 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country, but they're very likely to kill extended unemployment benefits for those struggling to find work in a weak economy.

Raising taxes on the rich under these circumstances is considered madness. Leaving jobless Americans with no benefits and no buying power under these circumstances is considered responsible.

Also keep in mind, we're talking about a lot of people who are already struggling.

A separate state-federal program, currently 100% federally funded, offered another 13 to 20 weeks of benefits to workers in high unemployment states. Some 800,000 workers in those programs would be quickly cut off.

Another 1.2 million jobless Americans would stop receiving benefits by the end of December. Some of those workers would exhaust state benefits and be unable to access the federal program. The majority that is already receiving federal emergency extended benefits would gradually lose them.

For Republicans, who've suggested that those struggling to find work in the midst of a jobs crisis are lazy and quite possibly drug addicts, this just isn't cause for concern. On the contrary, they're so opposed to helping the jobless, they'll filibuster any effort to extend benefits -- if Congress were allowed to vote up or down, the benefits would pass.

At this point, you might be thinking, "But wait, won't this be awful for the economy? If more than 1.2 million people lose their benefits, which they invariably spend, won't this mean hardship for those families compounded by less economic activity for everyone else?"

And if that is what you're thinking, you probably aren't going to enjoy the next Congress very much.

I know the right gets hysterical whenever facts like these are brought up, but unemployment benefits are extremely stimulative -- every dollar spent on aid for the jobless results in about two dollars spent in the economy. Tax cuts for millionaires, meanwhile, aren't stimulative at all.

It's almost as if Republicans are deliberately trying to undermine the economy. That couldn't be, could it?

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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KYL INTENT ON DESTROYING U.S. FOREIGN POLICY.... This isn't just political madness; this is petty partisanship that literally puts American national security interests at risk.

A key Republican senator cast doubt Tuesday on the Obama administration's chances of passing the nuclear treaty with Russia during the lame duck session of Congress.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, who is taking the lead for Republicans on negotiating with the administration on the treaty passage, said in a statement he told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, that the treaty should not be considered before January, when the newly elected Congress is seated.

"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," the statement from Kyl read. "I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator (John) Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials," referring to the Department of Defense and Department of Energy.

The issues that Kyl describes as "unresolved" have, in fact, been resolved -- leading administration officials have met with Kyl privately, and mapped out in detail how they're prepared to do exactly what he wants them to do. Even Jon Kyl, with his limited intellect, should be able to understand when someone says "yes" to his demands.

Under the circumstances, it appears that Kyl is opposing the treaty simply because he can. By all indications, Kyl simply cares more about defeating a key priority for President Obama than advancing the nation's interests. I wish that weren't true, but I'm hard pressed to come to any other conclusion.

I wouldn't say the treaty is dead just yet, but Kyl's mindless, genuinely stupid obstinacy has certainly put the arms treaty on death's door. He's suggested the Senate can try again next year, but no serious person believes it can be ratified after the Democratic majority shrinks -- it's pretty much now or never.

And if it fails, the consequences will be severe. U.S.-Russian relations will deteriorate dramatically; inspection of Russian long-range nuclear bases will be suspended indefinitely; and American credibility on the global stage will take a painful hit -- all because one right-wing Arizonan hates the president a little too much.

We are, by the way, talking about a treaty endorsed by six former secretaries of state and five former secretaries of defense from both parties; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; seven former Strategic Command chiefs; national security advisers from both parties, and nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces.

French Ambassador Pierre Vimont recently said that after he and other diplomats reported back to Europe about the possibility of congressional opposition to the treaty, "People ask us, 'Have you been drinking?'"

The world simply doesn't understand how hysterically ridiculous the Republican Party of the 21st century has become. Why would American lawmakers reject a treaty that benefits America? The notion that a legislature would hate their president more than they love their country just doesn't seem plausible.

The administration reached out to Kyl in good faith, and gave him what he wanted. Kyl's response isn't just a betrayal of the White House; it's a betrayal of all of our interests. It's as shameful a moment for Kyl as at any point in his career -- and he doesn't even realize it.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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BACHMANN EXPLAINS BUDGETING AS ONLY SHE CAN.... Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) makes no secret of her hatred for earmarks. The head of Congress' bizarre "Tea Party Caucus," Bachmann's far-right crusade has earmark elimination as a top priority.

Except, of course, for those earmarks she likes.

[W]hen it comes to her own district, she's in favor of a little earmark "redefinition." Because what is an earmark, after all?

"Advocating for transportation projects for one's district in my mind does not equate to an earmark," Bachmann told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune yesterday.

"I don't believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark," Bachmann continued. "There's a big difference between funding a tea pot museum and a bridge over a vital waterway."

I see. An earmark is bad if Bachmann thinks it sounds like an unworthy idea, and an earmark is good if Bachmann thinks it sounds like an idea with merit. Got it.

Also yesterday, Bachmann talked to CNN's Wolf Blitzer about the budget, looking for "specific cuts" she would be willing to consider. Like most Republicans, Bachmann endorsed across-the-board cuts, returning to 2008 levels of discretionary spending (which, again, is a very bad idea).

A few seconds later, she added:

"We can do across the board cuts, but I don't think that's prudent because there are legitimate projects that have to be done, bridges have to be built, water treatment systems have to be built. So I think, we don't wanna cut off our nose to spite our face. We have to be smart about this."

So, what have we learned from the leading right-wing Republican? Earmarks are bad, unless they're going to Bachmann's district, and slashing spending is good, except for the "legitimate projects that have to be done."

Dear Tea Partiers, I think your leader is having a tough time transitioning to life in the majority.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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WHERE ARE THE JOBS (PLANS)?.... A CBS News poll released last week asked Americans what they'd like to see Congress focus on next year. The results weren't close -- a 56% majority cited "economy/jobs" as the top issue. Health care was a distant second at 14%, while tackling the deficit/debt was a very distant third at 4%.

Today, a new Gallup poll shows similar public attitudes. (via DemFromCT)

These results, from a Gallup poll conducted Nov. 4-7, 2010, mark the first time since April that mentions of jobs/unemployment have outpaced mentions of the economy in general when Americans are asked to name the top problem facing the nation. The employment situation and economic conditions have been the two most frequently mentioned problems in Gallup's monthly updates all year, generally followed by healthcare and dissatisfaction with government. Americans' concern about natural disasters flared up in the summer months as the BP oil spill dominated the news, but quickly faded.

The question was, "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" Jobs was the top issue, mentioned by 33%, followed by "the economy in general," at 31%. In other words, using the CBS poll's phrasing, a combined 64% of the country cited "economy/jobs" as the top issue -- that's nearly two thirds of the population.

The deficit made the list of problems, coming in fifth in Gallup's poll at 9%. To put that in perspective a bit, for every person who considers the deficit the country's most important problem, seven people mentioned the economy/jobs.

And it's against this backdrop that the incoming House Republican majority intends to get to work on their agenda -- and not focus on job creation at all. On the contrary, the GOP agenda, such as it is, focuses on issues that aren't considered especially important by the American mainstream -- gutting the health care system, protecting tax cuts for the wealthy, taking money out of the economy in the form of spending cuts, and reducing the deficit. (Yes, some of those are contradictory goals, since gutting health care and cutting taxes would make the deficit much worse.)

It's like living in some bizarro world in which politicians win elections, and proceed to ignore the overwhelming crisis the public is desperate to see addressed.

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

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THUNE EYES '08 SPENDING LEVELS.... John Thune's (R-S.D.) six years in the Senate haven't been especially interesting. He isn't known for working on any major policy initiatives; he hasn't distinguished himself as an expert in an area; and his most notable accomplishment appears to be Thune's ability to impress people with his handsomeness.

Say hello to the Republicans' John Edwards.

Of course, John Thune has taken conservative adoration to heart, and is now apparently eyeing a possible presidential campaign in 2012. It's the kind of thing that leads to silly gestures like these.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) plans to offer a resolution to cut discretionary spending to 2008 levels during the Senate GOP's closed-door meeting Tuesday.

The nonbinding resolution is part of a broad effort by GOP leaders to line up a series of votes for the Conference meeting to demonstrate that they are heeding the tea party movement's calls to restrict spending and reduce the federal debt.

"My resolution highlights the tremendous growth in non-security discretionary spending over the past two years and calls for returning to FY 2008 non-security discretionary spending levels," Thune said in a letter circulated to colleagues last week.

Now, Thune's resolution may very well be approved by his Republican colleagues, but it won't actually mean anything. If endorsed, we'll know what the Senate GOP caucus wants, but then again, we already knew this. It's not like the resolution is actual legislation.

As for the substance of this, the notion of cutting "discretionary spending to 2008 levels" may seem largely inoffensive. After all, the argument goes, 2008 wasn't that long ago. Much of the country would probably hear this and assume the cuts would be pretty manageable.

But like most debates, Republicans are counting on the public not looking too closely at the details. The NYT recently noted, "Independent analysts say that would require eliminating about $105 billion -- or more than 20 percent of spending by departments like Education, Transportation, Interior, Commerce and Energy -- a level of reductions that history suggests would be extremely hard to execute."

Bloomberg News added that such a budget plan would necessarily "slash spending for education, cancer research and aid to local police and firefighters."

We'd be talking about one-year cuts that would be nearly quadruple the largest discretionary cuts of the last generation.

If Thune thinks this would prove popular, and might even help make him president, he's been sipping too much tea.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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WELL-DESERVED HUMILIATION FOR JOHN MCCAIN.... It's hard to say which humiliating John McCain clip from last night was more entertaining, so let's go ahead and post them both, showing them in the order in which they were aired.

The first was on "The Rachel Maddow Show," who took the Republican senator apart for having contradicted himself so often, there isn't a single issue on which he's been coherent throughout his career. Most notably, McCain, now a leading anti-gay crusader, vowed to support repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" just as soon as the military said it's time to end the policy. Now that the military says it's time to end the policy, the hateful hack from Arizona has no use for his previous commitments.

The other clip came two hours later, when Jon Stewart took McCain to task for the same reason, in some cases, even using the same footage from Rachel's show. Note, however, that "The Daily Show" featured a must-see pseudo-commercial called "It Gets Worse," which is devastating and true.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
It Gets Worse PSA
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

Also note this gem: "It's the maverick way -- spend a year studying whether soldiers deserve full civil rights, and a half an hour deciding who will be your presidential running mate."

That happens to be true -- before McCain asked a half-term governor to be one heartbeat from the presidency, he'd met her once and talked to her on the phone once. But DADT repeal should wait several more years while McCain studies a survey he already knows the results of.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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

* As the vote counting continues in Alaska's U.S. Senate race, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) has pulled ahead of Joe Miller (R) for the first time in the overall vote tally. It's a lead she seems unlikely to relinquish.

* Sen. George LeMieux (R) of Florida, appointed to the post when Mel Martinez (R) retired unexpectedly, seems intent on running for a full term in 2012. But LeMieux will have an uphill challenge when he runs -- he hasn't made much of an impression on Floridians, who don't know who he is.

* Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) will probably seek re-election in 2012. But it's not at all clear how he'll run, whether he'll seek a major party nomination, or whether he'll have the support necessary to win. In 2006, he persevered thanks to token GOP opposition -- a luxury he won't enjoy next time. Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy told Roll Call, "The Republican candidate this time will be supported and stronger. And any Republican who gets over 25 percent of the vote, there's no way Lieberman can win as an Independent."

* Not surprisingly, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) will run for re-election in 2012 in Indiana. The 78-year-old incumbent is favored to win another term, but he may yet face a right-wing primary challenger.

* Steve Daines (R), an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 2008, announced that he'll take on to Sen. Jon Tester (D) in Montana in 2012. The key GOP candidate to keep an eye on in Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R), who would likely be a more credible opponent for the Democratic incumbent.

* Former Houston Mayor Bill White (D) ran a respectable gubernatorial campaign in Texas this year, but Dems shouldn't expect to recruit him for other upcoming races -- White said yesterday he's not running for the Senate in 2012, for example.

