Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2011

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

* Egypt: "The political forces aligned against President Hosni Mubarak appeared to strengthen sharply Monday when the Army said for the first time that it would not fire on the protesters who have convulsed Egypt for a week demanding his resignation. The announcement was shortly followed by the government's first offer to talk to the protest leaders. Egypt's new vice president said on state television that he had been authorized to open a dialogue with the opposition for constitutional and political reforms."

* Some economic fallout from the uprising: "Political turbulence in Egypt is casting a pall on global financial markets and creating new risks for the shaky world economy in the months ahead. Higher prices for oil and food, a problem intensified by the Egyptian uprising, could cause further unrest in the Muslim world. Analysts also are concerned that movement could be restricted through the Suez Canal, controlled by Egypt and a crucial link in world trade."

* Oh, for crying out loud: "Fraud and mismanagement at Afghanistan's largest bank have resulted in potential losses of as much as $900 million -- three times previous estimates -- heightening concerns that the bank could collapse and trigger a broad financial panic in Afghanistan, according to American, European and Afghan officials."

* Let's just say the White House wasn't impressed with the Republican court ruling on the Affordable Care Act today.

* Consumer spending climbs higher: "Americans spent at the fastest pace in three years in 2010, boosted by a strong finish in December."

* I'd characterize this as a one-sided vote: "Southern Sudan's referendum commission says more than 99 percent of voters in the south opted for secession according to the first official primary results released since the vote was held earlier this month."

* Income inequality in Egypt is a real problem. As it turns out, though, income inequality is actually worse in the United States right now.

* In an apparent terrorist plot, Roger Stockham was arrested last week after police found him with explosives in the trunk of his car in the parking lot of the Islamic Center of America, a Dearborn, Michigan, mosque.

* Former Sen. Evan Bayh becomes a lobbyist. Try not to be surprised.

* A far-right blogger, Paul Mirengoff of Powerline, blasted the Native American invocation at the recent memorial service in Tucson, despite working at a law firm with American Indian clients. As part of the fallout, Mirengoff is no longer a part of the prominent right-wing blog.

* Are America's state universities too cheap? Actually, no, they're not.

* And Richmond Ramsey tackles a common contemporary problem: an inability to have reasonable conversations with older relatives who watch Fox News. Ramsey labels it "Fox Geezer Syndrome," which is actually a pretty good name for it.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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REACHING 'NEW FRONTIERS IN PARTISAN JUDGING'.... That Federal District Court Judge Roger Vinson would find the individual mandate unconstitutional was a near certainty going into today. What was unexpected was Vinson, a Republican appointee, deciding that this one provision in the massive law necessarily means that the entirety of the Affordable Care Act must be voided.

Brian Beutler noted today that this is a legal standard that even Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts hasn't embraced, and Roberts isn't exactly a moderate.

Simply ruling against the mandate puts any judge on the opposite side of the vast majority of expert legal opinion. But given just such ruling, a less "activist" judge could have stricken just the mandate, along with directly relevant provisions -- like guaranteed issue and the ban on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions. Vinson decided instead to "legislate from the bench" and scrap the subsidies, regulations, marketplaces, and other goodies the law creates that really have nothing to do with the mandate as well.

It's new frontiers in partisan judging.

Vinson's ventures into new frontiers in partisan judging actually go even further that this today. The ruling goes so far as to reference a ReasonTV.com video on page 47.

Hell, the guy even makes a not-so-subtle Tea Party reference in the ruling: "It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place."

For a federal judge to put this in print is rather foolish. Federal regulatory power has been used this way for centuries. Nuclear power plants are required to purchase liability insurance, whether they want to or not. The Civil Rights Act mandated businesses engage in commercial activity that owners found objectionable. George Washington even signed a law requiring much of the country to purchase firearms and ammunition.

It's precisely why Republicans didn't think the health care mandate was unconstitutional when they came up with the idea -- it's consistent with how the government has operated for generations.

For whatever reason, Vinson also seems oddly preoccupied with founding fathers like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, perhaps unaware that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson supported legislation that required private citizens to pay into a public health-care system, and included a "regulation against a form of inactivity."

I'll gladly admit there are legal scholars who can speak to this with far more authority than I can, but at first blush, this ruling appears to be a complete mess, seemingly crafted by an activist who started with the answer, and then worked backwards to justify the ideologically acceptable answer.

The only way to reject the mandate is to take a "fairly radical" reexamination of the Commerce Clause, so Republican state attorneys general found a fairly radical judge who wrote a ruling that reads like a piece published by a far-right blogger.

All of this is interesting, as far as it goes, but I should emphasize the point that renders at least some of this trivial: the Supreme Court will have the final call. Between now and then, we're left to marvel at the extremism of some misguided Republican judges.

Steve Benen 4:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (134)

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REPUBLICAN JUDGE STRIKES DOWN ENTIRE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT.... Today's biggest domestic political development is also the least surprising.

A second federal judge ruled on Monday that it was unconstitutional for Congress to enact a health care law that requires all Americans to obtain commercial insurance, evening the score at two-to-two in the lower courts as the conflicting opinions begin their path to the Supreme Court.

Judge Roger Vinson of Federal District Court in Pensacola, Fla., ruled that the law will remain effect until all appeals are concluded, a process that could take two years. However, Judge Vinson determined that the entire law should fall if appellate courts agree with his opinion that the insurance requirement if invalid.

It can be tough to keep track of all the health care litigation -- there are nearly two dozen cases -- but this was the one brought by conservative state officials from 26 states, who carefully chose the venue.

Vinson had already telegraphed the outcome, so the ruling just makes official what everyone expected anyway.

More soon.

First Update: Note that when Judge Henry Hudson of Virginia, a Bush appointee, reached a similar conclusion in December, in a ruling that no one seemed to think made any sense, he said the individual mandate is unconstitutional, but left the rest of the law intact. Reagan appointee Vinson, however, took a far more activist approach, striking down a massive piece of legislation because of one provision.

Republicans are thrilled, of course, because activist court rulings are to be celebrated, just so long as it's activism the right can agree with.

Second Update: It's also worth emphasizing that two Republican-appointed federal district court judges have now found that the individual mandate -- an idea Republicans came up with -- is unconstitutional. And while that's important, let's not forget two other federal district court judges, appointed by Democratic presidents, came to the opposite conclusion.

Indeed, overall, about a dozen federal courts have dismissed challenges to the health care law.

In other words, when you hear on the news that "courts" have a problem with the Affordable Care Act, remember that it's actually a minority of the judges who've heard cases related to the law.

Steve Benen 3:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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'PIVOTING TO JOBS'.... Practically every national poll taken recently says the exact same thing about the public's top priorities: job creation and economic growth are far more important than everything else.

With that in mind, MSNBC's First Read noted this morning that the White House and congressional Democrats have their eyes on the prize.

Turning to domestic politics, the White House has quickly pivoted to jobs after the president's State of the Union -- even if it's being overshadowed by the situation in Egypt. This week, the Obama administration will be holding several events tied to Obama's call for innovation. And today, the White House is launching what it calls "Startup America" -- an effort to promote entrepreneurship across the country.

Also today, Senate Democrats are holding a conference call to push for reauthorization of the nation's aviation/airport programs, which they're calling "the first jobs bill of the 112th Congress." But as we've noted before, it's striking how congressional Republicans haven't made this pivot yet.

Republican efforts are often inexplicable to me, but First Read's right -- this really is just bizarre.

For a year and a half, job creation was ostensibly the GOP's top goal. In March, almost immediately after the Affordable Care Act became law, John Boehner asked, "When are we going to address the number one issue on the minds of our fellow citizens? When are we going to focus on the economy and getting people back to work?"

Nearly a year later, Boehner and his caucus have stopped asking, and appear eager to tackle just about every issue other than job creation. Nearly a month into the new Congress, we've seen Republican leaders commit to gutting the health care system, an anti-abortion bill, school vouchers, tackling marriage rights in the District of Columbia, and make plenty of vague threats about spending cuts, all of which would undermine job creation.

But not a word about actually creating a job for anyone.

The GOP is barely maintaining a pretense here. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wrote an op-ed recently on "economic policy," and literally didn't mention jobs at all. There were two Republican responses to the State of the Union address, and neither one presented specific ideas about job creation. The Republican Study Committee presented an economic plan of sorts, and it's intended to deliberately put more Americans out of work.

Indeed, ask Republican leaders about their priorities, and they're quite candid -- they want to cut spending and reduce the massive deficit they created.

On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic jobs agenda is modest, but at least it exists. The State of the Union address emphasized areas like infrastructure, energy, and education, all of which are intended to improve American innovation and competitiveness in the long run, while creating jobs in the short term.

Can anyone, anywhere, actually describe the Republican plan to reduce unemployment? Has anyone even heard the GOP try?

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Republicans actually don't want to have a jobs plan -- not because they're unpatriotic, but because they have an ideological blind spot. They supported the tax deal approved in December, and that necessarily was the full extent of their policy ideas on creating jobs. Anything else might involve some public investment, and as far as the GOP is concerned, that means "spending" ... and spending is bad.

The result, to borrow First Read's word, is only one party "pivoting" to jobs. Dems and the GOP aren't just offering different answers, they're asking different questions. The White House and congressional Republicans obviously disagree on nearly everything, but to a certain extent they're talking past one another -- Democrats focused on job creation, without too much regard for the deficit, while Republicans are focused on the deficit, with willful disregard for job creation.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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DEMS SEE AN OPENING -- AGAINST SPENDING CUTS.... As part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Drive for 25" campaign, intended to help Dems reclaim their House majority, the party's new ad campaign is poised to get underway. The DCCC, using a variety of media, is targeting 19 GOP incumbents, nearly all of whom represent districts won by President Obama in 2008.

But at least as important as the effort is the message underscoring the offensive. Greg Sargent took a closer look at how Dems are going after vulnerable Republicans.

Rather than running from the issue [of government spending] -- which has obvious perils for Dems, given that Republicans are trying to tar them as Big Government liberals -- they are treating this as an argument that can be turned to their advantage, if it's framed in the right way.

The latest sign of this is the new DCCC radio ad that is targeting multiple House Republicans in targeted districts. The ad attacks Republicans for supporting plans to "cut education" and "cut science and technology research," defending the latter as the way "we get the new products that create new jobs."

Crucially, the ad cites specific programs that Republicans would target, and frames the cuts as threats to job creation, an effort to cast Dems as defenders of popular programs and to undercut the GOP case that government spending is inevitably a "job killer."

This ad comes after Obama's State of the Union speech, which aggressively doubled down on the role that robust "government investment," a.k.a. government spending, should play in securing the country's future.

If Republican rhetoric is to be believed, Democrats are making a horrible mistake. The lesson of the midterms, the GOP insists, is that Americans are desperate for sweeping spending cuts, and will reward policymakers who cater to those demands.

The DCCC isn't buying -- and it shouldn't. Americans tend to like the idea of slashing spending, right up until they're asked about specific areas of the budget, at which point most of the country thinks otherwise. Even rank-and-file Republicans aren't on board with spending cuts to farmers, domestic security, defense, combating poverty, Medicare, education, and Social Security.

It's why the new push makes a lot of sense, especially with a new House Republican majority that's so desperate to take an axe to the budget, some in the GOP are even recommending cutting veterans' benefits.

Dems see an opportunity here, and they're smart to take advantage of it.

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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ISSA'S OVERREACH ALREADY UNDERWAY.... The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was tasked with an unpleasant job: identify and explain the events that caused the global economic crash in 2008. Last week, the panel largely wrapped up its work, and blamed ... just about everyone.

Wall Street banks and their widespread mismanagement shared responsibility in the final report with law federal regulators, credit rating agencies, the Clinton and Bush administrations, the Federal Reserve, and a motley crew of thousands.

But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the grand inquisitor chairman of the House oversight committee, has a few questions of his own. The conservative Republican has decided the investigation needs an investigation, and according to the Financial Times, has demanded that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission turn over its emails and related records to the committee for review.

Keep in mind, there have been no accusations of wrongdoing on the part of the commission; Issa says he just wants to look around and see what, if anything, he can turn up.

Paul Krugman explained the motivations behind a move like this one.

[W]hat this is really about is intimidation -- in much the same way that investigations of climate scientists are about intimidation.

What the GOP wants is to make people afraid even to do research that produces conclusions they don't like. And they don't stop at trying to undermine the research -- they go after the researchers personally. The goal is to create an environment in which analysts and academics are afraid to look into things like financial-industry malfeasance or climate change, for fear that some subcommittee will either dig up or invent dirt about their private lives.

McCarthy had nothing on these guys.

This is, by the way, the same Issa who, just three weeks on the job, announced that he wants his committee to have a running list of everyone who files Freedom of Information Act requests. If this makes you uncomfortable, you're not alone -- it "just seems sort of creepy that one person in the government could track who is looking into what and what kinds of questions they are asking," said David Cuillier, a University of Arizona journalism professor and chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee at the Society of Professional Journalists. "It is an easy way to target people who he might think are up to no good."

And for good measure, let's also note that Issa last week compared his GOP predecessor -- the melon-shooting Dan Burton of Indiana -- to Abraham Lincoln.

It's going to be a long two years.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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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:

* As part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Drive for 25" campaign, the House committee is launching a round of radio ads, web ads, phone calls, and emails this week, targeting 19 GOP incumbents for their support of Republican spending cuts. Nearly all of the 19 GOP House members represent districts won by President Obama in 2008.

* The far-right American Future Fund has launched an attack ad in Nebraska, targeting Sen. Ben Nelson (D) on health care. The dishonest spot is ostensibly about urging support for health care repeal.

* It's not entirely clear if the Tea Party Express intends to bring down Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in a primary next year, but Club for Growth has made up its mind, and it intends to go after the incumbent senator.

* Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) has another official challenger in Missouri, with failed congressional candidate Ed Martin (R) launching his campaign this morning.

* All evidence suggests U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman really is planning a presidential campaign in 2012 as a Republican. No ambassador in American history has ever served an administration, and then resigned to run against the president he served.

* Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) is apparently moving closer to his own presidential bid, and is calling major GOP donors, urging them to "keep their powder dry" until he makes a formal decision.

* The latest surveys from Public Policy Polling show Mike Huckabee leading the 2012 Republican pack in West Virginia and North Carolina. Mitt Romney, who fares well in many other states, is trailing badly in both of these contests.

* And former President George W. Bush was nowhere to be found in the 2010 midterm elections, and apparently plans to keep an equally low profile in 2012. Democratic officials are likely disappointed by the news.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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A SOLUTION IN SEARCH OF A PROBLEM.... As if Oklahoma's efforts weren't quite ridiculous enough, the madness is spreading.

Lawmakers in South Carolina have introduced a bill that would "prevent a court or other enforcement authority from enforcing foreign law in this state." This effectively makes South Carolina the latest state to consider legislation that would ban sharia law, though one of the bill's sponsors insists it's more than that.

"This bill has been called anti-sharia law, and I suppose it does deal with that," State Sen. Michael Fair (R-Greenville), who introduced the bill in the Senate, told TPM in an interview. "There are some localities around the country that have imposed sharia law in lieu of local laws."

Um, no. He's making that up. There isn't a single location in the United States in which sharia law has been imposed in lieu of local laws. It's simply never happened.

Indeed, generally right-wing proponents of this nonsense don't go quite this far. When activists in Oklahoma successfully pushed an "anti-sharia" ballot measure, proponents said it was a "preemptive strike" against a problem that may someday arise. Of course, "preemptive strike" was little more than a euphemism for "threat that does not exist."

But the responses to the imaginary problem keep spreading anyway. In addition to Oklahoma and South Carolina, we're finding similar efforts underway in Wyoming, too.

State Rep. Gerald Gay (R) is proposing a similar ballot measure that would prevent judges from using sharia, or Islamic, law in their decisions. Like the Oklahoma measure, it would also block "international" law -- which could cause unseen effects for Wyoming's American Indian population.

And, again like in Oklahoma, Gay admits that sharia has not been a problem in his state. Echoing the works of Okla. State Rep. Rex Duncan (R), he calls it a "pre-emptive strike." He told the Billings Gazette that he doesn't want judges using Islamic tenets in cases involving honor killings or arranged marriages.

Keep in mind, the number of court rulings in Wyoming in which sharia law was applied is zero.

And that's not because Wyoming is unique -- it's because we already have a law that prohibits U.S. officials from imposing religious rules on Americans through legislation or court orders. It's called the First Amendment.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THE ONLY MODERN PRESIDENT TO ENDORSE 'EXCEPTIONALISM'.... In his State of the Union address, President Obama emphasized principles of "American exceptionalism" rather explicitly, a fact more than a few observers acknowledged, even on the right.

Kathleen Parker, a conservative pundit for CNN and the Washington Post doesn't see it that way. Unless Obama uses the word "exceptionalism" literally and repeatedly, she's argued, the president's motivations deserve to be held suspect. Conservatives, she said, "long to hear" the word, not just the principles behind the word. Obama, Parker added, "studiously avoided using the word" and asks, "So why won't Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?"

Robert Schlesinger did some worthwhile digging over the weekend on this point, and discovered something interesting.

Only one sitting president in the last 82 years has publicly uttered the magical phrase "American exceptionalism" -- care to guess who it is? Ronald Reagan, he of the "shining city on a hill?" George W. Bush, who closed his speeches by asking that "God continue to bless" America? Nope. The only president to publicly discuss (and for that matter embrace) "American exceptionalism" is Barack Obama.

This would be the same president, of course, who is subject to a steadily rising stream of suspicion because of his supposed refusal to give voice sufficient voice to his love of country.

Yes, the one word conservatives "long to hear" has been uttered at the presidential level, but it wasn't a Republican who said it. Ironically, it was Obama who did what Reagan and Bush did not, though he's facing baseless attacks for doing what his detractors choose to ignore.

Bush, in case you're curious, twice used the word "exceptional" to describe Harriet Miers, his failed, ridiculous Supreme Court nominee, but never referenced American "exceptionalism," Republican longing notwithstanding.

For her part, Parker acknowledges that Obama repeated the word she's desperate to hear, but said it didn't count because she disapproved of the context. "Why won't Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?" Apparently because they won't be satisfied when he does.

Schlesinger's research, however, does cast this in a new light. I'm sure Obama's critics will feel compelled to call out his predecessors for "studiously avoiding" use of the "e" word, too, right?

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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COMING TO TERMS WITH A MISGUIDED BASE.... The NYT's Kate Zernike had a good item over the weekend, noting the Republicans' Tea Party base targeting three incumbent GOP senators -- Richard Lugar of Indiana, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- for primary defeats in 2012. The efforts in Indiana were of particular interest.

Lugar has long been a very conservative lawmaker, though he's also been the kind of statesman who can work with his Democratic colleagues. This approach has apparently drawn the ire of far-right activists -- 70 or so Tea Party organizations have created a conservative coalition that will meet over the summer to pick Lugar's primary challenger. The coalition is also launching an aggressive effort to get the message out about Lugar's imaginary "liberal" record.

The coalition, Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, is also in communication with FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express, and the Club for Growth, as part of a coordinated effort to bring down the respected, veteran Republican senator.

For his part, Lugar doesn't think highly of his right-wing detractors.

Mr. Lugar said at a breakfast with reporters this month that he believed that many Tea Party supporters were motivated by anger "about how things have turned out for them." They want to express themselves, but their complaints often boil down to nothing more specific, he said, than "we want this or that stopped, or there is spending, big government."

"These are all, we would say, sort of large cliche titles," he said, "but they are not able to articulate all the specifics."

The senator didn't get around to saying, "These people have no idea what they're talking about," but I think the sentiment was pretty clear.

The problem, of course, is that Lugar's right. The Republicans' Tea Party base, like many of its allies on Fox News and in Congress, can spout cliches, memorize ridiculous talking points, and wave silly placards, but there's no depth of thought or seriousness of purpose. They don't like various policies and personalities, but they can't say why. They demand creative solutions, but can't recommend any. They decry big government and dependence on the state, and see no contradiction embracing and living off of government largess.

As I've noted before, if you were to make a Venn Diagram of the issues Tea Party members care about, and the issues Tea Party members are confused about, you'd only see one circle.

Indeed, the Republican activists have been encouraged to think this way. Those who offer reliable evidence and information -- credible journalists, policy experts, academics, scientists -- have been deemed untrustworthy eggheads and/or enemies of all that is good and pure. Who needs reason when the GOP base has conspicuously unintelligent cable news personalities to help them make sense of the world?

With that in mind, I share Lugar's concerns, but hope the senator isn't too surprised by any of this. His party created this monster, and now it's on the loose in his state.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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ROMNEY PROBABLY DOESN'T WANT AXELROD'S PRAISE.... David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, is departing the White House, helping shape the president's 2012 re-election efforts. As he makes the transition, Axelrod chatted with USA Today about the political landscape in general.

In particular, Axelrod reflected on the state of the Republican presidential field -- he characterized it as the most unpredictable field in his lifetime -- and made one observation about a GOP contender that we're likely to hear again.

He pointedly praised one of the leading contenders, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in a way that spotlighted Romney's vulnerability within the GOP for signing a state health care law that parallels the new federal law in some ways.

Romney "did some interesting things there on health care, you know," Axelrod said. "We got some good ideas from him."

Well, that's likely to leave a mark.

The problem, which Axelrod is well aware of, is that the observation happens to be true. For all the right-wing hysterics about the Affordable Care Act being radical communism, the health care reform law is awfully similar to the reform package adopted in Massachusetts, as part of an agreement between Romney and Democratic state lawmakers.

It was Romney's signature accomplishment during his one term as governor -- his only experience in public office. At the time, his success on health care cast Romney in a positive light, demonstrating his ability to tackle major policy challenges and work with members of both parties to pass a sensible, mainstream legislative milestone.

Now, however, Republicans despise the policies that serve as the foundation of Romney's policy. During his 2008 campaign, this didn't come up too much -- the GOP didn't realize it hated these ideas, and never bothered to press Romney on his support for measures like the individual mandate. (They didn't see the point -- the mandate was a Republican idea.) In 2012, Romney won't be as fortunate, and he's already being pressured to apologize for the one big thing he got done during his only experience in government at any level.

The irony for Romney is that he's flip-flopped on practically every issue I can think of, but the one position he's inclined to stick to is the one the GOP base finds wholly unacceptable.

Axelrod knows this, so he's twisting the proverbial knife, just a little bit.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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THE SERIOUS FLAWS IN THE GOP'S ANTI-ABORTION BILL.... Still avoiding efforts to create jobs, House Republicans are poised to move on their next major initiative: the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act."

Nick Baumann did some great work on this last week, highlighting an outrageous provision in the legislation that would redefine rape. Existing law already restricts public funds for abortions, but there are exemptions for impregnated rape victims. This new effort, written by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), would severely limit what would legally be considered rape -- if a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, for example, she couldn't use Medicaid funds to terminate the pregnancy.

But this isn't the only problem with the law. In the Affordable Care Act, proponents were forced to accept measures that make it extremely difficult to purchase a private health plan that covers abortion. This new "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" intends to make matters much worse, barring outright "the use of federal subsidies to buy any insurance that covers abortion well beyond the new exchanges."

The tax credits that are encouraging small businesses to provide insurance for their workers could not be used to buy policies that cover abortions. People with their own policies who have enough expenses to claim an income tax deduction could not deduct either the premiums for policies that cover abortion or the cost of an abortion. People who use tax-preferred savings accounts to pay medical costs could not use the money to pay for an abortion without paying taxes on it.

The only tax subsidy left untouched is the exclusion that allows workers whose premiums are subsidized by their employers to avoid paying taxes on the value of the subsidy. Many, if not most, employer-sponsored insurance plans cover abortions. There would have been a huge political battle if workers were suddenly told they had to pay taxes on the benefit or change their policies.

Of course, one of the great ironies of this misguided push is that it comes from the same lawmakers who complain constantly about big government. And yet, as the NYT editorial noted yesterday, these same lawmakers "have made it one of their highest priorities to take the decision about a legal medical procedure out of the hands of individuals and turn it over to the government."

Realistically, proponents of this bill are wasting time with another symbolic gesture -- the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" almost certainly can't pass the Senate, and would surely draw White House opposition if it looked like the bill might pass.

But the legislation nevertheless speaks to Republican priorities, and given the seriousness of the bill's flaws, those priorities are pretty odious.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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BOEHNER SEES THE RISK, BUT DOESN'T CARE.... Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) explained yesterday on CNN that his Republican colleagues are "playing with fire" with threats over the debt ceiling. The GOP's tactics, he added, "could lead to terrible, terrible problems."

Oddly enough, House Speaker John Boehner agrees, but appears willing to accept catastrophic consequences anyway.

The possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its debt due to congressional inaction isn't on the table, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Sunday.

Boehner said it would mean "financial disaster" for the global economy if Congress were unable to come to a deal to raise the debt ceiling this spring.

"That would be a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy," Boehner said on "Fox News Sunday" of the risk of default. "I don't think it's a question that's even on the table."

Pat Garofalo has the video of the Speaker's comments.

The response sounded quite encouraging. There are plenty of Republican members who seem entirely oblivious to the dangers associated with failure on the debt limit, but Boehner apparently isn't one of them. He knows what has to be done, he realizes the consequences of failure, and he wants to avoid the looming disaster.

But Boehner couldn't leave well enough alone. In the same Fox News interview, the House Speaker added his caucus might very well defeat a debt-limit vote, inviting catastrophe, unless the White House agrees to Republican hostage demands and accepts "significant reductions in spending."

Boehner didn't specify what "significant" means or what spending he wants to cut -- the Speaker isn't really a "details guy" -- but offered the vague warning anyway. Give Republicans what they want, or they'll wreak havoc on the global economy, on purpose.

It seems like this keeps coming up. A few weeks ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said failure to raise the debt limit would lead to "financial collapse and calamity throughout the world." In the very next breath, Graham said he and his GOP colleagues would deliberately invite this calamitous fate unless Democrats agreed to slash spending, taking money out of the economy in the midst of a fragile recovery.

In many respects, this is the worst, and least defensible, of the various GOP positions on the issue.

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

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FROM THE WEEKEND.... We covered a fair amount of ground over the weekend. Here's a quick overview If you may have missed.

On Sunday, we talked about:

* Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei emerges as a voice for protestors in Egypt.

* David and Charles Koch's right-wing gathering over the weekend is pretty significant.

* Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants the U.S. to be on the right side of history in Egypt, but doesn't seem to know what side that is.

* Kathleen Parker just can't let go of this "exceptionalism" nonsense.

* Elliott Abrams looks at events in Egypt and concludes, predictably, that Bush was right. (He wasn't.)

* There is no Republican Party line on Egypt, at least not yet, with several fairly-prominent voices urging the U.S. to back the Mubarak regime.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) not only rejects the basics of modern biology, he does so with breathtaking ignorance.

* News organizations just love House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). They shouldn't.

* Republican efforts to take credit for economic growth just keep getting sillier.

* If Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) wants to be considered Congress' most corrupt member, he's doing a great job.

* In "This Week in God," we covered, among other things, an interesting breakup within the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques.

* Sarah Palin's call for a "spudnut moment" is very dumb.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) plan to cut veterans' benefits isn't going over well.

* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told an African-American lawmaker, who hopes to help bring some diversity to the governor's team, "I don't need your people."

Steve Benen 7:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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January 30, 2011

TURMOIL IN EGYPT.... As I get ready to step away from my desk for the afternoon, it occurs to me I can't say with confidence whether Egypt's Mubarak government will still exist by the time I get back in a few hours. Indeed, as of this afternoon, there's apparently a credible presidential alternative.

The Egyptian military reinforced parts of the capital on Sunday with tanks, jets and helicopters as tens of thousands of protesters flooded central Cairo for the sixth day, defying yet again government orders of a nationwide curfew.

The uprising, which began as a spontaneous grass-roots movement, appeared to coalesce, at least for the moment, as the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, threw its support behind a leading opposition figure, the Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, to negotiate on behalf of the protesters.

Mr. ElBaradei arrived in Liberation Square, the center of the protests, shortly after nightfall and addressed the crowd through a bullhorn.

"We are beginning a new era in Egypt," he said. "What we have begun cannot be reversed.

"We have a key demand: for Mubarak to step down and to start a new era."

Watching Al Jazeera English, it's also important to emphasize that the unrest is not limited to Cairo -- the protests were massive and boisterous in Alexandria today as well.

In the meantime, the police in the capital effectively gave up today, raising fears of lawlessness, and reinforcing the notion that the government itself was on the verge of collapse.

As for the closely-watched Egyptian army, troops took no action against protestors today.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have not called for Mubarak's ouster, though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this morning called for "an orderly transition" in Egypt to a system that can "meet the democratic and economic needs of the people." She added that Egypt needs a "real democracy."

If Mubarak was looking for hints of U.S. support for the status quo, he didn't get one.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THE VAST RIGHT-WING CONSPIRACY GETS TOGETHER FOR A MEETING.... Don't expect to see any detailed reporting of arguably this weekend's most important domestic political event, because journalists will be strictly prohibited.

This weekend, at a posh resort near Palm Springs, California, two billionaire corporate titans will convene a semi-annual meeting of a politically well-connected set. It will include wealthy donors and powerful Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

At David and Charles Koch's meeting, attendees will discuss items like how best to promote free markets and how to help elect conservatives. Donors are expected to be asked to donate to conservative causes.

It will be conducted virtually in secret, with no press or public allowed and many attendees keeping event details on the hush.

That's fueled criticism that this gathering is a sort of secret cabal -- a "Billionaires Caucus," critics say. Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration, even said that the Koch brothers' meeting represents "a threat to our democracy."

By all appearances, this won't be a casual chat among like-minded allies. Post Citizens United, the Koch Bros' meeting is intended to collect a lot of checks to fund far-right institutions and the network that ties them together, and map a strategy to ensure the funds are invested well.

It's the eight straight year for the gathering, which will reportedly include roughly 200 wealthy businessmen.

In the past, the meetings have drawn an A-list of participants - politicians like Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, leading free-market thinkers including American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks, talkers Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and even Supreme Court justices -- to mingle with the wealthy donors who comprise the bulk of the invitees. The meetings adjourned after soliciting pledges of support from the donors -- sometimes totaling as much as $50 million -- to non-profit groups favored by the Kochs. [...]

The Koch brothers -- Charles and David -- have come under intense scrutiny recently for their role in helping start and fund some of the deepest-pocketed groups involved in organizing the tea party movement such as Americans for Prosperity, and for steering cash towards efforts to target President Barack Obama, his healthcare overhaul, and congressional Democrats in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Liberal critics have launched a campaign to highlight what they say is the systematic way in which the Kochs use their political giving to advance a conservative economic and regulatory agenda designed to further the interests of their oil, chemical and manufacturing empire.

ThinkProgress has done some great work covering the Kochs' gatherings, and reported this week that 40% of this weekend's attendees will be first-time participants -- the meetings, in other words, are growing -- and organizers expect to top the $30 million raised during last year's gathering in Aspen.

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

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MCCAIN EYES 'THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY'.... As I mentioned last week, I'm inclined to retire my ongoing count of John McCain's Sunday show appearances. I suspect folks get the point -- Sunday show bookers continue to be obsessed with McCain, and they shouldn't be.

And yet, there was the Arizona Republican on television this morning, making his 28th Sunday show appearance in just two years. This time, it was on CNN, where McCain shared his thoughts on the recent events in Egypt, and argued he'd like to see President Obama "get a little bit more out ahead" of developments.

President Barack Obama's Friday night statement responding to the protests in the Egyptian streets was "good," McCain said, but that the United States needs to work harder to be "on the right side of history."

"The past performance of this administration hasn't been great," McCain said, noting that they cut off some money for "democratization."

"Every time we've got on the right side of history," he said, "it's usually been okay."

So, "the right side of history" is the appropriate place to be. Got it. It certainly makes sense to avoid the "wrong side of history."

The trick, of course, is having the wisdom and good judgment to know the difference. With McCain, it's not quite clear what this policy might be. He warned of a "Tiananmen Square in Cairo," but McCain also applauded the fact that Egyptian military and its tanks are "in control."

McCain also sided with neither Mubarak nor the protestors, but suggested Mubarak should remain in charge until some future transition.

I can appreciate how extremely complex the foreign policy dynamic is here, and the scarcity of unambiguous answers. The problem, though, is that McCain continues to have media credibility on international affairs, but there's just no depth of thought.

The other night I watched "The Rachel Maddow Show," and saw informative interviews with chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, the University of Maryland's Shibley Telhami, the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons, the Center for American Progress' Brian Katulis, and Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin. Watching the interviews as someone who isn't even close to being an expert on Egypt, I felt like I learned a great deal over the course of the hour.

Any and all of them would have made worthwhile guests on CNN's "State of the Union." Instead, we see John McCain and notice there's just nothing to learn from the senator, beyond platitudes regarding the "the right side of history."

It's why the Sunday shows keep inviting him back, and why they shouldn't.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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AGAIN WITH 'EXCEPTIONALISM'?.... Of all the punditry following the State of the Union address, one of the stranger moments came when CNN's Kathleen Parker and House Speaker John Boehner complained on the air about President Obama's reluctance to embrace American "exceptionalism."

Parker isn't done banging the drum.

He didn't say it. That word: "exceptional." Barack Obama described an exceptional nation in his State of the Union address, but he studiously avoided using the word conservatives long to hear. [...]

The exceptional issue may be political, but it isn't only that. The idea lies smack at the heart of how Americans view themselves, and the role of government in their lives and in the broader world. Is America exceptional or isn't she? Is there something about this country that makes us unique in the world?

Of course there is, and Obama has frequently acknowledged those things, including in the State of the Union. But he seems to avoid the word because, among other possible reasons, it is fraught with layers of meaning and because, to some minds, there's always the possibility he doesn't quite believe it. [...]

Between left and right, however, are those who merely want affirmation that all is right with the world. Most important, they want assurance that the president shares their values. So why won't Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?

Oddly enough, he has delivered the one word. At a 2009 press conference in Europe, President Obama said, "I believe in American exceptionalism." Parker said the context was too intellectual and therefore didn't count. Who makes up these rules? Apparently, the right does.

This continues to be one of the more offensive and mind-numbing areas of attack from the right, but Tuesday's speech should have resolved the issue once and for all. Indeed, more than a few observers noted that Obama embraced American exceptionalism this week even more explicitly than he has in the past. Hell, even Marc Thiessen noticed and appreciated the rhetoric.

But Parker isn't satisfied. The president has to use the specific words Parker wants to hear, and in the context she prefers. Anything less is, to her mind, grounds for suspicion.

This is terribly misguided. If only Parker could stop listening for the "e" word, and consider the substance of the president's remarks. If so, this week, she would have heard Obama talk about the qualities that "set us apart as a nation" and the things we do "better than anyone else." And his belief that America is "not just a place on a map, but the light to the world" and "the greatest nation on Earth." And his reminder that "as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth."

Did Parker miss all of this, or dismiss it because, to her, word choice matters more than principles?

She added in her column that the "e" word itself has "become a litmus test for patriotism. It's the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution." That's probably true, but it's an indictment of sorts -- the observation suggests use of the word "exceptionalism" is now a lazy trope, used by politicians to simply appear patriotic.

But instead of pushing back against this nonsense, and explaining why the true test of patriotism goes beyond tired buzz-words, Parker effectively does the opposite.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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ABRAMS' PREDICTABLE PALAVER.... Thursday night, I received an email from B.G., a long-time regular, who told me exactly what to expect: "Get ready for the right to unleash a wave of 'Bush was right' commentary."

Lo and behold, the front page of the Washington Post's Outlook section this morning features this headline: "In the streets of Cairo, proof Bush was right." The accompanying was written by Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser in the Bush/Cheney administration, and is perhaps best known for lying to Congress during the Iran/Contra scandal.

His case today is quite a stretch. The tumult in several Middle Eastern countries -- Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and to a lesser extent, Jordan -- stems from systemic flaws that Bush identified and worked to solve.

All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush's "freedom agenda" as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush's support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force. Consider what Bush said in that 2003 speech, which marked the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, an institution established by President Ronald Reagan precisely to support the expansion of freedom.

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

Abrams went on to argue that President Obama needs to "clearly demand democracy or free elections" in Egypt, and "supporting freedom is the best policy of all."

There are a few angles to keep in mind here. First, the "freedom agenda" really was a post-hoc justification for a tragic and unnecessary war in Iraq.

Second, Abrams may not fully appreciate the nuances of the "freedom agenda." As Bush explained it, free elections necessarily produced moderate, legitimate governments that would seek peace. We know that didn't work when Bush rushed elections in Gaza and Lebanon, and we have no idea if it would work in Egypt, Abrams' chest-thumping notwithstanding.

Third, Abrams makes it seem as if Bush had some special insights into regional affairs, which the Obama team deliberately disregarded. That's silly. Three weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not only pressed Middle Eastern leaders on systemic reforms, she did so with rather blunt language. Speaking at a conference in Qatar, she said countries in the region "risked 'sinking into the sand' of unrest and extremism unless they liberalized their political systems and cleaned up their economies."

And third, quite a few of Abrams' Republican allies are, as of yesterday, against regime change in Egypt, so it's not as if this is a partisan issue.

Still, I can only assume this will be the first of many pieces from loyal Bushies, arguing that the failed former president set these events in motion eight years ago. It's overly simplistic and wrong, but it'll soon be ubiquitous.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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GUESS THE GOP'S 'FREEDOM AGENDA' HAS FALLEN OUT OF FAVOR?.... The foreign policy complexities of developments in Egypt are pretty obvious. For U.S. officials, sympathies for the protestors are tempered by fears of who and what might replace the Mubarak government.

For the right, however, this isn't supposed to be too difficult. By the latter half of the Bush/Cheney tenure, conservatives had embraced what they called the "freedom agenda." The idea was built on a neocon vision of foreign affairs -- support free elections under all circumstances, give the region a taste of democracy, and watch Middle Eastern dictatorships and autocratic regimes fall.

Bush's agenda quickly flopped. The Republican administration rushed Gaza's elections, which led to Hamas victories. Bush did the same in Lebanon, and Hezbollah won. The GOP team looked especially misguided when Bush, while touting the "freedom agenda, praised Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf as someone who "truly ... believes in democracy."

A few years have passed, as has, apparently, the right's support for the underlying idea. Just over the last 48 hours, we've seen more and more conservatives urge President Obama to throw the support of the U.S. government behind the Mubarak regime. In the media, for example, Bush's U.N. Ambassador, John Bolton, announced his support for Mubarak, followed soon after by Dick Morris.

On the Hill, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said he wants the Mubarak government to stay in place, and House GOP Conference Chair Rep. Thaddeus McCotter went so far as to insist that those demanding more freedom are actually "enemies" of freedom.

The Republican congressman from Michigan likened demonstrations in Egypt to "Iran's 1979 radical revolution." He cautions that those who "will be tempted to superficially interpret the Egyptian demonstrations as an uprising for populist democracy" should instead "recall how such similar initial views of the 1979 Iranian Revolution were belied by the mullahs' radical jackbooted murderers." [...]

McCotter closed his statement with advice on how to proceed, "If we fail to meet today's enemy on the same determined, principled terms, we will too late awake in a nightmare world. But, if today's enemy is steadfastly met and bested, liberty and the rule of law will be unleashed for millions throughout the world."

He added, "Right now, freedom's radicalized enemies are subverting Egypt and our other allies."

As a substantive matter, equating Egyptian demonstrations and Iran's 1979 revolution is rather silly. But putting that aside, in the context of American politics, this suggests the right is far from united on U.S. policy towards Egypt.

It's likely that there will be conservatives who back the protestors as part of a belief in promoting democracy, but as of yesterday, there's apparently a contingent on the right that's entirely comfortable with an Egyptian dictatorship.

As developments unfold, this is an angle that's worth keeping an eye on. At a minimum, if the right isn't on the same page, it's likely to affect how the GOP decides to condemn the Obama administration's policy.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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January 29, 2011

THE ANTI-SCIENCE PARTY.... This segment, by way of Daily Kos' Jed Lewison, helps reinforce much of what's wrong with the state of critical thinking in the Republican Party.

"Real Time" host Bill Maher asked Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) a fairly straightforward question: "Do you believe in evolution?" Kingston not only rejected the foundation of modern biology, he explained it this way: "I believe I came from God, not from a monkey." He added, "If it happened over millions and millions of years, there should be lots of fossil evidence."

Seriously, that's what he said.

Let's pause to appreciate the fact that it's the 21st century -- and Jack Kingston is a 10-term congressman who helps oversee federal funding on the Food and Drug Administration.

As part of the same discussion, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell tried to ask Kingston about the overuse of antibiotics. The far-right congressman had no idea how the question related to evolution.

At one point, Kingston, sarcastically, turned to National Review's Will Cain, part of the same roundtable, and said, "Will, help me out anytime you want, buddy."

The assumption, of course, is that Cain, a conservative, must agree with the confused congressman about modern science. Cain responded, "I'm sorry, I believe in evolution."

Will, you're not the one who should be sorry.

In the larger context, there's a renewed push underway for the United States to value and appreciate science in the 21st century -- our future depends on it. And while this push is underway, Republican leaders are more comfortable walking a bridge to the 18th century.

What an embarrassment.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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PAUL RYAN AND HIS MEDIA BASE.... For a while, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was so beloved by the media establishment that he referred to political reporters as his "base." In time, as McCain adopted new personas, his relationship with the media strained, and his "base" moved on.

As it turns out, they fell into the arms of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a right-wing lawmaker reporters in D.C. love to love.

Last week, apropos of nothing, the New York Times emphasized what "a respected voice on fiscal issues" Ryan is. This week, ABC News ran a puff piece on Ryan that was so shameless, the network's airtime should probably count as an in-kind contribution to the Republican's re-election campaign.

Honestly, watch the clip; it's only two minutes. Diane Sawyer lauds Ryan as "a rebel with a cause," Jonathan Karl completely ignores the substance of Ryan's budget plan, and the piece literally equates the far-right congressman with the earnest, common-sense hero of the movie, "Dave."

If Ryan's family and staff come together to craft a two-minute segment celebrating the congressman, they might have felt embarrassed about a segment this laudatory. Worse, the segment included only one example of the kind of cut Ryan likes and the example is "exactly the opposite of what Ryan (and the story) proclaim."

It's probably too late at this point to help reporters understand, but they've chosen the wrong hero (again). We're talking about a radical with monetary views so extreme, Matt Yglesias recently characterized Ryan as "a dangerous madman," a description that didn't seem especially hyperbolic.

And then there are his budget views. Jamison Foser explained the other day, "Ryan produced a budget proposal that would take about 50 years to balance the budget -- except that it wouldn't do so even then, as Ryan told CBO to base its assessment of the budget on the assumption that tax revenues would remain the same, even though the budget included costly tax cuts."

It's the kind of detail that tends to go unmentioned by his adoring media fans. Paul Ryan's budget blueprint is a right-wing fantasy -- slashing taxes on the rich while raising taxes for everyone else. The plan calls for privatizing Social Security and gutting Medicare, and yet fails miserably in its intended goal -- cutting the deficit. As Paul Krugman recently explained, the Ryan plan "is a fraud that makes no useful contribution to the debate over America's fiscal future."

But Ryan nevertheless wins awards for fiscal responsibility, and ABC equates him with movie heroes, working under the assumption that the Ayn Rand acolyte knows what he's talking about. He doesn't.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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REPUBLICANS SCRAMBLE FOR CREDIT ON THE ECONOMY, CONT'D.... We learned yesterday that the U.S. economy picked up a little speed in the fourth quarter of 2010 -- October through December -- experiencing 3.2% GDP growth.

Soon after, the frequently-confused House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), did his best to spin the encouraging news.

"This morning, the GDP projection for the last quarter was released, showing a 3.2% growth for the fourth quarter and suggesting the economy will pick up speed this year. This uptick is no doubt due in part to the certainty that Washington has given the private sector through the recent tax deal and the newly elected House Republican Majority who have pledged to rein in the size and scope of our federal government which has exploded over the last 4 years. At a time when our nation's debt is over $14 trillion, it's time to get serious about cutting spending and growing jobs in the private sector, rather than cutting spending and "investing" in new government programs."

I find it hard to believe even the most shameless, pathetic hack in Washington actually believes any of this. Indeed, reading it, I'm almost embarrassed for Cantor.

Fourth quarter growth covered October through December. The tax deal didn't pass Congress until mid-December, so unless the business community invented a time machine when I wasn't looking, Cantor's timeline has a rather dramatic flaw.

Indeed, the dimwitted Virginian's entire statement is a series of misguided observations. Government spending grew more under Republican rule than Democratic, but Cantor thinks the opposite is true. We've been growing jobs in the private sector over the last year, but Cantor thinks the opposite is true. Investing in job creation, infrastructure, energy, and education will help the economy, but Cantor thinks the opposite is true.

But the larger point is probably more important: Republicans actually want people to believe that they rescued the economy.

Cantor took credit for encouraging 2011 projections earlier this week, and the farcical arguments are part of a growing pattern.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, argued two weeks ago, for example, that the recent good news -- private-sector job growth, big corporate profits, major gains in the major Wall Street indexes -- that occurred throughout 2010 was the result of Republican tax policies. As Kyl sees it, business leaders in early 2010 predicted the tax policy agreement crafted in late 2010, and started growing the economy based on their future-predicting abilities.

On Fox News last week, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) offered a related argument, insisting that indications of economic improvements are "in large part" because Republicans "won our majority and we're pursuing pro-growth policies."

To reiterate a point I've mentioned before, this really is fascinating. The economy started growing again in 2009, after the stimulus gave the economy a boost. We saw growth continue throughout 2010 -- even after those rascally Democrats passed health care reform and Wall Street reform -- while Republicans said Dems were killing the economy.

So to review, Republicans in the Bush era brought the global economy to the brink of catastrophic collapse; Obama and congressional Dems helped turn things around; and now those same Republicans whose policies failed want credit for Democratic successes.

Dems haven't pushed back too aggressively against this nonsense, and it's possible no one is foolish enough to take it seriously. Apparently, though, it's only going to continue, so if Dems don't have a plan to respond, it's time they came up with one.

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

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STILL WAITING FOR THAT 'ZERO TOLERANCE' POLICY TO KICK IN.... The 112th Congress is just getting underway, but the race to find the most corrupt lawmaker on Capitol Hill appears to have a clear frontrunner. The Associated Press has uncovered new evidence of more alleged wrongdoing on the part of Miami-area Republican David Rivera.

Freshman U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who is facing a state criminal investigation of his finances, paid himself more than $60,000 in unexplained campaign reimbursements over the eight years he served in the state legislature, an Associated Press examination of his records shows.

Serving as his own campaign treasurer, the Miami Republican didn't report any details for more than a third of the roughly $160,000 in expenses for which he reimbursed himself, other than simply calling them campaign expenses, according to the records.

The AP review also shows his total reimbursements far exceeded those claimed by 12 other top Florida state legislators who served with him. Those lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — usually gave at least some explanation of how the money had been spent, as required by Florida law. Rivera denies wrongdoing.

Of course he does. But the details look really bad for Rivera here, and perhaps more importantly, it's part of a series of head-shaking outrages surrounding the scandal-plagued lawmaker.

The most recent scandal, before this latest one, is Rivera's inexplicable decision to try to cover up loans from his mother's gambling-related marketing company, a matter that's already under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Indeed, it appears that the owners of a dog track made more than $500,000 in secret payments to a company Rivera owned.

The Republican congressman is also at the center of domestic violence allegations, has been accused of driving a truck off a road because it was carrying flyers from a rival campaign, hiding the finances surrounding foreclosure proceedings on a house he co-owned with Marco Rubio, and bizarre lies about nonexistent work he did for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

And in case that wasn't quite enough, the criminal investigation into Rivera's activities appears to be "expanding on multiple fronts," and may yet include additional felonies we haven't yet heard about.

What do Rivera's Republican friends in Washington have to say about all of this? Very little. House Speaker John Boehner said this week that the suspected crimes "took place before he was elected," which to his mind, explains why the party and the House leadership haven't taken any action.

