Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 30, 2011

SO MUCH FOR MR. SERIOUS.... About a month ago, Time's Joe Klein noted his disgust with the Republican presidential field, lamenting the fact that the candidates are "a bunch of vile, desperate-to-please, shameless, embarrassing losers." The whole lot looks like a "dim-witted freak show."

But, Klein said, the field may not be set. The columnist pleaded with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) to run. "I may not agree with you on most things, but I respect you," Klein said. He added that Daniels seems to respect himself enough not to behave like a "public clown."

This is an extremely common sentiment. Daniels, the former Bush budget director who helped create today's fiscal mess, is supposed to be The Serious Republican Candidate For Serious People. He has no use for culture wars -- Daniels famously called for a "truce" on these hot-button social issues -- and despite his humiliating record, the governor at least pretends to care about fiscal sanity, earning unrestrained praise from the likes of David Brooks.

Perhaps now would be a good time for the political establishment to reevaluate their opinion of Mitch Daniels.

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana said Friday that he would sign a bill cutting off Medicaid financing for Planned Parenthood, a move that lawmakers in several states have begun pondering as a new approach in the battle over abortion. Indiana becomes the first state to go forward.

Abortion rights supporters condemned the decision, saying it would leave 22,000 poor residents of Indiana, who use Planned Parenthood's 28 health facilities in the state, with nowhere to go for a range of women's services, from breast cancer screening to birth control.

Daniels, who apparently no longer has any use for his own rhetoric about a culture-war "truce," said his decision was dictated by the fact that Planned Parenthood provides abortion services, adding that the health organization can resume its state funding by refusing to help women terminate their unwanted pregnancies.

That only 3% of Planned Parenthood's operations deal with abortions, and that public funding of abortions is already legally prohibited, apparently didn't matter.

What's especially striking about this is how cruel and unnecessary it is. Daniels has been governor of Indiana for more than six years, and he's never had a problem with Planned Parenthood funding. He was Bush's budget director for more than two years, and he never had a problem with Planned Parenthood funding.

But now that he's thinking about running for president, and has hysterical right-wing activists to impress, now Mitch Daniels has suddenly discovered Planned Parenthood funding -- which has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades -- is no longer acceptable to him.

It's not as if Planned Parenthood, its mission, or its menu of health services has changed. The only thing that's changed is the radicalism of new Republican Party and those who hope to lead it. The real-world effect of Daniels' cruelty is unmistakable: fewer working-class families will have access to contraception, family planning services, pap smears, cancer screenings, and tests for sexually-transmitted diseases. Indiana has 28 Planned Parenthood centers in the state, and most of its patients live in poverty.

Also note that this was as clear a test of Daniels' purported principles as we've seen to date -- he had to choose between fiscal considerations (millions of dollars in federal health care funding) and culture-war considerations (cutting off a public health organization to satisfy rabid conservatives). As of late yesterday -- Daniels made the announcement late on a Friday afternoon, probably out of embarrassment -- the governor prioritized the latter over the former. To prove his right-wing bona fides, Daniels decided to put politics ahead of women's health.

Ironically, the Republican who claims to oppose abortions is going to make it more likely more women will have unwanted pregnancies.

It's indefensible. Daniels should be ashamed of himself and the pundits who praised Daniels' "seriousness" should feel awfully foolish right about now.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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WEALTHY CONGRESSMAN IS 'STRUGGLING LIKE EVERYONE ELSE'.... Montana's Republican Senate candidate has to realize how foolish this sounds.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), the 23rd richest member of Congress who owns millions of dollars in farm and ranch land, told an audience member at a town hall in Missoula yesterday that he and his wife "are struggling like everyone else" and that he's "land rich and cash poor."

"I'm a small businessman. My wife is a small businessman. You know she hasn't taken a salary in ten years? She has not, as a result of the business, because we are struggling like everyone else ... with the economy," Rehberg said.

The notion of being "land rich and cash poor" -- or in some areas, "house rich and cash poor" -- is legit. A family may have wealth from real estate, but not a lot of money actually sitting in the bank. I get that.

But Rehberg's case makes the argument hard to swallow. According to his own financial disclosure forms, the Republican congressman enjoys a net worth in upwards of $56 million. Out of 535 members of Congress, Rehberg is richer than more than 95% of his Capitol Hill colleagues.

I can appreciate his limited cash flow, but what I hope Rehberg -- who routinely votes against the interests of the middle class and working families -- can understand is that most families in Montana and nationwide don't have this kind of vast wealth to lean on. They have limited cash flows and they don't have millions of dollars in land.

As for the notion that Rehberg is "struggling like everyone else," when your net worth is as high as $56 million, you're not really struggling, and you're not really like everyone else.

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

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CREATING BIMONTHLY DEBT CRISES -- ON PURPOSE.... While sane people realize that raising the debt ceiling is a necessity, there's been some talk this week about congressional Republicans weighing incremental raises.

The assumption has been that Congress and the White House would raise the debt limit by a large enough amount to cover the annual deficit. A GOP member of the House Budget Committee said this week his party might prefer a piecemeal approach -- raise the ceiling a little, in exchange for a ransom, then raise a little more, in exchange for another ransom, and so on.

The idea seems to be gaining some momentum and moving beyond the insider-scuttlebutt phase.

House Republicans are considering a plan to grant only incremental increases to the federal debt limit in a bid to extract more concessions on spending cuts and budgetary reform from the Obama administration.

The idea has a champion in Grover Norquist, the conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who says he is "building allies" in the House Republican Conference to push for extending the debt limit every two months.

Yesterday, a right-wing freshman from Kansas, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R), also endorsed the "shorter time-frame" approach as a way to exercise "leverage" over more responsible policymakers.

I found Jamelle Bouie's response pretty compelling.

In essence, right-wing House members are proposing a schedule of periodic debt crises, as the United States scrambles to meet its obligations every two months. In addition to being a complete waste of time, foreign investors would flock from the U.S. debt, once they understood that our Congress had committed itself to long-term political dysfunction.

Not only is this insane, but it's worth remembering that these people have a real shot at winning the White House in 2012.

There was a period of time -- I believe it's called "January 2009 through December 2010" -- that congressional Republicans swore up and down that "economic uncertainty" was the single most dangerous threat in the world. To thrive, policymakers must stamp out uncertainty wherever it exists, which will in turn generate confidence and expand investments.

And yet, here we are. Facing the threat of a deliberate GOP-created crisis, the new Republican plan is to create new crises, every other month, for the indefinite future.

Indeed, playing incremental games with the ability of the country to pay its bills sends a loud signal to foreign countries and markets around the globe: there are just enough children in positions of authority in Congress to cause genuine concern about the nation's finances.

The only thing worse than policymakers fighting over the debt ceiling is policymakers fighting over the debt ceiling every other month. The only thing more irresponsible than Republicans holding the economy hostage is Republicans holding the economy hostage on a bimonthly basis.

After the midterms, I expected American politics to get more ridiculous. I probably underestimated just how spectacularly stupid conditions could get.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a look at what happened to a D.C.-area church after the First Family attended Easter Sunday services there last weekend -- and after Sean Hannity decided to let his audience know about the church's pastor.

Shiloh Baptist Church in the District said it has received threatening phone calls and e-mails after an Easter visit from President Obama and a conservative television commentator's subsequent playing of a videotape in which the pastor said that those espousing racial prejudice do so "under the protective cover of talk radio."

The Rev. Wallace Charles Smith said the church has received more than 100 threats since Fox News channel's Sean Hannity aired a tape Monday of a speech Smith gave in January 2010 at Eastern University in Saint Davids, Pa.

"We received a fax that had the image of a monkey with a target across is face," Smith said. "My secretary has received telephone calls that have been so vulgar until she has had to hang up."

The church was founded in the 1860s by former slaves, and has welcomed many sitting presidents for church services, including Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton.

But this year and this president are apparently different. Rev. Smith delivered a speech when he served as president of Palmer Theological Seminary and made provocative remarks about the changing nature of racism: "Now, Jim Crow wears blue pinstripes, goes to law school and carries fancy briefs in cases. And now, Jim Crow has become James Crow, esquire. And he doesn't have to wear white robes anymore because now he can wear the protective cover of talk radio or can get a regular news program on Fox."

Hannity aired a clip of this speech -- which, to clarify, had nothing to do with the Easter services, and wasn't even delivered in Shiloh Baptist -- and equated Smith with Jeremiah Wright.

Almost immediately, the church began receiving threats, many of them racist. There's an ugly strain of bigotry running through too much of the right, as reminders like these help show.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* It seems counter-intuitive, but groups representing atheists and secular humanists hope to expand the U.S. military corps of chaplains. Earning an appointment would require support from senior chaplains, who seem unlikely to grant such a request.

* Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum declared this week that Sharia law poses an "existential threat" to the United States. He then proceeded to prove that he doesn't know what Sharia law is.

* Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another likely GOP presidential candidate, argued this week that using "CE" (common era), instead of "AD" (anno domini), in academia is "an entirely artificial and intellectually incoherent dating system." He added that this is an example of "secular extremists" setting out to "impose their anti-religious bigotry" on society.

* Fox News wants viewers to think there was a "War on Easter" in the United States. I'd love for the network to consider, just for a moment, what an actual war on Easter looks like: "[Chinese] authorities stepped up a three-week campaign against an underground Christian church on Sunday, detaining hundreds of congregants in their homes and taking at least 36 others into custody after they tried to hold Easter services in a public square, church members and officials said."

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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RICK PERRY WANTS MORE PRESIDENTIAL ATTENTION.... For quite a while, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) vowed to fight the "oppressive hand" of the federal government intervening in his home state. His hostility towards Washington reached a boiling point two years ago, when Perry raised the specter of secession.

Now, however, Perry is whining that the "oppressive hand" isn't intervening in Texas enough.

As wildfires continue to do significant damage to the Lone Star State -- last weekend's state-sanctioned prayer days didn't do anything -- Perry wants increased federal assistance.

And when President Obama visited tornado-struck Alabama yesterday, this apparently made poor Rick Perry jealous.

"You have to ask, 'Why are you taking care of Alabama and other states?'" said Perry.

Texas officials asked the White House to make the declaration, which would have allocated federal funds to help the state deal with the crisis.

"I know our letter didn't get lost in the mail," Perry added.

Daily Kos' Jed Lewison sets the record straight.

So hundreds die in storms throughout the South and Rick Perry's response is to question why those states are getting federal aid instead of Texas? Funny how he doesn't mention that Texas has already gotten at least $39 million in firefighting aid from FEMA over the past two fire seasons and has already received 22 grants in this fire season alone.

I'm not even sure what Perry is insinuating when it comes to politics. Does the governor expect us to think Obama favors Alabama over Texas for some kind of political reason? The last time I checked, they're both very reliable "red" states.

But what makes the governor's complaints especially noteworthy is the larger context -- it's a reminder of how offensive Perry's anti-government rhetoric was in the first place. He hates federal intrusion, except when Democrats in Washington are helping him balance his budget. He wants to keep federal officials out of his state, except when he's facing a natural disaster.

For this guy's feelings to be hurt when the president visits another state hard hit by a devastating natural disaster is bizarre.

Steve Benen 8:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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SO MUCH FOR ROMNEY'S COMING OUT PARTY.... The Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity hosted a high-profile cattle call in New Hampshire last night for GOP presidential hopefuls, and it was Mitt Romney's unofficial debut as a 2012 candidate.

The verdict: the guy still isn't ready for primetime.

During a brief Q&A after an eight-minute speech, Romney was asked about his economic message. He replied, "I just can't help but notice that -- you remember that during the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter debates, that Ronald Reagan came up with this great thing about the Misery Index? And he hung that around Jimmy Carter's neck and that had a lot to do with Jimmy Carter losing. Well we're going to have to hang the Obama Misery Index around his neck. And I'll tell you, the fact that you've got people in this country really squeezed with gasoline getting so expensive, with commodities getting so expensive, families are having a hard time making ends meet. So we're going to have to do talk about that, and housing foreclosures and bankruptcies and higher taxation. We're going to hang him with that -- uh, so to speak, metaphorically, with, uh, you have to be careful these days, I learned that."

As one might imagine, it was the part of the event that received the most attention.

I realize that Romney wasn't literally talking about committing an act of violence against the president. "We're going to hang him with that" is intended to be an expression, so it's probably best not to reach for the fainting couch. Still, it was a very dumb thing to say -- especially given the racial subtext, against a backdrop of recent racially-motivated criticism of Obama from the right -- and Romney knew it was a very dumb thing to say, as evidenced by his near-panic after the words left his mouth.

But even putting that aside, the whole argument was a mess. Romney mentions Reagan, hoping Republicans will forget he didn't like Reagan in the '80s and wasn't even a Republican at the time. Romney mentions "higher taxation," which is absurd given how much Obama has cut taxes for everyone.

And Romney mentioned higher gas prices at a right-wing event hosted by Americans for Prosperity, which just so happens to be financed by oil industry money.

As part of the same forum, the former Massachusetts governor was asked about his health care reform law, which is nearly identical to the Affordable Care Act, and despite welcoming the question, he struggled to answer it directly.

This guy is the Republican frontrunner? Romney's the best the GOP has to offer in presidential politics?

Between last night's performance and his argument that we're in the midst of "peacetime," Romney seems to have a long way to go.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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HOUSEKEEPING NOTE.... Just a reminder, the Monthly's tech team will be some server maintenance over the weekend. I'll still have a normal weekend posting schedule, and you'll still be able to comment, but there's a small chance any comments left over the weekend may not permanently survive. Just FYI.

Steve Benen 7:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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April 29, 2011

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

* In Alabama: "President Obama walked through a tornado-ravaged neighborhood in Tuscaloosa on Friday and promised 'maximum federal help' to the survivors of a series of deadly twisters that carved paths of destruction and claimed about 300 lives in six Southern states. 'I've never seen devastation like this,' Obama said as he toured the Alberta section of the city with first lady Michelle Obama and gazed at crumpled houses, uprooted trees and destroyed cars. 'It is heartbreaking.'"

* The president also told the affected communities, "We're going to make sure that you're not forgotten."

* ThinkProgress: "Dr. Kevin Trenberth, one of the world's top climate scientists, who has been exploring for years how greenhouse pollution influences extreme weather, said he believes that it is 'irresponsible not to mention climate change' in the context of these extreme tornadoes."

* Today's Space Shuttle launch was delayed until early next week due to a technical glitch. Obama nevertheless visited with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), as both were in Florida for the launch.

* Syria: "Tens of thousands of Syrians defied a bloody government crackdown on Friday and took to the streets in towns and cities across the country, responding to calls from democracy activists to stage a 'Day of Rage' to protest the military's efforts to crush the burgeoning opposition movement."

* Libya: "The fighting in Libya spilled over into neighboring Tunisia early on Friday, as troops loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi routed rebel fighters at a critical border crossing in the southwest and pursued them into the nearby town of Dehiba, said a rebel fighter who witnessed the events."

* Good: "In a 2-1 decision Friday, the panel of the U.S. court of appeals in Washington overturned a judge's order that would have blocked taxpayer funding for stem cell research."

* Great story about eight of the surviving members of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, who visited the White House today for the first time in their lives.

* Chrysler will pay off its government debts by the end of June.

* Groupon will no longer advertise on the website for Donald Trump's reality show. Good move.

* Dana Milbank has a very sensible take on what's become of the White House Correspondents' Association dinner -- and why it's probably best to avoid it.

* I thought it was impossible for John Stossel to stoop any lower on the journalistic integrity scale. I stand corrected.

* And a quick housekeeping note: the Monthly's tech team let me know there will be some server maintenance underway over the weekend. I'll still have a normal weekend posting schedule, and you'll still be able to comment, but there's a small chance any comments left over the weekend may not permanently survive. Just FYI.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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WHY THE DEBT CEILING DEBATE ISN'T GOING BETTER.... President Obama asked Congress for a clean bill on raising the debt ceiling. No one, anywhere, believes that's likely to happen, despite the fact that even Republican leaders agree the limit must be raised, which would appear to give the White House leverage.

And why is the process unfolding so poorly? Ordinarily, this would be about the time we start hearing how the president is too quick to compromise, too easily pushed into concessions, and ineffective against GOP hostage strategies.

While concerns about the president's negotiating skills have merit, let's not forget that his party makes matters far more difficult on Obama than it should.

A growing number of Democrats are threatening to defy the White House over the national debt, joining Republican calls for deficit cuts as a requirement for consenting to lift the country's borrowing limit.

The tension is the latest illustration of how the tea-party-infused GOP is driving the debate in Washington over federal spending. And it shows how the debt issue is testing the Obama administration's clout as Democrats, particularly those from politically competitive states, resist White House arguments against setting conditions on legislation to raise the debt ceiling.

The push-back has come in recent days from Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a freshman who is running for reelection next year. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) told constituents during the Easter recess that he would not vote to lift the debt limit without a "real and meaningful commitment to debt reduction."

Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), generally a stalwart White House ally, is undecided on the issue and is "hopeful" that a debt-ceiling bill can be attached to a measure to cut the federal deficit, said her spokesman, Linden Zakula. Klobuchar is also up for reelection next year.

This is painfully ridiculous. Every sane policymaker in Washington knows that to play with the debt ceiling is to play with fire. Delays in the process invite an easily avoidable crisis. It's absurd that Republicans are so reckless as to attach a series of conditions to this, but for Democrats -- including some who really ought to know better -- to buy into this suggests the "Beltway deficit feedback loop" is drowning out all reason.

It's worth keeping this in mind because it helps explain why the White House's negotiating efforts aren't more effective. It's not just Obama vs. the GOP, Obama vs. the media; it's also Obama vs. panicky Dems who are reluctant to do the right thing because they fear voters will be mad at them.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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PRIORITIES USA, CROSSROADS GPS, AND FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE.... One of the more important political developments of the day is news of a new progressive campaign operation called Priorities USA. But as the group's efforts get underway, it's worth having a debate about principles and pragmatism.

The operation is actually going to include two entities: Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. One will disclose its donors, the other won't. The two-pronged fundraising effort intends to raise $100 million to defend President Obama's re-election bid from a massive right-wing attack operation, and is being run by former White House insiders, led in part by Bill Burton.

If the model sounds familiar, there's a good reason for that -- it's basically the same setup Karl Rove helped put together with Crossroads GPS. Just as with Rove's operation, Priorities USA will benefit from unlimited, secret donations, including funds from lobbyists and political action committees whose checks Obama won't accept.

Some credible voices on the left aren't happy about this, and Republicans are already screaming bloody murder, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy. On the surface, that seems like a legitimate point -- Dems, including the president himself, spent a fair amount of time just last year condemning the notion of secret contributions in campaigns. Now, Priorities USA intends to do exactly what Dems said they're against.

And while I think that criticism seems fair -- I'm against unlimited, secret donations, too -- the larger context is critically important. Greg Sargent has a smart post on this.

...Obama and Democrats would close this group down tomorrow if groups on the right agreed to do the same. This is not a matter of spin or argument. It's a matter of simple factual reality that Obama and Democrats have long supported, and continue to support, legislation that would outlaw such non-disclosure -- even for themselves. Dems believe the rules that allow undisclosed spending are wrong, and support changing those rules -- even for themselves. By contrast, Republicans want to keep the rules as they are, because they believe undisclosed spending is a right that should be protected.

The point is that a change in the rules is not currently possible in the real world. That leaves Dems with two choices. They could ask their donors to play by different rules than GOP donors are playing by.... The alternative for Dems is that they play within the rules just as Republicans are, while continuing to advocate for a change in those rules.

Exactly. Conservatives on the Supreme Court created a new landscape. Democrats would prefer this legal environment didn't exist, but it's not up to them. To be sure, Dems could stick to principle, refuse to play by the new rules, and make defeat far more likely, or they could level the playing field and (to mix metaphors) fight fire with fire.

I'm inclined to think the latter is the smarter move. National campaigns in which Republicans, the Koch brothers, and Karl Rove are held to one standard, while Democrats voluntarily abide by a more difficult standard is a recipe for failure.

The national discourse doesn't benefit from these new rules. But the discourse also suffers when only one side follows the rules to get its message out to voters. There's no need for a double standard, and it seems Priorities USA will ensure there isn't one.

Paul Begala, who is also helping lead this effort, had an extremely amusing response to a question from Greg on this, noting, among other things, "We strongly support reform. We support new laws to require transparency of all donations. We support repealing the wrongheaded Citizens United ruling. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the laws you have, not the laws you wish you had. Mr. Rove, the billionaire Koch brothers, the Chamber of Commerce, the NRA, the American Action Network, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, and other right-wing groups are projected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to advance an extreme agenda which would hammer the middle class. We will not let their attacks go unanswered."

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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ROMNEY & CO. WILL SHOW UP TO KISS THE KOCH RING.... In less than a week, Fox News is scheduled to air the year's first debate for the Republican presidential field. Organizers have run into a bit of a snag, though -- the GOP candidates aren't inclined to show up. That's especially true of Mitt Romney, who's spent more time in recent weeks writing op-eds than appearing in public.

It appears, however, that there's one sure-fire way to get would-be presidents to turn out in droves: receive an invitation from the Koch brothers.

Five likely Republican hopefuls are set to take the stage during a Friday presidential forum in New Hampshire, which is being billed as the largest 2012 event to date in the first-in-the-nation primary state.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and conservative talk radio host Herman Cain will speak before scores of key Granite State donors and activists at the Presidential Summit on Spending and Job Creation.

Each hopeful will be given eight minutes to appeal to the crowd, followed by a round of questions from Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, the organizer. Pawlenty will lead the evening off, with Bachmann -- a frequent headliner of Tea Party rallies also organized by AFP -- set to speak last.

To be sure, presidential candidates showing up at an event in New Hampshire nine months before the primary isn't exactly unusual. What's interesting about this, though, is recognizing what the Kochs can make happen. Romney, for example, hasn't been willing to share an event with any of his GOP rivals all year.

But Republican hopefuls are reluctant to slight the secretive, far-right billionaires who plan to invest at least $88 million into the 2012 campaign. The Koch ring must be kissed.

This is especially true of Romney, who's appeared eager to ingratiate himself with the Kochs, and who's already received generous contributions from the family.

Commenting on today's event, and the Kochs' agenda in general, New Hampshire Democratic Party Communications Director Holly Shulman said in a statement, "There's an old saying that you can tell a lot about someone by the company they keep - and Republicans standing shoulder to shoulder with AFP and the Koch brothers proves that they care more about the special interests than the interests of Granite Staters."

* headline fixed

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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BACHMANN BACKS AWAY FROM GOP'S MEDICARE PLAN?.... It stands to reason that congressional Republicans would feel a little antsy about their party's plan to end Medicare. It's not a popular move, but 98% of the House GOP voted for it anyway. Inevitably, some are going to try to distance themselves from the budget plan they already supported.

I didn't, however, expect Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to be one of them. And yet, here's what the right-wing Minnesotan wrote this week on a conservative website:

"I supported that budget blueprint, though I've expressed caution about how we approach the issue of Medicare. We must keep our promises to those who receive Medicare benefits, and those who are nearing the age of Medicare eligibility. Our challenge is to reduce the soaring amounts that government spends on health care, without burdening those who are most vulnerable."

To put it mildly, this isn't the standard Republican line. GOP officials, from the leadership to the rank-and-file, insist that the Republican agenda with regards to Medicare is perfectly sound. They're "saving" the program, they say. The elderly will love being part of the private market, they assure us.

But then there's Michele Bachmann, of all people, urging "caution," and emphasizing the need to "keep our promises" -- as if her own caucus' budget plan might not. (Of course, Bachmann voted with her party for the budget plan that eliminates Medicare.)

I don't want to read too much into this, but if Bachmann's concerns are representative of broader GOP anxiety, it may suggest (a) the heated responses from constituents are having an effect, (b) Republican unity on the subject may be thinner than we'd been led to believe, or (c) both.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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KARL ROVE AND THE AFFECTION FOR PROJECTION.... Karl Rove has a special, some might call it "pathological," quality as a political pundit. More than anyone I've ever seen or heard of, Rove identifies some of his own ugliest, most malicious, most pernicious qualities, and then projects them onto those he hates most.

I've long been fascinated by this, but he just keeps getting worse. Rove's latest WSJ column was almost comically lacking in self awareness, and concluded with this jaw-dropper:

Since Mr. Obama can't make an affirmative case for his re-election, he has decided to try convincing voters that Republicans are monstrous. As a result, America is likely to see the most negative re-election campaign ever mounted by a sitting president.

As best as I can tell, Rove wasn't kidding. His column wasn't intended as satire. He seriously believes the president with the most successful record of accomplishments in a generation "can't make an affirmative case for his re-election." Rove also seems genuine when he thinks Obama will be more negative than any incumbent president in history.

I don't know if there's a prescription available to treat these kinds of delusions, but maybe Rove's buddy Rush Limbaugh can give him a hand.

Look, 2004 really wasn't that long ago. Rove was the "architect" of the Bush/Cheney '04 campaign strategy, and he designed what can fairly be described as the most negative re-election campaign ever mounted by a sitting president.

BC04, for example, launched 64 television commercials after John Kerry had secured the Democratic nomination. Of those 64 ads, 45 were attacks directed at Kerry. That's the not a ratio used by a campaign eager to make an affirmative case for its re-election.

For that matter, if you have a few minutes, take a look at Bush's stump speech from the 2004 campaign. Before the then-president could name a single accomplishment from his first term, Bush's stump speech blasted Kerry as a flip-flopper. From there, Bush touted tax cuts for the wealthy as his most notable accomplishment, and then lied about Kerry's record of supporting tax increases.

Bush then transitioned to mentioning No Child Left Behind, before blasting Kerry on education, health care, medical liability, gay rights, abortion, and liberal judges.

The stump speech then moved on to national security, with Bush boasting, "Afghanistan is free and is an ally in the war on terror" -- how's that one working out? -- and touting progress in Iraq, before spending the rest of the speech condemning Kerry on "voting against the troops," Cold War strategy, counter-terrorism, international cooperation, and something to do with 9/11.

The accomplishment-to-attack ratio in Bush's stump speech was roughly seven to one. (Count all the times the rhetoric pauses so the audience can boo Kerry.)

And ol' Karl is worried about Obama being overly negative in 2012?

This does, however, fit into a remarkable pattern. Rove has spent his professional life engaged in political sleaze, so he's accused Obama of adding "arsenic to the nation's political well." Rove ran a White House that embraced a "permanent campaign," so he's accused the Obama team of embracing a "permanent campaign." Rove embraced the politics of fear, so he's accused Obama of embracing the politics of fear. Rove relied on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted " political events, so he's accused Obama of relying on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted" political events. Rove looked at every policy issue "from a political perspective," so he's accused Obama of looking at every policy issue "from a political perspective." Rove snubbed news outlets that he considered partisan, so he's accused Obama of snubbing snubbed news outlets that he considered partisan. Rove had a habit of burying bad news by releasing it late on Friday afternoons, so he's accused Obama of burying bad news by releasing it late on Friday afternoons. Rove questioned the motives of those with whom he disagreed, so he's accused Obama of questioning the motives of those with whom he disagrees.

A lesser hack might find it difficult to launch political attacks that are ironic, wrong, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time, but Rove is a rare talent.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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AN INEFFECTIVE WAY TO REACH THE WRONG GOAL.... The defense of the House Republican budget plan, and all of its radical cuts and policy changes, couldn't be more straightforward: there's a debt crisis, which makes Paul Ryan's cruelty a fiscal necessity. Deficit reduction, the argument goes, must be the top priority, and Ryan is "courageous" for making hard choices to get the budget closer to balance. The cruelty, we're told, is for a good cause: fiscal sanity.

We know, just off the top our heads, all of the problems with this. There is no debt crisis; policymakers should prioritize jobs over the deficit; etc. But let's also not forget that the premise is nonsense -- even if deficit reduction is the goal, the GOP budget plan does a terrible job at actually reducing the deficit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained this very well a few weeks ago, and Jonathan Cohn follows up in a terrific item this morning.

When House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan unveiled his proposal, he announced that it would reduce government spending by $5.8 trillion and reduce deficit spending by $1.6 trillion in its first ten years. But Ryan included in his spending reductions the savings from ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That's fine; I think we all hope that prediction turns out to be true. But those savings have nothing to do with what Ryan is proposing specifically. (Or, if you want to get technical about it, those savings should be added to Obama's budget and the current baseline, as well.) Once you adjust for that fact, it turns out the Republican budget would reduce spending, relative to current policy and expectations, by only $4.3 billion.

"Only" is a slightly misleading term here, since $4.3 trillion dollars would still represent a large spending cut. But wait! The House Republican budget also calls for tax cuts -- $4.2 trillion of them. In other words, the tax cuts in the House Republican budget would very nearly offset the spending cuts, leaving a modest $155 billion in additional savings over ten years.

I know this must seem hard to believe. The House Republican budget eliminates Medicare, guts Medicaid, and slashes domestic funding to dangerous levels. Given all of this, the budget savings should be enormous.

But they're not, because the same GOP plan also slashes taxes, almost exclusively for the wealthy. The Republican plan to reduce the deficit treats deficit reduction as an afterthought -- the goal is to transfer wealth upwards and shrink government to the point at which Grover Norquist can strangle it in a bathtub.

And as correct as Cohn's piece is, we can go further. Paul Krugman notes that the finances of the GOP look even more fraudulent when one notices that it intends to rely on closing tax loopholes, without actually identifying which loopholes they have in mind.

Jonathan Bernstein goes even further still, explaining the projections themselves appear to be overly forgiving towards Ryan, since his numbers are "based on completely discredited Heritage economic projections" and "depend on shuttering virtually the entire government outside of Social Security, health care programs (even as modified), and defense."

Taken together, the GOP plan to reduce the deficit barely even tries to reduce the deficit -- and may not even bring the budget closer to balance at all. All of those pundits who praised Paul Ryan for his bravery and candor look like fools today, whether they care to admit it or not.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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

* Get to know Priorities USA: "Democrats with ties to the Obama White House on Friday are launching a two-pronged fundraising effort aimed at countering deep-pocketed GOP groups in 2012 -- and adopting some of the same policies on unlimited, secret donations that President Barack Obama himself has long opposed, the organizers tell POLITICO."

* In the wake of Rep. Chris Lee (R) resigning in disgrace, a special election is coming up in New York's 26th congressional district, which is generally a Republican stronghold. For those who aren't following it, now is probably a good time to start: a new Siena College poll shows Republican Jane Corwin leading Democrat Kathy Hochul by just five points. The election is May 24.

* It wasn't clear who, if anyone, would show up for the first Republican presidential candidate debate, scheduled for next week in South Carolina, and cosponsored by Fox News. This morning, Tim Pawlenty said he'll be there.

* On a related note, disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) almost certainly won't participate in the event, since it is limited to candidates who've at least formed exploratory committees. A Gingrich spokesperson said it's unlikely he'll be there, but this shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of interest in the race.

* GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum delivered a speech on foreign policy yesterday, and inexplicably forgot to even mention the war in Afghanistan.

* U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman will return from China today, and walk immediately into a presidential campaign operation that's been waiting for him.

* Sen. Joe Manchin (D) will seek a full term next year, after winning a special election last year, in a hypothetical match-up against Shelley Moore Capito (R), Machin leads by eight, 48% to 40%.

* President Obama continues to struggle in New Hampshire, a state he won in 2008 by nearly 10 points. A new WMUR Granite State poll shows the president's approval rating in the state down to 44%, and Obama trails Mitt Romney in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up.

* And in North Dakota, Rep. Rick Berg (R), after only four months in Congress, is already planning to run for the U.S. Senate next year. Yesterday, the right-wing Club for Growth said the conservative Berg isn't quite hysterical enough. It's an open-seat contest, with Sen. Kent Conrad (D) retiring, though Democrats have so far failed to recruit a credible candidate.

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

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THE 'CONTEXT' DOESN'T HELP.... Given that I took Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern (R) to task yesterday for her brazen racism during a debate on affirmative action, it's only fair to note that she apologized yesterday. That's the good news.

The bad news is, Kern still thinks the media is partially responsible for her mess, because the "context" makes her remarks appear less offensive.

"I want to humbly apologize for any statements last night about women and African Americans. My words were, obviously, not spoken correctly and for that I humbly apologize. Unfortunately, when we take 'words or sentences' out of the total context of a speech debated on the floor, there can be false misrepresentations, but the most important part is to always go to the heart of the matter. [...]

"We live in a sound bite society and our media likes to take only a portion of a dialog and use just a slice of it. You can take a portion of something someone says and make it say anything you want it to say. Without a doubt, what I said was poorly stated and did not convey the meaning I wanted to get across for this I am truly sorry and humbly apologize."

Kern went on to say in her written statement, "In a very inadequate and poorly worded way I was meaning to say that government should not give perference [sic] based only upon race or gender. I deeply regret the anquish [sic] and insult I have caused to all Africian [sic] Americans and sincerely apologize and ask for your forgiveness. My husband and I serve in an inner city church ministering to people of every race because we love all people."

Except gays and Muslims, whom she still doesn't like.

For the record, the larger context just doesn't help the right-wing lawmaker. Kern not only suggested prisons have high African-American populations because blacks may not "want to study as hard in school," she also said, "I've taught school, and I saw a lot of people of color who didn't study hard because they said the government would take care of them."

There is no "context" that makes this anything less than ugly racism.

For the record, several of Kern's colleagues in the Oklahoma legislature, including at least one leader from her own party, condemned her remarks. As of today, however, she remains a Republican lawmaker in good standing.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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IT MAY GENERATE APPLAUSE, BUT IT ISN'T TRUE.... As has been well documented, the House Republican budget plan intends to do away with the existing Medicare system and replace it with a privatized voucher plan. One of the more common GOP defenses is that seniors will now have "the same kind of coverage members of Congress give themselves."

It sounds vaguely populist, and tends to generate applause, at least in front of conservative audiences. Sure, Republicans intend to end guaranteed benefits and scrap an effective system, but how bad could it be? Members of Congress have it easy, and now the elderly will too, right?

It's important to realize that the talking point, touted by Paul Ryan among others, just isn't true. Glenn Kessler has a good piece on this.

In many ways, the federal plan works a lot like the run-of-the-mill employee-sponsored health insurance plan. The bulk of the costs are picked up by the employer -- in this case, the government -- with the employee contributing his or her share according to a set or negotiated rate. Under a 1997 law, the government pays a set rate of 75 percent of the costs of the health plans selected by federal employees and members of Congress. The employee (and members of Congress) pick up the other 25 percent.

Ryan, in his quote, said the new Medicare would be "working like a system just like members of Congress and federal employees have." But the comparison begins to break down once you consider the premium support payments. Ryan would peg the premium support to the consumer price index, a broad gauge that has been rising more slowly than have health care costs.

The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan arm of Congress, analyzed Ryan's plan and estimated that by 2030, the government would pay just 32 percent of the health care costs, less than half of what the federal plan currently pays. The other 68 percent of the plan would have to be shouldered by the retiree. (The CBO estimated that if traditional Medicare stayed in place, the government would pay 70 to 75 percent of the costs.)

The CBO analysis also assumed that adding private insurance plans into the mix would raise administrative costs and would not keep medical inflation as low as traditional Medicare has done.

Remember, Ryan assured voters, "We're saying save Medicare by reforming it for people who are 54 and below by working it like a system just like members of Congress and employees have."

This is plainly false. Republicans aren't "saving" Medicare; they aim to replace it. And the new system clearly wouldn't be "just like" the federal plan at all.

Kevin Drum also had a good piece on this the other day, explaining that Ryan is "just flatly lying," and adding that "that lots of seniors just flatly wouldn't be able to afford to buy Medicare" if the GOP plan were approved. "They wouldn't have enough money to pay their share of the premium, and that means they'd be uninsured and uncovered."

To equate this policy with the plan available to members of Congress is ludicrous.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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IF LESS GOVERNMENT SPENDING LED TO SLOWER GROWTH.... Because the economic report was so widely expected, few seemed especially fazed by yesterday's news that the economy grew by only 1.8% in the first quarter. But the explanations for the discouraging data are worth considering in more detail.

There's near unanimity to explain why January through March was so much weaker than most of 2010: "Severe winter weather, a dip in defense spending and higher energy prices all slowed the growth of gross domestic product.... The good news is that economists consider all those factors to be temporary events that don't pose a long-term threat."

It's the dip in defense spending that's of particular interest.

A top economic aide to President Obama blamed reductions in government spending for a slowdown in U.S. economic growth in the first quarter.

Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said that a slowdown in government spending was mostly responsible for the 1.8 percent growth in gross domestic product (GDP) between January and March, down from 3.1 in the fourth quarter of 2010.

"It was an expected slowdown," Goolsbee said in an interview on Bloomberg television. "The biggest driver was a reduction in government spending at the federal level, a big negative from defense spending."

As it turns out, that's not just partisan spin from the White House -- a reduction in government spending, most notably in defense, really did account for much of the slowdown in the first quarter.

Economist Karl Smith, who concluded that the GDP report isn't as bad as the top line might suggest, noted that the reduction in public sector spending "knocked over 1 point off GDP." In other words, 1.8% growth would have been over 2.8% growth were it not for less government spending. (Smith concluded, "The fundamentals still seem like they are shifting towards stronger growth.")

I mention this, not only to provide some additional context, but also to bang my head against my desk emphasize a point that seems relevant under the circumstances. If stronger economic growth is the goal, and less government spending led to weaker growth, then shouldn't we prioritize public investment? You know, like, now?

It continues to astound me. We know the economy isn't growing quickly enough. We also know that less government spending is directly responsible for weaker growth. And we also know that more spending, at least in the short term, would lead to stronger growth.

And yet, this isn't even on the table. Indeed, Americans elected a House of Representatives that's desperate to do nothing but take more money out of the economy, on purpose.

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATING VOTERS.... Several recent polls have asked Americans for their opinions on the House Republican budget plan, which, among other things, ends Medicare and replaces it with a privatized voucher scheme. The results have been one-sided: the mainstream isn't buying what the GOP is selling.

But then there was that Gallup/USA Today poll that didn't match up at all with the other data. Americans were asked, "Which do you think is the better long-term plan for dealing with the federal budget deficit -- the Republican plan put forth by Congressman Paul Ryan or the Democratic plan put forth by President Barack Obama?" The results: 44% backed Obama's vision, while 43% backed the GOP plan.

How is it possible that some polls show 80% disapproval of the Republican agenda while Gallup shows that agenda tied with the president's plan? It's surprisingly easy to understand -- while GOP officials were giddy with the Gallup poll, the truth is, the question assumes most people know who Paul Ryan is and what his plan entails. They don't.

Suzy Khimm had a good item on this yesterday.

[A] separate poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found support for the Ryan plan dropped sharply when survey-takers explained the specific outlines of the Republican Medicare proposal. As Kaiser Health News reports, the Kaiser poll "found just 30 percent of seniors supported the idea of restructuring Medicare into a system where seniors are given government subsidies to shop for private coverage. In contrast, 62 percent of seniors said they wanted Medicare to be left alone with the program continuing to guarantee the same benefits to all enrollees."

Democrats are banking that the Ryan plan will be politically toxic for the GOP. But these two polls suggest that won't necessarily be the case: the GOP's plan could still have widespread appeal unless Democrats manage to communicate exactly how the specifics of RyanCare would impact ordinary Americans. The Dems faced the same dilemma when it came to federal health reform: Americans tend to feel positive about many of the specific benefits of the Affordable Care Act, but the Republicans have continued to succeed in making them feel queasy about the law overall. So Democrats shouldn't simply assume that Americans will recoil at RyanCare at first blush.

The Gallup results should have been predictable as soon as one saw the wording of the question: asked to choose between a Republican plan and a Democratic plan -- with no additional information -- of course the public is nearly tied. Most Americans haven't the foggiest idea what the plans include, so it becomes a straight-up partisan test.

The lesson for Democrats should be painfully obvious: Americans reject the Republican agenda once they're told what it is -- so go tell them.

Ignorance isn't just the GOP's friend, it's the lynchpin of the entire GOP strategy.

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

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WHEN (AND WHY) THE RIGHT TURNS ON PETRAEUS.... About four years ago, Gen. David Petraeus' most aggressive critics were on the left. He had an op-ed shortly before the 2004 presidential election that was widely seen as a partisan move to help the Bush/Cheney campaign, and as the war in Iraq deteriorated, MoveOn.org ran a very high-profile ad accusing the general of "cooking the books for the White House."

Several years later, Petraeus, transitioning from Afghanistan to the CIA, still has his critics, but the bulk of the vitriol is coming from the right.

Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Policy and a prominent anti-Muslim activist, slammed Petraeus for having condemned a fringe pastor who sparked riots by burning a Quran. As Gaffney sees it, the general is guilty of "submission" to Sharia law.

Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter and now a Washington Post columnist, also isn't happy with Petraeus, and insisted that the Obama administration refuses to allow the CIA to interrogate anyone, while expressing concern about having a CIA director with "restrictive views on interrogation." (In other words, Petraeus is against torture.)

Adam Serwer sets the record straight.

During a Senate hearing in February, Senator Marco Rubio pressed Panetta on whether or not the CIA needed to employ the torturous interrogation techniques used by the prior administration in order to gather intelligence. Panetta responded: "I think right now, the process that we have in place...it brings together the best resources that we have to get the intelligence we need, and I think it works pretty well."

So, yes, the Obama administration does have an interrogation policy, and the CIA is involved in crafting and implementing it. Thiessen's problem is that the policy doesn't involve enough torture. Whatever other concerns people might have about Petraeus' move to head the CIA, for those of us who believe torture is both morally reprehensible and entirely counterproductive, Petraeus' outspoken opposition to torture and his defenses of American values and the rule of law are a feature, not a bug.

There's been some simmering tension between Petraeus and Republicans in recent years, with the general subtly blaming Bush for problems in Afghanistan, while siding with Democrats on everything from Gitmo to Iran to Israel.

But for the right to go after Petraeus on torture and Muslims is far more troubling, even by conservative standards.

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

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PAUL RYAN LENDS DEMS A HAND ON OIL SUBSIDIES.... Congressional Republicans seem to have an oil problem. The highly-profitable oil and gas industry continues to receive billions of dollars a year in taxpayer subsidies, which the companies clearly don't need, and Democrats have latched on to this as a political winner.

The dilemma is straightforward: Republicans want to keep the tax incentives for Big Oil going indefinitely, but they don't know how to defend their position.

This has led to quite a bit of awkwardness. This week, for example, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told a national television audience this week that he's open to ending the subsidies. His office quickly walked this back, suggesting the Speaker's comments were deliberately false.

But Boehner's not the only one. Yesterday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was pressed on the issue at a town-hall meeting.