* The Family Research Council, a religious right powerhouse, ran attack ads against Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R) in New Orleans last month, criticizing him for not being right-wing enough. Cao lost, and now he's blaming the FRC.

* And speaking of Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) insists he's really not running for president in 2012. No one's sure whether to believe him.

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

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MORE PASSION FOR A SHUTDOWN THAN FOR JOB CREATION.... Yesterday, Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said shutting down the government would be "a mistake," adding, "Nobody really wants that."

"Nobody" is clearly an overstatement. ThinkProgress caught up with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who happens to be stark raving mad, and who seemed quite animated about the idea.

"Listen, if it takes a shutdown of government to stop the runaway spending, we owe that to our children and our grandchildren. I don't have any grandchildren yet, but if we don't stop the runaway spending -- even if it means showing how serious we are -- okay, government is going to have to shut down until you runaway-spending people get it under control. And if you can't get it under control, then we just stop government until you realize, you know, yes we can."

Now, obviously Gohmert isn't especially bright, and the poor schmo doesn't really know what he wants to cut or why. What's more, the shutdown he and his ilk are so excited about would be dreadful for the country, a fact that the right-wing Texan also doesn't seem capable of understanding.

But watching Gohmert's passion on the subject got me thinking. Asked about cutting spending (on something, at some point) got the congressman pretty excited. Maybe not "terror baby" excited, but clearly he felt strongly about this, and has a real zeal for slashing the budget. It's a fairly common sentiment among congressional Republicans.

Just once, though, I'd love to see a Republican official talk like this about creating jobs. With an unemployment rate near 10%, it's tempting to think an ascendant GOP would talk about nothing else right now (you know, "where are the jobs?" and all that).

But, no. Republicans bring real enthusiasm for cutting spending, gutting health care, and cutting taxes for the wealthy, but have practically nothing to say about the single highest priority of the American mainstream. Ask about shutting down the government, and you'll hear passion. Ask about creating jobs, and you'll hear crickets.

Congratulations, voters, this is what you asked for two weeks ago.

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

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PUTTING NOMINATIONS HIGH ON THE SENATE'S TO-DO LIST.... The last two years have been pretty busy in the Senate, with a variety of landmark accomplishments -- each considered at a glacier's pace -- keeping the chamber's calendar filled practically from the outset.

Next year, the Senate, still under Democratic control, is likely to have a lot more free time. The legislative schedule will very likely crawl to a stop, thanks to one of the most far-right House chambers in American history, which will either fail to pass good bills, or approve bad bills the upper chamber will ignore. The Senate, likewise, probably won't bother tackling major initiatives, knowing they'd die in the House.

So, what are senators to do for the next two years? Brian Beutler reports on a wise course of action.

[W]hile the House passes legislation the Senate has no interest in considering, Majority Leader Harry Reid will have much more time, if he chooses, to devote to confirming a large backlog of Obama's judicial and executive branch nominees -- particularly numerous non-controversial picks, who will have to be renominated next year.

That's certainly what advocates would like to see.

"Reid should concentrate Floor time on must pass bills, message and other votes that highlight differences and important matters that are or should be non-controversial, including confirming lifetime federal judges," Glenn Sugameli, an advocate for swift judicial confirmations, tells TPM. "All of Obama's nominees to circuit and district courts have had the support of their home-state Republican and Democratic senators and the vast majority have been non-controversial nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee without objection and approved unanimously when they finally receive usually long-delayed Floor votes."

To be sure, Senate Republicans will do what they've been doing -- slowing everything down, blocking as many nominees as they can. But don't forget, the Senate will have nothing else to do for the better part of two years. Over the last two years, Reid and the Democratic leadership had a lengthy to-do list, and couldn't eat up the calendar on nominees. GOP obstructionism meant it took three days for the Senate to consider one nominee, during which time the chamber could do nothing else, so more often than not, Reid just didn't bother.

But that won't be much of a hindrance in 2011 and 2012, when the entire lawmaking process goes from difficult to impossible. Why not use that time to let the Obama administration actually have the staff it needs and start dealing with the vacancy crisis on the federal courts?

The latter, in particular, is one of the overlooked scandals of the last two years. Attorney General Eric Holder recently explained that "our judicial system desperately needs the Senate to act.... The federal judicial system that has been a rightful source of pride for the United States -- the system on which we all depend for a prompt and fair hearing of our cases when we need to call on the law -- is stressed to the breaking point."

Republicans, engaging in tactics that no one has ever seen before, have brought the entire process to a generational standstill. It's untenable and arguably dangerous. It is no exaggeration to say the status quo is the worst it's ever been -- the Alliance For Justice recently reported that President Obama "has seen a smaller percentage of his nominees confirmed at this point in his presidency than any president in American history."

If I'm Harry Reid, I'm getting ready to make this one of my top priorities in the next Congress.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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JOHN YOO'S VIEW OF VOTERS.... The midterm elections were pretty obviously painful for Democrats, but there were still some groups of voters who stuck with the outgoing governing majority. Voters with post-graduate degrees, for example, preferred Democrats by a healthy margin, as did those at the other end of the educational spectrum -- those without a high-school diploma.

John Yoo -- best known for his pro-torture memos, arguing that the rule of law should only be respected on a case by case basis, and the literal belief that the "war on terror" trumps the Bill of Rights -- finds these election results noteworthy.

I've been trying to figure out what this means (aside from the amazing educational achievements of the electorate -- 97 percent had a high-school degree or more). Does it mean that the over-educated have no more common sense than those with no education? Does it mean that Obama only really appeals to the extremes of the educational distributional curve, because neither end is really responsible for making ends meet and balancing budgets?

That's an awful lot of nonsense packed into 72 words, so let's unpack it a bit.

To John Yoo, having a post-grad degree is evidence of being "over-educated." Yoo -- who happens to have a post-grad degree -- really ought to know better.

To John Yoo, voting for Democratic candidates is apparently evidence of lacking "common sense." Maybe my post-graduate degree has clouded my judgment, but there's ample evidence to suggest that's backwards.

To John Yoo, those with post-grad degrees aren't "really responsible" for contributing financially to society, the implication being that we're all stuck in academia. Yoo really ought to get out more -- hospitals, law offices, accounting and consulting firms, corporate boardrooms, and small businesses are all filled with people who've done post-graduate work.

And to John Yoo, those who don't have high-school diplomas aren't responsible for "making ends meet." I'd note that the assumption that everyone without a high-school diploma is in poverty is mistaken, but more importantly, for those folks who do fit the stereotype, they're busting their ass to "make ends meet." They might be a little better off if they weren't screwed by the economic policies of Yoo's Republican Party, which is probably why they prefer to vote Democratic.

No wonder this clown was such a powerful Bush administration lawyer -- he has no idea what he's talking about.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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RAND PAUL CALLS PROSPECT OF SHUTDOWN 'A MISTAKE'.... Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-Ky.) chatted with a far-right news website yesterday, and surprisingly enough, rejected the notion of using a government shutdown to force the White House to give Republicans what they want.

[S]ome GOP members of Congress, as well as some of the activist conservatives elected on Nov. 2, continue to discuss a shutdown as a viable option. But Sen.-elect Paul is not among them.

In an exclusive interview Monday on Capitol Hill, the Kentucky ophthalmologist told Newsmax: "I think shutting down the government is a mistake. Nobody really wants that. That's sort of government by chaos."

To say, of course, that "nobody really wants that" isn't quite right -- plenty of current and incoming Republican lawmakers seem to be relishing the prospect of a shutdown. Indeed, none other than Rand Paul recently said he'll refuse to vote for an extension of the federal debt limit, which would both shut down the government and send the United States into default.

Still, it's a good thing when a shutdown is characterized as unreasonable and extreme -- especially by unreasonable extremists -- because it may help create an incentive for Republicans to avoid it.

Paul will not, however, necessarily be a voice of reason when it comes to budgetary issues. In the same interview, he told the far-right website that he'll push to eliminate a $1.2 trillion budget deficit in a year or two, which no sane person should consider possible.

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

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HOUSE REPUBLICAN WANTS HIS GOVERNMENT-SUBSIDIZED HEALTH CARE NOW.... It perfectly reasonable for Andy Harris, like all Americans, to want health care coverage. He's a husband and father of five, and I'm sure he worries about his family losing their health insurance, just like everyone else.

The difference, in this case, is that Andy Harris is a newly-elected far-right congressman from Maryland. Yesterday, at an orientation session, he and his colleagues were told that their health coverage would take effect on Feb. 1, and Harris, an anesthesiologist who railed against the Affordable Care Act to get elected, suggested that's not soon enough.

He wants his government-subsidized health care -- and he wants it now.

"He stood up and asked the two ladies who were answering questions why it had to take so long, what he would do without 28 days of health care," said a congressional staffer who saw the exchange. [...]

"Harris then asked if he could purchase insurance from the government to cover the gap," added the aide, who was struck by the similarity to Harris's request and the public option he denounced as a gateway to socialized medicine.

Harris, a Maryland state senator who works at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and several hospitals on the Eastern Shore, also told the audience, "This is the only employer I've ever worked for where you don't get coverage the first day you are employed," his spokeswoman Anna Nix told POLITICO.

Harris spent months condemning the idea of Americans being entitled to taxpayer-subsidized health care coverage. Now that the election's over, Harris suddenly feels entitled to taxpayer-subsidized health care coverage -- and wants it immediately. (For the record, Harris and his family will probably rely on COBRA to stay insured until his coverage kicks in. COBRA, of course, is another government program that the right opposed.)

That Harris apparently sought a public option for him and his family just makes the whole story that much more hilarious.

Just to clarify, I don't actually blame the far-right congressman-elect. He wants coverage for him and his family, and doesn't want to have to worry about a 28-day gap in which he, his wife, and his kids would have no protections if they get sick.

I do, however, blame the far-right congressman-elect for failing to realize that millions of American families want the same peace of mind he's seeking.

Harris wants to know "what he would do without 28 days of health care"? I don't know, Andy, what have tens of millions of Americans, including millions of children, done without access to quality health care for years? Why are you entitled to government-subsidized health care, but they're not? What will those families do after you repeal the Affordable Care Act? Wait for tort reform to magically cover everyone?

What an embarrassment.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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PUSHING DADT REPEAL UPHILL.... The Pentagon this year surveyed hundreds of thousands of active-duty and reserve troops, as well as 150,000 family members, getting their input on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." We already have a pretty good sense of the results: a majority of respondents, like a majority of civilians, are fine with ending the existing policy.

Ideally, this will give repeal proponents the boost they need to get Senate approval for a measure pending in the chamber. The report on the survey, however, isn't due until Dec. 1. Yesterday, two pro-repeal senators asked for an expedited release.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) tried to boost support for repealing the military's ban on openly gay service members by requesting Monday that the Pentagon release a report reviewing the policy early.

"Some of our colleagues in the Senate share our view about the importance of passing a defense bill, but they are awaiting the release of the working group's report before agreeing to begin debate on the bill," the two wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, referring to the defense authorization bill, which includes a repeal provision. "We are hopeful that release of the report and the opportunity for our colleagues to review its findings and recommendations will help inform their understanding and alleviate some concerns they may have regarding the military's capacity to implement repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in a manner that is consistent with our armed forces' standards of readiness and effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention." [...]

"Given the limited amount of time remaining in the 111th Congress, the soonest possible release of the working group's report could therefore be instrumental in allowing the defense bill to move forward," the two wrote.

If I had to guess, I'd say the Pentagon respectfully declines the request -- the Defense Department generally works on its own schedule, not Congress' -- but what I found interesting about the appeal was who sent it. Lieberman has always been strong on this issue, but Collins, who claims to support repeal, helped her Republican colleagues kill the measure a couple of months ago.

Her co-signed letter yesterday, then, suggests she's still trying to get to "yes." Depending on when the bill can be brought to the floor, Democrats may only need one vote, and if Collins wants to be the hero here, it's within her power to do just that.