Just a few months ago, shortly before the midterm elections, Eric Cantor (R-Va.) assured the public that a House Republican majority would "institute a zero-tolerance policy" when it comes to lawmakers and ethical/legal transgressions.

I guess we missed the fine print?

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a discouraging but predictable shakeup in the membership of an important interfaith initiative, called the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques.

Last year, the Anti-Defamation League began an interfaith initiative that supports the rights of Muslims to build mosques, and enlisted leaders of several major religious groups to help in the effort. [Tuesday], the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land announced he is leaving the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques because he has received too many complaints from his constituents. Land told the Associated Press that many Southern Baptists felt he was promoting Islam, and not just protecting religious freedom. "I don't agree with that perception but it's widespread and I have to respect it," Land said.

In explaining his decision, Land said his religious right allies do not want to stop Muslim Americans from worshiping. "My constituents, many felt, 'Yes. We certainly believe in religious freedom. People ought to have a place of worship. But it's a bridge too far not only to advocate for that, but to file suit,'" he said. "I do think it's important to note that people were not calling me and saying Muslims don't have a right to have mosques."

This is incoherent on multiple levels. For one thing, the lawsuits Land disapproves of became necessarily because bigots were trying to prevent Americans from building places of worship. For another, many of Land's allies have explicitly argued that Muslims don't have a right to build mosques.

Perhaps more importantly, Land's rationale shows a striking cowardice. He participated in an interfaith endeavor that protected Americans' right to worship, but he's quitting because his allies lied about the coalition's efforts.

Land said, after the lies became "widespread," he has to "respect" his allies' misguided perceptions. Under the circumstances, "respect" seems like the worst possible choices of words.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The Hawaiian state Senate recently voted to end the practice of opening its sessions with state-endorsed prayers. Some religious right outfits are outraged. Conservatives hate big government overreach, except when it comes to government endorsements of religion. (thanks to reader M.M. for the tip)

* This week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, 400 rabbis representing all four branches of American Judaism took out an ad demanding that Glenn Beck be sanctioned for "monstrous" and "beyond repugnant" use of "anti-Semitic imagery" in going after Holocaust survivor George Soros. Fox News said it didn't care, though the group included the chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and his predecessor, the dean of the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school, and a number of orthodox rabbis. (thanks to reader D.J. for the tip)

* Some Republican lawmakers in Georgia have decided to respond to the recent shootings in Tucson to push a measure allowing firearms in houses of worship.

* And as part of the Roman Catholic Church's effort to turn back the tide of Western secularism throughout Europe, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture has a new initiative aimed at promoting dialogue between theists and atheists. The first event will be in Paris in March.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THE PRESSING NEED FOR A 'SPUDNUT MOMENT'.... In his State of the Union address, President Obama argued, "This is our generation's Sputnik moment." Referencing the Soviet satellite, the president made the case that we should be equally galvanized today, preparing the U.S. for a competitive global marketplace.

Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) responded by explaining that the USSR won the "race to space," but the Soviets' space program cost too much. The resulting debt "resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union." None of this made any sense at all.

I neglected to mention, though, what the conspicuously unintelligent Fox News personality said immediately after this:

"You know what we need is 'a spudnut moment.' And here's where I'm going with this, Greta.... Well, the spudnut shop in Richland, Washington -- it's a bakery, it's a little coffee shop that's so successful, 60-some years, generation to generation, a family-owned business not looking for government to bail them out and to make their decisions for them. It's just hard-working, patriotic Americans in this shop.

"We need more spudnut moments in America. And I wish that President Obama would understand, in that heartland of America, what it is that really results in the solutions that we need to get this economy back on the right track. It's a shop like that."

Of course, in Grown-Up Land, "Sputnik moment" doesn't have anything to do with successful small businesses; it's about thinking big to address sweeping national challenges.

Yesterday, Palin elaborated, and said she hoped to emphasize "the difference between a communist government's 'Sputnik' and the private sector's 'Spudnut.'" She added that she intended to "highlight a clear difference in economic focus: big government command and control economies vs. America's small businesses."

I think I'm beginning to understand what Palin actually thinks here. She looks back at the space race and thinks the United States made a mistake. After Sputnik, a galvanized America recommitted itself to scientific advancement, including landing Americans on the moon. The U.S. efforts -- which included a great deal of public investment -- not only led to a victory over the Soviets, they unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

In hindsight, Palin sees this as misguided. NASA and the Apollo mission were "big government." What we should have done is focus on small businesses.

It sets up a fascinating contrast. President Obama declared this week, "We do big things." Palin's response, in effect is, "Let's aim lower and smaller."

For good measure, it's also worth noting that the original Spudnut Shop didn't find real success until it took advantage of government infrastructure spending -- the interstate highway system -- and the federal build-up of the community during World War II.

As Steve M. concluded, "This is Sarah Palin's shining example of the glories of private enterprise and the disastrous economic consequences brought on by government spending. Right, Sarah. Got it. You just make it too easy, Sarah."

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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BACHMANN PLAN SLAMMED BY VETERANS' GROUPS.... Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) broke unexpected ground this week, presenting a budget plan that included freezing Veterans Affairs health care spending and cutting veterans' disability benefits considerably.

To put it mildly, the Bachmann proposal has not gone over well among groups representing the needs and interests of veterans.

The first group to respond was Veterans for Common Sense. In a message to its membership this week, the group called the proposal "outrageous" because 10,000 new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are flowing into the veterans health system each month.

"You can't cut when demand is rising," said Paul Sullivan, the group's executive director.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the oldest and largest of the groups, followed soon after, releasing a statement from its national commander, Richard L. Eubank, saying: "No way, no how, will we let this proposal get any traction in Congress."

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, posted an Army Times article about the brouhaha on his Facebook page under the words, "Oh hell no!"

Before the day was over, groups like the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS also chimed in.

For her part, the right-wing congresswoman told a local reporter yesterday that her proposal to undermine veterans' benefits was intended to generate discussion. I suppose Bachmann succeeded on this front.

Various congressional Democrats weighed in on this yesterday, but to my mind, this could very well serve as the basis for a frenzy. Dems aren't generally known for their successful p.r. campaigns, but when they get a clear opportunity -- when the leading Republican on the House energy committee apologizes to BP for its oil spill, for example -- Dems can capitalize.

Bachmann's proposal to cut benefits for veterans is at least as good an opening for Democrats. Not only should Republicans and far-right leaders be pressed on whether they agree with her plan, but it's a chance to make a larger statement about the budget fight in general.

The talking point could read, "When Republicans start taking away veterans' benefits, they're going too far, cutting too much, too quickly."

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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KASICH TELLS BLACK LAWMAKER, 'I DON'T NEED YOUR PEOPLE'.... Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) is off to quite a start, isn't he? We learned recently that Kasich, a former congressman, Wall Street executive, and Fox News personality, has picked 22 officials for his cabinet -- 17 white men and 5 white women.

Though he says he offered two posts to African Americans who declined the offers, the result is the first Ohio governor from either party to have a cabinet lacking any racial or ethnic diversity in a half-century.

A week later, Kasich refused to attend the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Gala -- despite being in town -- and his office issued a statement on Martin Luther King Day celebrating St. Patrick's Day.

This week, Kasich made matters just a little worse.

[Thursday], the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus held a press conference to express their waning patience with his dismissive attitude and "implore[] Kasich to make better strides to diversify his Cabinet." But according to State Senator Nina Turner (D-OH), this time Kasich's response was a bit more blunt. According to Turner, when the caucus offered him help in finding qualified minority applicants, Kasich told Turner, "I don't need your people."

Now, I can appreciate the need for caution on a line like this. "I don't need your people" is what Turner said Kasich said, and second-hand quotes can be tricky.

But Kasich's spokesperson confirmed that the governor said exactly that. "What he meant was, 'Your people are Democrats, we don't need them on our cabinet,'" the spokesperson said yesterday.

Maybe that's what Kasich meant; I wasn't there and I can't speak to his frame of mind. But there's room for skepticism -- he was meeting with a lawmaker who was urging him to expand the diversity of his team and offered to help by presenting lists of qualified Ohioans. Her point, obviously, had nothing to do with party and everything to do with the governor having a diverse team that reflected the makeup of a diverse state.

By responding, "I don't need your people," Kasich couldn't have come across much worse.

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

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January 28, 2011

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

* Egypt: "After a day of increasingly violent protests throughout Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak ordered the military into the streets to reinforce police struggling to contain one of the most serious challenges to his long and autocratic rule. The president also imposed an overnight curfew nationwide, but fighting continued on the streets of Cairo, the capital, and smoke from fires blanketed one of the city's main streets along the Nile. The ruling party's offices were in flames at nightfall and Reuters reported looting at the burning complex."

* As I'm getting ready to publish this, Mubarak is on Egyptian television, and he's actually taking credit for the protests and the freedoms enjoyed the protestors. In other words, he's spewing madness.

* In case you're wondering, the treasures in Cairo's Egyptian Museum, home to a huge number of priceless antiquities, are safe for now.

* Afghanistan: "A bomb blast Friday at a Kabul supermarket that's popular with foreigners killed at least eight people, including three foreign nationals, police and witnesses said. The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and said it was directed at the head of a U.S. security contractor that's operating in Afghanistan."

* Mark Doms scrutinizes the latest domestic GDP numbers, and finds plenty to be encouraged by.

* Another nut makes violent threats targeting the office of a congressional Democrat. This time, the target was Rep. Joe Donnelly's (D-Ind.) office. The nut was arrested by the FBI and faces federal criminal charges.

* Congressional Republicans seem to think they understand the debt issues in Ireland and Britain. They really don't.

* Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) realizes filibuster reform is dead, at least for a long while, in the Senate, but he still hopes to make progress through the courts. (For the record, I think it's highly unlikely the courts would even agree to hear the case -- the judiciary won't want to weigh in on how a legislative branch shapes its rules.)

* The Washington Post op-ed page has published some doozies, but today's piece arguing for President Obama to pardon Tom DeLay was surprisingly ridiculous.

* The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto is still arguing that liberal women hate Sarah Palin because she's a "threat to their sexual identity." I thought it was dumb enough when he put it in print last week, but now he's repeated the line on national television.

* Has anyone ever had a worse memory than disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? It's like the guy suffered some kind of head trauma.

* Apparently, today's college freshmen are so stressed, they're just "overmedicated, tightly-wound balls of tension and fear."

* Bill O'Reilly thinks it's wrong to compare American political opponents to Nazis -- unless he finds his American political opponents offensive, in which case it's fine. He may want to think through this argument a little more, though it's unlikely he'll do so.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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PREPARING FOR REGIME CHANGE?.... Commenting on today's White House press briefing with Robert Gibbs, Ben Smith noted, "Robert Gibbs, like all White House press secretaries, takes great care with his words, but I'm not sure I've ever seen him taking quite this much care, referring to notes from phrase to phrase, as he is in this afternoon's briefing on Egypt."*

The words Gibbs chose to use, however, very likely sent international ripples.

The Obama administration threatened on Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion program of foreign aid to Egypt based on President Hosni Mubarak's response to swelling street protests in Cairo and other cities.

"Violence is not the response" to the demands for greater freedoms, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Gibbs said President Barack Obama had been briefed extensively about the fast-unfolding events but had not tried to speak with Mubarak by phone. Asked why not, Gibbs said that "we're monitoring a very fluid situation."

I suppose there's more than one way to read that, but to my ear, it was language suggesting the Obama administration doesn't expect the Mubarak government to survive the popular revolt.

Asked whether U.S. officials have a preference about the makeup of the Egyptian government, Gibbs said, "I don't want to project into the future. I don't think that would be a wise use of my time. The government of Egypt is an issue for the people of Egypt."

The White House spokesperson had plenty of opportunities to express support for Mubarak and the current Egyptian government. He did not.

The briefing came just hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton read a carefully-worded statement that publicly called for the Egyptian government to allow peaceful protests to continue without a violent response -- a call Mubarak did not honor.

It's no secret that the U.S. has long seen Mubarak as a key regional ally in one of largest and most important countries in the Arab world, though that alliance has been tempered by the realization that the Egyptian regime is authoritarian and undemocratic.

As of this afternoon, the evidence suggests the Obama administration is prepared to see a new day in Egypt, which is no small shift.

* updated

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KRAUTHAMMER KNOWS A DARE WHEN HE SEES IT.... The very first sentence in Charles Krauthammer's column today raises a dubious point: "The November election sent a clear message to Washington: less government, less debt, less spending."

It may not have been as "clear" as Krauthammer prefers to believe. Republicans obviously did very well in November, but the results were largely the consequence of a lousy economy. If it's "clear" that the electorate thinks exactly the same way Krauthammer does -- it's funny how that always seems to happen in conservatives' columns -- why did exit polls show Republicans with such weak support? Why do polls continue to show President Obama's standing improving, and Americans preferring the Democratic agenda to the Republicans'?

The column goes on to complain that the White House refuses to perceive public attitudes the way Krauthammer does, and instead seems to be daring his political rivals.

President Obama certainly heard [the message from the midterm elections], but judging from his State of the Union address, he doesn't believe a word of it. The people say they want cuts? Sure they do -- in the abstract. But any party that actually dares carry them out will be punished severely. [...]

One almost has to admire Obama's defiance. His 2009 stimulus and budget-busting health-care reform are precisely what stirred the popular revolt that delivered his November shellacking. And yet he's back for more.

It's as if Obama is daring the voters -- and the Republicans -- to prove they really want smaller government.

Oddly enough, I think Krauthammer's right about this -- at least the last part. He's completely at odds with reality about the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act, and the midterm results, but when it comes to the White House message, Krauthammer's point is actually pretty compelling. Obama very likely thinks budget cuts are easier to talk about than execute, and wouldn't mind at all if Republicans came up with a detailed proposal that could be subjected to scrutiny and debate.

Greg Sargent had a smart take on this: "As David Axelrod has already spelled out quite explicitly, President Obama is also daring the new Republican majority to show how they would achieve the dramatically downsized government they say they want, and betting that once they get specific, the voters will prefer his vision to theirs."

It's a bet with strong odds. Americans tend to like the idea of slashing spending, right up until they're asked specific areas of the budget, at which point most of the country thinks otherwise.

Of course, Republicans are welcome to call Obama's bluff, and push forward with their plans to slash spending, curtail services, lay off public workers, gut the health care system, privatize entitlements, and as of this morning, cut veterans' benefits.

If Boehner, Cantor, and company think Krauthammer's right and Obama's dare is misguided, they're certainly welcome to take their chances.

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NO ONE IS BANNING THE WORD 'AMERICA'.... In July, "Captain America: The First Avenger," a big superhero movie, will hit theaters. But because Hollywood studios rely so heavily on the international box office, in much of the world, the movie will simply be called, "The First Avenger." As a business decision, this isn't exactly shocking.

At least, it shouldn't be. On "Fox & Friends" this morning, Gretchen Carlson was outraged by the news.

"You know what? That is so crazy. Before you know it, this country will just be called 'Half of North America.' OK? Because, 'Oh, you can't say, America.' What will we say? What will we call this country when we can't say 'America' anymore?"

In Carlson's mind, it's reasonable to think we may reach a point at which "we" can't even utter the word "America" anymore. Never mind that this is one movie studio making a reasonable marketing decision about the title of one movie, the Fox News personality is actually worked up about this, as if there's an active campaign underway to restrict use of the word "American."

What annoys me about this is that I know what comes next. My more ridiculous relatives -- just like your more ridiculous relatives -- are going to start sending emails. Those emails will argue that "they" -- it's always a nefarious-but-unidentified "they" -- have decided that "America" is an offensive word, and that we're not "supposed to" say it anymore. The email will probably include a call to arms -- start using "America" all the time, even unnecessarily, just to annoy "them."

And they'll know all of this makes sense because that nice person on Fox News said so.

For what it's worth, Carlson, and those inspired by her silly overreaction, have nothing to fear. If the Avengers had been a British comic book, and Steve Rogers had been born in Cardiff instead of Manhattan, I suspect "Captain England: The First Avenger" would still be marketed in South Korea as "The First Avenger."

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WHEN DISDAIN MEETS FEAR.... As conservative as congressional Republican leaders are -- and good lord are they far to the right -- they've made it clear they have no real tolerance for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). At the same time, however, the GOP's disdain for the ridiculous congresswoman is matched by the party's fear of her status.

A couple of months ago, for example, Bachmann announced her bid to join the House GOP leadership as conference chair. The party quickly moved to crush her bid, though leaders were careful not to leave fingerprints, and avoided direct criticism of Bachmann in the media.

This week, Republicans were clearly peeved, to put it mildly, about her televised response to the State of the Union address, and took pains to emphasize the fact that Bachmann's remarks were not the official party message. But again, the GOP frustration was largely behind the scenes.

Jonathan Allen reports today that Bachmann's Republican colleagues are embarrassed by her -- they just don't like to say so on the record.

When Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was named to the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year, one of her Republican colleagues responded this way: "Is that a punchline?" Another simply said, "Jumbo shrimp. Oxymoron."

Neither dared to attach his name to his comment.

Bachmann's Republican critics may be sick of her grandstanding, but they're more terrified of her tea party following.

To a certain extent, some of this is vaguely reassuring. Sometimes, watching Bachmann's craziness, it's hard not to wonder, "Congressional Republicans have to be annoyed by all of this, don't they?" As it turns out, they are, and I'm glad.

But if Republicans had a little more courage, it'd be even better. What are they afraid of?

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) -- who has a long conservative voting record -- said he learned the power of Palin's following the hard way after suggesting she stay out of Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary on a radio show.

"There was a firestorm in the office for about 24 hours," he said, with people "questioning my Republican conservative credentials" in phone calls.

I'm sure it's unpleasant having unhinged activists throw a tantrum in response to mild criticism, but the GOP needs to realize fearing Bachmann only gives her more influence -- she takes advantage of the chilling effect, knowing that Republicans will face blowback from her minions if her antics draw any kind of rebuke.

Freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) added, "She's got a huge movement. She's got a huge following. I am sure that many politicians and elected officials do not what [sic] to upset that huge movement and that huge following."

The following will only grow if GOP leaders are afraid of her.

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'GRANNY IS SAFE'.... In his State of the Union address this week, President Obama said very little about the Affordable Care Act. He told lawmakers he's open to improving the law, but won't allow Republicans to roll back the clock. "[I]nstead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years," Obama said, "let's fix what needs fixing and let's move forward."

The president spoke today to the annual Families USA "Health Action" conference, and went into far more detail.

In his most vigorous defense of the healthcare law since Republicans took control of the House, Obama fired back Friday at GOP claims that the law deprives essential care for seniors and balloons the deficit.

"You may have heard once or twice this is a job-crushing, granny-threatening, budget-busting monstrosity," Obama said to pro-reform advocates at the Families USA annual conference in Washington. "That just doesn't match up to the reality."

He added, "I can report that Granny is safe."

As a rule, consultants tell officials not to repeat the wording of a rhetorical attack, because it only helps lend credence to the criticism, but I'm glad Obama put it this way this morning. The president is, in effect, openly mocking Republicans for transparently ridiculous talking points that are fundamentally dishonest.

And since they deserve to be mocked, this was an entirely appropriate line to take. Instead of getting angry, there's something to be said for a "can you believe these guys?" kind of approach.

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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EGYPT ERUPTS.... Given the extraordinary developments in Egypt, I have very little to offer in the way of foreign policy insights, but I would certainly encourage folks to watch the online live stream from Al Jazeera English. I've had it on for hours, and watching the revolution unfold is breathtaking.

It's hard to imagine the circumstances that would allow the autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak to continue.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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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:

* Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) isn't running for president, but at the urging of the Republican Governors Association, it seems all but certain that the far-right House member will run for governor of the Hoosier State next year.

* The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Rahm Emanuel's favor yesterday, putting the former White House chief of staff back on Chicago's mayoral ballot. The election is Feb. 22, and if no candidate gets 50%, there will be an April 5 runoff.

* Yesterday, the Tea Party Express, which backed a variety of GOP primary insurgents, said it doesn't intend to target Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) in Utah next year. Today, however, the far-right group walked that back, saying it would consider supporting a Hatch challenger, if a "constitutional conservative candidate" were to "step forward."

* Though once considered the 2012 frontrunner in Missouri, former Sen. Jim Talent (R) formally announced yesterday that he will not take on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) next year.

* Reinforcing the fact that he's serious about his presidential ambitions, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) hired two experienced Republican strategists in Iowa this week.

* As implausible as it appears, U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (R) is apparently "leaning toward" running for president, despite having spent the last two years as a member of the Obama administration.

* Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), fresh off his failed gubernatorial campaign, is now giving serious consideration to challenging Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) next year.

* And Republican leaders are off to a strong fundraising start in 2011, with millions of dollars in contributions from "banks, health insurers, and other major business interests."

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BACHMANN EYES CUTS TO VETERANS' BENEFITS.... As a rule, policymakers are reluctant to cut veterans' benefits, especially during two wars. Even those most eager to slash spending tend to make clear that veterans would be unaffected.

Michele Bachmann, however, is special.

Tea party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has unveiled a plan for cutting $400 billion in federal spending that includes freezing Veterans Affairs Department health care spending and cutting veterans' disability benefits.

Her proposed VA budget cuts would account for $4.5 billion of the savings included in the plan, posted on her official House of Representatives website.

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said cutting veterans' health care spending is an ill-advised move at a time when the number of veterans continues to grow as troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan. Sullivan said he finds it difficult to see how VA could freeze health care costs without hurting veterans.

"It is really astonishing to see this," he said.

Bachmann's plan is rather ridiculous on its face, and won't receive serious consideration by anyone, but it's nevertheless a reflection of the bizarre congresswoman's priorities.

It's one thing to say one opposes government-run health care; it's something else altogether to identify some of the best care anywhere -- care for U.S. troops -- and call for deep budget cuts.

Given Bachmann's prominence as a Republican voice and spokesperson for the GOP's Tea Party base, perhaps others should be asked to comment on her proposal. What's it going to be conservatives, do you support Bachmann's plans to cut veterans' benefits or not?

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THE ODIOUS GOP PLAN TO REDEFINE RAPE.... Last week, after a rather pointless vote to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, House Republicans announced their second major initiative: the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act."

It was additional evidence that the new House GOP majority isn't exactly focused on the economy and job creation, and it seemed like another gesture to the party's far-right base. After all, existing law already restricts public funds for abortions.

Today, Nick Baumann takes a closer look at the proposal, and highlights an odious provision that proponents would use to redefine rape.

For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to "forcible rape." This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith's spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)

Given that the bill also would forbid the use of tax benefits to pay for abortions, that 13-year-old's parents wouldn't be allowed to use money from a tax-exempt health savings account (HSA) to pay for the procedure. They also wouldn't be able to deduct the cost of the abortion or the cost of any insurance that paid for it as a medical expense.

In all likelihood, this bill, like the ACA repeal measure, wouldn't stand much of a chance in the Senate, and would surely draw White House opposition.

But the fact that the bill actually reflects Republican priorities, and will almost certainly pass the House with overwhelming GOP support, speaks volumes.

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THE CONSEQUENCES OF TEA PARTY-STYLE ARITHMETIC.... Voters in Long Island's Nassau County seemed to believe electing a Tea Partier would be a great idea. I have a hunch they're living with some regret now.

In late 2009, locals elected Edward P. Mangano as their county executive -- one of the first big upset victories for the so-called "movement" -- after running on a predictable platform. Mangano would slash taxes, cut spending, and create a nice little utopia. Voters loved the sound of it.

A year later, "Eddie" had slashed taxes as promised, but struggled to limit public services that the community had grown to appreciate. This week, the consequences of Tea Party economics became clear -- Nassau County, facing a full-fledged fiscal crisis, saw its finances taken over by the state.

The [tax cut policy] set Mangano on an immediate collision course with the state-appointed fiscal overseer, the Nassau County Interim Financial Authority, or NIFA. It culminated in NIFA seizing control of the wealthy New York county's finances on Wednesday.

Nassau's ills exemplify the growing tension across the country as dozens of freshly-elected Tea Party lawmakers, many of whom promised to cut taxes, must find ways to slash record budget gaps as revenues dwindle.

"A lot of people who got elected on this type of anti-tax platform are running into the brick wall of fiscal reality," said Matthew Gardner, executive director of the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in Washington.

Besides being a cautionary tale, the setback in Nassau County is a black eye for the Tea Party, the grassroots movement built around the core principles of constitutionally limited government, free-market ideology and low taxes.

Mangano stressed a "tax revolt" platform as a candidate, but few bothered to notice that his numbers just didn't -- indeed, couldn't -- add up. He ran against an incumbent who felt like he had no choice but to tell voters the truth -- he'd have to raise taxes to prevent a disaster -- and the public didn't care for it.

Mangano didn't quite understand the county's fiscal problems, but proceeded with his agenda anyway. And now we see the consequences.

Tea Party economics always sound nice, right up until these ridiculous ideas are actually implemented.

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ECONOMY SHOWS SIGNS OF LIFE.... Economic activity in last three months of 2010 didn't quite meet expectations, but it came close, and the result is a GDP report most will find heartening.

The United States economy sped up its growth rate in the fourth quarter, though slightly less than expected, chiefly on the backs of revitalized consumers and a narrowed trade deficit.

Gross domestic product, a broad measure of all the goods and services produced by the economy, grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter, up from 2.6 percent in the previous period, according to the Commerce Department.

In terms of the larger context, we've now seen six consecutive quarters of economic growth. What's more, the trend has been moving in the right direction -- the third quarter was better than the second, and the fourth was better than the third.

And before Republicans start taking credit for the growing economy -- as we've seen lately, they really enjoy doing this -- it's worth noting that the tax policy agreement reached with the White House wasn't signed until the end of the quarter, and hadn't taken effect when the economy picked up.

Also note, while better growth is obviously good news, 3.2% is still only modest growth. Under normal circumstances, this would point to a fairly healthy economy, humming right along. But given the severity of the Great Recession, our circumstances are anything but normal -- to have a robust recovery and make a real dent in the unemployment rate, we'll still need to do better than this.

Accelerating growth is encouraging, but if you hear policymakers and pundits today use this as an excuse to justify hitting the brakes, please know that they're completely wrong. We're slowly getting out of a ditch -- pursuing massive budget cuts, taking money out of the economy, and deliberately putting people out of work (i.e., the vision embraced by House Republicans) would very likely push us backwards in a hurry.

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 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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HOUSE GOP WEIGHS MEDICARE PRIVATIZATION.... To help finance the Affordable Care Act and ensure health care reform didn't add to the deficit, Democrats committed to $500 billion in cost savings from Medicare. Republicans, who've always been hostile to the system of socialized medicine, feigned outrage.

Indeed, in the midterm elections, one of the single most common attacks levied by Republicans was that Democrats "voted to cut Medicare." It was a bizarre argument on the substance -- Dems actually strengthened the Medicare system, and approved a host of new benefits for seniors -- but it was stranger from an ideological perspective. Since when does the GOP pretend to be champions of Medicare?

This week, the Republican mask began to slip.

Months after they hammered Democrats for cutting Medicare, House Republicans are debating whether to relaunch their quest to privatize the health program for seniors.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is testing support for his idea to replace Medicare with a fixed payment to buy a private medical plan from a menu of coverage options.

The plan has a humorous quality, at least in a sinister sort of way. In effect, Republicans won a majority by saying Democrats cut Medicare too much, and are now using their majority to propose far more drastic cuts to Medicare.

Substantively, the GOP idea here is to give seniors a fixed payment, instead of the current open-ended benefit, which they could then use to purchase private insurance, thereby privatizing the system. The problem, of course, is that the Republican proposal calls for the value of the health care voucher to grow slowly over time -- far short of the rate of growth in health care costs. Very quickly, seniors would realize that the cost of their care far exceeds the size of the payment.

Keep in mind, this is not just idle speculation. Republicans seem quite serious about this.

House Republicans are considering a measure to privatize Medicare that would be included in their alternative to President Obama's annual budget.

House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas said on Wednesday that he expects Republicans to support a provision to convert Medicare into a voucher system, which would effectively turn the government-backed health care program over to private insurers. Hensarling is the second-ranked Republican on the Budget Committee.

That's the same Hensarling, by the way, who can't even begin to comprehend the basics of American health care, as evidenced by his remarks last week urging the government not to interfere with his mother's life-saving Medicare coverage. (He's also one of the Republicans who blasted Dems for cutting Medicare last year.)

My advice to Ryan and Hensarling? Go for it. I dare you. Is the GOP really convinced that Americans love the far-right agenda? Then by all means, let's put that to the test.

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PENCE'S DECISION.... Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, a darling of the far-right, has flirted for quite a while with the notion of a presidential campaign. Yesterday, however, the former House Conference chairman announced that he would skip the race for the White House.

Pence's decision not to seek national office in favor of a likely run for governor of Indiana is a major blow to conservative activists and tea party leaders, who saw Pence as someone who could unite the traditional GOP base -- evangelical and social conservatives -- with the tea party's fiscal hawks.

And it's left a major opening for someone in a heavily crowded GOP presidential field: At the Value Voters Summit last year, Pence won the straw poll for both president and vice president, beating better-known candidates like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.

"I am selfishly disappointed," said Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center and longtime conservative activist who was among a group of Washington conservatives urging Pence to run for president -- and whose support is now up for grabs. "I don't have a number two. I had a number one and a whole bunch of people are running for number two."

Nationwide, Pence is far from a household name, but in conservative circles, the guy is something of a giant. Pence's willingness to consider a presidential campaign wasn't just the result of an unhealthy ego; he was actively being pushed to run by the likes of Dick Armey and former Rep. Jim Ryun. Ralph Benko, a Republican consultant and veteran of the Reagan White House, actually created an organization committed to drafting Pence. "He's the complete package," Benko said of Pence last week.

In the short term, Pence's announcement will cause some scrambling in 2012 circles, with other all-but-announced candidates reaching out to Pence's backers for support. Indeed, the congressman will now have one of the year's most sought after endorsements.

But stepping back, it's worth pondering two questions: (1) why in the world would anyone consider Mike Pence a credible presidential candidate? and (2) how woefully underwhelming is the existing GOP 2012 field if major players were giving serious consideration to a dimwitted House member?

I can appreciate the fact that Pence's unyielding right-wing voting record on literally every issue is appreciated by the far-right -- he checks all the boxes, taking a very conservative line that satisfies all the various party factions.

But to say that the guy isn't ready for prime time is a dramatic understatement. Pence has no areas of expertise, has no major pieces of legislation to his name, has demonstrated no working understanding of any area of public policy, and after spending five minutes watching him speak on any subject, it becomes clear that he's conspicuously unintelligent.

I'm reminded of something Matt Yglesias wrote a while back about the Indiana congressman. "Mike Pence is a moron, and any movement that would hold the guy up as a hero is bankrupt," Matt explained, adding, "I would refer you to this post from September about the earth-shattering ignorance and stupidity of Mike Pence.... [I]t's really staggering. In my admittedly brief experience talking to him, his inability to grasp the basic contours of policy question was obvious and overwhelming."

That Pence is skipping the presidential campaign is probably a good thing for the country. But that so many Republicans wanted him to run in the first place is a reminder of the sorry state of the Republican field and the contemporary GOP in general.

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

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January 27, 2011

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

* As unrest continues in Egypt, ElBaradei returns to his country: "Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who has become a leading opponent of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, returned to Cairo on Thursday in an attempt to galvanize youth-led street protests that extended into a third day across the country."

* Tunisia, then Egypt, now Yemen: "Yemen, one of the Middle East's most impoverished countries and a haven for Al Qaeda militants, became the latest Arab state to witness mass protests on Thursday, as thousands of Yemenis took to the streets in the capital and other regions to demand a change in government."

* Tragedy in Uganda: "David Kato knew he was a marked man. As the most outspoken gay rights advocate in Uganda, a country where homophobia is so severe that Parliament is considering a bill to execute gay people, he had received a stream of death threats, his friends said.... On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Kato was beaten to death with a hammer in his rough-and-tumble neighborhood." Also note, the murder generated an official White House statement, reinforcing its significance.

* Iraq: "A car bomb exploded outside a funeral tent Thursday in a mainly Shiite area of Baghdad, killing at least 48 people -- the latest in a wave of attacks that has triggered fury over the government's inability to stop the bloodshed."

* A sharp and painful reversal: "The number of people applying for unemployment benefits rose sharply last week as snowstorms in some parts of the country forced companies to lay off workers. Applications surged by a seasonally adjusted 51,000 to 454,000, the highest level since late October."

* How well is GM doing? It's withdrawing its application for $14.4 billion in federal loans to upgrade its manufacturing operations.

* On a related note, Republicans were wrong about Chrysler, too.

* Major White House staffing announcements are underway, including Jay Carney replacing Robert Gibbs as press secretary.

* This should be interesting: "President Obama has renominated Donald Berwick to be administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a pivotal position in implementing the president's health care law."

* House Speaker John Boehner is walking back his own Social Security policy.

* Bush/Cheney took unprecedented steps to undermine the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Obama is putting things right.

* There are ways to improve college investments.

* Right-wing bloggers are accusing White House speechwriters of plagiarism in the SOTU. James Joyner didn't love the speech, but he knows nonsensical attacks when he sees them.

* Similarly, Obama didn't come up with "Win the future." Neither did Gingrich. Let it go, conservatives.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE SENATE REFORM DEAL.... We talked this morning about the fate of reforming Senate rules, and the unwarranted death of the Udall/Harkin/Merkley plan. This afternoon, the negotiations came to a formal end, and an agreement was announced.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Thursday that they would preserve the hallowed filibuster rules but "exercise restraint" to ease legislative gridlock.

Moreover, the two men promised never to use an obscure procedure called the "constitutional option" -- which some call the "nuclear option" -- to try to change Senate rules by 51 votes, rather than by a two-thirds majority of 67 senators.

It's a genuine shame that the agreed-to reforms are so minor; the Senate has become deeply dysfunctional in a way that threatens not only the legislative process, but the ability of the government to function. It is, to borrow a phrase, pretty tough to win the future with a Senate that doesn't work.

That said, the agreement announced today, while disappointing, includes worthwhile improvements. Secret holds will be restricted considerably, and roughly a third of the executive branch positions currently subjected to Senate confirmation will no longer need a vote at all. To the delight of the clerks, members also won't be able to delay proceedings by forcing legislation to be read out loud after it's been publicly filed.

Perhaps most notably, there's a "gentlemen's agreement" in place between the caucus leaders -- Dems will "exercise restraint" in blocking amendments, and Republicans will "limit" the filibusters on motions to proceed.

More dramatic changes -- including the "talking" filibuster, and the prospect of eliminating filibusters altogether -- never stood a chance. Too many senators find it too easy to imagine being in the minority, when they may want to utilize some of these obstructionist tools themselves.

And then, of course, there's the "constitutional option," which reformers hoped Dems would use to force sweeping changes by majority rule. Reid and McConnell agreed today not to use this tactic for the rest of this Congress -- or in the next Congress, when either party could be in the majority.

The significance of this is probably obvious -- if Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader two years from today, he'll be as limited as Dems are now, at least until 2014.

But there's a flip side, too. As Greg Sargent noted, the very possibility of exercising the "constitutional option" opened the door to reforms in the first place, and with this now off the table, at least for a long while, we can forget about additional attempts to improve how the Senate operates. Similarly, Ezra Klein noted that "the minority is not on notice that further abuse of the filibuster (and associated stalling tactics) could lead to more significant reforms."

The agreement includes some modest steps in the right direction, but the reforms could have been, and should have been, far more ambitious, and it's highly unlikely we'll see anyone try again for a very long time.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DISTRACTING THE BASE WITH SHINY AMENDMENTS.... Congressional Republicans have invested a fair amount of energy this week pushing a constitutional amendment to mandate balanced budgets. It's a spectacularly bad idea, but far-right lawmakers find it easier to talk about budget gimmicks than actually work on real budgeting.

Today, yet another constitutional amendment was unveiled, this time by Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and the target is birthright citizenship. Under their proposal, the Constitution would declare "a person born in the United States to illegal aliens does not automatically gain citizenship unless at least one parent is a legal citizen, legal immigrant, active member of the Armed Forces or a naturalized legal citizen."*

The amendment can't pass, and it's still more evidence that Republicans don't even want to talk about job creation, but the party's far-right base is supposed to be impressed by GOP officials taking their concerns seriously.

The question, though, is whether the Republicans' Tea Party base is easily distracted by shiny objects. Jonathan Bernstein yesterday characterized this as "the constitutional amendment con."

One of the big themes, it seems to me, of the current Congress is whether Speaker John Boehner and incumbent Republicans in general can keep conservative activists happy with feel-good symbolic votes, given that Republicans can't actually do most of the things that those activists say they want. [...]

The best form of purely symbolic vote is usually the constitutional amendment. After all, it's almost always impossible to pass one of those, so Republicans don't have to worry about the negative consequences if it goes through. In addition, the level of abstraction is high, so Republicans don't have to worry about getting called out for supporting unpopular specifics. [...]

The real question, however, is whether activists -- and whether those voices in the partisan conservative media who serve as opinion leaders for those activists -- are going to settle for symbolism. If so, Boehner's a smart guy, and he can roll these out forever: there's still the (purely fraudulent) line-item veto, and Tea Partyer activists and other populists are bound to love congressional term limits.

And really, that's just the start. Jonathan didn't mention the birthright citizenship measure, which only reinforces the fact that Republicans aren't afraid to get creative when rolling out new constitutional amendments they don't expect to be approved.

How long the base will actually put up with this is unclear, but I'd bet money their frustration will come well before a credible Republican plan to create jobs.

* Update: Reader S.S. emails to note that the Vitter/Paul measure may not, in fact, be a constitutional amendment, but rather, legislation seeking to define how the 14th Amendment should be interpreted. [Update on the update: Vitter and Paul are pursuing this through a joint resolution amending the Constitution.]

Either way, the larger point about amendments and the GOP base stands.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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GOP STILL DIVIDED OVER PENTAGON CUTS.... Congressional Republicans insist that the deficit has reached a crisis stage, and threatens to destroy the American way of life. The problem, of course, is that they're proving to be a little picky about how to address the problem.

Democrats have presented a wide variety of policy ideas -- health care reform, cap and trade, the DREAM Act, Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy -- each of which would reduce the deficit. To paraphrase Meatloaf, Republicans replied, "We would do anything for deficit reduction, but we don't do that."

Dems have also pointed to the massive Pentagon budget as an area of potential savings, but this is proving to be problematic for Republicans, too.

To hear the Republican leadership tell it, the once-sacred Pentagon budget, protected by the party for generations, is suddenly on the table. But a closer look shows that even as Speaker John A. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, insist on the need for military cuts, divisions have opened among Republicans about whether, and how much, to chop Pentagon spending that comes to more than a half trillion dollars a year. [...]

The discordant Republican voices on military spending have bred confusion on Capitol Hill, among military contractors and within the military itself, where no one is exactly sure what the members backed by the Tea Party will do. It also shows why taking on the military budget will be so hard, even though a widening deficit has led the president and the leaders of both parties to say this time they are serious.

For his part, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already outlined significant budget savings, and has argued repeatedly that defense spending is unsustainable at current levels. Democrats agree, as do, oddly enough, Tea Party types in the GOP base. Dick Armey, of all people, told the NYT, "A lot of people say if you cut defense, you're demonstrating less than a full commitment to our nation's security, and that's baloney."

But the process isn't going well. Several leading Republican officials, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), insist that every penny of the Pentagon budget is sacrosanct, without exception, and argue that the Obama administration is too willing to cut spending (seriously). Newer GOP lawmakers with the backing of the Tea Party base support defense-related cuts, but aren't offering any specifics, because they don't know enough about the policy to point to details.

To my mind, this shouldn't even be controversial. Defense spending will top $700 billion in the next fiscal year. For Republicans to insist that we cut spending, but deliberately ignore the largest discretionary portion of the budget, is absurd.

The United States now spends about as much on defense as every other country on the planet combined. With this in mind, it's something of a litmus test: those who claim credibility on fiscal responsibility, but believe a bloated Pentagon budget is untouchable, shouldn't even be part of the conversation.

It's the first hurdle that has to be cleared for the rest of the fiscal discussion to even get underway.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THEY'RE BOUND TO GET TO JOBS EVENTUALLY, RIGHT?.... The midterm election cycle really wasn't that long ago. It was recent enough for congressional Republicans to remember that they did well by running around asking questions like, "Where are the jobs?"

Job creation and economic growth remain the dominant issue on the minds of voters, though the GOP seems to have lost sight of public priorities with surprising speed.

The very first issue tackled by the new House GOP majority was, of course, gutting the health care system, despite the fact that their legislation has no chance at passing, and despite the fact that their proposal would hurt job creation. For their second major initiative, Republicans chose abortion.

Last week, the Republican Study Committee announced one of its top new goals is using federal power to restrict marriage rights in the District of Columbia -- remember, they hate overbearing federal intervention in local affairs, except when they don't -- and this week the House GOP leadership announced yet another priority.

New House Speaker John A. Boehner formally endorsed a bill Wednesday to revive and expand the school voucher program for the District of Columbia, calling it "a model for similar programs throughout our country."

Yes, Boehner loathes spending taxpayer money, unless it's going to pay for private school tuition.

I'm curious -- when, exactly, might we see Republicans work on creating jobs? After tackling health care, abortion, gay marriage, and school vouchers, maybe then the GOP might care about unemployment?

Honestly, this is getting a little silly. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wrote an op-ed last week on "economic policy," and literally didn't mention jobs at all. There were two Republican responses to the State of the Union address, and neither one presented specific ideas about job creation. The Republican Study Committee has an economic plan of sorts, and it's intended to deliberately but more Americans out of work.

Can anyone, anywhere, actually describe the Republican plan to reduce unemployment? The White House's plan is significantly easier to identify.

The GOP is offering nothing on the public's Issue One (jobs), while Obama is calling for spending on construction, education and energy.

In March, John Boehner asked, "When are we going to address the number one issue on the minds of our fellow citizens? When are we going to focus on the economy and getting people back to work?"

I don't know, John, when are we?

Steve Benen 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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TOO SUBTLE?.... No sooner do we talk about President Obama's emphasis on American exceptionalism than we see Republicans pretend the remarks were never uttered.

Ben Smith noted this morning that House Speaker John Boehner and CNN's Kathleen Parker talked last night about the phrase they wanted to hear from the president, but didn't.

PARKER: You know one of the words that I listened out for in his speech last night was the word "exceptional." ... But I didn't hear him say it and I thought at a time when you're building a speech around sort of defining the common purpose of America, that seemed to me a rather -- you know, a simple direct line, fairly -- pretty much a no-brainer, but he didn't say it.

BOEHNER: Well, they -- they've refused to talk about America exceptionalism. We are different than the rest of the world. Why? Because Americans have -- the country was built on an idea that ordinary people could decide what their government looked like and ordinary people could elect their own leaders.

And 235 years ago that was a pretty novel idea. And so we are different. Why is our economy still 20 times the size of China's? Because Americans have had their freedom to succeed, the freedom to fail. We've got more innovators, more entrepreneurs, and that is exceptional but you can't get the left to talk about it. They don't -- they reject that notion.

PARKER: Why do you think that is?

BOEHNER: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know if they're afraid of it, whether they don't believe it. I don't know.

CNN inexplicably airing two Republican responses to the State of the Union was ridiculous. This is worse.

I haven't the foggiest idea what Boehner and Parker are talking about. This has long been one of the more offensive and mind-numbing areas of attack from the right, but Tuesday's speech should have resolved the issue once and for all. Indeed, more than a few observers noted that Obama embraced American exceptionalism this week even more explicitly than he has in the past.

Honestly, were Boehner and Parker even awake during the speech? If so, they heard Obama talk about the qualities that "set us apart as a nation" and the things we do "better than anyone else." And his belief that America is "not just a place on a map, but the light to the world" and "the greatest nation on Earth." And his reminder that "as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth."

I realize the right isn't great at subtleties, but how could Boehner and Parker have missed this?

Indeed, Boehner specifically whined that "they" don't understand that "the country was built on an idea," a day after Obama explained, "What's more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -- the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny."

Greg Sargent added, "What's amusing about this ongoing assertion from the right is how easily debunked it is, and how casually its proponents simply pretend that the historical record doesn't exist.... I'm starting to get the sneaking suspicion that these people would prefer that Obama didn't use such language, and are repeating this claim again and again in hopes of making it so."

The gang that creates its own reality just doesn't know when to stop.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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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:

* Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is trying to gut measures approved by voters last year, requiring nonpartisan, post-Census redistricting. This is what happens when criminals are elected to run states.

* Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams formally launched his Senate campaign this morning, hoping to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) who is retiring at the end of her term next year. He'll be part of a very crowded primary.

* Things didn't go too well for Mitt Romney in Iowa three years ago, and in the upcoming presidential race, the former moderate-turned-conservative governor might just skip the first caucuses altogether.

* Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), arguably the Senate's most right-wing member, insisted yesterday that he's not interested in running for president. He then boarded a plane bound for Iowa.

* In case it wasn't obvious enough before, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) conceded yesterday that he's "seriously thinking" about running for president. You don't say.

* With Rep. Chris Murphy (D) running for the Senate in Connecticut, the race to replace him in the 5th district is starting to take shape. Three Republicans, including the former State Sen. Sam Caligiuri who lost last year, are poised to enter the race.

* Any chance former Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who suffered an unexpected defeat in 2010, might seek a rematch in 2012? Apparently not.

* Remember Sharron Angle? The failed, cringe-worthy Senate candidate in Nevada last year? She was in Iowa yesterday, and hedged about whether she might run for president of the United States: "I'll just say I have lots of options for the future, and I'm investigating all my options." Whatever you say, Sharron.

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

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NATIONAL GREATNESS LIBERALISM.... Paul Glastris noted yesterday that President Obama, with varying degrees of subtlety, incorporated themes of American exceptionalism into his State of the Union address. Mark Kleiman had a related item last night, touching on an even broader thematic endeavor.

Sometimes your opponents can see what you're doing more clearly than your friends can. Some progressives were put off by the rather Reaganesque rhetoric of the State of the Union address, but Mark Thiessen of AEI recognized it for what it was: an attempt to harness "American exceptionalism" to pull the plough of activist government. When Wes Clark tried the same thing either Andy Sabl or I called it "the liberalism of national greatness." I thought it was a winner then, and I think it's a winner now.

So do I.

There's a distinction to be made between nationalism and jingoism, and the message we heard from the president this week falls comfortably into the former. This isn't nationalism in the lazy, divisive, self-satisfying sense, but rather, it's more of a competition-based nationalism -- there's a competitive global marketplace, and those who want America to thrive need to make decisions that bolster and enhance our position as a leader.

The "national greatness" frame has traditionally been associated with conservatives, but there's no reason to keep it that way. Indeed, it's past time to flip it.

Every major power on the planet offers health care to its citizens, for example. The left believes part of America's greatness comes with not leaving millions of our neighbors behind, and putting the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage in the process. The right believes it's more important to reject "big government."

Countries like China intend to create the world's strongest system of higher education. Are Americans prepared to let that happen? A variety of rivals are preparing to dominate the next phase of the energy revolution. Will the United States deliberately skip the race and fall behind?

We know how conservatives answer those questions -- if making investments that keep America on top means spending money, then it's not worth the cost. It's better, the right believes, to stay put and watch global competitors pass us by. The left, in contrast, sees government making real investments and establishing a new foundation as keys to future growth.

One approach prioritizes national greatness; the other prioritizes ideological ends about tax rates and the size of government.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION.... What Republicans lack in governing abilities they make up for with extraordinary message discipline.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was on MSNBC yesterday, and Savannah Guthrie showed him a clip of his ability to repeat the same talking points, over and over again, with almost robotic consistency.

GUTHRIE: Senator McConnell you're known in Washington as someone who stays on message better than anyone else. What's that all about?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think you have to decide what you're gonna -- what you're gonna say, and uh, I think in order to drive any message home, uh, repetition's a good idea.