Q: The subsidy for the oil companies that the federal government gives. They've gotta stop.

RYAN: Sure.

Q: End the oil company subsidies...

RYAN: I agree.

Q: ...and you will gain a lot of that money in the red back.

Now, it's worth noting that if Ryan "agrees" that it's time to end subsidies for oil companies, he has an odd way of showing it. Just last month, the far-right lawmaker voted to keep the subsidies going.

But why quibble? Perhaps Ryan has realized the error of his ways, and is now prepared to support the Democratic proposal. Dems certainly hope so -- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney immediately touted Ryan's remarks, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi applauded Ryan's support for her caucus' idea.

At this point, Ryan has not yet walked this back, and as odd as it seems, we now have Paul Ryan and the House GOP leadership on different sides of a high-profile debate. Dems, in general, aren't this lucky, and the conflict reinforces the political potency of the issue.

As of late yesterday, the Speaker's office once again refused to even consider the measure he tacitly supported earlier in the week, suggesting this fight will continue. All things considered, I get the sense Democrats are all right with that.

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

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April 28, 2011

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

* The death toll in the Southeast grows following yesterday's devastating storms: "Firefighters searched one splintered pile after another for survivors Thursday, combing the remains of houses and neighborhoods pulverized by the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak in almost four decades. At least 280 people were killed across six states -- more than two-thirds of them in Alabama, where large cities bore the half-mile-wide scars the twisters left behind."

* President Obama will be in Alabama tomorrow, meeting with locals and helping make sure the emergency response is on track.

* Terror in Morocco: "A massive terrorist bombing tore through a tourist cafe in the bustling heart of Marrakech's old quarter Thursday, killing at least 11 foreigners and three Moroccans in the country's deadliest attack in eight years."

* Libya: "Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council today that there is another good reason to confront Libyan forces. Moammar Qaddafi has reportedly been passing out tablets of Viagra to his front line troops to help them rape women."

* As if the GDP report wasn't discouraging enough: "More people sought unemployment benefits last week, the second rise in three weeks, a sign of the slow and uneven jobs recovery. Applications for unemployment benefits jumped 25,000 to a seasonally adjusted 429,000 for the week ending April 23, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the highest total since late January."

* Lara Logan speaks on the brutality of her assault: "Logan, a CBS News correspondent, was in Tahrir square preparing a report for '60 Minutes' on Feb. 11 when the celebratory mood suddenly turned threatening. She was ripped away from her producer and bodyguard by a group of men who tore at her clothes and groped and beat her body. 'For an extended period of time, they raped me with their hands,' Ms. Logan said in an interview with The New York Times. She estimated that the attack lasted for about 40 minutes and involved 200 to 300 men."

* Fascinating report from Zach Carter and Ryan Grim on swipe fees. It may seem like a dull topic, but the fight between retailers and financial institutions is an important story about lobbying and the disregard for consumers.

* Speaking of interesting stories, Spencer Ackerman has a rather remarkable story on his experience with a strange person billed as the "1st Lady of Missiles."

* American women, we now know, are better educated than American men. Now if only they were paid equally, we'd have some even more meaningful progress.

* And finally, CBS News' Bob Schieffer doesn't do much in the way of commentary, so it was refreshing for him to suggest that Donald Trump is part of "an ugly strain of racism." Good for Schieffer.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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DIFFERENT KINDS OF 'FREAK SHOWS'.... There's a lengthy item in Politico today about the "new era of accusation and innuendo," and the fact that yesterday's developments at the White House suggest we've officially entered a time in which we have "no referee ... and no common understandings between fair and unfair, between relevant and trivial, or even between facts and fantasy."

This is a worthwhile point, certainly deserving of a larger discussion. Indeed, the Politico article raises some legitimate observations.

But little things like this are really irksome.

Much as they bemoan the "freak show" for inserting once-fringe players a central role in the debate, most successful national figures also use this phenomenon to their advantage.

Republican operatives in Washington, for instance, commonly roll their eyes or groan in discomfort at the most florid rhetoric of conservative commentators like Glenn Beck, fearing it paints the party broadly as less than serious or responsible. But they relish the way Beck and ideological confederates excite the GOP base, a contributing factor in the party's strong performance in 2010. Democratic professionals, meanwhile, may not have publicly embraced the controversy over alleged gaps in George W. Bush's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard, but they enjoyed it when liberal commentators waved that flag.

I'm well aware of the unwritten media rules, and the need to blame "both sides" for everything, in all instances. But false equivalencies are still annoying.

The "florid rhetoric of conservative commentators," which includes all kinds of bizarre conspiracy theories, most recently the birther garbage, rests solely on nonsense. Any serious evaluation of their bizarre allegations quickly shows they have no basis in reality.

But at the risk of beating a horse that died years ago, the allegations about Bush's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard weren't "alleged," they were proven. When liberal commentators waved that flag, they were pointing out the truth: that the president, who clearly lied about having served in the Air Force, also failed to complete his duties to the Texas Air National Guard.

Reasonable people can disagree over whether that had any relevance. Reasonable people shouldn't disagree over what's plainly factual. This is just what happened. The history is unambiguous.

So when it comes to bemoaning the "freak show," you'll get no arguments from me. But let's not equate birthers and Beck acolytes on the one hand, and those who drew attention to Bush's TANG controversy on the other. There's just no equivalency there.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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TACKLING THE DEBT CEILING INCREMENTALLY.... There's no doubt that policymakers have to raise the debt ceiling. The question in recent months is what kind of ransom Republicans will expect in exchange for them doing their duty.

But that's not the only question. The assumption has been that Congress and the White House would raise the debt limit by a large enough amount to cover the annual deficit. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the House Budget Committee, told ABC News today that Republicans may consider a more piecemeal approach.

As for one of the next big battles, Lankford said one of the strategies being discussed surrounding the debt ceiling would have Congress authorize only a relatively small increase, to force spending questions to come to the fore again soon if sufficient cuts aren't made to federal spending.

"There are a couple different strategies being talked about. One is keep it low and so we can come back repetitively and keep this in check. And the other one is do a larger piece," he said. "Obviously the president doesn't want to face the Congress that much and so he wants a bigger one. Congress is willing to say, you know ... let's only do it a little bit a time. We'll have to see where we land."

The only thing worse than watching policymakers fight over the debt ceiling is watching policymakers fight over the debt ceiling every couple of months.

It's a recipe for, among other things, (cue scary music) uncertainty. Indeed, playing incremental games with the ability of the country to pay its bills sends a pretty loud signal to foreign countries and markets around the globe: there are just enough children in positions of authority in Congress to cause genuine concern about the nation's finances.

The details of this strategy are not yet available, but it's not hard to imagine how the process would play out -- Republicans would agree to raise the limit a little in exchange for some concessions. Then repeat. Then repeat again. If this sounds familiar, it's because we saw the same dynamic in February and March -- Republicans agreed to fund the government in two-week increments, in exchange for $2 billion in spending cuts per week.

How long would the congressional GOP intend to pursue the "slow-bleed" strategy? Again, we don't know, but if they can trade for concessions at every step, I imagine they'll drag it out as long as possible.

It'll undermine economic stability, create uncertainty, and make the country look ridiculous in the eyes of the world, but then again, that's pretty routine for Republicans anyway.

Steve Benen 3:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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BOEHNER'S PLAN: DRILL OUR WAY TO RECOVERY.... It must be nice to be a Republican. I can't personally relate, but I'm often jealous at their ability to just make up policies and arguments, without any real thought at all, and without regard for reason.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday that sluggish first-quarter economic growth underscores the need for GOP offshore oil-and-gas drilling bills that will begin coming to the floor next week.

The Commerce Department announced Thursday that gross domestic product had increased at a 1.8 percent rate in the first three months of the year. The economy had grown at a 3.1 percent pace in 2010's last quarter.

"Skyrocketing gas prices continue to batter families and small businesses, and the Obama Administration is actively making the problem worse by blocking more American energy production," Boehner said in a statement.

Got it. Economic growth is far too weak, so Congress' top Republican will call for more oil drilling, which will in turn lower prices, and which will then boost consumer spending. See how easy this is? Drilling = recovery. Why didn't anyone else think of this sooner?

Perhaps because this is ridiculous. The administration isn't hindering production; in fact, domestic oil production in 2010 was at its highest point in about a decade. That's not "blocking" production, it's the opposite. Does Boehner not know this?

For that matter, plenty of Republicans realize that drilling won't lower oil prices. It's really not that complicated: "Even a dramatic expansion of domestic oil and gas drilling will have little effect on oil and gas prices, as they are largely set on world markets." Even Boehner should be able to understand this.

The Speaker's three-part plan -- (1) drill for more oil, (2) ???, (3) boost economy -- only makes sense if you disregard reality altogether. It is the quintessential Underpants Gnomes approach to a recovery. Either Boehner knows this and doesn't care, assuming we're too dumb not to notice, or his economic agenda has all the sophistication of a third-grade book report.

That said, if the Speaker really is concerned after seeing the latest GDP numbers, he could do something that would actually make a difference: scrap his austerity agenda and stop trying to slow down an economy that needs to speed up.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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THE WRONG CHARACTER WITNESS.... Apparently, some Republican establishment types are starting to defend Donald Trump's viability as a national candidate. One, in particular, is worth keeping an eye on.

Republican strategists and tea party activists said Trump's celebrity combined with his flirtation with birtherism has attracted media attention and allowed him to harness some of the anti-Washington sentiment that showed up during November's elections. After a few weeks of public appearances and interviews, and without declaring yet whether he will run, Trump rode his name recognition to the front of the GOP field in a number of public polls of Republican voters.

Several Republicans said Trump has plenty of credibility to talk about the economic issues at the forefront of most voters' minds.

"Donald Trump is not going to need any tutelage from advisers on the economy," said Ralph Reed, a conservative strategist and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

First, this is an odd argument. Trump, who isn't an economist, has filed for bankruptcy at least four times. He's not going to need any tutelage from advisers on the economy? How about tutelage from bankruptcy attorneys?

Second, why on earth should anyone take Ralph Reed's assessment seriously? The right-wing hatchet man is a disgraced former lobbyist and accused money-launderer who was at the heart of the Abramoff scandal. The man was a pariah after having been exposed as a near-criminal -- Reed was soundly defeated in a GOP primary when he sought statewide office in his home state of Georgia -- and the very idea that he's allowed to show his face again in public, as opposed to being incarcerated, is extraordinary.

And yet, Ralph Reed is vouching for Donald Trump's credibility? And the Washington Post quotes Reed without even mentioning the fact that the guy is a disgrace?

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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ANOTHER SETBACK FOR THE GOP'S MINORITY OUTREACH EFFORTS.... Oh my.

The Republican-controlled Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a proposed constitutional amendment yesterday that would eliminate Affirmative Action in state government. The offical GOP reasoning for the change is that while "discrimination exists," "I don't think Affirmative Action has been as successful as we like to believe," the bill's sponsor, Rep. T.W. Shannon (R), explained. But perpetual extremist Rep. Sally Kern (R) offered her argument for ending the system that helps minorities advance: "blacks" simply don't work as hard as whites.

Seriously, that's what she said. Kern, defending opposition to affirmative action, went on to suggest African Americans may end up in prison because "they don't want to study as hard in school." She added, "I've taught school and I saw a lot of people of color who didn't study hard because they said the government would take care of them."

Kern went on to argue that women earn less than men because "they tend to spend more time at home with their families."

This is the same state lawmaker who argued that homosexuality is more dangerous than terrorism, and fought for a ban on Sharia law.

Honestly, where does the Republican Party even find people like this? Is there a website where a party can order cartoonish racists to serve in state government?

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

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PRESIDENTS CAN GO WHILE THEIR POLICIES LINGER.... Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who's struggled a bit in his first year on the job, held a town-hall meeting last night, and heard from plenty of folks who weren't pleased with his vote on the House Republican budget plan.

There was one part of the story, though, that jumped out at me. After some locals complained about Grimm voting to end Medicare, another voter complained that Bush-era policies are largely responsible for the 2011 deficit.

Former President George W. Bush was one of the evening's frequent scapegoats, prompting Mr. Grimm, at one point, to ask: "This year's deficit is due to George Bush? That's insanity! That's insane."

Later, he turned to the reporters in the room, as if looking for support.

"I want the press to document this," he said. "The reason that the Democratic house, the Democratic senate, and the president, who's a Democrat, and his name was President Barack Obama, not President George Bush. They didn't pass a budget or pass any plan to stop our debt crisis because of George Bush? It was because of George Bush?!"

I can appreciate why this might resonate with some folks. Bush left office more than two years ago, so it may seem as if today's problems no longer have anything to do with him. Grimm, who routinely struggles to understand the basics of current events, was incredulous about this, and I suspect plenty of Republicans agree.

12-16-09bud-rev6-28-10-f1b.jpg

But the argument is not "insane" at all. In fact, it just requires a little thought and some rudimentary understanding of how reached the current mess.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently explained that, despite the rhetoric, the "fact remains" that "together with the economic downturn, the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years."

When Bush left office, he left behind a deficit a little over $1.3 trillion. He also left behind an economic crisis, which required some spending to address. What's more, he also left behind a series of policies -- two wars and a Medicare expansion, for example -- that Republicans made no effort to pay for, and which continue to add to the deficit.

As the CBPP noted, "The events and policies that have pushed deficits to these high levels in the near term, however, were largely outside the [Obama] Administration's control." The report added that the nation "must come to grips with the nation's long-term deficit problem. But we should not mistake the causes of our predicament."

I realize Grimm must find this confusing. Indeed, he thinks there's a "debt crisis," which only helps reinforce the fear that the congressman is struggling with the basics.

But what the congressman should try to understand is that a president's policies can linger for a while, even after that president leaves office. Grimm doesn't have to like it, but calling the truth "insane" doesn't make it false.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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

* In a move that surprised no one, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) appointed Rep. Dean Heller (R) to serve in the Senate, replacing Sen. John Ensign (R) who will step down in disgrace next week. Heller will also run for a full term next year, though now he'll do so as a quasi-incumbent.

* Mike Huckabee has not yet decided on whether to run for president again, and his current employer, Fox News, is urging him to hurry up. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have already left the network in advance of their presidential campaigns.

* In West Virginia, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Democrats with an edge in this year's gubernatorial race, with Earl Ray Tomblin (D) in the strongest position.

* Rep. Heath Shuler, a Blue Dog Dem from North Carolina, will face Councilman Cecil Bothwell in a Democratic primary next year.

* It's challenging enough for Massachusetts Dems to make the case against Sen. Scott Brown (R), given his support in the polls. Why Rep. Richard Neal (D) is helping Brown by calling the senator's independence "very impressive" is a mystery to me.

* Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), an apparent presidential candidate, traveled to New Hampshire yesterday and questioned a possible rival's fealty to the GOP. "I've come to New Hampshire today because I'm very concerned," Paul said. "I want to see the original long-form certificate of Donald Trump's Republican registration."

* New polls out of Pennsylvania and Nevada show President Obama struggling. The president won both states in 2008 and will need to improve his standing in both to win re-election.

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

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TELLING SENIORS TO GIVE UP ON MEDICARE.... Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) represents a Miami-area district with quite a few seniors. That did not, however, stop him voting to end Medicare and gut Medicaid when his party's budget plan reached the House floor.

The right-wing lawmaker probably realizes this is likely to cause consternation among his constituents, so earlier this week, West hosted a public meeting, but refused to allow voters to ask questions from microphones. Instead, the strange congressman would only responded to pre-screened written inquiries.

Last night, West gave it another try.

It can't be easy defending your party's plan to cut and privatize Medicare in retiree-heavy Boca Raton, Florida, but Rep. Allen West gave it his best shot on Wednesday. Questioned by constituents about the budget at a town hall, the freshman Republican warned that everyone is doomed with Medicare as is.

"I gotta tell you something: if you support Medicare the way it is now, you can kiss the United States of America goodbye," West said, according to local station WPTV.

This isn't going to work. Most Americans want Medicare left alone, and most voters in South Florida feel strongly about leaving Medicare alone.

In other words, the more West argues that the future of America rests on the ability to destroy Medicare, the happier the DCCC is.

Update: One of West's constituents criticized the congresman at the event. For her trouble, she was taken into police custody and maced in jail. When Tea Partiers talk about "freedom," I wonder if this is what they're referring to.

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

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LEAVE THE KIDS OUT OF IT.... Last month, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) launched an attack on the Affordable Care Act, suggesting it would have killed his daughter, who was born with a heart defect. The argument wasn't just wrong -- the rookie senator got literally ever relevant policy detail backwards -- it was deeply offensive. Standards are admittedly low, but Johnson's screed was unbecoming for a senator.

But the practice of right-wing opponents of health care reform needlessly exploiting their children is unfortunately common. Former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), for example, famously used one of her children to launch her "death panel" lie.

And this week, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum (R) said he's running in part because of one of his daughters, who was born with a genetic abnormality, wouldn't survive in a country with "socialized medicine."

"I look at how society with socialized medicine treats children like Bella, and children like Bella don't survive," Santorum told The Des Moines Register Monday, the first leg of a three-day swing through Iowa. "Children like Bella are not given the treatment that other children are given."

Santorum said the new health care law, championed by President Barack Obama, will mean disabled people are denied care more often, and repealing it is the best way to address mounting national debt.

He said that disabled children are denied care today.

"It's not like this isn't happening now," he said. "But it will happen more under a much more budgetarily-driven health care system."

It's hard to overstate how stupid this is. Indeed, it's really just the "death panel" argument without the phrase.

Let's quickly note some of the more routine flaws. First, the Affordable Care Act isn't "socialized" medicine. Second, repealing the law would make the deficit go up, not down. Third, countries that do have socialized medicine don't let sick children die just as a matter of course.

But that's just dealing with Santorum's idiocy on a surface level. Digging deeper, can Santorum point to any provisions in the law -- literally, anything at all -- that might prevent treatment for his ailing daughter? No, of course not. Because if he tried to address the law with some shred of intellectual seriousness, Santorum would know (a) death panels that deny care to ailing children don't exist; (b) the law offers strong protections that protect children with pre-existing conditions; and (c) he'd have much more to worry about when it came to penny-pinching private insurers turning down procedures they don't want to pay for.

What's more, the ACA includes prohibitions on lifetime caps precisely so that children like Bella -- and her parents -- don't have to worry about being denied potentially life-saving treatments.

Indeed, in Santorum's bizarre fantasy world, does he think families in Massachusetts -- where the state has had an ACA-style system for several years -- are routinely denying care to ailing children?

The health care reform law is in a position to save lives. Santorum's worldview is so twisted, he can't quite grasp the basics.

Or maybe he does understand and he's just blatantly, shamelessly lying. Either way, this is pathetic.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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PANETTA AT THE PENTAGON.... As part of a large shake-up of the Obama administration's national security team, Leon Panetta will make the transition from leading the CIA to leading the Defense Department. He will, oddly enough, be the first actual Democrat to head the Pentagon in more than 14 years.

There's reason for some optimism with this nomination. Joe Klein noted the other day:

Panetta seems the perfect man for Sec Def at this time. He's been working the major war zones as Director of Central Intelligence the past few years, so he's familiar with the strategic challenges he'll be facing. Most important, Panetta has a history as a dedicated budget cutter. He was chair of the House Budget Committee in the late 1980s and Bill Clinton's budget director (and later chief of staff). And the most important job that the next SecDef will have will be budget-cutting.

That sounds about right. President Obama intends to find $400 billion in savings from defense spending over the next 12 years, and Panetta is just the guy to do it.

But it's also worth noting that Panetta, unlike one of his recent predecessors (let's call him "Donald R."), is an uncompromising opponent of torture. In 2008, for example, Panetta wrote, "Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous and counterproductive. And yet, the president is using fear to trump the law."

Before that, Panetta had a piece right here in the Washington Monthly on the subject. It's worth re-reading given his new position.

According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what's wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation. It was drafted by those who looked around the world of the eighteenth century and saw persecution, torture, and other crimes against humanity and believed that America could be better than that. This new nation would recognize that every individual has an inherent right to personal dignity, to justice, to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

We have preached these values to the world. We have made clear that there are certain lines Americans will not cross because we respect the dignity of every human being. That pledge was written into the oath of office given to every president, "to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution." It's what is supposed to make our leaders different from every tyrant, dictator, or despot. We are sworn to govern by the rule of law, not by brute force.

We cannot simply suspend these beliefs in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don't. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.

This won't represent a shift -- Bob Gates has done fine work -- but it's a reminder about the kind of values Panetta will bring to the job.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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HARRY REID CONSIDERS PUTTING ON A DIFFERENT 'CAP'.... The "CAP Act" would impose insane, statutory spending caps on Congress, with the goal of automatically slashing public investments in practically everything. The measure is generating growing support from Republicans and "centrist" Democrats, but it's still one of the worst ideas in recent memory.

We haven't heard too much from the White House on this -- though the West Wing is reportedly pushing against the idea behind the scenes -- but we also haven't heard the Senate Democratic leadership weigh in. Yesterday, Harry Reid didn't denounce the CAP Act, but he did offer an alternative.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is backing a cap on deficits as part of a deal to raise the federal debt limit, he told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.

"We have to be able to prove that we're willing to do something about the debt," the Nevada Democrat said. Reid said that in his opinion, the nation needs a deficit cap, as opposed to the spending caps being proposed by Republicans and some Democrats.

"If we are able to cap deficits, it automatically brings down the debt, and that's the key to all this," he said. "You would have a law saying that we have to do it."

It's hard to evaluate this in any depth without more details, but on the surface, a "deficit cap," as opposed to a "spending cap," would be preferable -- but only a little.

It's reminiscent of the "debt failsafe" plan President Obama mentioned a few weeks ago in his debt-reduction speech: "If, by 2014, our debt is not projected to fall as a share of the economy -- if we haven't hit our targets, if Congress has failed to act -- then my plan will require us to come together and make up the additional savings with more spending cuts and more spending reductions in the tax code. That should be an incentive for us to act boldly now, instead of kicking our problems further down the road."

The difference between a spending cap and a deficit cap is important -- under the former, once spending reaches an arbitrary level as a percentage of the economy, sweeping reductions become mandatory, including cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare. Under the latter, once the deficit reaches a certain level, Congress would be required act to bring it below the arbitrary level, but this could be done through some combination of spending cuts and increased revenue.

The former is intended to force brutal cuts; the latter is intended to keep the deficit in check by whatever means policymakers see fit.

Republicans won't go for the latter, but Democrats can't go for the former.

Under saner circumstances, all of these "cap" ideas would be rejected as unnecessary gimmicks. Indeed, my suggestion would be for an unemployment cap: once the jobless rate tops 8%, policymakers would be forced to start investing in job creation until it comes down and stays down. [Update: I'm not the first to come up with this.]

But the circumstances we're dealing with are anything but sane, and austerity fever has blinded the establishment to what should be important.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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ECONOMY STILL GROWING, BUT MUCH SLOWER.... We can't say we weren't warned. Most economic observers expected to see slower economic growth in the first quarter, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke noted yesterday that the new GDP report would show growth below 2%. Most analysts projected the figure to be between 1.7% and 1.9%.

And this morning, that's exactly what we learned.

The American economy slowed to a crawl in the first quarter, but economists are hopeful that the setback will be temporary.

Total output grew at an annual pace of 1.8 percent last quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday, after having expanded at an annualized rate of 3.1 percent at the end of 2010.

The U.S. economy has grown in seven consecutive quarters, but the last quarter showed a drop in the growth rate after three consecutive increases.

No one, however, seems especially surprised. January through March was a rough patch -- higher gas prices, scaled back defense spending, construction delayed by bad weather -- that many seem to expect to be short-lived. Yesterday, Bernanke said the Fed still expects growth between 3.1% and 3.3% this year.

This, coupled with the fact that job growth over the same period was actually pretty good, is helping keep potential dread in check.

But let's not forget that policymakers in Washington still seem eager to pursue austerity measures, scrapping public investments, taking money out of the economy, and moving away from job creation. We know the practical consequences of this: an even weaker economy. For that matter, the Fed is apparently unwilling to take additional steps to improve the status quo.

We can and must do much better than 1.8%, but we won't if the nation pursues a conservative approach that focuses on one problem that doesn't exist (inflation) rather than the problem that does exist (weak economic growth).

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.

gdp1Q2011.jpg

* edited for clarity

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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DEMS PRIORITIZE THE END OF OIL INDUSTRY SUBSIDIES.... Though he later said he didn't mean it, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said this week that he's open to ending lucrative taxpayer subsidies to extremely-profitable oil companies. It was the opening Democrats had been waiting for.

A half-day later, President Obama wrote a letter to congressional leaders in both parties and both chambers, urging them to end the oil-industry incentives and apply the savings -- around $4 billion a year in additional revenue -- to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. The president added that he was "heartened" by Boehner pre-walkback comments.

It quickly became clear that the Speaker has no intention of following through on this -- his office all but admitted he was lying on national television -- but his is not the only chamber on the Hill.

President Barack Obama's most powerful ally on Capitol Hill said Wednesday that the Senate will turn quickly to legislation to repeal billions of dollars in government subsidies enjoyed by big oil companies every year.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate will consider as early as next week Obama's proposal to repeal the tax breaks. Obama wants to use the billions in saving to invest in alternative energy in an effort to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

"There's no necessity for these subsidies," Reid told reporters. "The companies have broken all records for profits."

It's a near certainty that Senate Republicans will filibuster the cost-saving measure -- they're allegedly desperate to lower the deficit, but rather picky about how -- and given the makeup of the Senate, getting to 60 will be all but impossible.

But even under this scenario, Democrats see a political opportunity: with consumers paying nearly $4 a gallon, Republicans are fighting to defend subsidies for Big Oil, on top of the industry's massive profits. Like the vote on the House budget bill, the point is to put the Senate GOP in a tough spot.

Not to be outdone, House Dems, led by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), are also pushing Boehner to at least hold a vote on this, giving members a chance to do what the Speaker told a national television audience he'd consider doing.

Democrats don't see chances to go on the offensive very often, but they see an opportunity here. That strikes me as wise -- if the GOP keeps defending the industry incentives, it's a political cudgel, and if Republicans cave and end the subsidies, the money can be better spent elsewhere.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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April 27, 2011

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

* New national security team: "President Obama will nominate CIA Director Leon Panetta this week as secretary of defense, replacing Robert M. Gates as part of a series of national security shifts that will also place Afghanistan war commander Gen. David H. Petraeus in the top CIA job, U.S. officials said." Also, Ryan Crocker is headed to Kabul as Ambassador and Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen will replace Petraeus.

* Afghanistan: "A veteran Afghan military pilot said to be distressed over his personal finances opened fire at Kabul airport after an argument Wednesday, killing eight U.S. troops and an American civilian contractor."

* Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke didn't say much, but he does see the recovery continuing through 2013 -- it just won't be an especially good recovery.

* An unexpected partnership: "Fatah and Hamas, the rival Palestinian movements, announced an agreement in principle on Wednesday to end a years-long internal Palestinian schism."

* It's important for people to realize that self-proclaimed health care expert Elizabeth McCaughey seems to be poison for the discourse.

* Fox News' Shep Smith, reflecting on the birther nonsense, tells the media to "just freaking stop it." Here's hoping his own network takes the advice to heart.

* I'm at a loss to explain how the same Obama administration officials who deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and refused to defend it in court, are also somehow "screwing over a key Democratic constituency" by defending a lawyer's choice to work on the case from the other side. [Update: To clarify, the oddity isn't the administration's actions, but the wholly unnecessary criticism of those actions.]

* In light of deep education cuts from their new Republican governor, Pennsylvania parents wonder how they'll be able to sell 2.4 billion bake-sale cookies to make up the difference.

* It never occurred to me that college students might be less likely to drop out if they had fewer choices about what to do while there.

* Libertarians looking forward to the next two installments in the Atlas Shrugged films are likely to be disappointed. With the movie failing miserably with critics and audiences, the producer/distributor/financier no longer intends to invest in his failure.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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WHITE HOUSE OPPOSES CAP ACT BEHIND THE SCENES.... The "CAP Act," which imposes insane, statutory spending caps on Congress, is one of the worst ideas in recent memory, but it's still generating growing support from Republicans and "centrist" Democrats.

To date, the White House hasn't had too much to say on the proposal, probably because a meaningful debate on the idea hasn't even started. But the bill's leading Republican sponsor is complaining that the West Wing is working the phones behind the scenes.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Monday the White House is calling every member of the Senate, urging them to reject the "CAP Act."

"The White House is calling every individual senator and asking them to stay off of this bill," Corker told the Times-News editorial board Monday while promoting his legislation. "I see it as a part of the fulcrum of this (spending) debate. I'm hoping that it passes."

I haven't seen confirmation of this elsewhere, but if it's true, it's excellent news. The CAP Act is a disaster, and it's exactly the kind of thing the president and his team are going to have to work to defeat.

Corker's reliability is dubious, so I wouldn't count on his claim being entirely correct. But if the White House is taking this seriously, and working the phones to blunt any momentum the CAP Act may have, it's a very good sign that Obama recognizes just how awful this idea really is.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... As a rule, prominent voices in American politics who compare rivals to terrorists are asking for trouble.

But it's all the more striking when the person floating the comparison is a former Bush cabinet secretary -- and he's talking about congressional Republicans.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill compared lawmakers trying to block a debt-ceiling increase to terrorists.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill compared lawmakers trying to block raising the debt ceiling to "al Qaeda terrorists."

"The people who are threatening not to pass the debt ceiling are our version of al Qaeda terrorists. Really," O'Neill, Treasury secretary in the Republican administration of George W. Bush, said Wednesday in an interview with Bloomberg Television's InBusiness with Margaret Brennan.

"They're really putting our whole society at risk by threatening to round up 50 percent of the members of the Congress, who are loony, who would put our credit at risk," O'Neill said.

OK, Mr. Secretary, now tell us how you really feel.

For the record, I'm generally inclined to avoid comparing major American political parties to al Qaeda, and as disgusted as I am with GOP recklessness, it amazes me that a former Bush cabinet secretary would use much stronger language on this than I would.

That said, when we're talking about Republicans who would create an economic crisis on purpose, despite pleas to be responsible, the GOP has to expect some questions about why the party is so reluctant to put the nation's interests first.

Steve Benen 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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PROVING THE PRESIDENT'S POINT.... This morning, President Obama chided the press a bit, explaining that he felt it necessary to release his long-form birth certificate in part because the media is too easily distracted by nonsense. This caused some reporters to feel a bit defensive.

But a few hours later, Obama's point looked even more salient.

Here's the president, around 10 a.m.

"We've got some enormous challenges out there.... And I'm confident that the American people and America's political leaders can come together in a bipartisan way and solve these problems. We always have.

"But we're not going to be able to do it if we are distracted.... We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers. [...]

"We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We've got better stuff to do. I've got better stuff to do. We got big problems to solve, and I'm confident we can solve them, but we're going to have to focus on them, not on this."

And here's a report on the cable news network, four hours later:

Cable nets covered entire Donald Trump presser this morning. Can't stay with Bernanke for more than 180 seconds.

Now, objectively, what's more important, the odd tirades of a TV reality-show host, or the first-ever press conference by a chairman of the Federal Reserve during difficult economic times? And which of these two were aired to a national television audience in its entirety?

We'll fail to address pressing challenges "if we are distracted." The president wasn't talking to voters; he was talking to journalists.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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REID TO PUT SENATE GOP ON THE SPOT.... We talked the other day about why it'd be a smart move for Senate Democrats to bring the House Republican budget to the floor for a vote. This afternoon, we learned that's exactly what's going to happen.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced on Wednesday that he would host a vote on Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget as a means of forcing moderate GOP senators to weigh in on the legislation's controversial proposals. He did not provide a specific date for when that vote will take place.

"There will be an opportunity in the Senate to vote on the Ryan budget to see if Republican senators like the Ryan budget as much as the House did," Reid said on a conference call with reporters. "Without going into the Ryan budget we will see how much the Republicans like it here in the Senate."

This is a plan with no downsides, at least for Democrats. The Senate majority caucus will be unified in opposition -- even Ben Nelson and Joe Manchin won't go along with a proposal that ends Medicare -- and Republicans will be on the defensive.

Even the most far-right members realize that the House plan is unpopular. If Senate Republicans vote for it anyway, Dems can and will use it against them. If some in the Senate GOP balk -- as Maine's Susan Collins already has -- Dems will use that to emphasize the "bipartisan" opposition to the House agenda and use it as leverage in budget talks.

It's a classic wedge strategy, and if I were a betting man, I'd say it's almost certain to work with Republicans like Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) -- incumbents seeking re-election next year in traditionally "blue" states -- who'd have to be politically suicidal to put their careers on the line for a radical plan that's going to fail anyway.

The question isn't whether the move will force some Republicans to break ranks; the question is how many. I'd put the over/under at five.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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CANTOR: 'AMERICA PAYS ITS BILLS,' EXCEPT WHEN IT DOESN'T.... I don't expect much from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), but his comments on the debt ceiling on CNBC this morning, flagged by Pat Garofalo, were especially annoying.

"First of all, Joe, you know, America pays its bills. I think everybody sort of agrees that we've got to pay our bills, but I don't think that that comes at the exclusion of trying to fix the problem here. We are in a debt crisis, I think the markets, global investors, the American people are expecting us to deliver on our commitment that we're going to change the spending crisis in Washington. So together with that debt limit vote has to be some real reforms. And I mean real."

The notion that the United States is "in a debt crisis" is demonstrably ridiculous. It's not only dumb for the House Majority Leader to talk like this on national television, it's strikingly irresponsible. This guy just doesn't know what he's talking about, and the last thing we need is for investors, financiers, and foreign governments taking our conspicuously unintelligent House leader seriously about a "debt crisis" that doesn't exist.

But what's especially interesting about the quote was Cantor's initial attempt to sound sensible: "American pays its bills." That'd be far more encouraging if Cantor didn't say, just seconds later, that he's prepared to ensure that America won't pay its bills unless he's satisfied with the ransom Democrats pay in this little hostage strategy.

In the meantime, a couple of weeks after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reached out to Wall Street, asking how much time he has to screw around on this before Republicans do real damage, the financial industry is now taking a more proactive role.

Wall Street executives and their Washington lobbyists have been meeting quietly with members of Congress -- particularly reluctant House GOP freshman -- to urge that they vote in favor of raising the $14.29 trillion debt limit as quickly as possible, sources close to the matter said.

Executives from the deep-pocketed industry that traditionally pumps millions into political campaigns are warning members that failure to raise the limit would risk a spike in interest rates, a possible collapse in equity prices, bank failures and a severe depression. [...]

The executive said lobbyists and bank officials were instead meeting privately with members over coffee to make the case that the debt limit should be separated from the debate on long-term deficit and debt reduction.

Ordinarily, this would matter quite a bit when it comes to influencing GOP officials. We'll see if it has any effect now.

In the meantime, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner wishes he didn't have to, but he's already "begun juggling the books to conserve cash, draining a special account at the Federal Reserve," preparing for a mess Republicans are creating on purpose.

We'll hit the debt limit in a few weeks. The breathtakingly reckless Republicans in Congress, for now, don't seem to care.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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AFTERBIRTHER.... It's tempting to think the "birther" conspiracy theory is now officially dead, but it's important to realize that crazy people don't stop believing crazy things just because they've been shown evidence of their craziness.

Texas state legislator Leo Berman, a Republican, has introduced a bill that would require proof of citizenship from presidential candidates. It's one of many such bills in the states. And according to Sharon Guthrie, Berman's legislative director, it is still on the table, because the long-form birth certificate released by the White House today does not satisfy its requirements.

"What I've seen online, what they produced today, still says certificate of live birth across the top," she told me. And she's right.

But why isn't that just a nomenclature issue? Why does it matter?

"We want to see a 'birth certificate,'" Guthrie explained. "The one that we have that says 'birth certificate' is from Mombassa, Kenya, with his footprint on it. He has still not produced an American birth certificate."

The document that Guthrie is referencing is a forgery, but in keeping with the larger trend, that doesn't seem to matter.

Tea Partiers aren't satisfied and neither is WND. Donald Trump is now demanding college records; congressional Republicans are criticizing the president for setting the record straight; Fox News isn't sure if the birth certificate is legit; Sarah Palin has moved on to the conspiracy theory about Bill Ayers; and National Review is just a parody of itself.

Major media outlets, meanwhile, are questioning the quality of the president's media analysis, after Obama complained about excessive coverage of this nonsense last week.

"We do not have time for this kind of silliness"? That's true, but silliness is surprisingly hard to kill.

Postscript: I can't claim credit for the "Afterbirther" in the headline; it came from a friend of a friend.

Update: The Onion may have actually coined "Afterbirther" in 2009.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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GOP THINKS ACA IS A-OK? LOL.... Two weeks ago, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was asked about his party's plan to end Medicare, and replace it with a system that looks like the Affordable Care Act. Cantor rejected the "similarities."

As it turns out, this week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told ABC's Jonathan Karl the exact opposite.

KARL: Now Paul Ryan's budget, which you voted for, which all but a handful of your members voted for, it ends Medicare as we know it.

BOEHNER: Now that's Democrat talk.

KARL: Okay, what does it do then?

BOEHNER: I wanted to call it somethin' else, because that's what it is. It transforms Medicare into a plan that's very similar to the President's own healthcare bill.

The Speaker generally doesn't care about policy details, but he really should have thought this one through a little more. Republicans, he says, want to "transform" Medicare, which in and of itself is a bad idea, since Americans tend to like Medicare as it is. But don't worry, Boehner says, because the new "Medicare" will simply look like the Affordable Care Act.

But Boehner hates the Affordable Care Act; all Republicans do. It's simply assumed in GOP circles that the health care reform law is quite literally the worst policy development in generations, if not in the history of the country.

The question then becomes: if congressional Republicans consider the ACA a communist/Nazi scheme to end American freedom, execute the elderly, and destroy civilization, why, exactly, do they think it's a good idea to turn Medicare into the ACA? Indeed, didn't Boehner's caucus just vote, more than once, to repeal the entirety of the health reform law? If so, why model the new "Medicare" system after the same law they detest?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. "Oh yeah, smart guy?" you're saying. "If you like the ACA, why are you so apoplectic about the Republicans' plans for Medicare? After all, they'd be practically the same."

Nice try, but this doesn't work. The whole point of Medicare was to provide a guaranteed benefit for seniors -- who tend to have more health problems and whose care tends to cost more -- in large part because private insurers didn't want to cover them. The Republican plan wants to eliminate the guaranteed benefit and hand the elderly a voucher that won't be enough to cover escalating costs. Worse, the new "Medicare," gutted under the auspices of deficit reduction, will actually make coverage more expensive, not less, adding to the burdens on seniors and their families.

Ezra had a good item touching on this earlier: "The bottom line ... is that the Ryan plan does far less and expects far more -- at least if it's presuming to save money by doing anything but shifting costs -- while the Affordable Care Act does far more and assumes far less."

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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

* Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty yesterday raised the prospect of sending U.S. ground troops into Libya. The former Minnesota governor said he doesn't "want to" do this, "but additional resources in terms of Special Forces, limited, as well as communications capability and other enabling technologies and people, I think, would be a good use of it."

* State Auditor Hector Balderas (D) officially launched a U.S. Senate campaign in New Mexico yesterday, and hopes to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D). Balderas will face Rep. Martin Heinrich in a Democratic primary.

* In Nevada, a new survey from Public Policy Polling shows Rep. Dean Heller (R) narrowly leading in the 2012 Senate race, topping Rep. Shelley Berkley (D), 47% to 43%. In January, Heller's lead was 13 points.

* Speaking of Nevada, there were some reports this week that Sharron Angle would run as an independent in her U.S. House race if she didn't receive the GOP nod. Yesterday, the failed former Senate candidate denied any such plans.

* In Wisconsin, Dems may be able to file recall petitions targeting a sixth Republican state senator.

* In West Virginia, which will hold its gubernatorial race this year, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) and Betty Ireland (R) are leading their respective primary campaigns. The primary election is in three weeks,

* Apparently, the first debate for GOP presidential candidates is supposed to be next week in South Carolina. No one's sure if any actual candidates will be there.

* Former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) is talking about running for president. No, seriously, he really is.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a possible presidential candidate, thinks JFK quotes were uttered by Abraham Lincoln. (Since she believes Lexington and Concord are in New Hampshire, I guess this isn't surprising.)

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

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THE QUESTION FOR BERNANKE THAT MATTERS MOST.... In just a couple of hours, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will do something no Fed chair has ever done: he's going to host a press conference. The point, by all accounts, is to make the Fed more transparent, less secretive, and more accountable.

With that in mind, the NYT's David Leonhardt focuses on the issue that should be foremost on reporters' minds when Bernanke opens the floor to questions.

One question more than any than other is crying out for an answer: Why has Mr. Bernanke decided to accept widespread unemployment for years on end, even though he believes he has the power to reduce it?

The Fed's own forecasts suggest that the unemployment rate won't fall below 5 percent for perhaps another five or six years. Mr. Bernanke believes the Fed "retains considerable power" to reduce unemployment faster, despite the fact that its benchmark interest rate is zero, as he's said before. Yet he has been hesitant to use that power.

He is in a tough spot, to be fair. Several other voting members of the Fed's monetary policy committee -- and some prominent members of Congress -- oppose aggressive action, because they worry it will set off inflation. But these critics always worry about inflation. They have been wrong again and again over the last two years. More important, they don't have enough power to keep Mr. Bernanke from pursuing the policy he thinks is best.

So the Fed's decision to permit high unemployment for an extended period rests on his shoulders.

I mention this because, as we discussed yesterday, I desperately want the focus to shift back to job creation, and it's a relief when prominent voices show they still care.

Inflation barely registers, but the Fed's far-right critics insist that the problem that doesn't exist must take priority over the problem that does (high unemployment). They're wrong, but this is one of the dominant thoughts in Republicans' economic policy.

As [Bernanke] has explained many times, the Fed has alternatives. It could announce that it would keep its benchmark rate at zero for a few years, which would probably hold down long-term rates. It could say that it was comfortable with higher inflation for a limited period of time, given how low inflation has been since 2007 and how high unemployment is. Above all, Mr. Bernanke could make clear that he considers years of widespread unemployment to be unacceptable.

He has not done so, and he has yet to offer a satisfying rationale.

It sounds to me like the sort of thing to base a press conference on.

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

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'THE BELTWAY DEFICIT FEEDBACK LOOP'.... In 2005, there were plenty of credible national polls that asked Americans what they considered the top priority for policymakers in Washington. Throughout 2004, we saw the usual responses -- the economy, the war in Iraq, the terrorist threat, etc. -- by mid-way through 2005, Social Security suddenly started showing up near the top of the list.