Meanwhile, there's still talk of appeasing anti-gay Republicans, led by John McCain (R-Ariz.), and stripping the DADT provision from the larger defense spending bill. Yesterday, however, some leading Dems signaled that if the DADT language is removed, there would have to be a separate, stand-alone vote in the Senate on repeal -- a tricky move given the very limited lame-duck schedule, and a vote that would have to be duplicated in the House.

The surest way to success remains the option on the table -- leaving the spending bill intact, with the repeal provision, and finding a Republican or two willing to let the Senate vote on funding the troops.

On a related note, Aaron Belkin, the director of the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, noted yesterday, "Twenty two studies, including military studies, have found that gays don't hurt the military. The forthcoming DOD study is #23."

McCain and other anti-gay lawmakers insist that they'll also need to see #24. And when that doesn't tell them what they want to hear, it'll be time for study #25. It's farcical.

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

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November 15, 2010

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

* Middle East peace: "The pledge by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to push for a new, one-time-only freeze of 90 days on settlement construction in the West Bank represents a bet by the Israelis and the Americans that enough can be accomplished so that the Palestinians will not abandon peace talks even after the freeze ends."

* Aung San Suu Kyi is finally free in Burma.

* Afghan President Hamid Karzai is increasingly critical of U.S. military operations in his country. Gen. David Petraeus isn't happy about it.

* On a related, here's the new phased four-year plan: "The Obama administration has developed a plan to begin transferring security duties in select areas of Afghanistan to that country's forces over the next 18 to 24 months, with an eye toward ending the American combat mission there by 2014, officials said Sunday."

* Some encouraging economic news: "Retail sales, helped by strong demand for autos, increased in October by the largest amount in seven months. The Commerce Department reported Monday that retail sales rose 1.2 percent last month. That was nearly double the gain that had been expected and the largest increase since March."

* Rep. Charlie Rangel's (D-N.Y.) ethics trial gets underway: "In an ominous sign for Representative Charles B. Rangel, the House ethics committee on Monday said the facts presented by a prosecutor accusing Mr. Rangel of violating Congressional rules were not in dispute and that the congressman himself had not refuted the charges." (Note: Rangel abruptly left his own proceedings this morning, complaining that he had no lawyer.)

* Thirteen protestors organized by the GetEqual campaign handcuffed themselves to the White House's north gate today to protest "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I'm not an expert in political protests, but given that the White House already agrees with the demonstrators, wouldn't it be smarter to take the case to the U.S. Senate, where, you know, the outcome will be decided? If Barack Obama is on your side, and John McCain isn't, why protest at the White House?

* Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) were sworn in this afternoon. Sen.-elect Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is still waiting for the state to certify his results, and should join the Senate before the end of the month.

* I'm glad President Obama put Sarah Bloom Raskin on the Fed's Board of Governors: "Sarah Bloom Raskin on Friday used her first public speech as a governor of the Federal Reserve Board to call for major changes to mortgage servicing, saying it's time for 'serious and sustained reform.'"

* Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) hates the Affordable Care Act, except when it can fund medical facilities in his state.

* Right-wing Virginia Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' wife, has stepped down as head of her far-right organization, Liberty Central.

* Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is the latest conservative to announce his distaste for the 17th Amendment.

* Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich doesn't just want to defeat the left, he wants to "replace the left."

* Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), soon to be the House Republican Conference chairman, doesn't appear to know what "cut" means.

* For-profit colleges are still making money, but they're not enrolling as many students.

* I guess this should be funny, but I'm not altogether pleased to see such widespread recognition for "refudiate."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THE POST-TRUTH ERA.... It's never been easier for Americans to keep up on current events and public affairs, but the persistent propensity for large swaths of the electorate to believe demonstrable falsehoods remains astounding.

I'm well aware of the structural problems that generated Republican gains in the midterms -- high unemployment means huge losses for the incumbent majority. But I'm also inclined to believe that our stunted discourse contributes to an environment in which facts are swiftly rejected.

Much, if not most, of the country believes President Obama raised taxes. And that he signed TARP into law. And that TARP money isn't being repaid. And that the economy contracted in 2010. And that the stimulus was wasteful and counter-productive. And that this current Congress did less than most. And that the Affordable Care Act constitutes "socialized medicine" and a "government takeover." And let's not even get started on the president's birthplace.

In a historical sense, it's not at all unusual for propagandists and provocateurs to spread lies, but we live in an era in which it's almost effortless for ignorance to spread like a cancer -- leading more people to believe more nonsense, faster and easier.

Andrew Sullivan had an item on this last week that bears repeating.

It seems to me that the last year or so in America's political culture has represented the triumph of untruth. And the untruth was propagated by a deliberate, simple and systemic campaign to kill Obama's presidency in its crib. Emergency measures in a near-unprecedented economic collapse - the bank bailout, the auto-bailout, the stimulus - were described by the right as ideological moves of choice, when they were, in fact, pragmatic moves of necessity. The increasingly effective isolation of Iran's regime - and destruction of its legitimacy from within - was portrayed as a function of Obama's weakness, rather than his strength. The health insurance reform -- almost identical to Romney's, to the right of the Clintons in 1993, costed to reduce the deficit, without a public option, and with millions more customers for the insurance and drug companies -- was turned into a socialist government take-over.

Every one of these moves could be criticized in many ways. What cannot be done honestly, in my view, is to create a narrative from all of them to describe Obama as an anti-American hyper-leftist, spending the US into oblivion. But since this seems to be the only shred of thinking left on the right (exacerbated by the justified flight of the educated classes from a party that is now openly contemptuous of learning), it became a familiar refrain -- pummeled into our heads day and night by talk radio and Fox. If you think I'm exaggerating, try the following thought experiment.

If a black Republican president had come in, helped turn around the banking and auto industries (at a small profit!), insured millions through the private sector while cutting Medicare, overseen a sharp decline in illegal immigration, ramped up the war in Afghanistan, reinstituted pay-as-you go in the Congress, set up a debt commission to offer hard choices for future debt reduction, and seen private sector job growth outstrip the public sector's in a slow but dogged recovery, somehow I don't think that Republican would be regarded as a socialist.

This is the era of the Big Lie, in other words, and it translates into a lot of little lies -- "death panels," "out-of-control" spending, "apologies for America" etc. -- designed to concoct a false narrative so simple and so familiar it actually succeeded in getting into people's minds in the midst of a brutal recession.

As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, this dynamic encourages more of what we've seen of late -- when dishonesty is rewarded, we'll hear more lies, not fewer.

The post-truth era can be disheartening.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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MCCONNELL CAVES ON EARMARKS.... Almost immediately after the midterms, a contingent of Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), set out to prohibit GOP members from using earmarks in the next Congress. Leading the other side was none other than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Publicly, McConnell was insisting (accurately, by the way) that eliminating earmarks would be a meaningless gesture that wouldn't actually save any money. He called the very debate "exasperating." Privately, McConnell was "maneuvering behind the scenes" to defeat DeMint's gambit.

This afternoon, McConnell, apparently unable to persuade the caucus he ostensibly leads, threw in the towel.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a longtime defender of the Congressional authority over federal spending, said on Monday that he would support a proposed ban on earmarks, the lawmaker-directed spending items, in the next Congress.

Mr. McConnell, in his opening speech at the start of the lame-duck session, announced that he was changing his position on earmarks to demonstrate to voters and to his colleagues that he was now firmly committed to reducing government spending.

"I have thought about these things long and hard over the past few weeks," Mr. McConnell said. "I've talked with my members. I've listened to them. Above all, I have listened to my constituents. And what I've concluded is that on the issue of Congressional earmarks, as the leader of my party in the Senate, I have to lead first by example."

Or to translate this to English, "I've discovered that I don't have the votes to do what I want."

And with that Mitch McConnell, who's used earmarks for years and doesn't want to have to give them up, declared, "Today, I am announcing that I will join the Republican leadership in the House in support of a moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress." He acknowledged that the move is "symbolic" and largely counter-productive, but he's doing it anyway to impress voters.

I guess this means, by Sen. James Inhofe's (R-Okla.) standards, McConnell has been "brainwashed" by "liberals," too.

For what it's worth, I should note for context that the moratorium, in addition to leaving spending largely unaffected, also won't stop the Democratic majority from continuing the practice, forcing GOP senators into a position in which they'll have to vote against popular appropriations bills that happen to include earmarks.

Also note, the moratorium won't have the force of law and couldn't be formally enforced -- so Republicans could just go ahead and request earmarks anyway.

It's not exactly heartening that the first major Republican initiative after the elections is largely meaningless, and intended to do little more than improve their standing in the polls.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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IT'S ALL ABOUT PRIORITIES.... Compare and contrast.

Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican leader, two weeks ago:

"[O]ur top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office."

Harry Reid, Senate Democratic leader, two hours ago:

"Despite the changes, our charge remains the same. Our number-one priority is still getting people back to work. And the most important change we can make is in working more productively as a unified body to help our economy regain its strength."

One of these two leaders has the right priorities. Can you tell which one?

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

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MAKING TOUGH CALLS IS (AND MUST BE) ITS OWN REWARD.... On "Meet the Press" yesterday, David Axelrod was understandably reluctant to go into details about upcoming budget negotiations with congressional Republicans. Host David Gregory asked how the White House can expect Democrats and Republicans "to make painful choices" if he's not prepared to talk about budget specifics on the air.

The question didn't quite work -- it was a bit of a non sequitur -- but the notion that the White House is somehow avoiding "painful choices" is clearly untrue. One only need consider the politically treacherous decisions this administration has tackled for two years.

Jon Chait had a sharp item on this the other day.

One of the defining beliefs of sensible-center Washington establishment types is that elected officials need to make Tough Decisions, including unpopular decisions, rather than just try to skate through to the next election. However, a second set of beliefs held by this group is that, if you do lose an election, this proves that all your ideas were not just politically unwise but substantively wrong.

What a good point. It's taken as a given that honorable leaders aren't supposed to consider polls or elections when facing serious challenges -- they're supposed to do what's right, and make the "tough call" and "hard choice," regardless of the political fallout. Those who don't are necessarily deemed weak and irresponsible.

But Jon's right that there's no real political reward for following the right course. Pundits demand that tough leaders make unpopular decisions on the merits, but then those same pundits blast the leaders when the unpopular decisions prove to be ... unpopular. Indeed, those decisions are necessarily deemed to be wrong by virtue of the fact that the electorate disapproved.

Here President Obama was doing all kinds of unpopular things -- bailing out banks, bailing out the auto industry, cutting hundreds of billions from Medicare -- because he felt those courses of action were responsible. And then he loses seats, in part because of those hard decisions, and now he's supposed to admit that his policies were bad?

I can't remember where I read it -- someone help me out in comments [Update: there it is. Thanks, everyone] -- but I saw a report recently about President Obama and his team taking a certain amount of pride in making decisions they knew would be unpopular. The White House officials believed it was their job to solve problems and make tough decisions, and that "painful choices" are just part of the job. If you're too cowardly to do things that are unpopular, you probably shouldn't be there anyway.

But it's striking to me how little credit Obama gets for this, most notably from the same media figures who judge a leader based on his/her willingness to do unpopular things for the good of the country.

Maybe the Political Pundit Perpetual Panic Conflictinator doesn't really know what it wants?

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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CANTOR'S UNPERSUASIVE WALK-BACK.... Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the incoming House Majority Leader, caused an unexpected stir the other day, boasting about a private meeting he had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Cantor's office, the Republican assured Netanyahu that the new House GOP majority will "serve as a check" on the Obama administration.

It was rather astounding on multiple levels. The private meeting was itself "unusual, if not unheard of." But it was even more striking that Cantor would vow directly to a foreign leader to undermine the efforts of a sitting administration, apparently suggesting that he would side with the other government over the American government on a matter of U.S. foreign policy.

Perhaps most importantly, it may have even been illegal. A few years ago, Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria and met with Bashar al-Assad. At the time, none other than Eric Cantor personally accused Pelosi of possibly violating the Logan Act, "which makes it a felony for any American 'without authority of the United States' to communicate with a foreign government to influence that government's behavior on any disputes with the United States." By Cantor's own standard, he seemed to commit a felony last week.