He added, "Repetition's a good idea."

OK, I'm kidding about that last part, but the point is McConnell and his cohorts aren't knowledgeable, competent, hard-working, or honest, but they know with certainty that if they repeat the same phrases over and over again, the media will use them and the public will hear them. It's why they invest far more energy in talking points and bumper-sticker slogans than they do actual policy proposals.

And this clearly works. The "job-killing" line about health care was pure garbage and Republicans knew it, but that didn't interfere with their relentless repetition.

My sense is, Democrats deliberately avoid these kind of tactics, in large part because they don't want to look like foolish, shameless hacks. This isn't an unreasonable concern. But Dems should realize that without vapid sloganeering and brazen communications tactics, GOP nonsense is far more likely to permeate the public consciousness than Democratic adherence to facts and reason.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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NOT ENTITLED TO HER OWN HISTORY.... Fairly early on in the State of the Union address, President Obama noted that the free enterprise system drives American innovation, but occasionally, public investment in basic research provides a foundation for the private sector. It was government spending, after all, that led to the Internet and GPS technology.

With this in mind, the president referenced the space race: "Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs."

The point, of course, was Obama arguing, "This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

Last night on Fox News, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) was asked whether she agreed with the sentiment. She replied:

"That was another one of those 'WTF' moments, when he, as so often repeated, this Sputnik moment that he would aspire Americans to celebrate. And he needs to remember that, uh, what happened back then with the former communist USSR and their victory in that, uh, race to space, yeah, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.

"So I listened to that Sputnik moment talk over and over again, and I think, no, we don't need one of those."

Putting aside the odd grammatical choices Palin made, it's important folks realize that her version of history is idiotic. What she "needs to remember" is the launch of Sputnik was a breakthrough for the Soviets, but it was the United States that won -- it was American innovation (and lots of government spending) that took us to the moon and back.

As for the notion that Russia accumulated so much debt "at the time" of Sputnik that it collapsed the country, Palin has absolutely no idea what she's talking about -- the Soviets launched the satellite in October 1957. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, for reasons unrelated to its space program.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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'THE PARTY OF K-N-O-W'.... Rep. Paul Broun (R) of Georgia, one of Congress' most transparently ridiculous members, generated some attention for himself after the State of the Union address. Responding to President Obama's remarks, the right-wing lawmaker proclaimed, "Mr. President, you don't believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism."

Yesterday, in a radio interview, Broun pushed the envelope a little more.

"The Republican Party is the party of K-N-O-W. We know how to lower the cost of health care. We know how to take care of the uninsurable. We know how to put patients in charge of their health care and have a market-based, patient centered health care system that's not going to kill jobs like ObamaCare is going to do. And we know how to stimulate the economy. We know how to create jobs in the private sector. We know how to prevent this huge government takeover of health care as well as all of society."

Now, I suppose the first temptation is to note how spectacularly wrong Broun is on the substance. The poor guy just seems to have no idea what he's talking about, getting policies backwards. The "government takeover" line has already been labeled the "lie of the year," and with good reason.

But let's put all that aside. Arguably the more interesting claim here is that Broun and his Republican colleagues have unlocked long-sought answers to a variety of pressing national needs. The GOP, Broun boasts, knows all kinds of things -- how to lower health care costs, how to bring coverage to the uninsured, how to create jobs, and how to grow the economy.

That's great news, isn't it? House Republicans had the majority for 12 years, and never got around to actually sharing this knowledge, and for the last four years, could have shared these incredible insights, but chose not to.

But today's a new day, and Paul Broun can solve all kinds of complicated problems. I'm glad to hear it.

So, Mr. Broun, can you share this grand knowledge with the rest of us, or do you have secret plans to address our ills?

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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SURPRISED BY THE DEGREE OF SURPRISE.... The day of President Obama's inauguration, the federal budget deficit left by the Republican administration was $1.3 trillion. After some additional economy-saving measures were added to the mix, the 2009 deficit reached $1.4 trillion. Last year, things improved slightly, and the deficit fell to $1.29 trillion.

Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office warned lawmakers that the budget picture was poised to get worse again, projecting a $1.5 trillion deficit this year.

Summarizing the thoughts of many, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) told Roll Call, "I think everyone is in a collective state of shock right now over the CBO numbers."

Really? Why is Congress so surprised? Frankly, I'm a little shocked by their collective state of shock.

This really isn't complicated. The deficit picture was starting to improve, but congressional Republicans insisted that Bush-era tax breaks get extended for another two years. How did Republicans propose paying for these tax cuts? They didn't -- the GOP said the price tag should just be added to the deficit.

And wouldn't you know it, that means ... I hope you're sitting down ... the deficit will go up, just as lawmakers were told it would if they cut taxes without paying for them.

The government's budget deficit will soar to nearly $1.5 trillion this year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday, an anticipated but politically galvanizing calculation that further intensified the partisan battle over the nation's fiscal future.

The $1.5 trillion deficit projection is $414 billion higher than its previous estimate, in August, and reflects in part the tax cut deal last month between President Obama and Republicans.

The fact that Congress is surprised only reinforces the fact that Republicans aren't paying close enough attention to reality. There's no great mystery here -- the deficit is going up because of the new round of tax cuts. That's what happens when one cuts taxes -- less revenue means higher deficits.

If Republicans didn't want a higher deficit, they shouldn't have fought so hard to make it worse. They had a choice -- expensive tax breaks or deficit reduction. They made their choice, were told what the consequences would be, and are now stunned by the realization that the rules of arithmetic haven't been suspended by the GOP's force of will.

It's unclear to me why Republicans aren't confronted with hysterical laughter when they claim credibility on fiscal issues. This is a party that inherited a massive surplus a decade ago, when we were actually paying off our debt. The GOP proceeded to squander the surplus, add $5 trillion to the debt in just eight years, and then demand Democrats clean up their mess.

When Dems did just that and the deficit picture started to improve, Republicans then demanded tax breaks that once again made the budget shortfall worse.

Deficit hawks that vote Republican are tragically confused. There's never been a more fiscally irresponsible political party.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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SENATE REFORM REDUCED TO CRUMBS.... Senators have been quietly deliberating for weeks over how (and whether) to reform the way the chamber does business, and there were at least some hints of progress. Yesterday, those hopes were dashed altogether.

On the table was a modest-but-meaningful package of changes crafted by Democratic Sens. Udall, Harkin, and Merkley, which included, among other things, measures on expediting motions to proceed, ending secret holds, and requiring "talking" filibusters.

As of yesterday afternoon, the reform push was just about dead. Advocates won't end the process completely empty handed, but the final agreement reduces reforms to mere crumbs.

Democratic advocates of an overhaul of Senate rules to curb the filibuster abandoned that effort on Wednesday, clearing the way for a bipartisan agreement to institute less sweeping changes to ease procedural gridlock.

After a lengthy meeting with their colleagues and clear signs that they lacked the votes to try to force through new restrictions on the filibuster, the lawmakers -- Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Harkin of Iowa -- said they would relent now but press their case over the long term.

That sounds reasonable -- think long-term, take incremental gains -- but it's worth emphasizing that future opportunities are unpredictable. Coming on the heels of Senate Republicans engaging in some of the most outrageous abuses in Senate history, there was arguably no better time than now to make much-needed improvements. Nevertheless, this opening has apparently closed.

One of the key remaining elements to the debate was the "Constitutional option," which reformers hoped to take advantage of. The idea was to force Senate changes through by simple majority-rule, exploiting a process that allows members to write their rules for the session on the first day of the new Congress. It was a complicated move -- involving an objection to the previous rules, a favorable ruling from Vice President Biden, and a series of "point of order" objections -- but having this on the table was supposed to give reformers at least a modicum of leverage.

This week, the "Constitutional option" was scrapped, in part because Democratic leaders weren't prepared to leave the chamber paralyzed indefinitely, and in part because it wasn't entirely clear whether the 51 votes were there even if it were tried.

So, what are we left with? The agreement reached this week all but eliminates secret holds, and reducing the number of executive branch nominees needing Senate confirmation by about 400.

There's also something called "the gentlemen's agreement," which apparently involves an informal deal -- Democratic leaders have said they'll allow Republicans to offer more amendments on more bills, and Republicans have said they'll block fewer bills from coming to the Senate floor. Whether the "agreement" will hold, and for how long, is unclear.

If you're watching the Senate floor today, votes are expected on the more meaningful reform proposal -- including the "talking" filibuster -- but no one, including proponents, expects them to generate the necessary 67 votes. The votes are more about raising the visibility of the issue, and getting members on record.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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January 26, 2011

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

* Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' (D-Ariz.) condition has been upgraded from "serious" to "good." She was scheduled to be moved from the intensive care unit to a nearby rehabilitation center today.

* Egypt cracks down: "The Egyptian government intensified efforts to crush protests on Wednesday, decreeing a new ban on public gatherings and sending police equipped with clubs, tear gas and armored carriers against small groups that defiantly gathered in Cairo to oppose the 30- year rule of President Hosni Mubarak." There were reportedly 860 protesters arrested.

* Earlier today, the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament gave its final approval to the New START nuclear arms control treaty.

* The Congressional Budget Office expects a $1.5 trillion deficit this year. Before the right starts hyperventilating, conservatives should remember that this is their fault -- the tax cuts they demanded are driving the increase.

* Speaking of the CBO, I'm glad to see Doug Elmendorf receive a full four-year term, the Republican drive to discredit the office notwithstanding.

* A story to keep an eye on: "After two suspicious packages were delivered to Sen. John Cornyn's (R-Texas) offices in the Dallas area on Wednesday, local station CBS 11 reports that bomb squad technicians detonated the two devices."

* President Obama took his SOTU message on the road today, touring Orion Energy Systems, a power technology company, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

* Remember the widely-mocked color-coded threat system created by the Department of Homeland Security? As of April, it's gone for good.

* It's hard to say whether this will translate into substantial GOP support, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is fully on board with the White House's infrastructure investment plans.

* Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), easily one of Congress' most ridiculous members, wasn't impressed with last night's address: "Mr. President, you don't believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism." What a strange man.

* One of the House Republicans' favorite talking points about Democrats and spending is demonstrably ridiculous.

* Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) makes all kinds of inexplicable decisions, but her education policies are simply impossible to defend.

* The right's fascination with politicians and teleprompters appears to be fleeting. Imagine that.

* At a House hearing today on federal regulations, Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) asked, out loud, in front of a room full of people, "How do I explain all this gobbledygook you talk about?" And people wonder why I question the GOP caucus' intellectual capacity.

* Why, oh why, did ABC's "Good Morning America" invite Christine O'Donnell on to condemn the State of the Union address? What possible reason could there be for this?

* Fox News' Steve Doocy isn't just an odd Republican media personality, he's a thin-skinned, odd Republican media personality.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Last night, Digby was watching CNN's pre-speech coverage of the State of the Union, and noted that Piers Morgan explained that Britain "went with GOP-style austerity and now have .5% lower GDP." His CNN colleagues, Digby added, "looked confused."

That's not unexpected. Much of the media has bought into the nonsense, accepting the Republican line that taking money out of the economy, and undermining consumers' buying power, will somehow help promote growth.

Here's how Morgan put it, after Wolf Blitzer noted "they've had some radical cuts in Britain and elsewhere and Europe as well. And folks aren't happy about it, but they have no choice." Morgan said:

"And here's a fascinating parallel. Britain has been through this exact kind of conundrum a few months ago. And David Cameron's government decided that they would go the Republican route. They would slash the deficit by cutting public spending. And today, this morning, out came the figures. The economy has shrunk by 0.5 percent.

"Now, there are lots of excuses. They're even blaming the weather. The reality is if you do this you're taking a huge gamble with the strength of your economy. And you now have a clear divide between the Republicans and the Democrats. President Obama is saying freeze, invest, grow. Republicans are saying slash, don't invest, grow. One will win."

No wonder the rest of the CNN panel looked confused -- Morgan was offering an accurate assessment.

Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government received a sharp political jolt on Tuesday with the release of official figures showing that Britain's economy contracted slightly in the last three months of 2010, prompting some economists to warn that the country was at increased risk of a "double dip" recession after four consecutive quarters of modest growth.

While the economic figures are subject to revision, the 0.5 percent shrinkage fell well short of the 0.5 percent growth many economists had predicted. And the wider message seemed clear: The slowdown placed the Cameron government's $128 billion, four-year program of spending cuts and tax increases -- policies on which it has staked its survival -- at sharply heightened political risk.

The net effect of the new figures was to blunt the government's momentum and to recast — at least until economic growth resumes -- the role Britain has played in the global debate about the best way back to prosperity.

Remember, just this week, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama said it's imperative that President Obama follow the lead set by our friends across the pond: "We need a [U.S.] budget with a bold vision -- like [the one] unveiled in Britain."

You mean the one that helped bring the British economy to a screeching halt, senator?

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Paul Glastris

LEARNING TO LOVE SIN TAXES.... A year ago, the city of Washington, DC imposed a 5 cent fee on disposable plastic and paper bags. The idea was to discourage litter and give people an incentive to switch to reusable bags. To be honest, I found myself ridiculously irritated at the law when it went into effect. Perhaps it was one of those deep-seated psychological reactions that behavioral economists talk about - in particular, something called the ''endowment effect'' or ‘’divestiture aversion’’ wherein we put irrationally high value on property or a privilege we already have.

In any event, by now I'm used to fee. In fact, I actually don't mind forking over an extra nickel for the convenience of having a bag in which to carry my burrito back to the office, because I know it's for good cause, and that if I really want to avoid the charge, I can bring my own bag.

The bag fee is, of course, a version of a "sin tax." And in the wake of Barack Obama's call last night for overhauling the tax code and reducing the deficit, I thought it worth passing along news of how well this particular one has apparently worked.

"City officials have estimated that there was an astounding decrease of some 80 percent in bag use," notes the Washington Post today, "from about 270 million a year before the fee was imposed to around 55 million bags in 2010."

The fee didn't bring in quite as much revenue as anticipated -- $2 million rather than $3.5 million -- but that of course is the flip side of its astonishing success at changing behavior.

A national debate about tax reform is about to kick into high gear, and as it does I hope the advantages of various kinds of sin taxes are at the center of that debate. It makes enormous sense to increase taxes on things that do us and society harm -- from soda and cigarettes to petroleum and financial transactions. Doing so will increase desperately needed revenue while decreasing dangerous behaviors. And while we won't like such taxes at first -- indeed, we may hate them -- we'll eventually get used to them, and maybe even feel virtuous for having imposed them on ourselves.

Paul Glastris 3:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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DROPPING FOREIGN POLICY ALTOGETHER.... There were, oddly enough, two televised Republican responses to President Obama's State of the Union address, and for the most part, both Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Michele Bachman (R-Minn.) stuck to very similar, equally-ridiculous scripts.

But before last night's GOP messages are forgotten entirely, it's worth noting what the far-right lawmakers didn't say.

It wasn't long ago that Republicans considered national security and foreign policy as their greatest strengths, reality notwithstanding. When looking for the president's political vulnerabilities, the GOP tended to focus on international affairs, and polls showed many Americans, for whatever reason, siding with Republicans on counter-terrorism.

But last night, after Obama spoke at some length about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops, and the ongoing terror threat, the Republican responses literally ignored the subject altogether.

Here's a transcript of Ryan's remarks, and here's Bachmann's. Neither mentioned national security or foreign policy in any way. The closest Ryan came to the issue was when he told viewers:

"We believe government's role is both vital and limited -- to defend the nation from attack and provide for the common defense."

While the closest Bachmann came was this gem:

"Just the creation of this nation itself was a miracle. Who can say that we won't see a miracle again? The perilous battle that was fought during World War II in the Pacific at Iwo Jima was a battle against all odds, and yet this picture immortalizes the victory of young GIs over the incursion against the Japanese. These six young men raising the flag came to symbolize all of America coming together to beat back a totalitarian aggressor."

Not a word about the terrorist threat, not a word about U.S. troops, not a word about two ongoing foreign wars. Hell, I thought the least these two could do was throw around some cheap rhetoric about Gitmo and those rascally Democrats intending to lock up criminals on American soil.

But, no, Bachmann and Ryan just couldn't be bothered.

It was hard to predict the point at which Republicans stopped engaging in a debate with the White House over international affairs, effectively ceding foreign policy to the president altogether, but here we are.

Update: The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin complained today that other nations might "notice" that the president "isn't into foreign policy." She added that "those of us who do care about and focus on America's role in the world" were "dismayed by the lackadasical attitude, verging on indifference, that Obama displayed" last night.

Maybe Rubin was watching the wrong channel. Obama not only talked about the wars, the terror threat, Sudan, and Tunisia, but also he devoted considerable time to exploring America's place in the world and how his agenda ties into a competitive global marketplace. It was Rubin's Republican allies who blew off the subject entirely -- a detail her criticism managed to somehow overlook.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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AMERICANS REALLY DON'T CARE FOR SPENDING CUTS.... About a week ago, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the right-wing Republican Study Committee, boasted, "I have never seen the American people more receptive, more ready for the tough-love measures that need to be taken to help fix the country." And by "tough love," Jordan meant making devastating cuts to domestic spending.

It's hard to gauge GOP officials' sincerity with confidence, but I suspect they genuinely believe Americans just love spending cuts. Republicans seem absolutely convinced that they lost their majority in 2006 in part because they spent so freely, and made big gains in 2010 thanks to an anti-spending platform. If the GOP takes a hatchet to the budget, the party expects to be richly rewarded.

The problem, of course, is that much of the public tends to approve of spending cuts in the abstract -- and only in the abstract.

Prior to the State of the Union address, a majority of Americans said they favor cutting U.S. foreign aid, but more than 6 in 10 opposed cuts to education, Social Security, and Medicare. Smaller majorities objected to cutting programs for the poor, national defense, homeland security, aid to farmers, and funding for the arts and sciences.

This might be the most discouraging poll for Republicans in a very long time. Last week, Gallup asked respondents to say whether they "favor or oppose cutting government spending" in a variety of areas. A majority opposed cuts to everything -- literally, everything -- except foreign aid. A 52% majority even opposed cuts to funding for the arts. A whopping 67% opposes cuts to education -- which happens to be one of the main targets for congressional Republicans.

There are some partisan differences, not surprisingly, but Gallup also found that even most self-identified Republican voters also opposed cuts to farmers, domestic security, defense, combating poverty, Medicare, education, and Social Security.

As for foreign aid -- the only area of the budget both Democrats and Republicans are willing to cut -- it's worth emphasizing that most Americans vastly overstate how much we currently spend in this area. Recent research from the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that the public thinks roughly 25% of the budget goes to foreign aid, while the truth is about 1%.

So to review, Americans say they want spending cuts, until confronted with options, at which point they only want to cut foreign aid, which is only a tiny sliver of the budget.

Good luck, Congress.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Paul Glastris

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM REPOSSESSED… Last year, just about every Republican running for president took a shot at Barack Obama for his alleged failure to believe in the idea of American exceptionalism. The sum total of the evidence for this charge was one sentence, take out of context, in a long nuanced answer to a reporter's question while in Europe in April of 2009 in which the president unmistakably stated his belief in American exceptionalism, but in a words that took into account the sensitivities of other nations.

Nevertheless, Newt Gingrich called Obama's attitude "truly alarming," while Mike Huckabee said that Obama's worldview is "different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had.... To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation." These charges were not only overheated and factually wrong but were quite obviously intended to feed the view that Obama is not a real, loyal American.

So I was delighted to see the president wisely and deftly weave the theme of American exceptionalism throughout his State of the Union address last night. He said that open, contentious political debate among people of different races, faiths and points of view is "what sets us apart as a nation." He spoke of the need to maintain an economic leadership that "has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world." He characterized America as "the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -- the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny." He noted that the ability to tap the creativity and imagination of our people to develop cutting-edge technologies and products is "what America does better than anyone." He went on and on like this, but the tone was not self-satisfied boasting. Rather, he said these things as a set up to a warning, that our preeminence is at risk, and as a challenge -- to reform government and invest in education, infrastructure, and scientific research.

American exceptionalism is hardly a conservative idea. But it's one of those broadly-shared American ideas -- like faith, patriotism, choice -- that the right has tried to make exclusively its own by taking to insane extremes, thus tempting liberals to abandon them. In his speech last night, Obama grabbed the idea back, and shrewdly used it to argue for liberal values and a center-left policy agenda. I don't imagine conservatives are very happy about that.

Paul Glastris 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THE MISSING DEPTH OF THOUGHT.... I've long considered Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) the Republican version of John Edwards. After one largely underwhelming term, in which he didn't tackle any noteworthy policy initiatives and failed to distinguished himself as an expert in an area, he starts believing the hype and sees himself as a presidential candidate. All the while, his most notable accomplishment appears to be an ability to impress people with his handsomeness.

That said, Edwards could at least answer relevant questions better than this.

In a brief interview [Wednesday], just above the Senate chamber, Sen. John Thune (R-SC) rejected President Obama's State of the Union call for broad infrastructure upgrades, citing his opposition to new spending projects and claiming that existing mechanisms for funding current transportation infrastructure projects are basically adequate.

"I understand the goal, but right now this is going to be -- anytime you talk about 'investment' it means new spending," Thune told me.

Right. Our global competitors are investing in research and new technologies, superior roads and rail, and making considerable investments in innovative, modern methods of transportation. We could do that here and reap the rewards -- job creation, economic development, cleaner air, less congested roads, better public safety, etc.

Thune "understands" all of this, but "investment" means "spending," and "spending" means "bad." He added today, "If he's got ideas about massive new quote investments, that's code for new spending."

Yep, he's quite the visionary.

The senator went on to say that the highway trust fund has "worked very well for a long time," despite the fact that this really isn't true.

Naturally, then, Thune may very well take his bold message onto the national stage.

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

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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:

* Though previously expected to be the Republican frontrunner, former Sen. Jim Talent (R) of Missouri will reportedly not seek a rematch against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) next year.

* The Illinois Supreme Court gave Rahm Emanuel what he was looking for yesterday: a stay of an appellate court's decision that removed him from Chicago's mayoral ballot.

* As if Texas wasn't quite reactionary enough, GOP lawmakers in the state are advancing a measure to require photo identification in order to vote. Studies have shown such laws invariably punish the poor, minorities, and students, which I suspect is the point of the Republican effort.

* In case there were any lingering doubts about Mississippi's Gov. Haley Barbour (R) presidential ambitions, he'll be attending private events in South Carolina today.

* In West Virginia, Public Policy Polling shows Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) looking pretty strong in advance of his 2012 bid for a full term. Manchin, a former governor, has huge leads over most of his GOP challengers, and a nine-point lead over Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), generally considered the state's top Republican.

* Speaking of Public Policy Polling, the pollster also found this week that President Obama, who narrowly won North Carolina's electoral votes in 2008, leading all of the top Republican presidential contenders in margins ranging from three to nine points. Romney was the most competitive, while Palin was the least.

* In Iowa, Christie Vilsack appears to be gearing up for a Democratic congressional campaign, but with the state poised to lose a seat in post-Census redistricting, her ambitions may end up pitting her against incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell (D). Vilsack is married to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Iowa's former two-term governor.

* Jim Suttle, the Democratic mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, just half-way into his first term, was subjected to a recall campaign organized by conservative activists. Yesterday, Suttle appeared to win and will keep his job.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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GOP HAS 'NO PUBLIC INVESTMENT STRATEGY'.... Steven Pearlstein's column today is straightforward, honest, and rather devastating.

When talking about the federal government and its budget deficit, Republican politicians love to score points by noting that "you'd never run your household or your business that way."

Then again, you'd never run your household or your business by ignoring investment. Yet now that President Obama has proposed stepped-up public investment in infrastructure, energy, education and basic research, Republicans have suddenly decided their favorite analogy no longer applies.

Asked about investment on the television talk shows Sunday, House Republican leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) each declared it was just another Democratic ploy to spend more money. Instead of Obama's "invest-and-grow," Republicans now offer "cut-and-grow," which will take its place beside "government ownership of the means of production" and "tax cuts that pay for themselves" in the Pantheon of Economic Nonsense.

Republicans, it turns out, have no public investment strategy, just as they have no health-care strategy and no agreed-upon blueprint for reducing federal spending. What they have are poll-tested talking points, economic delusions and an overwhelming partisan instinct to say "no" to anything Barack Obama proposes. In their response to the president's State of the Union message, they remind us once again that they are not serious about economic policy and not ready to govern.

GOP officials have not only struggled to put together a public investment strategy, they've actually decided that public investment is itself a scourge to be avoided at all costs.

Consider what we learned from Eric Cantor this week. A high-speed-rail infrastructure project in his own district used to enjoy his enthusiastic support, but the Majority Leader has changed his mind -- public investment, even investment that creates thousands of jobs for his own constituents, must be avoided because it's "spending."

Faced with a practical, real-world gains that are in conflict with Republicans' ideological, philosophical ideals, they're choosing to emphasize the latter. Indeed, they're bragging about it.

The GOP isn't just offering the wrong answers, it's asking the wrong questions.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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WHY DEMOCRATS ARE THE ONLY ONES HAPPY ABOUT BACHMANN'S RESPONSE.... It quickly became apparent that something was amiss. When CNN, for reasons that don't make sense, began airing Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) response to the State of the Union, it appeared that she was speaking to someone, but it wasn't viewers.

As it turns out, there were two cameras in the room with her. Bachmann looked directly into the Tea Party Express camera, so the national television audience saw her from the wrong angle.

While that was distracting, it was the least of Bachmann's problems -- the right-wing Minnesotan clearly isn't well.

Insisting that she was not upstaging the official GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) offered a combative and highly misleading speech of her own following the president's address. In her "Tea Party Response," Bachmann repeated a litany of false right-wing talking points about everything from the Recovery Act and job losses to the debt and "16,500 IRS agents."

Watching the nearly seven minutes of blistering stupidity, it was hard to avoid the fact that Bachmann has created some bizarro world for herself, detached from the reality the rest of us live in.

But here's the funny part: substantively, Bachmann's nonsense was roughly identical to the foolishness repeated by Paul Ryan in the official Republican SOTU response. Note Media Matters' fact-check of Ryan's speech and then check Media Matters' fact-check of Bachmann's speech. The similarities are striking -- with a few exceptions, they had the exact same message.

The importance of this is that Republicans seemed more than a little annoyed yesterday that Bachmann was muddling their message and making the GOP look bad with her wild-eyed craziness. Their concerns are understandable, but they're missing the more important point: Paul and Bachmann struck different tones, but they were making the same argument, and both were equally ridiculous.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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PAUL RYAN'S MISSED OPPORTUNITY.... The point of an opposition response to the State of the Union is to take issue with the president's agenda and recommend a better alternative. To that extent, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was at least a marginally reasonable choice -- his vision may be radical, but at least it exists.

But that's what made the official Republican response last night so odd. The one guy in the House GOP majority who appears to have given some thought to the party's vision on spending, entitlements, and debt spoke for more than 10 minutes without discussing his plan at all.

Ross Douthat noticed:

Ryan's rejoinder was more urgent and more focused: America's crippling debt was an organizing theme, and there were warnings of "painful austerity measures" and a looming "day of reckoning." But his remarks, while rhetorically effective, were even more vague about the details of that reckoning than the president's address. Ryan owes his prominence, in part, to his willingness to propose a very specific blueprint for addressing the entitlement system's fiscal woes. But in his first big moment on the national stage, the words "Medicare" and "Social Security" did not pass the Wisconsin congressman's lips.

What's the point of giving the spotlight to the Republican with a plan and then having him avoid any mention of his plan? The answer is one GOP leaders probably know, but don't want to talk about -- the Ryan roadmap, encapsulating the Republican vision on the budget, is a radical mess. If Americans fully appreciated its contents, the electoral backlash would be severe.

As a consequence, we were left with a rather shallow GOP response. To be sure, it wasn't as grating as Bobby Jindal's speech in 2009, but that's a fairly low bar to clear.

But it quickly became a pointless exercise. Paul Ryan is worried about the debt, but he offered literally nothing in the way of cuts. He's terrified of spending, but didn't even try to explain how he and his party would be fiscally responsible.

I'm not even sure who the intended audience was. President Obama's speech seemed intended to appeal to the center, but Paul repeated tired Republican talking points, as if to reassure the GOP base that their party leaders haven't changed at all.

And in case that wasn't quite enough, the Budget Committee chairman not only offered a vague and evasive response, he also delivered a breathtakingly dishonest one, repeating obvious falsehoods that were so offensive, one can only assume the goal was deliberate deception.

If this was Paul Ryan's first meaningful chance to shine on the national stage, it was a flop. The Ayn Rand acolyte had an opportunity, but he's clearly not ready for prime time.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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INITIAL POLLS SHOW POSITIVE REACTIONS TO OBAMA'S SOTU.... The State of the Union address wrapped up about 11 hours ago, so it's too early to get a complete picture of how it resonated with the public. For that matter, not everyone watches these speeches -- and those who do are likely more inclined to agree with what President Obama has to say.

That said, there are some early reports pointing to positive public reactions to the speech. CBS News, for example, published these results overnight.

An overwhelming majority of Americans approved of the overall message in President Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, according to a CBS News poll of speech watchers.

According to the poll, which was conducted online by Knowledge Networks immediately after the president's address, 91 percent of those who watched the speech approved of the proposals Mr. Obama put forth during his remarks. Only nine percent disapproved.

Last year, 83 percent of viewers approved of Mr. Obama's State of the Union remarks.

A CNN poll, meanwhile, found a combined 85% of viewers having a positive reaction to the address.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey indicated that 52 percent of speech watchers had a very positive reaction, with 32 percent saying they had a somewhat positive response and 15 percent with a negative response.

The 52 percent who indicated they had a very positive response is up four points from the 48 percent of speech watchers who felt the same way a year ago about the president's January 27, 2010 State of the Union address.

There was also a focus group report published by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner overnight, which noted a group of swing voters who seemed very impressed with what they heard.

Immediate reactions can shift, of course, and Mark Blumenthal is right to note that "these sorts of positive responses rarely translate into meaningful, lasting changes in public opinion."

Still, the White House will likely be pleased with the positive early reactions -- they're far better than the alternative -- and try to build on this moving forward.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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MR. FREEZE.... Perhaps the most contentious element of the State of the Union came about half-way through, when President Obama noted the "legacy of deficit-spending that began almost a decade ago," which to his mind, necessitates a response now that "the worst of the recession is over."

"So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

"This freeze will require painful cuts. Already, we have frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. I've proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs. The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.

"I recognize that some in this Chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I'm willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without. But let's make sure that we're not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens. And let's make sure what we're cutting is really excess weight. Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact."

This portion didn't generate much in the way of congressional applause, and that wasn't at all surprising. Democrats fear the economic effects of a lengthy spending freeze, while Republicans consider a freeze inadequate, and prefer to take a hatchet to the budget, regardless of the economic consequences.

For me, I found the idea fairly annoying. The notion that families and businesses are cutting back so government should, too, is fundamentally flawed, and an actual five-year freeze would undoubtedly undermine public services and economic growth.

But the reason I'm not too outraged is because I'm not at all sure the president actually means "freeze" when he says "freeze," and it seems even less likely the rhetoric will matter on Capitol Hill.

You'll recall, of course, that Obama called for a spending freeze about a year ago at this time, but the White House's definition of the phrase was a little more amorphous than expected -- some priorities would get more funding, some would get less. The plan was effectively more of an overall spending cap than an actual freeze.

And I suspect that's what Obama was referencing last night, too. Indeed, the State of the Union called for all kinds of new investments -- in energy, in education, etc. -- that would be largely impossible if budgets were frozen in place across the board.

The reality is, Congress controls the purse strings, and will spend how it chooses to spend. That's the case this year, and it will still be the case every year for the next five years. Obama's rhetorical call for a freeze set out the White House's vision on how to proceed, but it's still just rhetoric.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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PRESIDENT OBAMA CHALLENGES NATION TO 'WIN THE FUTURE'.... One of the consistent traits we've seen from President Obama over the last two years is his reluctance to pursue goals he doesn't expect to reach. He hates losing, so if Obama doesn't see a path to success , he decides early on the destination isn't worth the effort.

With this in mind, last night's State of the Union address was different than most in that it carefully avoided the laundry list of priorities the president expected Congress to tackle in the coming year. Some of this is because White House officials wanted to present a broader vision of how to "win the future," and some of it was simply born of necessity -- there's no point in presenting the most right-wing House majority ever with a to-do list it won't even try to pass.

Instead, we heard Obama's grand vision, which was very much in line with the Obama we saw before 2009. While multiple crises forced the president from his intended path the last two years, this was Obama being Obama. The address was constantly referencing the horizon, with themes we heard Candidate Obama stress in Iowa four years ago, encapsulated in an optimistic, forward-thinking vision, repeatedly referencing the importance of "winning the future," a phrase used roughly 11 times last night.

What I liked about this is the context in which it presented the center-left perspective. Two years ago, in his first address to a joint session, Obama presented his policy agenda as a matter of simple pragmatism -- we need to tackle Democratic priorities because the circumstances demand it. In 2011, Obama is presenting his agenda as a matter of nationalism -- follow his lead or the nation becomes ossified and stagnant, while our global competitors surpass us. From the speech:

"[N]ations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They're investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world's largest private solar research facility, and the world's fastest computer.

"So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn't discourage us. It should challenge us.... The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, 'The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.' Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.

"Now it's our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. [...]

"Our infrastructure used to be the best - but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a 'D.' We have to do better."

The key is appreciating the rationale behind the pitch. Investing in infrastructure isn't about boosting government spending; it's about securing American leadership. Committing to ambitious education and energy goals isn't about big-government liberalism; it's about keeping the country in the lead in the midst of global competition. Rejecting permanent tax cuts for the rich and subsidies for oil companies isn't about liberal ideals; it's about Americans winning the future.

To do otherwise, the president suggested, and to follow the Republicans' preferred path, is to lose. Don't just reject the GOP's austerity measures because they're wrong, reject them out of a sense of national pride.

This isn't to say Obama presented bold liberalism in a competition-based frame. That's really not the case -- this was a moderate speech, with plenty of elements clearly intended to resonate with those well outside the Democratic base (frivolous lawsuits, military recruiters on college campuses, spending freezes, etc.).

The larger vision, though, committed to the same vision Obama presented as a candidate -- tackling long-term challenges with sensible, effective, progressive measures that can and should garner broad political support.

I don't imagine congressional Republicans found any of this compelling, but after hearing the speech, I suspect they're likely to find themselves in a national minority.

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

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January 25, 2011

SOTU OPEN THREAD.... I'll have all kinds of content on President Obama's State of the Union address in the morning, but as I wrap up for the evening and jot down some random thoughts, I'm struck by how different a speech it was than most of the modern SOTU addresses. White House officials had made it clear that they intended to avoid the laundry-list approach that's become the hallmark of these addresses, and it worked.

The key takeaway, at least at first blush, is the scope of the president's vision. Remember George H.W. Bush lamenting the fact that he lacked "the vision thing"? We received a powerful reminder tonight that Barack Obama has no such problem.

The usual model for a speech like this is to hear a president explain to Congress what he expects from lawmakers over the next year. The president is clearly thinking well beyond the next 12 months, asking policymakers to consider the next decade and generation, and presented a compelling map for how to get from here to there.

It wasn't the kind of inspirational speech we heard in Tucson two weeks ago, but it's not supposed to be. The notion of a "moving" or "emotional" or "exciting" State of the Union is almost a contradiction in terms.

Generally speaking, this also wasn't a confrontational speech. If there were any doubts about the model Obama intends to follow -- Truman's give-him-hell tack vs. Clinton's more conciliatory outreach -- it's clear the president favors the latter. That's neither praise nor criticism, necessarily, but Obama seems far more inclined to challenge Republicans than threaten them. If I had to guess, I suspect Obama's outreach is in line with most of the public's expectations.

It's always a challenge trying to guess how the mainstream will respond to an address like this one, but I wouldn't be surprised if the reaction was a very positive one. Obama was forward-thinking and optimistic, presenting sound judgment and priorities, with an emphasis on cooperation and common ground. If the larger theme was a past-vs.-future fight, Obama clearly has his eyes on the horizon, even at the expense of lauding his own achievements from the last two years.

With that in mind, his goal was likely to bring as much of the mainstream together as possible around his vision for the future, specifically how to "win the future." From where I sat, the president succeeded in doing just that.

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

Steve Benen 10:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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SOTU LIVE-BLOGGING.... It appears that Live-Tweeting has successfully replaced Live-Blogging as That Which Bloggers Are Supposed To Do. But I will resist the trend for forge ahead, knowing that (a) keeping messages to 140 characters is overly challenging when responding to and quoting a speech in real time; and (b) there's a certain charm in playing it old school. (Yes, the norms of online media circa 2007 now qualify as "old school.")

By the way, I'm not going to embed it here because it would interfere too much with load times, but the White House is apparently running an interesting live stream of the State of the Union here. If all goes according to plan, it'll be an "enhanced" version -- supplementing the speech with relevant charts/ photos/ stats, side by side with the video, in real time. It might be worth checking out.

And with that, we're about 15 minutes from the scheduled start. Get comfortable.

8:54: I'm watching a live feed online, with literally no punditry or commentary at all. I remain confident I'm not missing anything.

8:56: In case anyone's curious, the cabinet secretary who, in case of catastrophe, isn't in the chamber is Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

8:58: In light of last year's SOTU, there's probably more interest than usual in Supreme Court justices in attendance. Six are there -- Scalia, Thomas, and Alito aren't.

8:58: First Lady Michelle Obama arrives. I'll look forward to conservative bloggers explaining the far-reaching significance of the color of her address tomorrow.

9:02: There are a whole lot of folks wearing ribbons. They're in honor of Gabrielle Giffords.

9:06: POTUS is in the chamber.

9:10: I miss Pelosi. Just sayin'.

9:12: Gabby Giffords clearly not forgotten tonight.

9:13: "We are part of the American family." A theme emphasized in Tucson, too.

9:14: "...Not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow." A not-so-subtle reference to the mixed seating of the evening.

9:15: "It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world." See? American exceptionalism.

9:17: "We'll move forward together, or not at all." Didn't Jack Shepherd say something similar on Lost?

9:17: The first of many references to the theme of the night: "To win the future, we'll need to take on challenges that have been decades in the making."

9:20: "We are home to the world's best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth." Wait until the Republican Study Committee's proposed cuts take effect.

9:21: "We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world."

9:23: Yes, government spending produces results: "That's what planted the seeds for the Internet. That's what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS."

9:24: "This is our generation's Sputnik moment."

9:26: "At the California Institute of Technology, they're developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars." Really? Here's hoping that's true.

9:27: Why didn't Boehner clap for this? "We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's."

9:28: McCain should like the all-of-the-above thinking: "Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas."

9:30: Nerds rule: "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair."

9:32: Sounds good: "In South Korea, teachers are known as 'nation builders.' Here in America, it's time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect."

9:34: Student-loan reform really does get forgotten too easily: "That's why we've ended the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that went to banks, and used the savings to make college affordable for millions of students."

9:36: I'm really glad to see/hear the DREAM Act shout-out. It deserves to be high on the agenda.

9:38: I do love it when he talks up infrastructure through an international lens: "Our infrastructure used to be the best -- but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a 'D.'"

9:40: Someone tell the governors of Wisconsin and Florida: "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying -- without the pat-down."

9:41: Why it matters and why it should have bipartisan support: "All these investments -- in innovation, education, and infrastructure -- will make America a better place to do business and create jobs."

9:41: Simplifying the tax code: "Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field. And use the savings to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years -- without adding to our deficit."

9:44: Child labor laws? Didn't Mike Lee tell us they're unconstitutional?

9:45: With a broad smile: "Now, I've heard rumors that a few of you have some concerns about the new health care law."

9:45: A shout-out on 1099. More on this tomorrow.

9:46: Good advice: "Instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let's fix what needs fixing and move forward."

9:47: "We are living with a legacy of deficit-spending that began almost a decade ago." (Cough, cough, Republicans' fault, cough)

9:48: This continues to be an exceedingly annoying construction: "Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same."

9:49: Not bad: "Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact."

9:50: Hint, hint: "Health insurance reform will slow these rising costs, which is part of why nonpartisan economists have said that repealing the health care law would add a quarter of a trillion dollars to our deficit."

9:51: Does "medical malpractice reform" have a chance? I really doubt it.

9:52: He speaks the truth: "And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break. It's not a matter of punishing their success. It's about promoting America's success."

9:54: "We shouldn't just give our people a government that's more affordable. We should give them a government that's more competent and efficient. We cannot win the future with a government of the past."

9:54: The salmon joke actually got more laughs than the pat-down joke. Nice one.

9:56: The GOP would never, ever go for this: "Because you deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, I ask Congress to do what the White House has already done: put that information online."

9:56: Did Obama really just threaten to veto bills with earmarks? There has to be some wiggle room on this.

9:57: The line didn't get applause, but it's one of the reasons Obama ran in the first place: "American leadership has been renewed and America's standing has been restored."

9:59: Yep, "intelligence and law enforcement professionals" are helping keep us safe, too.

10:00: Good reminder for Congress to hear: "American Muslims are a part of our American family."

10:01: "This July, we will begin to bring our troops home" from Afghanistan.

10:02: Obama really has made huge progress on nuclear issues. Deserves a lot of credit.

10:03: South Sudan and Tunisia get well-deserved mentions.

10:05: Troops gets sustained applause.

10:06: Bipartisanship! "I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation."

10:08: "As contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn't a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth."

10:09: "That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working class kid from Scranton can stand behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father's Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth."

10:10: Brandon Fisher's story is a pretty terrific one. Good stuff.

10:12: "We do big things. The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong."

Steve Benen 8:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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

* In the wake of Tunisia, civil unrest in Egypt: "Thousands of people calling for the end of the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak clashed with riot police here in the capital and in other Egyptian cities on Tuesday, on a day of some of the most serious civil unrest in recent memory. Three people were reported killed, two protesters in the port town of Suez and a soldier who died of injuries sustained during the protests in Cairo."

* This may not be quite what it appears to be: "President Obama will call for reducing the deficit during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, proposing a five-year freeze on non-defense government spending, officials said."

* Not the news we were hoping for: "Home prices slipped in nearly every major metropolitan area in November, with a few cities hitting their lowest levels since prices peaked about four years ago, according to a closely watched index released Tuesday."

* Federal courts in Arizona were in bad enough shape before, but given Judge John Roll's tragic death in the recent Tucson shootings, the courts have no choice but to declare a judicial emergency and walk away from its own rules about speedy trials. Maybe Senate Republicans could, I don't know, let the chamber vote on some judicial nominees or something.

* In the 1990s, congressional Republicans cultivated a real hatred for the United Nations. It's apparently getting worse.

* Remember that 2008 crash that very nearly destroyed the global economy? It was entirely preventable.

* Carol Browner, the White House's coordinator for energy and climate change policy, is poised to leave her post. Browner's intended role leading a push for action on the climate crisis didn't come together, and with her departure, progress will be even less likely.

* An odious, but largely symbolic, vote: "The House voted on Tuesday to direct the chairman of the Budget Committee to cut federal spending to 2008 levels on a broad array of programs, as they sought to play offense in what is expected to be a long battle with the Obama administration on fiscal policy."

* Fox News makes stuff up. Try not to be surprised.

* For someone who claims to be a "constitutional conservative" and devotee of the Founding Fathers, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is spectacularly ignorant when it comes to history.

* If the Republican Study Committee thinks the road to fiscal responsibility goes through cuts to education, it's sorely mistaken.

* For his next trick, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) intends to gut several key environmental laws in his state.

* House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) wants to make sure no one takes away his crown for Lawmaker Who Hates Muslim Americans Most.

* And rumor has it, there will be a State of the Union address in about three-and-a-half hours. If you're inclined to stop by, I'll be here, making various live-blogging observations.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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CNN'S WEAK RATIONALE FOR DUELING SOTU RESPONSES.... I didn't intend to return to the subject, but CNN's explanation for why it's airing two Republican responses to President Obama's State of the Union address is pretty odd.

To briefly recap, congressional Republican leaders announced last week that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would deliver the party's official response to the president's national address. Soon after, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said she, too, would deliver a response to the SOTU, and her speech would be broadcast and endorsed by the Tea Party Express.

NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox will air Obama's speech, followed by Ryan's speech. CNN, however, will air all three -- the president's address, followed by a speech by a far-right Republican, and then followed by another speech by a different far-right Republican

This afternoon, Greg Sargent got an official explanation from CNN:

"The Tea Party has become a major force in American politics and within the Republican Party. Hearing the Tea Party's perspective on the State of the Union is something we believe CNN's viewers will be interested in hearing and we are happy to include this perspective as one of many in tonight's coverage."

As justifications go, I'd hoped CNN would do better than this.

There are a couple of angles to this that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that CNN seems to be treating Tea Party activists as offering something unique -- almost as if it's a distinct political party with a perspective all its own. Major media outlets need to understand how very wrong this is -- the so-called Tea Party is another name for "the Republican base." There is no meaningful, qualitative difference, and as a result, CNN is airing two Republican responses to one presidential speech.

The second is that airing a bizarre speech from an unhinged, radical lawmaker -- who CNN already knows to be unreliable -- because Tea Partiers are "a major force" is a weak rationale. The problem isn't just that this is tantamount to saying the Republican base is "a major force," it's also overlooking the fact that there are plenty of "major forces" in American politics.

Would CNN be inclined to air a SOTU response from the AFL-CIO? Labor unions are a major political force. How about responses from the NRA and the U.S. Chamber or Commerce? They're major forces, too. There are plenty of major forces, with constituencies focused on abortion, the environment, the wars, etc. They can't all have rejoinders to the State of the Union aired on national television, which is why the other major networks are content to show Obama and the official GOP response.

Dave Weigel added that CNN has "a longstanding romance" with the Tea Party Express, the political action committee that organized and is sponsoring the Bachmann speech. That's true, and while it makes the announcement more predictable, it also makes this somehow worse.

In the meantime, Republicans on the Hill aren't exactly pleased with Bachmann or CNN, since all of this distracts from the GOP's message and muddles the party's response.

And the Republican effort to look like grown-ups takes another big step backwards.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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WHY THE RSC WON'T PUT FARM SUBSIDIES ON THE TABLE.... When the far-right Republican Study Committee unveiled their spending-cut plan last week, the GOP lawmakers had plenty of targets. But it's what they left out that's especially interesting.

The Republican Study Committee plan to slash $2.5 trillion over the next decade was fairly ruthless in its scope. In the short term, the cuts would eliminate, among other things, transportation and infrastructure projects, energy research, and aid to states. Over the longer term, these Republicans are also eyeing drastic cuts to education, medical research, law enforcement, and homeland security, deliberately putting tens of thousands of Americans out of work in the process.

The RSC proposal, however, wouldn't touch the massive Pentagon budget, Social Security, Medicare ... or farm subsidies.

As eager as they are for a fight with the White House, Republican budget cutters have a problem in their own back pasture: what to do about a system of farm subsidies that's still pumping billions into GOP districts at a time of record income for producers.

Net cash farm income for 2010 is projected to finish near $92.5 billion -- a 41 percent increase even after subtracting payments from the government. Yet conservatives are almost tongue-tied, as seen last week with the Republican Study Committee's proposal to eliminate relatively modest subsidies for an organic food growers program without mentioning the nearly $5 billion in much larger government direct payments to farm country 00 including to the home districts of many of the RSC's members.

Indeed, 24 of the RSC's estimated 165 members hail from the House Agriculture Committee, and total annual direct payments to their districts run more than $1.09 billion a year, according to a POLITICO review of data compiled by the Environmental Working Group. RSC Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan doesn't sit on the Agriculture panel but represents an Ohio district that ranks among the top 50 recipients of farm subsidies, including $30 million in annual direct payments.

In most credible policy circles, farm subsidies are considered a no-brainer when looking for savings in the federal budget. It's not even ideological -- plenty of conservatives are disgusted by this spending.