Had anything changed with regards to the Social Security system? Not even a little. The polls shifted because then-President Bush and the Republican Congress starting talking up the notion of a Social Security "crisis." The more Americans heard about this, the more many voters were inclined to believe there was a problem in need of attention.

The point, of course, is that the discourse matters. People often aren't concerned about certain policy challenges until they're led to believe they're supposed to be concerned.

With that in mind, Greg Sargent had a smart item this morning on "the Beltway deficit feedback loop."

For the longest time, polls indicated that the deficit ranked low on the list of voter concerns, showing public opinion to be strikingly out of sync with official Washington's prioritizing of the deficit over job creation.

But this morning brings a new poll from the Washington Post and Pew Research that finds a whopping 81 percent now think the deficit is a major problem that should be dealt with now, rather than when the economy improves. Tellingly, that number has jumped even among Democrats.

When you have leading officials in both parties -- starting with all Republicans and a handful of moderate Dems -- acting as if reining in the deficit is so urgent that it requires more attention than creating jobs, people start to tell pollsters they agree. This helps create a climate in which Dems lose any incentive to make the case for more government spending to prime the recovery, which begins to vanish from the conversation.

The public wasn't inclined to care about the deficit, and wanted the focus to be on job creation and economic growth. But the mainstream was then told -- by both parties and the media -- that those concerns are so 2010. Now it's time to shift gears and make the deficit the priority.

With so much "consensus" on the subject, there's polling evidence that attitudes really are changing. Folks' priorities are affected by what they're told to care about.

Washington is stuck in the wrong conversation, but it's the only one anyone's actually hearing.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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'WE DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS KIND OF SILLINESS'.... After the White House released President Obama's long-form birth certificate to the press this morning, the president took five minutes to speak to reporters. Obama spoke without notes, and spoke with the tone of an annoyed parent, frustrated that children can't get their act together -- a tone that struck me as entirely appropriate given the incessant stupidity that passes for our political discourse in 2011.

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

I've posted the transcript after the jump, but what struck me about the president's comments was the intended audience -- Obama wasn't talking to the public so much as he was directing his concerns at the media.

Indeed, at the outset, a bemused president joked, "Now let me just comment, first of all, on the fact that I can't get the networks to break in on all kinds of other discussions." Reporters in the briefing room laughed, but Obama wasn't necessarily kidding -- his point was that the media's priorities are badly flawed, and he's right.

The president went on to say that he felt like this was necessary after seeing last week that, instead of talking about the budget fight and the radical qualities of the Republican agenda, major outlets were preoccupied with covering conspiracy theories.

"We do not have time for this kind of silliness," Obama said. "We've got better stuff to do. I've got better stuff to do. We got big problems to solve, and I'm confident we can solve them, but we're going to have to focus on them, not on this."

He wasn't talking to the public, which has never much cared about this -- he was talking to news organizations that need to know better and, for all of our sakes, must show better judgment.

The transcript:

Hello, everybody. Now let me just comment, first of all, on the fact that I can't get the networks to break in on all kinds of other discussions. I was just back there listening to Chuck. He was saying, "It's amazing that he's not going to be talking about national security."

I would not have the networks breaking in if I was talking about that, Chuck, and you know it.

As many of you have been briefed, we provided additional information today about the site of my birth.

Now, this issue has been going on for two, two and a half years now. I think it started during the campaign. And I have to say that over the last two and a half years I have watched with bemusement, I have been puzzled at the degree to which this thing just kept on going.

We've had every official in Hawaii, Democrat and Republican, every news outlet that has investigated this confirm that, yes, in fact, I was born in Hawaii August 4th, 1961, in Kapiolani Hospital. We've posted the certification that is given by the state of Hawaii on the Internet for everybody to see. People have provided affidavits that they, in fact, have seen this birth certificate.

And yet this thing just keeps on going.

Now, normally, I would not comment on something like this, because, obviously, there's a lot of stuff swirling in the press at any given day and I've got other things to do.

But two weeks ago, when the Republican House had put forward a budget that will have huge consequences potentially to the country, and when I gave a speech about my budget and how I felt that we needed to invest in education and infrastructure and making sure that we had a strong safety net for our seniors even as we were closing the deficit, during that entire week, the dominant news story wasn't about these huge, monumental choices that we're going to have to make as a nation, it was about my birth certificate. And that was true on most of the news outlets that were represented here.

And so I just want to make a larger point here. We've got some enormous challenges out there. There are a lot of folks out there who are still looking for work. Everybody is still suffering under high gas prices. We're going to have to make a series of very difficult decisions about how we invest in our future, but also get a hold of our deficit and our debt -- how do we do that in a balanced way.

And this is going to generate huge and serious debates, important debates. And there are going to be some fierce disagreements. And that's good; that's how democracy is supposed to work.

And I'm confident that the American people and America's political leaders can come together in a bipartisan way and solve these problems. We always have.

But we're not going to be able to do it if we are distracted. We're not going to be able to do it if we spend time vilifying each other.

We're not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.

We live in a serious time right now, and we have the potential to deal with the issues that we confront in a way that will make our kids and our grandkids and our great grandkids proud. And I have every confidence that America in the 21st century is going to be able to come out on top just like we always have. But we're going to have to get serious to do it.

Now, I know that there's going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest. But I'm speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press.

We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We've got better stuff to do. I've got better stuff to do. We got big problems to solve, and I'm confident we can solve them, but we're going to have to focus on them, not on this.

Thanks very much, everybody.

Steve Benen 10:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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IT'S COME TO THIS.... For the second consecutive day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was peppered with questions about President Obama's birth certificate. It wasn't just some fringe reporter who worked his way into the briefing room -- the questions came from CNN's White House correspondent.

It was a reminder that our political discourse is deeply stupid. It was also a reminder that media outlets that already know the "birther" conspiracy theory is baseless continue to treat this garbage as a legitimate area of inquiry.

And so, this morning, when reporters gathered at the White House for the morning gaggle, staffers distributed copies of the president's birth certificate -- not the one released in 2008, but the "long-form" certificate requested by hysterical conservatives.

Soon after, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer posted this item online.

In 2008, in response to media inquiries, the President's campaign requested his birth certificate from the state of Hawaii. The state sent the campaign the President's birth certificate, the same legal documentation provided to all Hawaiians as proof of birth in state, and the campaign immediately posted it on the internet. That birth certificate can be seen here (PDF).

When any citizen born in Hawaii requests their birth certificate, they receive exactly what the President received. In fact, the document posted on the campaign website is what Hawaiians use to get a driver's license from the state and the document recognized by the Federal Government and the courts for all legal purposes. That's because it is the birth certificate. This is not and should not be an open question.

The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn't good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country. Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate. They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting. President Barack Obama's long form birth certificate can be seen here (PDF). Correspondence with the Hawaii State Department of Health can be seen here (PDF).

At a time of great consequence for this country -- when we should be debating how we win the future, reduce our deficit, deal with high gas prices, and bring stability to the Middle East, Washington, DC, was once again distracted by a fake issue. The President's hope is that with this step, we can move on to debating the bigger issues that matter to the American people and the future of the country.

The borderline-racist conspiracy theory was ridiculous anyway, and this step was entirely unnecessary. It should, however, once again put any lingering doubts to rest.

But it won't. If there's one thing right-wing voices have made clear, it's that reason and evidence are irrelevant. They didn't come up with a birther garbage out of sincere concerns; they came up with this to cast doubts on the president's legitimacy and make him out to be The Other in the eyes of the mainstream.

I don't necessarily blame White House officials for wanting to end this nonsense once and for all, but if they're expecting the hysterical right to move on, they're likely to be disappointed.

Update: All of the cable networks are hanging on Donald Trump's every word this morning, including his boast that he feels "very proud." American politics is often painful, but I can scarcely believe how stupid it's become.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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REPUBLICANS START TO FEEL THE HEAT OVER RADICAL BUDGET PLAN.... Last week, we discussed what kind of pushback House Republicans might feel from voters as a result of their radical budget plan, which, among other things, ends Medicare and replaces it with a privatized voucher system. There were some heated public events last week, but to have a lasting effect, GOP officials would have to feel considerably more pressure.

As it turns out, that's exactly what's happening.

In central Florida, a Congressional town meeting erupted into near chaos on Tuesday as attendees accused a Republican lawmaker of trying to dismantle Medicare while providing tax cuts to corporations and affluent Americans.

At roughly the same time in Wisconsin, Representative Paul D. Ryan, the architect of the Republican budget proposal, faced a packed town meeting, occasional boos and a skeptical audience as he tried to lay out his party's rationale for overhauling the health insurance program for retirees.

In a church theater here on Tuesday evening, a meeting between Representative Allen B. West and some of his constituents began on a chaotic note, with audience members quickly on their feet, some heckling him and others loudly defending him. [...]

After 10 days of trying to sell constituents on their plan to overhaul Medicare, House Republicans in multiple districts appear to be increasingly on the defensive, facing worried and angry questions from voters and a barrage of new attacks from Democrats and their allies.

Yesterday's event in Orlando was arguably the most contentious we've seen since 2009. Freshman Rep. Daniel Webster (R), a far-right lawmaker in a competitive district with a sizable elderly population, faced furious constituents. It was heated enough for a local report to describe the scene as "bedlam."

Webster's audience may have been particularly livid, but the number of GOP lawmakers running into heated confrontations is growing, as evidenced by events in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. For his part, Paul Ryan was not only booed (again) yesterday, he felt it necessary to leave from a different exit and drive away in a different car, citing "security concerns."

Miami's Allen West refused to allow voters to ask questions from microphones, and instead only responded to pre-screened written inquiries. Other House Republicans are choosing to "simply avoid meeting with constituents" altogether.

And yet, despite all of this, House Republicans say they're not concerned. GOP leaders held a conference call yesterday for members, urging them to just keep attacking Democrats. The NYT noted, "Officials familiar with the call said that rank-and-file lawmakers did not seem alarmed at the response they were getting."

I guess that means the left is going to have to work a little harder to be heard?

I still think duplicating the right-wing hysteria of 2009 will be very difficult. Republicans oversaw a remarkably well organized campaign, with major far-right financiers investing in lobbying organizations, which in turn brought/created grassroots activism. There was also a certain cable news network that, in conjunction with talk radio, effectively acted as a cosponsor for the right-wing pushback, literally airing the names, dates, and locations of public meetings so enraged Republicans knew when and where to throw tantrums. It also seems unlikely major media outlets will cover progressive anger with the same intensity.

But it seems that opponents of the GOP plan are starting to be heard, and may even have Republicans' attention. The more these far-right lawmakers feel the heat, the more likely it is to change the trajectory in Washington.

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

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BOEHNER OFFERS MEASURED SUPPORT FOR RYAN PLAN (AGAIN).... Two weeks ago, talking to reporters on Capitol Hill, House Speaker John Boehner called Paul Ryan's House GOP budget plan "an option worth considering," which was hardly a rousing endorsement. The comment drew so much attention, the Speaker's office felt compelled to later add that Boehner "fully supports" the radical proposal.

Yesterday, this happened again.

The Republican-controlled House approved House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's budget proposal before Congress left for a two-week break earlier this month -- putting GOP members on record for a plan that would phase out Medicare for those 55 years of age or under.

But while the Ryan plan now is the House Republican plan, House Speaker John Boehner cautioned in an interview that Ryan's proposal is just "an idea ... worthy of consideration."

"I'm for it," Boehner said. "It's our idea. Right? It's Paul's idea. Other people have other ideas. I'm not wedded to one single idea, but I think it's -- we have a plan." It prompted ABC News to note that the Speaker is "putting just a touch of distance between himself and the Ryan plan."

Once again, Boehner's office felt compelled to "clarify" matters, explaining that the Speaker "strongly supports" the Ryan agenda approved by House Republicans.

I don't want to read too much into this, but it's worth noting that John Boehner, for all of his faults, is generally on message. He may not always understand the subject matter, but the Speaker understands the importance of listening to his aides, reading the talking points, and sticking to the script.

And yet, twice in two weeks, Boehner has publicly suggested he's not fully committed to his own caucus' budget plan -- a plan that, it just so happens, most Americans don't like.

Of course, it's a little late in the game for the Speaker to back away from the Ryan proposal, since House Republicans overwhelmingly already voted for it. But Boehner's measured, borderline awkward, comments on this may offer a hint of below-the-surface GOP apprehension. Something to keep an eye on.

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

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April 26, 2011

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

* The AP believes Gadhafi's power may be slipping in Libya.

* NATO, meanwhile, is "stepping up attacks on palaces, headquarters, communications centers and other prominent institutions supporting the Libyan government."

* As Syria deploys "tanks and troops against unarmed demonstrators," Europe is threatening the Assad government with sanctions. The U.S. State Department is urging Americans in Syria "to depart immediately while commercial transportation is readily available" and advised those who must remain to limit travel within the country.

* Private-sector earnings reports have pushed Wall Street to three-year highs. How this is possible in the midst of a socialist agenda, I don't know.

* I share his frustrations: "Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Tuesday slammed the debate over raising the debt ceiling as 'ridiculous' and said it is 'irresponsible' for policymakers to leave the impression that the U.S. might not pay its bills."

* Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former McCain/Palin advisor and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, said today Congress "has to raise the debt limit... We have to be good stewards of the nation's credit rating [and] doing it sooner is better than later."

* State-sponsored prayers haven't brought rain to Texas and "major wildfires continue to rage on across the state."

* Conservatives in the Prop 8 case have resorted to arguing, in legal filings, that a gay judge shouldn't be allowed to rule in cases related to gay rights.

* On a related note, gay-rights groups aren't embarrassed at all about having pressured King & Spalding to drop their case defending the Defense of Marriage Act for House Republicans.

* New right-wing idea in Louisiana: simply ban abortion rights, Supreme Court be damned.

* The new "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" will debut on Current TV on June 20.

* Imagine that: "Greek austerity is failing even to do much to reduce the deficit, because the economy is shrinking. The usually discreet Calculated Risk sums it up: 'More austerity coming -- the beatings will continue until morale improves!'"

* Michael Kazin: "The Trouble With Independents: What if these voters are just a clueless horde?"

* With McCain's trip to Libya in mind, let's note the tradition of "high-profile U.S. political visits that often seem more about keeping the visitor in the news than changing conditions on the ground."

* And Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) believes the nation's liberal women are "neutering American men" and "bringing us to the point of this incredible weakness." I don't think he was kidding.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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FACTS VS FEELINGS.... Democrats are, not surprisingly, hammering Republicans over the GOP budget proposal, with most of the attacks focused on the Republican plan to end Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher system.

The typical Republican response is that Dems are relying on "scare tactics." It's not that Democrats are wrong, the argument goes, it's just that they're big meanies for telling voters about GOP policies.

The media is echoing the point, and Josh Marshall is right to find it annoying.

I've noted several times that when it comes to issues like Medicare and Social Security, establishment journalism is most focused on whether political rhetoric is inflammatory than on whether it might be true. Or put a different way, the details of how key government programs work is of comparatively trivial importance compared to whether the ads a controversy generates are mean. As yet another instance of this, we have the unfortunate example of ABC's Rick Klein's report on the new politics of Medicare.

Klein laments that "the 'adult conversation' around Medicare reform has taken a detour in the land of adult diapers." And he goes on to explain that that's mainly because Democrats are running ads saying either that the Ryan plans "ends" Medicare (which there's a very strong factual argument that it does) or that it would be deeply damaging to America's seniors (which math suggests it would). And it's bad to run ads like that because that's "Mediscare."

Part of this is the result of an apparent hostility the establishment tends to bring to entitlement programs in general. A knee-jerk discomfort when Democrats go on the offensive at all may have something to do with this, too.

But it's important that the establishment realize the difference between demagoguery and ringing an alarm. Demagoguery relies on falsehoods to scare people -- it's about playing on folks' worst instincts, being divisive in a deceptive sort of way, effectively fooling people into believing something they shouldn't.

Political rhetoric isn't "demagoguery" when it's true. If a political message leads the mainstream to feel scared, it's not necessarily "scare tactics" if people have good reason to worry.

What Dems are doing are ringing an alarm -- Republicans are up to something dangerous, and Democrats want people to know about it. This makes ABC, Politifact, and much of the establishment antsy, and leads to reports that Dems are being overly "political" because (a) they refuse to go along with unnecessary cuts that would hurt seniors; and (b) they're saying intemperate things like the GOP wants to "end" Medicare.

But what should matter most is the truth, and in this case, the truth is, Republicans want to privatize Medicare out of existence and impose new burdens on those who can't afford them, all while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

That's not "Mediscare"; that's the Republican plan. If pointing this out hurts the GOP's feelings, that's a shame, but sometimes a warning bell needs to be rung, even if some find the sound unpleasant.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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OBAMA PRESSES GOP ON OIL INDUSTRY SUBSIDIES.... Though he later said he didn't mean it, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told ABC News yesterday he's open to ending lucrative taxpayer subsidies to extremely-profitable oil companies.

Apparently, folks at the White House saw the interview, prompting President Obama to write a letter to Boehner and other congressional leaders, arguing that it's time to end the oil-industry incentives. He added that the savings could be applied to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

"We need to get to work immediately on the longer term goal of reducing our dependence on foreign oil and our vulnerability to price fluctuations this dependence creates," he said in the letter.

"High oil and gasoline prices are weighing on the minds and pocketbooks of every American family," he wrote.

His proposal would eliminate a number of tax breaks for oil companies that would generate, administration officials said, around $4 billion a year in additional revenue.

Specifically referencing the ABC interview, Obama said in his letter, "I was heartened that Speaker Boehner yesterday expressed openness to eliminating these tax subsidies for the oil and gas industry. Our political system has for too long avoided and ignored this important step, and I hope we can come together in a bipartisan manner to get it done."

Soon after, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) joined the fun, saying, "Gas hitting four dollars per gallon seems to have finally caused Speaker Boehner to see the light on the insanity of providing subsidies to profit-soaked big oil companies." [Update: Nancy Pelosi is on the same page.]

Boehner's office immediately rejected the idea because it would count as "raising taxes" on wealthy oil companies -- and Republicans can't tolerate that.

But the larger context is hard to miss -- Dems are starting to see this as a chance to go on the offensive, and they're eager to seize the opportunity. The message to voters seems likely to resonate: "Those oil companies charging you an arm and a leg? The ones with huge profits? Republicans insist they should also get billions in subsidies with your money."

If Dems press this, it's a winning issue. If the GOP keeps defending the industry incentives, it's a political cudgel, and if Republicans cave and end the subsidies, the money can be better spent elsewhere.

In the meantime, Boehner's office continues to walk back his on-air remarks, but the defense sounds an awful lot like, "Don't worry, the Speaker was lying at the time."

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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ATTENTION TO DETAIL.... Two new ads were released today, one targeting a Democratic congressman, the other a Republican congressional candidate. They both relate to the same issue -- the recently approved House budget plan -- but the differences between them tell us quite a bit.

The first is from Kathy Hochul, the Democratic candidate in the special election in New York's 26th district. Hoping to flip the seat from "red" to "blue," Hochul's first television ad focuses on the message most likely to resonate.

A few Democrats might be vulnerable to attack ads based on their recent budget votes. But just about every Republican is stuck -- even one who isn't in Congress.

"Jane Corwin said she would vote for the 2012 Republican budget that would essentially end Medicare. Seniors would have to pay $6,400 more for the same coverage," the below ad says. "But the plan Jane Corwin supports would cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans."

It's pretty straightforward -- the House Republican budget plan is awful, GOP candidate Jane Corwin supports the House Republican budget plan, ergo, don't vote for Jane Corwin.

The other ad is in Arkansas, targeting Blue Dog Rep. Mike Ross (D), whose district is likely to get a little tougher thanks to Republicans controlling the redistricting process. The National Republican Congressional Committee has unveiled this radio spot, going after Ross for failing to vote for a budget plan that "cuts spending."

But that's pretty much all it says. The Democratic ad in Buffalo talks about Medicare, health costs, and tax policy, and points to relevant details from the House GOP budget. The Republican ad in Arkansas talks about "spending," but omits any specifics from the party's budget plan.

The moral of the story: Democrats desperately hope voters will learn the details of the Republican plan, and Republicans desperately hope they don't. This should tell the political world quite a bit about the relative merits of the parties' positions.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (8)

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THE UNNECESSARY (AND UNWARRANTED) CONDESCENSION.... House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) talked to ABC News yesterday, and struck a tone that I've heard him use before. In every instance, it rankles.

The topic was the bipartisan deficit commission, which was appointed by the president and issued a controversial report late last year recommending tough spending cuts, tax reforms and reforming Medicare and Social Security.

"While I didn't agree with everything they did, there was a lot in their proposal that was worth of consideration. And what did the president do? He took exactly none of his own deficit reduction commission's ideas. Not one. Come on! It's time to grow up and get serious about the problems that face our country," Boehner said.

Substantively, Boehner, who's never been much of a policy guy, is just wrong. Obama didn't endorse the Simpson-Bowles plan, but he did borrow from it. Indeed, the leaders of the bipartisan deficit commission that Boehner is suddenly interested in had positive reviews of the president's debt-reduction plan -- which is more than we can say about their take on the House Republican proposal.

But the Speaker's confusion over details is routine. What's troublesome here is Boehner's condescending attitude. He's not just urging the president to agree with the GOP's misguided agenda; Boehner is also suggesting that Obama needs to "grow up."

And that's stupid to the point of being offensive.

About a year ago, the American Enterprise Institute's Norm Ornstein, not exactly a raging leftist, said John Boehner and his team "are becoming the Bart Simpsons of Congress, gleeful at smarmy and adolescent tactics and unable and unwilling to get serious."

The criticism was well grounded at the time, and it's even more appropriate now. What has Boehner been spending his time on lately? Leading a caucus that has wasted time on health care bills they know they can't pass, abortion bills they know they can't pass, climate bills they know they can't pass, and budget bills they know they can't pass. Boehner's caucus has also invested considerable energy in recklessly accusing Muslim Americans of disloyalty and going after NPR.

He's also found time to nearly force a government shutdown and hold the debt limit hostage.

Sure, John, lecture us some more about the need to "get serious about the problems that face our country."

I won't speculate about why, exactly, the Speaker feels the need to be so condescending towards the president, but I find it pretty offensive to see Obama try to clean up the mess Boehner and his party created, only to have Boehner talk about the president as if he were some sort of child -- as if the easily confused Speaker is the grown up, and the president who actually knows what he's talking about needs a stern talking to.

It's ridiculous. I don't expect Boehner to have nice things to say about President Obama, but "grow up" should probably be dropped from the talking points.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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MANCHIN KNOWS NOT OF WHAT HE SPEAKS.... Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), after about six months on the job, has struggled at times, occasionally badly. But on fiscal issues, the center-right Democrat appears to be getting worse.

Today, Machin will formally endorse a Republican proposal for strict new spending caps, saying it would be "irresponsible" not to. He joins the Senate GOP, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), which suggests the measure, generally known as the CAP Act, now has the support of a Senate majority, or at least close to it. There's even some talk it will be included as part of a "compromise" on the debt ceiling.

To date, the proposal hasn't gotten much attention, but it's important to understand how dangerous this is. Ezra Klein, who's arguably even more cautious in his rhetoric than I am, recently described the spending cap idea as "completely insane."

Spending caps are bad policy, and the McCaskill-Corker spending cap -- which holds spending to 21.5 percent of GDP, or three percentage points lower than it is right now -- is a badly designed spending cap. But beyond all that, it's laughable to posit it as a compromise: It's arguably the most radically conservative reform that could be made to the federal budget. More extreme, by far, than Paul Ryan's plan.

Start with the shell game at the core of this discussion: We're worried about the debt ceiling but talking about a spending cap. This works just fine if you hew to the conservative conceit that "we have a spending problem, not a taxing problem." But that applause line is just an effort to deny the contribution tax cuts have made to the deficit and keep tax increases from being part of a solution. If you think we have a debt problem -- and that's what being upset about raising the debt ceiling implies -- then do something about the debt. The "trigger" proposal the White House included in is budget, for instance, is tied to the debt, not to spending or taxes.

Of course, to the Republicans, that's a feature, not a bug. The virtue of a spending cap is that by focusing on only one contributor to debt, it admits only one solution to it: spending cuts. Savage ones. The Corker-McCaskill proposal is so aggressive that there are years when even Paul Ryan's budget, with all its fantastical assumptions and hard caps, wouldn't qualify. "You put McCaskill-Corker into law," says Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "and progressive policy is dead for the next quarter-century."

That's not an exaggeration. The CBPP published a detailed report on the proposed cap a couple of weeks ago, explaining that if it were to become law, policymakers would have no choice but to enforce devastating cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, as well as every other domestic priority.

Ironically, Machin, whose depth of understanding on these issues appears to be less than an inch deep, said he supports the CAP Act but opposes cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In other words, Machin doesn't understand the effects of the very policy he's endorsing.

To a very real extent, the cap would be a straightjacket intended to prevent the government from responding to any challenges, foreign or domestic, for the foreseeable future. The "solution" doesn't even match the problem -- any credible evaluation of the fiscal issue shows the same truths: we lack the necessary resources to deal with a growing elderly population and escalating health care costs. How would a spending cap help this? It wouldn't.

As Ezra added, "Health-care costs are rising far in excess of GDP growth, and a spending cap does nothing to stop them. Seniors will go from 13 percent of the population now to 20 percent of the population in 2035, which means America will temporarily have fewer people working and more people dependent on government support. But the spending cap does nothing to reverse the aging process. And amid all these trends driving up spending, Republicans are pushing to make the Bush tax cuts permanent and Democrats are pushing to make most of the Bush tax cuts permanent. A spending cap does nothing about that, either. A spending cap is an effort to deny our real problems, not to fix them."

Steve Benen 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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THE IMAGINARY 'SPENDING BINGE'.... When Mitt Romney yesterday described 2011 as "peacetime" -- despite, you know, the ongoing wars -- it was a pretty embarrassing mistake. But let's not brush past the context: Romney was condemning President Obama for engaging in "one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history."

If we put "peacetime" aside, we're left with a Republican argument so routine, it barely registers -- the GOP is convinced the president has overseen a vast expansion of government spending.

But this didn't actually happen. It's been debunked before, but since ignorance is resilient, Paul Krugman took another shot at this yesterday.

One way to address this claim is to ask, where are the huge new federal programs? The Affordable Care Act has not yet kicked in; the stimulus, such as it was, is fading out; where is this big government surge?

In answer, the peddlers of this myth point to the fact -- which is true -- that federal spending as a share of GDP has risen, from 19.6 percent in fiscal 2007 to 23.6 percent in fiscal 2010. (I use 2007 here as the last pre-Great Recession year). But what's behind that rise?

A large part of it is a slowdown in GDP rather than an accelerated rise in government spending. Nominal GDP rose at an annual rate of 5.1 percent from 2000 to 2007; it only rose at a 1.7 percent rate from 2007 to 2010.

Krugman posted some worthwhile charts on this, but there's basically two key elements to keep in mind. The first is that spending rose as a percentage of GDP, not because of a spending binge, but because GDP went down so sharply during the Great Recession.

But what about the rest? There are safety-net programs -- unemployment insurance, food stamps, SSI, refundable tax credits -- that respond to help families in need during down times. When the economy gets worse, these programs spend more automatically because there are more people qualifying for the benefits.

"What we're seeing isn't some drastic expansion of Big Government; we're seeing the government we already had, responding to a terrible economic slump," Krugman explained.

The standard GOP talking points, in other words, are pointing to a myth. It's one of those things "everyone knows," but which happens to be wrong.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (6)

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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:

* Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) will formally launch his third unsuccessful presidential campaign today at an event in Iowa. He will reportedly also announce the support of three of the 19 members of the Iowa Republican Party's state central committee.

* In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown (R) has his first high-profile challenger, with Alan Khazei, founder of City Year, officially kicking off his campaign this morning. Khazei ran third in the Democratic primary in the 2009 special election that Brown ultimately won.

* Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's (R) unexpected decision not to run for president has cleared up a legion of staffers, activists, lobbyists, and donors who'd pledged to back him. Now, they're all up for grabs.

* Yesterday was the deadline in Wisconsin for recall petitions, and Republican efforts to trigger elections for two more state Senate Democrats fell short.

* Disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), reportedly still planning a presidential campaign, accepted $300,000 from the ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy in 2009. Among the things the organization was buying: Gingrich's intention to "speak positively on ethanol-related topics to media."

* Freshman Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) now has a top-tier Democratic challenger, with former Wisconsin state Sen. Pat Kreitlow (D) launching a campaign yesterday.

* In Florida, state Rep. Adam Hasner (R) kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign yesterday, making his announcement on Mark Levin's right-wing radio talk show.

* It appears increasingly likely that far-right Rep. Todd Akin (R) will run for the U.S. Senate in Missouri next year, prompting Ed Martin (R) to instead run for the U.S. House.

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

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HAL ROGERS HAS SOME EXPLAINING TO DO.... Rep. Hal Rogers (R) was almost certainly the wrong choice to head the House Appropriations Committee in this Congress. It doesn't even make sense -- for all the emphasis on cutting, Rogers has developed quite a reputation for doling out ethically-dubious pork.

He spent $52 million for a National Center for Hometown Security, which happens to be located in his small hometown in Kentucky. It's located near a local airport, which received $17 million from Rogers, despite the fact that it has no commercial flights in or out. The airport is down the road from Hal Rogers Parkway. Take a wild guess where the money came from for that project.

But some of Rogers' spending raises questions that go beyond mere waste. Last year, he pushed through a $5 million earmark for wild cheetah conservation. Are there wild cheetahs in Kentucky? No, but his daughter works for a nonprofit called the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

What a coincidence.

As it turns out, it gets worse. Scrutiny of Rogers' spending practices is raising new questions about the man House Republicans tapped to lead the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has funneled more than $236 million in federal funds since 2000 to a web of nonprofit groups he created back home in the Bluegrass State, according to a new report by an ethics watchdog group.

Another group of private firms linked to Rogers and the nonprofit companies received another $227 million in federal loans, grants and contracts during the same period, a three-month investigation by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) found.

Rogers' family members, current and former aides, donors and business associates have benefited personally from the congressman's largesse with federal dollars, according to the report.

I don't mean to sound picky, but when a powerful politician uses his office -- and our money -- to directly benefit his friends and family, there's a word that comes to mind. It's generally known as "corruption."

"Rep. Rogers sits at the center of an interconnected web that includes Kentucky nonprofit groups, a bank he partially owns, and several companies he has supported with federal money," CREW said in its new report. "These entities have strong ties to Rep. Rogers and to each other, and help extend the congressman's influence in his district."

Not only does Rogers have some explaining to do, but it'd be especially nice to know why House Republican leaders rewarded Rogers with this committee chairmanship, and whether they're concerned about his dubious spending practices.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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STILL STUCK IN THE WRONG CONVERSATION.... I know it's a lost cause. The debate has already spiraled in a ridiculous direction; Dems didn't put up much of a fight; and it's not coming back anytime soon.

But when I see sensible people trying to shine a light on reality, I feel compelled to endorse it. Take Eugene Robinson's latest column, for example, which dares to note that jobs should matter more than deficits right now.

What is it about the word "jobs" that our nation's leaders fail to understand? How has the most painful economic crisis in decades somehow escaped their notice? Why do they ignore the issues that Americans care most desperately about?

Listening to the debate in Washington, you'd think the nation was absorbed by the compelling saga of deficit reduction. You'd get the impression that in households across America, parents put their children to bed and then stay up half the night sifting through piles of think-tank reports on the kitchen table, trying to calculate whether there will be enough in the Social Security trust fund to pay benefits beyond 2037.

And you'd be wrong. Those parents are looking at a pile of bills on the kitchen table, trying to decide which ones have to be paid now and which can slide. The question isn't how to manage health care or retirement costs two decades from now. It's how the family can make it to the end of the month. [...]

Depressed housing prices, an epidemic of foreclosures, 8 million lost jobs -- that's the reality that Americans face every day. Politicians had better start facing it, too.

But they won't. President Obama, Robinson notes, at least "perceive this disconnect" between what people want/need and what their elected representatives are prioritizing. That's true. But the president doesn't intend to invest a lot of time and energy in promoting a jobs agenda that can't pass, and which much of the country won't like as soon as someone tells them it involves "more government spending."

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are willing to deliberately make unemployment worse -- remember, "So be it"? -- and focus on taking as much money out of the economy as possible, as quickly as possible.

Still, the larger debate between "cut a little" and "cut a lot" is so far from a sensible approach to reality, it's almost refreshing to see columns like Eugene Robinson's. It won't help -- voters' choices were a little too misguided six months ago -- but his reminder deserves to be read anyway.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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ABOUT THOSE SUBSIDIES TO OIL COMPANIES.... Just last month, congressional Republicans defeated a Democratic effort to end lucrative subsidies to extremely-profitable oil companies. The GOP is eager, at least in public, to reduce the deficit, but not if it might inconvenience those who really matter -- folks like ExxonMobil.

Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted that oil companies are showing huge profits, making it "simply crazy and unsustainable" to keep giving the industry billions of dollars worth of tax incentives.

In a pleasant surprise, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pointed yesterday to some new-found flexibility on the issue.

Congress should consider cutting multibillion-dollar subsidies to oil companies amid rising concern over skyrocketing gas prices, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on Monday.

"It's certainly something we should be looking at," Boehner said in an ABC News interview. "We're in a time when the federal government's short on revenues. They ought to be paying their fair share."

"Everybody wants to go after the oil companies and frankly, they've got some part of this to blame," he said.

This was no small concession. Boehner's own caucus, just six weeks ago, had a chance to end taxpayer subsidies to oil companies that don't need them, but Republicans refused. Indeed, how many GOP members broke ranks and voted with Dems to end the incentives? Zero.

What's more, Boehner and his party have argued, repeatedly and passionately, that the federal government doesn't need a dime of additional revenue, and his comments yesterday suggested the exact opposite.

So, this is a sign of progress, right? Maybe Boehner's feeling some heat and sees this as a chance for his party to do something popular, oil lobbyists be damned? I'm afraid that's not the case -- despite the Speaker's own on-air comments, which didn't leave much in the way of ambiguities, his office soon after walked this back. "The speaker made clear in the interview that raising taxes was a nonstarter, and he's told the president that," Boehner's spokesperson said. "He simply wasn't going to take the bait and fall into the trap of defending 'Big Oil' companies."

I don't really know what that means, but I guess the Speaker's encouraging remarks weren't intended to be a factual statement.

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

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THE MINOR DETAIL SCARBOROUGH OVERLOOKED.... In keeping with his partisan allies, Republican media personality Joe Scarborough devotes his latest column to praising British Prime Minister David Cameron for his willingness to challenge "the British cradle-to-grave welfare state that has grown uninterrupted since Winston Churchill was kicked out of office after World War II."

Cameron has taken the hatchet to defense spending and proposed raising the age for retirement benefits. It has been a death-defying act for a British politician whose chance of survival seems unlikely at best.

Cameron was elected because he promised to make tough choices and, a year after the formation of his government, he has been true to his word. In a nation conditioned to believe in an all-encompassing welfare state, Cameron looks to raise the retirement age to 66 by the end of the decade, lay off hundreds of thousands of public workers, raise taxes and slash the costs of government programs by an average of 19 percent. He's even willing to transform the National Health Service, for generations seen as the third rail of British politics, in a move that even members of his own party are blasting as "the greatest upheaval in the organization's history."

Those radical reforms have been met with large-scale protests that have occasionally descended into violence, but to their credit the prime minister and Clegg stood firm over the past several months. A budget presented in March by George Osborne, Cameron's Chancellor of the Exchequer, doubled-down on the spending cuts despite increasing public resistance.

It goes on (and on) from there -- nearly a thousand words on how impressed Scarborough is with Cameron, his similarities to Thatcher, his willingness to support a conservative agenda, how the United States will soon have to go in a similar directions, etc.

The one thing Scarborough neglected to mention? Cameron's agenda isn't working and austerity is a failure. The British economy is contracting and household incomes are shrinking. Richard Portes, an economist at the London Business School recently said Cameron's failures are likely to be "a cautionary tale" to others thinking about following his lead.

The Cameron government believes the path to prosperity runs though fewer public services, less public investment, and counting on low interest rates to save the day. This experiment isn't working at all, and yet, Joe Scarborough somehow neglected to mention this minor detail.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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BOEHNER'S HOSTAGE STRATEGY BECOMES EVEN MORE RECKLESS.... It's important to appreciate the evolution of House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) rhetoric when it comes to raising the debt ceiling. This matters because, as we get closer to a crisis of Republicans' own making, Boehner is become more reckless and irresponsible, not less.

Here's Boehner in November 2010:

"I've made it pretty clear to [my caucus] that as we get into next year, it's pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with [the debt limit]. We're going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."

And here's Boehner in December 2010:

"We'll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn't do it."

And here's Boehner in January 2011:

"[A debt-ceiling default] would be a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy. I don't think it's a question that's even on the table."

The Speaker, perhaps too weak to explain reality to the caucus he ostensibly leads, has given up on this sensible rhetoric altogether. A question that wasn't even on the table a few months ago is now the basis for threats unseen in modern American history.

Boehner told Politico yesterday, "If the president doesn't get serious about the need to address our fiscal nightmare, yeah, there's a chance it [the debt limit vote] could not happen."

It's hard to overstate how truly insane this is. Boehner wants the White House to address a "fiscal nightmare" that Boehner's own party helped create, and if he's unsatisfied with the president's response, the Speaker will deliberately cause an economic catastrophe. Take steps to fix a long-term problem, Boehner is arguing, or the GOP will cause a short-term crisis on purpose.

A simple desire to do what's best for one's country should preclude such madness.

Indeed, look again at what Boehner was saying in November, December, and January. He knows what the right course of action is. He practically vowed to be responsible. He assured the nation that Republicans would take our collective obligations seriously. The Speaker's own rhetoric made it clear he wasn't going to risk a catastrophe as some kind of partisan game.

And yet, he we are, and Boehner is now prepared to do exactly that.

I have to hope that Boehner's hostage strategy continues to be a radical stunt, and that he doesn't actually intend to hurt all of us on purpose. He has the proverbial gun to the hostage's head (in this case, our economy), but he doesn't really want to pull the trigger -- Boehner just wants Democrats to think he will so they'll pay his ransom. That's how the game works.

But as Ezra Klein noted this morning, "The danger in this is that as the rhetoric ramps up, the market may not realize this is all just more of Washington's fun and games. Brinksmanship runs the risk of misjudging what is the last minute, or the maximum amount of uncertainty, that the market will accept before it reevaluates the American government's capacity to pay its debts back in a timely and smooth way."

When Americans elected a Republican House majority, they may not have realized just how serious a risk they were taking with our future. The electorate's mistake may prove to be devastating fairly soon.

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

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ROMNEY REMEMBERS WHAT 'PEACETIME' MEANS, AFTER ALL.... In a published op-ed yesterday, former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) slammed President Obama for launching "one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history." It's a bizarre argument for several reasons, not the least of which is that this isn't peacetime.

After this caused a bit of a stir yesterday afternoon, the presidential candidate's team walked it back. As it turns out, Romney's claim wasn't intended to be a factual statement.

That word "peacetime" doesn't really jibe, does it? Team Romney has an explanation for that: It was a mistake.

"He meant to say since World War II," said Romney's PAC spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, in an e-mail.

I suppose there are more charitable ways to interpret the defense, but I'm inclined to agree with Jed Lewison, who didn't find the explanation especially persuasive.

Uh, say what now? How do you go from making a point about "peacetime" spending to saying you meant post-WWII? And how do you make that mistake in the first place?

Dave Weigel thinks it's because Romney meant to talk about domestic spending, but if we're not talking about military spending, then World War II is irrelevant. Plus, it's silly to talk about spending since 2001 without talking about the military. According to data available from the CBO on discretionary spending, from 2001 to 2010, defense spending increased by 125%. Domestic spending went up by 92%. In dollar terms, if defense spending had just increased at the same rate as domestic discretionary spending, it would be $100 billion lower than it is today, saving well over $1 trillion over the next decade.

Of course, none of that helps explain what the hell Mitt Romney thought he was saying when he said America was in "peacetime." Or how in the world he could have confused post-WWII era with "peacetime."

Before we move on from this little flap, I was curious to see how (and whether) the media picked up on this. The DNC pushed the story yesterday afternoon, and Vote Vets released a rather scathing response.

Would it be enough to get political reporters' attention? Not really; major media outlets generally didn't care. If Google News and Nexis are accurate this morning, Reuters ran an article, but the AP ignored the story. Politico had a short piece, but the major dailies -- WaPo, NYT, WSJ, LAT, USAT -- didn't mention it in their print editions. I couldn't find any mentions in broadcast media at all.

I'm curious -- if an inexperienced Democratic candidate with no background in foreign policy or military affairs described a time of multiple wars as "peacetime," would he or she ever live it down? Or would it be seen as evidence that Dems lack credibility on international affairs?

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

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April 25, 2011

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

* Libya: "NATO warplanes struck Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's compound here early Monday and bombed a state television facility in an escalation of the air campaign to aid the rebellion against his four decades in power. The attack on the compound was the third since air raids began in mid-March, but the strike at the television facility was the most significant broadening yet of the NATO air campaign."

* The Syrian crackdown intensifies: "The Syrian Army stormed the restive city of Dara'a with tanks and soldiers and helped detain dozens in towns across the country Monday in an escalation of a widening crackdown on Syria's five-week-old uprising, according to human rights activists, residents and accounts posted on social networking sites. They said at least 25 people were killed in Dara'a, with reports of bodies strewn in the streets."

* On a related note, the Obama administration is considering sanctions against the Assad government.

* Afghanistan: "Taliban militants dug a lengthy tunnel underground and into the main jail in Kandahar city and whisked out more than 450 prisoners, most of whom were Taliban fighters, officials and insurgents said Monday."

* Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule immediately on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. The justices turned him down.

* Wikileaks: "A trove of more than 700 classified military documents provides new and detailed accounts of the men who have done time at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, and offers new insight into the evidence against the 172 men still locked up there."

* Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh will give up power in exchange for immunity from prosecution for him and his family.

* Taking good news where I can find it: "More people bought new homes in March, giving the battered industry a small lift after the worst winter for sales in almost a half-century."

* I'd take deficit hawks more seriously if there was an agreed-upon definition of what a deficit hawk is.

* Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' (D-Ariz.) condition, remarkably enough, continues to improve, with an increased ability to speak and walk.

* Rachel Maddow is featured in eight new "Lean Forward" MSNBC promos, and I'm embarrassed to admit how much I like them.