With this in mind, today's "clarification" was predictable.

Rep. Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) office on Monday issued a follow-up comment to one made last week, saying that the congressman would serve as a roadblock to the Obama administration approach but not when it comes to issues of Middle East diplomacy.

A spokesman for the likely soon-to-be House Majority Leader said that there was no clarification being offered on a statement that caused a bit of controversy last week. On Monday, simply put, the office was reaffirming that while Cantor told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that he planned on serving as "a check on the administration," he would not be playing that function "in relation to U.S./Israel relations."

That's reassuring, I suppose. It's clearly a problem if Cantor tried to undermine U.S. foreign policy directly with another country's head of state, but as of today, the current Minority Whip's office is saying that's not what happened.

I am curious, though, exactly what Cantor was saying when he vowed to the prime minister that Republicans would serve as "a check on the administration." Did Cantor think Netanyahu was interested in the American health care system? Was Cantor anxious to talk about cutting off unemployment aid?

In other words, for Cantor's "clarification" to be credible, we'd have to believe the Republican leader had a private meeting with a foreign leader, vowed to help "check" the administration, but was talking about subjects entirely unrelated to that foreign leader's country.

If you find that hard to believe, we're on the same page.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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NOONAN FEARS REPORTS ON 'NUTS AND YAHOOS'.... In her latest Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan complains that we're likely to see major news outlets characterize "a lot of these new Congress critters [as] a little radical, a little nutty." (via Steve M.)

The media is looking for drama. They are looking for a colorful story. They want to do reporting that isn't bland, that has a certain edge.... The mainstream media this January will be looking for the nuts. [...]

The point is when they want to paint you as nuts and yahoos, don't help them paint you as nuts and yahoos. It's good to keep in mind the advice of the 19th century actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who once said, speaking in a different context, that she didn't really care what people did as long as they didn't do it in the street and frighten the horses.

That would be the advice for incoming Republicans: Stand tall, speak clear, and don't frighten the horses.

To bolster the point, Noonan pointed to coverage of the post-1994 elections, when the media "focused their cameras on people who could be portrayed as nutty, and found them." Apparently, rascally news organizations told the public about members of Congress, their notorious remarks, and their controversial actions.

How outrageous. Journalists reporting on ridiculous members of Congress and their antics? The nerve of these political reporters.

Of course the real problem here is not the one Peggy Noonan identifies. The issue is not news outlets taking note of radicals and extremists in Congress; the issue is the presence of radicals and extremists in Congress. Noonan seems to think there's something untoward about shining a light on "nuts and yahoos" in positions of great power in the federal government. I'd argue that shining a light on them is one of the reasons the media is supposed to exist.

The amusing part of all of this is what Noonan seems to accept, but is unwilling to acknowledge: she knows that her party has just elected a whole legion of lawmakers, many of whom are mad as a hatter, and she's worried about the embarrassment that comes with public recognition of their madness.

When Noonan counsels them -- "don't help [reporters] paint you as nuts and yahoos" -- there's a degree of fear here. The column effectively urges far-right extremists who will now help shape federal law not to be themselves, because that would be embarrassing for everyone.

Noonan added that in the wake of the '94 midterms, this "spirited" group of Republican lawmakers didn't have "a conservative media infrastructure to defend them," an issue that has since been resolved. But that's not especially satisfying, either -- as Steve M. put it, "Because they shouldn't have to suffer consequences once we learn that they believe such things, right?"

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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

* Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R) write-in bid in Alaska continues to appear well positioned to win -- 89% of the write-in votes have been in her favor -- but this is the week 40,000 absentee ballots get counted.

* On a related note, while Joe Miller (R) insists he can still win, his lawyers don't seem to think so -- they're packing up and leaving Alaska.

* It was very close, but Rep. Ben Chandler (D) has been declared the winner in Kentucky's 6th congressional district. His GOP challenger conceded over the weekend.

* There are now seven officially unresolved U.S. House races. The Democrat leads in two of them (California's 11th and California's 20th), but trails in the other five (Illinois 8th, Texas 27th, North Carolina 2nd, New York 25th, and New York 1st).

* The Senate Democratic leadership finally thought it had found a good member to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2012 election cycle. But late Friday, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet became the latest Dem to say he's not interested, either.

* With Mississippi's Haley Barbour stepping down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he'll be replaced by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

* Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) hasn't ruled out a presidential campaign at some point. "You never say never about anything," he told CNN.

* And Sarah Palin's political action committee is once again in trouble with the Federal Election Commission, filing a quarterly report filled with math errors and related mistakes. It's not the first time: "The commission has sent at least a half-dozen letters to Sarah PAC since its formation in 2009 about errors or omissions in its reports, records show."

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

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MORE CALLS FOR A CULTURE-WAR TRUCE.... It's been a while, but in the months leading up to the 2006 midterms -- the last time a chamber of Congress had a Republican majority -- GOP policymakers were intent on making the base happy.

In the three months leading up to Election Day '06, Republicans voted on an anti-gay constitutional amendment, a flag-burning constitutional amendment, assorted restrictions on abortion rights, new penalties for "broadcast indecency," and a measure to retain the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Republican lawmakers thought they could gin up the base and salvage the election cycle. It didn't work, and Democrats soon after won majorities in both chambers.

It's interesting, then, to see some Republicans urging the party to just skip hot-button culture-war issues altogether in the next Congress.

A gay conservative group and some Tea Party leaders are campaigning to keep social issues off the Republican agenda.

In a letter to be released Monday, the group GOProud and leaders from groups like the Tea Party Patriots and the New American Patriots, will urge Republicans in the House and Senate to keep their focus on shrinking the government.

"On behalf of limited-government conservatives everywhere, we write to urge you and your colleagues in Washington to put forward a legislative agenda in the next Congress that reflects the principles of the Tea Party movement," they write to presumptive House Speaker John Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell in an advance copy provided to POLITICO. "This election was not a mandate for the Republican Party, nor was it a mandate to act on any social issue."

The letter's signatories range from GOProud's co-founder and Chairman Christopher Barron ... to Tea Party leaders with no particular interest in the gay rights movement.

It's amusing, in a way, to see someone urge the GOP to pursue "the principles of the Tea Party movement," since no one can say with any confidence exactly what they are. Indeed, a significant chunk of the Tea Party activists say they're involved precisely because they're interested in social issues. It underscores the problem with pseudo-movements with no real policy agenda -- their "principles" are whatever the speaker says they are.

Regardless, the letter comes just months after Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) suggested it's time for a "truce" on culture-war issues.

That didn't go over well with much of the traditional Republican Party base, and it stands to reason this new effort will draw fire, too. Indeed, just last week, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was asked about the notion of a "truce on social issues" for awhile. He replied that it's just not possible for someone to be "a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative."

With that in mind, the intra-right fight should make for compelling viewing. GOProud's Barron noted, for example, that Jim DeMint wants to ban gay teachers from public school classrooms. "How is that limited government?" Barron asked.

I don't know, but I'd love to hear the answer.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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KOPPEL LAMENTS 'THE DEATH OF REAL NEWS'.... Ted Koppel, a long-time giant of broadcast journalism, had a rather lengthy rant yesterday, incorporating complaints about Keith Olbermann into a larger tirade about "the death of real news." Some of his concerns were compelling, but most fell into familiar traps.

Koppel was right, for example, to lament major news organizations closing international bureaus, but he points the finger in the wrong direction. As he sees it, it's the fault of Americans, especially younger news consumers, who have no appetite for international affairs, and who prefer opinion-based programs.

I have a hard time believing that news consumers' attitudes have really changed that significantly in recent decades. For that matter, Koppel said ABC's "bean counters" started applying cost-benefit ratios to overseas bureaus in the "mid-90s," which largely pre-dates the very opinion-style programs he disapproves of.

More important, though, was Koppel's condemnation of the cable news outlets, especially their prime-time lineups.

We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly -- individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.

The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's oft-quoted observation that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.

And so, among the many benefits we have come to believe the founding fathers intended for us, the latest is news we can choose. Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be.... It is also part of a pervasive ethos that eschews facts in favor of an idealized reality.

There are some legitimate concerns about news consumers having the option of surrounding themselves only with news they want to hear, but Koppel is painting with an overly-broad brush.

For one thing, he's confusing ideology and partisanship -- Rachel Maddow is a liberal; Sean Hannity is a Republican. MSNBC's lineup criticizes President Obama and congressional Democrats nearly every day on ideological grounds; Fox News' lineup wouldn't dare chastise their Republican brethren.

For another, Koppel insists MSNBC and Fox News are somehow mirror images of one another. This remains the laziest and most unpersuasive observation in all of American media criticism. Fox News is a Republican propaganda outlet, plain and simple. MSNBC is a straight-news network, with some opinionated program in the early morning (a former Republican congressman gets three hours a day) and in prime time.

As for Koppel's insistence that all of this is "part of a pervasive ethos that eschews facts," I can only assume that he hasn't actually watched MSNBC's prime-time lineup, or he'd know this is plainly false.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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WHAT GRAHAM CONSIDERS A 'STUMBLING BLOCK'.... Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told ABC's Christiane Amanpour yesterday that he's "very open-minded" about the New START nuclear arms treaty, but he sees "two impediments."

As Graham explained it, "Modernization. Not only do we need a START Treaty; we need to modernize our nuclear force, the weapons that are left, to make sure they continue to be a deterrent. And we need to make sure that we can employ -- deploy missile defense systems that are apart from START. So you've got two stumbling blocks."

Tanya Somanader explained that Graham's flubbing all the relevant details.

The only problem with Graham's "stumbling blocks" is that they don't actually exist. While "security experts" like Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and former Bush administration Ambassador John Bolton insist that Obama is "risking our security" by supposedly not focusing on modernization of America's nuclear arsenal, the actual rocket scientists of an independent defense advisory panel determined that not only are the weapons completely reliable, but that our current "nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in effectiveness." To make sure this remains the case, the Obama administration devoted $7 billion to maintain the nuclear-weapons stockpile -- $600 million more than Congress approved last year and 10 percent more than what the Bush administration spent.

As for START's impact on missile defense, Director of the Missile Defense Agency Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly made it clear that the new treaty "has no constraints on current and future components of the Ballistic Missile Defense System," and that it actually "reduces" several limitations on cost-effective testing. Thus, given Graham's criteria for support, treaty proponents should expect his vote.

In other words, Graham would be a "yes" vote if only he knew what he was talking about.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have an op-ed in the Washington Post today, insisting that "our national security depends on" New START ratification. Among other things, the cabinet secretaries emphasized the fact that it's been almost a year since U.S. inspectors lost the ability to keep tabs on Russian nukes. Both Clinton and Gates are anxious to have the treaty ratified so checks can be reinstated -- this is the first time in 15 years we've lost the ability to inspect Russian long-range nuclear bases.

But so long as senators like Graham have imaginary complaints, we'll continue to wait.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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CERTAIN ABOUT UNCERTAINTY, CONT'D.... The most annoying and misleading talking points tend to be the ones that linger the longest.

Yesterday, for example, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) repeated on CNN the same line that we've heard for a year: "The most important thing the economy needs right now is certainty. The reason we have so much money sitting on the sidelines is because of all the churning they see in Washington." It came the same day as USC business professor Ayse Imrohoroglu made a similar case in the LA Times.

We've been through this repeatedly, but Kevin Drum offered another helpful reminder.

The uncertainty meme is just mind boggling. Businesses always have a certain amount of financial and regulatory uncertainty to deal with, and there's simply no evidence that this uncertainty is any greater now than it usually is. (It is, of course, entirely believable that business owners who spend too much time watching Fox or reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page might believe otherwise, but that's a whole different problem -- and one that Imrohoroglu should spend his time debunking, not promoting.) The only significant real uncertainty that American businesses face right now is uncertainty about whether there's enough customer demand to justify hiring more workers and buying more equipment.