But the Republican Study Committee, ostensibly some of the most right-wing, anti-government, anti-spending crusaders, somehow managed to take a buzz-saw to the budget, while carefully avoiding farm subsidies.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this wasn't an accident.

This is important, of course, because it's become a hallmark of contemporary conservative thought: spending on me and people like me is great; the real problem is the money that goes to those other people.

It's why Matt Taibbi can find a nice couple at a Tea Party rally that has spent their life living entirely off money from the government, but who are nevertheless getting involved to protest because "too many people are living off the government." It's why we find all kinds of conservatives who hate government spending in general, but love it when it's directed to them.

The allegedly principled Republican Study Committee is playing the exact same game, offering a reminder on why the party lacks credibility on the issue.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GHAILANI SENTENCING.... If recent history is any guide, today's court proceedings will lead to another round of complaints from conservatives. They really shouldn't bother.

A judge sentenced the first Guantanamo detainee to have a U.S. civilian trial to life in prison Tuesday, saying anything he suffered at the hands of the CIA and others "pales in comparison to the suffering and the horror" caused by the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan sentenced Ahmed Ghailani to life, calling the attacks "horrific" and saying the deaths and damage they caused far outweighs "any and all considerations that have been advanced on behalf of the defendant."

He also ordered Ghailani to pay a $33 million fine.

Kaplan announced the sentenced in a packed Manhattan courtroom after calling it a day of justice for the defendant, as well as for the families of 224 people who died in the al-Qaida bombings, including a dozen Americans, and thousands more who were injured.

In recent months, the Ghailani case has been a key talking point for the right, and at the surface, it's easy to understand why -- the former Gitmo detainee was brought to the U.S. for a civilian criminal trial, at the conclusion of which he was cleared of 284 out of 285 charges. Ghailani was convicted, however, on terrorist conspiracy charges.

"A ha!" conservatives said. "We told you this wasn't going to work."

But all things considered, the right has this backwards.

For about four years, the Bush administration held terrorist Ghailani at Guantanamo Bay, and didn't have much of a plan going forward. The Obama administration tried an approach that made sense -- filing charges against Ghailani, subjecting him to the American criminal justice system, and convicting him on terrorist conspiracy charges. Ghailani will now spend the rest of his days behind bars.

That's not a failure; that's a success.

What's more, the case against him might have been easier if the all the evidence against was admissible. It wasn't -- because the Bush gang tortured him.

As a political matter, the administration may have intended to use this trial to demonstrate a larger point, and to a very real extent, it worked -- there were no security threats and no opportunities for the accused to use the proceedings as a platform. Instead, U.S. prosecutors stuck to the rule of law, secured a conviction, and put away the accused bad guy. The administration wanted a public, transparent, legitimate trial, with lawyers and a jury, to help demonstrate America's commitment to its own principles, and the result is one the public, regardless of ideology, can be satisfied with.

Republicans, meanwhile, insist that it's preferable to try terror suspects in military tribunals, and we'll likely hear more of that today. It's worth remembering, then, that these commissions don't work, and don't deliver the results the GOP claims to want.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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PERRY SHOULD PROBABLY TAKE SECESSION OFF THE TABLE NOW.... In early 2009, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was so outraged by Democratic efforts to clean up Republican messes, he pushed the rhetorical envelope much further than he should have.

In April '09, he denounced the federal government as "oppressive," arguing that it was "time to draw the line in the sand and tell Washington that no longer are we going to accept their oppressive hand in the state of Texas." Soon after, he said he doesn't want to "dissolve" the union of the United States, "But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that."

Away from the cameras, Perry doesn't appear to mind that "oppressive hand" all that much.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry likes to tell Washington to stop meddling in state affairs. He vocally opposed the Obama administration's 2009 stimulus program to spur the economy and assist cash-strapped states. Perry also likes to trumpet that his state balanced its budget in 2009, while keeping billions in its rainy day fund. But he couldn't have done that without a lot of help from ... guess where? Washington. Turns out Texas was the state that depended the most on those very stimulus funds to plug nearly 97% of its shortfall for fiscal 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Imagine that.

In August '09. The New York Times' Ross Douthat insisted that President Obama needed to move to a "red-state model" in order to be effective. Douthat singled out Texas for praise, calling the state "a model citizen," and emphasizing, among other things, its ability not to run budget deficits.

What Douthat didn't know at the time was that Texas' budget looked a whole better thanks to those oppressive socialists that might push clowns like Rick Perry to secede.

Indeed, for all the conservative celebrations of the triumphant Texas model, most of the successes are a myth, while the rest was covered up by federal spending Texas' leaders claim to find offensive.

And as of now, after more than a decade of conservatism in the state, Texas suddenly finds itself facing a drastic budget mess -- one much worse than the shortfall the far-right governor predicted.

For quite a while, leading conservatives argued the rest of us were just confused -- if only everyone else, including D.C., would simply follow the fiscally responsible example set by Texas, everything would be fine. We don't need "big government," they said, we just need to do what Rick Perry has done.

I suspect the right will be saying this a little less in the near future.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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WHEN CANTOR DELIBERATELY OPPOSES JOB GROWTH.... To appreciate just how confused House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) really is, consider his approach to the high-speed rail project in his home town of Richmond.

In early 2009, Cantor, then the Minority Whip, noticed that the Recovery Act included funding for a variety of high-speed rail projects, and publicly mocked the idea. He not only considered the infrastructure investments unnecessary, he even rejected the very idea that government spending could create jobs and generate economic growth.

A month later, Cantor changed direction -- because the investment would help his constituents directly. The Republican congressman said high-speed rail in Richmond would spur economic development and create as many as 185,000 jobs in the area. "If there is one thing that I think all of us here on both sides of the political aisle from all parts of the region agree with, it's that we need to do all we can to promote jobs here in the Richmond area," Cantor said at the time.

This week, Cantor changed direction again, and no longer supports the rail project he heralded in April 2009.

[H]e can't support projects like this anymore.

"We are in times that we need to go about shrinking the size of government, getting of rid of everything but absolute priority spending," Cantor acknowledged at a press stakeout Tuesday morning. "I've already come out and said I would be in support of cutting that spending at this time."

This is stuff Democrats like, the Chamber of Commerce likes, labor unions like, environmentalists like, and, once upon a time, "national greatness" Republicans liked. But genuflecting to their conservative base has become a higher priority for Republicans than supporting job-creating programs they once supported.

This really is remarkable. Eric Cantor has said the high-speed rail project in his own district would spur economic growth and create thousands of jobs, but he's now against those priorities. The economy is nice, he argued this morning, but it's not as important as some ideological goal about the "size of government." Cantor knows the investments will create jobs, and he simply doesn't care.

The importance of this example is that it takes the argument out of the abstract -- it's a simple either/or proposition. On the one hand, we have a transportation project that's good for the economy and helps Cantor's own constituents. On the other hand, we have some amorphous ideological axe to grind. As far as Cantor is concerned, the latter is more important than the former.

The lesson for Americans couldn't be any clearer: jobs and the economy simply aren't Republicans' priority anymore.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE LIMITS OF THE HOUSE GOP'S 'ZERO TOLERANCE' POLICY.... During the midterm campaign, Eric Cantor (R-Va.) assured the public -- if House Republicans took back the majority, they would "institute a zero-tolerance policy" when it comes to lawmakers and ethical/legal transgressions.

That, apparently, came before Cantor heard about David Rivera.

The new House GOP majority was only sworn in a few weeks ago, and one of its members is already facing a criminal investigation.

Just three weeks into his congressional career, Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) has earned the dubious distinction of being the first member of the historic class of House GOP freshmen to find himself at the center of an ethics scandal.

The Rivera case also could prove an early and politically sensitive problem for Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and other top Republicans who criticized former Speaker Nancy Pelosi's handling of scandals involving Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

Boehner has yet to comment on the allegations involving Rivera, yet behind the scenes, GOP insiders already are drawing contingency plans for a replacement should the freshman lawmaker resign or be forced to step aside, according to multiple Republican sources.

Yes, not quite three weeks into the 112th Congress, a newly-elected Republican congressman is facing a scandal so severe, the leadership is already preparing for his ouster.

With Miami's David Rivera, it's not just one controversy, it's a series of head-shaking outrages that make one wonder what on earth voters in his district were thinking.

The most recent scandal is Rivera's inexplicable decision to try to cover up loans from his mother's gambling-related marketing company, a matter that's already under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Indeed, it appears that the owners of a dog track made more than $500,000 in secret payments to a company Rivera owned.

The Republican congressman is also at the center of domestic violence allegations, has been accused of driving a truck off a road because it was carrying flyers from a rival campaign, hiding the finances surrounding foreclosure proceedings on a house he co-owned with Marco Rubio, and bizarre lies about nonexistent work he did for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

And in case that wasn't quite enough, the criminal investigation into Rivera's activities appears to be "expanding on multiple fronts," and may yet include additional felonies we haven't yet heard about.

Despite all of this, and Cantor's promise of a "zero-tolerance policy," the House Majority Leader has refused to say a word about Rivera's multiple, ongoing scandals, or the criminal investigation

The GOP's culture of corruption apparently hasn't faded away just yet.

Steve Benen 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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

* The latest CNN national poll shows President Obama's approval rating at 55%, its highest point since November 2009.

* As expected, Rahm Emanuel's attorneys appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court this morning, hoping to save his mayoral campaign in Chicago. Early voting in the city begins in just six days.

* Sen. John Ensign (R) apparently won't let a massive sex/corruption scandal and criminal investigation stand in the way of seeking re-election. The Nevada senator will hold a meeting of his re-election steering committee a week from today.

* Rep. Connie Mack (R) appears to be gearing up for a U.S. Senate race in Florida, launching a new fundraising drive to get him ready for the "next opportunity." He'll join a GOP primary, with the winner set to take on Sen. Bill Nelson (D) next year.

* GOP officials hope to see Rep. Jim Jordan (R), chairman of the right-wing Republican Study Committee, run against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) in Ohio next year, but it looks increasingly unlikely. As of now, Jordan is "leaning against it."

* In the wake of her failed bid to lead the Republican National Committee, former Missouri Republican party chair Ann Wagner is getting ready to run for the U.S. Senate next year against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D). Wagner's interest reinforces rumors that former Sen. Jim Talent is no longer a likely candidate.

* Similarly, Michigan GOP leader Saul Anuzis, who also failed in his bid for the RNC chairmanship, is apparently interested in taking on Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) in 2012.

* Former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley (R), who narrowly lost Connecticut's gubernatorial race last year, isn't interested in retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman's (I-Conn.) seat. Instead, Foley is already planning a rematch against Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) in 2014.

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

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WHAT WE CAN HOPE TO HEAR TONIGHT.... With President Obama's State of the Union address about nine hours away, I'm pausing to note that the Washington Monthly asked a group of writers, scholars, and White House veterans for their advice about what Obama should say in his address. Many of them offered the kind of shrewd and surprising ideas that can turn unpromising political circumstances to the president's -- and the country's -- advantage, and it's the basis for the latest issue's cover story.

They're all worth reading, but this morning, two in particular are worth revisiting. Ruy Teixeira's advice, for example, rings especially true.

Make no mistake: a more effective government is the public's priority, not a smaller government. In a survey I helped conduct for the Center for American Progress's Doing What Works government reform project, we found that, by a decisive 62 to 36 margin, the public said their priority for improving the federal government was increasing its efficiency and effectiveness, not reducing its cost and size. Significantly, we found an identical result among the independents in our survey.

For all the rhetoric that dominates Washington, it's amazing that these simple truths remain elusive -- most Americans care less about the size of government than its effectiveness. Republicans consider small government a goal unto itself, but it's a dim, shallow exercise given public needs.

Voters won't reward leaders who shrink government; they'll reward leaders who make it work better and more efficiently. Ruy has some worthwhile thoughts on how to pursue these goals, too.

Let's also note Jeff Leonard's suggestion, which has generated a fair amount of attention from the likes of Jon Alter and David Leonhardt.

History shows that small businesses are a key component of national recovery in economic downtimes. But in today's sputtering job market, these traditional engines of growth and employment are limping along at best. Many small firms are handicapped by a new twist on an old parasitic business practice that large corporations are using in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, one that has significantly reduced the cash available to small businesses to invest and hire new employees. [...]

What can you do? First, in your State of the Union address, you can call attention to this trend as an unfair business practice, and you could ask the Office of Advocacy in the Small Business Administration to research how widespread it has become. Second, you can take a simple but meaningful unilateral action: issue an executive order mandating that all companies with federal contracts pay their suppliers within thirty days of invoice.

The president surely knows he has to spur economic growth without help on spending from Congress. Leonard's idea offers just such an avenue.

After the jump, there are individual links to all the contributors' recommendations in our cover package.

Introduction: Clinton Needed Help in '94. You Need Help Now.
by William A. Galston

Find a Few Good Opponents
by Bruce Bartlett

Recommit to Reform
by Howard Dean

Talk the Jobless Off the Ledge
by Debra J. Dickerson

Send In the Military
by Heather Hurlburt

Appeal to History
by Michael Kazin

Do Small Business a Simple Favor
by Jeffrey Leonard

Rise Above Party
by Will Marshall

Be the Mediator in Chief
by Andres Martinez

Communicate Better
by Theda Skocpol

Make Government More Effective, Not Smaller
by Ruy Teixeira

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

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WE'LL APPARENTLY HAVE TO DEBATE THE BBA ONCE AGAIN.... I'd really hoped we were past this nonsense.

Over three decades, Sen. Orrin Hatch has labored unsuccessfully for a Balanced Budget Amendment. The Senate last passed such a measure in 1982, only to be disappointed by a Democrat-controlled House. The tease hit its apex in 1997, when the Utahn cobbled together 66 votes -- one aye short of the constitutional requirement. "Like Charlie Brown with the football, we kept trying," he laments in his memoir.

With fiscal hawks roosting in both chambers, Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is itching for another round. This week, along with Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), he will unveil a revamped proposal. The pair's amendment will mandate the federal budget not to exceed total revenues, cap federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, and require a two-thirds vote (in both the House and the Senate) for net tax increases. The legislation will also require the president to submit a balanced budget to Congress each fiscal year.

As the federal government nears its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, a "great constitutional debate," Hatch declares, is necessary. "Let's put the screws on the big spenders," he says.

Ah yes, those rascally "big spenders." Who might that include? Perhaps we could nominate Orrin Hatch, who voted for measures adding $5 trillion to the debt in just eight years, and who later said he considered the better part of the last decade a period in which "it was standard practice not to pay for things."

In other words, Orrin Hatch wants a constitutional amendment to tie the hands of people like ... Orrin Hatch.

Perhaps more strikingly, his co-partner in this ridiculous initiative is John Cornyn, who wants to tie a balanced budget amendment to the hostage strategy for the federal debt limit -- either Democrats agree to change the U.S. Constitution, or Cornyn and his pals will try to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States government.

As messengers go, Republicans like Hatch and Cornyn have absolutely no credibility on fiscal responsibility. They're not only responsible for the budget mess, they demanded massive tax breaks last year that made the situation worse.

But putting the hypocrisy aside, there's an important substantive argument here about the balanced budget amendment itself. The proposal is, as Bruce Bartlett recently explained, "a terrible idea." His item on this is well worth reading -- and bookmarking for future reference -- and it hits nearly all of the highlights, including the fact that a BBA would undermine the economy and is probably unenforceable anyway.

But I'd just emphasize the fact that sometimes, running a deficit is both wise and necessary, and writing a prohibition into constitutional stone would tie policymakers' hands at key moments of crisis. Proponents have said the language would made exceptions in which deficits would be allowed -- wars, economic crises, etc. -- but at that point, there's no real point in having the amendment anyway.

For that matter, if Hatch, Cornyn, or any of the laughably insincere deficit hawks want a balanced budget, they can do us all a favor and present a plan on how to make that happen. That would take effort and intellectual honesty, so they take the easy way out -- instead of doing the hard work, they want to trot out a gimmick that will mandate a policy goal they can't figure out how to accomplish on their own.

In other words, those who want a balanced budget amendment should make plain how they'd balance the budget. Otherwise, the scheme is just a silly, cynical political charade.

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

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MAKING THE CASE FOR INFRASTRUCTURE.... President Obama has already emphasized his commitment to infrastructure investment in some high-profile ways, but we're likely to hear him reemphasize this policy tonight.

When President Obama uses his State of the Union address on Tuesday to rally America to "outbuild" other nations, he will face an unusual challenge: getting Republicans to embrace public works projects again as the kind of worthy bacon they have traditionally fought to bring home, and not as wasteful pork that should be spurned. [...]

Mr. Obama is recalibrating his message and trying to make the case that public works are not just about short-term construction jobs, but about long-term economic competitiveness. He is increasingly arguing that spending money to rebuild the nation's roads, rails, ports, power grids and even broadband networks will be necessary if America is to be able to compete in the global economy. And he is expected to repeat his call for creating a National Infrastructure Bank, which would choose public works projects by their merits.

Republicans have historically appreciated the value of infrastructure investments, and even this year, a few far-right opponents of earmarks tried to make the case that set-asides for transportation projects shouldn't count.

That said, a growing number of GOP officials are against federal investments in this area, regardless of job creation and economic development, because spending is, you know, bad or something. We've apparently reached the point at which Republicans say they want to modernize crumbling infrastructure, and support "innovative" ways to pay for it, but haven't the foggiest idea how to shape an actual, effective policy.

This is a real fix. On the one hand, the Republicans banned earmarks, so individual members now have less capacity to direct federal dollars to these sorts of projects than they used to have. On the other hand, they also want to diminish the executive branch's resources, making it less able to tackle these problems alone. That means more and more crumbling roads, more and more unhappy voters, more and more demands from local governments and constituents for Congress to do something about it. But without the will to tax and spend, they can't.

One thing to keep an eye on, however, is the kind of institutional support that stands behind infrastructure investments. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, for example, don't agree on much, but they agree wholeheartedly on transportation spending -- and each is prepared to push the party the group is aligned with.

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

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ALLEN CHOOSES TO RE-LITIGATE 'MACACA'.... As expected, former Sen. George Allen (R) launched his comeback bid in Virginia yesterday, hoping for a rematch against Sen. Jim Webb (D), who narrowly defeated him in 2006.

As has been well documented, his use of a racial slur, "macaca," contributed to Allen's defeat, and will no doubt come up quite a bit over the next 21 months. At this point, the Republican needs to work on his defense.

In an interview with a Virginia political news outlet today, Former Sen. George Allen (R-VA), who has officially launched a campaign for the Senate seat he lost in 2006, kicked the hornets' nest that may have cost him the seat in the first place.

Allen said he regrets using the term "macaca" to describe a Democratic campaign tracker, but still maintains it is a "made-up" word, not a racial slur.

Allen has had more than four years to come up with a compelling explanation, and he's still getting it wrong. What on earth is this guy thinking?

"Macaca" is not a word Allen just "made-up." As Blue Virginia explained yesterday, "As voluminously, extensively, repeatedly (although not always by the "lamestream" corporate media) documented in the 2006 campaign -- and not just by Democrats either -- the word is an extremely common racial slur in French North Africa, from where Allen's mother's side of the family hails."

Also keep in mind, Allen's defense is even more implausible given that his explanation evolved repeatedly. Originally, the Republican campaign said Allen used the word, but didn't know what it meant, which was itself odd. The campaign then said he was referring to S.R. Sidarth, who is Indian, as "Mohawk," which didn't make any sense. The story then changed again -- Allen was going for "caca," Spanish slang for excrement.

Michael Froomkin joked at the time, paraphrasing Allen, "I just happened to pick a nickname for the sole dark face in a white crowd that just happens to be the same as a common racial epithet. Could happen to anyone, right?"

Finally, Allen changed his story again, characterizing "macaca" as a "made up" word, which it obviously isn't.

Why Allen would want to start this argument all over again is a mystery, but I suspect the DSCC is pleased.

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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DUELING SOTU RESPONSES, CONT'D.... Late last week, after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) turned them down, congressional Republican leaders announced House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would deliver the party's official response to President Obama's State of the Union address. It was a decision fraught with implications.

But immediately after the announcement, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) made some news of her own: she, too, would deliver a response to the SOTU, and her speech would be broadcast and endorsed by the Tea Party Express.

Yesterday, the unhinged Minnesotan insisted she isn't trying to steal Paul Ryan's thunder.

[S]peaking to reporters Monday, she distanced herself from Beltway rumblings that she was challenging the GOP establishment by addressing the Tea Party Express. Rep. Paul Ryan is offering the official Republican response.

"I'm just reacting to what President Obama is saying, to the Tea Party Express group," Bachmann said at the State Capitol. "It's not meant to be in competition in any way. Paul Ryan is the official GOP response and he'll do a wonderful job."

But there's an important detail to keep in mind. Politico noted that Bachmann's "response will be streamed on the Tea Party Express's web site, while Ryan's will be carried by national networks."

As it turns out, that's no longer accurate. CNN announced late yesterday that it will broadcast all three speeches -- President Obama's national address, Ryan's response, and Bachmann's response -- on the air, in their entirety.

I'm really not sure what to make of this. In fact, I'm a little surprised CNN would agree to this, just as a matter of fairness -- viewers will hear one speech from a Democrat, followed by a speech by a far-right Republican, and then followed by another speech by a far-right Republican? If a liberal Dem announced this morning that he/she is delivering some remarks reflecting on the SOTU tonight, would that also be aired on CNN's national airwaves in its entirety?

For that matter, I can only hope that Paul Ryan isn't positioned as the "middle" -- literally and figuratively -- between the president and Bachmann. The Ayn Rand acolyte is, after all, a hard-core radical, intent on destroying Medicare and Social Security. Bachmann's wild-eyed craziness shouldn't make Ryan appear reasonable by comparison, but it might.

On the flip side, I suppose it's also possible that we'll see one popular national leader reveling in the pageantry of a national address to a joint session, followed by two right-wing members of an unpopular party, struggling to explain why Americans should embrace their vision of extremism. If President Obama comes out looking above the fray, the dueling GOP responses might backfire.

I guess we'll see soon enough.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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LOYAL BUSHIES FLAGRANTLY IGNORED THE LAW.... When we think of the Bush/Cheney White House we tend to think of policy failures, incompetence, comically flawed judgment, and systemic mismanagement.

But the failed Republican administration was also corrupt, routinely ignoring laws that interfered with its agenda.

At least seven Cabinet secretaries to President George W. Bush took politically motivated trips at taxpayer expense while aides falsely claimed they were traveling on official business, the independent Office of Special Counsel said Monday night in concluding a three-year probe.

In a report on allegations that first surfaced before Bush left office, the agency condemned what it depicted as widespread violations of a law restricting political activities by federal workers and illegal use of federal funds to engage in electioneering. [...]

This federally funded travel was organized, approved and closely tracked by Bush's political office, the Office of Special Counsel found, describing the activity as leading to the illegal diversion of federal funds and workers' time.

The report covered multiple areas of wrongdoing related to the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal officials from using their office to influence the electoral process, and found "a systematic misuse of federal resources."

There were, for example, several dozen mandatory briefings for federal employees -- during work hours and in federal office buildings -- in which White House officials instructed public employees on how they could help Republican campaign efforts. Bushies later described the briefings as "informational discussions," but all available evidence suggests that's a lie.

There were also the extensive travel expenses. In order to give the impression that vulnerable Republican lawmakers were important and powerful, the Bush White House arranged for cabinet secretaries to visit key campaign battlegrounds to give GOP candidates a public-relations boost. The law prohibits officials from using our money this way, and taxpayers were never reimbursed. When asked, Bushies said the trips were official government business. Like the rest of the defense, this wasn't true, either.

And in case that wasn't quite enough, Republican National Committee officials literally just moved their operations into the White House, to coordinate campaign efforts. This is illegal, too.

All of the transgressions were coordinated by the Bush/Cheney Office of Political Affairs, which was overseen by Karl Rove, and which is prohibited from using public funds for partisan political purposes.

In the Bush era, Rove's operation seemed to do nothing but use our money for partisan political purposes.

If you're wondering about the potential legal fallout of these revelations, the Office of Special Counsel, which released its report yesterday, said it no longer has any jurisdiction now that the Bush administration has left office. The Justice Department could conceivably pursue this, but it's given no indication that it intends to do so.

The report comes just a few days after the Obama White House announced it would shutter its Office of Political Affairs altogether, so as to avoid any misuse of public funds.

Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) recent claim -- he called President Obama's team "one of the most corrupt administrations" in recent memory -- is looking increasingly ridiculous all the time.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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January 24, 2011

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

* Moscow: "A bomber strode into the international arrivals hall at Moscow's busiest airport on Monday afternoon and set off an enormous explosion, witnesses and Russian officials said, leaving bodies strewn in a smoke-filled terminal while bystanders scrambled to get the wounded out on baggage carts. Russian authorities said at least 34 people were killed and 168 injured in the attack."

* Iraq: "Two car bombs struck Shi'ite pilgrims Monday in an Iraqi holy city, killing at least 18 people as crowds massed for religious rituals marking the end of a 40-day mourning period for the Islamic sect's most beloved saint."

* A major document leak: "Israeli-Palestinian peace talks over the past 17 years have operated at two levels, one public, the other behind closed doors. To the world and their own people, each side spoke of sacred, non-negotiable demands while in the Jerusalem hotel suites where the officials met those very demands were under negotiation. Internal Palestinian documents leaked to Al Jazeera and published this week illustrate that dichotomy." Don't miss Matt Duss' take on the story.

* Shocking violence directed at police officers: "A spate of shooting attacks on law enforcement officers has authorities concerned about a war on cops. In just 24 hours, at least 11 officers were shot."

* This is what I wanted to hear: "President Obama has decided not to endorse his deficit commission's recommendation to raise the retirement age, and otherwise reduce Social Security benefits, in Tuesday's State of the Union address, cheering liberals and drawing a stark line between the White House and key Republicans in Congress."

* It was a longshot anyway: "Diplomatic efforts to end the eight-year-old impasse over Iran's nuclear program ran aground Saturday after Iranian officials refused to bargain with the United States and other world powers unless they first agreed to conditions including an immediate halt to economic sanctions."

* Leading officials in the Obama White House appears to have largely given up on Benjamin Netanyahu. I can't say I blame them.

* If the accounts are accurate, the treatment David House and Jane Hamsher received at the Quantico Marine Corps base yesterday was outrageous and inexcusable.

* If confirmed by the Senate, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., a White House deputy counsel, will replace Elena Kagan as solicitor general of the United States.

* Good move: "President Barack Obama on Monday announced a government wide series of 50 programs and proposals to increase support for U.S. military families." The initiatives, crafted by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, include more counseling to prevent suicides, increased education grants, and expanded child-care assistance.

* New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was the Republican Party's first choice to give the GOP response to the State of the Union address. He declined.

* The guy who will give the GOP response, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), doesn't seem to understand monetary policy, either.

* Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) has a problem with Muslim Americans. Imagine that.

* An important question: "How many college graduates is the United States going to need in the next few decades in order to maintain its current economic status?"

* And being Vice President doesn't mean getting out of jury duty.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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EMANUEL, FOR NOW, REMOVED FROM CHICAGO BALLOT.... As you may have heard, the former White House chief of staff isn't having a good day.

Rahm Emanuel was thrown off the ballot for mayor of Chicago Monday by an appellate court panel, a stunning blow to the fund-raising leader in the race.

An appellate panel ruled 2-1 that Emanuel did not meet the residency standard to run for mayor.

Appellate justices Thomas Hoffman and Shelvin Louise Marie Hall ruled against Emanuel. Justice Bertina Lampkin voted in favor of keeping President Obama's former chief of staff on the Feb. 22 ballot.

Emanuel, speaking to reporters at The Berghoff in the Loop, said he is confident he will win an appeal and return to the ballot.

I hesitate to weigh in too heavily on this because (a) I haven't read the ruling; and (b) I know literally nothing about Chicago's election laws. In other words, my take on this is admittedly based on incomplete information.

That said, looking at this from a distance, I may not be an especially big fan of Rahm's, but I think he's getting a raw deal. From what I gather from media accounts this afternoon, the argument is he's not eligible to run because he served as White House chief of staff for two years, and in the process, forfeited his residency.

As a practical matter, this seems pretty silly. The guy's a Chicago native who represented Chicago in Congress for several years. He was in D.C. to work in the Obama White House for a couple of years, but it was a temporary gig, which should probably be considered national service.

Ultimately, I'm hard pressed to imagine why the decision should be removed from the hands of voters. If Chicagoans consider his tenure in D.C. problematic, they can vote for someone else. If they don't care, they can evaluate Emanuel's platform, and decide accordingly. Other candidates are certainly free to make their case to voters, too.

But what's the rationale for denying the public the choice? It's their city; let them vote for whomever they want to vote for.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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HEALTH CARE STRATEGERY, CONT'D.... When it comes to how policymakers will proceed on health care, the broad outlines of a plan are starting to come together. In fact, the parties seem to be gaming out the process fairly well, anticipating their rivals' next move, their response, and the expected response to the response.

The House, of course, has already made its move, voting last week to destroy the entirety of the Affordable Care Act. Senate Republicans demanded that the House bill receive consideration in the upper chamber, and plotted on how to use existing procedures to force the legislation onto the calendar, whether Democrats like it or not.

As of late last week, Senate Dems didn't seem especially nervous about any of this -- if Republicans want to have the debate, they'd make the most of it, forcing Republicans to vote on politically inconvenient amendments that Dems would design to make the GOP look callous and out of touch.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was fairly explicit about his plans yesterday: "Do Republicans really want to vote to repeal the ban on preexisting conditions? Do they really want to repeal the guidelines that allow young adults who have graduated college and are just entering the workforce to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26? Do they really want to repeal the fix to the Medicare donut hole that will save seniors 50 percent on the cost of their prescription drugs? Do they really want to repeal free checkups for seniors that save taxpayers billions of dollars through better prevention?"

Today, Greg Sargent talked to House Republican staffers who've plotted a response to the response.

According to a GOP Senate aide, Republicans may counter by demanding a vote on whether to repeal provisions disliked by business, such as the one that imposes an excise tax on medical device manufacturers. Those manufacturers have been complaining that this provision forces them to shoulder an unfair burden of the cost of expanded health coverage and could lead to layoffs.

The GOP aide says if Dems try to force votes on individual provisions, Republicans will respond in kind. GOP aides are combing through the legislation to find provisions that they can demand votes on, should it come to that.

"If Democrats are pushing for political votes on health care, they can expect the exact same thing," the aide says. "They don't really want to go back and forth and relitigate this."

Actually, if this is really what Republicans have in mind, Dems probably wouldn't mind the re-litigation at all.

As Republicans are likely realizing, finding scary provisions in the Affordable Care Act is much easier said than done. The individual mandate notwithstanding, the vast majority of the major provisions aren't just popular, they're very popular. Indeed, consider the rhetorical breakdown here:

* Democrats' message: Republicans are voting to discriminate against children with preexisting conditions ... and to make it harder for seniors to pay for their medication ... and to kick young adults off their families' plans ... and to raise taxes on small businesses ... and to increase the deficit ... and repeal free preventative care.

* Republicans' message: Democrats voted to keep in place an excise tax on medical device manufacturers.

Dems are so supposed to be intimidated by this? I don't see it.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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HOW THE OPPOSITION RESPONDS TO ITS 'UNANTICIPATED PROBLEM'.... The NYT's John Harwood notes today that congressional Republicans are confronting an "unanticipated problem": President Obama's poll numbers have improved and he appears to have "regained political momentum."

The question is what the GOP intends to do about it.

As Mr. Obama approaches the State of the Union address on Tuesday, various polls show him rising toward or beyond 50 percent approval of his job performance. Before his first 2011 clash with Republican adversaries who now share governing responsibility, those surveys also show that Americans credit Mr. Obama with greater commitment to finding common ground.

Analysts in both parties agree on the elements of Mr. Obama's rebound. Most Americans never turned on him personally, even as they shouted their disappointment in the November elections.

Postelection compromises with Republicans on tax cuts showed the White House breaking Washington gridlock on the economic issues Americans care about most. That, along with signs of accelerating growth, increased confidence.

Then Mr. Obama delivered a well-received message of unity after the Tucson shootings two weeks ago. By demonstrating "efficacy and empathy," as the Democratic pollster Peter Hart put it, the president complicated the task for Republicans in extending the last election's gains.

Now, intuitively, common sense suggests Republicans, still unpopular despite midterm gains, should be at least slightly more accommodating -- or at least less antagonistic -- towards the popular president. If Obama's the most popular figure in Washington, and he is, it stands to reason the disliked GOP wouldn't want to invest too heavily in fighting with him about everything.

But does anyone seriously believe Republicans might actually think this way? Of course not. In fact, the opposite appears most likely -- the GOP will respond to the modest increase in the president's national support by being even less amenable to compromise. After all, as Harwood's item noted, polls show the public appreciating Obama's willingness to compromise and his ability to rise above partisan bickering.

The likely reaction, then, is a Republican plan premised on denying Obama compromise victories.

Postscript: Harwood's report added, "Congressional Republicans also insist they have learned not to overreach." Raise your hand if you have any confidence in this, especially given stated GOP intentions to shut down the government and hold the federal debt limit hostage.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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CALLING THE SHOTS.... Roll Call's Christina Bellantoni has a good piece today, noting that "outsized personalities based far outside the Beltway" -- most notably, in Republican circles, Rush Limbaugh -- "have become as much a part of Washington's political ecosystem as the lawmakers themselves."

That's not necessarily new or surprising, of course -- if Limbaugh weren't helping run the show, Republicans wouldn't rush to apologize if they think they've offended him -- but it's worth appreciating the extent to which this dynamic continues to influence events.

After Fox replayed "sting" videos showing alleged fraud at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a measure to cut ACORN's government funding. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) wrote a resolution honoring James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles for producing the ACORN videos, and 31 of his GOP colleagues signed on. It never received a vote.

When Beck suggested on his show in June that an Obama administration drilling decision helped liberal billionaire George Soros, two Republican Members repeated the claim using similar language on the House floor. Limbaugh called the BP oil spill fund set up last year a "slush fund," a term repeated by Members in television appearances and during floor debates.

With the addition of the tea party movement to the national conversation, the spin cycle has added a setting that could be labeled "outrage." Ideas that hosts use to gin up their base go from television to the House floor to the cardboard signs displayed by tea partyers on the National Mall.

Several GOP lawmakers quietly acknowledged that members "carefully monitor what's being said on conservative airwaves to make sure they aren't contradicting it or enraging talkers."

When we talk about the reach of the Republican Noise Machine, it's really not hyperbole. Ridiculous right-wing media personalities and far-right GOP members on Capitol Hill spew nonsense, both echoing and reinforcing one another. More often than not, though, it appears Republican officials are taking the orders on what to say and when, not giving them.

And as we know, there is no comparable infrastructure on the left.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow told Roll Call she believes the right "has long had a wider-reaching, more fully-formed messaging apparatus than the left."

"It may be that there's more rightwing media echo in their politics simply because the right's echo-chamber works better," Maddow said in an e-mail. "Comparatively speaking, messaging on the left is much more ad hoc, much less disciplined and repetitive, and much less wide-reaching."

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

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OFF TO A SLOW START.... To a certain extent, the 2012 presidential race started a few hours after the 2008 race ended, but in a more literal sense, the next cycle is off to a surprisingly slow start.

We're about a year away from the first nominating contests -- Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire primary -- and the field of Republican candidates, expected to be massive, has exactly zero candidates. At this point in the last cycle, 14 presidential candidates were already in the race.

Granted, the 2008 cycle was considerably different. It was, after all, the first presidential race in more than a half-century in which neither an incumbent president nor incumbent vice president ran. The wide-open qualities attracted a large field on both sides.

But given modern standards, we've come to expect fairly long presidential campaigns. Even at this point in 2003, with George W. Bush riding fairly high in the polls, all six of the major Democratic candidates -- Kerry, Edwards, Dean, Clark, Gephardt, and Lieberman -- had at least launched exploratory committees, if not formally declared.

This year, we can say with some certainty that there will be a sizable GOP field, but the fact remains that not one has begun campaigning in earnest. How come? Mark Halperin recently offered an explanation.

No one is in a hurry to jump in because there isn't a strong-armed front runner threatening to squash the rest of the pack the way George W. Bush did in 2000. None of the hopefuls want the scrutiny or expense that goes with becoming an official candidate. And no one but the most fervent activists and hyperpolitical reporters is itching to get another election under way.

There's probably something to this. I suppose Romney is the presumptive frontrunner, but he doesn't exactly scare anyone -- in either party -- or give the impression that he's a powerful force in American politics, so likely GOP rivals have less of an incentive to get in the game quickly and establish themselves as credible challengers/alternatives.

But there's one thing Halperin didn't mention, which is worth keeping in mind. As Kevin Drum noted today:

And while we're on the subject of why not a single Republican has announced a presidential candidacy yet ... isn't the answer obvious? It's because they all know Barack Obama is as good as a shoo-in in 2012. Unless something cataclysmic happens, the only reason for any Republican to run is either as a vanity candidate or to get practice for 2016.

I'm not nearly as certain as Kevin about President Obama's chances, but I'd still love to know just how much this is influencing Republicans' thinking.

Publicly, they're filled with bravado -- Obama misread the public, Obama's agenda has been rejected, Obama's outside the mainstream, yada yada yada. But behind closed doors, I have to wonder if some of these folks pause to appreciate the fact that they've thrown the kitchen sink at the president, and despite all kinds of problems, Obama's approval rating is still 50% -- and climbing.

Does that give some would-be presidential candidates pause? I'd be surprised if it didn't.

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

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SESSIONS' STRIKING MYOPIA.... Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has long been one of the chamber's least impressive members, but his Washington Post op-ed today on fiscal issues is striking in its inanity. It's almost as if the senator is trying to be unserious.

The far-right Alabamian has suddenly discovered the federal debt, and demands that President Obama show "strong leadership" to address it. That, in and of itself, is rather amusing -- Sessions voted for massive tax breaks, two wars, and a massive expansion of Medicare, all of which was financed entirely through the deficit. Indeed, Sessions' preferred policies added $5 trillion to the national debt in just eight years, and left a $1.3 trillion deficit for Obama to clean up in the midst of a global economic crisis.

In effect, Sessions is demanding Obama show "strong leadership" to fix the budget mess Sessions helped create, but wants none of the blame for.

But that's not the funny part. This is.

Before the financial crisis of 2008, then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson reassured Americans that he had the "housing correction" under control and had "confidence in our capital markets and in their resilience." Just a few months later, Paulson declared that our financial system was "on the verge of collapse" and that "we have not in our lifetime dealt with a financial crisis of this severity."

For years, Washington officials played down the systemic risks behind the crisis while they pushed policies that hastened its arrival.

Today, we are again rushing in the wrong direction.

Last month, President Obama would agree to maintain current tax rates only if Congress would agree to increase federal deficit spending. We are headed toward a cliff, yet the president hits the accelerator.

It's hard to navigate through Sessions' confusion, but he seems to think the national debt -- the one he personally helped make much worse -- has pushed us to the brink of collapse, comparable to the conditions in 2008. With that in mind, Sessions is outraged that the president negotiated extended unemployment benefits, while Sessions and his party sought hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks, all of which they insisted be financed through the deficit and added to the debt.

The senator's leaps of logic here are dizzying. Sessions is worried about the debt that he helped create. Late last year, he demanded tax breaks that made the debt worse. And now he's incensed that Obama hasn't done more to fix the problem.

The op-ed goes on to endorse British-style austerity measures, holding the debt limit hostage, and draconian, job-killing spending cuts. Indeed, it's worth emphasizing Sessions wrote an entire op-ed about "economic policy," but didn't mention jobs or employment at all, as if job creation is simply not a priority for him, despite the 9.4% unemployment rate.

Sessions noted in his piece, "The Washington bubble has never been so thick." Senator, something's thick, but I'm afraid it's not the Washington bubble.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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

* Former Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia, who lost his re-election bid in 2006, will launch his comeback bid today. The seat is currently held by Sen. Jim Webb (D), who narrowly defeated Allen, but who has not yet said whether he'll seek re-election.

* On a related note, the conventional wisdom holds that Allen's "macaca" moment doomed his chances, but there's more to it than that.

* The fight to choose the leadership of the New Hampshire Republican Party proved to be pretty interesting. State party leaders rallied behind Juliana Bergeron, but activists ignored the GOP establishment and instead backed Jack Kimball, a relative newcomer with ties to the right-wing Tea Party.

* Similarly, Republicans in the state of Washington rebuffed the party's wishes and chose far-right radio talk-show host Kirby Wilbur as the new chairman of the state Republican Party, and in Arizona, party activists rejected the choice of Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, and instead elected tea party favorite Tom Morrissey to head the state GOP.

* The DCCC has chosen its goal/motto for the next two years: the "Drive for 25." With a net gain of 25 House seats in 2012, Democrats would re-take the House majority.

* Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the Democratic caucus chairman, announced over the weekend that he will not run for the Senate next year. It should be a crowded primary anyway -- Rep. Chris Murphy and former Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz are already in, while Rep. Joe Courtney and Ted Kennedy Jr. appear interested.

* Jesse Kelly, the right-wing Republican who lost to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in Arizona a few months ago, appears eager -- perhaps a little too eager -- to run again. Soon after the assassination attempt, Kelly began making phone calls about a special election and the process of filing a potential vacancy.

* And in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney easily won a largely-meaningless 2012 presidential straw poll conducted by the state Republican Party over the weekend. Participation was fairly modest -- only 300 or so party activists took part -- but Romney won 35%, followed by Ron Paul with 11%, and Tim Pawlenty with 8%.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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REMEMBER THE ALTERNATIVE HEALTH CARE REFORM PLAN?.... The day after the House GOP voted to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, I noted that Republicans can't be bothered to do the hard work of legislating, policymaking, and problem-solving. For all the "repeal and replace" rhetoric, the GOP can't even begin to explain the "replace" part of their agenda, and haven't come up with an actual health care reform plan of their own.

Some of my friends on the right suggested this wasn't fair -- there is a Republican reform plan, and it exists, whether I consider it a sound plan or not.

Is there something to this? Not really.

On "Meet the Press" yesterday, host David Gregory noted the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the plan presented by now-Speaker John Boehner -- barely denting the ranks of the uninsured, doing very little about costs -- and asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, "The truth is, Republicans do not have a serious alternative to covering more Americans, do they?" Cantor responded:

"Well, the -- if you recall last session, we Republicans were given one shot; we didn't have any open debate for both sides at all on the healthcare bill the way it was jammed through. The Boehner plan is just a starting point."

Cantor went on to repeat vague and shallow talking points, but this was the crux of his pitch.

He seems to have forgotten some of the relevant details, so let's quickly review. The House Republican caucus worked behind closed doors for five months on a health care plan in 2009. As a substantive matter, the GOP plan was nothing short of laughable -- it largely ignored the uninsured, did nothing for those with pre-existing conditions, and offered nothing for those worried about losing coverage when it's needed most. It didn't even focus on fiscal issues, reducing the deficit far less than the Democratic plan.

The Republican approach to reform sought to create a system that "works better for people who don't need health care services, and much worse for people who actually are sick or who become sick in the future. It's basically a health un-insurance policy."

Yesterday, Cantor suggested his own party's plan, which he voted for, was a joke because of the process. But that's silly -- House Republicans took five months to shape their own policy precisely how they wanted, and they came up with a ridiculous proposal that no one could take seriously. It wasn't billed as "a starting point"; it was presented as a credible plan to improve the nation's health care system. It wasn't.

Other Republicans, meanwhile, are suggesting the party could go back to the McCain/Palin reform plan from 2008 -- which happens to cost far more than the Affordable Care Act, and cover fewer people.

Those who think Republicans have credibility on health care policy clearly aren't paying attention.

Steve Benen 11:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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GOP SCRAMBLES FOR CREDIT ON ECONOMY.... A couple of news items this morning suggest Americans should see meaningful economic progress in 2011. USA Today reported this morning, "Economists are more optimistic about the recovery than they were just a few months ago, significantly upgrading their forecasts for 2011 as consumers open their wallets."

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal noted, "U.S. companies plan to hire more workers in the coming months amid growing optimism over the economy, a quarterly survey released Monday showed, providing further evidence that the jobs market is turning around."

Time will tell whether this optimism is warranted; we can all certainly hope that it is. The recovery is clearly fragile, but there are signs that point to more robust growth.

And that seems to make Republicans a little nervous.

It took less than three weeks for the new Republican Congressional leadership to claim credit for an apparent economic upturn.

An aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Brian Patrick, emailed reporters this morning:

THERE ARE THE JOBS: Republicans Prevent Massive Tax Increase, Economy Begins to Improve....

Even by the standards of the most shameless hack, this is farcical. Worse, it's part of a growing pattern.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, argued two weeks ago, for example, that the recent good news -- private-sector job growth, big corporate profits, major gains in the major Wall Street indexes -- that occurred throughout 2010 were the result of Republican tax policies. As Kyl sees it, business leaders in early 2010 predicted the tax policy agreement crafted in late 2010, and started growing the economy based on their future-predicting abilities.

On Fox News last week, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) offered a related argument, insisting that indications of economic improvements are "in large part" because Republicans "won our majority and we're pursuing pro-growth policies."

To reiterate a point from last week, this really is fascinating. The economy started growing again in 2009, with the stimulus giving the economy a boost. We saw growth continue throughout 2010 -- even after those rascally Democrats passed health care reform and Wall Street reform -- while Republicans said Dems were killing the economy.

And now we have several Republican leaders arguing that the same tax rates that were in place last year (and the year before that, and the year before that), coupled with economic policies that haven't even been voted on, deserve the credit for more optimistic projections.

So to review, Republicans in the Bush era brought the global economy to the brink of catastrophic collapse; Obama and congressional Dems helped turn things around; and now those same Republicans whose policies failed want credit for Democratic successes.

I know some folks will find this persuasive, and maybe even some of these GOP officials have deluded themselves into believing their own rhetoric. But it doesn't make the argument any less ridiculous.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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WHAT'S BECOME OF SENATE REFORM.... When we last left U.S. senators, before they broke a couple of weeks ago for a recess, discussions were underway on a modest-but-meaningful package of institutional reforms. Most notably, the Udall/Harkin/Merkley plan included measures on expediting motions to proceed, ending secret holds, and requiring "talking" filibusters.

As the Senate gets back to work this week, the talks appear to have produced an even narrower set of changes.

There's no deal yet on how to change Senate filibuster rules, but Democrats and Republicans are finding common ground in two other areas: ending the practice of so-called secret holds and smoothing the way for presidential nominees.

Senate leaders from both parties are still trying to avoid a drawn-out fight over changing the rules to make it harder to filibuster. But as the Senate returns from a two-week recess this week, both sides may be willing to give a little, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.

There's now a strong chance for a bipartisan agreement to make it easier to confirm, at least, noncontroversial judicial and executive branch nominees. Chances also remain high that the sides will agree to do away with secret holds, which allow senators to block nominations or bills anonymously.

But that may be as far as the Senate goes in overhauling its rules.

To be sure, these extremely modest steps would constitute a modicum of progress. Secret holds are, by their very nature, absurd. There's been bipartisan support for eliminating the practice for quite a while, and this should be a no-brainer.

Changes to the nominating process would also be welcome. Currently, there are roughly 1,400 presidential appointments that require time-consuming Senate confirmation, which is almost comically unnecessary. Recent reform talks have signaled a willingness to reduce that total ... to about 1,300.

Filibuster rules would remain untouched, as would exasperating post-cloture delays.

As reforms go, it's hard to get much thinner than this. The steps would offer marginal improvements, but those of us hoping for more meaningful changes to a dysfunctional institution will very likely be disappointed with the end product.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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OVERLY-NARROW EXPECTATIONS.... One of the more common observations made by Republicans on the Sunday shows yesterday was that President Obama appears to be moving towards the middle, but they won't be satisfied until they see more concrete evidence.