* Daniel Luzer: "In 2009 President Obama announced that the United States should have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. We've got a long way to go."

* And I was curious to see whether Atlas Shrugged: Part I would be a successful film, given Tea Party support. After two weeks in theaters, it appears to the movie is an embarrassing flop.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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MANUFACTURED NONSENSE: A CASE STUDY.... It's always impressive to see the evolution of a "controversy," from Republican media on up.

Fox News today slammed President Obama for not issuing a proclamation acknowledging Easter. (Somehow, Christians managed to hear about the holiday anyway.) Conservative activists quickly followed suit, probably unaware of the fact that Bush and Reagan didn't issue Easter proclamations, either.

It's a garbage story, even by the standards of GOP media, but sure enough, the question came up during today's White House press briefing. Press Secretary Jay Carney quite literally laughed at the question -- which was the appropriate response -- but another reporter pressed further.

"I'm glad you're asking these key, important questions, guys," Carney said, before explaining that the First Family celebrated Easter by attending church services yesterday.

Substantively, the story is nothing short of pathetic. President Obama hosted an Easter prayer breakfast; the Obamas attended Easter services; and the White House hosted a big Easter Egg Roll for families today. No proclamation was issued, but no other modern presidents -- from either party -- have issued Easter proclamations, either.

But Fox News gets the ball rolling with a cheap shot, and within hours, it's in the White House briefing room, with the president's chief spokesperson being pressed for an explanation.

How very sad.

Update: Oh, look, Politico has a story, too.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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BARBOUR PASSES ON 2012 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN.... In a surprise move, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), the all-but announced 2012 presidential candidate, announced this afternoon that he will not run after all. From the official statement:

"I will not be a candidate for president next year. This has been a difficult, personal decision, and I am very grateful to my family for their total support of my going forward, had that been what I decided.

"Hundreds of people have encouraged me to run and offered both to give and raise money for a presidential campaign. Many volunteers have organized events in support of my pursuing the race. Some have dedicated virtually full time to setting up preliminary organizations in critical, early states and to helping plan what has been several months of intensive activity.

"I greatly appreciate each and every one of them and all their outstanding efforts. If I have disappointed any of them in this decision, I sincerely regret it."

Barbour wasn't just flirting with a possible candidacy; he was, for all intents and purposes, already a candidate. He just wrapped up a campaign swing through New Hampshire; he's spent plenty of time in Iowa; he's been pandering shamelessly to right-wing extremists; he'd started drawing distinctions with other primary rivals; he had a fundraising apparatus in place; and he'd even begun lining up top-tier campaign staffers. The question wasn't whether Barbour would run; it was when he'd formally launch.

And yet, today he walked away.

For the record, I think Barbour has made a very wise decision. He brought a credible resume to the table, and political reporters tend to adore the guy. I've long assumed Barbour would have the resources needed to be relatively competitive for much of the nominating process, with an ability to even be a top-three candidate in some states. When thinking of names of second-tier candidates who had a shot at reaching the top tier, it made sense to at least keep an eye on Barbour.

But there's limited national appeal for a corporate lobbyist best known for saying things that make him look like a racist.

The truth of the matter is, there was no viable way for Barbour to actually win the White House. He could have been credible, and had the capacity to appeal to various Republican factions, but there was simply no way he'd become president of the United States.

Perhaps that became clearer as he proceeded with his campaign.

Whatever the rationale, Barbour will remain as governor until the end of next year, and his presidential endorsement will probably be one of the more sought after among the remaining candidates.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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WHY MITCH DANIELS' STRENGTH IS ACTUALLY HIS WEAKNESS.... The Washington Post had a fairly long item yesterday, highlighting Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) for his focus on fiscal issues, and pondering whether he's likely to run for president in 2012. To hear the Post's Dan Balz put it, Daniels is uniquely qualified to make his party's fiscal agenda his own national platform.

No prospective Republican presidential candidate has done more to highlight the issue of debt and deficits than Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He calls it the "new red menace," an ocean of red ink that he says is every bit as dangerous as the Soviet nuclear threat during the Cold War.

His call to arms gives him a provocative though politically risky platform for a potential 2012 presidential candidacy. Daniels thinks dealing with the debt problem will require a potentially dramatic restructuring of Medicare for future recipients, revamping Medicaid to slow its spending, and altering Social Security for today's younger workers by raising the retirement age and recalculating the cost-of-living formula.

What Daniels has long been advocating dovetails with the budget blueprint recently unveiled by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). His entry into the race could ensure that a debate between President Obama and Ryan becomes a central issue of the 2012 campaign. More than any other potential candidate, Daniels would test whether voters are ready for the kind of stiff medicine he prescribes.

This sort of analysis is extremely common, and every time I read it, I shake my head a little more.

As Paul Krugman noted recently, Daniels is "held up as an icon of fiscal responsibility" without having earned it: "[W]hat I can't forget is his key role in the squandering of the fiscal surplus Bush inherited. It wasn't just that he supported the Bush tax cuts; the excuses he made for that irresponsibility were stunningly fraudulent."

It's just bizarre for a guy who led the Bush/Cheney budget office to pick fiscal responsibility, of all things, as a signature issue.

It was, after all, 10 years ago when George W. Bush signed his first massive tax-cut bill. At the time, he thanked three people for helping make it happen -- Dick Cheney, then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and his director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mitch Daniels.

It was that tax-cut package that helped eliminate the massive surplus Bush and Daniels had inherited from the Clinton administration, and began a sea of red ink that, ironically, Daniels is now concerned about.

When asked about this, Daniels tends to blame the end of the dot-com bubble for eliminating Clinton-era surpluses. The argument is utter nonsense, and has been thoroughly debunked.

What's more, Jamelle Bouie notes that Daniels "badly underestimated the cost of the Iraq War, offering an estimate of $50 to $60 billion for the initial assault, and a forecast of $17 to $45 billion per year of occupation. At best -- if we extend those costs to the present -- Daniels was off by 2 and a half trillion dollars."

In theory, this seems like a deal-breaker for Daniels' presidential ambitions. The base already doesn't trust him after his proposed "truce" on social issues, and his credibility on deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility is severely undermined by his Bush administration failures.

If only someone would explain this to the media establishment.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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DEFINE 'PEACETIME'.... Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R), back on the presidential campaign trail, isn't sitting down for a lot of media interviews -- but he loves writing op-eds. Romney's latest ran in New Hampshire's largest paper this morning.

When I took office in Massachusetts, we faced job losses and a fiscal crisis that had the potential to shake the faith of the credit raters in our bonds. [...]

Barack Obama is facing a financial emergency on a grander scale. Yet his approach has been to engage in one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history. With its failed stimulus package, its grandiose new social programs, its fervor for more taxes and government regulations, and its hostility toward business, the administration has made the debt problem worse, hindered economic recovery and needlessly cost American workers countless jobs.

The nonsense-per-sentence ratio is awfully high here, but a couple of things are truly egregious.

First, the "biggest peacetime spending" binge? I realize Romney struggles to keep up with current events, but this isn't "peacetime". There are still wars ongoing in Afghanistan and Iraq, and U.S. forces joined coalition partners in an offensive against Libya last month. Sure, foreign policy and national security aren't Romney's strong points -- remember that humiliating op-ed he wrote on nuclear arms policy? -- but as slow as he is on the uptake, I'd like to think he knows what "peacetime " is, and what it isn't.

Second, Romney "faced job losses" when he "took office"? As it turns out, he was governor of Massachusetts for one term, and during that time, his state's record on job creation was "one of the worst in the country." Adding insult to injury, "By the end of his four years in office, Massachusetts had squeezed out a net gain in payroll jobs of just 1 percent, compared with job growth of 5.3 percent for the nation as a whole."

How bad is Romney's record? During his tenure, Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in jobs growth. There's a reason he didn't seek re-election -- Romney was wildly unpopular in his home state after his only term.

And finally, when it comes to Romney's critique of the president's record, Romney supported the stimulus he's now criticizing, and far from "failing," the Recovery Act helped rescue the economy from collapse. The president's most "grandiose new social program" looks an awful lot like Romneycare; president's tax agenda enjoys broad bipartisan support nationwide; and to argue that the administration's agenda "hindered" the recovery has no basis in reality.

Put it this way: the only reality in which Romney's economic critique makes sense is the one in which the United States is currently enjoying "peacetime."

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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EVEN FOR FOX, A CHEAP ATTACK.... I should probably let this go, but given that Fox News is pushing it and far-right blogs are picking up on it, let's take a moment to explain just how cheap the attack really is.

President Obama failed to release a statement or a proclamation recognizing the national observance of Easter Sunday, Christianity's most sacred holiday.

By comparison, the White House has released statements recognizing the observance of major Muslim holidays and released statements in 2010 on Ramadan, Eid-ul-Fitr, Hajj, and Eid-ul-Adha.

The White House also failed to release a statement marking Good Friday. However, they did release an eight-paragraph statement heralding Earth Day. Likewise, the president's weekend address mentioned neither Good Friday or Easter.

I guess the implication is supposed to be that Obama honored Islamic holidays but not Christian ones, and cares more about environmentalism than Christianity.

Let's note a couple of truths that provide some context to this.

The first is that the Obama White House didn't exactly ignore Easter. The First Family, for example, attended services yesterday. There's not only a big Easter Egg Roll for families at the White House today, but President Obama also hosted an Easter prayer breakfast last week, during which he told attendees the following:

"I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason -- because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there's something about the resurrection -- something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective.

"We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work... But then comes Holy Week. The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples' feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross. And we're reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world -- past, present and future -- and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

"In the words of the book Isaiah: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

"This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this 'Amazing Grace' calls me to reflect. And it calls me to pray. It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I've not shown grace to others, those times that I've fallen short. It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son -- his Son and our Savior."

Put it this way: Ramadan, Eid-ul-Fitr, Hajj, and Eid-ul-Adha didn't get this kind of treatment.

The other point to keep in mind is that George W. Bush was in office for eight years. How many Easter proclamations did he issue? Zero.

Something to keep in mind when your crazy uncle emails you, outraged about that rascally Obama ignoring Easter.

Update: Reagan and H.W. Bush didn't issue official Easter proclamations, either. I'll look forward to Fox's report on why they all hate Christianity.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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A BIG SHAKEUP IN THE DOMA DEFENSE.... A couple of months ago, the Obama administration announced that it no longer considers the Defense of Marriage Act constitutional, and would stop defending the law against court challenges. Officials told Congress it could step in and defend DOMA if it wants to, and soon after, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the House would gladly do just that.

Last week, Boehner's office announced it has hired former Bush Solicitor General Paul Clement to defend DOMA, and would pay Clement and his legal team from King & Spaulding as much as $500,000.

This morning, the story received quite a shake-up.

Law firm King & Spalding announced Monday it will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act on behalf of the U.S. House of Representatives. Afterward, Paul Clement, the partner who had taken the case, announced his resignation. [...]

Shortly after the firm announced that it would no longer take the case, former Bush solicitor general Paul Clement, the partner charged with leading the firm's defense, submitted his letter of resignation to Hays, which was passed along to The Huffington Post.

"My thoughts about the merits of DOMA are as irrelevant as my views about the dozens of federal statutes that I defended as Solicitor General," he wrote. "Instead, I resign out of the firmly-held belief that a representation should not be abandoned because the client's legal position is extremely unpopular in certain quarters. Defending unpopular position is what lawyers do."

The interesting thing about Clement's response is that it tells us a fair amount about what happened behind the scenes -- King & Spalding, a major D.C. law firm, simply didn't want to be responsible for fighting to defend the discriminatory law. It apparently made the firm look bad, and risked King & Spalding's ability to recruit new attorneys. One assumes the partners have received more than a few angry calls over the last week.

Despite some earlier reports to the contrary, Clement will remain on the DOMA case, and will do so from a law firm led by former Bush administration officials. Clement will also continue to receive taxpayer money to defend the anti-gay law.

It's unclear if the contract will need to be renegotiated. It's also unclear why the House leadership's existing legal team can't handle the case, or why Boehner didn't accept the services of many conservative lawyers who would likely have worked pro bono.

But putting all of that aside, the key takeaway from this morning's developments is pretty straightforward: defending DOMA has become so politically controversial, even one of D.C.'s leading law firms no longer wanted anything to do with it.

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:

* When will Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) drop the pretense and launch a presidential bid? Any day now. [Update: Or maybe he'll just skip the race altogether.]

* Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum (R) was asked yesterday on Fox News about his vote in support of Medicare Part D. "I was against that. I spoke against it. I worked against it. But we lost," he said. The detail Santorum hopes Republicans overlook: he voted for it, and didn't even try to pay for it.

* In West Virginia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney is claiming credit for helping save 33 miners in Chile who were trapped last summer.

* Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D) was clearly thinking about launching a U.S. Senate campaign, but has apparently decided to skip the race. When it comes to replacing retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D), the Democratic primary seems likely to come down to Rep. Martin Heinrich and state Auditor Hector Balderas.

* In Kentucky, state Rep. Mike Harmon has joined Phil Moffett's Republican gubernatorial ticket. Harmon believes the invitation to run for lieutenant governor is a sign from God.

* And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the most recent Republican presidential nominee, was asked to comment yesterday on Donald Trump's apparent national ambitions. "I'm staying out of it," McCain said, adding, "He's having the time of his life. I congratulate him for getting all of the attention."

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

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THE LINEUP ON LIBYA.... I have been known, from time to time, to raise concerns about the guests lists on the Sunday morning public affairs shows. But when lineups like these are common, I can't help myself.

A trio of U.S. senators redoubled calls Sunday for the Obama administration to step up U.S. support for Libyan rebels in their battle against the regime of Moammar Kadafi, even targeting Kadafi directly if necessary.

"I think the focus should now be to cut the head of the snake off. That's the quickest way to end this," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CNN's "State of the Union." "Let's get this guy gone."

Graham was joined by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who just completed a visit to Libya, and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) in urging the U.S. to resume a leadership role in the air campaign against Kadafi's forces.

As diversity of thought goes, this is pretty embarrassing. Viewers were treated to interviews with three like-minded senators who agree with one another on U.S. policy towards Libya -- and saw no guests on any of the shows who disagreed with them.

What's more, the fact that two of these three -- Graham and McCain -- had cozied up to Gadhafi just 18 months ago, with the latter even bowing to the dictator, went unmentioned.

Now, whenever I bring observations like these up, I'm reminded that the Sunday shows aren't terribly important. The ratings aren't that imposing, and much of the country doesn't know these programs even exist. Perhaps.

But these shows also help dictate much of the political establishment's discourse -- Joe Six Pack isn't watching the Sunday shows, but the "Gang of 500" is -- and shape the larger debate.

In this case, the "debate" over U.S. policy in Libya was limited to McCain, Graham, and Lieberman, all of whom share a foreign policy worldview, and all of whom are touting the same vision.

The more conservatives dominate these Sunday show guest slots, the more the conventional wisdom tilts to the right.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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A TARGET-RICH ENVIRONMENT.... When it comes to criticizing the House Republican budget plan, some big-ticket problems are rather obvious. For example, the GOP wants to eliminate Medicare and gut Medicaid -- ideas that the American mainstream doesn't like.

And as far as the politics of this are concerned, it makes sense for Democrats to pick a small handful of glaring and scandalous priorities in the Republican plan, and focus their fire accordingly. But when it comes to appreciating the larger policy, it's worth keeping in mind that Medicare isn't the only concern here.

Jonathan Cohn is putting together a series on some of the other, lesser-known problems with the GOP budget agenda, and today focuses on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a.k.a. the program formerly known as food stamps.

The Republican plan for SNAP looks an awful lot like the Republican plan for Medicaid: end the guaranteed benefit for low-income families, scrap the automatic raises during economic down times, and send the states a block grant -- which would, of course, include a big cut to the program itself.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, if the states decided to react primarily by thinning the benefits for everybody, the maximum benefit would equal 88 percent of the "Thrifty Food Plan" -- the government's estimate of what a typical family would need to pay for a "bare-bones, nutritionally adequate diet." In 2012, a family of three would lose $116 a month, while a family of four would lose $147 a month.

If, instead, the government implemented the cut entirely by reducing eligibility for the program, SNAP would serve 8 million fewer people over the next ten years. [...]

And what's the rationale for this cut? Republicans and their supporters say the program's spending has gotten "out of control" and warn that it's fostering a culture of dependency, just like the old welfare system did. But the evidence for this is pretty thin. [...]

Fraud and waste aren't issues, either. Last year the General Accounting Office found that program errors, which include underpayment of benefits as well as overpayments, were less than 4 percent. And "trafficking"--that is, the illegal trade of food stamps for other goods or money -- had fallen to less than one cent on the dollar. Both were record lows.

Also note the larger context: food stamps are one of the single most effective forms of government stimulus, and Republicans want to cut them, and instead cut taxes for the wealthy, which is one of the least effective forms of stimulus.

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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THE PLAN TO PUT THE SENATE GOP ON THE SPOT.... When congressional Republicans think they have a policy that works for them, they have a process they want to see followed: start with an ambitious House bill, pass it, lean on the Democratic Senate to hold an up-or-down vote. Even if Dems reject the House measure, Republicans will have the Senate majority on the record.

In early February, for example, the House GOP voted to eliminate the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, and Senate Republicans went to great lengths to force Democratic leaders to bring the measure to the Senate floor.

But occasionally, this dynamic can be turned on its head.

Senate Democratic aides expect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to force Senate Republicans to vote on the Paul Ryan budget plan.

Reid hasn't made a formal decision yet, and won't until he returns from an overseas trip.

The idea is to drive a wedge through the GOP caucus and put vulnerable incumbents such as Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in a political jam.

It's the polar opposite of the ACA-repeal vote -- have you noticed Senate Republican leaders demanding that the House budget bill be brought to the floor for a vote? No? There's a reason for that.

The House GOP measure is extreme and unpopular. If Senate Republicans vote for it anyway, Dems can and will use it against them. If some in the Senate GOP balk -- as Maine's Susan Collins already has -- Dems will use that to emphasize the "bipartisan" opposition to the House agenda and use it as leverage in budget talks.

This seems to belong in the "no brainer" category.

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

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DEMS, PROGRESSIVE GROUPS KEEP PRESSURE ON OVER MEDICARE.... About a week ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) launched the first of many salvos over the House Republican budget plan, creating an ad that used humor to drive an important point home: the GOP's agenda on Medicare would hurt seniors.

This morning, the DCCC has a new video emphasizing a related but distinct message: "House Republicans promised to protect Medicare. They lied." The point of the video is to emphasize an angle the GOP would prefer voters forgot about: Republicans spent much of 2010 running on a pro-Medicare platform, with the party's candidates vowing to be Medicare's protectors and champions. Three months into the new Congress, these same Republicans voted to eliminate the program altogether and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme.

The video is pretty compelling -- high-profile Republican candidates really did say one thing and almost immediately after getting to Washington, did another.

The new DCCC clip doesn't seem intended for broadcast -- it's one minute and 19 seconds long, rather than a half-minute for a televised commercial -- but it's nevertheless a reminder of the kind of message we'll see in the 2012 cycle. What's more, its launch coincides with a new DCCC robocall effort, targeting 25 House Republicans, telling their constituents these representatives "voted to end Medicare rather than end taxpayer giveaways for Big Oil companies making record profits or tax breaks for the ultra rich."

What's more, the DCCC effort comes the same time as a new campaign from Americans United for Change, which has a new 30-second spot that will air this week on local TV stations in several districts, including Paul Ryan's in Wisconsin, and a robocall effort targeting voters over 45 in nearly two dozen Republican House districts.

The GOP took a risk voting to eliminate Medicare, and Republicans had to know this was coming. The severity of the political price they'll pay remains to be seen, but the left clearly sees a vulnerability and intends to keep the pressure on.

Steve Benen 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE LIMITS OF SCHMOOZING.... A couple of weeks ago, the NYT's David Brooks suggested President Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would better understand each other's agenda if only the president invited the far-right lawmaker over for lunch.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) sounded a similar note yesterday, suggesting Obama would be in a better position if he schmoozed more.

"The president's got to start inviting people over for dinner. He's got to play golf with them. He has to pick up the phone and call and say, 'I know we disagree on this, but I just want to say -- I heard it was your wife's birthday or your kid just got into college.'

"He has to go build friendships. That's what an executive's job is, and the president is a people-person. He knows how to deal with people."

I tend to think this is all pretty silly, but so long as the argument is getting attention, let's flesh this out a bit.

The first point to keep in mind is that Obama has already made an effort to cultivate some of these relationships. He established some friendships during his Senate tenure -- he and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), for example, are reportedly good friends, ideologies notwithstanding -- and the president has used occasions like the Super Bowl and March Madness to invite bipartisan groups of lawmakers over to hang out.

It doesn't seem to be helping much. Republicans don't respond to interpersonal outreach; they respond to Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the GOP's hysterical base.

The second, related point is that I'm not at all sure what Obama and Republican leaders would talk about when he invites them "over for dinner."

As Paul Krugman recently explained, "The point is that the two parties don't just live in different moral universes, they also live in different intellectual universes, with Republicans in particular having a stable of supposed experts who reliably endorse whatever they propose. So when pundits call on the parties to sit down together and talk, the obvious question is, what are they supposed to talk about? Where's the common ground?"

The Bloomberg/Brooks suggestion -- schmoozing will lead to progress -- rests upon the assumption that congressional Republicans are responsible officials, willing to negotiate and work in good faith, and prepared to find common ground with Obama. All they need is some face-time and presidential hand-holding. Once they can get along on a personal level, a constructive process will follow.

It's a pleasant enough fantasy, but it's at odds with reality. Republicans are deliberately pushing a radical agenda, without regard for bipartisanship or reason, and are generally unwilling to even consider Obama a legitimate president. They eschew compromise -- Speaker Boehner appeared on "60 Minutes" and refused to even use the word -- and have even said they're prepared to destroy the economy, on purpose, as part of the latest in a series of hostage strategies.

Sharing a sandwich with these guys on the portico probably won't do much good.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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COBURN, NORQUIST, AND THE GANG OF SIX.... We don't know what they've come up with, or when we'll see the details, but it sounds as if the so-called "Gang of Six" will come up with some kind of bipartisan debt-reduction plan., probably pretty soon.

The Senate's "gang of six" appears to be headed toward a budget compromise that would boost tax revenues and rein in popular entitlement programs, according to a Democrat and a Republican from the bipartisan group who appeared Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"If we don't have an agreement soon, we won't be relevant to this discussion," Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said. "We intend to be relevant. We have made enormous progress in this group. It is the only bipartisan effort that is under way, and at the end of the day it has to be bipartisan or nothing is going to happen."

Also over the weekend, we learned that Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the gang's only professed liberal, noted that he's heard Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) deliver "the doomsday speech" -- the one in which the right-wing Oklahoman explains how the debt will destroy civilization as we know it -- and was apparently worn down by it. "He has convinced me," Durbin said. "This is serious, and if we don't do something, and do it quickly, bad things can happen, in a hurry."

Perhaps now would be a good time to note that Coburn, a physician with no background in economic, fiscal, or monetary policy, doesn't really understand these issues.

Nevertheless, Coburn continues to note that he's prepared to accept some higher taxes as part of the larger compromise. He told NBC yesterday that he's aware of his 2004 pledge not to raise any tax on anyone by any amount, but may feel inclined to do the right thing anyway.

"Which pledge is most important... the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all American conservatives when, in fact, they really don't?" Coburn asked. "The fact is we have enormous urgent problems in front of us that have to be addressed and have to be addressed in a way that will get 60 votes in the Senate... and something that the president will sign."

"Where's the compromise that will save our country?" Coburn added. "This isn't about politics that is normal."

Norquist responded soon after, "Coburn said on national TV today that he lied his way into office and will vote to raise taxes if he damn well feels like it, never mind what he promised the citizens of Oklahoma. Sen. Coburn knows perfectly well that the pledge is not to any organization but to the citizens of his state. He lied to them, not to Americans for Tax Reform."

The running feud between Coburn and Norquist is of some interest, but the larger point is that Norquist may prove to be more persuasive to congressional Republicans. Indeed, there's no guarantee anyone outside the Gang of Six will actually like what they've come up with. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) last week vowed to kill any deal that included even a penny in tax increases, and it's likely most, if not all, Republicans outside the gang will reach the same conclusion. This isn't just true of the Senate, where 60 votes will be a very heavy lift, but also in the House, where a radicalized caucus just voted to cut taxes by trillions as part of their fraudulent attempt at fiscal "responsibility."

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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

On Sunday, we talked about:

* The usual refrain -- "American families balance their budget budgets; why can't Washington?" -- breaks down when families take on all kinds of worthwhile debts.

* Sen. Mark Kirk's (R-Ill.) habit of irresponsible public remarks hasn't gone away. This time, it's the debt ceiling.

* In Florida, Republican officials find it easier to rig the game than earning the public's trust.

* Why is Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) resigning on May 3? Because he was scheduled to testify under oath on May 4.

* Despite what you may have heard from Minnesota's Republican state House Speaker, voting isn't a "privilege."

*The recent anti-democratic moves by Republican officials in Michigan are pretty extraordinary.

* Congressional Republicans have a plan for how to spend the month of May: mindlessly exploit gas prices for partisan gain.

* Why was the Rev. Franklin Graham the headliner on ABC's "This Week"?

On Saturday, we talked about:

* David Frum is a conservative who believes a social insurance state should exist. If only others on the right could bring themselves to agree.

* Charles Krauthammer wants the GOP to base the 2012 cycle on "the nature of the American social contract." I suspect Dems wouldn't mind.

* Why is Franklin Graham comfortable with Donald Trump as a presidential candidate?

* In "This Week in God," we covered, among other things, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) responding to a statewide fire emergency by urging his constituents to pray for rain.

* Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) visit to Libya last week was a whole lot different than his last visit to Libya, 18 months ago.

* Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the first Senate Republican to declare her opposition to Paul Ryan's House Republican budget plan.

Steve Benen 7:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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April 24, 2011

A FAMILIAR MODEL.... The Washington Post has an interesting piece today on Clarence Cammers, a 64-year-old retiree who lives in Paul Ryan's Wisconsin district. He's a life-long Republican, but has an adult son, Tim, who never left home, has health issues, and struggles with his finances.

Clarence told his congressman that he'll be fine, no matter what Congress does when it comes to taxes and spending. He then asked, referring to the House GOP budget plan that he's read cover to cover, "I guess what I'm saying is, what are all these changes going to mean for my son?"

It's a good question. I can only hope others look at the Republican agenda and wonder the same thing.

Reading the article, Clarence comes across as a pretty decent guy who worked hard when he could and who's asking the right questions now. Like a lot of people, he doesn't seem to like government, but nevertheelss relies on government programs to help his family get by.

But there was one other point Clarence raised that stood out for me.

He had been balancing a budget every month for 40 years, and his fingers navigated the numbers on the keyboard from memory. It was simple accounting, really -- a calculator, a Microsoft spreadsheet and an old floppy disk. Nothing to it. Money came in, and he never spent any more than he had. Input. Output. An end balance in the black.

It drove him crazy that the federal government had made such a mess out of the same process... Sometimes he wondered: Who was in charge of their math? How did they ever let it get to $14 trillion, turning a man who could balance his own budget into someone with his hand in the air and a question for a congressman about his son?

I suspect questions like these are fairly common. Folks say, "We balance our budgets. Why can't Washington?"

It's worth noting that the question isn't just flawed -- the federal government of the world's largest economy and military superpower has to operate differently -- it's also based on a false assumption.

When a family goes to buy a home, its members don't simply write a check; they take out a mortgage. Almost no one can afford to simply and literally buy a home, so we take out very large loans, and make payments, with interest.

The same is true when a family wants a car, tackles college tuition, or thinks about starting a small business. American families, in other words, take on debts, some of them huge relative to their incomes, all the time. There's nothing wrong with any of this -- these are just routine examples of people investing in themselves.

The government's debts aren't identical -- there is no mortgage or car payment, exactly -- but officials take on debts to invest in things they consider worthwhile, too. A family that relies on student loans to pay for college should be able to relate to a government that relies on loans to pay for public services. The family thinks it'll be worth living in the red for a while, so long as it can make the payments and afford the interest, because they'll be better off in the long run -- and the government believes the exact same thing.

The comparison between families and governments "living within their means" tends to annoy me because of the lack of parallels, but I'm wondering if I should just embrace it and turn it around. If Mr. and Ms. America take on debts they can afford to improve their position in life, why is it outrageous for their government to do the same thing?

The answer from Republicans, I suspect, is that we can't afford this much debt. (They weren't thinking this way when they inherited a national debt that was $5 trillion and shrinking, and turned into a debt that was $10 trillion and growing, but let's put that aside.) But we can afford it; that's the point. Like a family making its monthly payments, the government is doing the same. Indeed, we're doing so well on this front that others keep loaning us money at low interest rates, confident that we're good for it.

The point is, there is no debt crisis. We owe a lot, but we've owed more before, and we can back on track without resorting to extremist tactics like the GOP budget plan.

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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MR. 'COLOSSALLY STUPID' STRIKES AGAIN.... During his House tenure, perhaps Mark Kirk's most notable moment came when he traveled to China and encouraged Chinese officials not to believe the U.S. government when it comes to budget issues. It was, to my mind, one of the more striking examples in recent memory of an American lawmaker trying to undermine the United States on the international stage.

MarketWatch's David Weidner, hardly a partisan or an ideologue, described Kirk's remarks as "colossally stupid" and "dangerous," adding that the Illinois Republican, preparing to seek statewide office, ran the risk of creating an "international incident."

That was two years ago. Kirk has since been promoted to the U.S. Senate -- even after he was caught telling extensive lies about his personal background. This morning, he was asked whether Congress would actually do what has to be done, and raise the debt ceiling before there's a crisis.

"Maybe or maybe not," Kirk said.

The first-term senator and former House lawmaker from the suburbs of Chicago said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that he will "vote no on raising the debt ceiling unless we have comprehensive, dramatic, effective and broad-based cuts to federal spending, including the reform of entitlement spending.

"I think the best play here is to have the bipartisan deficit commission report of the Gang of Six attached to the debt limit extension," Kirk said. "That would be huge cuts in the future spending of the United States that may be a good deal. Without that we should not send a blank check to the administration."

Substantively, this is all rather foolish. Even Kirk should be able to keep up well enough to understand that this issue has nothing to do with giving the administration a "blank check."

But in the larger context, responsible policymakers have been trying to reassure the world that the United States government will, in fact, meets its obligations, and that global financial markets have nothing to worry about.

Tony Fratto, a former Treasury official and veteran of the Bush/Cheney White House noted the other day, "If there is a vote on raising the debt ceiling and it fails, there will be a significant market reaction. Investors already believe that Congress doesn't understand the financial markets. A failure to raise the debt ceiling will confirm this to them." He added the effects on the economy come "quickly" and would be severe and long-lasting.

It's against this backdrop that Mark Kirk went on national television to declare that congressional Republicans may or may not do the right thing.

Steve Benen 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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RIGGING THE GAME IS EASIER THAN EARNING VOTES.... In Florida, Republicans dominate in a way that offers them a great opportunity. The GOP not only has the governor's office, but has majorities so large in the legislature, Republicans outnumber Democrats in both the state House and state Senate by better than two-to-one majorities.

In light of such power, if the party that enjoys power wants to ensure it stays in charge, this is surely the GOP's chance -- Republicans can do a great job, serve the people well, and prove that they deserve voters' trust. Indeed, they can even claim all the credit since they run the show.

Or, Republicans can stay in office by using their power to rig the game and hurt those who help Democrats. Guess which approach the GOP prefers?

With an eye toward the 2012 elections, Florida Republicans are mounting the broadest assault on their Democratic counterparts since taking control of the Legislature 15 years ago.

Bills barreling through the House and Senate attempt to starve Democrats of their primary sources of cash and halt partisan gains of the last two election cycles. With Republican supermajorities in both chambers, Democrats can't stop them.

On Thursday, the House passed a bill to block the kind of voter registration drives that helped sweep President Barack Obama into the White House and gave Democrats an edge of more than 600,000 votes.

Republicans are also moving bills on litigation overhaul that make it more difficult for trial lawyers -- big contributors to Florida Democrats -- to mount or profit from lawsuits against hospitals, HMOs, nursing homes, insurers and others. Another large Democratic donor -- unions -- would be starved of campaign cash through legislation that would sever payroll deductions, a key union fundraising tool. Republicans are also effectively cutting worker salaries, making it harder for public employees to contribute to unions.

They have also passed measures that could add to their nearly absolute power in the Capitol: new campaign finance laws that would increase fundraising power, coupled with deregulation of private business, insurers and developers that would lift burdens from traditional GOP contributors.

The Miami Herald characterized this as "bare-knuckle politics at its purest."

Digby added, "Now let's assume they will eventually be punished by the people for 'overreach' because they are just that crazy. Will it have been worth it to put in place myriad laws and regulations that favor their own sources of money and make it much more difficult for their opponents to democratically win office? I'd say so."

And they may not even be punished. Either way, Republicans just don't seem to care.

So long as they're using government to suppress Democratic allies and make it harder for Dems to compete in elections, the GOP gets what it wants.

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

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WHAT PUSHED ENSIGN OUT THE DOOR.... As recently as a few months ago, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) thought he'd come up with a smart strategy: ignore his scandal and pretend like everything's normal. Despite the criminal probe, ethics investigations, and humiliating sex scandal, the conservative Republican senator, as of February, even planned to seek re-election.

The tide turned fairly quickly. In March, Ensign announced he wouldn't seek another term, but assured the public he would stay in office through 2012. This week, Ensign switched gears again, and announced his resignation, effective May 3.

Why did Ensign reverse course and step down in disgrace? Probably because of what would have happened on May 4.

Senator John Ensign's resignation letter allows him to leave office just one day before he was to have to answer questions under oath about whether a $96,000 payment to the family of his former lover was illegal and designed to keep the affair from becoming public, according to people familiar with an investigation of Mr. Ensign's activities.

That formal testimony, scheduled for May 4, was the final step as Senate investigators prepared for what were almost certain to be Senate ethics charges against Mr. Ensign, Republican of Nevada. Mr. Ensign's resignation is effective May 3.

In the letter, issued late Thursday, Mr. Ensign acknowledged he was stepping down to avoid further scrutiny -- hoping that his departure from the Senate would mean the end of any further questions about his affair with Cynthia Hampton, the wife of his former senior aide, Douglas Hampton.

When the Republican senator announced in March he'd retire at the end of his term, he said he wouldn't resign for a simple reason: it would give the appearance of guilt. Now Ensign is resigning, the day before he was scheduled to testify under oath.

What was that about appearances?

Keep in mind, Ensign's departure does not let him off the hook entirely. Once he's gone, the Senate will no longer have the power to punish him -- he'll no longer be a member. But the Senate ethics committee, which has been engaged in a 22-month investigation, may yet release the findings of its probe, and if the committee found evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it may also refer the evidence to the Justice Department for prosecution.

We can't say with any confidence what the ethics committee has on Ensign, but it's worth emphasizing that the chair and vice chair of the panel issued a statement late Thursday that read in part, "The Senate Ethics Committee has worked diligently for 22 months on this matter and will complete its work in a timely fashion. Senator Ensign has made the appropriate decision."

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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VOTING ISN'T A 'PRIVILEGE'.... Given the aggressive Republican push in many state legislatures to make it more difficult for Americans to participate in their democracy, this actually makes some sense. It's offensive, of course, but it's also illustrative.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers found himself in a constitutional bind on Thursday after saying that voting was a privilege, not a right. [...]

The gaffe came amid a discussion of legislation that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls. That bill is nearing a vote after months of hearings.

"When you go to even a Burger King or a McDonalds and use your debit card, they'll ask you to see your ID," Zellers said sometime after 11 p.m. "Should we have to do that when we vote, something that is one of the most sacred -- I think it's a privilege, it's not a right. Everybody doesn't get it, because if you go to jail or if you commit some heinous crime your rights are taken away. This is a privilege."

Now, there's no shortage of subjects on which the left and right will disagree, but this shouldn't be one of them. If any rights exist in this country, the right to vote is pretty high on the list. Even a Republican state House Speaker should be familiar with phrases like "Voting Rights Act."

Zellers later walked this back, saying, "I probably should have said it a little bit better at that late hour at night."

Yes, you probably should have.

But in the larger debate, the point from Democrats is that proponents of pointless voter-ID laws are prepared to casually disregard basic constitutional rights, including the right to choose their representatives. For a leading GOP champion of these laws to declare voting a "privilege" only helps reinforce the Democratic argument.

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

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WHEN OFFICIALS CONSIDER DEMOCRACY A PROBLEMATIC INCONVENIENCE.... We talked a month ago about the remarkable power grab underway in Michigan, where newly-elected Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is now exercising his power to unilaterally fire elected officials, dissolve entire local governments, and impose local dictators "Emergency Managers" without any input from voters. One of the proponents of this new policy called it "financial martial law" -- and that was intended to be a defense of the scheme.

To her enormous credit, Rachel Maddow, far more than anyone else in national media, is taking this story seriously, and shining a light on developments that are already underway in Michigan.

I hope readers will take a few minutes to watch this segment, but there was something Rachel said towards the end of the story that stood out for me: "What is new here is that this state has decided that local elections, locally elected officials are a problem that has to be done away with, that democracy is in the way of fixing problems in the United States now, of making things more efficient, particularly in poor places. Not that democracy is the way we fix problems but that democracy is the problem and it therefore needs to be sidestepped for efficiency sake, for our own good. Governor knows best.

"The point here, what makes Benton Harbor a national story and Katherine Ferguson Academy a national story is that the whole idea of choice for them anymore is purely hypothetical. The state has chosen for them. And that they've got is, frankly, that aforementioned dictator. Their hope -- their one hope -- is the dictator is benevolent.

"Is that how we think problems should get solved in America now?"

Bob Cesca argued yesterday, "We have to help Rachel make this a major national story." That strikes me as a very good idea.

Steve Benen 9:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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MINDLESS EXPLOITATION OF GAS PRICES.... It's going to be a long month.

Republicans are getting ready to capitalize on record prices at the pump with a May focus on oil and gasoline.

The government shutdown battle put the issue on the back burner even though prices at the pump have been rising steadily since February. Now, with President Barack Obama already on the defensive, the GOP is ready to pounce.

House Republicans are planning bill introductions, hearings, markups and floor votes on legislation aimed at expanding domestic oil production in response to high gasoline prices.

Keep in mind, of course, that the Republican bills, hearings, markups, and votes won't actually affect gas prices at all. They know that. But addressing an issue isn't the point -- the GOP doesn't care about policymaking; it cares about giving the appearance of doing real work in the hopes the media plays along and voters won't know the difference.

The need for credible fact-checking will likely be great, but as the circus gets underway I'd encourage folks to keep one key detail in mind: "Even a dramatic expansion of domestic oil and gas drilling will have little effect on oil and gas prices, as they are largely set on world markets."

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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THE WRONG EASTER HEADLINER.... Given that it's Easter, it's not especially surprising that some of the Sunday morning talk shows would incorporate religious discussions into their public affairs discussions. But it is surprising when programs give a platform to those who don't deserve them.

ABC News sent out a press release the other day, noting the line-up for today's "This Week." It announced a problematic headliner.

This Easter Sunday, evangelical leader Franklin Graham, leader of Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelist Association, sits down with Christiane Amanpour in a "This Week" exclusive. During this season of rebirth, has America lost its faith? And what is the role of God in government and politics?

Now, Franklin Graham is, of course, the son of legendary evangelical preacher Billy Graham. But he's also known for his controversial evangelical relief organization that sought to enter Iraq in 2003 to convert Iraqis to Christianity after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, and then lied publicly about how Samaritan's Purse operates.

Perhaps most notably, Franklin Graham is also known for hating Muslims. He famously denounced Islam as a "very evil and wicked religion" in 2001 -- and then again in 2006. A year ago this week, Graham appeared on Fox News and said Muslims can only be free if they worship Jesus Christ.

Indeed, Graham's most notable trait seems to be his capacity for making bizarre and offensive public remarks. A few weeks ago, Graham said the recent disasters in Japan may be evidence that the Second Coming is near, and according to advance releases from ABC, Graham will tell Christiane Amanpour how much he likes Donald Trump, and that Facebook and Twitter might play a significant role in the second coming of Christ.

There are plenty of credible, responsible voices in the American religious community, many of whom would be delighted to appear on "This Week" in honor of Easter. So why is Franklin Graham on my TV?

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

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April 23, 2011

SHAPING THE 'SOCIAL INSURANCE STATE'.... David Frum's piece cheering the the modern American welfare state has generated quite a bit of attention this week, and for good reason. It offers a center-right perspective that struggles to exist in modern conservatism.

Frum, for those unfamiliar with his work, is, in fact, a conservative. He was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, a member of Rudy Giuliani's campaign team, a supporter of the McCain/Palin ticket, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

But Frum also seems to be reevaluating the most basic tenet of conservatism: its hostility towards the welfare state.

In his piece, Frum explains that the right's guiding principles broke down and the larger societal "trade" ultimately failed during the Bush era.

Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all -- Standard & Poor's and Moody's to do that.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the free-market assumption and expectation that an unemployed person could always find work somewhere has been massively falsified: at the trough of this recession, there were almost 6 jobseekers in the US for every unfilled job. Nothing like such a disparity had been seen since the 1930s. The young faced the worst job odds. But some of the most dismal outcomes were endured by workers in their 50s, laid off from middle-class jobs likely never to see middle-class employment again.

GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.

This is not only a striking admission from a conservative, it's also vaguely reassuring. As Kevin Drum noted the other day, "It's nice to read it because it's such an unusual concession to reality. The financial crisis of 2008 was a stupendous event, and it's frankly stunning to me how few people seem to have responded to it in any substantive way. Occasional throat clearing aside, it's been business as usual for a huge chunk of the political, business, and pundit class, especially on the right."

Just as important, this approach seems to have led Frum to reconsider the very idea of public benefits he found unnecessary in years past.

...I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans -- and not only Americans -- were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid. [...]

I strongly suspect that today's Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans. The future beyond the welfare state imagined by Yuval Levin will not arrive. At that point, Republicans will face a choice. (I'd argue we face that choice now, whether we recognize it or not.) We can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state?

The same piece quotes Irving Kristol arguing in 1995, "The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy -- as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind ... they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it."

Frum concludes, "Conservatism's task is to shape that social insurance state, not repeal it."

In 2011, this isn't just heresy in Republican circles; it's no longer what one might even call "conservative." Leading GOP voices, including the likes of Paul Ryan, consider a social insurance state itself a form of socialism. Food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid -- the elements of a safety net Frum feels it necessary to cheer -- have not only been deemed unnecessary expenses by the right in 2011, a surprising number of Republican officials have insisted these programs literally unconstitutional, along with Social Security, the minimum wage, and most of the federal government's other functions.