In my heart of hearts, I assume that most Republicans know their talking point on this is garbage. They're using it, I suspect, because they can't think of anything else -- they can't blame the economy on tax increases, since taxes have gone down not up, and they can't blame the recession on Bush since they still support his economic policies. They need to figure out a way to blame health care reform, industry regulations, and the rest of the Democratic agenda, so "uncertainty" becomes a convenient catch-all.

But it's still ridiculous. Businesses have been reluctant to hire because they need more customers. It's really not a mystery.

Let's also not forget, though, that Republicans seek to contribute to their imaginary problem by adding more uncertainty, not less. Hell, the GOP can add all kinds of certainty today by announcing it will stop fighting middle-class tax cuts, stop trying to gut the health care system, stop pushing to take more money out of the economy, stop trying to undermine consumer and worker safeguards, stop vowing to repeal financial regulatory reform

After all, as Mark Schmitt explained a couple of months ago, "The mantra of 'uncertainty' is as subtle and smart a political slogan as the Republican wordsmiths have ever cooked up. But rather than being defensive or trying to change the subject, progressives should take it head on: It's the political maneuverings of the Bush administration and the scams of Wall Street that created uncertainty. And it's progressive policies, from the New Deal to the present, that hold the answer."

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

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TAX CUT TACTICS.... Last week, senior White House advisor David Axelrod caused quite a bit of trouble when he suggested the administration was prepared to cave and give Republicans the tax cuts they want. Yesterday, on "Meet the Press," he was a little more cautious, but didn't exactly speak from a position of strength -- he would only rule out a "permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans," which keeps a temporary extension prominently on the table.

Part of the larger problem is that we're not looking at two competing approaches for everyone to consider. There's one Republican plan -- a permanent extension of Bush-era tax rates, adding trillions to the debt for a tax policy that was a demonstrable failure.

But there isn't a single Democratic alternative -- by some counts, there are six or seven counter-proposals -- which necessarily makes the political debate more difficult. There are some indications, however, that the left is starting to rally behind a single approach. Greg Sargent had this report late on Friday:

One of the most powerful labor organizations in the country is throwing its weight behind a legislative strategy on the Bush tax cuts in which Democrats would hold a vote on just extending the middle class tax cuts permanently, without any vote on the high end ones.

"The election is over -- we believe Congress ought to get down to business and vote on extending the tax cuts for the middle class, and not vote on the tax cuts for the rich," Bill Samuel, the legislative director of the AFL-CIO, told me in an interview this afternoon. "Congress should not extend the tax cuts for the rich -- not even temporarily -- because that would do more harm than good for the economy."

AFL-CIO's declaration represents the first major institutional endorsement of taking this approach in the lame duck session, suggesting the possibility that labor and leading liberals in Washington may begin coalescing behind it. More broadly, the move is also a sign that labor and liberals will demand that Obama and Congressional Dems draw a hard line against Republicans in the tax cut fight.

This is, you'll notice, the original approach adopted by President Obama -- tax cuts for the middle class, a return to Clinton-era rates for the wealthy. Indeed, this was Candidate Obama's idea as presented to voters in 2008, when he won the presidency fairly easily.

It's hard to say, at least at this point, whether the more centrist elements in the Democratic caucus could support this, but either way, there's benefit that comes with having the left stake out a clear, compelling, and popular position on how best to proceed -- there's a rival pole to match the right's.

Here's hoping this helps change the trajectory of the debate, at least a little, because at this point I continue to marvel at how badly Dems are playing the game. The best option seems so painfully obvious to me that I'm amazed Democrats are afraid to try it: bring middle-class tax cuts to the floor and dare Republicans to kill them. If the GOP caves, Dems get the policy they want. If the GOP kills the tax-cut package, Clinton-era rates return for everyone, which is probably the policy Dems should want, and the headlines read, "Republicans kill tax cut compromise; higher rates kick in Jan. 1."

I've never seen a party so afraid of doing the obvious, popular thing that puts their rivals on the defensive. It's a gift-wrapped present that Dems seem afraid to open.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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MCCAIN MOVES THE GOAL POSTS.... A couple of months ago, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led the charge to kill "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, he specifically relied on a Pentagon survey on the issue. How, McCain said, could Congress possibly act before lawmakers know the results? Don't senators care what active-duty and reserve troops, as well as 150,000 family members, have to say?

Well, we now have a pretty good sense what the survey results show: most of the men and women in uniform are fine with ending DADT. By one account, more that 70% of respondents to the Pentagon survey said the effect of repealing the existing policy would be positive, mixed, or nonexistent.

Noting the attitudes of those in the military, the Washington Post editorial board said today, "The last possible rationale for maintaining the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy appears to have been pulverized."

One would certainly like to think so. McCain, meanwhile, has decided to move the goal posts.

McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Sunday that he did not think the Senate should lift the ban during the lame-duck session that begins this week.

"Once we get this study, we need to have hearings. And we need to examine it. And we need to look at whether it's the kind of study that we wanted," McCain said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

This is genuinely pathetic. Note the evolving excuses McCain has used to justify his anti-gay attitudes:

We can't repeal DADT until the Secretary of Defense says it's a good idea. Oh, he does?

Well then we can't repeal DADT until the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff says it's a good idea. Oh, he's on board, too?

Well then we can't repeal DADT until we've surveyed servicemen and women, asking their opinion on the policy. They're fine with repeal, too?

Well then we can't repeal DADT until we've studied the survey results for months.

Whether McCain realizes how foolish he looks or not, this is transparently ridiculous. The senator would be better off dropping the incoherent pretense and simply acknowledge what's plainly true: he doesn't want gay servicemembers, and no amount of evidence will change his mind.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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FROM THE WEEKEND.... It was a surprisingly busy weekend here at Political Animal. Here's a recap of what we covered.

On Sunday, we talked about:

* White House officials have begun crafting a plan on how to proceed in 2011 and 2012. If they expect to have a constructive relationship with congressional Republicans, they're making a mistake.

* Why, oh why, does the Washington Post keep running tiresome op-eds from Doug Schoen and Patrick Caddell, "Democrats" who hate Democrats?

* Tea Partiers are pretty worked up about competing "alternative" orientation programs for incoming congressional freshmen.

* Voters in Indiana said they wanted a Senate candidate who can relate to the concerns of regular people and can bring a fresh perspective to the entrenched insiders in Congress. They elected an old, wealthy Washington insider, who left Indiana more than a decade ago, and who's spent several years as a corporate lobbyist.

* I had a new op-ed in the New York Daily News yesterday, exploring areas of overlap between President Obama's agenda and selected Republican ideas.

* On Thursday, Cindy McCain appeared in an ad denouncing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." On Friday, Cindy McCain pulled a 180 and announced that she supports "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I wonder what her husband said to make her change her mind.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* Did incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) commit a felony when he met privately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vowing to oppose U.S. policy in the Middle East? By Cantor's own standards, perhaps.

* When the political world assumes that the public really cares about the deficit, the political world is wrong.

* The debate over health care policy offers a case study on the ways in which Republicans make bipartisanship impossible.

* In "This Week in God," we covered a variety of topics, including some unintended consequences of Oklahoma's decision to combat the imaginary sharia threat.

* There's some evidence that some Republican senators just don't like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) very much.

* The administration still hopes it can commit to some new nuclear investments in order to pick up votes for New START.

* House Democrats resolved their leadership dispute by creating a new position for outgoing House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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November 14, 2010

WHITE HOUSE PONDERS, WHAT NOW?.... Governing hasn't exactly been easy for the Obama administration over the last two years. The White House benefited from a like-minded U.S. House, but Senate obstructionism reached a point unseen in American history. That, combined with pressing, inherited crises -- an economic catastrophe, two wars, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit, a housing crisis, a climate crisis, a dysfunctional health care system, a broken energy framework -- and an angry, impatient electorate, made 2009 and 2010 as challenging for this president as any two-year stretch in modern American history.

And it's about to get considerably more difficult. A Senate that struggled to function with a 59-member majority will now have a 53-47 split. The incoming GOP House majority will make the lower chamber as conservative as it's been in generations. The national and international challenges in desperate need of attention haven't gone away, and the president's public standing has faltered.

What on earth will President Obama and his team do now?

Anne Kornblut reports today that a wide variety of leading White House aides have been meeting this week to "figure out what went so wrong and what to do about it." The officials have "determined that the situation they face is serious and will take significant adjustments to reverse."

The advisers are deeply concerned about winning back political independents, who supported Obama two years ago by an eight-point margin but backed Republicans for the House this year by 19 points. To do so, they think he must forge partnerships with Republicans on key issues and make noticeable progress on his oft-repeated campaign pledge to change the ways of Washington.

Even more important, senior administration officials said, Obama will need to oversee tangible improvements in the economy. They cannot just keep arguing, as Democrats did during the recent campaign, that things would have been worse if not for administration policies.

It appears that a detailed plan for the political future is still coming together, but Kornblut's report, which is well worth reading in full, noted that officials are prioritizing "re-energizing" his "core constituencies," which strikes me as a very good idea. It also seems unlikely that they'll make major, "sudden" changes in their approach to governing, especially since they don't perceive the midterm results as being "as bleak a harbinger as some Democrats fear." I'm also glad to see officials are prioritizing "tangible improvements in the economy," since Republicans aren't.

One senior official "said the key is to neither overreact nor underreact to the midterms but to accurately pinpoint the areas that were truly problematic for the president and try to act on them."

The sticking point, at least for me, continues to be over what the White House expects from Republicans, who just happen to be intent on destroying Obama's presidency. The piece noted that White House officials intend to "gauge whether they can forge an alliance with any top Republicans," which strikes me as practically impossible. A senior official said the White House is "hopeful but not naive" about constructive work with the rival party.

If I'm in the West Wing, I'm planning for the worst -- game out the scenario in which Republicans push for a government shutdown, refuse to fund much of anything, make every effort to gut health care and education, and plan accordingly.

Because all available evidence suggests GOP leaders and their nihilistic rank and file have no interest in governing. None. If Plan A is exploring the possibility of working in good faith with Republicans towards actual policymaking, fine. Give it a try. But keeping Plan B handy at or near the top of the pile would probably the responsible, realistic thing to do.

Put it this way: the White House should imagine Republicans being as reckless, irresponsible, ignorant, ill-tempered and child-like as humanly possible -- and then expect that to happen, because it probably will.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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THE SCHOEN/CADDELL FARCE.... I'm beginning to notice a pattern -- Doug Schoen and Patrick Caddell, ostensible "Democratic" pollsters, write silly op-eds bashing their party and the Washington Post runs them, over and over again.

It started in March, when the pair argued Democrats would be far better off with the electorate if they failed to pursue their policy agenda. A month later, Schoen and Caddell were at it again, this time insisting that Democrats do what Tea Partiers tell them to do. President Obama and congressional Democrats should, they argued, work on an agenda focused on "reducing the debt, with an emphasis on tax cuts."

Last month, the not-so-dynamic duo had another WaPo op-ed, blasting the president for being "divisive." Today the Post runs yet another Schoen/Caddell piece -- the fourth piece in eight months -- and this time we learn from the Democrats who hate Democrats that President Obama should respond to the midterms by refusing to seek re-election in two years, because it would bring people together.

The piece is a little too absurd to excerpt -- go ahead and click on the link if you're inclined, but keep a bottle of Maalox handy -- but the argument is ridiculous on its face. I obviously don't know what political conditions will be like in two years; no one does. But the notion that an electoral shellacking necessitates retirement is not only silly, it's at odds with all recent history -- Clinton, Reagan, Truman, and FDR all saw midterm setbacks on par with Obama's. They all won re-election soon after. Indeed, it's an inconvenient point, but Obama's electoral standing is actually slightly better now than at comparable points in the Clinton and Reagan presidencies.