Republican leaders said Sunday they are optimistic about President Obama's apparent new focus on creating jobs and his "pivot" toward a more centrist approach to governing, but warned that he still must turn his words into actions.

"The president needs to pivot," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "He obviously saw what happened in the November election and is trying to go a different direction. He's quit bashing business and is now celebrating business. ... Let's see if he's really willing to do it." [...]

Mr. McConnell said on "Fox News Sunday" that Americans will learn during Mr. Obama's speech Tuesday just "how much of this" the president really means, which puts people in a Reaganesque "trust but verify moment."

We've heard quite a bit of this lately, but I'm still wondering when Republicans agree to "pivot" to a "more centrist approach," too.

After the 2006 cycle, did Republicans "pivot"? How about after the 2008 elections? Last year, voters elected a Democratic Senate for the third consecutive cycle, did McConnell and his GOP colleagues conclude that it's time to "pivot"? How about this year, with polls showing the president's support growing, and Americans preferring the White House's vision to Republicans'?

I continue marvel at the expectations: President Obama, we're told, is supposed to take steps to prove his moderation and commitment to working with Republicans, even while the GOP keeps moving to the right, even as Republicans show no similar commitment in the other direction.

There are all kinds of things congressional Republicans can do to demonstrate their willingness to work with a Democratic Senate majority and the Democratic White House. The GOP can prove its moderation and its commitment to break with its record of failure.

And yet, this seems to be missing entirely from the conversation, with an exclusive focus on whether Obama is meeting the GOP's (and much of the media's) demands for a "shift to the center."

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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IT WASN'T A TRICK QUESTION.... One of the easiest questions House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) faced on "Meet the Press" also happened to be the one he seemed most reluctant to answer.

Host David Gregory described it as a "leadership moment" for Cantor, and posed the question this way: "There are elements of this country who question the president's citizenship, who think that his birth certificate is inauthentic. Will you call that what it is, which is crazy talk?"

The appropriate answer would have been, "Of course." Instead, Cantor laughed, and replied, "David, you know, I mean, a lot of that has been an, an issue sort of generated by not only the media, but others in the country. Most Americans really are beyond that."

So, Gregory asked again. "Right," the host said. "Is somebody bringing that up just engaging in crazy talk?" Cantor again hedged, saying it's not "nice" to "call anyone crazy."

But Gregory didn't say anyone is "crazy," he asked about whether a ridiculous conspiracy theory deserves to be characterized as "crazy." The host pressed further, asking, "Is it a legitimate or an illegitimate issue?" Cantor once again was evasive, saying, "I don't think it's an issue that we need to address at all."

After some more back and forth, Cantor eventually said, "I think the president's a citizen of the United States." That's nice, and Gregory seemed satisfied, but it's worth emphasizing that the "birther" nonsense isn't focused on whether the president is a citizen, but rather, whether he's a natural-born citizen. Cantor seemed to be answering the question, but he really wasn't.

The Majority Leader clearly didn't want to talk about this, so the host explained why he was asking: "I think a lot of people, Leader, would say that a leader's job is to shut some of this down. You know as well as I do, there are some elements on the right who believe two things about this president: He actively is trying to undermine the American way and wants to deny individuals their freedom. Do you reject those beliefs?"

Cantor didn't answer directly, but was willing to concede, "Let me tell you, David, I believe this president wants what's best for this country. It's just how he feels we should get there, that there are honest policy differences."

The fact that it took quite a bit of cajoling to get to this answer says a great deal about Eric Cantor's judgment, and his fear of upsetting some of the more hysterical conservatives he counts on for support.

As for his willingness to blame "the media" and "others" for the birther madness, this is a cheap cop-out. Cantor may not want to admit it on national television, but this garbage comes from his party and its base. Cantor had an opportunity to show some class and leadership, denouncing the nonsense. For whatever reason, he was exceedingly reluctant to do so.

So much for his "leadership moment."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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FROM THE WEEKEND.... We covered a fair amount of ground over the weekend. Here's a quick overview If you may have missed.

On Sunday, we talked about:

* House Republican leaders appear, at long last, to be taking ownership of the radical "roadmap" budget plan touted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). For Democrats, that's good news.

* Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has pulled off a hard-to-execute flip-flop-flip.

* Psychoanalysis is wholly unnecessary to understand why most Americans are offended by Sarah Palin.

* Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is obligated to disclose his wife's income. For six years, he didn't.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) heads to Iowa, pretends to be a presidential candidate.

* The White House is already offering some hints about what to expect in this week's State of the Union address.

* On the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling, some opponents of reproductive rights are sounding extremist notes.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* The point of the GOP's "job-killing" rhetoric is obvious: they're hoping to avoid blame for their Bush-era failures.

* The closer one looks, the weaker the support for repealing the Affordable Care Act appears.

* The anti-gay boycott of CPAC is starting to pick up congressional supporters.

* In "This Week in God," we covered, among other things, why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops isn't on board with Republicans' health care efforts.

* An obscure, academic target of Glenn Beck's ire is now facing threats from his minions.

* And Keith Olbermann's tenure at MSNBC comes to an abrupt end. Though he doesn't always get much credit for it, the "Countdown" host helped change American media in recent years.

Steve Benen 7:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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January 23, 2011

OWNING THE 'ROADMAP'.... When congressional Republicans tapped House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to delivered the GOP's response to the State of the Union, it probably struck the party as an uncontroversial move. The Wisconsin Republican is a mild-mannered lawmaker, adored by the media, who'll very likely avoid the Jindal-like embarrassment we saw two years ago.

But Ryan's selection carries a broader significance. He is, after all, the architect of a very radical budget "roadmap," and the more Republican leaders rally behind Ryan, the more they take ownership of his extremist blueprint.

Indeed, this morning, the perpetually-confused, House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said on "Meet the Press" that "the direction in which the roadmap goes is something we need to embrace."

The wording of that endorsement is obviously pretty awkward, but the sentiment is unmistakable. This strikes me as pretty important -- before the midterm elections, Eric Cantor notably refused to endorse Paul Ryan's roadmap. Now he thinks the budget blueprint is "something we need to embrace."

Ezra Klein noted the larger dangers the other day.

...The more they elevate Ryan, the more they elevate Ryan's Roadmap. And that document is a timebomb for them: It doesn't just privatize Medicare, but it holds costs down by giving seniors checks that won't keep up with the price of health care. It privatizes much of Social Security. It cuts taxes on the rich while raising them on many in the middle class. [...]

Putting Ryan up as the face of the party suggests they know how important it is to seem like they have a plan. Without one, however, they're going to end up answering for his.

Ezra wrote this on Friday, before Cantor told a national television audience he agreed with the "direction" of Ryan's radical plan.

In other words, we're entering the phase in which Republicans are no longer able to credibly distance themselves from Ryan's roadmap, and they're apparently prepared to stop even trying.

For Democrats, that's actually excellent news. For the better part of two years, the GOP hasn't offered Dems anything but vague targets to criticize, because Republicans didn't have a policy agenda with any meat on the bones. If, as Cantor sees it, it's time for his party to "embrace" the roadmap, then it changes the conversation.

And what a conversation it is. Every fair-minded analysis makes clear that Ryan's roadmap is a right-wing fantasy, slashing taxes on the rich while raising taxes for everyone else. The plan calls for privatizing Social Security and gutting Medicare, and fails miserably in its intended goal -- cutting the deficit. As Paul Krugman explained, the Ryan plan "is a fraud that makes no useful contribution to the debate over America's fiscal future."

When Republican candidates embrace this plan to radically transform governmental institutions and Americans' way of life, they're endorsing a Republican vision of governing more extreme than anything we've seen in the modern political era.

And as of this morning, the House Majority Leader believes it's a vision the Republican Party needs "needs to embrace."

Let the debate begin. It's one the GOP will lose, whether Cantor realizes it or not.

Steve Benen 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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'ETHANOL IS A JOKE'.... It's probably best to retire my ongoing count of John McCain's Sunday show appearances. As of this morning, the Arizona Republican has been on 27 times in just two years, but I think folks get the point -- Sunday show bookers continue to be obsessed with McCain, and they shouldn't be.

What I found interesting this morning, though, is what the conservative senator said this morning, during his sixth appearance on "Face the Nation" over the last 24 months.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sees an easy target in the drive to cut spending while leaving no "sacred cow" untouched.

"Ethanol is a joke," he said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," saying that programs promoting the corn-derived fuel are wasting millions.

That's certainly a reasonable position to take, but it's worth remembering that McCain went from being against ethanol (in 1999) to for it (in 2006) to against it again (in 2011), pulling off the hard-to-execute flip-flop-flip.

I can only assume McCain's latest reversal will be perceived by his media champions as evidence that the "McCain of old" might yet make a comeback.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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NO PSYCHOANALYSIS NECESSARY.... We didn't really need new evidence to tell us former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) isn't popular, but we got some this week anyway. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows only 19% of the country with a favorable view of the Alaskan television personality.

The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto acknowledged Palin's detractors this week, but asked, "Why does their hatred of her burn so hot?"

Ask them, and they'll most likely tell you: Because she's a moron. But that is obviously false.

And from there, Taranto launches into a 1,500-word exploration, intending to explain why the vast majority of Americans find Palin offensive. His rationale is a doozy.

For example, we apparently disapprove of Palin because she spent "too many years at inferior state universities," leading us to "resent her" having "risen above her station."

Remember, Taranto is quite serious about this.

He then starts exploring modern gender-based attitudes.

This unhinged hatred of Palin comes mostly from women.... We'd say this goes beyond mere jealousy. For many liberal women, Palin threatens their sexual identity, which is bound up with their politics in a way that it is not for any other group (possibly excepting gays, though that is unrelated to today's topic). [...]

Sarah Palin's opposition to abortion rights is a personal affront, and a deep one. It doesn't help that Palin lives by her beliefs. To the contrary, it intensifies the offense.

And what of men who find Palin offensive?

It seems to us that it is of decidedly secondary importance. Liberal men put down Palin as a cheap way to score points with the women in their lives, or they use her as an outlet for more-general misogynistic impulses that would otherwise be socially unacceptable to express.

Liberal women are the active, driving force behind hatred of Sarah Palin, while liberal men's behavior is passive and manipulative. In this respect, feminism has succeeded in reversing the traditional sexual stereotypes.

Yes, the Wall Street Journal actually published all of this psychobabble.

Chait said it reads like "a really bad undergraduate Women's Studies paper." Nonsense. I've read bad undergraduate Women's Studies papers, which are Shakespearean in comparison to Taranto's tirade.

Is it really that hard to understand why most Americans would be bothered by Palin's conspicuous unintelligence, narrow-minded conservatism, and desperation to pit Americans against one another? It seems to me psychoanalysis is wholly unnecessary.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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MAYBE CLARENCE THOMAS IS FORGETFUL.... You'd think a sitting Supreme Court justice would be more careful.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failed to report his wife's income from a conservative think tank on financial disclosure forms for at least five years, the watchdog group Common Cause said Friday.

Between 2003 and 2007, Virginia Thomas, a longtime conservative activist, earned $686,589 from the Heritage Foundation, according to a Common Cause review of the foundation's IRS records. Thomas failed to note the income in his Supreme Court financial disclosure forms for those years, instead checking a box labeled "none" where "spousal noninvestment income" would be disclosed.

Virginia Thomas also has been active in the group Liberty Central, an organization she founded to restore the "founding principles" of limited government and individual liberty.

In his 2009 disclosure, Justice Thomas also reported spousal income as "none." Common Cause contends that Liberty Central paid Virginia Thomas an unknown salary that year.

In October, there were some interesting questions raised about the propriety of Ginni Thomas collecting "large, unidentified contributions" from unknown sources, including, conceivably, interests with business before the Supreme Court.

But this new wrinkle raises separate questions. While Ginni Thomas engaged in all of this political activism, and received compensation for her work, Clarence Thomas failed altogether to report her income on financial disclosure forms. If he'd done this once or twice, it'd be easier to overlook as some kind of clerical error, but doing so every year from 2003 and 2007 suggests a more deliberate effort.

I'm trying to imagine what the response would be if a similar situation arose with a center-left justice. Imagine if, say, Justice Breyer's wife considered Republican officials dangerous radicals, and began collecting six-figure checks from secret donors in order to wage a "war against tyranny." Then, on his financial disclosure forms, Breyer failed to report his wife's income altogether, despite legal requirements.

The question isn't whether congressional Republicans would talk openly about his impeachment, but rather, how many congressional Republicans would do so.

Ian Millhiser added that Clarence Thomas isn't the only conservative justice to play fast and loose with propriety lately: "Justice Antonin Scalia also attended one of Charles Koch's right-wing fundraising and strategy sessions, and Justice Samuel Alito is a frequent speaker at fundraisers for groups such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute -- the corporate front that funded the rise of Republican dirty trickster James O'Keefe and that used to employ anti-masturbation activist Christine O'Donnell."

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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BACHMANN IN IOWA.... Once in a while, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann received strong reviews from some top Iowa Republicans tonight but left them guessing about her intentions for the 2012 presidential race. [...]

"I'm impressed," declared Gov. Terry Branstad, after Bachmann's speech to about 250 people at an Iowans for Tax Relief fundraiser. He said he doesn't know whether she'll run for president, "but she'll certainly have an influence on the debate." Branstad hasn't ruled out endorsing a candidate before the caucuses.

Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa and head of the conservative Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, also liked what he saw from Bachmann.

He said he has no idea whether she'll run for president. "She's definitely testing the waters and I think she could take a serious look at it," Scheffler said. "She certainly would bring a lot of enthusiasm to the base."

Tea Partier Dave Funk, a failed congressional candidate, said Bachmann's focus on "American exceptionalism" sets her apart from "old guard" candidates like Newt Gingrich or Mike Huckabee. "It was almost like 'a new day in America' speech, like Reagan," Funk said. "Everybody else is talking policy, issues, ideas -- she's talking about motivating the people to get out and do something."

I still find it very hard to believe that Bachmann, arguably Congress' single most ridiculous member, would seriously consider a national campaign. As detached from reality as she appears, even Bachmann must realize her odds of getting elected President of the United States are about as good as mine.

So why bother with all of this? I suspect Bachmann will go through the motions, toying with the idea, as part of an elaborate exercise in vanity -- she'll enjoy the attention, the platform, and the visibility, before announcing her intentions to seek re-election to the House.

For Democrats, there are a couple of angles to this. The good news is, if Bachmann does launch a national campaign, she'll give party leaders, who wish she'd just go away, plenty of indigestion. The bad news is, if she goes through with this, Bachmann would likely make other GOP candidates look moderate and sensible by comparison.

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

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WHITE HOUSE STARTS OFFERING SOTU HINTS.... President Obama recorded a video message for Organizing for America, released yesterday afternoon, outlining some of the general themes we'll hear in Tuesday's State of the Union address. It all sounded pretty encouraging, but the New York Times report on what to expect included a little scoop that stood out.

Mr. Obama is unlikely, they said, to embrace the recommendations of a bipartisan majority on the debt-reduction commission he created, which proposed slashing projected annual deficits through 2020 with deep cuts in domestic and military spending, changes to Social Security and Medicare, and an overhaul of the individual and corporate tax codes to simplify them and to raise additional revenues.

In general, the theme of deficit reduction will be less prominent in the speech as Mr. Obama emphasizes spending "investments" and "responsible" budget cutting at a time when Republicans have proposed spending cuts, unspecified, of 20 percent or more.

Here's hoping that's true. Obama referenced deficit reduction in his OFA video -- he mentioned tackling the issue in "a responsible way" -- but the less said of this in the State of the Union, the better. And if the Simpson/Bowles plan is ignored altogether, especially its intentions towards Social Security, that'd be heartening, too.

There was also a thematic line the president used that we may be hearing more of. "Our job is to make sure the American dream is attainable to everyone who's willing to work for it, everyone who's willing to strive for it," Obama said. "It's going to take a lot of work -- these are big challenges that are in front of us -- but we're up to it, as long as we come together as a people, Democrats, Republicans, independents. As long as we focus on what binds us together as a people, as long as we're willing to find common ground, even as we're having some very vigorous debates. That's what built this country, that's what we're all about, and that's what it's going to take to win the future."

At the end of the clip, the on-screen graphic drove the line home: "Win the future."

Expect to hear that line again.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF ROE V. WADE.... The Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade was handed down 38 years ago yesterday, prompting President Obama to issue a statement reaffirming his support for Americans' reproductive rights.

"I am committed to protecting this constitutional right," Obama said. Though the statement also expressed his support for policies that would reduce the number of abortions, the president added that the 1973 ruling "affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters."

It was a welcome reminder. Nationwide, Republican opponents of abortion rights have become increasingly aggressive. While economic conditions helped produce major GOP gains in November, the party has interpreted their electoral victories as grounds for a renewed push to limit reproductive options.

Indeed, recent talk that the right might shift its emphasis from the culture war and social issues to economic and fiscal policy -- as suggested in Mitch Daniels' proposed "truce" -- may have been overstated, at least a little. Republicans in Congress are prioritizing abortion restrictions over job creation, and RedState ran an editorial yesterday raising the specter of "mass bloodshed" unless the right gets what it wants on restricting reproductive rights.

Here at RedState, we too have drawn a line. We will not endorse any candidate who will not reject the judicial usurpation of Roe v. Wade and affirm that the unborn are no less entitled to a right to live simply because of their size or their physical location. Those who wish to write on the front page of RedState must make the same pledge. The reason for this is simple: once before, our nation was forced to repudiate the Supreme Court with mass bloodshed. We remain steadfast in our belief that this will not be necessary again, but only if those committed to justice do not waiver [sic] or compromise, and send a clear and unmistakable signal to their elected officials of what must be necessary to earn our support.

The sentiment was preceded with the all-too-common refrain connecting Roe v. Wade to Dredd Scott, and a clumsy understanding of history. As Mark Kleiman explained, "The Civil War started not because the abolitionists lost a Supreme Court decision, but because the slavemasters lost an election. But the basic threat is clear: if the lunatic right-to-lifers can't end abortion by lawful means plus the occasional assassination, they'll resort to mass violence."

Also note, the RedState editorial references with Declaration of Independence, with the belief that its principles were "subsequently enshrined" in the Constitution. This, too, is a common approach on the far-right -- the Constitution doesn't deliver the way conservatives would like, so they take language from the Declaration and effectively conclude, "These count as constitutional principles, too." It's a handy way to try to force notions of God and natural law into the Constitution, as part of a larger ideological agenda.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric itself is a stark reminder that social conservatives have lost influence as a driving force in contemporary conservatism, but they haven't gone away.

Steve Benen 8:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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January 22, 2011

PART AND PARCEL OF A LARGER AMNESIA CAMPAIGN.... In today's official GOP weekly address, Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming, the vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, returned to a familiar subject: his party's obsession with eliminating the Affordable Care Act.

The pitch was, not surprisingly, pretty familiar. "Republicans will fight to repeal this job-destroying law and replace it with patient-centered reforms," Barrasso said. What might patient-centered reforms look like? For one thing, the GOP wants Americans to be able to buy health insurance across state lines. For another, they'll "end junk lawsuits that drive up the cost of everyone's care." Barrasso also vowed to "restore Americans' freedom over their own health care decisions."

Substantively, Barrasso, who's never demonstrated any depth of understanding in any area of public policy, has no idea what he's talking about. He clearly doesn't understand the across-state-lines argument; the "junk lawsuits" argument has been debunked repeatedly; and the Affordable Care Act gives consumers more power, not less, over their care.

But it's the "job-destroying law" claim that still rankles.

We know with certainty that Barasso, like others who repeat the claim, is lying. We also know with certainty that if Republicans succeeded in gutting the law, it would cost, not create, jobs.

But it's worth pausing to appreciate exactly why Republicans have a Tourette's-like habit of repeating the phrase at every available opportunity. Jay Bookman had a good piece on this recently.

Such repetition is not accidental. To the contrary, it represents a calculated, organized effort by Boehner and other conservatives to try to rewrite recent history and make the American people "misremember" what actually happened to them and their country in the last few years. It is an effort to drive home the point -- the absolutely false point -- that the greatest economic collapse in 80 years was somehow caused by government spending.

It was not. Government spending did not cause the recession. Government spending had nothing to do with the recession. Government spending is not responsible for killing the 8 million jobs that have vanished from this country. In fact, there is no economic mechanism, no plausible cause and effect relationship, by which that can be said to be true.

Boehner and his colleagues know that, which is why they never try to make that argument explicit. However, by endlessly, repeatedly inferring a false association between the two, they hope to create that impression nonetheless.

I realize some of this may seem obvious, but it's important and too often goes unsaid. We even have helpful charts to help drive the point home.

The assumption on the part of Republicans is that Americans are idiots. The public knows there's a jobs crisis, and knows Democrats passed a series of landmark bills. The point is for Republicans to convince voters that the two enjoy a causal relationship -- maybe if Dems hadn't done all this important work, we wouldn't have lost so many jobs.

This is lazy, cynical, intellectually-dishonest drivel. Even congressional Republicans should be able to understand the reality here.

When President Obama took office, the economy was in freefall, losing nearly 800,000 jobs a month. If governmental policies were "job-killing" -- or, post Arizona, "job-destroying" -- they weren't the policies of Obama White House.


Consider this chart Ezra Klein posted in August, based on data economist Rob Shapiro put together, using Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

The GOP argument is that policies during and after 2009 led to massive job losses. The very idea is demonstrably ridiculous for anyone with even a tenuous hold on reality.

There's no real ambiguity here. Since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, the private sector has added 1.1 million jobs. Roughly a fifth of that total -- more than 200,000 -- were jobs created in the health care industry. Guys like Barrasso can't explain this, so they pretend reality didn't happen.

Only a fool would believe him.

As Steven Pearlstein recently explained, "[T]he next time you hear some politician or radio blowhard or corporate hack tossing around the 'job-killing' accusation, you can be pretty sure he's not somebody to be taken seriously. It's a sign that he disrespects your intelligence, disrespects the truth and disrespects the democratic process."

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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POPULAR SUPPORT FOR REPEAL STILL HIDING WELL.... Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on Thursday called the Affordable Care Act the "crown jewel of socialism," which, even for her, is idiotic. More importantly, though, she said, "The American people have said overwhelmingly that they want this bill repealed." In fact, Bachmann believes opposition to the law is getting stronger as time goes on.

This isn't uncommon. Republicans appear convinced that their crusade against the reform law -- it stopped being a "bill" last March, Michele -- enjoys overwhelming public support.

The evidence to the contrary is hard to miss. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll found that just 18% of the country supports the GOP plan to repeal the entirety of the law. Greg Sargent gave the latest New York Times/CBS News poll a close look, and found even more striking results.

The NYT/CBS poll then asked the pro-repeal camp whether they want to "repeal all of the health care law, or only certain parts of it." Suddenly the number who favor full repeal drops to 20 percent -- one-fifth -- while 18 percent peel off and say they want to repeal "certain parts."

It gets even better. The poll then asked people who support repeal an open-ended question: Which parts of the law do you want done away with? The number who said "everything" drops again, this time to eight percent. Eleven percent want the individual mandate repealed. But guess what? The number who called for repeal of other key individual items in the bill -- the pre-existing conditions piece; the coverage for people up to age 26; and so on -- was consistently one percent or less for each of them.

Now, some will say this proves nothing: People don't know what's in the bill, so they can't say what they want repealed. But this is exactly the point. Fine-grained polling reveals that people who say they want repeal may be expressing generalized frustration about the bill, or dislike of certain parts, such as the individual mandate, rather than a desire to see it blown to smithereens.

My point here is not to suggest the Democrats' health care reform package is popular. It's not. We can explore why -- Americans don't know what's in it; Dems did a pretty awful job selling it; the right-wing propaganda campaign has been effective; etc. -- but the fact remains that while the law enjoys stronger support than it did last year, the gains have been fairly small. The ACA remains a contentious national issue.

But by most measures, the most detailed polling suggests the Republican plan to eliminate the entirety of the law enjoys far less support than the law itself. There are quite a few very popular measures in the Affordable Care Act, and for the GOP to assume that Americans want policymakers to eliminate them is folly.

Bachmann and her ilk don't have to agree with these attitudes, but when they pretend the attitudes don't exist, sensible people should know not to take them seriously.

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

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FEAR OF GAY COOTIES SPREADS IN ADVANCE OF CPAC.... I knew some on the right are outraged about gay conservatives appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year, but I didn't actually expect them to have larger successes.

If you're just joining us, CPAC, arguably the nation's largest annual right-wing gathering, kicks off in just a few weeks. Under normal circumstances, the buzz would be about the speakers' list and the size of the crowd.

And that would make sense. This should be an especially big year for CPAC -- emboldened Republican Party leaders will be on hand to boast about their right-wing agenda, and a legion of likely presidential candidates will be on hand to kiss the base's ring. The turnout should be huge.

But some prominent conservatives have decided to skip the party. In December, several prominent religious right organizations, including the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, announced they will boycott the event because organizers agreed to allow a gay Republican group, GOProud, to participate.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate's most right-wing member announced he, too, will refuse to attend.

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint will skip this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, making him the most prominent conservative figure yet to express objections to what critics see as a pro-gay, libertarian tilt to the 38-year old event.

"With leading conservatives [sic] organizations not participating this year, Senator DeMint will not be attending. He hopes to attend a unified CPAC next year," DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said in an email.

And by "unified," DeMint's office means "without those gay people around."

He's not the only member to take this stand -- Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, will also boycott CPAC for the same reason.

That DeMint is an extremist on social issues isn't exactly new. Just a couple of months ago, he told Fox News, "You can't be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative." DeMint has even said there should prohibitions on unmarried women and gays teaching in public schools. A freedom-loving libertarian he isn't.

But this CPAC boycott is nevertheless pretty ridiculous. DeMint doesn't even want to be in the same room as some of the nation's leading right-wing activists if there are a few conservative gays there? Is the fear of gay cooties this strong?

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a major faith-based player congressional Republicans hoped would be an ally in the fight against health care reform, but which will not join the GOP crusade.

The U.S. Catholic bishops will not join efforts to repeal the new health care law, even though they staunchly opposed the bill last year after concluding it permits federally funded abortions.

Instead of pushing repeal, the bishops said Tuesday (Jan. 18) they will devote their energy "to correcting serious moral problems in the current law," according to a letter sent to Capitol Hill from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Bishop Stephen Blaire, and Archbishop Jose Gomez, who all chair political committees at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB, echoed that message in a separate letter to all 535 members of Congress outlining the bishops' top political priorities.

Last year, the Catholic Health Association endorsed the Affordable Care Act, while the USCCB did not, and some Republicans had hoped that the bishops would side with them in the GOP's attempt to gut the new health care system. We now know that won't happen.

Indeed, by some accounts, the bishops' efforts to change the law will include some steps to make it more liberal, not less. The USCCB this week emphasized three main goals: (1) guaranteed access for all; (2) no funding for abortion; and (3) remove barriers restricting care for immigrants. Republican plans would obvious fail, in a rather spectacular way, the first and third tenets, making an alliance that much less likely.

In the meantime, Pope Benedict XVI continues to offer unequivocal support for universal health care. The GOP therefore probably considers him a wacky European socialist, better left ignored.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Every January, radical TV preacher Pat Robertson tells his followers what to expect over the next calendar year, after claiming to receive divine messages from above. In 2011, Robertson said things will go poorly for the United States -- but well for Pat Robertson.

* Remember the Ohio creationist who taught middle school science and used a Tesla coil to burn a cross into the arm of a student? He's been fired. (thanks to reader D.J. for the tip)

* And the Roman Catholic Church's scandal involving the widespread sexual abuse of children continues to get worse: "A newly disclosed document reveals that Vatican officials told the bishops of Ireland in 1997 that they had serious reservations about the bishops' policy of mandatory reporting of priests suspected of child abuse to the police or civil authorities. The document appears to contradict Vatican claims that church leaders in Rome never sought to control the actions of local bishops in abuse cases, and that the Roman Catholic Church did not impede criminal investigations of child abuse suspects."

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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WHEN BECK'S MINIONS GET THE MESSAGE.... Glenn Beck doesn't just rail against perceived enemies, whom he considers dangerous villains who must be stopped; he also chooses obscure enemies he considers worthy of his rage.

It's one of the many oddities of Beck's bizarre message. The condemnations of President Obama and Nancy Pelosi are predictable, but Beck sees imaginary patterns and conspiracies involving figures most Americans neither know nor care about: Van Jones, Frances Fox Piven, George Soros, Saul Alinsky, the Tides Foundation, etc.

In Beck's unhealthy imagination, each are nefarious players in a plot to destroy you and everything you hold dear. Sane people don't see the danger, Beck says, but that only proves the point -- the mentally healthy are probably in on it.

The problem, of course, is Beck's minions take all of this seriously, and consider Beck's perceived enemies their perceived enemies.

On his daily radio and television shows, Glenn Beck has elevated once-obscure conservative thinkers onto best-seller lists. Recently, he has elevated a 78-year-old liberal academic to celebrity of a different sort, in a way that some say is endangering her life.

Frances Fox Piven, a City University of New York professor, has been a primary character in Mr. Beck's warnings about a progressive take-down of America. Ms. Piven, Mr. Beck says, is responsible for a plan to "intentionally collapse our economic system."

Her name has become a kind of shorthand for "enemy" on Mr. Beck's Fox News Channel program, which is watched by more than 2 million people, and on one of his Web sites, The Blaze. This week, Mr. Beck suggested on television that she was an enemy of the Constitution.

If you've never heard of Frances Fox Piven, don't feel bad. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't either. Apparently she wrote some radical stuff about poor people and political activism in 1966, and the voices in Beck's head tell him this is important and relevant in 2011, never mind the fact that the vast majority of liberals haven't read her work and have no idea who she is.

Though it's tempting, it'd be a mistake to dismiss this is inconsequential silliness. With Beck having singled out Piven as an instigator of political violence, Beck's audience has published death threats against the CUNY professor, and some of his followers have even contacted her directly with menacing messages.

The Center for Constitutional Rights this week urged Fox News chairman Roger Ailes to intervene, explaining that Beck has put Piven in "actual physical danger of a violent response."

Fox News disagrees and has said it will take no action.

No good can come of this.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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KEITH OLBERMANN OUT AT MSNBC.... Usually a move like this is preceded by some kind of scuttlebutt, but the announcement at the end of last night's "Countdown" was one few saw coming.

Keith Olbermann, the highest-rated host on MSNBC, announced abruptly on the air Friday night that he was leaving his show, "Countdown," immediately.

The host, who has had a stormy relationship with the management of the network for some time, especially since he was suspended for two days last November, came to an agreement with NBC's corporate management late this week to settle his contract and step down. [...]

In a statement, MSNBC said: "MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract. The last broadcast of 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' will be this evening. MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors."

The news was so sudden, MSNBC was still airing Olbermann promos last night after he'd announced his departure from the network.

Olbermann had signed a four-year contract extension in 2008 -- worth an estimated $30 million -- that would have kept him at MSNBC through the 2012 presidential election. With his departure, Olbermann will instead be off television for a while -- the agreement reached with the network stipulates that the host will not move to a rival network for an extended period of time.

The obvious question -- why in the world MSNBC would part ways with its highest-rated host -- remains something of a mystery. It's only been 11 hours since Olbermann made the announcement, so presumably we'll learn more in the near future, but in the interim, there's ample speculation about the effects of Comcast's impending takeover of NBC Universal, though the network insisted last night that the development is unrelated.

It seems fairly clear, though, that the shake-up was not the host's decision. Olbermann began the segment telling viewers, "I think the same fantasy popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I have been told: this will be the last edition of your show...."

Lawrence O'Donnell's "The Last Word" will now move to 8 p.m. eastern, with Ed Schultz moving to 10 p.m. eastern. Rachel Maddow's show will stay right where it is.

As the dust settles, it's worth emphasizing just how important Olbermann has been in American media in recent years. When he returned to prime time after a four-year absence, Olbermann offered news consumers something we couldn't find anywhere else: honest, sincere, unapologetic liberalism. Olbermann helped shine a light on important stories that were ignored by other shows and other networks, helped give a voice to a perspective that was discounted throughout the mainstream media, picked fights with those who too often went unchallenged, and featured guests who were frequently and needlessly left out of the larger broadcast conversation.

Olbermann did all of this, of course, while racking up big ratings (and big profits for his employer), proving that there's an audience for on-air commentary and analysis from the left, and clearing the way for others to do the same.

In the time Olbermann is off the air, he will be sorely missed.

If you missed his signoff, here it is:

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

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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January 21, 2011

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

* Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) left Arizona today, arriving in Houston to begin treatment at a renowned rehabilitation facility.

* Jeffrey Immelt, GE's chairman and chief executive, will replace Paul Volcker as the head of the White House' outside panel of economic advisers.

* At the event in Schenectady, N.Y., at which Immelt was introduced, President Obama emphasized that "putting the economy into overdrive" is his top priority.

* Tunisia: "Tunisia's prime minister pledged Friday to quit politics after elections that he says will be held as soon as possible, amid protests by citizens still angry at officials linked to their deposed president's regime."

* The latest right-wing chain email related to health care reform purports to have been written by a judge, and includes "page citations" to make it appear more reliable. As is the case with all right-wing chain emails related to health care reform, the contents are completely wrong.

* On a related note, the Republicans' new favorite ACA argument -- that the law only reduces the deficit because it features 10 years of taxes for six years of benefits -- really is completely wrong. Why Krauthammer isn't asked to run a correction is a mystery to me.

* If the House Republican Study Committee's proposed budget cuts were somehow approved, it's hard to overstate how much damage it would do to the public.

* Here's a gem of a question: Who raised government spending faster, George W. Bush working with a Republican Congress, or President Obama working with a Democratic Congress? (Here's a hint: conservatives won't care for the answer.)

* Will technological advancements make colleges better? It seems unlikely.

* I knew sales of music albums had reached extremely low levels. I didn't realize things had gotten this bad.

* Yesterday was the two year anniversary of President Obama's inauguration, and Organizing for America put together a "Promises Kept" report. It's a reminder that a whole lot got done over the last couple of years.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE RIGHT HAS FASHION POLICE, TOO?.... This week, some conservative outlets ran pieces connecting Michelle Obama's anti-obesity efforts to pedestrian traffic deaths. As it turns out, it wasn't the only ridiculous push the right was making with regards to the First Lady.

The right-wing media attacked First Lady Michelle Obama for wearing a red dress to the White House State Dinner, suggesting she did so to honor "Commie Red China." The right has a history of seeing political messages in Michelle Obama and other administration figures' attire.

It's crazy, but it's true. Drudge said Michelle Obama's dress was "China Red." A writer at Malkin's site told reader she "appropriately enough wore a red dress." Jim Hoft -- the one who saw secret White House messages in the Tucson memorial service's Jumbotron -- blasted the "Commie Red China" dress and the "fit of the gown."

Seriously, is there something in the water driving these folks to madness?

Please, conservatives, grow up. Let there be a part of you that says, "If I'm writing about the color of the First Lady's clothing, maybe my hatred of the White House has reached an irrational level."

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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DUELING SOTU RESPONSES.... Congressional Republicans announced today that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will deliver the party's official response to President Obama's State of the Union address next week. Given Ryan's often-ridiculous, far-right worldview, he's a pretty awful choice.

But as it turns out, he's not the only House Republican delivering a SOTU response.

We thought the speaking lineup for next Tuesday had been finalized, but there's been a late addition. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) will deliver her own response to President Obama's State of the Union address, to be webcast by the group Tea Party Express next Tuesday.

The group announced Bachmann's upcoming remarks in an e-mail to supporters Friday afternoon. [...]

Bachmann, meanwhile, has been a tea party star for the past couple years. She recently hinted that she might run for president ... and a SOTU response has historically been one way to catapult one's status to the level of legitimate presidential or vice-presidential aspirant (when it hasn't destroyed it, that is).

It's a safe bet that Bachmann's response will be far more entertaining, in a cringe-worthy sort of way, than Paul Ryan's.

That said, I do hope Bachmann's wild-eyed craziness doesn't distract too much from Ryan's official response. He is, after all, an unnecessarily-powerful House leader with a radical worldview, and the capacity to do extensive damage.

Bachmann is a silly, ignominious sideshow. Ryan has actual power. Both clearly bring the crazy, but the latter is far more relevant than the former.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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MEGYN KELLY SHOULD PROBABLY WATCH HER OWN NETWORK.... During speeches on the House floor this week on health care, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) pushed the rhetorical envelope a bit too far. "[Republicans] say it's a government takeover of health care," he said, "a big lie just like Goebbels."

Cohen eventually walked it back, as he should have. I share his frustration about the right's willingness to repeat obvious lies, but responsible figures should try to avoid Goebbels references.

Fox News, of course, has deemed Cohen's remarks a very important story, worthy of extensive coverage, leading to one especially noteworthy exchange yesterday.

On the January 20 edition of Fox News' America Live, [Megyn Kelly] hosted Equality Matters' President Richard Socarides to discuss Rep. Steve Cohen's (D-TN) recent reference to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels on the floor of the House of Representatives. Socarides stated that "on the very network that we're on right now, the leading commenters on this network use this kind of language." Kelly responded by absurdly claiming "I don't know if you sit and watch our programming every night, but I watch it every day and you're wrong."

Now, I can appreciate why Megyn Kelly might be a little embarrassed. She was, after all, hosting a segment on how outrageous it is to make Nazi-related comparisons on a network that routinely makes Nazi-related comparisons. That Socarides had the audacity to bring up reality during the interview was the kind of move that might hurt his chances of being invited back.

But if Kelly thinks her colleagues at the Republican network don't routinely use language identical to Cohen's, she's either lying or she's watching Fox News with the volume turned all the way down.

Media Matters ran a collection this afternoon of various Fox News figures -- Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, even Roger Ailes -- who regularly invoke Nazis, Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazi imagery to go after their perceived enemies. It's a pretty long list, which only reinforces the point -- Fox News personalities reference Nazis to make political points all the time. Occasionally, it seems as if the voices on Fox News do nothing but rely on Nazi references to blast Democrats and the left.

Kelly doesn't have to like it, but transcripts can be stubborn.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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IF THE GOAL IS TO HONOR THE FOUNDING FATHERS.... For much of the contemporary right, there's a near-obsession with the nation's Founding Fathers. Conservatives' understanding of history is a little shakier than it should be, but the right seems convinced that their vision of government is identical to that of those who wrote the Constitution.

This is particularly true in the debate over health care reform, in which conservatives insist that the Founding Fathers never would have approved of the Affordable Care Act. It's an odd hypothetical -- those living in an 18th-century agrarian society with a modest population couldn't possibly imagine the needs of modern American society -- but the crux of the argument is that the individual mandate is at odds with our historical and legal traditions.

Americans history is already filled with examples to the contrary -- government-mandated purchases go back to the days of George Washington -- but Rick Ungar finds an especially interesting example. (thanks to reader C.G. for the tip)

In July of 1798, Congress passed -- and President John Adams signed -- "An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen." The law authorized the creation of a government operated marine hospital service and mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.

Keep in mind that the 5th Congress did not really need to struggle over the intentions of the drafters of the Constitutions in creating this Act as many of its members were the drafters of the Constitution.

And when the Bill came to the desk of President John Adams for signature, I think it's safe to assume that the man in that chair had a pretty good grasp on what the framers had in mind.

Yes, in all likelihood, the Founding Fathers were aware of what the Founding Fathers considered constitutionally permissible.

Paul Waldman argues, persuasively, that this is little more than an interesting historical footnote, and that reform proponents should remember that "we can't decide questions of contemporary policy by trying to figure out what Jefferson, Adams, and Madison would say about them."

That's entirely right. Still, there's some entertainment value in knocking down one of the right's favorite arguments, and for Supreme Court justices who are equally obsessed with determining framers' intent, it's possible anecdotes like this one could carry some actual weight, whether they should or not.

What's more, it's not just Adams -- Thomas Jefferson also supported the identical 1798 proposal, which, any way you slice it, required private citizens to pay into a public health-care system, and included a "regulation against a form of inactivity."

By any sensible standard, one does not need obscure 18th-century anecdotes to know the individual mandate -- which was a Republican idea, anyway -- passes constitutional muster. But for those on the right who consider this original-intent concept paramount, we can add this to the list of things they've gotten terribly wrong.

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PAUL BROUN TO GOP: IT'S A TRAP!.... In the wake of the recent shooting in Tucson, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) suggested members break with tradition at the State of the Union, abandon divided partisan seating, and have Democrats and Republicans intermix.

The idea has caught on, and while there apparently won't be a formal seating pronouncement from either party's leadership, many lawmakers have partnered up with members from across the aisle as a gesture of magnanimity.

There are some reasonable arguments against the idea, though ultimately, the notion of mixed seating is mostly just harmless symbolism. And then there are unreasonable arguments against it. Take Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), for example, who yesterday described the idea as an elaborate Democratic scheme.

"Our leadership said you do whatever you want to do. If you wanna sit with the Democrats, you can. If you wanna sit with Republicans, that you can. We're going to have a conference next week and I'm gonna bring that up there. I already believe very firmly that it is a trap and a ruse that Democrats are proposing.

"They don't want civility. They want silence from the Republicans. And the sitting together being kissy-kissy is just another way to try to silence Republicans, and also to show -- to keep the American people from seeing how few of them there are in the U.S. House now. Then when people stand up to -- what the Democrats are going to be doing when Barack Obama spews out all his venom, then, um, if they're scattered throughout all the Republicans, then it won't be as noticeable as if we're sitting apart. So it is a ruse and I'm not in favor of it and I'm talking about it and I hope other members of the Republican conference in the House will not take the bait."

Occasionally, I feel kind of sorry for guys like this. As much as I'd like to fact-check this little tirade, what is there to say? Anyone who thinks a bipartisan seating arrangement is a "ruse" to "silence" Republicans in the face of presidential "venom," is just hopeless.

If you're unfamiliar with Broun's work, the hysterical right-wing congressman from Georgia has quite a greatest hits collection. It was, after all, Paul Broun who said cap-and-trade would kill people; the Affordable Care Act will dictate what kind of car Americans can drive; the health care reform effort reminds him of "Northern Aggression"; and that he considers President Obama to be a Hitler-like figure intent on establishing a Gestapo-like security force to impose a Marxist dictatorship on Americans.

In October, in the midst of the midterm elections, the Centers for Disease Control launched a public-service campaign on the benefits of a healthy diet, which included recipes people can try that incorporate fruits and vegetables. Broun responded that the CDC intended to "give all the power to the federal government to force you" to eat healthier foods. He added, "This is what the federal, CDC, they gonna be calling you to make sure you eat fruits and vegetables, every day. This is socialism of the highest order!"

He's quite a congressman.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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MAYBE THEY SHOULD HAVE BEEN A LITTLE NICER TO MURKOWSKI.... Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was the only Republican to vote with Democrats on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the tax deal, the DREAM Act, and New START ratification.

Fortunately, it appears the Alaska senator isn't quite done being a thorn in her party's side. Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) boasted that he would force the chamber to take up the House bill repealing the entirety of the Affordable Care Act. Soon after, Murkowski argued publicly that it's time for her party to move on.

"I don't believe that there are votes sufficient in the Senate to repeal health care reform....We're in this situation where there is some messaging going on.... The real question is how much time do we as a Congress spend on this messaging?

"We've got a situation where our economy continues to be in the tank, the longest extended period of high unemployment since World War II.... As important as making sure that we're reigning in our health care costs -- spending a lot of time on the messaging vote? I don't think that's what the American public wants us to do.... I don't think what people want is kind of the messaging that's going on."

To be sure, Murkowski hasn't exactly become responsible when it comes to the substance of health care policy. She was as awful as the rest of her party a year ago, and it's almost certain she'd vote with her party again if repeal comes up for a vote.

But Murkowski's remarks are great anyway, precisely because she's doing what Republicans never do: she's calling the GOP leadership for ridiculous gamesmanship. The substance on health care notwithstanding, Murkowski is publicly questioning her own party's priorities and judgment.

I don't imagine all of this will be well received by Republican leaders, but don't forget, Murkowski not only doesn't care, she actually has an incentive to annoy them.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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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:

* President Obama's re-election team is poised to kick into gear, closing the office of political affairs at the White House, and setting up a headquarters in Chicago. It will be the first time a modern presidential re-election campaign has been run outside of Washington.

* Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) appears to be "inching toward a presidential run," including scheduling speeches in states with early nominating contests, and advisers who've "quietly" begun outreach in Iowa.

* There's quite a bit of buzz this week about Ted Kennedy Jr. considering a campaign for the Senate next year in Connecticut.

* In Mississippi, the Republican gubernatorial primary keeps getting more contestants, with state Department of Revenue employee James Broadwater kicking off his campaign this week.

* There will also be a crowded primary in West Virginia this year, with several Dems running in the primary. Former West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) announced yesterday she's running.

* Speaking of 2011 gubernatorial campaigns, a new poll in Louisiana shows Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in reasonably good shape -- 49% of Louisianans want the incumbent to win a second term, while 40% want someone new.

* Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) would appear to be a top-tier 2012 presidential candidate, but he said he won't announce his plans until the summer, which by contemporary standards, is pretty late in the process.

* Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said this week he considers himself a credible Republican presidential candidate. "Well, I think I could win the Republican nomination if I chose to run," he said, "because I do think I'm in the mainstream of the Republican Party."

* And speaking of silly presidential ambitions, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) said this morning he's "absolutely" considering another pointless national campaign.

Steve Benen 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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CHRISTIE FACES HEAT FROM ANTI-MUSLIM RIGHT.... New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) made several state judicial appointments last week, including an immigration lawyer named Sohail Mohammed, known for having defended many clients falsely accused of terrorism.

The right, at least the contingents that don't bother with a pretense of avoiding transparent bigotry, really isn't pleased. George Zornick has been keeping track of conservative reactions, and there are some doozies.

* In a widely linked post, "Governor Christie's Dirty Islamist Ties," blogger Daniel Greenfield writes that "New Jersey, the Garden State, has just taken its first step toward becoming the Sharia State," and criticized Christie for being "willing to stand up to the teacher's union, but not to the terrorist's union."

* Hate blogger Pamela Gellar, in a post titled "Governor Christie's Hamas Pick for Superior Judgeship," declared Christie's political career over: "Governor Christie looked and sounded like he could be presidential. He's not. He's in bed with the enemy. All the other stuff doesn't matter if you don't have your freedom."

* At Commentary magazine, Jonathan S. Tobin wrote a post about Christie's "troubling appointment," and charged that Christie's "appointment of Sohail Mohammed to the court shows that his judgment on the issue of support for terrorism is highly questionable."

As evidence to bolster the attacks, Christie's critics point to ... nothing in particular. Adam Serwer had a good post on this.

The case against Mohammed -- if you care to tumble down that rabbit hole -- is that he's represented people accused of ties to terrorism. The "stealth jihad" crew, despite ostensibly being concerned about the secular rule of law being subverted by Islamic fundamentalists, don't actually believe in the presumption of innocence, or in providing legal representation to Muslims accused of crimes. The arguments against Mohammed resemble those leveled against Justice Department lawyers who represented Gitmo detainees last year, that providing representation to suspected terrorists automatically means you are sympathetic to the goals of terrorists. With Mohammed of course, the fact that he's a Muslim adds an extra layer of certainty. [...]

At this point, one starts to realize that these [critics on the right] have about as much reverence for American society and the rule of law as the "stealth jihadists" that populate their conspiracy theories.

I'm not much of a fan when it comes to Chris Christie, but these attacks from the right are ugly and odious. When we've reached the point at which a Republican governor can't even name an accomplished Muslim attorney to a district state court bench without a conservative freak-out, the simmering bigotry has bubbled over in unhealthy ways.

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

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SOMEONE GET KRAUTHAMMER A CALCULATOR.... Maybe I just don't understand Charles Krauthammer's sense of humor.

Suppose someone -- say, the president of United States -- proposed the following: We are drowning in debt. More than $14 trillion right now. I've got a great idea for deficit reduction. It will yield a savings of $230 billion over the next 10 years: We increase spending by $540 billion while we increase taxes by $770 billion.