Indeed, I suspect a great number of those on the right saw the piece and dismissed the author as a "liberal."

And that's a problem. What Frum's piece reminded me of is the basis for a modern conservative political party -- in other industrialized democracies. Other countries have conservative parties, but it's obvious that they're not nearly as far to the right as our Republican Party, and Frum's essay help get to the heart of the difference. Around the world, "conservatives" believe in a safety net and a social insurance state. As recent elections in Canada and England show, conservatives tend to go out of their way to make it clear they won't dismantle the foundations of the welfare state. This existed the same way in the U.S. for much of the post-WWII era.

Of course, any hopes that modern conservatism might return to a worldview consistent with Frum's vision is folly. The right has simply gone over a cliff -- jumped, really -- and has no interest in climbing back up.

But I can't help but wonder how constructive our political process and public discourse would be if there were still conservative Republicans who were capable of perceiving reality as Frum does.

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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PUTTING 'THE NATURE OF THE AMERICAN SOCIAL CONTRACT' ON THE BALLOT.... Charles Krauthammer has apparently been thinking about his party's prospects in 2012, and he'd like to offer some advice.

As he sees it, the message that works for Republicans is when they debate "the size and reach of government, spending and debt, and, most fundamentally, the nature of the American social contract." Krauthammer thinks this worked for the GOP in 2010, and "the more the Republicans can make the 2012 election like 2010, the better their chances of winning."

The extent to which conservatives misread the midterms continues to fascinate me. Regardless, E.J. Dionne Jr. is right to note that Democrats would be very fortunate if Republicans took Krauthammer's advice.

Americans simply do not agree with the approach that Rep. Paul Ryan has laid out (and that Charles so admires). It's clear from the polling that Americans would rather raise taxes on the wealthy than slash away at the federal government's programs to offer health coverage to the elderly and the less well-off. On the merits, I think this majority is right.

And the more conservatives make 2012 like 2010, the more they will rally progressive voters to the polls. 2010 was a classic midterm protest election -- conservative turnout was way up relative to progressive and moderate turnout. The Ryan budget is creating more energy among its opponents than among conservatives; or, to put it another way, to the extent that Ryan is rallying positive energy on the right, it is among people who were already going to come out and vote Republican anyway. But by reminding progressives of the stakes in 2012, Ryan will bring many of them back to the voting booths. That is one reason why President Obama is talking about the Ryan budget so much. Another is that middle-of-the-road voters will like it less the more they know about it.

So yes, let's rerun 2010. I am persuaded it will come out quite differently the next time around.

Ron Brownstein reports this week that the White House is thinking along the same lines. In fact, as the Obama team sees it, the Ryan plan is actually quite helpful in framing the debate -- with fiscal issues taking center stage, the question then comes down to choices. People can choose between a radical and unpopular Republican vision, and a more popular "balanced" approach touted by the president.

Krauthammer and many GOP leaders seriously seem to believe there's a real public appetite for slashing domestic spending, more tax cuts for people who don't need them, and a radical overhaul of popular programs like Medicare.

With 2012 in mind, it's a sucker's bet.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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A LITTLE TOO EASY TO IMPRESS.... Putting aside, for now, whether the Rev. Franklin Graham should be held up by major media outlets as a credible American religious leader, this is just odd.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, whose family has served as spiritual advisers to numerous prominent political figures, told "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour that businessman Donald Trump might be his candidate of choice in 2012....

"Donald Trump, when I first saw that he was getting in, I thought, well, this has got to be a joke," said Graham. "But the more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, you know, maybe this guy's right."

"So, he might be your candidate of choice?" Amanpour asked.

"Sure, yes," Graham responded.

Generally, Christian conservatives are a little harder to please. Keep in mind, Trump was asked on MSNBC this week whether he considers there to be a right to privacy in the Constitution. After saying, "I guess there is," he asked why the question matters. MSNBC's Savannah Guthrie noted the legal significance of the privacy debate in the context of the debate over abortion rights.

"Well, that's a pretty strange way of getting to pro-life," Trump replied. "I mean, it's a very unique way of asking about pro-life. What does that have to do with privacy? How are you equating pro-life with privacy?"

For anyone with even a passing familiarity with the abortion debate, Trump's indignation was bizarre. It was as if he'd never considered the controversy in any depth at all, and opponents of abortion rights were not at all pleased.

What's more, Trump talked to radical TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network last week and struggled to speak coherently on matters related to faith.

"I believe in God. I am Christian. I think The Bible is certainly, it is THE book. It is the thing," Trump told Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody. [...]

As for church attendance, the host of NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice" indicated that he makes an effort.

"Well, I go as much as I can. Always on Christmas. Always on Easter. Always when there's a major occasion. And during the Sundays. I'm a Sunday church person. I'll go when I can."

"During the Sundays"?

And then there's Franklin Graham, who said of Trump, "[T]he more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, 'You know, maybe this guy's right.'"

It's almost as if some religious leaders are more concerned with politics than with matters of faith.

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

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected faith-based move from Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), which is already raising eyebrows.

This week, Perry reached out to the federal government for disaster assistance, despite years of anti-government rhetoric and even talk of secession, as fires do significant damage in many parts of the state. Yesterday, however, the governor aimed higher, and urged Texans to ask God to help put their fires out.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have hereunto signed my name and have officially caused the Seal of State to be affixed at my Office in the City of Austin, Texas, this the 21st day of April, 2011.

Perry is generally worried about government interfering in the lives of the people, but he doesn't mind using the power of his office to encourage his constituents to pray for rain.

Theologically, this is a bit odd. Indeed, Paul Waldman questioned why "our politicians have to have such an infantile view of the way this just and loving deity's universe is supposed to be ordered."

The theory here seems to be that up until now God has been angry at Texas, or perhaps indifferent to Texas' plight, water-wise. So if enough Texans pray over the next three days, it'll basically be like everyone waving at once, saying, "Hey, God! A little help here!" Whereupon, God will say, "Oh -- Texas! I forgot you guys were there!" And then he'll say, "Well, I had this plan that stretches from here until the end of time, and the drought played a small but significant part in that plan...but heck, since you all prayed so nicely, here's some rain."

Of course, the situation in Texas is obviously dire, and a state-endorsed weekend prayer session might not cut it. Can animal sacrifice on the state capitol steps be far behind?

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The White House goes all out this time of year to honor seasonal religious holidays, including a new tradition of a Passover Seder hosted by President Obama, an official White House Easter egg roll, and a prayer breakfast with Christian leaders from across the country.

* Fox News wants viewers to believe there's a "War on Easter." (Hint: there is no such war.)

* And a leading creationist group has begun arguing that teaching evolutionary biology in public school science classes is connected to "homosexual indoctrination."

Steve Benen 9:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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MCCAIN RETURNS TO LIBYA -- UNDER VERY DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES.... Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) yesterday became the highest profile U.S. official to visit Libya since international military intervention began, and gave a hearty endorsement to the rebels fighting the Gadhafi government.

The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee made the remark after arriving in Benghazi, a city that has been the opposition capital in the rebel-held eastern Libya.

McCain said he was in Benghazi "to get an on the ground assessment of the situation" and planned to meet with the rebel National Transition Council, the de-facto government in the eastern half of the country, and members of the rebel military.

"They are my heroes," McCain said of the rebels as he walked out of a local hotel in Benghazi. He was traveling in an armored Mercedes jeep and had a security detail. A few Libyans waved American flags as his vehicle drove past.

The Republican senator, who traveled with a large security detail and moved around in a heavily armored jeep, later called his visit "one of the most exciting and inspiring days of my life."

McCain, not surprisingly, also endorsed expanded international support for the rebels, including "recognizing the Transitional National Council as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people," and transferring frozen Libyan assets to rebel control. (thanks to V.S.)

There are two angles to keep in mind here. The first is that McCain may not have fully thought this through. Libyan rebels are broken up into factions that don't always agree with one another, don't have a formal leadership, and don't have a formal military command structure. McCain's rhetoric no doubt makes him feel better, but it's more complicated than just having the United State "recognize" factionalized rebels as a legitimate foreign government and giving them billions of dollars.

The second is that McCain's last visit to Libya was very different, and it's amazing that U.S. media outlets reporting on his remarks yesterday are pretending this other visit never occurred. It was just 18 months ago that McCain traveled to Libya and cozied up to Gadhafi, visiting with him at the dictator's home in Tripoli, shaking his hand, and even bowing a little to Gadhafi. The point of the meeting was for McCain to discuss delivery of American military equipment to the Libyan regime.

I guess the rebels didn't hear about this? And that American media outlets simply forgot it happened?

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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BIPARTISAN OPPOSITION.... When the Republican budget plan reached the House floor last week, four GOP members -- along with every Democrat in the chamber -- decided not to go along. They had very different motivations, but these four Republicans made opposition to the Paul Ryan proposal bipartisan.

We haven't heard too much from Senate Republicans, who voted in lock step last month in support of the House Republicans' budget plan for this fiscal year, on the Ryan plan, but yesterday, one of the GOP's "moderates" noted her opposition publicly.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.) said Friday that she will not support the 2012 budget passed by the House last week.

"I don't happen to support Congressman Ryan's plan but at least he had the courage to put forward a plan to significantly reduce the debt," Collins said on "In the Arena" a program on WCSH 6, a local NBC affiliate in Portland, Maine.

Collins is the first Republican senator to state publicly that she will not support the Ryan budget.

It's worth noting, just for the record, that this "courage" line continues to be quite foolish. There's nothing courageous about House Republicans embracing a cruel and fraudulent budget plan.

For that matter, Collins should also realize that the Ryan plan, because it cuts taxes so much, doesn't do much to "significantly reduce the debt" for many years. For actual debt reduction plans, the Maine senator should probably consider some of the progressive alternatives.

But putting all of that aside, the good news is that opposition to the House GOP plan in the Senate is now bipartisan, too. And with Collins willing to say so publicly, it seems rather likely that others, including Olympia Snowe, will join her, putting pressure on blue-state Republicans like Scott Brown and Mark Kirk to follow suit.

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

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April 22, 2011

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

* Syria: "Security forces in Syria met thousands of demonstrators with fusillades of live ammunition after noon prayers on Friday, killing at least 73 people in the bloodiest day of the five-week-old Syrian uprising, according to protesters, witnesses and accounts on social networking sites."

* McCain in Libya: "U.S. Sen. John McCain, one of the strongest proponents in Congress of the American military intervention in Libya, said Friday that Libyan rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi's troops are his heroes. The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee made the remark after arriving in Benghazi, a city that has been the opposition capital in the rebel-held eastern Libya."

* A federal judge in New Jersey threw out a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act this afternoon. The case was dismissed on procedural grounds -- the plaintiffs did not have standing -- not on the merits. (thanks to K.M. for the tip)

* Jared Bernstein, arguably the leading liberal economist at the White House is leaving the administration and joining the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. For those of us hoping for as many progressive voices as possible making their case at the White House, this isn't good news.

* There is no debt crisis, and we're not really drowning in a sea of red ink.

* Republicans beat back labor rights once again, this time in New Hampshire, where GOP lawmakers, by a veto-proof majority, passed a measure "that would prohibit unions from collecting mandatory fees and disallow collective bargaining agreements that require employees to join a labor union."

* Conservatives occasionally like to argue that people will leave states with higher taxes on the wealthy, and move to lower-tax alternatives. That's not really true.

* I imagine Donald Trump, looking ahead, hopes all of his interviews are conducted by Meghan McCain, or at least those asking her style of "interview" questions. (When an interviewer asks the interviewee to hire them, it's a bad sign.)

* Apparently, Wonkette ran a bizarre item the other day related to a conspiracy theory involving Sarah Palin and one of her children. It's sparked some renewed interest in the "controversy," such as it is, but let's be clear: there's nothing to Trig Trutherism and no serious person should consider the rumors credible.

* I feel better already: "Reeling from months of scandal over debt burdens, recruiting practices, and course quality, America's for-profit college will soon have a 'code of conduct.'"

* Happy Earth Day. We have a long ways to go.

* Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly believe George Soros and Paul Krugman want to deliberately destroy the American economy. Why? So they can "build up a socialistic system." Those Fox News personalities really aren't very bright.

* And finally, remember when Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) lied about Planned Parenthood and his office later said his remarks were "not intended to be a factual statement"? Kyl has now used his power as a senator to "revise" the official transcript and strike his falsehoods from the congressional record. We'll still remember, but officially, it will be as if the comments were never made.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THEOLOGICAL RIGOR.... The New York Times' David Brooks saw "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway, and like nearly everyone else who's seen the musical, seemed to really enjoy it. The columnist notes that the central theme of the production is that "many religious stories are silly," and "many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch," but "religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally" and people "practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs."

Brooks said he reflected on the musical afterwards, and came to believe "its theme is not quite true."

Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn't actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

That's because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don't have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

The religions that thrive have exactly what "The Book of Mormon" ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.

At this point, Brooks lists a series of benefits of "rigorous theology." It "provides believers with a map of reality," it "helps people avoid mindless conformity," it "delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us," it builds "character," etc.

Brooks disapproves of "a no-sharp-edges view of religion that is all creative metaphors and no harsh judgments."

There's probably no credible way to address this with the depth it deserves in a blog post, late on a Friday afternoon (on Good Friday, no less), but for the sake of conversation, I think Brooks' view on theological rigor is overly narrow. Indeed, at times, it borders on insulting.

To make a book-length story short, my gut-level response to Brooks is that he's looking at one side of a complex coin. He sees theological rigor as a phenomenon that inspires adherents to "perform heroic acts," but chooses to ignore the same dynamic that inspires followers to commit horrific and inhumane acts in their deity's name.

Indeed, the column does not make so much as a passing reference to the role of faith and strict religious believers in hatred, discrimination, "honor" killings, wars, and even genocide. The notion that a belief system that provides adherents with "a map of reality" can also lead to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and witch trials never seems to enter Brooks' mind.

The point of Brooks' argument seems to be that he has no use for mamby-pamby faiths that focus on quaint niceties like unity and common decency. Give the columnist that old time religion, thank you very much. After all, those who can offer "absolute truth" are more likely to "thrive." (Someone should remind me of the last time they heard about Unitarians or Humanists who were driven to commit horrific crimes against humanity because of their belief system.)

But here's an alternative vision: rules of good conduct are not dependent on theological constructs, as any undergraduate Ethics 101 class should make clear. People are fully capable of imposing high standards of conduct on themselves without superstition, fantasy, or fear of divine punishment.

And more importantly, individuals need not think of themselves as gods "to understand the world on their own"; they can rely on reason and sound judgment. Intellectual rigor, evidence-based evaluations, and scientific constructs are not just another belief system -- and despite rumors of their demise, they're managing to hold on, and in some cases, "thrive."

Steve Benen 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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WHAT TO DO WHEN THE PUBLIC IS WRONG.... There's been a fair amount of consistency in national polls in recent months. Americans like higher taxes for the wealthy, dislike radical changes to Medicare, and don't want the debt ceiling to be raised.

Despite Obama administration warnings that failing to do so would devastate the economy, a clear majority of Americans say they oppose raising the debt limit, a new CBS News/New York Times poll shows.

Just 27 percent of Americans support raising the debt limit, while 63 percent oppose raising it.

Eighty-three percent of Republicans oppose raising the limit, along with 64 percent of independents and 48 percent of Democrats. Support for raising the debt limit is just 36 percent among Democrats, and only 14 percent among Republicans.

Seven in ten who oppose raising the debt limit stand by that position even if it means that interest rates will go up.

These results were published yesterday, but they're practically the same as related polling data in other surveys dating back quite a while.

Here's the uncomfortable truth: policymakers simply must ignore them. The public has no meaningful understanding of what the debt ceiling is, what happens if interest rates go up, or the global economic consequences of a potential default. It's quite likely Americans perceive the question as a poll on whether or not they want a higher debt.

This is one of those classic dynamics in which responsible policymakers realize that they know more about the subject matter than the public at large, so they have to do the right thing, even if the uninformed find it distasteful -- knowing that the disaster that would follow would be far more unpopular.

Put it this way: what if the poll had asked, "Would you rather raise the debt ceiling or risk a global economic catastrophe and massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare?" The results, I suspect, might have turned out differently.

Or maybe not. Either way, it doesn't matter. The public is wrong, and Americans need sensible leaders to do the right thing, even if they're confused about what that is.

Now, I can hear some of you talking to your monitor. "Oh yeah, smart guy?" you're saying. "The polls also show Americans hate the Republican budget plan. If the public's confusion on the debt limit should be ignored, maybe the public's attitudes on eliminating Medicare and gutting Medicaid should be disregarded, too."

Nice try, but no. Here's the thing: folks know what Medicare and Medicaid are. They have family members who benefit from these programs, or they benefit from the programs themselves. It's not an abstraction -- these are pillars of modern American life, and institutions millions of come to rely on as part of a safety net.

The point is, polls only have value if the electorate understands what they're being asked. The debt ceiling is a phrase the public has barely heard, and doesn't understand at all. That doesn't apply to Medicare in the slightest.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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THE OVERLOOKED PROGRESSIVE ALTERNATIVES.... There's been plenty of talk about the various proposals on long-term debt reduction, with a small handful generating the most attention. President Obama's plan is competing with proposals from Paul Ryan, Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici, etc. Some are more credible than others, but the plans span the ideological spectrum from the right to the ... center.

Where's the left? As it turns out, there are progressive alternatives, which haven't generated much in the way of coverage. I recently gave a plug to Rep. Jan Schakowsky's (D-Ill.) deficit-reduction plan, but she's not the only one with realistic proposals intended to address the problem from a liberal perspective.

This week, the budget proposal from the Congressional Progressive Caucus is suddenly getting some attention, and I'm glad. Does it stand any chance of becoming law? Of course not. But does Paul Ryan's plan have a shot at passing? Despite gaining House approval, it does not.

Matt Miller got the ball rolling a few days ago, noting in passing that the Congressional Progressive Caucus' budget plan "wins the fiscal responsibility derby" against its competing proposals because "it reaches balance by 2021 largely through assorted tax hikes and defense cuts."

This one sentence seemed to have let much of the political world that the CPC plan exists. The Economist noted today:

Have you ever heard of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget plan? Neither had I. The caucus's co-chairs, Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, released it on April 6th. The budget savings come from defence cuts, including immediately withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, which saves $1.6 trillion over the CBO baseline from 2012-2021. The tax hikes include restoring the estate tax, ending the Bush tax cuts, and adding new tax brackets for the extremely rich, running from 45% on income over a million a year to 49% on income over a billion a year.

Mr Ryan's plan adds (by its own claims) $6 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, but promises to balance the budget by sometime in the 2030s by cutting programmes for the poor and the elderly. The Progressive Caucus's plan would (by its own claims) balance the budget by 2021 by cutting defence spending and raising taxes, mainly on rich people. Mr Ryan has been fulsomely praised for his courage. The Progressive Caucus has not.

I'm not really sure what "courage" is supposed to mean here, but this seems precisely backwards.

Bingo. Trying to restore tax rates to levels that were pretty normal in the America John Boehner grew up in takes some courage, because it challenges the powerful and the elite to sacrifice. Republicans are doing the opposite -- as President Obama put it the other day, "Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, or people who are powerless and don't have lobbyists or don't have clout."

Paul Krugman also had an item on this today, noting some of the policy specifics.

The CPC plan essentially balances the budget through higher taxes and defense cuts, plus some tougher bargaining by Medicare (and a public option to reduce the costs of the Affordable Care Act). The proposed tax hikes would fall mainly on higher incomes, although not just on the top 2%: super-brackets for very high incomes, elimination of deductions, taxation of capital income as ordinary income, and — the part that would be most controversial — raising the cap on payroll taxes.

None of this is economically outlandish. Marginal tax rates on high incomes would rise substantially -- enough to make even liberal economists slightly uncomfortable -- but the historical evidence suggests that the incentive effects wouldn't be too severe. Overall taxes as a share of GDP aren't given, but they would clearly remain well below European levels.

Also note, the CPC numbers add up -- which is more than we can say for the House Republican plan -- actually dealing with the problem conservatives claim to care about.

In case this isn't obvious, it's important to have competing ideas in the larger conversation. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) this week said his Gang of Six plan would fall, ideologically, between the White House's plan and Paul Ryan's -- as if that were a good thing, and the president's approach represents the liberal tent-pole.

That's not even close to being right. There are a variety of credible alternatives, and Obama's vision may represent the center, but there's a sensible, sound liberal approach that deserves to be in the mix.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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WILD, WILD WEST.... Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), after only three months in office, is already a media favorite, making several Sunday morning show appearances, despite appearances that he's one of Congress' most ridiculous members.

At this point, West seems to have determined that the surest way to remain a media favorite is to say increasingly bizarre things. For example, the right-wing congressman told Laura Ingraham this week that President Obama is "a low-level socialist agitator," who showed "third-world, dictator-like arrogance" during a speech on debt reduction.

This led Fox News' Greta Van Susteren to invite West on to see if he'd repeat the rhetoric.

"I am sick and tired of this class warfare, this Marxist demagogic rhetoric that is coming from the President of the United States of America," said West. "It is not helpful for this country, and it's not gonna move the ball forward as far as rectifying the economic situation in our country. And I am not gonna back away from telling what the truth is." [...]

During his Fox appearance, West further stood by [what he told Ingraham], when Van Susteren asked whether those comments were helpful to advancing his convictions.

"There's a great depth to my conviction, and part of my conviction is telling the truth," said West. "I don't think it's very presidential when Barack Hussein Obama refers to my colleague, Paul Ryan, as a simple little accountant, either. So I think that when you look at what a community organizer is turning out to be, it does seem to be like a low-level socialist agitator."

As a factual matter, West is a few fries short of a Happy Meal, if you know what I mean, but I found his little on-air tantrums interesting anyway.

For one thing, the president didn't call Paul Ryan "a simple little accountant." What Obama said is that Ryan is trying to be "America's accountant and trying to be responsible." It was intended as a compliment, which under the circumstances, is actually quite presidential.

For another, when West describes the president's rather centrist speech on debt reduction -- itself a conservative goal at this point -- as "Marxist demagogic rhetoric," I'm going to assume the congressman isn't quite sharp enough to know what Marxism or demagoguery even are.

But in the larger context, what I find especially interesting are partisan standards. For two weeks, we've heard complaints that the president was being "uncivil" and "partisan" by criticizing a radical GOP budget plan and presenting a credible alternative. Sure, there are wildly different standards for a president as compared to a House rep, but are those who've whined about Obama being a big meanie aware of what Republicans are saying on national television?

I'm also reminded of former Rep. Alan Grayson (D), who represented a district not far from West's in Florida. When Grayson, as a freshman, presented himself as a brash, unapologetic liberal, there was considerable hand-wringing over how the political world should deal with him. Allen West, meanwhile, is a right-wing crackpot, a fact that generally leads to a lot of shrugged shoulders.

Update: One more thing -- West doesn't understand "class warfare," either.

Steve Benen 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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WHAT'S BECOME OF THE 'SQUARE PEG'.... Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has always been a conservative Republican senator, but he'd developed a reputation over the years for idiosyncratic positions. Despite being firmly on the right -- at least as "the right" was defined in, say, the '90s -- Hatch supported stem-cell research, co-sponsored the DREAM Act, and partnered with Ted Kennedy to pass the State Children's Health Insurance Program, bringing health coverage to low-income kids.

When Hatch published an autobiography, he named it "Square Peg." It was his way of defining himself as some sort of political maverick, back before John McCain made the word a punch-line.

That was then. In recent years, Hatch's persona has become angry and predictable. His stature and efforts to look like a statesman are gone, replaced with a cantankerous hack concerned only with impressing right-wing activists.

This week, for example, Hatch took steps to kill any bipartisan deficit-reduction package that raised any tax on any one by any amount.

Hatch would have significant say over any deficit-reduction as ranking Republican on the Senate Finance panel, which has jurisdiction over taxes, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

He told conservative activists shortly before the April recess that he would oppose any deficit-reduction package that raises taxes, period.

"He has stressed no tax increases," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a prominent anti-tax group, speaking of assurances Hatch made at a recent Tax Day event with conservatives. "That's what he told me when he was at the April 14 press conference. Hatch was there and stressed no tax increases. Period."

Senate sources say Hatch has taken an equally hard line in discussions within the Senate. "Hatch has been insistent on no new taxes," said a Senate aide.

Of course, raising taxes on the wealthy is the single most popular approach embraced by the American mainstream, but Hatch doesn't care about the American mainstream -- he's concerned with GOP primary voters in one of the nation's most conservative states, who are inclined to end his career.

It's what led Hatch to deliver a lengthy tirade on the Senate floor last week, condemning the very idea of a balanced approach -- some spending cuts, some tax increases -- to debt reduction.

There was a time, not too long ago, that centrist Democrats hoping to craft a major bipartisan deal would immediately reach out to Hatch. Now, he's the guy who runs around blasting bipartisan deals before they're even presented, hoping his antics will impress the Club for Growth and random Tea Party outfits.

I don't know if the strategy will work -- it seems likely the right-wing base will reject him anyway -- but I do know that Hatch is throwing away what's left of his dignity and any chance he had of a proud legacy.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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A WELCOME WALKBACK.... A couple of weeks ago, Slate's Jacob Weisberg took an unexpected, counter-intuitive path, suggesting that liberals consider embracing Paul Ryan's radical GOP budget plan.

Since I was one of many who argued that Weisberg was very wrong, it's only fair to note that he's reevaluated his position.

After my last column, I got pummeled in the liberal blogosphere for asserting that the Ryan budget represented a big step in the direction of conservative honesty. I deserved some of the abuse. Though I criticized Ryan for his unsupported rosy assumptions (shame on you, Heritage Foundation hacks), I reacted too quickly and didn't sort out just how laughable Ryan's long-term spending projections were. His plan projects an absurd future, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in which all discretionary spending, now around 12 percent of GDP, shrinks to 3 percent of GDP by 2050. Defense spending alone was 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009. With numbers like that, Ryan is more an anarchist-libertarian than honest conservative.

That's good to see. Paul Krugman has a less charitable response to Weisberg, but I won't quibble. If Weisberg now realizes the Ryan plan is a fraud, I'll take it.

There is, however, one small problem. The Slate editor goes on to offer some praise for Ryan anyway, noting, "I think I was right in crediting Ryan with owning up to what other Republicans won't: that the party's demand for ever-lower taxes would basically end Medicaid and Medicare as entitlement programs."

Jon Chait argues that gives Ryan a little more credit than he deserves.

Continuing the Republican practice of denying any connections between revenues and deficits, he refuses to concede that the spending levels he proposes are in any way constrained by his preference for staying at or below Bush-level tax rates. [...]

He paints the debt as an existential crisis, but refuses to acknowledge any tradeoff between the tax rates he prefers and the affordable level of social spending. And rather than acknowledge that he would end Medicare and Medicaid as entitlement programs, he insists against all evidence that free market forces will make the programs stronger than ever.

Well, sure, but other than that, it's good to see Weisberg come around.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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

* In Wisconsin, Republican-aligned groups have filed recall petitions against three Democratic state senators, but the state Democratic Party intends to challenge the legitimacy of those petitions, on the grounds that many were collected improperly. (There are reports, for example, of conservatives trading alcohol for signatures in at least one location.)

* Nate Silver has a fascinating chart, measuring media coverage by month for each of the potential presidential candidates in the Republican field. In November and December, Sarah Palin dominated; in March, Newt Gingrich received a narrow plurality; and so far in April, Donald Trump has generated more coverage than most of the other candidates combined.

* Speaking of Nate, it's widely assumed that in Nevada, Rep. Dean Heller (R) will be tapped to replace Sen. John Ensign (R). But will that automatically give Heller an edge when seeking a term of his own next year? Not necessarily.

* In Florida, the Republican field of candidates hoping to take on Sen. Bill Nelson (D) next year keeps growing, with state Rep. Adam Hasner (R) officially filing his paperwork yesterday. State Senate president Mike Haridopolos is generally considered the Republican frontrunner, but he's plagued by ethics scandals, among other problems.

* Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R), during his first week as a presidential candidate, argued that because Americans "elected a black president," it proved "we are colorblind." He added, "Colorblind and we're not a discriminate [sic] nation."

* Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) used to support storage of nuclear materials in Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Now that he's a presidential candidate hoping to compete in Nevada, Pawlenty's views on the policy are evolving.

* In Arizona, Rep. Jeff Flake (R) is running for the Senate, so his House predecessor, former Rep. Matt Salmon (R) hopes to take back his old seat. Salmon left Congress in 2000 due to self-imposed term limits.

* And in Virginia, the Republican field of U.S. Senate candidates keeps growing, with Timothy E. Donner, a Northern Virginia television production company owner, launching a campaign this week. The GOP frontrunner, former Sen. George Allen, is delighted to have so many Republican opponents, because it dilutes the field and makes it easier for him to get the nomination.

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

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OBAMA'S MESSAGE ON GAS PRICES TAKES SHAPE.... With gas prices rising, and consumers' frustrations mounting, policymakers are adjusting their rhetoric accordingly. Whereas, a few months ago, the typical political speech would make few if any references to energy policy, now it's a major topic of conversation.

For congressional Republicans, this means talking about drilling and, well, that's pretty much the long and the short of the GOP energy policy. That expanded drilling wouldn't have a meaningful impact on today's supply and demand is a minor detail, better left ignored.

For the White House, there's a very different message.

With U.S. gasoline prices soaring, the Obama administration Thursday unveiled a working group of federal agencies to probe potential fraud in the energy markets. [...]

The Justice Department announced the working group, which will include representatives from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as the Agriculture, Energy, Justice and Treasury departments.

"We will be vigilant in monitoring the oil and gas markets for any wrongdoing so that consumers can be confident they are not paying higher prices as a result of illegal activity," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement unveiling the effort.

Obama devoted considerable time to the subject of rising gasoline prices this week, seeking to reassure Americans that there was enough global oil supply and blaming soaring gasoline prices on speculators.

Indeed, the president's focus on speculators has increased considerably this week. Yesterday, he told voters in Nevada that his team intends, "to root out any cases of fraud or manipulation in the oil markets that might affect gas prices -- and that includes the role of traders and speculators."

Obama was also quick to remind voters that he, unlike a certain political party that runs the House, is eager to end tax subsidies to the oil companies making consumers so upset.

I can't say whether the Justice probe will turn up anything, whether speculators bear responsibility, or whether Republicans will budge on Big Oil subsidies, but I can say that as messages go, this at least beats "Drill, Baby, Drill."

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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SHAMELESS.... There were plenty of well-financed, far-right groups running health care attack ads last year, none of which were especially concerned with accuracy. But amidst a lot of dishonesty, the ads from the 60 Plus Association stood out in their duplicity.

The shadowy outfit, which bills itself as a right-wing version of the AARP, not only argued that the Democrats' Affordable Care Act would slash Medicare funding, but also that Dems were effectively being unpatriotic by imposing hardship on the Greatest Generation.

The message wasn't even close to being true, but the 60 Plus Association's demagoguery nevertheless helped scare the bejesus out of seniors, even as the Affordable Care Act strengthened Medicare and expanded benefits to the elderly.

Well, that was last year. Now, congressional Republicans are pushing a plan that eliminates Medicare, replacing it with a privatized voucher system, and guts Medicaid, which many seniors in nursing homes rely on. Surely an outfit like the 60 Plus Association, which is so concerned about seniors and health care, will be outraged, right? Wrong.

The conservative retiree group 60 Plus is going up with $800,000 worth of ads in 39 districts, thanking House Republicans for passing a budget that it says saves Medicare.

"The House passed a budget that protects and preserves Medicare for years to come," says one ad running in Arizona. "And our congressman, Paul Gosar, voted to protect Medicare and keep it secure for future retirees."

The 60-second radio ads, which will be complemented by phone calls and mail from 60 Plus, represent the latest media offensive this week on the increasingly contentious issue. And it's clearly a direct response to recent attacks from Democrats on the issue.

So, to review, the right-wing group was outraged when Democrats strengthened Medicare and expanded benefits for seniors, and told the public Dems were trying to hurt seniors. A year later, the House Republicans vote to eviscerate Medicare and Medicaid, and 60 Plus is thanking them for it.

And a whole lot of folks will see and hear the ridiculous message -- 60 Plus has a lot of money, though no one knows where it comes from -- not knowing that it's dishonest. Indeed, 60 Plus is cynically counting on seniors being easily misled.

Shameless. Just shameless.

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

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LOUD ENOUGH TO BE HEARD.... Rep. Paul Ryan's (R) town-hall meeting in his Wisconsin district this week turned out to be one of the more interesting developments. The House Budget Committee chairman defended tax breaks for the wealthy, and was, surprisingly, roundly booed by his constituents.

Jason Linkins noted yesterday that we've seen a few similar examples pop up this week, with other GOP lawmakers facing unhappy voters in their districts, due entirely to the right-wing budget plan approved by the House last week. Linkins specifically pointed to exchanges involving Reps. Robert Bold (R-Ill.), Lou Barletta, (R-Pa.), and Charlie Bass (R-N.H.). Eliminating Medicare, and replacing it with a privatized voucher system, seemed especially controversial.

That's a good start, but four mildly contentious town-hall gatherings does not a major pushback make. Dave Weigel argues, persuasively, that the left will have to do far more to shake up the debate in Washington.

The town halls of 2009 -- dry runs in June, and really volcanic ones in August -- changed the way that Washington talked about the law that would become the Affordable Care Act. And there was a science to them. Democrats took a long, lumbering time to figure that science out. But they haven't copied it. Not yet. [...]

The lack of anger on display leaves an impression: Perhaps Ryan's Medicare plan isn't inducing mass panic as the Democrats' Medicare plans did.... If that impression sticks, Republicans will return to Washington in May with the knowledge that the polls are a little overheated and Ryan's budget is a go.

Where are the liberal protesters? Is there a brilliant rope-a-dope strategy in place, some plan to get Republicans even further out on a limb before hammering them in the August recess? Possibly. Labor strategists say that there'll be a much bigger focus on generating turnout at town halls come August.

The 2009 example sets a certain standard, but it's likely to prove difficult for the left to copy. After all, two years ago, the right had a remarkably well organized campaign underway, with major far-right financiers investing in lobbying organizations, which in turn brought/created grassroots activism. There was also a certain cable news network that, in conjunction with talk radio, effectively acted as a cosponsor for the right-wing pushback, literally airing the names, dates, and locations of public meetings so enraged Republicans knew when and where to throw tantrums.

Will Dems be able to duplicate this in 2011? It's highly unlikely.

But as we saw in Madison, the left doesn't necessarily need well-financed lobbying groups and media outlets to tell them what to do -- they just need to be outraged and willing to show up. There's some evidence that labor organizations are gearing up for broader activism.

Here's hoping it's successful. After the summer of 2009, Republicans returned to Capitol Hill feeling emboldened, and Democrats felt shell-shocked. It didn't derail health care reform, but it left Dems in an almost permanent state of defensiveness and encouraged timidity.

GOP officials can see polls showing how unpopular their agenda is, but until they see angry constituents telling them the Republican vision is unacceptable, the trajectory in Washington will remain the same.

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

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KNOWING THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAILURE, BUT NOT CARING.... Rep. Phil Roe (R) of Tennessee explained yesterday that he's well aware of the potential consequences if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling.

In the very near future, to avoid defaulting on debt, this Congress will be asked to raise the debt ceiling. A failure to do so could result in the nation defaulting on its debts to investors, a sure path to economic catastrophe.

That wouldn't be especially interesting, except Roe, just two days earlier, explained that he will reject any effort to extend the debt limit unless far-right budget demands are met. As Matt Finkelstein put it, "In other words, Roe is aware that exceeding the debt limit would be disastrous, but he's calculated that winning a political battle is more important than acting responsibly."

Of all the Republican positions on the issue, this strikes me as the most painfully ridiculous. There are plenty of right-wing lawmakers who simply ignore reality, and argue sincerely that default wouldn't be that big a deal, and they don't much care either way about the full faith and credit of the United States. This is blisteringly dumb, but I can at least understand the thinking -- they don't fear the threat because they don't believe the threat. Fine.

But Roe is in a very different place. Indeed, he's not the only one. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) recently said failing to raise the debt limit "would be a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said failure to raise the debt limit would lead to "financial collapse and calamity throughout the world."

And both Boehner and Graham nevertheless proceeded to argue they would play with fire anyway.

The blissfully ignorant at least have a good excuse -- like children, they're too uninformed to appreciate the seriousness of the danger. But that excuse doesn't exist for those who fully understand how devastating the consequences of their actions may be, but simply don't care.

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

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OBAMA STAYS ON OFFENSIVE, DELIVERS SOUGHT-AFTER GOP INDICTMENT.... A couple of weeks ago, after Paul Ryan introduced his radical House Republican budget plan, many on the left -- pundits and activists alike -- wanted to see the White House engage in a forceful pushback. The president and his team, focused primarily on avoiding a government shutdown, initially demurred.

This wasn't well received. Greg Sargent had a thoughtful item two weeks ago, noting "the left's increasing frustration with Obama's absenteeism."

When it suits him, Obama has proven willing and able to take on big arguments with a level of ambition and seriousness of purpose that suits his status as one of the leading public communicators of our time. Republicans are initiating an argument over the role of government and the nature of our national social contract that demands -- and provides an opening for -- a big response. Will Obama deliver?

He wasn't the only one asking. Dionne, Meyerson, and Drum raised related concerns the same week, and I had an item explaining that it was incumbent on President Obama to lead the charge, making the case against the GOP agenda.

Given all of this, I think it's worth revisiting these questions, noting that they were (a) correct, and (b) answered.

Over the last nine days, Obama has delivered his address on debt reduction, as well as hosting three town-hall events. In each instances, the president did exactly what many on the left (including me) asked of him -- offering a spirited defense of progressive policies, including tax increases on the wealthy, and explaining in no uncertain terms why the Republican budget plan is simply unacceptable.

Take these remarks in Reno yesterday, for example. After explaining why privatizing Medicare is a terrible idea, and noting that it won't happen on his watch, Obama told attendees:

"[A]t a minimum, we should say, for those like myself who can afford it, let's pay a little bit more. Let's go -- we can go back -- if we went back to the Clinton rates for the wealthiest 2 percent, going back to the Clinton rates -- you remember back in the '90s, the economy was doing really well, and rich people were doing just fine. And I can afford it It's not that I like paying taxes. I don't like paying taxes. Nobody likes paying taxes. But if the choice is keeping my tax break, or 33 seniors having to pay an extra 6,000 bucks for their Medicare, why would I want that -- why would I wish that on those 33 seniors? If the choice is between me keeping my tax cut and a couple hundred kids being to go get their Head Start, why would I want that?

"This isn't a matter of charity; it's a matter of what we think it is to live in a good society. And I think it is good for me, it is good for my life if when I'm driving around, I'm saying to myself, you know what, that school is producing all kinds of kids who are smart and are going to help build America's future.

"And I drive around and I see some seniors, and they're out for a walk. And I know, you know what, I'm glad that I live in a country where in their retirement years, they're going to be secure. That makes me feel good. That's the kind of country I want to live in. That's the kind of country you want to live in. And we've got to make sure we're willing to fight for it."

This is the case the left demanded Obama make, and I'm glad to see him making it.

Of course, speeches and town-hall remarks are just rhetoric, and what matters most is the follow through when it comes to policymaking. I'm certainly not suggesting that rhetoric alone is sufficient; it's not. The point, however, is that many of us urged the president to use his bullhorn to make a progressive case. I'm pleased to report Obama is doing just that.

Love him or hate him, "absenteeism" is no longer a valid criticism.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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SCANDAL-PLAGUED GOP SENATOR ANNOUNCES RESIGNATION.... So far in the 112th Congress, the number of Republican lawmakers to resign in disgrace tops the number of major legislative accomplishments, two to zero.

Senator John Ensign of Nevada, the subject of an ethics investigation related to his affair with the wife of a former top aide, announced Thursday evening that he was resigning, effectively ending the high-profile Senate inquiry that had already ruined his once-promising political career. [...]

"While I stand behind my firm belief that I have not violated any law, rule, or standard of conduct of the Senate," he said [in a written statement], "and I have fought to prove this publicly, I will not continue to subject my family, my constituents, or the Senate to any further rounds of investigation, depositions, drawn out proceedings, or especially public hearings. For my family and me, this continued personal cost is simply too great."

Yes, if there's one thing John Ensign worries about, it's putting his family through a difficult ordeal.

To briefly recap for those who've forgotten -- it's always irked me that major media outlets almost completely ignored this story -- Ensign's humiliation came to public attention in June 2009, when we learned the conservative, "family-values" senator carried on a lengthy extra-marital relationship with one of his aides, who happened to be married to another one of his aides. Ensign's parents tried to pay off the mistress' family.

The scandal grew far worse when we learned that the GOP senator pushed his political and corporate allies to give lobbying contracts to his mistress's husband. When Douglas and Cynthia Hampton left Ensign's employ -- because, you know, the senator was sleeping with Cynthia -- Ensign allegedly took steps to help them make up the lost income, leaning on corporate associates to hire Douglas as a lobbyist, and ignoring ethics laws that restrict how quickly former aides can begin lobbying careers.

Federal investigators ultimately found that Ensign's wrongdoing didn't warrant prosecution, but an investigation from the Senate ethics committee, as of last month, appeared to be intensifying. By resigning in disgrace, Ensign is cutting that probe short, though committee members may yet issue a report, and refer the matter to the Justice Department if they uncover evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

As for the electoral implications, Nevada's Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, will appoint Ensign's replacement to serve through next year. It's generally assumed Sandoval will tap Rep. Dean Heller (R), who's running for the seat anyway, and would be able to run as a quasi-incumbent, while avoiding controversial votes in the House that would be used against him (Heller voted last week, for example, to eliminate Medicare). There would, under this scenario, also be a special election in Heller's Nevada district, which would quickly become a hotly contested race.

Ensign's resignation, which is effective May 3, marks the end of what was once a promising career. Indeed, before the scandal, it was widely assumed that Ensign would run for president in 2012, and was considered a credible candidate. Now, however, the far-right senator leaves in disgrace, unable to overcome his personal and professional misconduct.

Somewhere, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who easily won re-election after getting caught with prostitutes, is laughing his ass off.

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

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April 21, 2011

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

* Libya: "President Barack Obama has approved the use of armed Predator drone aircraft in Libya to improve the precision of low-level attacks on ground targets, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday."