Adam Serwer noted that "asking Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell not to be one-note hacks would be like telling Maury Povitch to stop doing shows involving paternity tests." He added, with dripping sarcasm:

Why wait? Shouldn't he and Joe Biden just resign effective immediately, making John Boehner president? In fact, this whole two-party system thing is absurd and just leads to partisan acrimony. One party rule would be better. The Democratic Party should just disband and let Republicans control Congress and the White House. That way, there would be no doubt about our national identity and common purpose, and no opportunity for resentment and division. Letting the American people actually vote on whether or not they want Obama to serve a second term would just lead to more polarization.

But I'm also struck by the larger context. Matt Gertz noted that Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell are regular Fox News contributors, who supported Republican congressional candidates this year, and who'll soon join Republican politicians and pundits at a right-wing retreat founded by activist David Horowitz.

Maybe now would be a good time for the Washington Post to stop running their tiresome screeds as if they have Democratic interests at heart?

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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DUELING ORIENTATIONS.... If Tea Party groups want to appear less hysterical in the eyes of lawmakers they hope to influence, they're off to a comically bad start.

Apparently, incoming freshmen to the U.S. House will begin their official orientation programs today. But before this initial round of meetings, there are competing "alternative" orientation programs, with some conservatives seeking to tell the incoming lawmakers what and how to think before they're "corrupted" by the establishment.

The Tea Party Patriots ... had announced just after the election that it was holding an orientation event for new members of Congress. But the Claremont Institute, a small conservative think tank in California, was hosting one at the same time. On Thursday, the group sent an e-mail to supporters, warning that the institute was trying to co-opt the freshmen.

"They are apparently trying to make sure that instead of sitting with grass-roots tea party leaders from around the country, the lobbyists and consultants can sink their claws into the freshmen, and begin to 'teach them' the ways of D.C.," said the letter, which was signed by organizers Jenny Beth Martin, Dawn Wilder, Mark Meckler and Debbie Dooley. Also included in the e-mail were the personal e-mails and cell phone numbers of many candidates who had won election to Congress -- and even a few who didn't.

The subject line of the email read, "Don't Let Them Steal OUR New Members of Congress."

Right on schedule, hundreds of enraged zealots began calling the representatives-elect, demanding they attend a conservative orientation program, instead of the other conservative orientation program.

It's worth emphasizing that the Claremont Institute isn't exactly composed of moderates. It's a fairly prominent far-right think tank, cozy with the most conservative elements of the Republican Party, which has even hosted lectures attended by fringe extremists like Christine O'Donnell.

And just for added fun, also note that Claremont said "it was actually just hosting a meeting the freshmen had organized themselves." It wasn't a nefarious plot to corrupt anyone.

How silly was all of this? RedState's Erick Erickson explained, "For the record, the Claremont Institute is on the opposite coast of the United States from Washington and composed of some of the wingiest wingers in the entire wing-o-sphere. This handwringing about 'Washington Insiders' is verging on paranoid.... Certainly there are legitimate concerns and there must be caution, but Good Lord people, by the time all the cards are on the table we're going to have all the tea party groups labeling their competitors as Washington Insiders. This is nuts."

I knew Erickson would eventually write something I could agree with.

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

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'SPINNING THE REVOLVING DOOR BACKWARD'.... Quite a few successful candidates this year struck me as the kind of folks who shouldn't have even run in the first place. Floridians elected a criminal as governor; Ohioans elected Bush's failed budget director as a U.S. senator; Kentuckians elected an odd, self-accredited ophthalmologist to the Senate, too.

But the one statewide campaign that stood out as particularly bizarre was in Indiana, where Hoosiers did the exact opposite of what they said they wanted.

When Cooper Industries, a century-old manufacturing company based in Texas, moved its headquarters to Bermuda to slash its American income tax bill, it had to turn to a Washington insider with extraordinary contacts to soothe a seething Congress.

Dan Coats, then a former senator and ambassador to Germany, served as co-chairman of a team of lobbyists in 2007 who worked behind the scenes to successfully block Senate legislation that would have terminated a tax loophole worth hundreds of millions of dollars in additional cash flow to Cooper Industries.

Now Mr. Coats, a Republican from Indiana, is about to make a striking transition. He is spinning the revolving door backward.

Exactly. If you listen to what a lot of voters say they want this year, especially in conservative states like Indiana where a huge chunk of the population identifies as Tea Partiers, it's candidates who are ready to break with the past, question long-held assumptions, relate to the concerns of regular people, and can bring a fresh perspective to the entrenched insiders in Congress.

And with that in mind, Hoosiers, by a 15-point margin, elected an old, wealthy Washington insider, who left Indiana more than a decade ago, and who's spent several years as a corporate lobbyist. Indeed, Coats intends to go to the Senate and vote on issues he handled as a lobbyist, and has no intention of recusing himself when his former clients will be affected by his votes.

A lot of folks have the impression that all the power in Washington rests with powerful, deep-pocketed special interests. Working families struggle to be heard, but corporate lobbyists can gain access, direct contracts, write bills, and protect loopholes out of public view.

In other words, regular American tend to resent people like Dan Coats, who parlayed his public service into a lucrative lobbying career, including his successful efforts to protect companies that shipped jobs overseas.

And yet, Dan Coats is now a senator-elect.

It's amazing, in a disheartening way.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BIPARTISANSHIP -- WITH A TWIST.... I have an op-ed in the New York Daily News today exploring an idea that I've been kicking around for a while. Here's the lede:

Two short years ago, one of the presidential tickets had the wisdom to not only acknowledge the climate crisis, but also to present credible solutions to address it.

If elected, the tandem told Americans, they intended to do what the Bush administration would not: establish "a cap-and-trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions" and pursue "alternatives to carbon-based fuels." The result, they said, would be "a better future for our children."

The candidates were John McCain and Sarah Palin.

The nuances matter, but the differences between the Democratic vision on energy policy and the McCain-Palin platform are relatively minor. In fact, if the White House were prepared to open negotiations with a Republican-led House next year, President Obama could do worse than starting with the McCain-Palin plan.

With that in mind, why doesn't he do just that? What better way for a Democratic President to demonstrate a commitment to bipartisanship than by embracing specific Republican proposals?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. At first blush, this might seem as if I'm suggesting that, in the wake of the midterms, President Obama abandon his agenda, move to the right, and adopt Republican ideas.

But that's not what I'm suggesting at all. In fact, it's largely the opposite -- I argue in the piece that President Obama should continue to endorse the same agenda he's embraced all along, but do so by characterizing his ideas as bipartisan ideas.

In other words, Obama wants a cap-and-trade plan? Well, McCain/Palin called for cap-and-trade, so the president can say he's endorsing the McCain/Palin energy proposal. Obama wants comprehensive immigration reform? Well Bush's proposal on the issue is very similar, so the president can say he's endorsing the Bush immigration plan.

The conventional wisdom suggests the White House will have to choose between pushing Obama's ideas and reaching out to Republicans. But what if the White House could reach out to Republicans by presenting Obama's ideas as actual GOP proposals?

The goal would have less to do with magnanimity and more to do with throwing Republicans off-balance. It ultimately becomes something of a dare: will Republicans condemn policies crafted by their own leaders as quasi-socialist radicalism?

Take a look and let me know what you think.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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SOMEBODY GOT TO CINDY.... Cindy McCain, perhaps best known as Sen. John McCain's (R) second/current wife, did something pretty brave this week. While her husband positions himself as one of Congress' leading anti-gay lawmakers, Cindy McCain appeared in a NOH8 activist video in support of gay rights.

In the television ad, she tells viewers, "Our political and religious leaders tell LGBT youth that they have no future.... They can't serve our country openly." She added that the government "treats the LGBT community like second class citizens."

It was a striking move, given that her husband is leading the charge to ensure gay servicemen and women "can't serve our country openly" and that the LGBT community is treated "like second class citizens."

But in an even more striking move, Cindy McCain is now saying she no longer believes what she said in the commercial.

Cindy McCain announced that she is against the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" one day after she appeared in a video where she lends her support to end the ban on gays openly serving in the military. [...]

"I fully support the NOH8 campaign and all it stands for and am proud to be a part of it. But I stand by my husband's stance on DADT," she tweeted.

Look, I really don't care what the spouses or children of policymakers have to say about current events. Cindy McCain's views on discrimination, or any other issue, are her business.

Until, that is, she decides she wants to play a more active, high-profile role in the larger public debate. In this case, on Thursday, Cindy McCain wanted to use her role as public figure to tell Americans how wrong it is that gay servicemen and women "can't serve our country openly" and that the LGBT community is treated "like second class citizens." And on Friday, Cindy McCain wanted to use her role as public figure to tell Americans that gay servicemen and women shouldn't "serve our country openly" and that the LGBT community deserves to be treated "like second class citizens."

I'm not sure which is more troubling -- the fact that Cindy McCain is willing to publicly contradict herself so blatantly, or that her embarrassed husband probably pressured her to say something that's at odds with her own beliefs.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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November 13, 2010

WHEN THE 'WATER'S EDGE' STANDARD DISAPPEARS.... If our political system made more sense, this would be an astounding scandal that would dominate the discourse.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday during a meeting in New York that the new GOP majority in the House will "serve as a check" on the Obama administration, a statement unusual for its blunt disagreement with U.S. policy delivered directly to a foreign leader.

"Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington," read a statement from Cantor's office on the one-on-one meeting. "He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other."

This just isn't normal. Laura Rozen called the meeting itself "unusual, if not unheard of." But it's what Cantor said that's astounding.

We're talking about a powerful member of Congress engaged in foreign policy, vowing to a foreign government to oppose the administration's policies regarding that government. Ron Kampeas from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news agency said he can't remember any U.S. official ever doing this. "[T]o have-a-face to face and say, in general, we will take your side against the White House -- that sounds to me extraordinary," Kampeas said this week.

It is that and more. Cantor not only met in private with a foreign leader to undercut the foreign policy of the elected American president, he proceeded to brag about it.

Also keep in mind, a few years ago, Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria and met with Bashar al-Assad. At the time, none other than Eric Cantor personally accused Pelosi of possibly violating the Logan Act, "which makes it a felony for any American 'without authority of the United States' to communicate with a foreign government to influence that government's behavior on any disputes with the United States."

As Adam Serwer noted yesterday, "Based on Cantor's own standard, he's just committed a felony."

In 2007, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insisted, "I would simply hope that people would understand that, under the Constitution, the president conducts foreign policy, not the speaker of the House."

OK, but can we apply that same standard to the House Minority Whip?

Remember, Republican standards in this area seem to vary widely based on the president's party.

This is going back a bit, but Glenn Greenwald had an item last year that seems especially relevant now.

Here's what happened in 2006 when Al Gore gave a speech at a conference in Saudi Arabia in which he criticized Bush policies towards the Muslim world -- as summarized by The New York Times' Chris Sullentrop:

"As House Democrats David Bonior and Jim McDermott may recall from their trip to Baghdad on the eve of the Iraq war, nothing sets conservative opinionmongers on edge like a speech made by a Democrat on foreign soil. Al Gore traveled to Saudi Arabia last week, and in a speech there on Sunday he criticized 'abuses' committed by the U.S. government against Arabs after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A burst of flabbergasted conservative blogging followed the Associated Press dispatch about the speech, with the most clever remark coming from Mark Steyn, who called the former vice president 'Sheikh al-Gore.' The editorial page of Investor's Business Daily accused Gore of 'supreme disloyalty to his country'. . . ."

TigerHawk does the best job of explaining why speeches like this get some people so worked up:

"There is simply no defense for what Gore has done here, for he is deliberately undermining the United States during a time of war, in a part of the world crucial to our success in that war, in front of an audience that does not vote in American elections. Gore's speech is both destructive and disloyal, not because of its content -- which is as silly as it is subversive -- but because of its location and its intended audience."

The Wall St. Journal's James Taranto accused Gore of "denouncing his own government on foreign soil" and quoted the above accusation of "disloyality." Commentary was abundant all but accusing Gore of treason for criticizing the U.S. in a foreign land.

And that was just Gore criticizing. This week, Eric Cantor met privately with a foreign head of state to promise to undermine the foreign policy of the United States.

Remember when American officials were supposed to think foreign policy issues stopped at water's edge?