He'd be laughed out of town. And yet, this is precisely what the Democrats are claiming as a virtue of Obamacare.

And why, exactly, would this be laughable? Krauthammer doesn't say, which is a real shame. I realize it's a complex issue, but it's the columnist's job to help bring these questions into focus for readers.

Let's try again to put this in a way Krauthammer can understand. As part of health care reform, policymakers will spend quite a bit of money to address a pressing national need, and at the same time, policymakers will also pay for the program -- and then some -- thereby reducing the deficit.

Is this really that difficult for conservatives to understand? Were there no Washington Post editors who could take Krauthammer aside before publication to say, "You know, Chuck, 770 minus 540 really does equal 230"?

Krauthammer went on to repeat one of the most common GOP talking points of the week.

In fact, the whole Obamacare bill was gamed to produce a favorable CBO number. Most glaringly, the entitlement it creates -- government-subsidized health insurance for 32 million Americans -- doesn't kick in until 2014. That was deliberately designed so any projection for this decade would cover only six years of expenditures -- while that same 10-year projection would capture 10 years of revenue. With 10 years of money inflow vs. six years of outflow, the result is a positive -- i.e., deficit-reducing -- number. Surprise.

The only real "surprise" here is that Krauthammer's editors have no interest in fact-checking his columns.

Jonathan Chait, who has explained this before, once again noted this morning, "The benefits phase in slowly as do the revenues. Krauthammer's six years of benefits/ten years of revenue canard would mean that, once fully phased in, the costs dramatically exceed the revenue. That isn't the case. The law's deficit-reduction effect increases over the next ten years. Health care analysts have pointed this out over and over. Yet conservatives like Krauthammer keep repeating these debunked claims. Either Krauthammer lives so deep within the right's misinformation feedback loop that he has never heard any refutation of his false claims, or else he simply doesn't care what's true."

There's just no excuse for op-eds like this one. Obviously when dealing with an issue such as health care, there's ample room for debate about subjective questions on goals, priorities, and principles of government. But there are also objective truths for which opinions are irrelevant.

In this case, Krauthammer is publishing a combination of demonstrable falsehoods and failures of arithmetic.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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HEALTH CARE STRATEGERY.... The House Republicans' vote this week on repealing the entirety of the Affordable Care Act was obviously symbolic. No one, not even House Republicans themselves, expects the repeal bill to go anywhere.

But the House bill won't just disappear immediately, and the symbolic gesture might turn out to be pretty interesting after all.

Senate Democratic leaders have said they have no intention of wasting time on the House-passed measure, but the Senate Republican minority intends to force the issue. MSNBC reported yesterday that Mitch McConnell "assured" supporters that the chamber would take up the repeal bill, and has procedural options available to force a vote.

Kevin Drum had a creative take yesterday, arguing that Senate Dems' instincts may be backwards -- don't ignore the House bill, embrace it and make the most of it.

They should bring the House bill up for a vote quickly, let Republicans speechify about it for a bit, and then vote it down, 53-47. End of story, time to move on.

But wait! With Republicans in control of the House, it's not like the Senate can really get much done anyway. So what's the harm in wasting a bit of time and making this a knock-down-drag-out fight? After all, the House leadership got a nice, clean repeal vote by bringing up the bill under a closed rule and allowing no potentially embarrassing amendments and virtually no debate. In the Senate, by contrast, Democrats control things, and they can bring up all the amendments they want. So maybe they should play along, hold hearings, and force Republicans to vote on, say, an amendment to the repeal bill that would keep the preexisting condition ban in place. And another one that would keep the donut hole fix in place. Etc. etc.

Jonathan Bernstein, who had a generally positive take on this, noted some of the risks of the amendment strategy, and Senate Dems would be wise to consider them.

That said, as of this morning, it appears there's some fluidity to the Democratic strategy in the Senate. Whereas the plan earlier in the week was to simply ignore the House Republicans' repeal bill, there's apparently a fair amount of interest in pursuing a plan very similar to what Kevin wrote about yesterday.

A top Democratic aide in the Senate told Brian Beutler, "Senior staff are giving serious consideration to the strategy of forcing Republicans to take tough votes on extremely popular elements of the health care law, including the doughnut hole provision, as well as pre-existing conditions."

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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RICK SCOTT HAS NO USE FOR IN-STATE NEWSPAPERS.... I'm still struggling to wrap my head around the notion that this guy is the chief executive of one of the nation's largest states.

[Republican Gov. Rick Scott] pulled no punches when asked about his consumption of Florida media. When asked if he read Florida newspapers, Scott responded with a blunt "no."

How does the state's 45th governor know what's going on? He said he relies on staffers to share clippings and he reads papers in other states "to see what they are doing."

I see. The governor of Florida likes to read newspapers from states other than Florida. How unconventional of him.

This is, of course, the same governor who issued a gag order to agency heads when dealing with journalists, and has ejected reporters from public events.

Do Floridians have any idea who they just elected? Should anyone be surprised that an unreformed criminal is off to a bizarre start as a governor?

This has the feel of a reality show gone horribly awry.

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

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HENSARLING FAILS ON SO MANY LEVELS.... It's easy to find opponents of health care reform making bogus arguments, but I'm especially fond of those who manage to pack layers of nonsense into a short presentation.

For example, consider the remarks this week from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chairman of the House Republican Conference, explaining why he wants to gut the new system. (thanks to reader C.P. for the tip)

"The American people don't want it. It's personal.

"Here's my story, two days ago, I was in San Antonio, Texas, and my mother had a large tumor removed from her head. They wheeled her away at 7:20 in the morning, and by noon, I was talking to her along with the rest of our family. It proved benign, thanks to a lot of prayers and good doctors at the Methodist hospital in San Antonio. My mother's fine. I'm not sure that would be the outcome in Canada, the U.K., or anywhere in Europe.

"No disrespect to our President, but when it comes to the health of my mother, I don't want this President or any President or his bureaucrat or commissions making decisions for my loved ones. Let's repeal it today, replace it tomorrow."

I'm glad to know the congressman's mother is fine. I'm less glad to know her son doesn't know what he's talking about.

First, patients with tumors can and do receive fine medical care in Canada, the U.K., and throughout Europe.

Second, despite this fact, the comparison doesn't make any sense, since the Democrats' reform law bears no resemblance to the health care systems found in Canada, the U.K., and throughout Europe.

Third, there is literally nothing in the law that makes a president or other government officials responsible to making medical treatment decisions. Hensarling is either deeply confused or he's making stuff up.

Fourth, for Americans who rely on private insurers, "bureaucrats" make treatment decisions every day for our loved ones, and sometimes they deny coverage for patients in need of care. If this is a genuine concern, even confused, far-right lawmakers should gladly endorse the consumer protections in the Affordable Care Act.

And finally, Jeb Hensarling is 53 years old, which makes it extremely likely that his mother is on Medicare. She therefore appears to have received excellent care through a system of socialized medicine.

I'm well aware of the fact that there are legitimate complaints about provisions in the health care reform law. The fact that Republican leaders can't think of any, and are reduced to spewing such weak nonsense, doesn't speak well of their understanding of the policy -- or their reliability in trying to shape a new system for all of us.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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'WE WANT MORE'.... It's almost inevitable that fissures within a congressional caucus, which were easier to paper over when in the minority, will come to the fore when that party wins a majority and has to actually govern. What Republicans may not have expected are these divisions to emerge just two weeks into their new House majority.

The issue, of course, is spending. The party's "Pledge to America" vowed to slash $100 billion from the budget in the first year, a promise that the leadership abandoned the day before being sworn in. The figure just wasn't realistic, especially given the abbreviated calendar for the fiscal year, and GOP leaders were eyeing cuts around half their original goal.

Yesterday, it became clear that the right-wing rank-and-file just aren't satisfied with their leaders' plans -- and they're not keeping their concerns to themselves.

House Republican leaders confronted pressure from conservatives on Thursday to take more aggressive steps to cut federal spending, with a large group of lawmakers calling for outlays to be slashed by $2.5 trillion over the next decade, far more than the party has sought so far.

The proposal, from the Republican Study Committee, a conservative bloc that counts more than two-thirds of House Republicans as members, calls for immediate reductions of at least $100 billion, compared with cuts in the current fiscal year of up to $80 billion being sought by party leaders.

"We want more," said Representative Mick Mulvaney, a freshman from South Carolina.

We talked briefly yesterday about the proposed plan to cut $2.5 trillion over the next decade, but it's worth emphasizing how truly ridiculous it is. In the short term, the cuts would eliminate, among other things, transportation and infrastructure projects, energy research, and aid to states. Over the longer term, these Republicans are also eyeing drastic cuts to education, medical research, law enforcement, and homeland security.

And perhaps most important of all, the plan would deliberately put tens of thousands of Americans out of work, making the jobs crisis worse, on purpose, because Republicans think it's a good idea.

The Republican Study Committee's chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), said, "I have never seen the American people more receptive, more ready for the tough-love measures that need to be taken to help fix the country." And by "tough love," Jordan means making devastating cuts to domestic spending, while keeping tax breaks for millionaires intact, and leaving the Pentagon budget untouched.

I'd bet him $2.5 trillion that the majority of the country strongly disagrees.

But these zealots are hard to convince, and don't seem especially inclined to follow the lead of their leaders.

Rank and file Republicans aren't happy with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). They think the GOP should take a hatchet to the federal budget now, to make good on their pledge to slash spending by $100 billion "this year." And their displeasure is spilling out into the open.

"Despite the added challenge of being four months into the current fiscal year, we still must keep our $100 billion pledge to the American people," reads a draft of a letter to Boehner, obtained by TPM, being circulated by the Republican Study Committee. "These $100 billion in cuts to non-security discretionary spending not only ensure that we keep our word to the American people; they represent a credible down payment on the fiscally responsible measures that will be needed to get the nation's finances back on track."

The next question is what John Boehner and his team, who helped create this monster, intend to do about all of this. At this point, they don't appear to have any idea.

Frankenstein didn't know what to do with his monster, either.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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January 20, 2011

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

* Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) is now able to stand on her own, and even look at an iPad. Remarkable.

* A step in the right direction, which exceeded expectations: "New claims for unemployment benefits fell by 37,000 last week to 404,000, reversing a sharp increase two weeks ago, the Labor Department reported Thursday."

* The latest in a string of violent incidents in Iraq: "Three suicide car bombers struck Shiite pilgrims south of Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 51 people and wounding more than 180 in a third straight day of attacks across Iraq. The string of assaults, reminiscent of the bloodiest days of the Iraq war, shattered a two-month lull and presented a major challenge to the new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki."

* A massive crackdown on organized crime: "In a blanket assault against seven mob families in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, the F.B.I. and local authorities began arresting close to 130 people on Thursday on charges including murder, racketeering and extortion, federal law enforcement officials said."

* Hu Jintao makes the rounds in DC: "Chinese President Hu Jintao called Thursday for deeper engagement with the United States on a broad range of issues, warning that only by working together in some areas and respecting national differences in others will the two nations avoid friction in the years ahead."

* When congressional Republicans call the Affordable Care Act "job-killing," they're lying.

* "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was an awful policy. It was also awfully expensive. (Dead-enders should be asked how they'd pay for reinstatement.)

* Travis Corcoran, a libertarian blogger in Massachusetts, following the attempted Giffords assassination, wrote, "1 down and 534 to go," and encouraged violence against officials and their aides. Today, police seized a "large amount" of weapons and ammunition from Corcoran.

* If the GOP were serious about deficit reduction, it could support the parts of the Affordable Care Act that reduce the deficit.

* The debate over the Department of Education's coming "gainful employment" rules heats up.

* I've never been a big fan of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), but he certainly wasn't all bad.

* As much as I've criticized Condoleezza Rice over the years, I have no tolerance for the ridiculous questions Piers Morgan asked her on the air last night about Rice's personal life.

* In June, Glenn Beck told his Fox News viewers, "You're going to have to shoot them in the head," in reference to the perceived "radicals" who "believe in communism." This is not O.K.

* Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), after telling the NAACP, "Kiss my butt," said he's immune to criticism on race because he has an adopted black son. That's a dumb defense, but it's much worse now that we know he doesn't actually have an adopted black son.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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INSURERS' EFFORTS REALLY WEREN'T THAT LONG AGO.... During yesterday's "debate," such as it was, over repealing the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, there was no shortage of awful arguments. But Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) of Kentucky raised a point on the House floor that stood out.

"[H]ow can you claim that we're supporting insurance companies by repealing this bill when the insurance companies supported the bill? And they supported the bill because it mandates that small businesses and individuals buy health insurance."

Um, no. Democrats had quite a few allies endorsing their health care reform legislation -- the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Hospitals Association, the American Cancer Society, the AARP, etc. -- but "insurance companies" did not "support the bill."

Ed Whitfield -- who's been in Congress for quite a while, and should probably have paid closer attention -- may have been confused for the better part of 2009 and 2010, but insurance companies went after the legislation with a vengeance.

Indeed, America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) said it was sincere in its promise to play a constructive role in the health care reform debate, but while it was assuring policymakers of its good-faith intentions, insurers were secretly financing blatantly dishonest attack ads, hoping to kill the entire effort, quietly funneling money to outside groups.

The record is unambiguous: "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 $86.2 million paid for advertisements, polling and grass roots events to drum up opposition to the bill, said Tom Collamore, a Chamber of Commerce spokesman."

How can reform advocates claim Republicans are supporting insurance companies by voting to repeal this bill? Because Whitfield and his colleagues are doing their bidding, prioritizing insurers' profits above all.

He doesn't have to like it, but to pretend the insurance companies were on Democrats' side is evidence of either remarkable ignorance or astounding dishonesty.

Postscript: Whitfield thinks insurers should approve of the law because it creates millions of new customers. The industry doesn't like the law anyway, but it's not an unreasonable point. But if that's a concern, will Whitfield endorse a public option so that private insurers don't get millions of new customers?

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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'THEY HAVEN'T SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS IN THIS COUNTRY'.... We talked yesterday about the bomb in Spokane, Wash., that appeared to target a Martin Luther King Day march on Monday. The more we learn, the more it looks as though an extraordinary catastrophe was narrowly avoided.

A bomb left along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade was sophisticated, with a remote detonator and the ability to cause many casualties, an official familiar with the case said Wednesday.

The bomb, which was defused without incident on Monday, was the most potentially destructive he had ever seen, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release information about the investigation.

"They haven't seen anything like this in this country," the official said. "This was the worst device, and most intentional device, I've ever seen."

This was a device that had been placed in such a way as to maximize the damage to those marching in the parade.

To date, no one has claimed responsibility for the device, but the area has a history of white supremacist activity. Officials have not yet named any suspects.

We can all be very thankful that three city employees had the wherewithal to notice the unattended bag and contact law enforcement, giving event organizers time to re-route the march --less than an hour before it would have passed by the location of the bomb.

The FBI continues to consider the matter an act of attempted domestic terrorism.

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

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REPUBLICAN STUDY COMMITTEE LAYS DOWN A RADICAL 'MARKER' ON SPENDING.... The new House GOP majority suffered some embarrassment a couple of weeks ago when party leaders backed off a promise to cut $100 billion from the budget in their first year.

This week, a leading right-wing contingent within the Republican caucus is pushing hard in the other direction.

A caucus of conservative Republicans unveiled a proposal on Thursday that would trim federal spending by $2.5 trillion over 10 years.

Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Thursday that the RSC will be using the plan as a "marker" in the fight over the continuing resolution that will fund the government after March 4. [...]

Jordan said he has not talked to his party's leadership about moving the bill, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Thursday he supports the plan being brought up for a separate up-or-down vote during floor consideration of the continuing resolution for the rest of 2011.

The Republican Study Committee has quite a laundry list in mind. These folks actually map out cutting $2.5 trillion from the budget without touching Social Security, Medicare, or even a single penny of Pentagon spending.

To get there, these Republicans would go after plenty of familiar targets: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, Amtrak, and U.S. Agency for International Development. But given that the U.S. just doesn't spend that much on any of this, the Republican Study Committee has to dig much deeper, going after transportation and infrastructure projects, energy research, aid to states, legal assistance for low-income families, family planning funds, and assistance to American businesses seeking to export their products overseas.

(Even this doesn't come close to $2.5 trillion over 10 years. The RSC makes up the difference by playing some budget games. Brian Beutler explained, "Like most major spending cut proposals, this one's not entirely rigorous. It relies principally on an aspirational spending cap -- specifically, limiting non-defense appropriations totals to their 2006 levels without adjusting for inflation. In other words, it punts the question of what to cut to future Congresses, which could just as easily bust the cap.")

All of these cuts are necessary, the Republican Study Committee believes, because large deficits call for broad sacrifices. This is, of course, the same Republican Study Committee that demanded massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, without paying for them, all of which was financed by larger deficits.

The likelihood of these cuts actually passing is non-existent, but it is a helpful snapshot of Republican priorities. But also note perhaps the most important detail about a plan such as this one: it would be devastating for American jobs. Indeed, if lawmakers were to get together to plot how Congress could deliberately increase unemployment, their plan would look an awful lot like this one. The RSC proposal would deliberately fire thousands of civilian workers, force states to make sweeping job cuts, and lay off thousands more who work in transportation and infrastructure.

Instead of working on creating jobs, we're left with a new House majority that either (a) wants to ignore the problem; or (b) wants to deliberately make it worse. For all the Republican excitement about the midterm results, I suspect the GOP just wasn't listening very closely to what Americans said they're concerned about most.

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

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WHEN THE 'BLAME OBAMA FIRST' CROWD GOES OVERBOARD.... Visitors to the Daily Caller's website today were greeted with a remarkable headline: "First Lady's Anti-Obesity Campaign Could Be Causing More Pedestrian Deaths." The accompanying piece was entirely serious.

Pedestrian deaths increased sharply during the first half of 2010, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). On Wednesday, the Executive Director of the GHSA accused the first lady's obesity program of causing the deaths by encouraging people to exercise.

In an interview with the Washington Examiner, GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha said that while there are not yet definitive answers as to why there were more pedestrian deaths in 2010 than 2009, Obama's "get moving" movement could be at least partially to blame.

"There's an emphasis these days to getting fit, and I think people doing that are more exposed to risk [of getting hit by a vehicle]," Harsha told the Examiner. "Obviously, further study is needed."

Harsha also said electronic devices such as cell phones and iPods could have contributed to the higher death rate.

This extremely silly argument apparently originated with the conservative Washington Examiner, which initially quoted the GHSA's Harsha, but the Daily Caller picking up on this helped bring a lot of additional attention to the "story."

There some fairly dramatic problems with this. For example, Harsha insists she was misquoted. "If [people] do walk more, they need to be aware of their surroundings and do so in a safe manner," she told The Atlantic. But we support the goal of getting people to be more active."

What's more, there is no "sharp" increase. Pedestrian deaths went from 1,884 to 1,891 nationwide. That's an increase of seven -- not seven percent, seven individual people.

But putting these details aside, it's worth appreciating the fact that we've reached an unfortunate point. In addition to all of the various political criticisms, blaming the White House for all sorts of odd things, we now have major conservative outlets advancing an argument that indirectly blames the First Lady for pedestrian traffic deaths. Our discourse really has to be better than this.

Sarah Goodyear's conclusion, meanwhile, was probably the most amusing reaction to all of this: "There are a lot of things to hate about this story: The reflexive demonization of the First Lady. The manufacturing of a trend out of very thin statistical fabric. The blaming of victims who can't defend themselves. But what might be most depressing about the whole ridiculous thing is that in this country, merely wanting to walk from one place to another can qualify you as being 'into physical fitness.'"

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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LIEBERMAN GETS FOREIGN POLICY AND FEMINISM WRONG AT THE SAME TIME.... Gail Collins noted this morning the Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has "reached a point in his public career when every single thing he does, including talking about his grandparents, is irritating."

That's true, but some things are clearly more irritating than others.

Take this morning, for example.

During an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) continued to insist that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction even though none were ever found after the invasion of Iraq.

The senator, retiring his seat in 2012, also said that despite the enormous cost to the U.S. in blood, prestige and treasure he does not regret his vote for war and would do it all over again.

This was an astounding appearance. Lieberman insisted the "most official and comprehensive report" proved Saddam Hussein was developing WMD, and that the regime was "beginning really tactically to support the terrorist movements that had attacked us on 9/11 and today."

None of this is connected to reality in any substantive way. Every available shred of evidence makes clear that Saddam's regime had nothing to do with al Qaeda, and for Lieberman to still be suggesting otherwise is disgraceful. For that matter, the notion that even the most confused observer would still believe that Iraq was developing WMD, and that this somehow justifies the invasion, is breathtaking.

As part of the same MSNBC segment, Arianna Huffington asked Lieberman to substantiate his claim about Saddam Hussein was working on weapons of mass destruction, a claim even George W. Bush abandoned. The senator replied, "I'm basing it on the so-called Duelfer Report. Charles D-U-E-L-F-E-R conducted the most comprehensive report on behalf of our government."

When Huffington said there's nothing in the Duelfer Report to bolster Lieberman's conclusions, the senator replied, "I don't think you've read it, sweetheart."

I find it nothing short of remarkable that a United States senator in 2011 would be so condescending as to call a woman "sweetheart" on national television. In context, Huffington was calling Lieberman out on his transparent falsehoods, which no doubt irritated him, but frankly, I don't care what the context was. Huffington deserves an apology.

In addition to the sexist language, it's also worth noting that Lieberman really doesn't know what he's talking about. Charles Duelfer found that Iraq did not possess -- or have concrete plans to develop -- nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

It's the same thing David Kay concluded, which is the same thing that the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded, which is the same thing the Pentagon concluded. The case is closed, and has been for many years.

Even loyal Bushies have abandoned the talking point. That Lieberman has not says a great deal about his judgment.

Steve Benen 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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MAYBE THEY'LL GET TO JOBS EVENTUALLY.... John Boehner, back when he was the House Minority Leader, had a special fondness for asking, "Where are the jobs?" It was effective because it was easily the top issue on the minds of Americans.

Not surprisingly, job creation has been the dominant issue in recent years, and was largely responsible for Republican gains in the 2010 midterms. GOP leaders assured the country, vote for them, and they'll get to work on improving the economy.

What Republicans neglected to mention is that they have a few unrelated items they want to tackle first.

The initial priority for the new House GOP majority was, of course, gutting the health care system, despite the fact that their legislation has no chance at passing, and despite the fact that their proposal would hurt job creation. With that vote out of the way, Republicans are now moving on to their second major initiative.

House Republicans have introduced the first of, probably, many small pieces of legislation designed to pull apart the Affordable Care Act. This morning it was Rep. Chris Smith's (R-NJ) "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," HR3, a bill that pro-life Democrats have told me they can support.

"[The American people] spoke about this issue on America Speaking Out," said Speaker of the House John Boehner, explaining why the GOP was moving ahead on this part of the health care fight. "They spoke on this issue loudly and clearly."

This prompted the obvious questions: Wait, weren't you promising to focus on job creation?

Well, they were. Now that Boehner & Co. have some power, though, they prefer to focus on some of their other priorities, like abortion. What does abortion have to do with job creation? Nothing, but GOP priorities are apparently a little more fluid than they'd led voters to believe.

They're bound to start thinking about jobs eventually, right?

In March, Boehner asked, "When are we going to address the number one issue on the minds of our fellow citizens? When are we going to focus on the economy and getting people back to work?"

Funny, someone might want to ask Boehner the same thing.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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

* Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) announced this morning that he's running for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut next year, hoping to fill the vacancy left by Sen. Joe Lieberman's (I) retirement. He'll face former Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz in a Democratic primary, and the field may not be finished just yet.

* In case there were any doubts, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told reporters yesterday that he will, in fact, seek a third term next year.

* Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) will also run in 2012, and a new Quinnipiac poll shows him in decent shape. By a 45% to 30% margin, Ohio voters believe Brown deserves a second term.

* In Texas, where there will be a open-seat Senate contest next year, Rep. Ron Paul (R) is mulling whether to run. "It's certainly crossed my mind," he said yesterday.

* Don't be surprised if Rep. Sam Graves (R) decides to take on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in Missouri in 2012. He told reporters this week that the race is "something that I look at and kind of evaluate and we'll see what happens."

* With Sen. Kent Conrad (D) retiring in North Dakota, in-state Tea Party activists are telling Republican leaders they're prepared for "battle for control of the party."

* As the race for the Republicans' 2012 presidential nomination kinda sorta gets underway, a top-tier of candidates with high name recognition enjoy the early lead. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Mike Huckabee leading nationwide with 21%, followed by Sarah Palin with 19%, and Mitt Romney with 17%. No other candidate broke double digits, though Newt Gingrich was close at 9%. The new NBC/WSJ poll is similar, but with a slightly different order -- Romney leads with 19%, followed by Huckabee at 18% and Palin at 14%.

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

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AN UNSHAKABLE PERSECUTION COMPLEX.... I missed the speech yesterday in which a House Republican compared health care reform to tyranny of King George III, so I was glad to see Greg Sargent track it down.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), a freshman, railed against the individual mandate provision -- which was a Republican idea, by the way -- which he considers unconstitutional. "As Virginians, we did not accept the chains of George the Third," Griffith said. "Nor will we accept the chains of Obamacare."

This is obviously very silly rhetoric from a right-wing politician who's trying too hard, but it fits nicely into a larger pattern of Republicans with a deep-seeded persecution complex. Greg explained that GOP officials have a "comical" tendency to "compare their current situation to that of history's leading victims of oppression, persecution, and genocide."

After noting several recent examples from prominent far-right voices -- including the "blood libel" and "pogrom" incidents from last week -- Greg added, "It's hard to know what motivates this kind of thing. It's almost as if these folks are suffering from what you might call a world-historical inferiority complex. They're desperate to imagine themselves as actors in an ongoing drama that rivals the most momentous struggles and conflicts in human history. So they just play-act the part.... It's all so pathetic and adolescent."

Well said.

I'd add, while we're on the subject, that this notion that the individual mandate is some kind of unprecedented, abusive power-grab from a government gone mad really is ridiculous. The Center for American Progress had a report this week on how fairly common it is for Congress to exercise its legal authority to regulate.

Existing federal laws require millions of homeowners, for example, to purchase flood insurance. Nuclear power plants to purchase liability insurance, whether they want to or not. The Civil Rights Act mandated businesses engage in commercial activity that owners found objectionable. George Washington even signed a law requiring much of the country to purchase firearms and ammunition. (The 10th Amendment never came up.)

It's precisely why Republicans didn't think the health care mandate was unconstitutional when they came up with the idea -- it's consistent with how the government has operated for generations.

Morgan Griffith may believe his own nonsense about "chains," but his twisted understanding of reality is nevertheless absurd.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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IT'S NOT JUST CHILD-LABOR LAWS.... Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) freely admits he's opposed to federal child-labor laws. But the more one explores his radical worldview, the easier it is to understand the consequences of this ideological approach to government.

Under Lee's vision of the Constitution, basic labor protections such as child labor laws, the minimum wage, and bans on race and gender discrimination all must be "done by state legislators, not by Members of Congress." Yesterday, in an interview with Utah public radio host Doug Fabrizio, Lee doubled down on this call for a return to failed constitutional vision that spawned the Great Depression, suggesting that even victims of Katrina-like disasters cannot constitutionally receive aid from the federal government.

Asked if Louisiana had the capacity to deal with a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, Lee brushed off the specifics and said, "[L]ooking forward ... states will prepare differently if they understand that it's their responsibility rather than that of the federal government." FEMA's existence, as Lee sees it, is unconstitutional.

He went on to make the case against anti-poverty and food safety programs, all of which he considers unconstitutional.

As a matter of constitutional law, Lee's vision is obviously quite radical. Ian Millhiser explained yesterday, "[T]he Constitution gives Congress broad authority to regulate interstate commerce and to raise and spend money to benefit the 'general welfare.' These two powers easily enable Congress to regulate the national food market and to provide a basic safety net to the poor and the unfortunate, regardless of what Lee may claim."

But to reiterate a point from last week, none of this is the least bit surprising. For those who think child-labor laws are an affront to the Constitution, it stands to reason that FEMA, food-safety laws, and the Civil Right Act would have to go, too.

The problem, of course, is that this extremist, far-right vision of constitutional law is a vision that's increasingly common in the Republican Party of the 21st century. It makes congressional policymaking and compromise all but impossible. As Paul Krugman recently explained, "Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it."

It really wasn't that long ago. Reagan raised taxes seven of the eight years he was in office, and expanded the size of government. Bush expanded the federal government's role in health care. Nixon created the EPA. Eisenhower acknowledged that there are some radicals who might hate Social Security and unemployment aid, but "their number is negligible and they are stupid."

And yet, here we are. A sitting U.S. senator is against existing child-labor laws, and few even bat an eye.

For all the talk about rhetorical excesses and partisan strife, it's more important to appreciate why the parties are so at odds, and the extent to which Republicans reject the legitimacy of much of the government.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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2011 ISN'T STARTING THE WAY REPUBLICANS HOPED.... Going through the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, there's just not much in the way of good news for Republicans.

What a difference a few weeks can make.

Last month, Republicans were celebrating their midterm victories; Democrats were licking their electoral wounds; and President Barack Obama's approval rating was stuck in the mid-'40s.

But after a five-week stretch that included bipartisan legislative achievements in the lame-duck session of Congress, mostly positive economic news and Obama's well-received speech honoring the victims of the tragic shootings in Arizona, the political world has taken an abrupt turn in direction.

President Obama's approval rating in the poll is up to 53%, higher than at any point in 2010, and is picking up much stronger support from independents. A plurality has a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, while the percentage of the public that identifies with the Tea Party is in steady decline. Americans are feeling a little more optimistic about the economy, and 35% believe the country is on the right track -- which sounds awful, but it's actually the highest it's been in over a year.

Republicans' post-midterm glow, meanwhile, appears to have faded rather quickly. After the GOP took over the House in 1995, 37% believed Republicans would bring "the right kind of change" to the country. Now, that number is just 25%. The poll also found that most Americans believe congressional Republicans will be too inflexible in dealing with the White House, and the GOP's favorable ratings are not only lower than Dems', but have also fallen from a month ago.

Obviously, it's just one poll -- though other national surveys have offered similar results of late -- and there are no doubt plenty of changes to come.

The point, though, is that Republicans hoped to get 2011 off on the right foot, and have some wind at their backs as the 112th Congress gets underway. After all, that's what happened after the last "wave" election bolstered Republicans' standing in D.C.

By all available evidence, that's just not the case -- Obama appears to be on the upswing, not the new, larger Republican caucuses.

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

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HOUSE DEMS, WITH A SPRING IN THEIR STEP.... House Republicans, just two weeks after taking the chamber's majority, went right after the Democrats' signature domestic policy achievement of this generation: health care reform.

It comes as a bit of surprise, but Dems, the new House minority, doesn't seem despondent or depressed -- they actually seem to have a spring in their step.

In the basement of the Capitol Wednesday, House Democrats gathered to do something that would have been almost unheard of in, say, October of 2010: openly discuss the health care law they passed last March. But the House vote to repeal the law, which came courtesy of the newly-crowned Republican majority Wednesday, has turned the minority Democratic caucus into a lean, mean, health care bill-defending machine.

It was quite a change from the party of election 2010, which seemed more interested in discussing just about anything else than the landmark law that was at the center of President Obama's domestic policy agenda and dominated political discussion for more than a year.

Reporters in the room Wednesday afternoon -- part of a "bloggers row" set up by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to set the stage for the Republican-led repeal vote -- noticed the change in tone on the health care law, and we asked the Democrats to explain what happened.

The simple answer, from multiple Democrats today: The law that was just a vague plan to improve the nation's health care delivery system for much of 2010 is now beginning to go into effect, meaning that Democrats now have something tangible to defend. And thanks to the voters in November, most of the Democrats who were really wary of reform (and voted against it when it came up) are now gone.

Dems no doubt breathe a little easier knowing that, as a legislative matter, repeal isn't going anywhere. But what we're seeing isn't relief; it's an attitude that borders on confidence. Democrats actually seem to believe they have a compelling pitch to offer voters, and think that in a straight-up, honest debate over health care policy with the GOP, the public will side with them.

I talked to a couple of Dem staffers on the Hill yesterday who said they were thrilled to see the repeal vote. In 2012, the DCCC is almost certain to run ads saying, "Rep. So-and-so sided with insurance companies and voted to make seniors pay more for prescription medication ... and voted to take away tax breaks for small businesses ... and voted to strip children with pre-existing conditions of their protections ... and voted to kick young adults off their family's plan."

Why it took so long for Democrats to realize there was nothing to be gained from a defensive crouch, I don't know. Better late than never, I guess.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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SANTORUM SUGGESTS BLACK PEOPLE CAN'T BE PRO-CHOICE.... Remember Rick Santorum? The far-right Pennsylvania senator who lost re-election by 19 points? Santorum now thinks he should be president -- yes, of the United States -- and is touting his vision to the Republican Party's base.

To that end, Santorum sat down with right-wing media personality Terry Jeffrey yesterday, and among other things, suggested it's outrageous for African Americans, including President Obama, to be pro-choice.

Every biologist in the world, Santorum said, would agree that a fertilized human egg is "a human life." Putting aside the dubious qualities of the observation, the former senator added, "The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer -- is that, is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no. Well if that person, human life is not a person, then I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'No, we're going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"

So, in Santorum's worldview, African Americans can't be pro-choice because of slavery. That's quite an insight.

But I'm also struck by the leaps of logic here. As Santorum sees it, there's no justification for policymakers to determine who does and does not count as a "person" under the law. Simultaneously, Santorum insists policymakers have to determine who counts as a "person" under the law, and they have to agree with him as to where he would draw the line.

In other words, he finds it remarkable that pro-choice policymakers want to "decide who are people and who are not people," but thinks it's fine for Rick Santorum to "decide who are people and who are not people."

It's kind of one of the central tenets of the debate for the last four decades. It's odd that Santorum is just now thinking it through.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A SYMBOLIC GESTURE.... Late yesterday afternoon, right on schedule, the House passed a measure to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act. No one, not even its most ardent champions, saw this as an example of serious policymaking -- the bill, such as it is, has no chance of passing the Senate, and even worse odds of getting the president's signature.

So why bother? Because the new House Republican majority, in their first major initiative, wanted to make right-wing activists feel better about themselves, while sending a signal about the GOP's priorities.

It's tempting to ignore a shallow, symbolic gesture like this, but it'd be a mistake to consider yesterday's vote unimportant. We actually learned quite a bit from this.

First, we learned that Republicans aren't great at counting votes. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) boasted this week that at least 15 Democrats would join the GOP on the repeal vote. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said there may even be a two-thirds majority in favor of repeal -- the necessary level of support to override a presidential veto. When the gavel came down, the bill passed 245 to 189 -- with a whopping three votes from conservative Democrats. So much for the GOP trash talk.

Second, we learned Republicans are still a little fuzzy on how a bill becomes a law. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) proclaimed in all-caps last night, "WE JUST REPEALED OBAMACARE!" apparently unaware that they did nothing of the sort.

Third, we learned a great deal about the values of Republican lawmakers. Jonathan Cohn explained:

Over the last year, the Republicans have spent a lot of time arguing that the Affordable Care Act will cost too much, that it will micromanage care, that it will burden business with taxes and bureaucracy. The most outrageous claims, like the notion of government-run "death panels," have zero basis in fact. And even the less explosive arguments frequently rely on flimsy evidence. But the most remarkable thing about the Republican campaign against health care reform is what the advocates of repeal haven't said.

They never bothered to engage with the fundamental moral logic behind the Affordable Care Act -- that a modern society guarantees everybody access to doctors, hospitals, and the treatments they provide; that it's wrong to sit by and watch people give up their savings, or their lives, just because they happened to get sick. They have some ideas, yes, but nothing that would come remotely close to insuring 30 million people or bolstering coverage for the people who have it.

As recently as the last debate over health care reform, in the 1990s, prominent Republicans showed sincere interest in finding common ground in order to achieve similar goals. And there are, I know, honest, caring conservatives who still feel the same way. But the Republicans in the House? If they too are committed to helping the un- and under-insured, they haven't shown it.

Fourth, we received a reminder about how much easier it is to tear down than build up. Republicans can't be bothered to do the hard work of legislating, policymaking, and problem-solving -- they find it infinitely easier to take a sledgehammer to policies that actually help people, but fail to meet their ideological standards. For all the "repeal and replace" rhetoric, the House GOP majority can't even begin to explain the "replace" part of their agenda. Even now, after two years of fighting, it's striking to realize that Republicans haven't come up with an actual health care reform plan of their own.

With yesterday's vote, Republicans effectively told American families, "We'll gut the health care system now, and maybe figure something else out later. In the meantime, good luck -- and don't get sick." Those who find this compelling probably aren't paying close enough attention.

Ezra Klein added that yesterday's vote "doesn't tell Americans much about how the Republicans would address the nation's toughest problems. After the vote total was announced, you could hear some members of the GOP clapping and cheering. And fair enough: They have a win to be happy about. But not one to be proud of."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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January 19, 2011

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

* It seems hard to even imagine, but Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) will be released from the hospital this week, and will make the transition to Houston's Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, which specializes in helping people recuperate from brain injuries.

* Hu Jintao at the White House: "President Barack Obama pressed China on Wednesday to improve its human rights record and let its currency float freely, balancing a protocol-filled state welcome for Chinese President Hu Jintao with pointed messages on two key U.S. priorities."

* Tunisia: "Leaders of Tunisia's tiny legal opposition parties prepared a push to reshuffle the nascent unity government, scrambling Wednesday to appease public anger that at the cabinet's continued dominance by members of the ruling party of the ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali."

* Afghanistan: "President Hamid Karzai ordered a month's delay in seating a new Parliament on Wednesday, heightening a constitutional crisis that threatens to fuel bitter infighting and potentially even violence among the country's rival factions."

* Unexpectedly, American manufacturing is creating more jobs than it's losing. It's the first time in more than a decade.

* I do love the White House White Board. The latest installment tackles the prospect of health care repeal.

* Over 100 leading law professors: "People can disagree about the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act, but there can be no serious doubt about the constitutionality of the minimum coverage provision."

* Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) apologized for the whole "brothers and sisters" flap. Good move.

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) can be a little careless with his rhetoric sometimes. Describing Hu Jintao as a "dictator" was probably not a good idea -- especially given that the two are scheduled to meet tomorrow.

* Trying to strip the political discourse of all martial metaphors, including casual references to candidates "in the crosshairs," is just a silly exercise.

* That said, the political discourse would benefit from officials refraining from making Goebbels-related arguments. Yes, that means you, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) of Tennessee.

* At first blush, Christina Romer's New York Times op-ed on deficit reduction seems misplaced. But the piece is cleverer than it might seem.

* It's worth remembering, from time to time, that claims from the right about Social Security's solvency just aren't true.

* The first ever attempt to look at college progression in terms of actual learning.

* How mind-numbing was the GOP rhetoric on the House floor today? Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) offers one of the dumber examples.

* Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), speaking from the floor: "You know, I want to just advise people watching at home playing that now popular drinking game of 'you take a shot whenever Republicans say something that's not true.' Please assign a designated driver. This is going to be a long afternoon." And it was.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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WHAT WE'D LOSE IF HOUSE REPUBLICANS SUCCEEDED.... The Affordable Care Act won't be fully implemented until 2014, so the entirety of the law's benefits, including coverage for tens of millions of uninsured Americans, are still on the horizon.

We know, however, that plenty of important provisions have already kicked in. The CBPP's Shannon Spillane reports today that a successful Republican repeal push would scrap (1) coverage for young adults who can stay on their family's plan until age 26; (2) free preventative care for 42 million seniors and 41 million other Americans with private coverage; (3) protections for children with pre-existing conditions; (4) more affordable prescription medication for seniors; and (5) tax breaks for small businesses.

Remember, Republicans are convinced that their top priority needs to be the elimination of all of these provisions.

Suzy Khimm ran a related piece today, quantifying the number of Americans who stand to get screwed over by the GOP approach to health care policy. Among the many highlights:

Four million Medicare beneficiaries are expected to receive a $250 rebate check for their 2010 prescription drug costs since the "donut hole" that exempted some seniors from drug discounts was closed on January 1, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

More than four million small businesses are eligible to receive a tax credit for purchasing employee health insurance in 2010, according to a July 2010 study by Families USA and Small Business Majority (both are pro-reform advocacy groups). About 1.2 million small businesses are eligible to receive the maximum 35 percent tax credit.

About 2 million uninsured children with preexisting conditions cannot be denied coverage under the current law. By 2014, everyone with a preexisting condition (as many as 129 million Americans) would receive the same insurance protections.

Nearly 2.4 million young adults can now receive coverage through their parents' health plans, under a provision that extends coverage to dependents up to age 26, according to the Obama administration. That number includes 1.8 million young adults who weren't insured previously, as well as some 600,000 who had to buy insurance on their own.

These numbers really aren't in dispute. This is just a summary of the data.

Some, but not all, Republicans will argue that they'll put at least some of these benefits back -- just as soon as they finish gutting the current system and find some time to figure out a new reform plan that can pass the Senate and the courts. Maybe they'll even think of a way of reducing the deficit the way the Democratic plan does.

That's bound to be reassuring to the millions of American families who'd be stripped of their common-sense benefits under the Republican repeal plan, right?

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has been one of the most hysterical GOP lawmakers when it comes to repealing the Affordable Care Act, insisting that every possible provision in the law has to be scrubbed from existence -- with no exceptions. Even wildly popular measures that enjoy broad bipartisan support, King has argued, need to be crushed.

As he argued in April, Republicans must "stand unanimously together for 100 percent repeal," adding, "This is an all or nothing fight from this point forward." In reference to the right-wing activists protesting the law, King said, "No one demonstrated to 'kill the most egregious aspects' or 'preserve the least egregious aspects' of Obamacare."

With this in mind, King appeared on MSNBC earlier, to talk about the upcoming repeal vote. The host noted, "[S]o you're willing to go out there and repeal health care to everybody, even with a pre-existing condition, repeal the ability for kids to stay on their parents' health plan till they're 26 years old -- don't you think that would be met with tremendous backlash?" King replied:

"I actually don't think it would be met with tremendous backlash. There are Republicans who support those ideas and we start tomorrow the process of replacement of 'Obamacare.'

"It will not work for us to say there's a certain component of Obamacare that has some merit and so therefore we want to leave that in place and repeal the rest. This is too many pages, it's too cluttered, it's too big an argument to allow it to turn on one or two minor things."

In this context, it appears protection for children with pre-existing conditions is a "minor thing."

I wonder how many of the millions of families already benefiting from the Affordable Care Act would dismiss their benefits as "minor things"?

Also keep in mind, King isn't exactly cagey about his intentions. There is no alternative reform package from him or his party -- the goal is to gut the American health care system now, and then maybe figure something else out later.

And as we're about to find out, the entire House Republican caucus is on board with exactly this approach.

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

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STAY CLASSY, RUSH.... Limbaugh just can't help himself. (Note: the embedded audio should probably be considered not safe for work.)

For those of you who can't listen to clips from your office computers, the right-wing radio host was apparently reflecting on Chinese President Hu Jintao's appearance at a White House press conference today, and the fact that Fox News, at least temporarily, did not offer a simultaneous English translation.

"We're not gonna gyp Fox," Rush Limbaugh said. "I wanted to gyp it because the -- well, the -- Hu Jintao, he was speaking, and they weren't translating. They normally -- you have some translator every couple of words. But Hu Jintao was just going [mocking Chinese speech for 20 seconds]. Nobody was translating. But that's the closest I can get."

If you're reading this, you might think it sounds offensive. You really have to hear the audio to appreciate how truly ridiculous it really is.

Remember, this racist shock-jock is what passes for the heart of the Republican Party in 2011, and GOP officials who dare bother Limbaugh invariably scramble to apologize.

Indeed, it's worth emphasizing that displays like these -- last week he said lunatics who try to assassinate Democratic lawmakers enjoy the support of the Democratic Party -- will have absolutely no bearing on Republican leaders remaining desperate to be on his program.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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THE NETWORKS VIEWERS TRUST (OR DON'T).... For the second year in a row, Public Policy Polling put a "TV News Trust Poll" in the field, with some notable results.

PPP included PBS in the survey for the first time, and found the network easily surpassed its corporate rivals when it comes to public trust. The rest of the polled outlets -- NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox News -- were relatively close with one another when it came to viewers' perceptions of reliability.

But the shifts over the last year were interesting. NBC, CBS, and ABC each saw their trust levels increase over this point in 2010, by similar margins. CNN's numbers were effectively the same.

Fox News, meanwhile, saw the biggest shift. A year ago, 49% of respondents said they trust the Republican network, while 37% did not. This year, both numbers took a turn for the worse -- 42% now trust Fox News, while a 46% plurality does not.

There's a simple explanation for this.

A year ago a plurality of Americans said they trusted Fox News. Now a plurality of them don't. Conservatives haven't moved all that much -- 75% said they trusted it last year and 72% still do this time around. But moderates and liberals have both had a strong increase in their level of distrust for the network -- a 12 point gain from 48% to 60% for moderates and a 16 point gain from 66% to 82% for liberals. Voters between left and center tend to be more trusting of the media across the board, which is why a fair number of them were still rating Fox favorably even a year ago at this time. But it looks like with a lot of those folks it has finally crossed the line to being too political to trust.

I have no idea what took them so long.

The PPP analysis concluded, "Democrats trust everything but Fox. Republicans don't trust anything but Fox." Sounds about right.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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REACHING THE POINT AT WHICH 'REAL DEBATE ISN'T POSSIBLE'.... If there's a "wonk gap" between the left and right, it's tempting to think conservatives Doug Holtz-Eakin, Joseph Antos, and James Capretta would help fill it. This is, after all, a trio that includes a former director and former assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office, and a former associate director at the Office of Management and Budget.

As Republican officials go, these three should know what they're talking about. So, when they write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, going after the CBO for its report on the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it's tempting to think we'll see some credible, substantive concerns.

We should be so lucky. The op-ed is a complete mess in which Holtz-Eakin, Antos, and Capretta publish obvious falsehoods, apparently in bad faith, about the CBO's findings. Well outside the realm of opinion, this trio misstates the basics -- about deficit reduction, and Medicare, about the doc fix, and about the report itself published by the CBO.

Ezra Klein highlighted the op-ed's dramatic flaws, and noted that Holtz-Eakin, Antos, and Capretta have "created a separate world for themselves," in which "policy debate, which relies on at least some shared facts, is impossible."

If you're a conservative and you consume conservative media, you now live in a world ... so different from the one that Democrats share with the CBO that no argument is really possible. Democrats say the bill reduces the deficit. Republicans say that the bill explodes the deficit. And when the scorekeeper tries to intervene, Republicans take aim at the scorekeeper.

Real debate isn't possible under those circumstances. But that's not the only danger here: When you have a scorekeeper respected by all sides, legislation ends up being more fiscally responsible. Fear of a bad score is why Democrats, though they disagreed with the CBO's modeling and thought their reforms would save more money with less pain, went back to the drawing board and include cost-saving provisions that they didn't like and that they knew might hurt them in the polls. The end result? A vastly more fiscally responsible bill. The process worked.

But since that put Republicans in a bind -- after all, how bad could this legislation be if it fulfilled its goals while paying for itself? -- they've turned on the process. That's not only left the two sides arguing from different sets of facts, but undermined the incentives of future congressional majorities to work with the CBO to release fiscally responsible legislation. After all, if no one cares about the score, why kill yourself chasing it?

This makes the debate over health care policy entirely pointless -- we're talking about a Republican Party that still very much approves of "creating their own reality" -- while undermining the policymaking process in a rather fundamental way.

Simultaneously, given the intellectual bankruptcy of conservative "wonks," we're reminded that the near future looks pretty bleak when it comes to substantive discourse. The wonks are hacks; the pols who rely on the wonks are fools; and the rank-and-file GOP voters who rely on the wonks and pols are played for suckers.