* More from Libya: "Rebels fighting to oust the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, took control of a border crossing into Tunisia on Thursday in the first significant crack in his control of the country's western region since his security forces tamped down riots across the country two months ago."

* Japan: "Japan sealed off a wide area around a radiation-spewing nuclear power plant on Friday to prevent tens of thousands of residents from sneaking back to the homes they quickly evacuated, some with little more than a credit card and the clothes on their backs."

* I hope he's right, but we've heard this before: "Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan may reach a turning point in the war by the end of this year.... If the Taliban can be prevented from retaking those areas when the fighting picks up this summer, and if the areas under Afghan government control are further expanded at the same time, then by the end of 2011, in Gates' words, 'We will have turned a corner.'"

* It's better, but still too high: "First-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell in the latest week but remained above 400,000 for the second straight week, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The number of initial claims in the week ending April 16 fell 13,000 to 403,000."

* Bradley Manning has been transferred from the Quantico brig in Virginia to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The latter is a medium-security facility. Blue Girl has more on this.

* Did you know we've been on orange alert continuously for about six years? "The federal government is adopting a simple, two-tiered alert system to warn the public of terrorist threats and possible attacks."

* Paul Ryan's budget plan included an interesting tidbit: it calls for the debt ceiling to be raised, repeatedly.

* Labor loses another fight, this time in Oklahoma.

* Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) needs a surprising amount of coaching to keep up on current events in his own state.

* Sean Hannity wants examples of Fox News "dividing Americans along religious lines" and "scapegoating the Muslim community." Well, Sean, if you insist.

* Apparently, Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee are feuding.

* It is interesting to have, for the first time, a president "with a personal relationship to federal student loans and other financial aid."

* And The Onion's brilliance shines again: "Though Mitt Romney is considered to be a frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the national spotlight has forced him to repeatedly confront a major skeleton in his political closet: that as governor of Massachusetts he once tried to help poor, uninsured sick people."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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NO USE FOR 'THREATS AND TEENAGE ANTICS'.... There's no shortage of items out there urging House Republicans to stop playing dangerous games with the debt limit, but this one stood out for me.

Good budget policy comes from a clear and present threat to the economy and our long term prosperity combined with a political window to change our budget trajectory.

Threats and teenage antics aren't typically part of the recipe. And those who make budget policy based on a "Thelma and Louise" or "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" approach to governance tend to lose credibility quickly when they don't plunge their car over the cliff or run into the hail of bullets firing.

So let's all just chill out, grow up, and cut a deal. That's why the people sent the new Congress here. Progress. Not hyperbole. Not ultimatums. Cut. A. Deal.

The reason it caught my eye, in addition to being reasonably good advice, is who wrote it. The piece comes from Rich Gold, one of Washington's most influential lobbyists, a partner at Holland & Knight, one of Washington's lobbying powerhouses (and a Republican-friendly firm, at that).

I mention this context because Gold is the kind of guy who, when he places a call to a congressional office, it gets returned fairly quickly. He's also not the type to pick fights with offices he'll want to stay friendly with. So when he suggests in print that he's seeing "teenage antics" and suicidal threats, it's safe to assume a lot of his clients are starting to worry.

The reason, I suspect, there isn't more widespread panic about this is that, ultimately, most folks simply assume cooler heads will prevail. Republicans may engage in more than their share of crazy talk, but basic patriotism and a sense of self-interest will prevent them from literally and deliberately creating an international economic crisis.

There is, however, still a hint of doubt. People assume the GOP isn't that crazy, but there's a small part of them that asks, "Are they that crazy?"

As this anxiety grows, slowly but surely, I suspect a lot of lobbyists will hear from a lot of clients, and the pressure on Republicans will grow. They may not care -- this is a remarkably reckless bunch -- but Gold's recommendation won't be the last.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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THERE ARE ALWAYS EMERGENCY ROOMS.... Mississippi is arguably the nation's poorest state. With crushing poverty and a massive number of families without health care coverage, Mississippi stands to benefit more than most from the Affordable Care Act.

The Boston Globe had a fascinating piece this week, explaining that Gov. Haley Barbour (R), a 2012 presidential candidate, is determined to "throw out the overhaul" of the health care system and reject the improvements that would benefit literally hundreds of thousands of his struggling constituents.

"There's nobody in Mississippi who does not have access to health care,'' Barbour said. "One of the great problems in the conversation is the misimpression that if you don't have insurance, you don't get health care.'' [...]

"Most of the health disparities in Mississippi are not because of the inability to get access or afford health care,'' said Barbour. "They are because of diet, alcohol, because of drugs, the very high incidence of illegitimacy that leads to high incidence of low-birth weight children."

Now, the article is filled with overwhelming evidence that countless families in Mississippi are "falling through the cracks," ineligible for Medicaid but unable to afford private coverage. And because these people can't afford preventive care and/or medication, they routinely fall victim to more serious (and expensive) ailments.

"There is a lot of needless suffering,'' Roy Mitchell, director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, said. "But this is Mississippi. People suffer.''

Of course, they shouldn't, and they don't have to. The Obama administration, through the ACA, is poised to expand Medicaid eligibility in the state, and "will pick up 100 percent of the cost of the Medicaid expansion from 2014 to 2016 and 90 percent of the cost after 2020." Barbour, meanwhile, wants no part of it, no matter how many people will benefit.

Pressed on Barbour's belief that "nobody in Mississippi" lacks "access to health care," the governor's office said was talking about "emergency room procedures."

Of course, having access to an emergency room isn't the exactly same thing as having access to health care.

This comes up from time to time, and Republicans really ought to know better. It's true that under the previous system -- before the Affordable Care Act passed -- if you're uninsured and get sick, there are public hospitals that will treat you. But it's extremely expensive to treat patients this way, and it would be far cheaper, and more medically effective, to pay for preventative care so that people don't have to wait for a medical emergency to seek treatment.

For that matter, when sick people with no insurance go to the E.R. for care, they often can't pay their bills. Since hospitals can't treat sick patients for free, the costs are passed on to everyone else.

In other words, it's the most inefficient system of socialized medicine ever devised.

And yet, Republicans keep praising it. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) told Fox News last year, "The fact is a lot of people that don't have insurance are getting [care] right now. They're not denied in the emergency rooms." Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) made a nearly identical case in 2009, and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was thinking along the same lines a month prior. In July '09, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked about the 47 million Americans who go without health insurance, McConnell replied, "Well, they don't go without health care," because they can just go to the emergency room.

In 2008, the conservative who shaped John McCain's health care policy said anyone with access to an emergency room effectively has insurance. The year before, Tom DeLay argued, "[N]o American is denied health care in America," because everyone can go to the emergency room. Around the same time, George W. Bush said the same thing: "[P]eople have access to health care in America. After all, you just go to an emergency room." In 2004, then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said our healthcare system "could be defined as universal coverage," because of emergency rooms.

It's a dumb argument. That it remains a staple of Republican rhetoric only adds insult to injury.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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KARL ROVE'S ALTERNATE REALITY.... One of the more common arguments from conservative members of Congress lately is that they don't want to raise the debt ceiling because, as they see it, the budget mess isn't the GOP's fault. "We're here mopping up their spilled milk, to be honest," freshman Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) recently said.

Karl Rove, not surprisingly, is thinking along the same lines.

A vote to raise the debt ceiling is an acknowledgment of past actions -- in this case Mr. Obama's massive spending since coming to office. Republicans are not to be blamed for Mr. Obama's spending.

I don't expect the editors at the Wall Street Journal to have standards for accuracy at all, but Rove has to realize such breathtaking nonsense is bound to get some attention.

There are no ambiguities here; the truth is indisputable. It was Rove's White House that demanded massive tax cuts, and it was his party that added the costs to the national debt. They then chose to finance the war in Afghanistan by adding the costs to the national debt. They then put the costs of the war in Iraq onto the national debt. Rove's White House demanded a massive expansion of the government's role in health care, Medicare Part D, and piled all of its costs right onto the national debt, and then backed the financial industry bailout, and added the bill to the national debt.

In December, it was Rove's party that refused to allow for a middle-class tax cut unless it included more expensive breaks for the wealthiest people in America. The entire package cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and by Republican design, all of the costs were added to the national debt

Indeed, GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, reflecting on the last decade when his party added trillions to the debt entirely on their own, recently said it was an era in which "it was standard practice not to pay for things." It was, of course, the Republican Party that came up with this "standard practice."

All the while, GOP policymakers had no qualms about voting to raise the debt limit, and never once held it hostage.

Am I saying that the budget mess is entirely the fault of Bush, Cheney, and shameless hacks like Karl Rove? Actually, yes, that's pretty much what I'm saying. Responding to some of the other crises the Bush administration left behind, the Obama administration added some costs to the deficit, but by any sane measure, these costs were (a) necessary, (b) effective, and (c) quite minor in the larger fiscal picture.

Rove, meanwhile, ought to be begging Americans to forgive him for his role in this fiasco, not trying to shift the blame where it doesn't belong. David M. Walker, the former comptroller general who served from 1998 through 2008, recently reflected on Rove's former boss: "There's no question in my view that Bush was the most fiscally irresponsible president in the history of the republic."

"A vote to raise the debt ceiling is an acknowledgment of past actions"? That's true, though Rove doesn't have the courage to acknowledge which "past actions" are at issue here.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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GOP DEMANDING RESTRICTIONS THAT WOULD BLOCK ITS OWN AGENDA.... Congressional Republicans are making a couple of sweeping demands at the same time, and it's important to appreciate the extent to which they contradict each other.

On the one hand, the GOP is pushing a radical budget agenda that would gut entitlements and other domestic priorities, while cutting taxes for the wealthy. The plan is both cruel and fraudulent, burdened by numbers that don't add up.

On the other hand, the GOP is also executing a reckless hostage strategy, vowing to block a debt-limit extension, and do critical damage to the economy in the process, unless it receives structural "reforms." And what might they include? Truly ridiculous ideas such as statutory spending caps, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, and a new required supermajority for tax and debt-limit increases.

But there's a catch -- if Republicans succeed on the latter, they can't have the former. Ezra Klein explained this very well.

House Republicans voted to make the Ryan budget law. But the Ryan budget includes $6 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years, which means that to become law, the Ryan budget would require a substantial increase in the debt ceiling. But before the Republicans agree to increase the debt ceiling so that the budget they passed can become law, Republicans are demanding the passage of either a balanced budget amendment that would make the Ryan budget unconstitutional or a spending cap that the Ryan budget would, in certain years (and if you're using more realistic numbers, in all years), exceed.

The point? Republicans have done a lot more thinking about how to run against spending, debt and deficits than thinking about how to handle them going forward. The specific plan they voted for blows through both their spending and debt caps, and that's if you grant a series of assumptions it makes about health-care spending that even conservative wonks agree are "magical." You simply can't run the government under the sorts of targets Republicans are endorsing, and if you look at their budget, you'll realize that some of them, at least, know that.

Exactly. We're talking about Republican leaders who don't understand the basics of their own strategy. They're calling for procedural and structural changes that would make any kind of progressive government impossible for decades, blissfully unaware of the fact that these same changes would also prohibit passage of their own budget plan.

Similarly, the GOP message is so incoherent, it's driven poor Matt Miller to the edge of some kind of breakdown: "[D]ebt limit mania has driven me to a similar frenzied state [to the one seen in 'The Shining']. If my wife came across my manuscript it would read, 'The House Republican budget adds $6 trillion to the debt in the next decade yet the GOP is balking at raising the debt limit. The House Republican budget adds $6 trillion to the debt in the next decade yet the GOP is balking at raising the debt limit.'"

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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WHEN POLITIFACT BECOMES POLITIFALSE.... Independent fact-checking outlets play an important part of the political discourse, or at least have the potential to. With a lot of figures making all kinds of claims, voters should have reliable sources they can turn to in order to help separate fact from fiction. Ideally, this would even create an incentive for more honesty -- politicians might be less likely to lie if they knew there was a price to getting caught.

All of this breaks down when the independent fact-checking outlets are themselves wrong.

A couple of days ago, we discussed the new ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), featuring seniors forced to tackle jobs they wouldn't otherwise do -- selling lemonade, mowing lawns, and stripping -- in order to have money for their health care. The spot is funny, but the message is serious: "Seniors will have to find $12,500 for health care ... because Republicans voted to end Medicare."

PolitiFact, ostensibly one of the more trustworthy fact-checkers, argues that the DCCC's claim isn't just wrong, it's "pants on fire" wrong -- the worst designation the outlet can make, pointing to deliberate and flagrant dishonesty.

Yes, the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have said they are strongly opposed to the plan.

But to say the Republicans voted to end Medicare, as the ad does, is a major exaggeration. All seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal, and the program's budget would increase every year.

The report added that the PolitiFact fact-checkers would have been happier if the DCCC said Republicans had voted to end Medicare "as we know it." The qualifier makes it true; the absence of the qualifier, apparently, makes it pants-on-fire false.

This is analysis is deeply flawed. PolitiFact has to know better.

Medicare is a single-payer health care system offering guaranteed benefits to seniors. The House Republican budget plan intends to do away with the existing system and replace it with something very different -- a privatized voucher plan. It would still be called "Medicare," but it wouldn't be Medicare.

It seems foolish to have to parse the meaning of the word "end," but if there's a program, and it's replaced with a different program, proponents brought an end to the original program. That's what the verb means.

As for PolitiFact's claim that funding for the new "Medicare" vouchers "would increase," that's true, but it's also misleading -- the value of the voucher wouldn't keep up with escalating health care costs, creating new financial burdens on the elderly. It's the one of the keys to understanding the whole controversy.

And that's just the most glaring flaw in the PolitiFact report. It also offers misleading analysis related to CBO data and makes dubious complaints about when the new GOP-imposed burdens will apply to the elderly.

The DCCC's ad is accurate. It puts a little partisan spin on its message, but characterizing the spot as egregiously dishonest is absurd.

When an outlet puts "fact" in its name, the standards are especially high. In this case, PolitiFact fell far short.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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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:

* With the deadline for filing signatures in Wisconsin nearly here, it looks like we'll see a whopping eight recall elections for sitting state senators this year. Five Republicans will face challenges, and as of this morning, the GOP believes it has enough signatures to force recall elections against three Democrats.

* Speaking of Wisconsin, JoAnne Kloppenburg, trailing by 7,316 votes, is calling for a recount in the state Supreme Court race. Incumbent Judge David Prosser has, not surprisingly, denounced the move, though he was moving forward with recount efforts of his own when it looked like he had lost.

* This morning, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson launched a Republican presidential campaign at an event in New Hampshire. The former two-term governor is known for his quirky libertarian views, which include opposition to child-labor laws and criminalization of marijuana.

* Former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) announced he's running to be state attorney general next year. The significance of that is, the party hoped he'd seek a rematch in the 8th congressional district.

* The DSCC narrowly outraised the NRSC in the first quarter, $11.6 million to $11.2 million.

* The DNC raised $20.6 million for the quarter, about $3 million more than the RNC's total.

* Not that he would have been a contender anyway, but former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) announced last night he will not run for president in 2012. He instead intends to run a deficit -reduction organization.

* And in Alaska, a year after an upset victory in a Republican Senate primary, right-wing lawyer Joe Miller finds himself deeply unpopular in his adopted home state. New survey data shows 73% of Alaskans view Miller unfavorably, which may make a race against Sen. Mark Begich (D) an uphill climb.

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

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THE LATTER HALF OF 'REPEAL AND REPLACE'.... Health care policy has consistently been tricky for congressional Republicans. Last year, they said they agreed with more than 80% of the Affordable Care Act plan, only to later conclude that it was the worst piece of legislation in American history, and they would fight until the end of time to repeal it.

Immediately after taking back the House majority, GOP officials voted to eliminate the entirety of the reform law, as part of their vaunted "repeal and replace" strategy. As Republicans argued at the time, they'd scrap the ACA, and replace it with a superior policy that Americans would just love.

So, where is this long-awaited Republican health care plan? It's good to see Jonathan Bernstein is staying on top of this.

Exactly three months ago today, House Republicans promised that they would follow up on their vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act by offering their own solutions to replace it. In a USA Today Op ed on January 20th, they promised to hold hearings, draft legislation, and promote specific remedies to the health care problems they agreed need to be addressed.

We're still waiting.

The January Op ed came right after the House vote to repeal Obama's health reform law, and in it, Republicans pledged that repeal was only the opening move in a repeal-and-replace agenda: "Repeal is the first, not the last step. Compassionate, innovative and job-creating health care reform is what's next."

Well, a compassionate, innovative and job-creating health care reform plan sounds pretty great. I don't imagine Republicans would vow to produce such a proposal, and then fail to follow through, would they?

Let's also not forget that this isn't the first time. In the summer of 2009, GOP leaders said they could come up with a health care plan that was much better than the Democratic proposal, and "guaranteed" one would be forthcoming. Republicans proceeded to work behind closed doors for five months on a policy that 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."

After five months of delays, Republicans unveiled the plan quietly, and then quickly forgot about it.

The truth, though the GOP would be loath to admit it, is two-fold. First, these guys just don't have the policy chops to craft a credible health care plan. Hell, they don't have the chops to even speak intelligently and honestly about why they don't like the other side's health care plan, so the idea of them writing their own alternative is rather silly.

Second, if Republicans did try to come up with a compelling policy, they'd quickly realize meaningful reform would include federal regulations and public spending. Since ideology trumps pragmatism on the right, they'd end up finding their own plan philosophically objectionable.

In the meantime, though, there's no harm in keeping the pressure on. The GOP promised a health care policy. Where is it?

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE RANSOM NOTE MAKES STRUCTURAL, PROCEDURAL DEMANDS.... Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) said the other day he's prepared to reject raising the debt ceiling unless it's tied to "serious spending reforms."

It's unclear if Brown knows what the debt ceiling is, or what his desired "reforms" might include. It's also unclear why a so-called moderate would threaten to destroy the economy as part of a hostage strategy.

But the simple senator from Massachusetts nevertheless raised a point worth watching as the debate proceeds. As we move closer to a dangerous standoff over the debt limit, Republicans aren't just talking about spending cuts. In some ways, this would be much easier if they were.

Rather, as the ransom note starts to get filled in with specifics, we're talking about structural and procedural changes. Republicans, in other words, will shoot the hostage (the economy) unless Democrats agree to make it all but impossible to make investments, not just now, but also in the future.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said the other day that he can go along with a Gang of Six plan if policymakers "develop a way to make sure you can't cheat on the caps, on both mandatory and discretionary spending." The same morning, Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) said he'd risk a global catastrophe without "something structural on this spending side."

Yesterday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), whose comments on this issue in recent weeks have bordered on idiotic, went even further, declaring that Republicans "will not grant their request for a debt limit increase" unless the party's structural demands are met, even if that means deliberately destroying the economy.

The Virginia Republican's missive is a clear escalation in the long-running Washington spending war, with no less than the full faith and credit of the United States hanging in the balance.

In the most recent budget battle -- over a six-month spending bill -- Republican leaders carefully avoided threatening to shut down the government. Now, Cantor says he's ready to plunge the nation into default if the GOP's demands are not met. People close to Cantor say that he hopes to make clear that small concessions from Democrats, including President Barack Obama, will not be enough to deliver the GOP on a debt increase.

What might structural changes look like? Republicans are floating a variety of radical ideas, including "statutory spending caps, a balanced budget amendment and a two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases and debt limit increases."

All of these ideas are hopelessly insane. The caps represents one of the worst ideas I've ever heard; a balanced budget amendment is the dumbest proposed constitutional change since Prohibition; and requiring supermajorities is so breathtakingly irresponsible, it's unsettling that Republicans aren't kidding.

The point, though, is that Republicans aren't just looking for a few cuts. The debate about whether to cut $33 billion or $39 billion is clearly over. GOP officials are now looking at doing long-term damage to the political and budget process, making changes that would tie policymakers' hands, be hard to undo, and make it impossible for the nation to respond to future challenges.

And if they don't get at least some of these changes, Republicans will do irreparable harm.

Remember, Democratic leaders, GOP leaders, the Federal Reserve, Treasury officials, economists of all stripes, Wall Street, and Big Business lobbying powerhouses all say the same thing: Congress has to raise the debt ceiling, very soon, or we'll all face dire consequences.

As of yesterday, Eric Cantor, in effect, declared, "I don't care."

Just a couple of years after Democrats helped drag the economy out of the ditch the GOP drove into, the new House GOP majority is threatening to drag us right back down. This time, they're willing to do so on purpose.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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AN EERILY FAMILIAR POWER STRUCTURE.... For the better part of two years, the Republican base made it clear it prefers a certain kind of far-right candidate. These activists demanded "insurgents" and "outsiders," who have no use for the entrenched Washington establishment and its corrupt power structure.

And six months after the midterms that swept many of the activists' favorite right-wing candidates into the halls of Congress, this new breed of Republicans looks an awful lot like the old breed.

Many of the Republican freshmen in the House won election vowing to shake up Washington, so it's a little surprising that many of them seem to be playing an old Washington game: raising much of their campaign money from corporate political action committees.

More than 50 members of the class of 87 GOP freshmen took in more than $50,000 from PACs during the first quarter of 2011, according to new campaign disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Eighteen of the lawmakers took in more than $100,000.

Rep. Steve Stivers (Ohio) accepted the most PAC dollars of any of the new Republican lawmakers, $241,000 in the first quarter, or about 60 percent of the money he raised.

This comes the same day as a Politico report that notes many of the far-right freshman Republicans are already using their offices to do things "the Washington way." That means "using a legislative process they once railed against as a way to assist donors, protect favored industries or settle scores with their political enemies." These efforts include steps that look an awful lot like "payback for benefactors," with nine GOP freshmen offering "targeted proposals that would assist major donors or supportive industries or bills that would hurt labor adversaries."

Remember, this Congress has only been in session for three months. Usually, it takes a while for a new Republican majority to settle in and start making ethically-sketchy moves -- but these guys are already pushing the envelope.

What's more, we're also seeing several Tea Party Republicans hiring corporate lobbyists to help oversee their congressional offices, and are going back to letting lobbyists write legislation.

I'm curious, is this what the anti-establishment Tea Party crowd had in mind?

Steve Benen 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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STATISTIC OF THE DAY.... A New York Times/CBS News poll released this morning doesn't exactly portray rank-and-file Republicans in a positive light.

[The poll] showed that Republicans who are considering making presidential bids will have to woo a party that largely identifies with the Tea Party movement -- more than half of Republican voters said they considered themselves Tea Party supporters -- and has questions about President Obama's origin of birth.

A plurality of Republican voters, 47 percent, said they believed Mr. Obama, who was born in Hawaii, was born in another country; 22 percent said they did not know where he was born, and 32 percent said they believed he was born in the United States.

I might be able to spin this into a less-depressing result, noting that many of these Republican voters aren't aware of the natural-born citizen language in the Constitution, and may not appreciate the extent to which they're buying into a ridiculous, arguably racist, conspiracy theory with no foundation in reality.

But frankly, the effort not to believe the worst about the GOP base is a tough sell. When 47% of Republicans, literally years after the birther garbage was debunked, believe the president was born in another country, it reinforces the notion that there's a deeply ugly strain of madness that runs through Republican politics.

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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BUDGET FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS.... Many of you are no doubt familiar with the classic Monty Python sketch from 1972 called the "Argument Clinic," which, as regular readers know, is one of my favorites. It goes like this: a man who enjoys a good, substantive debate goes to a business that ostensibly provides one, but after paying his fee, he quickly discovers that the man on the other side of the desk simply contradicts literally everything he says.

The customer, exasperated, eventually tries to explain, "An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition." His adversary replies ,"No, it isn't." He tries again, saying, "Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes." After a short pause, the antagonist responds, "No, it isn't."

A little too often, the "Argument Clinic" sketch reminds me of efforts to engage conservative Republicans in any kind of discourse. Take the debate over the House budget plan, approved last week.

Reasonable observers note that the plan privatizes Medicare. "No, it doesn't," the right responds. Those relying on reality add that Medicare would be replaced with vouchers. "No, it wouldn't," conservative reply.

And the GOP budget plan slashes taxes for the wealthy. "No, it doesn't," the right responds. Take this recent Charles Krauthammer column, for example.

The final charge -- cutting taxes for the rich -- is the most scurrilous.... Ryan's plan is classic tax reform -- which even Obama says the country needs: It broadens the tax base by eliminating loopholes that, in turn, provide the revenue for reducing rates.

Now, there's ample evidence that the House Republican budget plan actually cuts taxes to the tune of $2.9 trillion over the course of the next decade, benefiting the wealthy almost exclusively. Krauthammer and others effectively argue, "Don't worry, it's deficit neutral because for every dollar in tax cuts, the GOP closes a tax loophole."

Which tax loopholes? Well, Republicans haven't really said. Are there really $2.9 trillion in loopholes just waiting to be closed? They haven't answered that one, either.

If we're going to proceed with a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition, the fact that the GOP plan cuts taxes for the rich really isn't in dispute.

Jon Chait had a lengthy item on this yesterday, which is well worth reading.

First, the argument simply reflects a legitimate difference in baselines.... When President Obama accuses Ryan of cutting taxes for the rich, he's using the post-2012 baseline. I consider that the best point of reference because the most important force in our political system is inertia. Given our multiple veto points, it takes great effort to enact a policy change that the parties disagree upon. Ryan proposes to make that change. Therefore, I think it's fair to describe him as "cutting taxes," even if revenues did remain at present levels (which I dispute, but more on that later.) I do think there's merit in both baselines. The argument that Obama is lying about Ryan -- that calling him a tax-cutter is, in Krauthammer's characteristically understated phrasing, "scurrilous" -- rests upon the assumption that the current-policy baseline is not only more preferable but the only remotely honest point of reference. That seems like a huge stretch.

Second, even if we accept Ryan's preferred baseline, his description of his plan is hard to accept at face value. Tax reform is a trade where you take away deductions (that's hard) and use the money to reduce rates (that's easy.) The rate reductions are specified. The reduced deductions aren't. Another way to put this is that Ryan has proposed a specific tax cut that would benefit the affluent, accompanied by utterly vague promises to find offsets. At the very least, the rate-lowering portion ought to carry more weight than the deduction-closing portion.

Third, even if we accept both Ryan's baseline and assume he will match every dollar in lost revenue from the rate cuts with another dollar in reduced deductions, he will almost certainly wind up cutting taxes for the rich relative even to the post-Bush tax code.

And this doesn't even count the tax increases that would kick in if Republicans repealed the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, which is another part of the budget plan.

If Ryan and his allies want to argue that these tax cuts are a good idea anyway, we can have the debate. If they want to argue that the vast majority of Americans, who want taxes on the wealthy to go up, are wrong, we can argue about that, too.

But simply insisting that a massive package of tax cuts isn't a massive package of tax cuts isn't part of any intellectual process.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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OBAMA MAKES IT PLAIN AT FACEBOOK TOWNHALL.... President Obama, for whatever reason, hasn't done a lot of town-hall events in recent months, and that was probably a mistake. He's done two this week, and it's offered us a reminder that when the president steps away from a podium and has conversations with people, Obama's actually pretty good at this stuff.

In fact, free from a formal script, the president also seems more inclined to speak his mind in a less-guarded way.

President Obama on Wednesday opened a Western front in his war against House Republicans' budget, telling an appreciative audience at Facebook headquarters here that the plan is radical, short-sighted and would reduce annual federal deficits at the expense of the nation's poor and powerless.

In a town-hall-style forum with the 26-year-old Facebook chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, Mr. Obama seized on a question about the House-passed budget to mount a long, withering indictment. The questioner, an employee of the social networking company, noted that some news media accounts suggested that the sponsor of the Republican budget, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, is "bold and brave" for proposing the deep spending cuts.

"The Republican budget that was put forward I would say is fairly radical," Mr. Obama said. "And I wouldn't call it particularly courageous." He added: "I do think Mr. Ryan is sincere. I think he's a patriot. I think he wants to solve a real problem, which is our long-term deficit. But I think that what he and the other Republicans in the House of Representatives also want to do is change our social compact in a pretty fundamental way."

"Nothing is easier," Mr. Obama said, "than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, or people who are powerless and don't have lobbyists or don't have clout."

In case you're curious -- I know I was -- the president had not previously used the word "radical" when describing the Republican House budget plan. He'd been deeply critical, both in last week's speech and at the town-hall event in Virginia, but Obama was even more candid yesterday.

I mention this, not only because I like and agree with the accurate rhetoric, but also because it suggests the president has been unfazed by Republican and media criticism. For much of the last week, the message has been that Obama has been "too mean" in response to the GOP agenda, and should be more conciliatory to avoid hurting Republicans' feelings.

If yesterday was any indication, the president isn't especially concerned with conservative sensibilities. Indeed, referring specifically to the Ryan agenda, Obama added, "[W]hat his budget proposal does is not only hold income tax flat, he actually wants to further reduce taxes for the wealthy, further reduce taxes for corporations, not pay for those, and in order to make his numbers work, cut 70 percent out of our clean energy budget, cut 25 percent out of our education budget, cut transportation budgets by a third. I guess you could call that bold. I would call it shortsighted. "

If you missed yesterday's event, the transcript is well worth reading. Pay particular attention to Obama's talk about how the debt issue became a problem, his vision on immigration and energy, his reemphasis on protecting Medicare from far-right privatization efforts, and his calls for Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy.

I don't know how much of the public sees events like these, and what kind of reach the message has, but the more the president participates in these discussions, the better.

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

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April 20, 2011

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

* Libya: "Italy and France said Wednesday they would join Britain in sending military advisers to aid beleaguered rebel fighters in Libya, marking another step toward deeper European involvement in the Libyan uprising as NATO struggles to break the stalemate there without directly joining the fight on the ground. The Obama administration has notified Congress that it will send $25 million worth of 'non-lethal' military equipment directly to the Libyan opposition, including vehicles, fuel trucks, ambulances and medical equipment, body armor, binoculars and radios."

* Hetherington: "Tim Hetherington, the conflict photographer who was a director and producer of the film 'Restrepo,' was killed in the besieged city of Misurata on Wednesday, and three photographers working beside him were wounded. The wounds to two of the photographers -- Chris Hondros and Guy Martin -- were severe, according to Andre Liohn, a colleague at the triage center where they were being treated Wednesday night."

* Housing: "Existing home sales rose slightly in March after plunging in February, but the housing market still shows no real momentum even though interest rates and home prices remain relatively low."

* That's not good: "A White House plane carrying Michelle Obama came dangerously close to a 200-ton military cargo jet and had to abort its landing at Andrews Air Force Base on Monday as the result of an air traffic controller's mistake, according to federal officials familiar with the incident."

* At a town-hall meeting in his own district, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was booed defending tax breaks for the wealthy.

* Dahlia Lithwick offers a fascinating look at the legal state of Roe v Wade in the context of the larger abortion-rights debate.

* Shuttle launch: "President Obama and his family will attend the final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour on April 29, and perhaps join Representative Gabrielle Giffords if she is able to watch as her husband, the astronaut Mark E. Kelly, leads the mission into space, administration officials confirmed on Wednesday."

* Monday's freak-out notwithstanding, Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee noted that many of his congressional colleagues "had never heard of Standard & Poor's before" this week.

* Congratulations to this year's recipients of Hillman Foundation awards, including Jessica Valenti and the amazing team at Feministing.com, and Slate's Tim Noah for his exceptional series on income inequality.

* It should easier, not harder, for military veterans to take advantage of the education benefits they've earned and were promised.

* And yesterday, MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan hosted right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart for a bizarre conversation that ended up generating quite a bit of attention. It might be a while before Ratigan's reputation recovers from this one.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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GETTING BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS.... It's been exactly a year since the BP oil spill crisis began in the Gulf of Mexico, and despite progress, the region still hasn't fully recovered.

BP, however, appears to be feeling a little better. Indeed, the oil giant hasn't forgotten the fact that the Republican Party took its side through much of the ordeal, and is now rewarding its allies accordingly.

BP is doling out the cash again to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The company at the center of the storm in last year's Gulf of Mexico spill sent out its first checks for the 2012 election cycle in March totaling $29,000. They went almost entirely to the campaigns of a handful of House Republican leaders.

BP's political action committee has been quite generous, directing $5,000 contributions to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). BP North America's political action committee sent another $5,000 to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) -- though, to his credit, Upton later said he would give the money back -- and $1,000 to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

What's more, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee each accepted $5,000 from BP.

The oil company, it's worth noting, tried to make contributions before the 2010 midterms, but candidates were afraid of a political backlash and declined the donations.

I guess the embarrassing period has passed?

For context, also keep in mind that just last month, congressional Republicans defeated a Democratic effort to end lucrative subsidies to extremely-profitable oil companies.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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CONSERVATIVES FOR HIGHER MIDDLE-CLASS TAXES.... Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) talked to ABC's George Stephanopoulos this morning, and while most of the attention focused on her "birther" comments, Bill Scher flagged the far more important exchange.

The "Good Morning America" host noted the massive public support for raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year. Bachmann rejected the popular idea, and instead suggested the middle class should be expected to pay more.

BACHMANN: If we taxed 100 percent of what everyone made who make $250,000 or more -- everything they made -- that would get us about six months worth of revenue.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But every bit helps, doesn't it?

BACHMANN: Well, but it wouldn't be enough. I think that's what's shocking. We could take 100 percent of the profits of every Fortune 500 company and that would give us 40 days worth of revenue. We could also take 100 percent of everything that the billionaires in this country own, and that wouldn't be enough to solve the problem.

So it's really a matter of having everyone involved. Part of the problem, George, is that 47 percent of all Americans pay virtually no federal income tax, so we need to broaden the base.

For the record, I haven't the foggiest idea if Bachmann's statistics about the wealthy and Fortune 500 profits are accurate. Given her track record, I'd be cautious about accepting them at face value -- the strange Minnesota congresswoman has a habit of just making stuff up, pretending to understand things she's actually quite confused about.

The more important element to this is that Bachmann sees it as a "problem" that so many Americans don't earn enough money to pay income taxes. When the Republican lawmaker talks about "broadening the base," she means increasing the tax burden on low- and middle-income families.

Let's set the record straight. When conservatives talk about nearly 47% of the country paying no income taxes, the argument tends to overlook relevant details -- such as the fact that these same Americans still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare/Medicaid taxes, and in many instances, property taxes.

It's not as if these folks are getting away with something -- the existing tax structure leaves them out of the income tax system because they don't make enough money to qualify.

Moreover, let's appreciate the underlying point of the "problem" Bachmann wants to correct -- for all the talk on the right about cutting taxes at every available opportunity, there's also a desire to raise taxes on those who can least afford it. The GOP has a natural revulsion to any tax system, but there's an eerie comfort with a regressive agenda that showers additional wealth on the rich -- Bachmann supported the House GOP budget last week, that slashes tax rates for millionaires and billionaires -- while asking for more from lower-income workers.

In fact, the drive on the right to increase the burdens on these low- and middle-income families is getting kind of creepy. Some on the far-right have begun calling these Americans "parasites." Last year, Fox News' Steve Doocy went so far as to ask whether those who don't make enough to qualify for income taxes should even be allowed to vote.

But maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps the best solution is to simply have the debate. The Republican vision is to cut taxes by trillions for the very wealthy, while addressing "the problem" of getting middle-class workers to pay more. The Democratic vision is to increase taxes on the rich, at least a little, while leaving the rates the same for everyone else.

If Bachmann wants to take this case to the public, I don't imagine Dems would mind.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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THE KOCHS' OTHER ELECTION PROPAGANDA.... The infamous Koch brothers were responsible for financing all kinds of election propaganda in advance of the 2010 midterms, mainly through its campaign attack operation, Americans for Prosperity.

But there was another level of election propaganda we didn't see. It was directed at the far-right billionaires' employees.

On the eve of the November midterm elections, Koch Industries sent an urgent letter to most of its 50,000 employees advising them on whom to vote for and warning them about the dire consequences to their families, their jobs and their country should they choose to vote otherwise.

The Nation obtained the Koch Industries election packet for Washington State -- which included a cover letter from its president and COO, David Robertson; a list of Koch-endorsed state and federal candidates; and an issue of the company newsletter, Discovery, full of alarmist right-wing propaganda.

Legal experts interviewed for this story called the blatant corporate politicking highly unusual, although no longer skirting the edge of legality, thanks to last year's Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which granted free speech rights to corporations. [...]

"This sort of election propaganda seems like a new development," says UCLA law professor Katherine Stone, who specializes in labor law and who reviewed the Koch Industries election packet for The Nation. "Until Citizens United, this sort of political propaganda was probably not permitted. But after the Citizens United decision, I can imagine it'll be a lot more common, with restrictions on corporations now lifted."

I remember an incident from October in which an individual McDonald's franchise owner in Ohio included voting instructions to his employees with their paychecks. This was a fairly big story, and reeked of voter intimidation, leading to a written apology.

But that was just one fast-food place with a modest staff; Koch Industries is something else entirely.

A month before Election Day, Koch's COO told company employees, "As Koch company employees, we have a lot at stake in the upcoming election. Each of us is likely to be affected by the outcome on Nov. 2. That is why, for the first time ever, we are mailing our newest edition of Discovery and several other helpful items to the home address of every U.S. employee." This included a list of candidates, nearly all Republicans, the company believed would "advance policies supporting economic freedom."

How "helpful."

Employees were also told if the chosen candidates lost, "the overwhelming majority of the American people will be much worse off if government overspending is allowed to bankrupt the country."

The Nation talked to some experts who could think of no modern examples of similar corporate electioneering, but the consensus seemed to be that, post Citizens United, this is legally permissible.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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AT THIS POINT IN 1983.... There's quite a bit of new polling out lately showing hypothetical match-ups, pitting President Obama against the leading Republican candidates. In general, the president fares pretty well against the GOP field, though the margins against some Republicans are fairly modest.

But before anyone takes any of these results too seriously, I'd point to this Dave Weigel item, quoting a New York Times article that ran on March 23, 1983.

If the 1984 Presidential election were being held today, either former Vice President Walter F. Mondale or Senator John Glenn would defeat any of the leading Republicans, according to the Gallup Poll.

Both hold modest margins over President Reagan and comfortable leads over Vice President Bush and the Senate majority leader, Howard H. Baker Jr., the two Republicans with the most current support in their party if Mr. Reagan was not to run.

When 1,156 registered voters were asked last month whom they would prefer, Mr. Mondale led Mr. Reagan by 47 percent to 41 percent, with the rest undecided. Mr. Glenn led the President by 45 percent to 40 percent.

This is, by the way, roughly the same point in the election cycle we're at now.

In fact, it's worth adding some additional context to this. The reason the Gallup poll tested the support of other Republican candidates was that there were some questions as to whether Reagan would even seek re-election. He wasn't just unpopular at this point in 1983, and wasn't just trailing the leading Democrats, Reagan was also considered vulnerable to a Republican primary challenger. It's why Gallup polled Baker and Bush -- they weren't sure Reagan would be on the ballot.

After the 1982 midterms, a cycle in which many GOP candidates didn't want to be seen with Reagan, many conservatives either wanted the president to either announce he wouldn't run again, or prepare to face a Republican opponent in 1984.

If memory serves, Reagan won 49 states the next year.

Modern-day Republicans tend to be rather uncomfortable with all of this, not because it's wrong, but because it's inconsistent with the myth they've worked so hard to sell. Reagan wasn't universally loved at all times? Party leaders worried that Reagan was in over his head and wasn't up to the job? Well, yes.

Then the economy got better.

And that's why it's hard to get worked up about 2012 horse-race polls. Over the next year and a half, a stronger economy will bolster Obama's standing and make him a safe bet for a second term. A weaker economy will put the president's career in jeopardy. This isn't rocket science.

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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IGNORING 'THE AMERICAN PEOPLE'.... Following up on an earlier item, several recent national polls have shown overwhelming opposition to the Republican agenda, most notably GOP plans to eliminate Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher system.

My question for Republicans, then, is whether they still prioritize public opinion the way they did during the health care fight. After all, during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, GOP officials said opposition to the measure in the polls was all that mattered.

To bolster this point, a Democratic source today emailed an interesting list of quotes from the health care fight.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas):

"The American people don't want this bill, but our Democrat friends seem determined to jam it down their throat regardless, and I think there are going to be some very serious consequences."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.):

"The American people thoroughly reject it. So, if [President Obama] is listening to the American people, they've said no to his bill."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):

"The American people are very smart. That's why two thirds of them want either stop or start over."

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.):

"What we are trying to do is find out why the president wants to continue to ignore the American people."

Either polls matter or they don't. Either Republicans believe policymakers should honor public wishes or they don't.

But they can't, or at least shouldn't, have it both ways. Americans clearly reject the Republican agenda, especially on Medicare, but GOP leaders are pressing ahead anyway. Shouldn't this be about the time that Eric Cantor wonders why his own party "wants to continue to ignore the American people"?

It was literally just last year when Republicans decided that opinion polls are the single most important factor policymakers should consider, especially when dealing with controversial changes to the status quo. For politicians to simply ignore overwhelming survey data was offensive and arrogant, undermining core American ideals like "consent of the governed." By some accounts, Republicans seriously believed that Democrats and President Obama "perpetrated a breathtaking assault on the body politic by passing a law that did not have widespread public support."

I don't expect Republicans to simply scrap their unpopular budget agenda, but if their rhetoric from 13 months ago was sincere, shouldn't they feel compelled to do just that?

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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THE INDEPENDENT PAYMENT ADVISORY BOARD COMES UNDER FIRE.... Just about everyone, regardless of party or ideology, wants to see steps taken to lower health care costs, especially in Medicare, and expects leading policymakers to step up with creative and constructive ideas.

But the same thing tends to happen when leaders actually put ideas on the table: they're immediately hated and rejected.

Last week, for example, President Obama explained that the nation can "slow the growth of Medicare costs by strengthening an independent commission of doctors, nurses, medical experts, and consumers who will look at all the evidence and recommend the best ways to reduce unnecessary spending while protecting access to the services that seniors need."

He was referring, of course, to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a provision in the Affordable Care Act. This week, we're once again seeing fierce opposition to the worthwhile idea.

Democrats and Republicans are joining to oppose one of the most important features of President Obama's new deficit reduction plan, a powerful independent board that could make sweeping cuts in the growth of Medicare spending.

Mr. Obama wants to expand the power of the 15-member panel, which was created by the new health care law, to rein in Medicare costs.

But not only do Republicans and some Democrats oppose increasing the power of the board, they also want to eliminate it altogether. Opponents fear that the panel, known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board, would usurp Congressional spending power over one of the government's most important and expensive social programs.

Everyone wants to lower costs until someone tries to lower costs.