This is a legitimate scandal worthy of far more attention. When dealing with foreign policy and climate change, Republicans believe in trying to deliberately sabotage the position of the U.S. government. The same is true of U.S. policy towards Iran, and in the case of New START, possibly even U.S. policy towards Russia. Now it's true of U.S. policy towards Israel, too.

It's obviously not unreasonable for Americans to debate whether the Obama administration is pursuing the correct course on foreign policy, and I fully expect members of Congress from both parties to demand accountability of the White House. People can and should speak out when they disagree with the administration's approach to Israel, Iran, Russia, or any other country.

But Cantor's move is something altogether different. Just a few years after he suggested it was literally criminal for an American official to talk to a foreign leader and work against the sitting president. Now, Cantor has done just that.

Where's the outrage?

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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DEFICIT, SCHMEFICIT.... A CBS News poll released this week asked Americans what they'd like to see Congress focus on next year. The clear winner was "economy/jobs," cited by 56% of respondents. Health care was a distant second at 14%. The deficit, the wars, immigration, taxes, and education were all mentioned, but their results were in the low single digits.

Of course, the public will not get its wish. Economic growth and job creation should be the focus, but Republicans, with their new House majority, have already made clear that their top priorities are fairly low priorities for the American mainstream -- gutting the health care system, protecting tax cuts for the wealthy, and reducing the deficit. (Yes, those are contradictory goals, since gutting health care and cutting taxes would make the deficit much worse.)

The larger point to remember, though, is a truth the political world often forgets: deficit reduction is a political loser because people really don't care. Steve Kornacki had a very good item on this the other day.

Sure, you can find polls that show an unusually high number of Americans expressing concerns about deficits and the debt, but this sentiment is explained by two phenomena: (1) Republican voters (and functionally Republican "independents") echoing their party leaders (and right-wing talk show hosts and activists), who identified the debt as a political weapon to use against Obama from the earliest days of his presidency; and (2) Authentic swing voters (that is, the small share of registered independents who really do swing back-and-forth between the parties) pointing to the debt as a top worry because their intense economic anxiety has made them receptive to the GOP's doomsday warnings about runaway deficits.

So, let's say that Obama actually did embrace Simpson-Bowles and got it enacted. Would this "restore his cred with Independents"? Not at all. First, as noted above, a significant chunk of the "independents" who are worried about the debt are actually functional Republicans -- that is, they vote Republican in election after election but like to call themselves "independent." These voters would not suddenly give Obama credit for tackling the deficit; they'd simply follow along with whatever line top GOP leaders and activists came up with in response. As for the "real" independents, the small chunk who aren't functionally part of either party, their debt/deficit fears are driven mainly by economic anxiety, so they'd only give Obama credit if the economy simultaneously improved.

And since focusing on deficit reduction generally happens at the expense of growth, the goal would be counter-productive anyway.

The track record here is pretty consistent -- Reagan was the father of the modern deficit, and no one cared. When Mondale tried to make deficit reduction central to his '84 campaign, he lost 49 states. Clinton was the father of modern deficit reduction, but no one much cared about that, either, and by the time he left office after two terms, much of the country didn't even realize he'd completely eliminated the deficit and had begun paying off the debt. George W. Bush was the most fiscally irresponsible president in American history, but on the long list of Bush's failures, most Americans don't even consider the $5 trillion he added to the debt. Obama has actually reduced the deficit over the last year, but no one actually hears deficit hawks praising him for it.

Voters want the economy to grow. They want more jobs. If they actually cared about the deficit, they'd be outraged by the notion of a new round of tax cuts (they're not), and supportive of measures like the Simpson/Bowles plan (they're really not).

It's not altogether clear people even know what the deficit is. For many, it's likely that the deficit is just something that's "bad." Indeed, given that deficit concerns tend to coincide with economic downturns, some folks might see a correlation -- the deficit is high and the economy is bad, they figure, so maybe if the deficit were lower the economy might get better.

All of this is nonsense, of course, but it's worth remembering when various political players suggest policymakers' popularity is riding on deficit reduction. It's not.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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WHEN (AND WHY) BIPARTISANSHIP IS IMPOSSIBLE.... Fox News personality Dana Perino, best known for her work as the Bush White House's final press secretary, complained this week that Democrats refused to "reach out" to Republicans during the debate over health care reform. GOP officials, she said, offered good "ideas," but the Democratic majority wouldn't listen.

As a substantive matter, Perino is deeply confused, and seems to have forgotten about months of outreach to the GOP and the incorporation of all kinds of GOP ideas into the final policy.

But more important that Perino's lack of familiarity with current events is the larger point about bipartisan policymaking. It doesn't fit well into the Fox News narrative, but Ezra Klein noted yesterday that over the last century, Democrats consistently moved to the right to try and garner more support, and "Republicans moved further right every time Democrats tried."

When Truman tried to pass what was, in effect, Medicare for all, Republicans balked and said they preferred a more market-based pay-or-play system. When Clinton endorsed the market-based pay-or-play system, Republicans balked again, saying that they preferred a mandate/subsidies kind of system. When Obama endorsed the mandate/subsidies system crafted by Republicans in the '90s and adopted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, Republicans balked again, this time saying they don't want to address the problem at all.

As Ezra concluded:

So over the last 80 years or so, Democrats have responded to Republican opposition by moving to the right, and Republicans have responded by moving even further to the right. In other words, Democrats have been willing to adopt Republican ideas if doing so meant covering everybody (or nearly everybody), while Republicans were willing to abandon Republican ideas if sticking by them meant compromising with the Democrats.

But because Democrats were insistent on getting something that would help the uninsured, they've ended up looking like the partisans, as they keep pushing bills Republicans refuse to sign onto.

It's quite a racket.

It's also, by the way, a model with broader applicability. As we've seen repeatedly with a wide variety of policy efforts, Democrats are interesting in solving a policy problem and are willing to negotiate to get something done. Republicans are interesting in preserving ideological purity and ignoring policy problems that can't be solved through tax cuts for millionaires.

The political world need not ponder why bipartisanship seems so impossible. The answer is fairly obvious.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is additional fallout in Oklahoma, where voters recently passed a constitutional amendment to fight sharia-law measures that don't exist. Last week, legal experts discovered that the language of the amendment is broad enough to prohibit consideration of the Ten Commandments.

This week, we learned that the state law, currently on hold by court order, also inadvertently undermines Native-American faiths.

Oklahoma has the second largest population of Native Americans in the U.S and law experts like Oklahoma University law professor Taiawagi Helton point out that language in the law banning courts from looking at "legal precepts of other nations or cultures" could pose a problem if applied to tribal legal cases, as the tribes are considered sovereign nations.

In fact, the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission released an official memo on October 20 explaining how the "lack of specific tribal law language" could "damage the sovereignty of all Oklahoma tribes" and "starkly reminds [the Commission] that some Oklahoma lawmakers forgot that our nation and state were built on the principles, blood, and back of other nations and cultures, namely, ou[r] tribes."

Oklahoma also appears to have accidentally undermined state businesses that rely on "international treaties to uphold contracts."

Right-wing activists really just wanted to undermine Muslim Americans, but weren't quite sharp enough to recognize the collateral damage of their bigotry.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has agreed to display a Nativity Scene at the governor's mansion in Richmond, following a request from the Catholic League. The group's leader, Bill Donohue, reportedly sent Nativity Scenes to all 50 governors as part of an effort to counter the "atheists [who] are out in force this year trying to neuter Christmas."

* Speaking of atheists, the New York Times reported this week that "four separate and competing national organizations representing various streams of atheists, humanists and freethinkers will soon be spreading their gospel through advertisements on billboards, buses and trains, and in newspapers and magazines." (thanks to D.J. for the tip)

* Radical pastor Philip L. "Flip" Benham, head of the Dallas-based Operation Rescue/Operation Save America, was found guilty this week of stalking North Carolina physicians who perform abortions. Benham was sentenced to two years probation.

* And American Roman Catholic bishops are wrapping up a conference in Baltimore today, helping clergy members to learn how to distinguish between those who need exorcisms and those who need a psychiatrist. The bishops insist this is not part of a larger effort to revive the practice of exorcisms, which has largely fallen out of favor in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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DEMINT MAY NOT CARE ABOUT 'MAKING UP'.... In recent years, various traditions, niceties, and norms in the U.S. Senate have largely disappeared. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), for example, likes to tell the story of when she arrived in the chamber as a new member, and then-Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) gave her some advice: never campaign against a colleague, even from the other party. Doing so damages the collegiality of the institution, and makes cooperation too difficult.

Needless to say, senators don't think that way anymore. But even under the new norms, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) pushed the envelope this year, not only campaigning against Democrats, but also seeking to defeat one of his own Republican colleagues, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, whom DeMint considered insufficiently right-wing.

After Murkowski lost to Joe Miller in a GOP primary, DeMint's move looked like a good move. Now that Murkowski appears poised to win as a write-in candidate, DeMint's move appears less wise, and more likely to cause intra-party tension.

Yesterday, Murkowski suggested she's still not pleased with her far-right colleague.

The Alaska senator, who appears poised to win reelection as a write-in GOP candidate for Senate, suggested she's not eager to reach out to DeMint, who backed her challenger Joe Miller in the Alaska Senate race.

DeMint, who has said he and Murkowski might have "some making up to do" if she wins reelection, would have to act first.

"He has suggested that he's got some making up to do," Murkowski told CNN's "John King, USA" in an interview to air this evening. "I'll let him make that first move."

I have a hunch he'll be reluctant to do that, but we'll see.

In the bigger picture, though, it's a reminder that for all his far-right posturing and bizarre ideas, Jim DeMint just doesn't seem to be well liked by his own Republican caucus.

Last week, after DeMint-backed Senate candidates lost, contributing to the GOP's failed attempt to take back the majority, more than a few Republicans blamed the South Carolina senator for the failure. Politico noted that a "high-profile senator" said DeMint has "almost no following within the caucus," and kept the party from "realizing our potential."

There are occasional rumors about DeMint seeking a leadership post or possibly even seeking national office, but it's worth remembering that on a basic level, Republicans don't care for the guy.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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GREASING THE SKIDS FOR NEW START RATIFICATION.... The Obama administration and several key senators are still anxious to ratify the New START nuclear treaty during the lame-duck session. They'll need 67 votes, and by all accounts, they're close.

The biggest obstacle at this point appears to be Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who, oddly enough, has said he'll try to kill the treaty unless the White House agrees to spend more money on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (Usually, conservative lawmakers threaten to kill measures to ensure less spending, not more.)

Yesterday, the White House moved to satisfy Kyl's concerns, and hopefully, bring New START closer to ratification.

In a last-minute bid to save a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, the Obama administration has offered to spend $4 billion more over five years on the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, congressional sources said Friday.

President Obama has made passage of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, one of his top priorities for the lame-duck session starting next week. Officials worry that the pact could face long delays, or even fail, if it is put off until next year, when the Democrats' Senate majority will shrink.

Republicans have conditioned their support for the treaty on a big budget increase to fix up the country's aging weapons-production facilities.

Administration officials reportedly visited individually with skeptical Republican senators yesterday, outlining the commitment of $4.1 billion in funding. The AP added, "In a sign of the urgency of the administration's pitch, government officials traveled to Kyl's home state of Arizona to brief him on the proposal, the aide said."

That should at least make Kyl feel important.

While we wait, it's been almost a year since U.S. inspectors lost the ability to keep tabs on Russian nukes. The Pentagon is anxious to have the treaty ratified so checks can be reinstated -- this is the first time in 15 years we've lost the ability to inspect Russian long-range nuclear bases -- but Senate Republicans still aren't in any hurry.

Part of the problem has to do with basic ignorance. Jon Kyl conceded in August that he just assumed, falsely, that nuclear-site inspections were continuing while he held up New START. In other words, he just didn't know what he was talking about.