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

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BIPARTISAN AGREEMENT: THE SENATE IS EXASPERATING.... We'll get a better sense in the coming days whether the Senate is prepared to approve some modest reforms. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a leading proponent of changing how the chamber functions (or doesn't), continues to champion reform, and the outcome of his efforts should be clear early next week.

The vast majority of those hoping to see Senate changes are Democrats, fed up with unprecedented Republican obstructionism. Bradford Plumer notes today, however, that some GOP leaders are getting fed up with the Senate, too. They're just in the other chamber.

For the last two years, the Senate has been the major barricade between the country and various bits of progressive legislation. Over and over again, the House would pass a bill -- climate legislation, anyone? -- and liberal groups would get excited, only to watch the thing get scuttled by filibusters in the Senate. (As Josh Green detailed in The Atlantic, this was a key part of Mitch McConnell's strategy to frustrate Obama and bring the GOP back to power -- after all, few voters pay much attention to arcane Senate procedure.) House Democrats, particularly Nancy Pelosi, never hid their disdain for the sluggish pace of the upper chamber.

But guess who hates the Senate now? Earlier this morning, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor kept insisting to reporters, "The Senate ought not to be a place where legislation goes into a dead end." (He said some variation of this three times.) Cantor's frustrated because the House is all set to repeal health care reform, and Harry Reid has said he's not even going to bother bringing the bill up for consideration in the still-barely-Democratic Senate." The American people deserve a full hearing," Cantor said, "they deserve to see this legislation go to the Senate for a full vote."

I heard those on the left joke in recent years that the Senate is the place where "good ideas go to die" so many times, I've lost count. I just never thought I'd see Eric Cantor making the same case.

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DEFINE 'RESPECTED'.... In a piece on the health care fight, the New York Times tells readers today, "As floor debate on the repeal measure opened on Tuesday, Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Budget Committee, who is a respected voice on fiscal issues, declared that the health care law would 'accelerate our country's path toward bankruptcy.'"

There's a couple of problems with the sentence, most notably the fact that the second half helps debunk the first half.

Obviously, a law that's projected to reduce the deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars in the first decade, and a trillion dollars in the second decade, necessarily can't move the country closer to "bankruptcy." Anyone who thinks this way probably shouldn't be "a respected voice on fiscal issues."

Which is precisely why it's irksome when major news outlets make assertions like this. It creates a hard-to-shake public image, widely embraced by reporters, based on nothing but bogus perceptions.

Jamison Foser noted today:

Ryan voted for then-President Bush's tax cuts in 2001, then argued for extending them last year. Those tax cuts have had rather significant fiscal consequences. Is Ryan deserving of this praise because, though he fights for tax cuts that lead to massive deficits, he acknowledges (but doesn't do anything about) the fact that not all tax cuts pay for themselves? Ryan supported the Iraq war and voted for Bush's Medicare prescription program, too, both of which contributed significantly to deficits. Ryan produced a budget proposal that would take about 50 years to balance the budget -- except that it wouldn't do so even then, as Ryan told CBO to base its assessment of the budget on the assumption that tax revenues would remain the same, even though the budget included costly tax cuts. Ryan continues to support deficit-increasing policies. And when asked what spending he'd cut specifically, Ryan can't tell you the answer.

Paul Ryan's budget blueprint may be a right-wing fantasy -- slashing taxes on the rich while raising taxes for everyone else -- but there's nothing "respectable" about it. The plan calls for privatizing Social Security and gutting Medicare, and yet fails miserably in its intended goal -- cutting the deficit. As Paul Krugman recently explained, the Ryan plan "is a fraud that makes no useful contribution to the debate over America's fiscal future."

But Ryan nevertheless wins awards for fiscal responsibility, in large part because the political establishment is convinced the Ayn Rand disciple knows what he's talking about. He doesn't.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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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:

* In light of Sen. Joe Lieberman's (I) retirement in Connecticut, the race to fill the vacancy is likely to get pretty intense. Among Dems, former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz is already in, and Reps. Chris Murphy and Joe Courtney may soon join her. Among Republicans, former wrestling company executive Linda McMahon and former Rep. Rob Simmons are both interested. McMahon and Simmons, of course, also just ran against one another in 2010.

* The West Virginia state Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a gubernatorial race has to be held this year. Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) will reportedly try to keep the post, but will likely face at least one primary challenger. Former Secretary of State Betty Ireland (R) has already announced her intention to run.

* In Texas, former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz announced this morning that he's running for the U.S. Senate, hoping to succeed retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R).

* On a related note, Public Policy Polling reported yesterday that every possible combination of candidates shows Republicans with huge leads in the Texas contest. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) appeared to be the strongest candidate.

* Defeated Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell has filed the paperwork to create her own political action committee, ChristinePAC.

* Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), running for re-election in Utah next year, has reason to be nervous. He's likely to face a challenge from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), and a statewide poll this week shows Hatch trailing the congressman by quite a bit.

* In New Jersey, a Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind poll shows Sen. Robert Menendez (D) with double-digit leads over potential GOP challengers, in advance of his 2012 re-election campaign.

* Speaking of the Garden State, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) insisted this week that he's not going to run for president in 2012. "I am not arrogant enough to believe that after one year as governor ... that I am ready to be president of the United States," he told Fox News.

* And in Virginia, DNC Chairman Tim Kaine believes Sen. Jim Webb (D) will run for a second term. If Webb skips the race, Kaine added that he won't be the Democratic candidate. (thanks to reader T.D. for the tip)

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

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WHY FRIST MATTERS.... We talked yesterday about former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) becoming an unexpected ally of the Affordable Care Act. This week, Frist argued that congressional Republicans should give up on the repeal effort, and instead should consider ways to build on it.

The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney, a conservative, followed up with some questions about my post, and in case others had similar concerns, I thought I'd take a moment to respond.

First, Carney asked, in reference to Frist, "[D]on't you think it's relevant he invests in the industries that supported the bill?"

It's not an unreasonable point, but I suspect it's overly broad. As Chris Hayes noted, the "industries" Carney references lined up on both sides of the reform fight.

Carney added that seeing me

"...talking about Frist as a reasonable Republican is like talking about Lanny Davis as reasonable Democrat."

I'm puzzled by the comparison. Frist was a two-term Republican senator, who rose to the rank of Senate Majority Leader, with the backing of the Bush/Cheney White House. It's a mistake for me to consider him a "reasonable Republican"? Since when is Frist a reviled, widely-mocked figure in Republican circles, on par with Lanny Davis?

I'll concede -- indeed, I noted yesterday -- that Frist's tepid support for the reform law isn't necessarily a huge, game-changing moment, but a comparable situation would be Tom Daschle endorsing a major Republican policy accomplishment. Wouldn't that be considered a fairly noteworthy development, regardless of Daschle's investment portfolio?

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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'THE WONK GAP'.... To overcome reports from the Congressional Budget Office that the health care reform law lowers the deficit, Republicans have been reduced to making stuff up. And yet, they have their defenders.

This week, National Review ran a piece sticking up for the demonstrably false GOP argument. It prompted Jon Chait to note, "One of the unusual and frustrating aspects of the health care debate is the sheer imbalance of people who understand the issue at all from a technical standpoint. Even the elite policy wonks of the right make wildly incorrect claims about the issue."

Most people are not policy wonks. We really on trusted specialists to translate these details for us. This is true as well of elected officials and their advisors. Part of the extraordinary vitriol of the health care debate stems from the fact that, on the Republican side, even the specialists believe things that are simply patently untrue. As with climate change and supply-side economics, there isn't even a common reality upon which to base the discussion.

Paul Krugman added that Chait's concerns about "the wonk gap" should be expanded.

First of all, I don't think this is unique to health care, or especially unusual. Monetary policy, fiscal policy, you name it, there's a gap, although not quite as large as on health.

Second, I'm surprised that Chait doesn't refer to Upton Sinclair's principle: it's difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. In fact, in general right-wing think tanks prefer people who genuinely can't understand the issues -- it makes them more reliable.

Doesn't this apply to both sides? Not equally. There was a time when conservative think tanks employed genuine policy wonks, and when asked to devise a Republican health care plan, they came up with -- Obamacare! That is, what passes for leftist policy now is what was considered conservative 15 years ago; to meet the right's standards of political correctness now, you have to pass into another dimension, a dimension whose boundaries are that of imagination, untrammeled by things like arithmetic or logic.

I realize this is well-covered ground, but the wonk gap remains a constant source of frustration. The scope of the nation's challenges are enormous, but the debate remains stunted -- any policy discussion has to progress from a shared foundation of reality, and at this point, the right isn't even prepared to accept the basics.

There are, to be sure, conservative think tanks that ostensibly work on a variety of issues, but note that these institutions, when they're not just rehashing tired and debunked talking points, tend to fire scholars who question the rigid party line.

The issue is not just someone on the left thinking those on the right have the wrong answers. Rather, the issue is the lack of intellectual seriousness on the right, making it impossible to get beyond the questions.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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NOT A GREAT WEEK FOR GOP GOVERNORS AND DIVERSITY.... We learned late last week that new Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has picked 22 officials for his cabinet -- 17 white men and 5 white women. He's the first Ohio governor from either party to have a cabinet lacking any racial or ethnic diversity in a half-century.

And just to make matters a little worse, Kasich's office flubbed a King Day resolution, too. (via Matt Yglesias)

Monday was a holiday, just not the one Gov. John Kasich's staff had on its mind.

The Republican governor issued a resolution on Monday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., except instead of recognizing the slain black Civil Rights leader on Jan. 17, 2011, Kasich signed a document that recognized him on March 17, 2011 -- St. Patrick's Day, a holiday devoted to the life of an Irish apostle.

This was obviously an unfortunate clerical error, and I suspect it was an embarrassing, not a deliberate, slight. Accidents happen, and I'm more concerned about Kasich's all-white cabinet than his St. Patrick's Day proclamation on MLK Day.

But it's also a reminder that this hasn't been a great week for Republican governors and respect for diversity. We learned late last week about Kasich's cabinet, which was right around the time Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), in response to NAACP criticism, said, "Tell them to kiss my butt." And this occurred shortly before Alabama Gov.-elect Robert Bentley (R) delivered a message to his non-Christian constituents: "I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister."

All of these developments occurred over the course of five days.

When Republicans ponder why they struggle with outreach to minority communities, they may want to reflect on these incidents.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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GOP'S REPEAL AGENDA STILL NOT POPULAR.... Following up on yesterday's item on attitudes towards health care reform, we know polls that offer respondents a range of options end up offering a better look at the nuances of public opinion. The Republicans' repeal plans look a lot less popular when Americans aren't reduced to an either/or option.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll is one of the better surveys I've seen lately (not because I like the results, but because of the way the question was asked and the options available to respondents).

On the eve of a repeal vote in the House, more Americans continue to oppose than support the health care reform law, with broad suspicions it'll hurt the economy, boost the deficit and -- by a narrower margin -- cut jobs. But repealing it is another matter.

Forty-six percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll think the law is likely to cut jobs, 8 points more than think it'll create them. More, 54 percent think it's more apt to hurt than help the economy. And 62 percent see it as increasing rather than decreasing the federal deficit.

For all that, fewer than four in 10 -- 37 percent -- favor repealing all or parts of the law; the rest either support it, or want to wait and see. And just 18 percent favor repealing it entirely, as the Republican leadership in Congress seeks to do.

In this case, the results show patently false Republican attacks have been quite effective -- much, if not most, of the country now believes key falsehoods about the health care reform law and its allegedly negative consequences. That's a problem that explains the law's ongoing struggle to gain broader public support.

But even after all of that, just 18% of the country supports the GOP plan to repeal the entirety of the law.

Even on the top line, 45% said they support the Affordable Care Act, while an additional 13% oppose it because they don't think it goes far enough. In other words, a combined 58% either support the Democratic policy, or want it to be even more ambitious.

If congressional Republicans perceive this as an endorsement of their agenda, they're not paying close enough attention.

Postscript: The same poll, by the way, shows President Obama's approval rating up to 54%, its highest point in quite a while. Asked if the country should go in the direction Obama prefers, or the direction Republicans endorse, the president leads the GOP by nine points, 44% to 35%.

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ATTEMPTED DOMESTIC TERRORISM SUSPECTED IN SPOKANE.... This could have been absolutely devastating.

A "potentially deadly" explosive device that could have caused severe casualties was found along the intended route of a Martin Luther King Day march in Spokane, Wash., half an hour before the event was to begin, the FBI said Tuesday.

The annual Unity March was rerouted after city workers noticed a black Swiss Army backpack apparently abandoned on a bench about 9:25 a.m. Monday, said Frank Harrill, the supervisory senior resident agent in the FBI's Seattle division.

The device inside "clearly would have had the potential to inflict multiple casualties, injury and death, to humans," Harrill said in an interview Tuesday.

Some local workers noticed the unattended bag on Monday, and notified police after seeing wires coming out of the backpack. Organizers rerouted the parade, while the bomb squad used a robot to dismantle the apparent bomb. According to several accounts, this was a fairly sophisticated device, with a remote detonator, placed in such a way as to maximize the damage to those marching in the parade.

Given the circumstances, the FBI's Harrill said officials are "treating this as an act of domestic terrorism," and consider the connection to the King Day march "inescapable."

"At that point, it falls directly in the realm and sphere of domestic terrorism," Harrill told the AP. "Clearly, there was some political or social agenda here."

It's also worth emphasizing the area's history of white supremacist activity: "Until 2001, the Aryan Nations was headquartered in nearby Hayden Lake, Idaho. As recently as April 2009, the Spokesman-Review newspaper reported that residents of a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, subdivision had found Aryan Nations recruitment letters on their lawns." Last March, some kind of explosive device was also found outside the local federal courthouse.

Rachel Maddow's report on this last night is worth watching:

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

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

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LIEBERMAN'S NOT LEAVING; HE'S PUSHING THE JOEMENTUM IN ANOTHER DIRECTION.... More than a few folks on the left were relishing the opportunity to defeat Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) in Connecticut next year. It appears they won't get the chance -- the senator will announce today that he will not seek a fifth term.

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2000 who later became deeply alienated from his party, will announce on Wednesday that he will not seek a fifth term, according to people he told of the decision.

Mr. Lieberman, 68, whose term is up in January 2013, has chosen to retire rather than face a difficult campaign for re-election, according to aides and others who spoke to the senator on Tuesday.

A source close to Lieberman told the New York Times that the senator decided retirement was preferable to defeat. "I don't think he wanted to go out feet first," the person said.

It's an important point. By all accounts, Lieberman's re-election prospects were very poor -- he won in 2006, after losing the Democratic primary, because it was effectively a two-way contest between Lieberman and Ned Lamont. Lieberman had enough GOP and independent support, along with some lingering Democratic backing, to win with relative ease. That wasn't going to happen in 2012 -- both major parties intend to run top-tier candidates -- and Lieberman's standing has weakened considerably in recent years, with moves that managed to annoy practically everyone.

In terms of a legacy, Lieberman will depart as a prominent national figure, with a level of public notoriety most senators never achieve. But in liberal/Democratic/progressive circles, the senator will very likely be remembered as a source of near-constant frustration and disappointment.

Regular readers know that I've long found Lieberman to be hopelessly exasperating, but I'm willing to concede his record has some high points. Just last month, Lieberman showed great leadership on DADT repeal, and was instrumental in getting it passed. Lieberman also had a very strong record on reproductive rights, which is more than can be said about many of his "centrist" brethren, and played a constructive role in helping defeat the GOP filibuster of the 2009 Recovery Act.

But then there's the rest of Lieberman's record. The cliche, repeated by many Democratic leaders over the years, is that Lieberman is "with us on everything but foreign policy." To be sure, when it came to national security, wars, and international affairs, the Connecticut Independent was an even more reliable Republican vote than some Republicans. There was literally no difference between Lieberman's vision and that of the Bush/Cheney team, and his allegiance with conservative Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham on foreign policy was as misguided as it was maddening.

But the cliche was also wrong. For years, even when he was an actual Democrat, Lieberman adopted positions well to the right of his party on school vouchers, "tort reform," the Bush White House's "faith-based" initiative, gun control, and the "blame Hollywood" effort. Lieberman flirted with conservative changes to Social Security. He was the first Democrat to go after then-President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. During the uproar over Terri Schiavo, Lieberman was even sympathetic to Republican efforts.

Perhaps most strikingly, Lieberman was chiefly responsible for killing the public option in the health care debate, insisting at the outset that he would kill the entire initiative over this one, popular idea, and coming up with a series of bizarre rationales for his position.

Looking ahead, Democrats are optimistic about winning Lieberman's seat next year, and with good reason. The result will very likely be a reliable progressive voice, and a more consistent, less sanctimonious, lawmaker.

Postscript: I almost forgot that Lieberman was responsible for the most unintentionally hilarious bit of political spin I've ever heard. In 2004, as part of an inexplicable Democratic presidential campaign, Lieberman was counting on a strong showing in New Hampshire. He came in fifth, with just 9% support. Heralding the results to supporters the night of the primary, Lieberman proudly proclaimed, "We are in a three-way split decision ... for third place."

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January 18, 2011

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

* Deadly attack in Iraq: "A suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives and ball bearings attacked Iraqi police recruits on Tuesday in Saddam Hussein's hometown, killing up to 60 and wounding over 100, officials said."

* More fractured government in Tunisia: "Five or more ministers from opposition parties resigned from Tunisia's unity government on Tuesday, bowing to a wave of street protests against the cabinet's domination by members of the ousted president's ruling party and putting mounting pressure on his prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, to resign as well."

* In Haiti, former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was charged today with corruption, theft, misappropriation of funds, and assorted other felonies. Why he was allowed to step foot on Haitian soil last week still isn't clear.

* That's a pretty big quake: "A major 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked a remote area of southwestern Pakistan early Wednesday, shaking many parts of the country and causing widespread panic, said meteorologists."

* The Supreme Court announced today it will not hear a challenge to D.C.'s marriage equality law. The move allows the law to remain in place.

* President Obama moved forward today on a new review of existing federal regulations, intended to identify "excessive, inconsistent, and redundant" measures that might interfere with the economy.

* FCC: "The proposed combination of Comcast and NBC Universal was approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department on Tuesday, smoothing the way for the deal to close by the end of January."

* R.I.P, Sargent Shriver.

* Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in D.C. today for an official U.S. state visit.

* House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), still fuzzy on the consequences of his own policies, is inclined to play games with the federal debt limit.

* In a bit of a surprise, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) supports reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

* I get the sense the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin is on a bit of a losing streak.

* Have I mentioned lately that economic growth makes a big difference in reducing the deficit? It does.

* It's one thing to say higher ed needs a new funding model; it's something else to actually come up with one.

* And finally, the "Sarah Palin Battle Hymn," set to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," is among the scariest things I've seen in a long while.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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WHAT THE PUBLIC THINKS OF HEALTH CARE REPEAL.... In advance of tomorrow's House vote on eliminating the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, proponents insist that the public is on their side. The truth is far more complicated.

Over the weekend, the latest national poll from the Associated Press, for example, found that only about one in four Americans (26%) want to scrap the Affordable Care Act altogether. Sounds like pretty abysmal support for the Republican plan, right? Today, however, a CNN poll was released, asking respondents whether they'd like to see Congress repeal all of the law or leave it in place. Half the country (50%) favored repeal.

Obviously, that's a huge difference. One credible national poll finds one in four support repeal, and two days later, another credible national poll finds one in two support repeal. Statistical variations of a few points between surveys are to be expected; 24-point differences on the same issue at the same time are not.

So what's going on? Greg Sargent has an important piece that explains the larger problem. The key is giving respondents enough options to get an accurate sense of their attitudes.

This pattern now seems obvious. How to explain it? One possibility is that while there's no quibbling with the fact that health reform is unpopular, there are many differing reasons why people don't like the law. When people are given the opportunity to tell pollsters that they don't think the bill is ambitious enough, a third or more of Americans do just that. Another chunk of voters says there are some problems with the bill, and it needs to be partially scaled back. Result: The sum total calling for full repeal drops sharply.

But when they are given only a straight up choice -- keep the bill as is, or get rid of it -- the number who opt for blowing it up is considerably higher. This probably reflects a high degree of frustration with the current law, but it seems to exaggerate the depth of support for doing away with reform completely.

Looking back over the last year or so, it seems there have been three relative constants in public opinion as it relates to health care. The first is that the public soured on the Democratic plan, even if most Americans didn't know what the Democratic plan was/is. The second is that the individual components of the reform package were quite popular -- in some cases, extremely popular -- when pollsters actually told respondents was in the proposal.

And the third is that "opposition" to the reform plan has never been monolithic. Reform's detractors have been large in number for quite a while, but the assumption that they were all on board with the GOP's criticism has been deeply flawed -- a big chunk of reform's opponents have been from the left, with a sizable group who believe the law is too timid, too limited, and not nearly ambitious enough.

It's why Greg's point is so important: polls that offer respondents a range of options end up offering a better look at the nuances of public opinion. Something to keep in mind as the House vote draws closer.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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REPUBLICANS SCRAMBLE FOR CREDIT ON THE ECONOMY.... Time will tell whether 2011 is a good year for the U.S. economy. There are some optimistic projections available, and we can all hope they're correct, but the recovery is, at best, fragile at this point.

But Republicans have begun to see some economic improvements -- gains the GOP insisted were impossible in light of the Obama White House's policies -- and want to figure out a way to get credit for them.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, argued last week that the recent good news -- private-sector job growth, big corporate profits, major gains in the major Wall Street indexes -- that occurred throughout 2010 were the result of Republican tax policies. As Kyl sees it, business leaders in early 2010 predicted the tax policy agreement crafted in late 2010, and started growing the economy based on their future-predicting abilities.

On Fox News today, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) offered a related argument.

"[Congressional Republicans] are determined to ensure that with a market-oriented approach [to health care policy] we can have the kind of chance for people to have access to insurance and we can get our economy growing.

"And we've gotten some positive numbers. I think it's in large part because we won our majority and we're pursuing pro-growth policies."

It's really fascinating. The economy started growing again in 2009, with the stimulus gaving the economy a boost. We saw growth continue throughout 2010 -- even after those rascally Democrats passed health care reform and Wall Street reform -- while Republicans said Dems were killing the economy.

And now Dreier would have us believe the limited growth we've seen is the direct result of Republican policies that haven't even been voted on, and a new Republican House majority that's been in power for two weeks.

So to review, Republicans in the Bush era brought the global economy to the brink of catastrophic collapse; Obama and congressional Dems helped turn things around; and now those same Republicans whose policies failed want credit for Democratic successes.

I know some folks will find this persuasive, and maybe even some of these GOP officials have deluded themselves into believing their own rhetoric. But it doesn't make the argument any less ridiculous.

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THE REPUBLICAN IDEA THAT REPUBLICANS HATE.... This morning, Brian Beutler ran an item emphasizing a point I've published so many times, I suspect readers are sick of seeing it: the individual mandate in health care reform enjoyed broad, bipartisan support until the GOP reversed course in 2009.

Brian notes that the mandate idea was "once a popular, if not consensus, policy framework on the right," abandoned by Republican after President Obama said he agreed with the Republican idea. Sticking up for the GOP is Philip Klein at the American Spectator, who makes the case that the "consensus" was "imaginary."

There's no doubting the fact that the Heritage Foundation supported the idea, as well as some Republicans -- Beutler cites John Chafee, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney -- but that simply is not indicative of how "the right" broadly thought about health care. Chaffee was known as the ultimate RINO before passing the torch to his son. Dole was viewed by the right as a Washington insider who was too eager to compromise with Democrats, with the early years of the Clinton presidency as a possible exception. None of the Republicans running for president in 2008 included a mandate in their health care proposals -- even Mitt Romney, who defended state-based mandates, was wishy-washy about whether he supported one at the national level. Romney spent most of the 2008 campaign running away from his health care plan in Massachusetts. When he did defend his support for mandates, he was harshly rebuked by his opponents, as in this exchange with Fred Thompson.

For all the talk of the mandate being a consensus position, George W. Bush did not run on it in 2000 or 2004, nor did he push it as president. If this was so popular among the right, why wasn't there an effort to make a mandate law when the GOP controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress? The reality is that while you can find individual examples of Republicans or think tankers who once supported a mandate, it was nothing close to a popular, consensus position among conservatives.

Klein's post is not outrageous on its face, and some of the argument hinges on how one defines "the right." But I'd argue that Klein's version of recent history on the policy is incomplete. Whether "the right" was broadly supportive of the idea, the Republican Party threw its support behind the mandate decades ago.

Nixon embraced it in the 1970s, and George H.W. Bush supported the idea in the 1980s. When Dole endorsed the mandate in 1994, it was in keeping with the party's prevailing attitudes at the time. Romney embraced the mandate as governor and it was largely ignored during the '08 campaign. This didn't stop Romney from gaining plenty of conservative support, including an endorsement from the Weekly Standard.

But, Klein might argue, Nixon, Dole, H.W. Bush, and Romney (at least the previous version) aren't considered conservative by the standards of contemporary conservatism. Fair enough. But the mandate has also been embraced by the likes of John McCain, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Bob Bennett, Tommy Thompson, Lamar Alexander, Lindsey Graham, John Thune, Scott Brown, and Judd Gregg, among others. Indeed, several of them not only endorsed the policy, they literally co-sponsored legislation that included the mandate. Are they all RINOs?

During the fight over Obama's reform proposal, Grassley told Fox News, of all outlets, "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have an individual mandate" -- and there was no pushback from party leaders. This isn't ancient history; it was a year and a half ago.

I realize it's inconvenient now -- the individual mandate has become the key argument against the Affordable Care Act on the right -- but the history of Republican support of the idea they now hate is incontrovertible.

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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FACT-CHECKING A NON-EXISTENT CBO NUMBER.... Following up on an earlier item, the Republican argument that the Affordable Care Act would cost thousands of jobs is clearly untrue. But there's one talking point in particular we're likely to hear repeated, which deserves special scrutiny.

When making the case for repeal, GOP leaders insist that the reform law will cost the economy "650,000 jobs." Republicans even published a report of sorts, claiming that the 650k number is the result of "independent analyses," most notably from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

To its credit, the AP fact-checked the claim today, noting the CBO "never produced the number," and the talking point itself is an example of how "statistics get used and abused in Washington."

What CBO actually said is that the impact of the health care law on supply and demand for labor would be small. Most of it would come from people who no longer have to work, or can downshift to less demanding employment, because insurance will be available outside the job.

"The legislation, on net, will reduce the amount of labor used in the economy by a small amount -- roughly half a percent -- primarily by reducing the amount of labor that workers choose to supply," budget office number crunchers said in a report from last year.

That's not how it got translated in the new report from Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other top Republicans.

No, of course not. Congressional Republicans aren't interested in a credible, serious debate -- they're interested in scoring points. In this case, a lie is more effective than the truth, so that's what they're repeating over and over again.

The key here is understanding that the health care law may reduce the labor supply, not the number of jobs. The possible 0.5% shift in labor is not the result of employers cutting jobs, it's the result of people working less. And why might people work less? Because some workers might decide to retire earlier, knowing that they won't have to keep working in order to have health care benefits. (And when these older workers leave the workforce, it creates opportunities for younger workers.)

The 650,000 figure is a sham, pushed by professional con artists who assume the public and the media won't aren't pay close attention anyway. Some will believe the lie, and there won't be any consequences of the dishonesty anyway.

For more on this, there was a good segment on MSNBC's "Countdown" last week.

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

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HEALTH CARE REFORM'S UNLIKELY GOP ALLY.... Given the unanimous Republican opposition to health care reform, it continues to surprise me how much support former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has given to the Democratic effort.

During a press conference hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, for example, Frist said the Affordable Care Act is the "law of the land" -- and Republicans should accept that and, instead of repealing it, they should consider ways to build on it.

"It is not the bill that [Republicans] would have written," said the Tennessee Republican, "It is not the bill that I would have drafted. But it is the law of the land and it is the platform, the fundamental platform, upon which all future efforts to make that system better, for that patient, for that family, will be based. And that is a fact. I know the discussion of Washington is repeal and I'm sure we will come back to that discussion..."

"[The bill] has many strong elements," Frist added later. "And those elements, whatever happens, need to be preserved, need to be cuddled, need to be snuggled, need to be promoted and need to be implemented."

Remember, this isn't the first time Frist has offered support for the Democratic policy. He's said he would have voted for the reform bill in the Senate ("That's what leadership is all about," Frist said in October '09); he's defended the individual mandate; and he's even defended Dems using Senate reconciliation procedures that the GOP pretended to find outrageous.

After President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, Frist spoke at the American Hospital Association's annual meeting and said of the reform law, "I like the bill." The comments came on the heels of Frist saying in a separate speech, "From a justice, fairness and equity standpoint, I'm very proud of this administration and that America has addressed this."

In the larger context, I don't really expect remarks like these to have a meaningful impact on public attitudes. Bill Frist wasn't especially well known when he ran the Senate, and most Americans probably have no idea who he is now.

But I'm glad Frist is saying these things anyway. At a minimum, it offers Democrats a chance to note at least some bipartisan support for the law, and an opportunity to ask Republicans why, if the ACA is so outrageous and evil, their former Senate Majority Leader likes the law and wants them to drop their repeal crusade?

Steve Benen 12:30 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:

* Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, one of the top Republican targets for the 2012 cycle, announced this morning that he will not seek re-election next year. Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk (R) has already taken steps to run for the GOP nomination, and former Gov. Ed Schafer (R) may also run. Among Dems, former Rep. Earl Pomeroy is likely to take a long look at the race.

* Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz (D) will launch her U.S. Senate campaign today, a top-tier candidate who won't wait for Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) to announce his plans. Bysiewicz had some miscues last year, abandoning campaigns for governor and state attorney general, but is considered a top contender for Lieberman's seat.

* Former Sen. George Allen (R) will reportedly kick off his comeback bid within the week, announcing plans for a rematch against Sen. Jim Webb (D) in Virginia next year. Webb has not yet said whether he'll seek a second term.

* On a related note, Allen would appear to be a heavy favorite to win the GOP nod in the commonwealth, but far-right activist Jamie Radtke has already moved towards taking Allen on in a Republican primary.

* It was never really in doubt, but Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) announced this morning that he will seek re-election next year. If he can make it through a very likely GOP primary, Lugar is considered a heavy favorite for another term.

* Former President George H.W. Bush has thrown his support to Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams (R) in next year's open U.S. Senate race in the Lone Star State. Williams is generally not considered a top contender for the Republican nomination, and Bush's endorsement hasn't necessarily meant much of late -- he endorsed Kay Bailey Hutchison's gubernatorial campaign, too.

* On a related note, it looks like Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert (R) is also moving closer to running for Hutchison's Senate seat.

* Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) will clearly seek some higher office next year, but he has not yet said which one. A new outfit called "America's President Committee," organized by a former Reagan administration official, has begun a push to draft Pence into a presidential campaign. The more likely scenario is a gubernatorial campaign, but look for a Pence announcement fairly soon.

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

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BEING GOVERNOR OF 'ALL THE PEOPLE' -- WITH MINOR EXCEPTIONS.... Republican Robert Bentley will be sworn in soon as Alabama's new governor, and explained this week his commitment to serving "all" of his constituents.

He's not above playing favorites, however.

Bentley spoke at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the late civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once was pastor, and vowed to parishioners, ''I was elected as a Republican candidate, but once I became governor ... I became the governor of all the people. I intend to live up to that."

That's a nice sentiment, delivered in the context of race relations. But Bentley couldn't leave well enough alone. (via Taegan Goddard)

"There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit," Bentley said. ''But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister."

Bentley added, ''Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."

Asked later if he meant to be insulting to people of other faiths, Bentley replied, ''We're not trying to insult anybody."

No, of course not. It's just an example of a soon-to-be governor announcing publicly that constituents who don't share his faith should remember, "You're not my brother and you're not my sister."

Why would anyone find that insulting?

I am curious, though, what Bentley considers everyone else in his state who "has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior." Great uncles and aunts? Second cousins? Family friend who shows up at birthday parties?

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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GETTING TO KNOW DARRELL ISSA.... The new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is, of course, Rep. Darrell Issa, a far-right California Republican. As we've seen in recent months, Issa is set to make quite a name for himself -- he's accused President Obama of being "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times"; he's asked business leaders to set his regulatory agenda for him; and he's signaled an interest in launching a series of White House witch-hunts.

But before we get annoyed by where Issa's going, it's worth pausing to appreciate where he's been. In a fascinating piece for the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza takes a close look at Issa's rise to great wealth and political power and some of the "troubles" the right-wing congressman has had along the way.

Many politicians have committed indiscretions in earlier years: maybe they had an affair or hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Issa, it turned out, had, among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.

Yes, the man House Republicans have tasked with investigating potential White House wrongdoing spent a fair amount of his adult life as an apparent criminal.

Lizza's story is worth reading in its entirety -- it's a long one, which is tough to excerpt -- but we're talking about a guy with one run-in with the law after another, including arrests and indictments. There are also many suspected crimes -- he's accused of deliberately burning down a building and threatening a former employee with a gun -- which did not lead to formal charges, but which nevertheless cast the congressman in a less-than-flattering light.

There was also an incident in which Issa crashed into a woman who needed to be hospitalized, driving away before the police could arrive because, as he told the person he hit, he didn't have time to wait. Issa didn't face charges, but he was sued over the matter, and agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

And in case that weren't quite enough, the article also notes instances in which Issa appears tohave lied about his background. The congressman, for example, claimed to receive the "highest possible" ratings during his Army career, despite the fact that at one point he "received unsatisfactory conduct and efficiency ratings and was transferred to a supply depot." Issa also claimed to have provided security for President Nixon in 1971, which wasn't true, and a national Entrepreneur of the Year award Issa claimed to have won, but didn't.

Issa has twice sought statewide office in California, but his scandalous past derailed both bids.

That past, apparently, does not bother House Republicans, who recently handed Issa broad oversight authority and subpoena power.

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

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CONNECTING HEALTH CARE AND JOBS.... In a great example of farcical rhetoric, House Republicans have named their health care bill the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act," as part of a silly campaign to argue the law is responsible for job losses.

Just at the surface level, the charge is transparently false. Since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, the private sector has added 1.1 million jobs. Roughly a fifth of that total -- more than 200,000 -- were jobs created in the health care industry. If GOP rhetoric were true, these jobs wouldn't have been created.

For that matter, a report published by Harvard economist David Cutler helped prove that Republicans have it backwards -- repealing the law could cost 250,000 to 400,000 jobs per year over the next decade.

McClatchy's David Lightman took a closer look at the debate, and reports today, "Despite what Republicans say, the 2010 health care law isn't necessarily a job killer."

House Republicans defend their job-killer claim in a 19-page Jan. 6 report, "ObamaCare: A Budget-Busting, Job-Killing Health Care Law." But some of its points are out of date or omit offsetting information that would weaken the argument. [...]

In short, no one knows the economic impact of the law for sure, and most independent experts think that condemning it as a job-killer is hard to justify.

Imagine that.

What's more, Steven Pearlstein noted last week, "Since the immediate impact of the measure will be to allow 30 million more Americans the chance to buy drugs and medical services from doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, it's hard to imagine a more effective way to reduce employment in the one sector that is actually adding jobs."

I don't doubt these pesky details -- i.e., reality -- will stand in the way of Republican talking points, but it's worth remembering that the single most common talking point repeal proponents will repeat this week is demonstrably ridiculous. They know this, but they'll repeat it anyway, because if there's one consistency to Republicans' health care rhetoric, it's their willingness to deceive the public.

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

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A WHOLE LOT OF PREEXISTING CONDITIONS.... It was one of the most common phrases in the health care debate: "preexisting conditions." Before Democrats' health care reform plan became law, insurance companies routinely turned away customers for coverage based on ailments they had in the past. This discrimination left individuals and families with no insurance through no fault of their own.

The Affordable Care Act banned this discrimination, and it's one of the law's most popular measures. Congressional Republicans, of course, intend to gut the law and allow insurers to go back to screwing over those with preexisting conditions. The GOP insists it intends to offer protections for these Americans eventually, but they haven't offered so much as a hint as to how they'd reach this goal.

While they're thinking it over, here's hoping they keep an important detail in mind: a huge chunk of the country falls into the "preexisting conditions" category.

As many as 129 million Americans under age 65 have medical problems that are red flags for health insurers, according to an analysis that marks the government's first attempt to quantify the number of people at risk of being rejected by insurance companies or paying more for coverage.

The secretary of health and human services is scheduled to release the study on Tuesday, hours before the House plans to begin considering a Republican bill that would repeal the new law to overhaul the health-care system. The report is part of the Obama administration's salesmanship to convince the public of the advantages of the law, which contains insurance protections for people with preexisting medical conditions.

Republicans immediately disparaged the analysis as "public relations."

It's not unreasonable to think a p.r. strategy had something to do with the timing of the release, but let's note that Republicans didn't disparage the analysis as "false."

In other words, the GOP can complain all it wants about the politics, but when they're done whining, there will still be 129 million Americans with preexisting conditions, all of whom run the risk of facing insurance industry discrimination.

And how do Republicans intend to help them, after taking away their protections by repealing the existing law? I'm sure they'll get back to us eventually.

Postscript: Also keep in mind how important this is to the basis for the individual mandate. If policymakers simply passed a law prohibiting discrimination, those with preexisting conditions could get coverage, but prices would skyrocket. The key to keeping costs down is getting a large enough pool of consumers into the system, along with those with preexisting conditions, to help keep costs down.

Republicans have traditionally understood this -- they are, after all, the ones who came up with the idea of an individual mandate in the first place -- back before cheap hacks took over the party. I emphasize all of this because the GOP will likely respond to today's report by insisting that Republicans support protections for those with preexisting conditions, but they can't answer the very next question: how to do this without either a mandate or soaring costs.

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

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LEARNING THE WRONG LESSONS.... Last week, about four days after the tragedy in Tucson, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) released a video statement about what had transpired. By all accounts, it was a disaster -- Palin, looking smaller than life, was defensive, caustic, and accusatory. Palin had seen a tragedy, and concluded she was the important part of the story.

Jonathan Martin said Palin "demonstrated that she has little interest -- or capacity -- in moving beyond her brand of grievance-based politics." John Dickerson added that the recorded remarks were "defensive, illogical, and distracting," which "confused or alienated anyone she was trying to convince."

Common sense suggests there were clear lessons for Palin to be learned from the reactions and criticisms from across the spectrum. Stop being so defensive. Stop trying to use a tragedy to pit people against one another. Stop making the story all about her.

But as of last night, she still hadn't learned anything. Palin's first interview since the shooting was with Sean Hannity -- again, no Profile in Courage Award for you, gov -- and she insisted all over again how right she is about everything and how awful she considers everyone else.

In her first interview since the Arizona shootings, Sarah Palin Monday sharply beat back critics who have suggested her at-times charged political rhetoric and use of a graphic featuring crosshairs may have contributed to the shooter's motivations. [...]

"It isn't about me personally, but it is about the message," she said. "I know that a lot on the left hate my message, and they will do all that they can to stop me because they don't like the message. They'll do what they can to destroy the message and the messenger."

Meanwhile, when asked about speculation the recent controversies have disrupted any future political ambitions, Palin vowed she will continue to speak her mind.

"I am not ready to make an announcement about what my political future is going to be. But I will tell you ... I am not going to sit down. I am not going to shut up," she said.

I strongly suspect Palin doesn't understand this, but I get the sense Democrats don't want to shut her up at all. On the contrary, Dems seem thrilled that she's positioned herself as "the messenger" for the far-right. The last thing Dems want is to "stop" her from speaking out.

Why would they? Last night's "interview" -- I use the word loosely -- made Palin look even worse. Her rambling message was a rehash of the identical sentiments expressed in her widely-panned video statement, only this time, without the benefit of a teleprompter, Palin's language was clumsier. She went after those who attended the memorial service; she went after those who thought "blood libel" was a poor choice of words; she went after liberals who she thinks want to "destroy our republic." Palin even tried to rehash the notion that the gunman in Tucson was "perhaps even left leaning."

She proved last week that "she has little interest -- or capacity -- in moving beyond her brand of grievance-based politics," and then proved it again 12 hours ago.

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll asked Americans if they approve or disapprove of the way various people responded to the shootings in Tucson. Asked about President Obama, 78% of respondents approved. Asked about Sarah Palin, 30% approved.

If only she could understand why.

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GOP ADVANCING HEALTH CARE REPEAL WITHOUT ITS FRIENDS.... After a week-long break, House Republicans will get back to work today, renewing their admittedly-pointless effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The vote, which will likely come tomorrow, isn't hard to predict -- the House will easily approve the repeal measure -- but even supporters know the bill will promptly fade into oblivion soon after.

What's more interesting is how little Republicans' ostensible allies are doing to give them a hand. (thanks to reader V.S. for the tip)

The health care industry's biggest trade groups have remained uncharacteristically neutral on the Republican effort to repeal the health care reform law, choosing instead to save their political capital for smaller, more targeted changes that have a chance at becoming law.

America's Health Insurance Plans lobbied against much of the health care overhaul when it was passed in Congress, but it is not supporting the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. The heads of Aetna and Cigna, members of AHIP, have publicly said they do not support efforts to repeal the law. [...]

The pharmaceutical industry, which spent months cutting deals with Democrats to protect its interests, has remained mum on Republican repeal efforts.

Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a leading opponent of the Democratic reform law, is on record formally supporting the Republican repeal bill, but isn't at all interested in investing any time or energy into the GOP push.

To be sure, the Chamber, AHIP, and like-minded powerhouses haven't suddenly grown fond of the Affordable Care Act. Rather, they're ignoring the House Republican's effort because they see it as a vanity exercise -- the new GOP House majority is just going through the motions, hoping to satisfy, at least temporarily, far-right activists who don't seem to understand what it is they don't like about the health care law anyway.

Powerful opponents of the Affordable Care Act may have deeply flawed priorities, but they're not stupid, and they'll gladly wait for meaningful policy measures before getting in the game in earnest.

In the meantime, Democrats and reform supporters on the left don't seem to mind this week's repeal effort at all. Proponents see it as an opportunity to remind the public about the ACA's popular benefits, while Dems are quietly looking forward to crafting campaign ads in 2012, pointing House Republicans voting for forcing vulnerable seniors to pay thousands of additional out-of-pocket dollars for their medication, allowing insurers to discriminate against children with pre-existing conditions, raising taxes on small businesses, forcing young people off their family's insurance plan, etc.

For their part, GOP leaders also realize that their "repeal and replace" strategy is only focused on the former, not the latter. As Joan McCarter noted, Republican lawmakers, senior aides, and conservative health policy specialists all agree that the party has "not distilled their ideas into a coherent plan." The strategy, such as it is, is limited to gutting reform, returning the law to the old status quo, and then figuring something out later.

There's a reason Dems don't seem to be approaching this week with any dread at all.

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

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January 17, 2011

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

* As of yesterday, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' (D-Ariz.) condition had been upgraded, from critical to serious. She is also now breathing on her own.

* Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, spoke publicly yesterday, the first time since the shooting. Taking the stage at Gabriel Zimmerman's memorial service, Kelly said, "I know someday she'll get to tell you how she felt about Gabe herself." He added that Giffords loved Zimmerman "like a younger brother," and was inspired by "his idealism, his strength and his warmth."

* Tunisia: "The interim government of Tunisia struggled Monday to contain a new wave of protests as the prime minister announced a new unity coalition cabinet with members of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's ruling party in all the most significant posts. The popular response was immediate. More than a thousand demonstrators swelled into the streets of downtown chanting for the complete eradication of the old ruling party and demanding their freedom. 'Citizens and martyrs, the government is still the same!' they chanted."

* Elections in southern Sudan appear legit, helping advance the cause of a new nation: "International observers gave south Sudan's independence referendum their seal of approval on Monday and said a vote for secession was now "virtually certain" in their first official judgment on the poll."

* Why, exactly, was Baby Doc Duvalier allowed back into Haiti? "In the past 12 months, Haiti -- already the western hemisphere's economic basket case -- has suffered an epic earthquake that according to latest estimates killed more than 250,000 people and leveled the country's infrastructure, a cholera epidemic that has claimed thousands more lives and a powder-keg political crisis tied to the fraud-tainted Nov. 28 presidential election. All the country needed now was the return of a brutal exiled dictator."

* Evidence suggests delays in Iran's nuclear program are a direct result of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive program created by U.S. and Israeli officials. The Stuxnet has reportedly "wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran's ability to make its first nuclear arms."

* Is the Israeli Labor Party unraveling? Ehud Barak's latest move suggests that it is.

* Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave of absence from Apple, telling employees he's stepping aside "so I can focus on my health." Jobs said he will remain involved in major strategic decisions.

* More of this, please: "The Obama administration on Friday announced the broadest liberalization of travel to Cuba in a decade, making it easier for American students and religious and cultural groups to visit the Communist-ruled island."

* Daniel Luzer: "A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute indicates that providing American high school students and their families with more information might dramatically change college applications in the United States."

* And finally, a clip to help honor the holiday:

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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WORST. COMPARISON. EVER.... For crying out loud.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Glenn Beck posted copies of King's Pledge of Nonviolence and his own nonviolence pledge -- issued in the wake of the shooting in Arizona -- on his website and urged people to "read both" and "see the similarities."

As Media Matters has previously noted, Beck's pledge is steeped in politics and contains a very thinly-veiled attack on President Obama. Moreover, Beck has a long history of violent rhetoric with which potential pledge-signers may not want to associate.

As a rule, comparing one's work to that of the Rev. Martin Luther King's is itself a bad idea. For a ridiculous right-wing media personality to do it is farcical.

But Beck using MLK Day to tout his "pledge against violence" is especially misguided. The "pledge" was unveiled last week, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, along with an appeal from Beck to politicians, effectively daring them to sign it. (That officials may not want to sign onto a document presented by a clownish Fox News figure, known for pushing the rhetorical envelope to the breaking point, is apparently unimportant.)

Alex Pareene explained the other day how Beck's "pledge" is just another petty stunt.

Beck introduced the pledge knowing full well no liberal or Democrat would have anything to do with it. It was more or less designed to be the subject of a show about how no one would sign it. The pledge is, of course, not a simple promise to reject violence. It is a series of dog whistles to the people who watch his show and take it seriously. It is a pledge to reject the vast progressive conspiracy that is plotting even now to fundamentally change America. It is also a pledge that made an elderly college professor into a dangerous threat to the nation.

Even for Beck, equating his latest gambit to Dr. King's Pledge of Nonviolence is insane. That Beck has tried to connect himself to King's legacy before only adds insult to injury.

I can't speak to what Beck actually believes, versus the garbage he spews for publicity, but it's important his minions realize he' claiming a legacy he doesn't understand, and trying to lift a mantle that doesn't fit on his weak shoulders.

As Leonard Pitts Jr. noted after Beck proclaimed that he and his followers would "reclaim" the civil rights movement, this kind of politics isn't just shameless nonsense, "It is obscene. It is theft of legacy. It is robbery of martyr's graves."

I'm looking for the similarities, Glenn. They're not there.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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UNDER FIRE, LEPAGE COMES AROUND ON MLK DAY.... Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) had been invited to attend Martin Luther King Day events in Bangor and Portland, but declined last week, saying he didn't have time. When the NAACP, which had already felt slighted by the conservative governor, questioned his priorities, LePage said, "Tell them to kiss my butt."

LePage also repeatedly referred to his adopted black son as a rationale for avoiding a discussion about his policies as governor.

Given that I wrote about LePage's bizarre judgment over the weekend, it's only fair to note that the governor came around unexpectedly today.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage made a surprise visit to a Martin Luther King Day event today despite his earlier assertion that critics of his decision to skip it can "kiss my butt." [...]

But today, the Portland Press Herald reports, he showed up at a Waterville breakfast in honor of MLK. "Dr. King is someone who spent and ultimately gave his life making sure that people got a fair shake regardless of race," he said. "We have come far through the years, but the journey continues to make Dr. King's dreams a reality. I urge all Mainers to work as one for a better life for all."