I can understand why the IPAB idea is contentious, but there's no real scandal here. Paul Krugman explained today, "Arguably the most important thing we can do to limit the growth in health care costs is learning to say no; we cannot afford a system in which Medicare in particular will pay for anything, especially when that's combined with an industry structure that gives providers a strong financial incentive to engage in excessive care."

To address this, the Obama administration wants IPAB to make the difficult decisions, free of the political process on Capitol Hill, precisely because Congress has failed in its ability to make these choices on its own.

This probably seems like an obscure aspect of the larger debate, but it's pretty simple: do lawmakers want to lower Medicare costs or not? If they kill the Independent Payment Advisory Board, and take away one of the single most realistic tools to actually lower costs, what will they replace it with?

Alas, the politics of this are exasperating and counter-productive. Ezra Klein had a good overview on how IPAB addresses a real problem, and why that's causing political problems.

You'd still have the traditional Medicare claimants running to their member of Congress to complain [after IPAB decisions], but now he or she would be able to say, "there's nothing I can do," and, even better, "it's not my fault." IPAB's recommendations can't be amended and they can't be filibustered, so individual members have vastly less control over the process than they traditionally have. All Congress can do is fully replace an IPAB recommendation with a reform that saves the same amount of money or muster both a supermajority and a presidential signature to stop IPAB from acting. Either path requires a lot more effort than undermining cost control does right now.

That's (a) why IPAB is promising and (b) why a lot of members of Congress want to get rid of it and replace it with something that interest groups like better. In that way, the IPAB repeal effort is a useful way of sorting the legislators who want to control Medicare's costs from those who want to preserve their power to keep Medicare's costs from being controlled.

After all the recent talk about "seriousness," it's worth keeping this in mind: those railing against IPAB and Medicare costs at the same time do not deserve to be taken seriously.

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:

* As of yesterday afternoon, Wisconsin Democrats were prepared to file recall petitions against a fourth state Senate Republican, with far more signatures collected than needed. The deadline for recall filings is less than a week away, and while Republicans say they're likely to force one Democrat into a recall election, no paperwork has yet been filed by the GOP.

* Speaking of Wisconsin, the state Governmental Accountability Board, which oversees elections, has found no evidence of wrongdoing in the recent state Supreme Court race. Conservative Justice David Prosser edged past JoAnne Kloppenburg after more than 7,000 votes mysteriously showed up the day after the election.

* We saw further evidence that Jon Huntsman really is serious about his Republican presidential campaign emerged yesterday, when his Horizon PAC hired veteran pollster Whit Ayres.

* A new Democratic group, House Majority PAC, launched tough new radio ads today, targeting 10 vulnerable House Republicans. The ads tell voters that these GOP incumbents voted for a budget plan that will "gut Medicare for our seniors to pay for trillions in new budget-busting tax breaks for millionaires and big corporations."

* After having a little time to evaluate the GOP field, 40% of Republican voters aren't satisfied with their presidential choices.

* A new Quinnipiac poll shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) approval rating dropping to 47% among his constituents. In a match-up against President Obama in the Garden state, the governor trails the president, 52% to 39%.

* It's unclear if former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) will run for president again, but if he does, Public Policy Polling shows him starting with a big lead in the Iowa caucuses.

* Speaking of Iowa, former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack (D) has purchased a home in Ames, as part of an expected congressional campaign against Rep. Steve King (R).

* And in Chicago, Rep. Dan Lipinski has consistently been one of Congress' less-reliable Democrats, and now it may cost him -- John Atkinson, a wealthy insurance executive and health care activist is poised to run a well-financed primary campaign against the Democratic incumbent.

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

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SUPPORT FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY KEEPS GROWING, NOW A MAJORITY VIEW.... The debate has clearly gotten away from the right, and it's only going to get worse.

Support for same-sex marriage has received a boost, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research survey released Tuesday.

The poll indicates that more than half of all Americans believe that marriages between gay or lesbian couples should be legally valid. With 51 percent of respondents saying that same-sex marriages should be legal, it is the first time that a CNN poll has found majority support for same-sex marriage.

To be sure, while this is now the opinion of the American majority, there are predictable divisions. Democrats and independents support marriage equality, but Republicans don't. Americans throughout most of the country endorse same-sex marriage, but those in the South don't. Younger Americans strongly endorse equality, old Americans remain on the other side.

But the trend is unmistakable, and is bolstered by the results in other national polls.

I don't imagine we'll ever see 100% unanimity on this question. There's probably still a tiny percentage of the population that still opposes people of different races or different religions from marrying, too.

But even the most radically anti-gay conservative has to realize that equality is inevitable. As the arc of history continues to bend toward justice, most of the country now believes two consenting adults should be legally permitted to get married if they want to. It's exceptionally unlikely that trend will ever reverse -- civil-rights trajectories simply never move that way. Society becomes less prejudiced, less hateful, and less bigoted over time.

And there's not much the right can do about it.

To be sure, I don't really expect conservatives to just throw in the towel -- they have too much invested in this -- but (a) winning elections by attacking gays is going to be a lot more difficult going forward; and (b) we can safely say marriage equality is only a matter of "when," not "if."

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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BIG BUSINESS TO REPUBLICANS: STOP SCREWING AROUND.... In recent weeks, the financial industry and Wall Street executives have pressed Republican leaders on raising the debt ceiling. As far as the industry is concerned, the GOP not only has to step up and do the responsible thing very soon, Republicans shouldn't even talk about anything to the contrary.

As it turns out, Wall Street isn't the only natural Republican constituency urging the party to stop screwing around.

The Obama administration will likely have the support of major business groups as it works to round up Republican votes for raising the federal debt ceiling.

Groups such as the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) plan to step up their advocacy for a debt-limit increase as the deadline for congressional action draws closer.

Lobbyists for several major trade associations told The Hill that they have already had discussions with first-term House Republicans about the necessity of lifting the debt ceiling to avoid a default on U.S. debt.

For those who don't keep up on the world of D.C. lobbying, it's worth emphasizing that the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers are some of Republicans' closest allies. These business powerhouse organizations tend to be staunch opponents of Democrats and the progressive agenda, and look at the GOP as a close ally, if not a partner.

And all of these business lobbying organizations are telling their Republican friends the same thing: raise the damn debt ceiling.

"We have been very upfront. We support an increase in the debt limit. We need to meet our obligations," said Dorothy Coleman, vice president of tax and domestic economy policy for the NAM. "There is a huge downside to default." [...]

Business lobbyists didn't mince words when describing what could happen to the economy if the country's debt ceiling isn't raised.

"This would be akin to a major international corporation just saying, 'We are not going pay our bills next week' -- but multiply it a thousand-fold, a million-fold," [NAW President Dirk Van Dongen] said.

It's unusual when we see this much unanimity about a controversial policy measure. How often do Democratic leaders, Republican leaders, the Federal Reserve, Treasury officials, economists of all stripes, Wall Street, and Big Business lobbying powerhouses all say they want the same thing at the same time?

With all of this agreement, a resolution should be easy. Indeed, given how infrequently all of these institutions endorse the same idea, this seems like the sort of thing that could be wrapped up in an afternoon.

But when dealing with today's congressional Republicans, nothing is ever easy. There's no firm head-count just yet, but by all appearances, a significant chunk of the House and Senate GOP are willing to ignore the collective judgment of sane, self-interested people everywhere, and instead listen to right-wing activists who don't really know what they're talking about.

Steve Benen 10:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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A DEBT AGREEMENT BY THE END OF JUNE? DON'T COUNT ON IT.... In his speech of debt reduction last week, President Obama talked about bipartisan breakthroughs that have occurred in recent memory: "Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill came together to save Social Security for future generations. The first President Bush and a Democratic Congress came together to reduce the deficit. President Clinton and a Republican Congress battled each other ferociously, disagreed on just about everything, but they still found a way to balance the budget."

With that in mind, in the same speech, Obama noted Vice President Biden "will begin regular meetings" in a few weeks "with leaders in both parties with the aim of reaching a final agreement on a plan to reduce the deficit and get it done by the end of June."

The president mentioned this again yesterday, telling a town-hall audience, "I'm optimistic. I'm hopeful. Both sides have come together before. I believe we can do it again."

Now would be a good time to lower expectations.

The White House's proposed deficit talks with Congress appear to be unraveling before they've even begun.

House and Senate Republican leaders announced Tuesday that their sole appointees to the May 5th meeting would be House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) -- neither of whom are budget leaders and both of whom function largely as political mouthpieces for their party. GOP leaders also each opted to send only one appointee, instead of the requested four, to the meeting.

No matter what one might think of Kyl and Cantor, the truth is, these aren't the two officials a caucus would chose if the goal is doing actual work -- they're not wonks, they don't understand budgets, and they're knee-jerk partisans with no record whatsoever of negotiating in good faith.

Republicans didn't like Simpson/Bowles, they disapproved of Rivlin/Domenici, they hated President Obama's plan because it hurt their feelings, they probably won't care for the Gang of Six plan, and now they're choosing not to take Biden-led discussions seriously.

For a bunch of conservatives who claim to be obsessed with debt reduction, far-right GOP leaders don't seem especially interested in actually working on the issue.

There's probably a good reason for this. As Matt Yglesias noted this morning, we have "conservative politicians refusing to make a serious effort to reach an agreement out of some blend of taxophobia and fear of giving the President a win." That sounds about right.

But whatever the motivation, the notion of Republicans agreeing to any kind of sensible compromise seems remote, if not ridiculous.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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THE POLITICAL THEORY OF EVERYTHING.... In the latest data from the Washington Post/ABC News poll, Americans seem to overwhelmingly agree with President Obama when it comes to a larger policy agenda, but approval of the president is down. They overwhelmingly reject Republican ideas and priorities, but when asked who they trust more when it comes to fiscal responsibility, Americans are split between Obama (45%) and the congressional GOP (44%).

There are similar examples throughout the data, and nearly identical results in the McClatchy-Marist poll released yesterday. Those looking for consistency in public attitudes are going to be disappointed -- polls routinely show Americans making judgments that are contradictory and in conflict with what they say they want.

This is especially true of self-identified political independents, whose opinions often seem entirely incoherent.

Why is this? Kevin Drum had a compelling, albeit unsatisfying, explanation.

This will probably satisfy no one, but I think the answer is pretty simple. First: the vast, vast majority of independents don't really have any idea what Obama's plan to handle the deficit is. They just know that (a) the deficit is high and (b) Obama is president. Beyond that, there are kids to get to school, laundry to be done, bosses to be pleased, and leaky faucets to be fixed. The details of the deficit debate are just a bit of partisan background noise that they haven't really parsed yet.

For all the talk about the common-sense wisdom of the electorate, Kevin is obviously right. It's tempting to ask, after scrutinizing polling data, "Why would these voters want outcome A, and then endorse policies that result in outcome B?" The answer is impolitic, but accurate: it's because these voters often don't understand what it is they have opinions about.

They might hear a little something on the news, or catch a headline that gives them a hint about current events, or maybe overhear a conversation by the water-cooler, but in general folks struggle to keep up on the basics.

We see this all the time. Look at health care polling -- the ACA is unpopular, but if you ask people whether they support the provisions within the law, it's quite popular, indeed. And how can that happen? It's because people have been told that "Obamacare" is bad, even if they don't know what's in it.

Having said all of this, in the budget debate, people's instincts seem fairly sound. Even if they don't know the details, or which party prefers which vision, they want Medicare left intact and see the value in raising taxes on the wealthy. They don't need to read CBO reports to understand these priorities and appreciate why they make sense.

With that in mind, Greg Sargent noted this morning, "Either voters don't know what Obama's proposals are; or they do, but the GOP's success in creating generalized anxiety about Dem overspending continues to dominate; or perhaps all views of Obama are colored by unease about the economy. Whatever the cause, closing this disconnect -- translating support for Obama's policies into confidence in his economic and fiscal leadership -- is perhaps Obama's central political challenge."

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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BY WIDE MARGINS, AMERICANS OPPOSE REPUBLICAN AGENDA.... To hear congressional Republicans tell it, they have their finger on the pulse of public opinion. The "American people" stand behind the far-right GOP agenda, not those rascally Democrats. After seeing the Greek debt crisis on TV, Americans even support slashing entitlements.

It's hard to overstate how hopelessly misguided this is. The American mainstream and congressional Republicans have wildly different priorities and beliefs. If the GOP is working under the assumption that voters love its agenda, the party is making a tragic mistake.

A McClatchy-Marist poll released yesterday found a whopping 80% of the country opposes cutting Medicare or Medicaid as part of a deficit-reduction plan. Even among self-described conservatives, 69% want Congress to leave Medicare and Medicaid alone. What's more, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Americans also support raising taxes on the wealthy. What Americans want, in other words, is the opposite of what Republicans are offering.

New data from the Washington Post-ABC News poll bolsters the point.

Despite growing concerns about the country's long-term fiscal problems and an intensifying debate in Washington about how to deal with them, Americans strongly oppose some of the major remedies under consideration, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey finds that Americans prefer to keep Medicare just the way it is. Most also oppose cuts in Medicaid and the defense budget. More than half say they are against small, across-the-board tax increases combined with modest reductions in Medicare and Social Security benefits. Only President Obama's call to raise tax rates on the wealthiest Americans enjoys solid support.

Opposition to cutting Medicaid is very strong, with 69% against the idea. Opposition to cutting Medicare is even more overwhelming, with 78% opposed. The only popular idea for deficit reduction is "raising taxes on Americans with incomes over 250-thousand dollars a year," which is endorsed by 72% of the country. Even most rank-and-file Republicans agree with the idea.

The same poll, without identifying names or parties, described Paul Ryan's House budget plan, as it relates to Medicare. A 65% majority opposes the agenda, and wants Medicare to stay intact.

What's more a 59% majority wants policymakers to take a balanced approach -- some tax increases, some spending cuts -- to deficit reduction, which is the opposite of what Republicans think.

In 2009, after a massive misinformation campaign undermined public support for health care reform, congressional Republicans decided that opinion polls are the single most important factor policymakers should consider, especially when dealing with controversial changes to the status quo. For politicians to simply ignore overwhelming poll results was offensive and arrogant, undermining core American ideals like "consent of the governed."

Here's a question for those same Republicans, two years later: do you still believe that? And if so, don't you have a responsibility to scrap your wildly unpopular budget plan?

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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POTUS TAKES HIS MESSAGE ON THE ROAD.... President Obama's debt-reduction speech last week was fairly well received by much of the left, in large part because it helped establish a series of contrasts. Congressional Republicans offered a right-wing budget vision, and the president offered a forceful condemnation. The GOP rejects progressive governance, and Obama delivered a spirited defense. Republicans want to eliminate Medicare, and the president ruled out the possibility.

But one speech only helps lay a foundation. It's imperative that Obama keep reinforcing the message, using his bully pulpit and showing the necessary follow through.

To that end, the president hosted a town-hall event in Annandale, Virginia, yesterday. If there were any fears he'd start to back down from last week's stance, they were quickly assuaged -- the contrasts Obama drew last week have become his principal message.

The president again blamed Republicans for the budget mess:

"For a long time, Washington acted like deficits didn't matter. A lot of folks promised us a free lunch. So I think everybody needs to recall, we had a surplus back in 2000, 11 short years ago, but then we cut taxes for everybody, including millionaires and billionaires. We fought two wars and we created a new and expensive prescription drug program, and we didn't pay for any of it."

And demanded tax increases on the wealthy:

"We can't just tell the wealthiest among us, 'You don't have to do a thing. You just sit there and relax, and everybody else, we're going to solve this problem.' Especially when we know that the only way to pay for these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans is by asking seniors to pay thousands of dollars more for their health care, or cutting children out of Head Start, or doing away with health insurance for millions of Americans on Medicaid -- seniors in nursing homes, or poor children, or middle-class families who may have a disabled child, an autistic child. This is not a trade-off that I'm willing to make. It's not a trade-off that I think most Americans think is fair, no matter what party you belong to. That's not who we are as a country. We're better than that."

I saw someone suggest the other day that the president seems to have "found his voice" again. I hope that's true, and it certainly seemed to be the case yesterday.

At the same event, the presiednt went on to explain the value in investing in infrastructure:

"So, yes, we're going to have to save wherever we can; and my proposal makes some tough cuts to some worthy programs and services that if we were in better times I'd continue to fund. But I'll tell you what I'm not going to do. We're not going to reduce the deficit by sacrificing investments in our infrastructure. We're not going to allow our roads and our bridges to grow more and more congested while places like China are building new roads and new airports and thousands of mile of high-speed rail. If we want businesses to locate here in the United States of America and create jobs here, we've got to make sure that America is built to compete. We've got to have the best roads. We've got to have the quickest trains. We have to have the fastest broadband networks. That's who we are."

And ruled out GOP demands for education cuts:

"Finally -- and I know this is near and dear to your hearts -- we're not going to reduce our deficit by cutting education and eliminating college scholarships. In a world where our students face stiff competition from students from other countries, why would we make it harder for you to compete?"

And again denounced the Republican plan to eliminate Medicare:

"The House Republicans just passed a proposal, and their main plan to reduce our long-term deficits and debt is to turn Medicare into a voucher program. What would happen would be that right now seniors, when they get -- once they're on Medicare, you basically are able to get the care that you need and Medicare covers it for you. What would happen under this proposal is you'd get a set amount of money; you could then go out under the private market place and buy insurance, but if the voucher you were getting for $6,000 or $7,000 and the insurance company said it's going to cost you $12,000, well, you're going to have to make up that difference. And so it's estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, which is an independent, bipartisan sort of referee in Congress that determines these things -- they figure that seniors would end up paying twice as much for their health care as they are currently. At least twice as much."

And endorsed raising the Social Security payroll tax:

"The point is, for the vast majority of Americans, every dime you earn, you're paying some in Social Security. But for Warren Buffett, he stops paying at a little bit over $100,000 and then the next $50 billion he's not paying a dime in Social Security taxes. So if we just made a little bit of an adjustment in terms of the cap on Social Security, that would do a significant amount to stabilize the system."

Obama will remain on the road, by the way, participating in a facebook town hall in California today, and another event in Reno, Nevada, tomorrow.

I'd recommend he stick to this message.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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April 19, 2011

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

* Moving well beyond a no-fly zone in Libya: "Britain announced Tuesday it will dispatch experienced military advisers to aid Libyan rebels in organizing their forces, inching toward deeper Western involvement in the two-month-old rebellion against Moammar Gaddafi."

* Syria: "Syria tried to placate protesters with declarations of sweeping reform on Tuesday while also issuing harsh threats of reprisals if demonstrations do not come to an end, as one of the Arab world's most repressive countries struggled to blunt the most serious challenge to the 40-year rule of the Assad family."

* Ignore the S&P: "A day after the nation was given a negative credit outlook, President Obama and the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, on Tuesday defended efforts that the administration was taking to reduce the budget deficit but warned that the process would not be easy."

* On a related note, Paul Krugman reminds folks not to take the S&P "warning" seriously: "People, this was a non-event."

* My favorite response to Standard & Poor's warning -- which is to say, the response that was most in line with my own -- came from Joe Klein: "Hey, weren't you the same guys who gave AAA ratings to the repackaged subprime mortgage-backed securities that, in truth, were utter dreck? And didn't that help cause the 2008 economic collapse? And didn't subsequent accounts reveal that you were in bed with the banks whose products you were supposed to be rating? I mean, you guys are still in business?"

* Mild-mannered economist Alan Blinder blasts the House Republican budget plan, in the Wall Street Journal, no less: "The Ryan plan has received vastly too much praise from people who should know better."

* President Obama hasn't given up on immigration reform, but there's one noticeable problem: voters elected a Republican House.

* It's heartening to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights functioning again.

* Fred Hiatt has run a lot of columns on climate-change denial. He now seems surprised that so many people are receptive to the rhetoric coming from climate-change deniers.

* Daniel Luzer: "It doesn't seem that online courses are really helping to expand learning so much as they're just replacing existing courses with a new, and arguably less effective, method of delivery."

* Terrific political cartoon, capturing the partisan debate over Medicare.

* When racists say, "I am not a racist," they're still racists.

* David Barton, the right's favorite fake historian, actually believes net neutrality is -- get this -- in conflict with the Bible. The deeply strange far-right activist also called net neutrality "wicked" and "socialism on the Internet." It remains unclear if he knows what net neutrality is.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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THE CHILD-LABOR-LAW FIGHT.... There's something disturbing about even having to type that headline. It is, after all, the 21st century, and the very idea that child-labor laws would be subjected to additional debate seems ridiculous.

And yet, here we are. In Maine, the National Employment Law Project and the progressive Maine People's Alliance have a new commercial up, letting voters know, "Gov. Paul LePage wants to roll back child labor laws. He supports legislation to have kids work longer hours, later at night and for less than minimum wage."

The ad happens to be true. As Amanda Terkel explained, new proposals pending in Maine, which enjoy LePage's support, would allow employers to pay workers under 20 well below the minimum wage for their first 180 days on the job. The bills would also change labor laws to allow minors to work later at night, more hours per week, and eliminates "the maximum number of hours a minor 16 years of age or older can work on a school day and allows anyone under the age of 16 to labor for up to four hours on a school day during hours when classes are not in session."

What's more, Ian Millhiser recently noted, there are related, ongoing efforts elsewhere to undermine child-labor laws, including a pending bill in Missouri, and as we talked about in January, a sitting U.S. Senator, Utah's Mike Lee (R), has argued that federal child-labor laws violate the Constitution and shouldn't even exist.

Remember when there were accepted political norms that helped define the American mainstream? Basic policy tenets that both major parties accepted, largely without question?

I don't know when or if those days are coming back.

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE.... If a sports analyst made predictions that were consistently wrong, he or she would quickly lose credibility. If a meteorologist regularly told people the opposite of what to expect from the weather, after a while, folks would stop listening to the meteorologist.

But somehow, Republicans have consistently made faulty economic predictions for about a quarter-century, and not only do they pretend to know what they're talking about, but the media and large swaths of the country keep listening to them.

Steve Kornacki has a fun item today, revisiting the debate over Bill Clinton's economic agenda in 1993, which included a series of spending cuts and tax increases as a way to reduce the deficit after a difficult recession. At the time, prominent GOP leaders -- who are still around, saying the same things -- were quite specific in their predictions.

[T]he GOP succeeded brilliantly in driving up opposition to the Clinton plan. Fearful voters turned against it in polls as they heard about the devastating effects it would have on the economy and their own lives. The hysteria was stoked by literally every Republican on Capitol Hill; not a single GOP member of the House or Senate ended up voting for the plan.

Thanks to the magic of C-Span's video archive, it's easy to revisit the GOP's fear-mongering of '93 -- all of the warnings about the terrible things that would happen if the Clinton budget were ever signed into law.

Kornacki has several entertaining clips, featuring remarks from Newt Gingrich (current presidential candidate), John Kasich (current Ohio governor), and a parade of like-minded Republican lawmakers, all of whom were certain Clinton -- a president whose legitimacy they questioned from Day One -- was making a drastic mistake. Gingrich went so far as to predict, "I believe this will lead to a recession next year. This is the Democrat [sic] machine's recession. And each one of them will be held personally accountable."

I like the idea of politicians being "held personally accountable" for the accuracy of projections. Indeed, it seems especially relevant in this case.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know every GOP member of the House and Senate -- literally, all of them -- was wrong, and Clinton was right. Indeed, watching the clips Kornacki posted, it's eerie how similar the rhetoric is to Republican talking points of the Obama era. The language has barely changed at all (and they're still wrong).

But the larger point isn't just that the GOP's confident predictions in 1993 were misguided; the larger point is that Republicans have been consistently wrong at every similar juncture in modern history.

In the late '80s, many conservative Republicans said Reagan's plan that raised taxes would hurt the economy. They were wrong. In 1993, Republicans said Clinton's plan that raised taxes would cause a recession. They were wrong. In 2001, Republicans said Bush's plan that cut taxes would create an economic boom and balance the budget. They were really wrong. In 2009, Republicans said Obama's plan would make the Great Recession worse and fail to create jobs. And again, they were wrong.

I realize the political world tends to have a short memory, but shouldn't the pattern tell us something?

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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TEA PARTIERS: LEAVE MEDICARE ALONE.... About a month ago, Politico ran a much-discussed piece, insisting that the Republican Party and its base have become "fanatically anti-spending." Tea Partiers, the article added, are obsessed with "cut, cut, cut," and "taking a cleaver to government spending."

I've pushed back against this, but a new Marist poll out today makes this much easier. The poll asked respondents:

"Do you support or oppose doing each of the following to deal with the federal budget deficit: cut Medicare and Medicaid?"

Among all registered voters, 80% opposed these cuts. Among self-identified Tea Party supporters, 70% opposed these cuts. Among self-identified Republicans, 73% opposed these cuts.

We're talking about taxpayer-financed, socialized medicine, which Tea Partiers should oppose reflexively if they're desperate to "cut, cut, cut."

Except, they're not.

When pressed on the radical nature of their agenda, congressional Republicans consistently claim the "American people" are on their side, even suggesting they have a popular mandate to pursue drastic policy measures that voters didn't know about last year. But the data is hard to ignore -- not only does the American mainstream oppose GOP cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, but even the Republicans' own base isn't on board.

I often think of this piece from Matt Taibbi, who attended a Tea Party rally last summer.

After Palin wraps up, I race to the parking lot in search of departing Medicare-motor-scooter conservatives. I come upon an elderly couple, Janice and David Wheelock, who are fairly itching to share their views.

"I'm anti-spending and anti-government," crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. "The welfare state is out of control."

"OK," I say. "And what do you do for a living?"

"Me?" he says proudly. "Oh, I'm a property appraiser. Have been my whole life."

I frown. "Are either of you on Medicare?"

Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!

"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?"

"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."

"But," I protest, "you live off the government. And have been your whole life!"

"Yeah," he says, "but I don't make very much."

The point is that congressional Republicans are desperate to make devastating cuts, and think they're on safe political ground. GOP officials might be surprised to learn just how many Americans rely on government spending, and want to keep the benefits that apply to them.

Steve Benen 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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A CHARACTERISTIC THE GOP BASE MAY NOT APPROVE OF.... Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) has not yet said whether he intends to run for president, but if he does, I fear this may be an issue for his party's base.

While some GOP presidential contenders ratchet up their anti-Muslim rhetoric to toxic levels, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) is set to accept a prestigious award next month from the Arab American Institute.

May Berry, executive director of AAI, told TPM that the award was incidental to his status as a possible presidential candidate and celebrates his broad record of public service and his Syrian heritage, which is not commonly known. Nonetheless, she noted that Daniels' award comes at a time of increasingly mainstream anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in conservative circles.

For all I know, the Republican base wouldn't care about this at all, and I certainly hope that's the case. Daniels was born in the U.S. -- though I suspect Donald Trump will want to see his birth certificate -- but his paternal grandparents immigrated from Syria. This should, in theory, be about as interesting as the governor's favorite color.

But I keep thinking back to that event John McCain held about a month before the 2008 presidential election, when an elderly Republican voter said, "Obama is an Arab." McCain, to his credit, corrected her, but the point is, for some on the right, Arab = bad, or at a minimum, Arab = Muslim (and Muslim = bad).

It's unfortunate, and it desperately needs to change, but attitudes on the right on these issues are routinely awful (see Park 51, controversy surrounding). Hell, a few months ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) appointed a Muslim state judge, and some right-wing activists threw a fit, not because the lawyer was unqualified, but because these conservatives just don't like Muslims.

What will these folks say about a Republican presidential candidate of Syrian heritage?

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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THE DEPTH OF THE PROBLEMS WITH THE GANG OF SIX AGENDA.... I argued yesterday that, as the Gang of Six "compromise" reportedly comes together, it looks pretty awful, at least from a center-left perspective. My case was built around the notion that the gang's Democrats are simply giving up too much, in exchange for too little.

The Washington Post's Stephen Stromberg ran a reasoned, polite criticism of my item on this, and at the risk of sounding defensive, I thought I'd respond to the response.

[N]either the Democratic nor the Republican vision recently articulated is likely to result in the sort of reform needed to fix America's finances in a way that achieves anything but basic solvency, if that. Nor is either party likely to get its way after 2012, anyway. Barring some truly massive electoral landslide or Matt Miller's third-party groundswell, Republicans will still hate tax hikes, Democrats will still hate entitlement cuts, and the filibuster-era Senate will still be the filibuster-era Senate.

The Gang of Six's plan might not be perfect. But openness to compromise is critical. For anything big to happen, both parties will probably have to betray some of their most powerful instincts, even after 2012.

I'd quibble with some of the particulars here. While Paul Ryan's House budget plan actually runs enormous deficits for many years -- even if deficit reduction is the principal goal, the GOP proposal is basically a fraud -- I think it's fair to say President Obama's debt-reduction agenda does more than just "achieve basic solvency." Elsewhere in the piece, Stromberg characterizes the Republican plan as "keeping taxes low," when in fact the House GOP's measure goes much further, slashing already-low taxes by trillions of dollars over the next decade, to the exclusive benefit of the wealthy.

But I'm probably being picky with this. The larger argument is straightforward: we have a terrible budget mess, and it needs to be addressed quickly. Any credible plan that intends to make a serious difference will involve Republicans compromising on taxes and Democrats compromising on entitlements. That, in effect, is Stromberg's pitch. It's not an uncommon one, and by all accounts, it provides the foundation for the Gang of Six talks.

I say "by all accounts" because the Gang of Six's members haven't actually disclosed their plan just yet. We're relying on comments panelists have made in the media, and piecing the puzzle together.

And from my vantage point, the puzzle looks pretty awful. I can appreciate why "openness to compromise is critical," and I think if one goes back over the last few months, you'll find that I've consistently offered restrained analysis of the Gang's efforts, willing to at least hear the senators out. I will, of course, still withhold judgment until I see their finished product.

But I continue to think my skepticism is well grounded.

First, I'm not even sold on the premise. I'm not at all convinced there's a debt crisis -- I am, however, convinced there's a jobs crisis. Borrowing more money right now is cheap and easy, and if we had the political will, we could make the necessary investments to bring unemployment down in a hurry. (And nothing brings down the deficit in a hurry like meaningful economic growth.) I draw a distinction between short-term issues and long-term issues, and while I believe the latter is relevant, I believe the former is being ignored.

Second, talking about cutting "entitlements" is an overly broad word, because not all entitlements are created equal. The status of the finances for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are very different, and face wildly different long-term challenges. With that in mind, the Gang of Six is targeting Social Security without cause.

Third, the Gang of Six is treating the White House's debt-reduction plan as a liberal alternative to Paul Ryan's plan, which is very wrong, and speaks poorly of the panel's approach.

And fourth, the Gang of Six appears to be narrowing in on a deal that lacks balance. Democrats are reportedly prepared to accept cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, cuts to Social Security, and spending caps that will do meaningful and lasting damage. In turn, Republicans are reportedly prepared to accept some modest tax increases, which nearly all serious GOP observers recognize as necessary, and which will likely bring us back to where we were in the 1990s.

"Openness to compromise" may be "critical," but the compromise should be balanced, equitable, and consistent with sound public policy. If the reports are accurate, the Gang of Six agenda falls far short on all of these counts.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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BOEHNER THINKS WE'RE 'BROKE,' BUT HE'S WILLING TO SPLURGE.... When the Obama administration announced that it no longer considers the Defense of Marriage Act constitutional, and would stop defending the law against court challenges, officials told Congress it could step in and defend DOMA if it wants to. Soon after, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the House would gladly to just that.

Yesterday, Boehner's office announced it has hired former Bush Solicitor General Paul Clement to defend the discriminatory law, which seems like a wise choice. Clement is an accomplished attorney with extensive experience who'll no doubt do a capable job.

But Clement is also a very well paid D.C. attorney, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would like to know what Boehner expects this little culture-war endeavor to cost. For that matter, Pelosi found it curious that the Speaker hired an attorney to represent the House, but hasn't shared the contract with other congressional leaders.

Today, the picture started coming together.

House Republicans plan to pay former Solicitor General Paul Clement and his legal team from King & Spaulding as much as $500,000 of taxpayer money to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on behalf of House of Representatives, according to a document obtained by the Huffington Post.

"The General Counsel agrees to pay the Contractor for all contractual services rendered a sum not to exceed $500,000.00," the Contract for Legal Services obtained by The Huffington Post says. The cap could be raised "by written agreement between the parties with the approval" of the House, the document states.

The hourly rate that King & Spaulding will be receiving is $520 per hour -- which could actually be considered a deal. Some reports say that the firm's top attorneys receive as much as $900 per hour.

Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill told Amanda Terkel, "The hypocrisy of this legal boondoggle is mind-blowing. Speaker Boehner is spending half a million dollars of taxpayer money to defend discrimination. If Republicans were really interested in cutting spending, this should be at the top of the list."

That seems more than fair. After all, Boehner has been running around for months, falsely claiming, "We're broke." It's how he justifies proposed cuts in critical areas like education, medical research, infrastructure, job training, and homeland security, even if it makes the jobs crisis much worse.

But if we're actually broke, shouldn't House Republicans want to save $500,000 of our money, and not give it to one high-priced lawyer to defend an anti-gay law?

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DCCC WASTES NO TIME, LAUNCHES MEDICARE ADS.... On Friday, just about every member of the House Republican caucus voted for a radical budget plan that, among other things, eliminates the Medicare program, replacing it with a privatized voucher system. This morning, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) launched the first of many salvos on the issue.

This ad, which is likely to get people talking, features seniors forced to tackle jobs they wouldn't otherwise do -- selling lemonade, mowing lawns, and stripping -- in order to have money for their health care. The spot is funny, but the message is serious: "Seniors will have to find $12,500 for health care ... because Republicans voted to end Medicare."

The ad, not coincidentally, is hitting the airwaves just as lawmakers return home for a congressional recess, and will air in 25 targeted districts represented by vulnerable Republicans. What's more, Greg Sargent noted that the DCCC hopes to raise an additional $25,000 in the next 48 hours, so it can specifically air the spot in Speaker Boehner's Ohio district.

The DCCC's efforts also include new radio ads and robocalls on the same message, targeting the same Republicans.

Dems clearly believe this is a political winner for them -- a belief bolstered by polls -- and it makes a lot of sense to get to work on this immediately. As we discussed over the weekend, a major Democratic pollster, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, found that when voters hear about the Republican plan, they hate it.

Noting the results, Nate Silver said, "Clearly there is political upside for Dems in attacking Ryan budget, however, they also have a lot of work to do to inform voters about it."

That work apparently begins in earnest today.

Steve Benen 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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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:

* Wisconsin Democrats are filing the signatures necessary to trigger a third recall election against a Republican state senator. This time, it's Luther Olsen and Dems have collected 162% of the necessary number of signatures. Olsen joins Dan Kapanke and Randy Hopper on the list of incumbents who'll likely face recall races later this year.

* Just a few days after appearing at a far-right rally in Wisconsin, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has relaunched her political action committee's website, now featuring far more content and online features. The moves have increased speculation that Palin may yet launch a presidential campaign.

* Disgraced former Alabama Judge Roy Moore has apparently created a presidential exploratory committee. The former state Supreme Court justice, thrown off the bench for ignoring federal law, is in the midst of a six-day, 25-stop tour of Iowa. (thanks to reader M.M.)

* This should make for an awfully interesting congressional campaign: "Christie Vilsack, the wife of Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, is likely to challenge GOP Rep. Steve King, according to several sources familiar with her thinking."

* Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist continues to move further away from his party, this week donating $1,000 to Patrick Murphy, a Democrat hoping to take on Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) in 2012.

* As expected, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian announced yesterday he will take on Rep. David Wu in a Democratic primary. Wu has struggled of late with mental health issues.

* And though it seems awfully early, Sen. Rand Paul (R) filed for re-election yesterday in Kentucky. Paul has only been in office for three months, and won't face voters again until 2016.

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

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THE 'THEY DON'T VOTE FOR US ANYWAY' SCHOOL OF THOUGHT.... A few weeks ago in Texas, an anti-immigrant state lawmaker defended his brutal agenda, including a drive to deny citizenship to children born in Texas to immigrant parents*.

"Most Hispanics right now do vote Democrat; there's no question about it," Republican state Rep. Leo Berman said. "So what vote are we going after? We're going after a vote that doesn't vote Republican anyway."

As recently as 1998, George W. Bush won a second term as governor with nearly half the Hispanic vote in Texas. Now, GOP officials feel unrestrained in pursuing an anti-immigrant agenda, since Hispanics "don't vote Republican anyway."

I thought of this after seeing the latest move on Capitol Hill, where House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has decided to scrap the bipartisan tradition and won't host a Cinco de Mayo reception.

Leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus reached out to Boehner earlier this month urging him to host the reception. It has been an annual event since at least 2003, when Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert was the House speaker.

On Thursday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added her voice to the chorus. Boehner's Democratic predecessor sent him a letter saying that she had held the event every year when she was speaker and offered to assist in planning it again.

"Members of the House and Senate, Walter Reed Hospital wounded soldiers and their families, and other invited guests attended this reception, which included a brief speaking program with Mexico's Ambassador and Members from both sides of the aisle," Pelosi wrote.

There are some non-offensive explanations for Boehner's reluctance. For example, he may not want to take money out of his budget to host the reception, and Congress is scheduled to wrap up work early on May 5.

But under the circumstances, it's hard to blame those in the Hispanic community who are feeling snubbed. After all, there's a fairly consistent pattern here in which Republican leaders, in recent years, have been less than tolerant when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity.

Granted, the Cinco de Mayo event is more of a symbolic gesture, but it also comes against a backdrop in which Republicans also refuse to even consider comprehensive immigration reform.

Taken together, Republicans appear to be borrowing a page from James Baker's script, and concluding, "[Forget] the Hispanics; they don't vote for us anyway."

* edited for clarity

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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IS HOPE A PLAN? AT THIS POINT, IT HAS TO BE.... Apparently, when the public is feeling frustrated, dour, and pessimistic, a president's poll numbers start to sag. With that in mind, the new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows President Obama's approval rating down to 47%.

Driving the downward movement in Obama's standing are renewed concerns about the economy and fresh worry about rising prices, particularly for gasoline. Despite signs of economic growth, 44 percent of Americans see the economy as getting worse, the highest percentage to say so in more than two years.

The toll on Obama is direct: 57 percent disapprove of the job the president is doing dealing with the economy, tying his highest negative rating when it comes to the issue.

The electoral news wasn't all bad for the president. For example, no one seems especially impressed with the Republican field, and Obama leads all of them in head-to-head match-ups, most of them by double digits. For that matter, Reagan and Clinton were in similar shape at this point the year before their re-election bids.

But the key takeaway from the poll is that the gap between what the public cares about and what politicians are focusing on has become a chasm. The discourse is dominated by talk of spending cuts and deficit reduction, while Americans are focused primarily on economic growth and job creation.

What's more, I'm not sure what, if anything, Obama can do about it. It's way too late to start shifting the debate from the debt to the economy, and even if the White House launched an ambitious jobs policy, it wouldn't stand a chance in Congress.

When it comes to economic policy, the best -- the very best -- we can hope for is a president who'll stop Republicans from making matters worse, and maybe a reluctant Federal Reserve that might want to play a constructive role.

Otherwise, the White House has to simply hope the economy continues to improve on its own, which may very well happen, but which now appears to be out of the president's hands.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER.... The New York Times' David Brooks today ponders the appeal of "supremely accomplished blowhards" who hold a place in the American imagination, and who manage to say "obnoxious things that others are only permitted to think."

Thus, there has always been a fan base for the abrasive rich man. There has always been a market for books by people like George Steinbrenner, Ross Perot, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Bobby Knight, Howard Stern and George Soros. There has always been a large clump of voters who believe that America could reverse its decline if only a straight-talking, obnoxious blowhard would take control.

And today, apparently, Donald Trump is that man.

Putting aside the interest in the clown du jour, take another look at Brooks' list: Steinbrenner, Perot, O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Knight, Stern ... and George Soros?

I can appreciate the point Brooks is trying to make here -- he's trying to identify a cultural archetype. It's strained and I think the columnist is trying too hard, but I get it.

The problem is Brooks feels the need to go after a liberal, just for the sake of going after a liberal. His list was lacking in personalities from the left, so he threw Soros in there to satisfy an ideological quota. But he shouldn't have -- in what universe is George Soros comparable to Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh as "obnoxious blowhards"? Has Brooks ever actually heard Soros? Love him or hate him, the guy is a mild-mannered, civilized philanthropist, who presents his ideas in a cool, rational fashion. Soros seems disinclined to even raise his voice, much less say "obnoxious things that others are only permitted to think."

For that matter, Brooks' list includes "blowhards" whose books become bestsellers, but as near as I can tell, Soros' books don't exactly fly off the shelves.

In other words, this is just lazy, forced neutrality. Brooks wasn't satisfied noting a phenomenon; he had to make it a bipartisan phenomenon. When he couldn't think of someone on the left to fill the role, Brooks just threw a prominent liberal into the mix, even if it didn't make sense.

And as Jim Sleeper noted this morning, this is consistent with a revealing Brooks pattern.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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A RECURRING QUESTION ABOUT THE GOP PRESIDENTIAL FIELD.... Kevin Drum asked overnight, "For the love of God, can people please stop writing columns about how we ought to take Donald Trump seriously?" Perusing the op-ed pages this morning, pundits seem to have an answer: No.

But what I find especially interesting is the fact that we keep running into the same question about so many Republican presidential hopefuls.

Lately, Trump has spent quite a bit of time in the spotlight, and Eugene Robinson has a piece today, arguing that he finds it difficult to dismiss Trump out of hand, the television personality's buffoonery notwithstanding.

No, I don't believe that Trump is seriously running for president. But what if he continues this charade past the point of no return? What if he pulls away from Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and the others? What if he wins primaries and caucuses? What if...

What [Trump has] been, consistently, is a headline-grabber extraordinaire. If he now has decided to take himself seriously, I'm afraid we're going to have to follow suit.

Robinson's column shared a page with Richard Cohen's latest, which ponders a similar question. David Brooks weighed in, too. (This is just today; similar pieces have been running quite a bit lately, bolstering Kevin's point.)

But also note how often we've heard related questions recently. Jonathan Bernstein had an item in early March asking about Gingrich's national ambitions, "Do We Have To Take Newt Seriously?" A couple of weeks later, Ed Kilgore pondered whether Michele Bachmann is "a serious contender." MSNBC recently asked, "Should voters take Herman Cain seriously?" The same question has been asked about Sarah Palin for a long while, and it's picking up again this week.

It's problematic that a ridiculous reality-show host is leading some national polls, but it's also troubling that the Republican presidential field is so ridiculous, every few weeks we find ourselves wondering, "Do we really have to take _______ seriously?"