Republican obstructionism isn't just based on knee-jerk, reactionary tendencies; sometimes it's also often based on Republican ignorance about issues of global importance.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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HOUSE DEMS SETTLE LEADERSHIP DISPUTE.... The last thing House Democrats wanted to do was start the post-election season with a bitter, intra-party dispute over leadership posts. But one has nevertheless been simmering on the Hill over the last week, with four people vying for three posts.

The House minority traditionally has three leadership positions: Minority Leader, Minority Whip, and Conference Chair. Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is slated to get the top slot, and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) will apparently stay on in his current post. But outgoing Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and outgoing Majority Whip James Clyburn both want to be Minority Whip.

Pelosi signaled the other day her desire to strike some kind of deal. Last night, one came together.

Top House Democrats said late Friday night that they had settled on an arrangement that avoided a divisive fight for the No. 2 position in the party when it reverts to the minority in January.

In a statement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would nominate Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina to be the No. 3 Democrat when the party holds an internal party election on Wednesday.

In other words, it was a game of musical chairs, in which someone was going to get left out, so Dems added a chair. Hoyer will be Whip and Clyburn will get a newly-created position.

It's not clear, at least not yet, exactly what this new leadership post will entail -- or what it'll be called -- but Pelosi's office said last night that the post will rank above caucus chair in the hierarchy, keeping Clyburn at #3. Larson gets to stay in the leadership, though his post is slightly less important now, and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who was concerned about getting squeezed out, will remain as conference vice chair.

In the process, Dems have avoided "a divisive leadership battle" and will vote to approve this new slate on Wednesday.

If only negotiating with Republicans were this easy.

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

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November 12, 2010

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

* As G20 meetings go, I wouldn't necessarily characterize the South Korean gathering as a success: "Leaders of the world's biggest economies agreed on Friday to curb 'persistently large imbalances' in saving and spending but deferred until next year tough decisions on how to identify and fix them."

* Then again, the U.S. still has the influence to set the agenda, and "it could have been far worse."

* Not a surprise: "Rejecting a request by a Republican gay rights group, the U.S. Supreme Court refused Friday to stop enforcement of the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy while a lower court hears a challenge to the ban."

* This could be really interesting: "Maryland's Attorney General filed a complaint in federal court this week alleging that the company and two individuals behind election day robocalls that told mostly Democratic voters to 'relax' and not bother voting violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA)." New estimates suggest the calls reached more than 100,000 Maryland households -- double the previous estimate.

* I have no idea how or whether this will work: "After a brief and interrupted dalliance, Newsweek, the 77-year-old magazine, and The Daily Beast, [Tina] Brown's two-year-old Web site, have decided to put their cultural differences aside and will join forces."

* I was going to mock Arthur Laffer's latest take on the economy, which is truly laughable, but it looks like Jay Bookman beat me to it.

* If the Simpson/Bowles debt reduction plan were adopted, the impact on higher education would be dramatic -- and not in a good way.

* When Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is so dumb that even Neil Cavuto feels compelled to correct him, you know Inhofe has pushed the envelope.

* And congratulations to Josh Marshall and the whole TPM team on their 10th anniversary. Many happy returns. (Disclosure: I worked for TPM in 2007.) Josh Green, who was "present at the creation," has a fascinating item on how TPM got started.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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IF THE PENTAGON DOESN'T WANT THE MONEY.... I've made the case on more than a few occasions that officials shouldn't be able to call themselves "fiscal conservatives" while also insisting that the Pentagon budget is untouchable. It's just a basic test of credibility -- the United States now spends about as much on defense as every other country on the planet combined. To call for budget cuts while leaving defense alone is irresponsible.

Some conservatives -- Kristol, Palin, Rubio, et al -- disagree with this. Fine. But can we at least agree that spending money on defense bills to pay for things the Pentagon doesn't want is an immediate credibility killer?

Tanya Somanader highlights a great example today, pointing to Rep. Phil Gingrey (R), a right-wing Georgian, who can't wait to slash spending for all kinds of social programs, but also happens to favor opposes unnecessary defense spending.

The F-22 stealth fighter jet, for example, is a weapon designed to address threats last faced during the Cold War. It "has not performed a single mission" in Iraq or Afghanistan, and comes with a $120 million price tag per plane. Coupled with the $8 billion it would cost the Pentagon to upgrade the 100 F-22s already in use, the F-22 landed on Defense Secretary Gates's chopping block last year. After consulting with other Defense officials, Gates concluded, "there is no military requirement" for creating more F-22s.

Yet despite that, and the overwhelming bipartisan agreement that the plane qualifies as taxpayer waste, and in spite of own his commitment to cutting spending, Gingrey now thinks he knows better than the Pentagon and is calling for resuming production of more F-22s. Not only is Gingrey willing to waste taxpayer dollars on an unnecessary and unwanted weapon, he's willing to fight his own party to do it, because the planes are built in his state.

It's also worth remembering that for every hour the F-22 spends in the air, it requires more than 30 hours of maintenance. One of its key problems is -- I'm not kidding -- "vulnerability to rain." After years of effort, the plane, in operational flight tests, has met only seven of its 22 "key requirements." It features a radar-absorbing canopy that tends to imprison pilots for hours. Seriously.

The Obama administration -- you know, the folks Republicans like to characterize as liberal big spenders who can't be trusted with the nation's checkbook -- successfully scrapped this indefensible waste of Americans' money. It wasn't easy, but last year, the White House managed to secure bipartisan support to stop the unnecessary spending.

But next year, a leading conservative Republican wants to bring it all back. I wonder how many Tea Partiers are aware of this.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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AN AWKWARD TEST OF FISCAL CONSERVATISM.... Conservative writer Tim Carney raised an interesting point the other day that seems likely to put some Republican senators in a very awkward position.

Republicans talk about ending wasteful government intervention. Congressional Democrats say they want to protect the environment. And Barack Obama claims he's looking for bipartisan cooperation and reform. All of these goals would be served by rolling back ethanol subsidies.

"A Republican takeover of the House of Representatives," Bloomberg News speculated this week, "may mean that U.S. subsidies aiding ethanol producers will be cut after the party pledged to reduce government spending."

We'll find out within months if that's putting too much stake in GOP rhetoric.

It may not even take that long. Two existing ethanol subsidies are due to expire at the end of the calendar year, which means Congress may have to act during the lame-duck session to save them -- if they're to be saved.

So, what exactly are conservative Republicans planning to do about this? On the one hand, they're inclined to do what corporate lobbyists tell them to do, and the lobbyists naturally want the industry subsidies to continue. On the other, the subsides are expensive, unnecessary, and ultimately counter-productive. If there was an intellectual consistency to the Tea Partiers' ideology -- a big "if" -- this seems like exactly the kind of budget cut the free-market-loving activists could get behind.

And so, as Carney put it, "ethanol becomes a good test for the supposedly reborn Republican Party." It does, indeed.

What will be especially interesting is if Dems decide the kick the can down the road a bit -- extending the subsidies for, say, six months -- and letting the next Congress deal with the issue. Or better yet, Dems can simply allow the subsidies to expire this year, and let the next Congress decide whether to resuscitate them.

Would a GOP-led House, and an expanded GOP Senate caucus, rally behind ethanol subsidies costing $6 billion?

The larger political pressures here are also worth keeing an eye on. The American Future Fund, for example, is a shadowy right-wing group that raised all kinds of secret money to help Republicans win midterm elections. The Fund was created in large part by a wealthy executive of an ethanol producer -- and it stands to reason he'll expect his GOP friends to repay his assistance with these subsidies.

This could get especially awkward for some key conservative lawmakers who've supported the ethanol policy in the past, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), but who are anxious to prove their fiscal conservatism.

If Dems play this right, the subsidies could be a carefully-applied wedge, driving divisions between the party's activists and the party's corporate benefactors. It's definitely an issue to look out for in the coming months.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE BOOKS GEORGE W. BUSH 'WROTE'.... It's probably fair to say that even George W. Bush's remaining defenders wouldn't characterize him as learned or cerebral. Whatever his well-hidden strengths might be, the failed former president has been rather candid about his lack of interest in books, newspapers, and people with post-graduate degrees.

But Bush appears to take some pride in having written his new book. Ryan Grim reports today that this isn't quite what happened.

Crown Publishing ... got a mash-up of worn-out anecdotes from previously published memoirs written by his subordinates, from which Bush lifts quotes word for word, passing them off as his own recollections. He took equal license in lifting from nonfiction books about his presidency or newspaper or magazine articles from the time. Far from shedding light on how the president approached the crucial "decision points" of his presidency, the clip jobs illuminate something shallower and less surprising about Bush's character: He's too lazy to write his own memoir.

Bush, on his book tour, makes much of the fact that he largely wrote the book himself, guffawing that critics who suspected he didn't know how to read are now getting a comeuppance. Not only does Bush know how to read, it turns out, he knows how to Google, too. Or his assistant does.

The memoir features anecdotes about events Bush didn't witness, and remarks Bush didn't hear. Perhaps he got confused about what a "memoir" is.

I'd just add a minor detail Ryan didn't mention: this has happened before. About 10 years ago, Bush published an "autobiography" of sorts, written entirely in first person, called "A Charge to Keep." The book, however, was entirely ghost-written.

But at least that book didn't include lifted text. For that matter, Bush never really claimed to have written his autobiography, making these revelations about "Decision Points" slightly worse.

Ryan concluded:

In most instances of Bush's literary swiping, he was at least present for the scene. But the point of a memoir is that it is the author's version of events. Bush's book is a collection of other people's versions of events. But that's not what Bush promises readers. "Decision Points is based primarily on my recollections. With help from researchers, I have confirmed my account with government documents, personal interviews, news reports, and other sources, some of which remain classified," he offers. Bush, in his memoir, confesses to authorizing waterboarding, which is a war crime, so the lifting of a few passages might seem like a minor infraction. But Bush's laziness undermines the historical value of the memoir. Bush "recollects" - in a more literal sense of the term - quotes by pulling his and others verbatim from other books, calling into question what he genuinely remembers from the time and casting doubt on any conclusions he draws about what his mindset was at the time.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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IF IT'S SUNDAY.... Mark Halperin called the guest list for Sunday's "Meet the Press" an "all-star lineup." That's not quite the description I'd use.

We'll first see an interview with Senior White House Adviser David Axelrod. That makes sense.

Then viewers will see an "exclusive!" interview with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). This makes a lot less sense -- it'll be his third appearance on "Meet the Press" this year, his sixth in the last 21 months, and his 26th Sunday show appearance since President Obama's inauguration. That's obviously an average of more than an appearance per month, every month, for nearly two years.

And then there's the roundtable, which will apparently cover the debt commission's report, featuring Alan Greenspan (conservative), disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (conservative), former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (conservative Democrat), and journalist Bethany McLean.

Gingrich, by the way, made more appearances on "Meet the Press" last year than anyone else in the country, and Ford has made more appearances on "Meet the Press" this year than anyone else in the country. Indeed, in the case of the latter, Ford will be making his seventh appearance in the last nine months.

Why Harold Ford? Jon Chait recently guessed:

What explains the ubiquity of the bland and notably un-incisive Ford? Part of it may be his preternatural ability to meld himself into the prevailing sentiment of whatever milieu in which he finds himself. But primarily I believe Meet The Press always invites Ford for the same reason there are so many Olive Gardens -- you always know exactly what you're going to get.

That sounds about right, but I'd add one thing: Harold Ford, Jr., is the chair of the Democratic Leadership Council. The Sunday shows tend to go out of their way to avoid Democrats, but when they find a conservative Democrat who'll argue that the party should move to the right, the bookers are bound to keep bringing him back.

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

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NOT MUCH OF A WELCOME PARTY.... When Republicans took the congressional majority in 1994, a clear majority of the public was happy about the change in power. When Congress switched again in 2006, an even larger majority was pleased with the new incoming majority and its agenda.

For all the assumptions among Republicans about voters giving them a mandate, and public support for what the GOP intends to do, there's ample evidence to the contrary.

Americans may have put Republicans back in charge of the House and strengthened the party's hand in the Senate in the 2010 elections, but there is little e