LePage apparently agreed to attend the King breakfast the day after the "kiss my butt" story ran throughout the media in Maine, but the governor says his decision to participate in a King Day event, after saying he wouldn't, has nothing to do with the controversy surrounding his remarks.

He added this morning, "I don't want to talk about it anymore."

Still, the fact that LePage showed up is at least a step in the right direction, and evidence that the loudmouth governor is not immune to public criticism.

Steve Benen 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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RATIONALIZING RIDICULOUS REASONING.... For all the heat the Obama administration takes on its business practices, it's hard to understand what detractors are complaining about, exactly.

Over the last two years, the financial industry has seen bluer skies than most -- massive bonuses have returned to bailed out banks, corporate profits have soared, the private sector is where nearly all of the new jobs are being created, and all of the major investment indexes are way up. The administration even managed to rescue the American automotive industry.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was asked the other day to reconcile real-world developments with Republican rhetoric. Kyl's creative answer is one we're likely to hear again.

Here's the exchange between the conservative senator and Bloomberg News' Al Hunt.

HUNT: Let me talk about the Obama administration and business. Corporate profits are soaring. Goldman Sachs named 110 new partners. Bonuses are flowing. S&P has risen more than in any three-year period since the tech bubble. General Motors is -- the IPO. This isn't an anti-business administration, is it?

KYL: I would contend that, for the last two years, it's been highly anti-business. Some of the results that you just talked about, I suspect, are coming from the fact that we extended tax rates that the president did not want to extend, but was willing to do so at the end of the year last year.

HUNT: But, of course, all these things happened before that.

KYL: No, all these things are, I think, partially a -- a result of the knowledge now that taxes are not going to be raised in the next two years.

I have to wonder if even Jon Kyl believes his own rhetoric on this. For two years, the senator has argued that the Obama administration's policies were bad for businesses. While those policies were being implemented, businesses fared pretty well, and profits soared.

Asked to explain how this is possible, Kyl believes a tax policy that wasn't crafted until December can explain private-sector growth for the previous 11 months.

In other words, business leaders in, say, March 2010 could see into the future, accurately predict a tax policy that would be drawn up in December 2010, and then shape their practices accordingly -- in the process making Republicans responsible for private-sector growth, even while they were complaining that government policies were preventing such growth.

When Kyl wonders why some find it hard to take him seriously in policy debates, he should refer back to this argument.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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HOW NOT TO DEAL WITH INCONVENIENT INFORMATION.... House Republicans spent two years insisting that, if elected, they'd lower the deficit (that they created when they were in the majority). And now that they're in the majority, the House GOP's first order of business is a health care vote that would add $230 billion to the deficit.

"But wait," Republicans argue, "we can explain." As the GOP sees it, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office thinks the Affordable Care Act would reduce the deficit, and that repeal would make the deficit worse, but the CBO is taking too narrow a look at the picture. If we'd only go by the Republicans' version of reality, then the repeal vote is perfectly responsible.

But the GOP's pitch is almost laughably dishonest. Paul Krugman had a helpful column on this today.

My wife and I were thinking of going out for an inexpensive dinner tonight. But John Boehner, the speaker of the House, says that no matter how cheap the meal may seem, it will cost thousands of dollars once you take our monthly mortgage payments into account.

Wait a minute, you may say. How can our mortgage payments be a cost of going out to eat, when we'll have to make the same payments even if we stay home? But Mr. Boehner is adamant: our mortgage is part of the cost of our meal, and to say otherwise is just a budget gimmick.

O.K., the speaker hasn't actually weighed in on our plans for the evening. But he and his G.O.P. colleagues have lately been making exactly the nonsensical argument I've just described -- not about tonight's dinner, but about health care reform. And the nonsense wasn't a slip of the tongue; it's the official party position, laid out in charts and figures.

Republicans effectively have three choices when it comes to health care. First, they could simply give up on repealing the entirety of the law, and instead focus on incremental, fiscally-responsible changes. Second, Republicans could simply argue that they find the Affordable Care Act so offensive, they just don't care about the effects repeal would have on the deficit.

Third, GOP officials could just start making stuff up, and hope that reporters and voters can't tell the difference. As Krugman explains in his piece, this is the preferred avenue for the new House majority.

But this isn't in a gray area, and it's not a matter of opinion -- the Republican argument simply isn't true. It's being pushed aggressively by party leaders, but it's simply detatched from reality. To twist their numbers into making sense, Boehner & Co. would us believe health care costs we'd have to pay anyway -- costs that aren't related to the Affordable Care Act -- should be added to the reform law's price tag.

To believe this nonsense is to fall for a transparent con.

Krugman concluded, "Given that their minds were made up from the beginning, top Republicans weren't interested in and didn't need any real policy analysis -- in fact, they're basically contemptuous of such analysis, something that shines through in their health care report. All they ever needed or wanted were some numbers and charts to wave at the press, fooling some people into believing that we're having some kind of rational discussion. We aren't."

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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BOTH CHAMBERS GET A 'TEA PARTY CAUCUS'.... In July, far-right House members, led by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), formally launched the "House Tea Party Caucus." There was some debate at the time about the propriety -- Tea Partiers generally like to maintain the pretense of being independent-minded, insurgent outsiders -- but a few dozen GOP lawmakers were quick to get on board.

Late last week, the contingent got a Senate counterpart.

Sen. Rand Paul on Friday announced the launch of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, making good on an idea he floated during last year's campaign.

GOP Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Mike Lee (Utah) will join the Kentucky Republican as the first members of the caucus. [...]

The group's first meeting will be on Jan. 27. The Senate group mirrors the House Tea Party Caucus, which Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) announced she was forming last year.

It's worth noting for context that, while various issue-specific caucuses are quite common in the House, senators usually don't bother with factions like these. Indeed, they generally don't have to -- senators already wield enormous procedural power, and don't need to form caucuses to wield influence.

But DeMint, Paul, and Lee launched this endeavor anyway, and given the ideological bent of many Senate Republicans, it seems likely they won't be the only three members.

The larger point to keep in mind, though, is that the line between of distinction between the so-called Tea Party "movement" and the Republican Party and its activist base has effectively disappeared. They're one and the same, and pretending otherwise seems pointless.

Dana Milbank had a good piece several months ago at the launch of the House Tea Party Caucus, explaining, "There and then -- on the Capitol grounds 104 days before the midterm elections -- Tea Party activists and Republican officeholders set aside any pretense about the two groups being separate. They essentially consummated a merger: The activists allowed themselves to be co-opted by a political party, and the Republican leaders allowed themselves to become the faces of the movement."

With the group now having a Senate counterpart, the process appears to be complete.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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PAWLENTY'S DELICATE DANCE ON THE '08 BAILOUT.... Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) really wants to impress the Republican base in advance of his presidential campaign, and assumes that candidates who supported the 2008 financial industry rescue will struggle to win the party's 2012 nomination.

To that end, Pawlenty bashes the bailout in his new book. "When the rain started to fall on America's picnic, Washington hung up a big old plastic TARP to protect us from the deluge," he wrote. "Ever wonder why they call some of these things 'tarp funds'? Good intentions, maybe, but a bad decision."

The problem for Pawlenty is that, during the '08 campaign, he served as a leading surrogate for the McCain/Palin campaign, and repeatedly defended the GOP ticket's support for the bailout. This came up yesterday on Fox News, and the former governor had a creative explanation.

Likely Republican 2012 presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty said Sunday that when he promoted a bailout plan aimed at stabilizing the imploding mortgage market in 2008 he was speaking solely as a surrogate for GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona and never actually supported the idea himself.

"Play the tape. It says 'he believes' and I was speaking as a spokesperson for Senator McCain," the former Minnesota governor said on "Fox News Sunday" after host Chris Wallace played video of Pawlenty endorsing what was billed as a bailout for both the mortgage industry and "Main Street."

"But I didn't support -- don't support -- bailing out places like Wall Street, General Motors and the like with respect to the federal role of government," Pawlenty said.

That's quite a pitch, isn't it? At the moment of a global economic crisis, the Republican ticket supported a financial industry bailout. Pawlenty defended their position, but now wants us to know he didn't mean it.

He opposed the rescue, but in a not-so-bold display of leaders, Pawlenty decided not to tell anyone. Clearly, this helps demonstrate his presidential qualities.

I realize why Pawlenty feels the need to pursue this nonsense, but there has to be a better defense than this.

He could try to defend the policy he already defended, arguing, for example, that the bailout was effective in preventing a collapse of the financial industry; the program cost far less than expected; the bailed out institutions are paying the money back; etc.

Another alternative would be to point to those who came to the same conclusion in October 2008 that he did -- the bailout was requested by a conservative Republican administration (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney); it was enthusiastically endorsed by the House Republican leadership (John Boehner and Eric Cantor); it was enthusiastically endorsed by the Senate Republican leadership (Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl); it was enthusiastically endorsed by the Republican presidential ticket (John McCain and Sarah Palin); and enjoyed the support of assorted, high-profile conservative voices (Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck).

Pawlenty is worried about the party's right-wing base, but it should count for something to say, "I took the same position on this as Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, and Glenn Beck," right? It's bound to be a better defense than, "I didn't believe what I was saying at the time."

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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WHEN A VICTIM STRUGGLES.... James Eric Fuller was one of 19 people shot last weekend when Jared Lee Loughner tried to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Regrettably, it appears Fuller is not responding well in the aftermath.

The first hint of trouble came late last week, when Fuller said in an interview that prominent Republicans were to blame the massacre. "It looks like Palin, Beck, Sharron Angle and the rest got their first target," Fuller said in an interview with Democracy NOW. The 63-year-old veteran went on to argue, "Their wish for Second Amendment activism has been fulfilled -- senseless hatred leading to murder, lunatic fringe anarchism, subscribed to by John Boehner, mainstream rebels with vengeance for all -- even 9-year-old girls."

All of this, obviously, is deeply misguided, and baseless accusations like these do not belong in any kind of sensible discourse. Making matters worse, however, the intensity of Fuller's reaction to the violence became even less healthy soon after.

An Arizona shooting victim accused of threatening a tea party leader at a televised town hall meeting also yelled at those in attendance, at one point calling them all "whores," authorities said Sunday.

James Eric Fuller, 63, was arrested on disorderly conduct and threat charges and taken for a psychiatric exam after he a took picture of Trent Humphries, the co-founder of the Tucson Tea Party, and yelled "you're dead," authorities said. The event was taped for a special edition of ABC's "This Week."

"Deputies made contact with him, attempted to remove him, and he turned around and yelled at everybody and called them all whores," Pima County sheriff's spokesman Jason Ogan told The Associated Press.

Deputies decided he needed a mental health evaluation and he was taken to a hospital, where he remained Sunday, Ogan said. He was to be held for at least a 72 hours, and the hospital will decide if more treatment is needed.

There can be no doubt that Fuller's behavior was indefensible. People just can't act this way.

But I also hope the political world watching this will resist the urge to turn Fuller into another pawn in a larger game. A week ago, the man was shot -- twice -- by a lunatic, and spent two days in the hospital. It's easy to say from a distance that, after suffering a horror like this one, people should keep it together and keep their emotions in check, but after someone actually endures the experience, I suspect it's easier said than done.

Here's hoping medical professionals can help Fuller out, and get him back on track.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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FROM THE WEEKEND.... We covered a fair amount of ground over the weekend. Here's a quick overview If you may have missed.

On Sunday, we talked about:

* House Republicans will take up health care reform repeal this week. Their plan is a very bad idea.

* Charles Blow's criticism of the left's reaction to the Tucson shootings is odd and unpersuasive.

* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has picked 20 officials for his cabinet. They're all white, and nearly all men.

* Reporters may hope otherwise, but it seems unlikely Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will turn over a new leaf.

* The Affordable Care Act still isn't popular, but anti-reform passions appear to be cooling.

* The latest conservative effort to criticize the memorial service in Tucson may be the dumbest yet.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* The right's reliance on closed information systems -- its epistemic closure -- rarely serves conservatives well.

* Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) doesn't seem to understand that having a black son is not a shield against race-related questions.

* New reports about Ronald Reagan showing signs of Alzheimer's disease during his presidency don't seem especially surprising.

* Republican dead-enders on DADT keep digging in, long after the fight ended.

* I wonder what Limbaugh and his ilk would be saying if the DNC gave its first African-American chairman the boot after a successful midterm cycle.

* And the Reince Priebus era begins at the Republican National Committee.

Steve Benen 7:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (5)

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January 16, 2011

HEALTH CARE REPEAL REALLY IS A BAD IDEA.... House Republicans did the right thing in the wake of the Tucson shootings, delaying floor action on their push to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act. GOP leaders will renew their efforts this week, with a floor vote expected on Tuesday.

The "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" -- yes, that's actually the real-life, ridiculous name Republicans gave their legislation -- is expected to pass fairly easily given the GOP majority in the chamber, at which point the bill will promptly die. The Senate won't even take up the bill, but even if it did, and the votes to overcome a filibuster magically appeared, a presidential veto would await the effort.

But putting strategy aside, it's worth pausing to remember in advance of the debate that the Republican effort is a truly awful idea. The New York Times editorial board had a good piece on this today.

Americans will pay a high price if opponents get their way. Reform means that tens of millions of uninsured people will get a chance at security; and many millions more who have coverage can be sure they can keep or replace it, even if they get sick or lose their jobs.

Repeal would also take away the best chance for reining in rising health care costs -- and the government's relentlessly rising Medicare burden.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that repealing the reform law would drive up the deficit by $230 billion over the first decade and much more in later years.

The vast majority of Americans are not on board with the Republican effort, nor should they be -- passing repeal means forcing vulnerable seniors to pay thousands of additional out-of-pocket dollars for their medication, allowing insurers to discriminate against children with pre-existing conditions, raising taxes on small businesses, forcing young people off their family's insurance plan, and making care more expensive for everyone.

Even the business community that ostensibly backs repeal is making it clear -- it doesn't back repeal.

And what about jobs? Regrettably, Republicans have the story backwards. Steven Pearlstein had a terrific column on this recently.

Ironically, the first order of legislative business in the new Republican House will be to repeal last year's health-care reform law. Since the immediate impact of the measure will be to allow 30 million more Americans the chance to buy drugs and medical services from doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, it's hard to imagine a more effective way to reduce employment in the one sector that is actually adding jobs.

The House GOP says it needs to gut America's health care system in order to create jobs ... and were they to succeed, it would cost America jobs.

Indeed, Republicans just have to hope the public isn't paying any attention to reality at all. Since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, the private sector has added 1.1 million jobs. Roughly a fifth of that total -- more than 200,000 -- were jobs created in the health care industry.

If health care reform is bad for job creation, how did this happen?

And yet, they'll continue to use inane phrases because, well, it's easier than thinking. Pearlstein concluded today, "[T]he next time you hear some politician or radio blowhard or corporate hack tossing around the 'job-killing' accusation, you can be pretty sure he's not somebody to be taken seriously. It's a sign that he disrespects your intelligence, disrespects the truth and disrespects the democratic process. By poisoning the political well and making it difficult for our political system to respond effectively to economic challenges, Republicans may turn out to be the biggest job killers of all."

Even by Republican standards, this week's push is a spectacularly bad idea.

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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WHERE WAS CHARLES BLOW GETTING HIS NEWS?.... One of the stranger pundit reactions to the tragedy in Tucson comes by way of the New York Times's Charles Blow, whose disappointing column this weekend was largely inexplicable.

Tragedy in Tucson. Six Dead. Democratic congresswoman shot in the head at rally.

Immediately after the news broke, the air became thick with conjecture, speculation and innuendo. There was a giddy, almost punch-drunk excitement on the left. The prophecy had been fulfilled: "words have consequences." And now, the right's rhetorical chickens had finally come home to roost.

Seriously? Blow perceives liberals as being "giddy" about a mad gunman trying to assassinate a Democratic congresswoman and massacring six people? Blow found "punch-drunk excitement" that came "immediately" after the violence?

I haven't the foggiest idea what Blow is referring to. I'd gladly consider the merit of his examples, but he doesn't offer any. Blow simply asserts his interpretation as fact: the "giddy" left launched "a full-fledged witch hunt to link the shooter to the right." It's true, apparently, because Charles Blow says so.

(Ironically, within hours of the violence, there was an aggressive effort among conservative activists to tie the shooter to the left, a push that included GOP members of Congress. Blow somehow missed this, en route to getting his argument backwards.)

Blow went on to argue that "Democrats" ended up "nurturing a false equivalence within the body politic." There were plenty of false equivalences this past week, but blaming Dems for them strikes me as pretty silly.

The great irony of Blow's column is his emphasis on supporting one's assumptions with "evidence." He argued, "[P]otential, possibility and even plausibility are not proof." Those who hope to "score political points," Blow added, did so "in the absence of proof."

The problem, of course, is that Blow is guilty of his own allegations. He sees a "giddy" left, where none existed. He sees "punch-drunk excitement" among liberals on a "witch hunt," but offers literally nothing by way of support.

Mr. Blow, there may have been a "potential, possibility and even plausibility" that some liberals would act irresponsibly in the wake of the tragedy, but "in the absence of proof," this column is a careless mess.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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KASICH DOESN'T NOTICE THE CONTRAST OF WHITE ON WHITE.... Ohio is a pretty large, diverse state. Someone probably ought to let its new governor know. (thanks to reader R.S. for the tip)

John Kasich, like any other chief executive, deserves an essentially free hand to choose his Cabinet and inner circle. After all, voters elected Kasich as Ohio's 69th governor, and they will judge will him on how well his administration performs.

That said, it is disconcerting -- in 2011 -- to look at a composite of the 20 permanent state agency heads whom Kasich has hired so far and see only white faces and barely a handful of women.

Kasich, a former congressman, Wall Street executive, and Fox News personality, has hired 20 full-time agency directors to make up his cabinet. Of the 20, 16 are white men, four are white women. No African Americans, no Hispanics, no Asians.

Keep in mind, in the last half-century, Ohio has had 10 governors, most of whom have been Republicans. All of them had at least some racial diversity in their cabinet -- until Kasich, who's the first Ohio governor since 1962 to have so far picked an all-white cabinet.

It's always best to be cautious before throwing around casual accusations of racism. That said, Kasich's move is hard to understand, especially given the size and diversity of a state like Ohio.

Today, enlightened businesses and the U.S. military push their personnel officers to find candidates who reflect the robust racial, ethnic and gender mix of modern-day America. They understand that a workplace -- from top to bottom -- that includes people of many different backgrounds and experiences is a lot more likely to come up with the kind of creative, break-the-mold thinking that Kasich promised Ohio when he ran for governor.

Kasich quite correctly says that he wants the world to know that Ohio is open for business. But surrounding himself with department heads who don't even look like Ohio -- where the Census Bureau estimates that 15 percent of the population is nonwhite -- let alone the United States or the global marketplace, has to make that a harder sell.

For his part, Kasich insists he doesn't pay attention to "any of these sort of metrics." As far as the governor is concerned, he has jobs to fill, and he went out and looked for the best person for the job.

But given the results, I'm curious: how hard did he look?

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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AN UNLIKELY THAW.... Over the course of the last half-decade or so, there were so many "Whatever happened to the old John McCain?" pieces, they were hard to count. Media figures that adored one of the previous personas of the Arizona senator were dismayed to see what had become of one of their favorite politicians.

Those pieces have, thankfully, run their course. Everyone now realizes that McCain circa 1999-2001 no longer exists, and he's been replaced by the bitter, belligerent senator we saw throwing a tantrum on the Senate floor over gay Americans serving in the military.

My fear is, we may soon see a new push in the media. Instead of figures asking, "Whatever happened to the old John McCain?" we may be confronted with a bunch of "Maybe the old John McCain could come back to us?" pieces.

Today, the Republican senator has an op-ed in the Washington Post, and it's quite good. Reflecting on this week's memorial service in his home state, McCain's piece noted, "President Obama gave a terrific speech Wednesday night. He movingly mourned and honored the victims of Saturday's senseless atrocity outside Tucson, comforted and inspired the country, and encouraged those of us who have the privilege of serving America.... I disagree with many of the president's policies, but I believe he is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause."

McCain went on to defend the right, as well, but the graciousness towards the president was uncharacteristic of the cantankerous Republican.

I suppose it was inevitable, then, to see a piece like this one, published today by the Post's Dan Balz, "After Tucson, a thaw between Obama and McCain?"

Could the long-icy relationship between President Obama and his 2008 presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain, be thawing?

McCain (R-Ariz.) took a significant step toward reconciling with the president in a graceful op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post. If that article marks a genuine fresh beginning, it would be one positive thing to come out of the horrific shooting spree in Tucson eight days ago. [...]

It's possible that Tucson will let the two leaders turn the page. The McCain who comes through in the Post op-ed is the McCain many have known for a long time.

Look, I suppose anything's possible. I don't know McCain personally, and I'm willing to entertain the possibility that the tragedy in Tucson shook him in a personal, fundamental way.

But I hope it's not too terribly cynical of me to dismiss Balz's optimism as unrealistic. Literally every move we've seen from McCain for the last several years suggests that previous persona is gone, and it's not coming back. He's angrier, more partisan, more right-wing, more dishonest, and more willing to abandon every meaningful policy position he's ever taken than ever before.

It's a nice op-ed McCain had today. It may have been ghost-written, but McCain put his name on it, and I give him credit for his graciousness. But Balz insists that the president "should not let the opportunity pass to reach out to McCain." The president already has, repeatedly, and has seen his outstretched hand slapped away repeatedly for his trouble.

Those waiting for McCain to revert back, I'm afraid, are likely to be waiting a very long time.

Steve Benen 9:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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TEMPERS COOL IN HEALTH CARE DEBATE.... Hopes that the Affordable Care Act would become popular once it became law were largely misplaced. The fight didn't stop once the legislative debate ended; opponents continued to invest in shaping public opinion well after the bill signing; and the sweeping reform law remains a contentious issue.

But while opposition remains high, it's interesting to note that tempers have cooled.

As lawmakers shaken by the shooting of a colleague return to the health care debate, an Associated Press-GfK poll finds raw feelings over President Barack Obama's overhaul have subsided.

Ahead of a vote on repeal in the GOP-led House this week, strong opposition to the law stands at 30 percent, close to the lowest level registered in AP-GfK surveys dating to September 2009.

The nation is divided over the law, but the strength and intensity of the opposition appear diminished.

The point isn't that there's been a marked shift, with opponents becoming supporters in large numbers. Support is higher, but only a little. The point, rather, is that the intensity of the opposition has faded.

And with that comes less support for the repeal push congressional Republicans are convinced the public wants. The poll found that only about one in four want to scrap the entirety of the law -- a sentiment endorsed by nearly every GOP official -- and even among rank-and-file Republicans, support for complete repeal has fallen from 61% a couple of months ago to 49% now.

Yep, not even a majority of Republicans now support the total repeal of the Democratic health care plan.

What's more, the AP poll asked respondents which party they trust more to handle health care policy. It wasn't even close -- 49% prefer Democrats, while 37% back the GOP. Given that congressional Republicans are convinced their tactics reflect popular will, I'd love to hear GOP leaders explain why they trail Dems by double digits on this question.

And perhaps best of all, repeal has very limited support, but 43% of respondents in this poll want to expand, not retract, the reform "so it does more to re-engineer the health care system."

This week, House Republicans will pass a repeal measure, assuming Americans agree with them. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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WHEN THE RIGHT GOES BEYOND PARODY.... While most of the public reactions to this week's memorial service in Tucson, even on the right, have been positive, there's a certain unhinged contingent that's still searching, desperately, to tear it down.

The problem, of course, is that to justify their whining, these conservatives have been reduced to imaginary outrages. Yesterday's effort was arguably the dumbest to date.

In a blog post [Saturday], Gateway Pundit Jim Hoft shamelessly claims that the White House conspired to get more applause for President Obama's memorial speech by "ask[ing] for it" on the Jumbotron. As evidence, Hoft ran a picture from a Flickr account which showed Obama speaking on the Jumbotron accompanied by the words, "school." and "[APPLAUSE]."

Hoft's purported instruction for applause is actually the live captioning for the event. It's the same closed captioning that's made available for television programs.

This is the kind of head-smacking story that makes one wonder if right-wing bloggers are secretly being paid by liberals to make conservatives look ridiculous.

At one point during his remarks, President Obama noted that Judge John Roll was a "graduate of this university and a graduate of this law school," an observation that led to audience applause. At that moment, the Jumbotron in the facility, offering captioning for the hearing impaired, featured the words, "school," followed by "applause" in brackets.

These weren't stage instructions. This was a running transcript for attendees who couldn't hear. As Charles Johnson explained, "That's right. Hoft doesn't understand that he's looking at the closed captioning for deaf audience members."

For added context, let's also not forget that several other prominent right-wing bloggers thought Jim Hoft had stumbled onto an important observation, and promoted this "scoop" as evidence of White House wrongdoing. They're all so convinced of nefarious tactics from the president and his team that it never occurred to them to even consider the existence of closed captioning.

I've read a lot of far-right sites for many years, and I'm convinced they're getting worse.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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January 15, 2011

THE DANGERS OF EPISTEMIC CLOSURE.... About a week after the midterm elections, David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, had a very strong piece, explaining how important it is for his fellow Republicans to learn the appropriate lessons from what had transpired over the last two years. At the top of Frum's list: recognizing the "danger of closed information systems."

Too often, Frum said, conservatives "wrap themselves in closed information systems based upon pretend information. In this closed information system, banks can collapse without injuring the rest of the economy, tax cuts always pay for themselves and Congressional earmarks cause the federal budget deficit.... As corporate profits soar, the closed information system insists that the free-enterprise system is under assault. As prices slump, we are warned of imminent hyperinflation. As black Americans are crushed under Depression-level unemployment, the administration's policies are condemned by some conservatives as an outburst of Kenyan racial revenge against the white overlord."

For poli-sci-minded news observers, this isn't new -- the problem of "epistemic closure" on the right has been a hallmark of recent years. It's especially common with Glenn Beck acolytes -- Beck, Frum noted, offers "an alternative history of the United States and the world, an alternative system of economics, an alternative reality" -- but it's also come to dominate even mainstream conservative thinking.

Much of the right is convinced of their version of reality, because they only interact with media that reinforces that version, giving them a sort of tunnel vision when it comes to reality. Early last year, Jonathan Chait labeled it the "Conservative Misinformation Feedback Loop."

Jonathan Bernstein had a terrific item yesterday, noting how epistemic closure affected the right's response to last week's shootings in Tucson.

...I think we've seen an excellent example of this kind of loop over the last week, leading logically to Sarah Palin's much-maligned address to the nation in which she placed herself front and center as the chief victim of the Tuscon massacre. The truth is that if all Palin knew of the world was what she read on at least one highly prominent conservative Web site, her reaction, and her outrage, would be perfectly understandable.

Here's what I looked at: I went through every post at National Review Online's The Corner blog from the first news of the shootings through this morning. That's a lot of stuff; numerous bloggers post quite a lot of items there, for those of you not familiar with it (and you should be! Read things from all over the place!).

What did I find? First, I should say, a fair amount of shock, grief for the victims, and celebration of the heroic stories of those who saved lives in Tucson. Two reasonable posts about "tone," one from Heather Mac Donald and one from Kathryn Jean Lopez and Seth Leibsohn.

But beginning very soon after the shootings, and continuing all week, the major theme has been resistance to what was presented as a systematic effort by liberals and the press to pin the attack on conservatives, and on Sarah Palin in particular. It is not presented as a story about specific politicians or pundits who made poor judgments. Nor is it presented as a reasoned discussion of whether extreme rhetoric can have unintended consequences. No; if you read just The Corner, what you're left with is the impression that a monolithic, capitalized "Left" has been literally accusing Palin of murder.

Jonathan went through several examples, with National Review writers pushing back against arguments and rhetoric that they perceived to be real and outrageous, but couldn't actually point to.

The point isn't that NRO is unique. For that matter, there probably were some on the left making unreasonable arguments, though if they were part of some systemic progressive push, they probably should have been easier to identify.

Rather, the key takeaway here is that the right's reliance on closed information systems -- its epistemic closure -- once again fueled a skewed vision of real-world developments. Conservatives watched Fox News; they heard Limbaugh; and they read National Review the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and RedState; and they started drawing conclusions. The left was blaming Palin and the right for the tragedy, or so they convinced themselves to believe.

As Jonathan explained, "[A]nyone reading just the Corner, or getting their news from such sources, would wind up with a massively distorted sense of what liberals were saying, and what the press was reporting. The conclusions that they would draw from that version of reality might be internally consistent, but would be radically wrong."

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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LEPAGE TO NAACP: 'KISS MY BUTT'.... Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has proven himself to be something of a buffoon over the last year, and it appears his awkward style isn't improving.

Gov. Paul LePage of Maine said Friday that the state's N.A.A.C.P. leaders could "kiss my butt" after they questioned his decision not to attend Martin Luther King Day events in Bangor and Portland.

The remark by Mr. LePage, a newly elected Republican, came after The Portland Press Herald reported Friday that the N.A.A.C.P. felt increasingly slighted by him. Leaders of the group's Maine chapters told the newspaper that Mr. LePage had declined several invitations from them in recent months and questioned whether he would look out for their interests. [...]

When the reporter asked Mr. LePage to respond to the suggestion that he had a pattern of slighting the N.A.A.C.P., he said, "Tell them to kiss my butt," adding, "If they want to play the race card, come to dinner. My son will talk to them."

When talking to the NBC affiliate in Portland, the governor kept referring back to his adopted son, who is from Jamaica. He said, for example, the NAACP should "look at my family picture," pointing out his son. LePage added that his son "happens to be black," and that he would vouch for the governor's approach to race-related issues.

Whether LePage is deliberately blowing off the NAACP is interesting, and the fact that the classless, loudmouth governor thinks the NAACP should "kiss his butt" doesn't reflect well on him. Arguably more important, though, is that LePage seems to think having an adopted black son is some kind of trump card -- or more accurately, a shield to be used when confronted with race-related questions.

He can't have a race problem, the argument goes, because his son is black, as if this answers the questions about LePage snubbing the state's largest organization focused on the needs of Maine's African-American communities.

LePage is confused, and being respectful of racial diversity means more than pointing to a family photo. His son isn't a prop, and the color of his son's skin doesn't answer questions about his father's policies in office.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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DIDN'T WE ALREADY KNOW ABOUT REAGAN AND ALZHEIMER'S?.... There was a fair amount of attention yesterday devoted to reports that Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease was apparent, though never discussed publicly, during his presidency. I'm not sure why this is considered especially new.

Former President Ronald Reagan -- who diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease five years after leaving the presidency -- elicited "shivers of concern" about his mental state as early as 1984, during his first term in office, according to a new book by his son, Ron Jr.

In his forthcoming memoir, "My Father at 100," Ronald Reagan Jr. writes that he grew concerned that something was wrong with his father "beyond mellowing" in the early 1980s.

He goes on to say that -- given what science has learned about when symptoms of Alzheimer's arise -- the question of whether he was suffering from the disease while in office "more or less answers itself."

I realize that Republican reverence for Reagan has taken on a vaguely religious adoration, but I was under the impression that everyone, regardless of party or ideology, already believed Reagan's Alzheimer's symptoms were evident well before 1989. Perhaps the first-hand accounts of the former president's son add some weight to the story, but I'd assumed this was common knowledge.

Indeed, we've heard many accounts like these for years. Steve M. noted an anecdote from CBS News' Lesely Stahl, who was a White House correspondent for the first six years of Reagan's presidency, who wrote in her book about saying goodbye to Reagan in the Oval Office on her last day on the job. An aide insisted Stahl was forbidden from asking Reagan questions or reporting on what she saw. She explained in her book what she saw:

Reagan was as shriveled as a kumquat. He was so frail, his skin was so paper-thin, I could almost see the sunlight through the back of his withered neck. His bony hands were dotted with age spots, one bleeding into another. His eyes were coated. Larry introduced us, but he had to shout. Had Reagan turned off his hearing aid?

"Mr. President!" he bellowed. "This is Lesley Stahl." He said it slowly. "Of CBS, and her husband, Aaron Latham."

Reagan didn't seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly. Oh, my, he's gonzo, I thought. I have to go on the lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the president of the United States is a space cadet. My heart began to hammer with the import. As the White House photographer snapped pictures of us -- because this was a photo-op -- I was aware of the delicacy with which I would have to write my script. But I was quite sure of the diagnosis.

Larry was shouting again, instructing the president to hand us some souvenirs. Cuff links, a White House tie tack. I felt the necessity to fill the silence. "This is my daughter, Mr. President," I said. "Taylor. She's eight." He barely responded but for a little head tilt.

Click. Click. More pictures. A flash. "When I covered Jimmy Carter," I said, "Taylor used to tell everyone that the president worked for her mommy. But from the day you moved in here, she began saying, 'My mommy works for the president.'" I wasn't above a little massaging. Was he so out of it that couldn't appreciate a sweet story that reflected well on him? Guess so. His pupils didn't even dilate. Nothing. No reaction.

These experiences were not uncommon. In his second term, it was routine for Reagan to forget the names of his top generals and cabinet secretaries. His wife was seen whispering answers to questions in his ear. By any reasonable measure, Reagan's mental acuity was failing well before his presidency ended.

I suspect Reagan's fans, and there are obviously many, will find all of this uncomfortable, and perhaps even insulting. They shouldn't. The successes or failures of Reagan's presidency can be judged on their own merits, whether he was showing the effects of Alzheimer's or not.

But the historical record should nevertheless be clear, and given what we know, Ron Reagan's new accounts should hardly be considered shocking.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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DADT DEAD-ENDERS DIG IN.... This is starting to get pretty silly.

A member of the House Armed Services Committee plans to introduce legislation next week designed to put the brakes on repeal of the military's ban on openly gay troops.

The measure by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) would add the four military service chiefs to the list of those who must sign off on repealing the policy before it can be officially scrapped. [...]

The aide said Hunter could introduce the bill as soon as Tuesday evening, adding that "15 to 20" members -- so far all Republicans -- have signed on.

I'm genuinely surprised so many Republicans are bothering to pursue this. Remember, it's not just Hunter -- Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel, said he'd look for chances to bring back DADT, too, and presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty (R) announced this week he would "support reinstating" the repealed, discriminatory policy.

There's just no point to any of this. To reiterate a point from the other day, conservative Republicans almost beat back the effort to repeal the policy late last year, but they came up short. The public wanted to see the change; military leaders wanted to see the change; and lawmakers in both parties approved the change. The moment President Obama held a celebration to sign the legislation, conservatives should have realized the game was up. There was a political fight, and they lost.

And yet, the far-right doesn't want to give up. Hunter, Wilson, and others surely know that this effort is pointless and unpopular, so why do it? Because in Republican circles, the power of anti-gay animus remains strong.

As a result, dead-enders will keep wasting their time on this nonsense.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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A MICHAEL STEELE THOUGHT EXPERIMENT.... In June, in an electoral fluke, a man named Alvin Greene somehow managed to win the Democratic primary in South Carolina's U.S. Senate race. When state and national Dems balked, leading far-right voices -- Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and others -- insisted it was because the Democratic Party doesn't like African-American candidates.

Five months later, House Democrats were choosing the leadership for the next Congress, and Steny Hoyer, who is white, led James Clyburn, who is black, for the post of House Minority Whip. Limbaugh had an explanation: "racist Democrats" wanted Clyburn "to go back to the back of the bus."

Even by Republican standards, all of this was idiotic, and too blisteringly stupid to be taken seriously by anyone. But it's worth referring back to the race-based rhetoric used by Limbaugh and his ilk given recent developments with the Republican National Committee.

To be sure, I don't think racism had anything to do with Michael Steele's ouster as RNC Chairman, and I haven't seen even a shred of evidence that bigotry was a factor.

But I'm trying to imagine what far-right voices would say if the partisan dynamic were reversed, and Democrats decided to replace their first-ever African-American party chair -- after just one term -- following a midterm cycle in which Dems took back the House, made big gains in the Senate, and ended the year with 29 Democratic governors, eight more than when the chair took the reins.

I know Steele was booted because he was an awful RNC chair. I also know there's no reason in the world to believe race had anything to do with the RNC's decision.

But if the situation were reversed, what do you suppose Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and their like-minded allies would be saying right now?

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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THE REINCE PRIEBUS ERA BEGINS AT THE RNC.... It took seven ballots, but Republican National Committee members chose a new chairman late yesterday afternoon, replacing Michael Steele with Reince Priebus. The 38-year-old Wisconsinite takes over at a difficult time for the RNC -- the committee is $21 million in debt, is struggling to pay its bills, and is burdened by two years of widespread mismanagement.

Priebus, a former Steele ally, appears to have been chosen for the job precisely because he has so little in common with his predecessor. Priebus is not a good speaker, has no media presence, has no real background in debates, but the RNC decided early on that charisma and a hunger for publicity is what the party had, so members went in the opposite direction, picking a low-key, mild-mannered candidate.

Perhaps the most pressing question at this point is, who's Reince Priebus?

Mr. Priebus, 38, the chairman of the Wisconsin state party, presided over sweeping statewide and local Republican victories in the midterm elections, including the defeat of Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat. He was the preferred candidate of much of the Republican establishment and was recruited by party elders to replace Mr. Steele, whose stewardship of the party had become a central issue in the race.

Even in the intimate circles of Republican Party politics, Mr. Priebus is far from well known. He rose through the political ranks from his hometown, Pleasant Prairie, working as a local activist, the state party treasurer and finally the state chairman, which he became four years ago -- making him a member of the Republican National Committee. He also served as the committee's general counsel.

Facing television cameras moments after his election, he was still wearing a nametag on his lapel. He conceded that he has limited experience on television, but he said his chief role would be raising money and working on the nuts and bolts of the party's operation rather than being a frequent guest on national news programs.

Priebus was the wire-to-wire frontrunner for the gig, though he faced some questions about his alliance with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a likely 2012 presidential candidate, raising concerns about his neutrality in the upcoming nominating fight. The concerns, obviously, did little to derail Priebus' bid.

Of greater concern to the left, however, is Priebus' style of campaign tactics. Paul Breer noted, for example, "While Priebus was chair of the Wisconsin GOP, the state party fomented voter fraud conspiracies and hatched a voter caging plot with well-funded right-wing allies to suppress minority votes. One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Scot Ross said, 'When voter suppression allegations have surfaced in Wisconsin for the past decade, the name Reince Priebus isn't far behind.'"


As for the pronunciation of his name, the "ei" in "Reince" sounds like a long i, so it rhymes with rye bread, for example. The "ie" in "Priebus" sounds like a long e. It's like referencing a Toyota Prius, but with a b in the middle.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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January 14, 2011

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

* Huge upheaval in Tunisia, with the fall of Ben Ali's authoritarian government after more than two decades: "President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has left the country amid growing chaos in the streets, French diplomats say, and the prime minister went on state television Friday night to say he is temporarily in charge."

* The regional significance of the failure of the Ali government: "The fall of Mr. Ben Ali marks the first time that widespread street demonstrations have overthrown an Arab leader. That it came by way of what was portrayed in the Middle East as a popular uprising, crossing lines of religion and ideology, seemed only to make it more potent as an example."

* As I publish this, Wisconsin's Reince Priebus has been elected as the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. I'll have more on this in the morning, including a guide on how to pronounce "Reince Priebus."

* Tell me again why they hate the White House so much? "JPMorgan Chase kicked off the earnings season on Friday with news that it turned a strong $17.4 billion profit in 2010, up 48 percent from $11.7 billion the year before, as the consumer lending environment improved and commercial banking notched record results."

* The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday voted to reject "the largest mountaintop mining removal permit in West Virginia's history."

* One of these days, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will realize he's the chief executive of a state now, and has to start acting like it.

* As of this afternoon, 19 senators, including five Republicans, have formally endorsed bipartisan seating during the State of the Union address. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is also on board, making him the first member of the GOP leadership to offer support for the idea.

* Mark Doms takes a closer look at retail sales numbers, and produces a nice chart. (Welcome to the blogosphere, Mark.)

* Garry Wills, who has not always been complimentary towards President Obama, described his remarks in Tucson this week as his "finest hour," and even compared the speech to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

* For anyone, least of all an Obama administration official, to think the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is strikingly ignorant.

* A renewable energy standard is a poor substitute for a cap-and-trade policy, but right-wing propaganda targeting the latter apparently worked.

* After some misleading media reports, some have been led to believe the administration is trying to take over Internet ID. This is much ado about nothing.

* Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) writes for the Washington Post that he disagrees with many of the president's policies, but considers the president "a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause." That couldn't have been easy for McCain.

* Steve M. reads (and finds the flaws in) Peggy Noonan's columns so you don't have to.

* Some explanations for the tragedy in Tucson are better than others. Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, has a very unpersuasive one.

* And I couldn't agree more with Farhad Manjoo: You should "never, ever use two spaces after a period."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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STEELE EXITS STAGE RIGHT.... About a year ago, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was asked if he might try to avoid humiliating gaffes in the future. "Oh, no," he replied. "Accidents happen, baby."

In some respects, those three words -- "accidents happen, baby" -- sum up Steele's tumultuous two-year reign as head of the RNC pretty well. Today, his tenure came to an official end -- after multiple rounds of voting, it was clear Steele would not muster the necessary support to get a second term, and left with no options, he not-so-gracefully stepped aside.

Michael Steele dropped out of the race to run the RNC after a series of closed door meetings with every candidate except, as far as I could tell, Reince Priebus.

"It's time for me to step aside, and give others the chance to lead," said Steele. "Despite the noise -- and Lord knows, there was a lot of noise -- we won."

What's amazing to me is that Steele even tried to keep his job. To be sure, Republican candidates fared quite well during his tenure, but Steele's "leadership" made him a national laughingstock. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill ignored Steele; major donors avoided him; and reporters only found him fascinating to the extent he'd screw up and saying something notably stupid.

The RNC, during Steele's tenure, was fraught with mismanagement, budget problems, and mass resignations. There have been scandals; there have been investigations; and there have been donor-financed trips to bondage-themed lesbian nightclubs.

And there have been gaffes. Good lord, have there been gaffes. Steele's capacity for saying ridiculous-but-newsworthy things was so extraordinary, no one -- literally, no one -- is as disappointed to see his tenure end than liberal bloggers.

Steele, by any reasonable measure, was the worst major-party chairman in modern political history. It didn't make much of a difference -- if one thing's clear, it's that the RNC chair doesn't have much of an impact on actual elections -- but I imagine there's a sigh of relief among party officials nationwide anyway.

Announcing his departure, Steele told his party, "And now, I exit stage right." He then proceeded to exit stage left. It was that kind of chairmanship.

So long, Michael. We knew you all too well.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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'IS THERE NO OTHER VOCABULARY AVAILABLE?'.... I try not to be overly sensitive to suspect language, but this really hasn't been a great week for the right.

Obviously, Sarah Palin's use of the phrase "blood libel" generated quite of talk on Wednesday, given the phrase's loaded historical background. Today, we get another example, with the far-right Washington Times editorial board defending Palin in an editorial:

This is simply the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers. The last two years have seen a proliferation of similar baseless charges of racism, sexism, bigotry, Islamophobia and inciting violence against those on the right who have presented ideas at odds with the establishment's liberal orthodoxy.

As those who've been engaged in recent years have no doubt noticed, many of the charges of "racism, sexism, bigotry, and Islamophobia" haven't been "baseless" at all.

But putting that aside, did the Washington Times really have to characterize criticism of the right as a "pogrom"? Cathy Lynn Grossman's take is worth reading. (via Adam Serwer)

Pogrom? Is there no other vocabulary available to discuss the venom in our discourse without raiding the language that specifically stands for the deaths of millions of Jews in historic rampages of anti-Semitism? Is this language not doubly inappropriate as Jewish congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords recovers from a gunshot to her head?

Pogroms were not talk radio bombast and Internet flame posts. They were government sanctioned, if not led, attacks on Jews, primarily but not exclusively in Russia and eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousands died, a tally capped by World War II when Hitler sent in the known as the Einsatzgruppen (Mobile Killing Units) that executed Jews on the lip of mass graves they had been forced to dig for themselves. [...]

Should politicians use the vocabulary deadly attack on Jews such as 'pogrom' -- government sanctioned killings of Jews including the firing squads sent by Hitler in World War II -- to signify verbal political attacks? ... Is rapping Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh -- or Keith Olbermann from the other perspective -- really in the same league? Is there no other vocabulary for this discussion on the reign of incivility in public discourse?

I suppose conservatives can argue that the Washington Times editorial board may not have been aware of the significance of the word, and why it might be offensive in this context. Of course, that's not much of an excuse -- there are probably dictionaries available at the paper's editorial desk.

Or maybe the Times' editors are well aware of the significance of the word, and this is yet another instance in which conservatives are feeling sorry for themselves, envisioning the right as a persecuted minority, and Republican leaders as martyrs.

Josh Marshall, who characterized the Times' choice of words as "offensive and even disgusting," added, "I really don't know what's with these people."

I don't either.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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APPARENTLY WE'RE ONLY 'MOSTLY FREE'.... Fox News' John Stossel wants folks to know some discouraging news: we're slipping on the "Index of Economic Freedom."

Last year, I reported that the United States fell from sixth to eighth place -- behind Canada -- in the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal's 2010 Index of Economic Freedom. Now, we've fallen further. In the just-released 2011 Index, the United States is in ninth place. [...]

The biggest reason for the continued slide? Spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. (State and local spending is not counted.)

The debt picture is dismal, too. We are heading into Greece's territory.

Now, anyone who seriously believes the United States is "heading to Greece's territory" is obviously not to be taken seriously. But I do find the larger story interesting.

Every year, the Heritage Foundation, one of the right's leading think tanks, publishes this index, ranking the planet's 179 countries on their "economic freedoms" (as defined by the Heritage Foundation). In previous years, the United States was considered "free." Now, however, we're only "mostly free."

So, who are the shining beacons of liberty? Rather, which countries do a better job at meeting the Heritage threshold for being actually economically free, or at least freer than we are? Hong Kong and Singapore are on top, followed by Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland and Denmark.

Walid Zafar notes some of the "morally, intellectually and ideologically inconsistent" flaws on display.

First, Hong Kong and Singapore are city-states, and, according to The Economist, hybrid regimes -- somewhere between a weak democracy and an authoritarian regime.

Other than Hong Kong and Singapore, the other countries ahead of the United States are all strong social democracies. In other words, they are the very places that both the Heritage Foundation and the editors of the Wall Street Journal consider evil: nations supposedly teetering on the cusp of socialism, where taxes are at near-exorbitant rates. Worse, in all of these states, there is some form of socialized medicine and, in some instances, mandated health insurance.

What gives? It's almost as if the Index of Economic Freedom is an arbitrary exercise and not really about economic freedom at all.

It is curious, isn't it? The Heritage Foundation would apparently be more satisfied if our economic freedoms were more in line with countries that have socialized medicine, impose higher tax rates, and in Ireland's case, is in need of a massive bailout to prevent a catastrophe.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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REVERSING COURSE ON INTEGRATION.... When far-right education officials aren't trying to remove minority communities from history textbooks, they're abolishing successful integration policies.

The sprawling Wake County School District has long been a rarity. Some of its best, most diverse schools are in the poorest sections of [Raleigh]. And its suburban schools, rather than being exclusive enclaves, include children whose parents cannot afford a house in the neighborhood.

But over the past year, a new majority-Republican school board backed by national tea party conservatives has set the district on a strikingly different course. Pledging to "say no to the social engineers!" it has abolished the policy behind one of the nation's most celebrated integration efforts.

And as the board moves toward a system in which students attend neighborhood schools, some members are embracing the provocative idea that concentrating poor children, who are usually minorities, in a few schools could have merits --0 logic that critics are blasting as a 21st-century case for segregation.

The situation unfolding here in some ways represents a first foray of tea party conservative