Steve Benen 9:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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FOX NEWS' PARANOID CHAIRMAN.... A few months ago, Esquire ran a fascinating profile on Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of Fox News, which made him appear, among other things, pretty paranoid. We learned, for example, that Ailes' office has seven television screens -- six for various on-air broadcasts and one on his desk that "shows nothing but the live feed from the security cameras" in Fox News' building in New York.

Ailes also maintains a "private-security apparatus" that is "both extensive and expensive."

Of particular interest, though, was Ailes decision to build a dream home in the Hudson River Valley, about an hour and a half north of Manhattan. The Fox News chief wanted to influence local affairs, so be bought the local newspaper, around the same time he bought all the houses around his home, leaving them empty, to help ensure his family's safety.

This week, Gawker reports on what happened after Ailes bought the local paper, and handpicked the Weekly Standard's Joe Lindsley to run it like a propaganda outlet for Ailes' agenda. Lindsley apparently wasn't entirely comfortable in his new role, so he and two of his young reporters, abruptly quit.

Ailes confronted the three staffers and accused them of badmouthing him and Elizabeth during their lunch breaks. Small towns being what they are, Lindsley, Haley, and Panny frequently drove several miles north of the News and Recorder's Cold Spring, N.Y., office to privately have lunch in another town. When Ailes accused them, he knew which restaurant they frequented, leading the three to believe that Ailes wasn't merely bluffing and that he'd actually had them followed.

After Lindsley quit for good, things got weirder. He was driving to a deli in Cold Spring for lunch earlier this month when he noticed a black Lincoln Navigator that seemed to be following him, according to several sources familiar with the incident. Lindsley drove aimlessly for a while to make sure he was being followed, and the Navigator stayed on him. Then he got a look at the driver, who was a News Corporation security staffer that Lindsley happened to know socially. Lindsley continued on his way and later called the driver to ask if he was following him. The answer was yes, at Ailes' direction.

There was also this remarkable anecdote.

Last winter, not long before Lindsley tendered his resignation, the burglar alarm in the Ailes' Garrison estate went off while Roger and Elizabeth were away. Roger's first call after the police was to Lindsley, several sources say. Ailes asked him to rush to the home to let the police into the gate that blocking driveway, but when Lindsley arrived before the police, Ailes ordered him to enter the home in an effort to scare off the intruder. Speaking to Lindsley on his cell phone, Ailes led him around the darkened house, telling him which rooms to check and which lights to turn on to startle the burglar. It turned out to be a false alarm.

Noting all of this, Jon Chait suggests Ailes is "totally bonkers." That seems like a reasonable assessment.

I'd just add that Ailes takes a hands-on leadership role at his Republican cable news channel, which routinely covers developments through a deeply paranoid lens. Given what we know of Fox News' chairman and CEO, now we know why.

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

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BREWER BEATS BACK BIRTHERS.... Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is a favorite of the far-right, which made her veto last night of a ridiculous "birther" bill a pleasant surprise.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a controversial 'birther' bill on Monday night that would have required presidential candidates to submit a long-form birth certificate in order to be on the ballot.

Approved in the state legislature last Thursday, the bill called for candidates to produce two or more qualifying documents in the absence of a long-form birth certificate, which include a "hospital birth record, early baptismal certificate, circumcision certificate, early census record or postpartum medical record signed by whoever delivered the child," the Arizona Republic reported. [...]

Brewer, notorious for being a hard-line conservative, shot down the bill on Monday as going "too far" even for the red state.

"I never imagined being presented with a bill that could require candidates for President of the greatest and most powerful nation on earth to submit their 'early baptismal or circumcision certificates,'" Brewer explained in a written statement. "This measure creates significant new problems while failing to do anything constructive for Arizona."

The proposal appeared to be crafted with one individual, President Obama, in mind. Republican state lawmakers intended to create a standard that exceeded any legal requirements anywhere else -- it would even have made Americans born in Arizona after 1966 ineligible -- for the express purpose of trying to keep an incumbent president off the state ballot.

As conservative as Brewer is, she wisely recognized this as "a bridge too far." Credit where credit is due -- even far-right Republican governors are occasionally capable of rejecting needless and pointless extremism.

The next question is whether the veto will stick. Both chambers of Arizona's legislature have large Republican majorities, with GOP members outnumbering Democrats by a two-to-one margin, and with very few moderates. If unhinged Republican lawmakers are determined enough, they could override the veto of their own party's governor.

As of last night, that appeared unlikely, and Brewer's rejection of the conspiracy-theory-inspired bill ends the debate in Arizona. Still, it's one more thing to keep an eye on.

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

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April 18, 2011

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

* This was not well received: "Washington's deficit reduction debate came to Wall Street on Monday, after the Standard & Poor's rating firm lowered the outlook for the United States to negative, saying there was a risk that lawmakers might not reach agreement on how to address the country's fiscal issues."

* Japan: "A pair of thin robots on treads sent to explore buildings inside Japan's crippled nuclear reactor came back Monday with disheartening news: Radiation levels are far too high for repair crews to go inside."

* Some of those eager to engage Libya weren't quite ready: "Less than a month into the Libyan conflict, NATO is running short of precision bombs, highlighting the limitations of Britain, France and other European countries in sustaining even a relatively small military action over an extended period of time."

* Rajiv Chandrasekaran sees some progress in Afghanistan: "For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year." He calls this "a profound shift across a swath of Afghanistan that has been the focus of the American-led military campaign."

* I think this is a good move: "President Obama will hit the road this week and forcibly deliver his message that a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes on the rich is necessary to rein in the nation's rocketing debt — a high-stakes effort to rally public support ahead of a series of contentious budget battles in Congress."

* Syria: "The State Department has secretly financed Syrian political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government programming into the country, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables."

* Hydrofracking: "Oil and gas companies injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states from 2005 to 2009, according to an investigation by Congressional Democrats."

* Uwe Reinhardt explains the differences between federal lawmakers' health care and what House Republicans have in mind for Medicare recipients.

* President Obama said of the KSM trial, "I remain convinced we could have handled this in New York. We could have handled it in a normal court." He's right, but that apparently doesn't matter.

* Republicans want to "reform" Social Security, a system they consider a scam. Ironically, the real scam is their proposal.

* This year's Pulitzers were announced today. I was especially pleased to see David Leonhardt among the deserving winners.

* Daniel Luzer: "Changes to rules about Pell Grants are likely to have a dramatically adverse effect on companies that operate for-profit colleges."

* I'm starting to get the sense Roger Ailes is kind of creepy.

* I'd find it easier to tolerate the inanity of "Fox & Friends" if the hosts weren't so damn lazy.

* And Happy Blogoversary to Atrios, who started Eschaton nine years ago yesterday. When I started blogging a year later, Duncan was one of the people who inspired me to give this a try.

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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BACHMANN'S ODD ATTEMPT TO TIE OBAMA TO WALL STREET.... Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) expected to hold a big Tax Day rally in South Carolina today, but it didn't go well. More interesting to me, though, is what she said at the event.

Michele Bachmann's much anticipated Tax Day rally on Monday was a "dud" that drew a paltry 300 people in Columbia, S.C., according to reports.

Bachmann met privately with South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki Haley ahead of her speech to the small crowd in the Palmetto state's capital.

The Minnesota congressman rallied the tea party supporters with a call to block Washington from raising the debt ceiling and attacked Barack Obama for being too close to Wall Street.

One local reporter said "politicians, political operatives and members of the media came close to outnumbering attendees" at the event. Ouch.

But I'm fascinated by the notion that the unhinged GOP lawmaker believes the president is too close to Wall Street.

Bachmann may not have heard about this, but Wall Street tends to hate the president. Politico reported not too long ago that Wall Street hates Obama and his team with "an almost irrational passion," as bankers and their lobbyists regard the administration "with a disdain so thick it often blurs to naked loathing."

And why is that? It probably has something to do with the fact that Obama successfully pushed a major Wall Street reform package though Congress, with the most sweeping rule changes and new safeguards since the Great Depression. This White House has also been willing to blame the financial industry for its colossal mistakes -- the ones that almost destroyed global capitalism, and very nearly caused a catastrophic meltdown of international markets.

It was Bachmann's party, meanwhile, that huddled with hedge fund managers and industry lobbyists to try to kill Wall Street reform, offering to trade campaign contributions for weaker layers of accountability, and then vowing to repeal the new safeguards.

And it was Bachmann who personally voted as Wall Street preferred when the reforms reached the House floor.

Bachmann "attacked Barack Obama for being too close to Wall Street"? Seriously? I realize her rhetoric tends to be pretty nutty, but even Bachmann should be able to do better than this.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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DADT DEAD-ENDERS STILL WON'T QUIT.... Just over the last couple of months, three possible/likely Republican presidential candidates -- Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, and Mike Huckabee -- have vowed publicly to bring back the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy if they were to run and win.

Today, Igor Volsky reports on a fourth.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) has joined fellow potential Republican presidential contenders ... in supporting the reinstatement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, telling me on Friday in Concord, New Hampshire that he supports bringing back the policy:

VOLSKY: Senator, on Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I know you opposed the policy. Would you bring it back if you were president? Would you reinstate it?

SANTORUM: Yeah, I would.

Of course, this isn't surprising. It is Rick Santorum, after all, and the guy didn't pick up the "Man on Dog" moniker because of his respect for the gay community.

But the fact that we're still even talking about this is absurd. The Pentagon is moving forward with the transition, and officials aren't running into any trouble. The public obviously supports the change. The only people in America who seem to actively engaged on this are Republican members of Congress and Republicans running for president.

This really is rather pathetic. I can appreciate the need to pander to homophobes, but even the most hysterical conservatives have to realize this fight's over. They lost. It's time to move on.

But they won't. On the contrary, with Santorum, Barbour, Huckabee, and Pawlenty all publicly supporting reinstatement, it's possible, if not likely, that this might become another 2012 litmus test for the GOP field. The party's base may expect nothing less.

So, where's Romney on this? Huntsman? Bachmann? Trump?

Steve Benen 4:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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WALL STREET TO REPUBLICANS: STOP SCREWING AROUND.... Congressional Republican leaders know full well that they have to raise the debt ceiling. It's not optional -- to fail is to crash the economy again, only this time would be the result of partisan stupidity on a historic scale.

But GOP leaders also know they have some leverage, and want to see what they can get out of Democrats in the form of ransom before doing what has to be done. Indeed, we learned last week that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has already reached out to financial industry leaders, asking how much time he has to screw around before doing lasting damage. He was told that "even pushing close to the deadline -- or talking about it -- could have grave consequences in the marketplace."

The Wall Street Journal adds some highly relevant details to this, noting that the discussions between Republicans and the financial industry have been even broader than previously reported.

During a recent series of meetings and fund-raisers, top Wall Street executives and lobbyists have urged Republicans to resolve the debt-ceiling debate quickly or risk turmoil in the bond market.

In the sessions, House Speaker John Boehner explained the politics of the vote to investors, telling them Republicans won't approve an increase in how much the U.S. can borrow without a long-term deficit-reduction plan, according to people familiar with his remarks. In turn, the executives said delaying a resolution could unnerve skittish credit markets. [...]

"Bond markets will start to get very nervous if we go beyond May 16 without a debt-ceiling agreement being reached," said Ajay Rajadhyaksha, head of fixed-income strategy at Barclays Capital.

Now, under normal circumstances, this would generate fairly swift action. Wall Street lobbyists keep Boehner on speed dial so they can tell him what to do quickly, and Republicans are nearly always inclined to do exactly what Wall Street instructs them to do.

And yet, for now, GOP leaders are proceeding with their hostage strategy. Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) went so far as to say publicly that he wants Republicans to push off action until after the nation reaches the debt limit in mid-May, deliberately creating a crisis situation.

Greg Sargent has a smart take on this, connecting the story to this morning's developments on Wall Street: "The S&P story seems to have given Republicans momentum today in the spin wars over the debt ceiling. And in truth, though Timothy Geithner said this weekend that GOP leaders had assured him that they understood the need to raise the debt ceiling, Dems don't seem to be drawing as hard a line on a "clean" vote as they might have. The moment for doing that convincingly may have passed. Some kind of compromise in which Dems agree to some sort of spending cut framework appears likely. But the fact that the GOP's brinkmanship is rattling the party's corporate benefactors seems kind of important, and should be part of the discussion."

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

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THE 'V' WORD DOESN'T POLL WELL, EITHER.... The House Republican budget plan, approved late last week, intends to effectively eliminate the Medicare program, replacing with a privatized voucher system. That's not rhetoric or campaign spin; that's the plan. The next step should be debating whether it's a good idea or a bad idea.

But some on the right are still a little hung up on the words used to describe the plan. Last week, we discussed how some are pushing back against the word "privatization," apparently because it doesn't poll well. The word is clearly accurate in this case -- the GOP plan takes the socialized, government-financed health care program, and turns it over to private insurers -- but Republicans are resisting it anyway.

As it turns out, they're fighting against "voucher," too.

Yesterday, ABC's Christiane Amanpour asked Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) about the budget plan she supports. "[I]t includes a radical restructuring of Medicare, essentially converting it to a voucher system, sort of privatizing it," the host noted. "Now, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the average senior will then have to end up paying an extra $6,000 or more out of their own pocket, I mean, how do you think that that will sit with the voters? With the American people?"

Here's Ellmers' response in its entirety:

"Well, let me just say, Christiane, that, first of all, as a nurse, you know, Medicare is an issue that we absolutely have to deal with. And, as you know, you mentioned in the Ryan budget that this issue is going to be addressed.

"It is not a voucher system. Basically what we will be doing is allowing seniors to be able to make the choices for their health care, the same that we in Congress are doing. It's the very same basic plan. And it actually saves money. It saves money in Medicare over time and it actually increases the coverage, but at the same time, it also increases coverage for those in the low income areas as well."

First, being a nurse isn't an excuse for voting to eliminate Medicare. Indeed, it suggests the freshman congresswoman actually ought to know better.

Second, saying, "It's not a voucher system" is bizarre since the whole point of the plan is to create a voucher system. If Ellmers wants to say that's a good thing, this was her chance. But simply pretending the plan she voted for -- just 48 hours earlier -- doesn't do what it plainly does make it seem as if the lawmaker has no idea what she's talking about.

And third, saying that Medicare privatization "saves money" is willfully dishonest. No one, even on the right, believes Paul Ryan's voucher scheme actually lowers costs -- all it does is shift those costs onto the elderly, and then use the difference to finance tax cuts for the wealthy.

Does Ellmers not understand the basics of the proposal she supports, or did she just go on national television and deliberately mislead millions of viewers? (Given how ridiculous her campaign was last year, it's arguably a close call.)

My ongoing concern, however, is that the media will screw this up. News organizations may start avoiding the "v" word, even though it's accurate, if Republicans simply state, "It's not a voucher system." The public will hear a stunted debate because media outlets are too often cowed into using politician-endorsed word choice, rather than accurate descriptions.

Steve Benen 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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BOEHNER WANTS TO PUNISH THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT.... A couple of months ago, the Obama administration announced that it no longer considers the Defense of Marriage Act constitutional, and would stop defending the law against court challenges. Soon after, Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa said he wanted to cut the Justice Department's budget as punishment.

Of course, King's an unhinged culture warrior, who no one really respects or takes seriously. Indeed, there's evidence his own caucus leaders consider him something of an embarrassment. His call for DoJ punishment was generally ignored, aside from occasional eye-rolling, which is as it should be.

It's why House Speaker John Boehner's decision to go down the same road is so disconcerting.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Monday that he wants to cut the Justice Department's funding because the Obama administration has decided not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

"Obviously, DOJ's decision results in DOJ no longer needing the funds it would have otherwise expended defending the constitutionality of DOMA," Boehner wrote in a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "It is my intent that those funds be diverted to the House for reimbursement of any costs incurred by and associated with the House, and not DOJ, defending DOMA."

This is deeply silly, and unbecoming of the nation's most powerful Republican. As Boehner sees it, there are attorneys who would have worked on the DOMA case who'll now work on other cases. The Speaker of the House apparently intends to figure out how much money the department would have spent defending the discriminatory anti-gay law, and then cut that amount from the agency's budget.

I know Boehner has to hate gays, hate spending, and hate the Obama administration, and a foolish gesture like this one helps him to do all three at the same time.

But the administration's move on this just isn't that unusual, and no Congress has ever sought to punish federal law enforcement because its attorneys will work on one case rather than another.

In fact, the Speaker's move is so absurd, I have to wonder if there's something else going on here. After the budget deal met with far-right disapproval, is Boehner scrambling to make right-wing activists happy?

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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ABOUT THAT DOUTHAT COLUMN.... The New York Times' Ross Douthat, in a column about taxes, makes a claim today that's intended to be startling.

Today, for instance, a family of four making the median income -- $94,900 -- pays 15 percent in federal taxes. By 2035, under the C.B.O. projection, payroll and income taxes would claim 25 percent of that family's paycheck. The marginal tax rate on labor income would rise from 29 percent to 38 percent. Federal tax revenue, which has averaged 18 percent of G.D.P. since World War II, would hit 23 percent by the 2030s and climb even higher after that.

Such unprecedented levels of taxation would throw up hurdles to entrepreneurship, family formation and upward mobility. (Or as the C.B.O. puts it, in its understated way, they would "tend to discourage some economic activity," and "harm the economy through the impact on people's decisions about how much to work and save.")

That sounds pretty dramatic, doesn't it? It might even be an important observation if it were painting an accurate picture.

But it's not, and I'm amazed NYT editors let the column slide. For one thing, Daniel Gross explained, "For all households in the U.S., the median income in 2009 was $49,777. For married households it was $71,830. That's higher, but nowhere near $94,000."

For another, Douthat's claim that the household making the median income pays 15% in federal taxes is deeply misleading.

Perhaps most strikingly, what Douthat describes as "unprecedented" is really just tax burdens consistent with where we were in the 1980s.

Gross concluded, "Look. Taxes are complicated. I know Douthat is a single guy who has an income substantially higher than $94,000. So perhaps we shouldn't expect him to be familiar with the basics of median family income and how the tax code works. But if you want to write about these topics and be taken seriously, you have to get at least some of the numbers right."

That seems like wise advice.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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CALIFORNIA REPUBLICAN REFUSES TO RESIGN IN THE WAKE OF RACISM SCANDAL.... For a while, it was so common for Tea Party Republicans or their favorite candidates to get caught engaging in racism, it was tough to keep up with it all. Fortunately, it's been a little quieter lately.

But it's worth remembering that the ugliness hasn't gone away.

A California Republican party official who sent out an e-mail of President Obama's face super-imposed onto a chimp says she's sorry, but insists she wasn't trying to be racist.

Marilyn Davenport, an elected member of the Orange County Republican central committee, sent the e-mail on Friday. The "family photo" features the commander-in-chief as a baby chimpanzee with two chimp parents.

Along with the offensive image was the tagline "Now you know why -- No birth certificate."

Pressed by reporters for an explanation, Davenport, a Tea Party activist as well as an elected GOP official, said in a statement, "I'm sorry if my email offended anyone. I simply found it amusing regarding the character of Obama and all the questions surrounding his origin of birth. In no way did I even consider the fact he's half black when I sent out the email."

I'm not sure how that's even relevant. What difference does it make if Obama's mother was white? A racist email is still a racist email, whether the sender "considers the fact" that her target is "half black."

Davenport went on to say that "other people tried to make this about race." I don't imagine she'll understand this, but when she distributed a racist email, which she found "amusing," Davenport made this about race.

Republican officials in Orange County are distancing themselves from the right-wing activist, but Davenport has said she will not resign from her elected position in the party.

For what it's worth, Davenport has also argued, "Everybody who knows me knows that I am not a racist.... I have friends who are black."

Seriously. That's what she said.

Even those dumb enough to be this racist should have the wherewithal to know how awful this sounds.

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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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:

* In Wisconsin, the Associated Press has projected that conservative state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser has prevailed, thanks to the 7,000 votes that were "discovered" the day after the election. A statewide recount remains a possibility.

* Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), who has struggled in recent months with mental-health issues, will likely face a primary opponent next year, with state Labor Commissioner Brad Akavian poised to kick off a bid.

* The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had hinted about a high-profile recruit in Texas, hoping to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), and now we know who it is: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2004.

* In Kentucky, which will hold a gubernatorial race this year, incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear (D) enjoys a 12-point lead over his GOP challenger, David Williams, in a hypothetical general election match-up.

* Sen. Bob Casey (D) is up for re-election in Pennsylvania next year, and despite a relative weak approval rating, Public Policy Polling shows him easily defeating all of his likely Republican opponents.

* In the state of Washington, state Attorney General Robert McKenna (R), a likely gubernatorial candidate, has said he opposes any efforts towards legalizing marijuana. Asked if he ever used the drug, McKenna said, "I might have."

* And Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has a campaign slogan: "Fighting to make America America again." After being told that the phrase appears to have been borrowed from Langston Hughes -- a gay liberal -- Santorum said, "The folks who worked on that slogan for me didn't inform me that that's where it came from, if in fact it came from that."

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

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TAX POLICY IN A BIZARRO WORLD.... As part of yesterday's "Tea Party panel" on ABC's "This Week," host Christiane Amanpour suggested it's unrealistic to think the budget shortfall can be addressed through spending cuts alone. "Can you really sustain what everybody is calling for just by cuts in public services?" she asked her right-wing guests. "Doesn't there need to be revenue-raising mechanisms?"

Rep. Joe Walsh (R) of Illinois rejected the premise: "Christiane, you raise revenue by growing the economy. And everything this president has done the last two years has gone against that. You get taxes and regulations off the backs of businesses so that revenues can increase."

That's actually backwards. The president's policies, as an objective matter, grew the economy and increased revenues. That's not opinion or spin; it's just what happened. Walsh doesn't have to like reality, but he shouldn't lie about it on national television.

Amanpour pressed further, noting that Reagan cut taxes, saw that the debt increased, and then raised taxes. Walsh, apparently stuck in his own bizarro world where calculators bend to his will, replied:

"[I]n the '80s, government revenues went up. We didn't cut spending. Revenues went up in the '80s. Every time we've cut taxes, revenues have gone up, the economy has grown."

He then quickly changed the subject.

It's important that folks realize that Walsh and those who share his talking points have no idea what they're talking about. This truly absurd argument -- tax cuts pay for themselves -- comes up from time to time, but it's not getting better with age.

Amanda Terkel noted that actual economists, even conservative ones, have no use for this argument.

"Federal revenue is lower today than it would have been without the tax cuts. There's really no dispute among economists about that," said Alan D. Viard, a former White House economist under George W. Bush, in a 2006 Washington Post article.

Robert Carroll, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax analysis, also said that no one in the administration believes tax cuts created a surge in revenue. "As a matter of principle, we do not think tax cuts pay for themselves," Carroll said.

Bruce Bartlett, a Reagan economist who became a strong critic of the Bush administration's policies, used data from the Office of Management and Budget in a blog post last year to illustrate how "the Bush tax cuts reduced revenue rather significantly."

Congressional Republicans aren't just wrong about this; they're pathologically confused. The evidence isn't ambiguous in the slightest -- when Walsh claims "every time we've cut taxes, revenues have gone up," that's just crazy.

It's also a reminder of why meaningful, substantive debate seems so impossible right now -- there's no foundation of reality, shared by the left and right, to build upon. It's like being stuck on in an algebra class, and half the students are convinced arithmetic is a scam cooked up by communists. There's just not much to talk about after that.

Steve Benen 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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IN DEFENSE OF CANDOR.... Fox News' Dana Perino, in an odd display, went a little over the top yesterday when criticizing President Obama's speech on debt reduction. The president, Perino argued, said "offensive, crazy things" in his remarks. She added that Obama "called the Republicans un-American."

Now, the oft-confused Fox News personality is simply wrong on the merits -- the president didn't accuse Republicans of being "un-American," and this was hardly an "offensive, crazy" speech. Perino's just not very good at the whole "political analysis" thing.

But her bizarre criticism is part of a larger truth -- Republicans are aggressively pushing the line that Obama hurt their feelings. When the president criticized the radical GOP budget plan, and explained (accurately) the extent to which Republicans are responsible for the current budget mess, he was apparently being "uncivil" and "partisan."

As the argument goes, if only the president weren't such a big meanie, GOP leaders might be more inclined to work with him.

This is all rather pathetic, which is why I was glad to see Paul Krugman offer a defense of incivility today. The point isn't to stick up for name-calling or juvenile taunts, but rather, to explain that the two major parties "don't just live in different moral universes, they also live in different intellectual universes.... So when pundits call on the parties to sit down together and talk, the obvious question is, what are they supposed to talk about?"

Sorry to be cynical, but right now "bipartisan" is usually code for assembling some conservative Democrats and ultraconservative Republicans -- all of them with close ties to the wealthy, and many who are wealthy themselves -- and having them proclaim that low taxes on high incomes and drastic cuts in social insurance are the only possible solution.

This would be a corrupt, undemocratic way to make decisions about the shape of our society even if those involved really were wise men with a deep grasp of the issues. It's much worse when many of those at the table are the sort of people who solicit and believe the kind of policy analyses that the Heritage Foundation supplies.

So let's not be civil. Instead, let's have a frank discussion of our differences. In particular, if Democrats believe that Republicans are talking cruel nonsense, they should say so -- and take their case to the voters.

That is, I suspect, an outcome the GOP and its allies fear, which no doubt leads them to push the "the president is being mean to us" line that much more aggressively.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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TEXAS' PERRY SEEKS HELP FROM 'OPPRESSIVE HAND'.... A couple of years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was so outraged by Democratic efforts to address multiple economic crises, he pushed the rhetorical envelope much further than he should have.

Indeed, two years ago this week, Perry 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."

Apparently, Perry doesn't perceive that hand as quite so "oppressive" anymore. (thanks to readers V.S. and T.P.)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry sought additional federal help in battling wildfires across his drought-parched state as a woodland blaze gutted at least six homes on Sunday and threatened hundreds more in Austin, the state capital.

An estimated 1.5 million acres of tinder-like brush and grasslands have gone up in flames in Texas since January 1, about half of that during the past week alone under some of the driest conditions in Texas history. [...]

"As wildfires continue to rage across our state, Texas is reaching its capacity to respond to these emergencies and is in need of federal assistance," the governor said in a statement.

My point, obviously, is not to make light of a tragedy. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, a firefighter was killed late last week, and many communities are being evacuated. It's an awful situation, made possible because of remarkably dry conditions throughout much of the state. Given all of this, it makes perfect sense that Perry would request a federal disaster declaration from President Obama.

But it's also a reminder of how offensive Perry's anti-government rhetoric was in the first place. He hates federal intrusion, except when Democrats in Washington are helping him balance his budget. He wants to keep federal officials out of his state, except when he's facing a natural disaster.

I'm glad Perry has the sense to ask federal officials for some help with these dangerous fires, but I hope he remembers this the next time he's inclined to refuse "their oppressive hand in the state of Texas."

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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ASKING TOO LITTLE OF THE SUPER RICH.... In honor of Tax Day, the AP takes a closer look at what Americans are paying to Uncle Sam, and finds that "the super rich pay a lot less taxes than they did a couple of decades ago."

The IRS "tracks the tax returns with the 400 highest adjusted gross incomes," and has found that their average federal income tax rate has dropped from 26% to 17%. (Remember, these are the folks congressional Republicans are desperate to give more tax breaks to.)

It's reached the point at which some of the wealthy are getting together to urge the government to tax them more.

Eric Schoenberg says to sign him up for paying higher taxes. Schoenberg, who inherited money and has a healthy portfolio from his days as an investment banker, has joined a group of other wealthy Americans called United for a Fair Economy. Their goal: Raise taxes on rich people like themselves.

Schoenberg, who now teaches a business class at Columbia University, said his income is usually "north of half a million a year." But 2009 was a bad year for investments, so his income dropped to a little over $200,000. His federal income tax bill was a little more than $2,000.

"I simply point out to people, 'Do you think this is reasonable, that somebody in my circumstances should only be paying 1 percent of their income in tax?'" Schoenberg said.

When Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah suggested these folks simply write checks, voluntarily, to the treasury, Schoenberg explained why Hatch is missing the point.

"This voluntary idea clearly represents a mindset that basically pretends there's no such things as collective goods that we produce," Schoenberg told the AP. "Are you going to let people volunteer to build the road system? Are you going to let them volunteer to pay for education?"

Regrettably, Schoenberg appears to be outside the norm for his income group. E.J. Dionne Jr. noted the larger problem in his new column.

At other moments in our history, the informal networks of the wealthy and powerful who often wield at least as much influence as our elected politicians accepted that their good fortune imposed an obligation: to reform and thus preserve the system that allowed them to do so well. They advocated social decency out of self-interest (reasonably fair societies are more stable) but also from an old-fashioned sense of civic duty. "Noblesse oblige" sounds bad until it doesn't exist anymore.

An enlightened ruling class understands that it can get richer and its riches will be more secure if prosperity is broadly shared, if government is investing in productive projects that lift the whole society and if social mobility allows some circulation of the elites. A ruling class closed to new talent doesn't remain a ruling class for long.

But a funny thing happened to the American ruling class: It stopped being concerned with the health of society as a whole and became almost entirely obsessed with money.

The eagerness with which Republican officials want to help make this worse should be a far bigger scandal than it is.

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

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CARICATURES OF THEMSELVES.... Over the last couple of years, a certain caricature of Tea Party Republicans has emerged. This is a group of well-intentioned folks who bring a great passion to public affairs, but who aren't especially well informed, don't really understand the issues they seem to care about, and have bizarre priorities they struggle to defend.

With that in mind, ABC's "This Week" yesterday hosted a "Tea Party Panel" featuring four far-right House Republicans -- Reps. Renee Ellmers (N.C.), Steve Southerland (Fla.), Joe Walsh (Ill.), and Allen West (Fla.). Putting aside whether such a panel is a good idea, after watching the segment, that caricature is starting to look pretty accurate.

It's tough to know where to start, exactly, since the gibberish-per-sentence ratio was strikingly high, but let's focus for now on one noteworthy exchange. Host Christiane Amanpour noted that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, among others, believe it's critically important for Congress to do the right thing on the debt ceiling. She asked Allen West if he agreed. He replied:

"Well, one of the things, having served 22 years in the United States military, I don't believe in leadership by fear and intimidation. I think that leaders have to come up with viable solutions, I agree with one of the things that Joe Walsh just brought up, we need to have a balanced budget amendment.

"We need to put in spending control measures, such as a cap on federal government spending. I say 20 percent, because that's historically a good spot to be at. Right now federal government spending per the GDP is about 24 percent, and the president is going to take it up to 25 or 26 percent.

"But I think also now is a great time where we can cut our corporate business tax rate in half, bring it from 35 percent down from 22 to 20 -- 20 to 22 percent. Because there's a lot of capital just sitting out there we could use to invest in long-term sustainable job growth.

"But the most important thing, we should have some type of trigger mechanism so that when you reach a certain percentage of getting close to this debt limit, there are automatic spending cuts that come right in."

First, it's rather hilarious for West to denounce "leadership by fear and intimidation," not only because Geithner and Bernanke are simply stating facts, but because of West's background. The right-wing Floridian has, for example, associated himself with a dangerous outlaw gang, urged his supporters to make one of his rivals "scared to come out of his house," and recommended right-wing activists remain "well armed."

Second and more important is West's policy vision. In the name of deficit reduction, he wants spending caps, a balanced budget amendment, and automatic spending reductions -- all of which would cause drastic consequences for the government's ability to do much of anythng -- and he wants to cut corporate taxes in half, which would make the deficit worse.

West's ideas are incoherent and dangerous, but lest anyone think he's just some random nut, and not representative of the radical Republican faction, his rhetoric was entirely in line with what his colleagues were saying on the same program.

That these folks are helping shape federal law, and are weighing the possibility of destroying the economy on purpose, made watching the segment deeply unsettling.

Steve Benen 8:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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GANG OF SIX 'VERY CLOSE' TO AN AGREEMENT, INTENDS TO 'MAKE EVERYBODY MAD'.... Two months ago, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Six" deficit-reduction talks, said the group was "getting close" to striking a deal. Two weeks ago, however, the negotiations "nearly collapsed," and the whole initiative was on the verge of being scrapped.

As of yesterday, members of the gang signaled that the talks are not only back on track, but are also "very close" to a compromise. And given what participants are saying about the plan's substance, Democrats will soon wish the talks had collapsed.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Gang of Six budget negotiators, said Sunday on "Face the Nation" that tackling Social Security's solvency remains on the table for the group.

The Gang of Six is attempting to put the December recommendations of the bipartisan fiscal commission into law. Social Security does not contribute to deficit spending since it draws benefits from a separate trust fund, but the fiscal commission sought to ward off a solvency crisis for Social Security after 2037 by raising the retirement age while reducing benefits. [...]

Including Social Security in the Gang of Six package appears to be a concession by Democrats made in exchange for agreement to raise some revenue by Republicans.

In addition to needlessly going after Social Security, the gang also reportedly intends to eliminate the home mortgage tax deduction. As Warner put it, "We are going to make everybody mad with our approach."

That's almost certainly an understatement. It's difficult to scrutinize a blueprint that hasn't been released, but in addition to Warner's comments, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), another gang member, told Fox News yesterday that the agreement will also include spending caps on mandatory and discretionary spending, which is hopelessly insane.

By all appearances, Democrats in this group are prepared to effectively give up any hopes of progressive governance for a generation and give in to entitlement cuts, in exchange for tax increases that sane Republicans should consider a no-brainer anyway.

If the gang reaches an agreement, and it looks like the one being talked about by its members, I'm hard pressed to imagine how it could pass.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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

On Sunday, we talked about:

* For all of his faults, Alan Simpson gets it right on taxes and Reagan's actual record (as compared to the one Republicans like to pretend is true).

* The results of a fascinating new survey should be of great interest to the Democratic Party: Americans are generally inclined to like Paul Ryan's House GOP budget plan, until they learn what's in it.

* I don't expect much from House Republicans, but I do expect them to know who was president in 2008.

* Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is optimistic about Congress and the debt ceiling. He really doesn't have much of a choice.

* President Obama issued a signing statement on Friday. Is that inconsistent with his campaign rhetoric from a few years ago? The answer requires a little nuance.

* Donald Trump is stuck in a Beck-like vicious circle -- if he expects to stay on his present course, he has to keep coming up with new ways to be even crazier.

* A certain former half-term governor headlined a right-wing event in Madison over the weekend. It didn't go especially well.

And on Saturday, we talked about:

* The RNC would still like Americans to believe that any tax increase, on anyone, by any amount is beyond the pale. I'm hoping the RNC is wrong.

* A proposed spending-cap idea is one of the worst ideas in the history of bad ideas.

* Fox News thinks Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) approval ratings are going up. It's hard to overstate how wrong this is.

* Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman sent a hand-written note to President Obama, calling him a "remarkable leader." He underlined "remarkable" for emphasis.

* In "This Week in God," we discussed, among other things, the Catholic League's latest defense of the Roman Catholic Church's international scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of children.

* The Sunday shows sure do love to book conservative guests.

* One of the most common responses from Republicans to the president's speech: he hurt the GOP's feelings. That's kind of pathetic.

Steve Benen 7:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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April 17, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Since taking the lead on the White House's deficit commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) has made all kinds of head-shaking comments. At times, it's been tough to keep up with all of them -- there was the time he compared Social Security to a "milk cow with 310 million tits," the time when he complained that treating veterans' ailments was fiscally inconvenient, and perhaps most notably, who can forget the unfortunate "Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dogg" remark.

But even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Simpson appeared in Denver recently, and argued "vigorously for tax increases to help balance the budget."

Simpson said he confronted anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist when the commission met and they exchanged words over the legacy of Ronald Reagan, claimed by both as their personal hero. When Reagan was president, he raised taxes 11 times, Simpson said, a bit of history that made Norquist squirm.

"I knew Ronald Reagan and you, Grover, are no Ronald Reagan," Simpson said he told the president of Americans for Tax Reform, who famously said his goal was to make government small enough it could be drowned in a bathtub. Reagan didn't raise taxes to give Norquist something to complain about, Simpson said. "He probably did it to make the country run."

"We've never had a war with no tax to support it, including the Revolution," Simpson said, after pointing out that taxes account for an increasingly smaller share of the economy. But the harsh partisan atmosphere in Washington makes any discussion of tax increases dangerous, Simpson said. "People are told in Congress if they raise taxes by a nickel, they'll be strung up by their heels in the town square."

For all of the comments Simpson makes that leave one dumbfounded and asking, "What was he thinking?" this was actually a very sensible thing to say. It's also a message that too few Republicans are even willing to acknowledge out loud.

Indeed, the point about Reagan is especially relevant, given the GOP's religious reverence for the former president. The Republican icon -- literally described by the RNC as Ronaldus Magnus -- raised taxes seven out of the eight years he was in office. Simpson noted that Reagan raised taxes a total of 11 times, all to prevent the deficit from spiraling. One of Reagan's biggest tax increases came in 2002 1982 -- right before the economy started to soar (thanks to the Federal Reserve), which runs counter to every belief that guides modern GOP thought.

How much cognitive dissonance does it take for House Republicans to deal with this? If Democrats described their fiscal agenda -- a combination of spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy -- as the "Reagan plan," would the GOP be more likely to consider it?

Steve Benen 2:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE SCRIPT SHOULD WRITE ITSELF.... A major Democratic pollster, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, published a report the other day, noting the results a new survey conducted for the Campaign for America's Future and Democracy Corps. The results should be of great interest to party officials.

Congressman Paul Ryan's budget proposal, to be embraced by the House Republican majority today, faces serious obstacles in winning public support.... The Republican plan provides Democrats with a strong argument that Republicans have the wrong priorities for America and will break the long-standing agreement the country has with its seniors. The budget opens up a fundamental debate about values that could end up defining Republicans in the public mind and allowing Democrats to draw sharp differences and regain their standing on the economy and spending priorities and advocacy for the middle class. The decision to end Medicare and shift costs to seniors in continuing tough times may be the Republicans' undoing. [...]

The Republican deficit reduction plan does not even win majority support, but when voters learn almost anything about it, they turn sharply and intensely against it. They have particularly grave concerns about the plan to end Medicare and slash Medicaid spending, pushing seniors into the private insurance market and costing them thousands of dollars more in out-of-pocket expenses. [emphasis added]

At first glance, the survey results aren't exactly encouraging. When respondents were asked whether or not they favored the Republicans' a 10-year plan to cut spending $6.2 trillion, it scored pretty well -- 48% supported the idea, which is pretty high, while 33% were against it.

But then respondents were given an accurate description of the same plan, noting, among other things, that the GOP proposal "makes small cuts in defense spending," repeals health care reform, cuts taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and makes "major cuts" to Medicaid and Medicare.

At that point, support dropped from 48% to 36%, and opposition rose from 33% to 56%.

What's more, the pollster explained the Republicans' plan for Medicare: "This plan would cut Medicare spending and replace Medicare with a voucher system, which will force seniors to negotiate with private insurance companies, which are free to raise rates and deny coverage. Medicare's guaranteed coverage of care would end, and seniors would have to pay more and more out of pocket." All of this is accurate, by the way.

After hearing this description, 66% of respondents said they have "serious doubts" about the GOP proposal.

Noting the results, Nate Silver said yesterday, "Clearly there is political upside for Dems in attacking Ryan budget, however, they also have a lot of work to do to inform voters about it."

Right. Most of the public doesn't know much about what House Republicans have proposed, and as of Friday afternoon, voted for. And given a general, generic description, they seemed to think the GOP plan is fine.

But it seems all Democrats have to do to win the debate is tell people the truth, and educate the American mainstream, at which point Americans not only oppose the Republican agenda, but even fear it.

It doesn't take a messaging genius to figure out what Dems should be saying right now.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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WHEN MEMBERS OF CONGRESS FORGET WHO WAS PRESIDENT IN 2008.... Rep. Tom Graves (R) of Georgia appeared on MSNBC the other day, and talked about job policy. He probably should have brushed up a bit on the basics before going on the air.

Host Contessa Brewer noted that there were massive tax breaks during the Bush era, which nevertheless were a period of awful job growth. Given the tax cuts the GOP still believes are critical to reducing unemployment, Brewer asked a good question, "How come we haven't seen massive job growth?"

Graves responded, "Well, what we've seen is massive job loss that began in about 2008, and I believe that was under Barack Obama."

job_losses_before_and_after_obama%27s_policies.png

OK, let's take this slowly so Graves can follow along.

First, Contessa Brewer is right that job creation in the Bush era was a disaster. Republicans assured the nation that massive tax breaks would create millions of jobs, and they were spectacularly wrong. Graves doesn't have to like it, and he can try to make excuses for it, but the record isn't in dispute.

Second, Obama wasn't president in 2008. He ran for president in 2008, but was inaugurated in 2009. It's true that the job market fell off a cliff in 2008, but it started to improve almost immediately after Obama signed the Recovery Act into law. I've even put together a nice little chart on this that even Graves should be able to understand.

And third, arguing that the job losses occurred under Obama's watch is itself deeply stupid. I'm including this chart Ezra Klein posted a while back, which, again, even House Republicans should be able to follow.

In his MSNBC interview, Graves went on to say that "high gas prices" were responsible for the jobs crisis in 2008 -- it was actually the global financial meltdown -- adding, "But when we see the stimuluses, the TARPs, the bailouts, the buyouts, cash for clunkers -- they didn't work." All of this is demonstrably wrong.

How guys like this get elected in the first place mystifies me. Why they're allowed to say dumb things on national television is just as baffling.

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

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GEITHNER'S OBLIGATORY OPTIMISM.... This may sound like naivete, but it's actually evidence of a different problem.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says he is certain that Congress will raise the debt ceiling, saying leaders are "not going to play around with it" and risk the "catastrophic" consequences of defaulting on the nation's debt obligations.

"I want to make it perfectly clear that Congress will raise the debt ceiling," Geithner said in an interview with ABC News "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour. When asked if he was sure, Geithner responded, "absolutely," adding that Congressional leaders made clear they understood the importance of the matter when meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House last Wednesday.

"I sat there with them, and they said, 'We recognize we have to do this.' And we're not going to play around with it," Geithner said of last week's White House meeting. "We know that the risk would be catastrophic."

"This is just about the basic trust and confidence in the United States," Geithner added. "It's about the basic recognition that we made commitments, we have to meet our commitments. There's no alternative, and they recognize that."

Some may hear this and think Geithner is naive about what congressional Republicans are capable of. How can he claim to be optimistic in light on Boehner's and Cantor's recent rhetoric?

What I suspect is going on here is that the Treasury Secretary, even if he has doubts about Republicans' sanity, has to appear confident and certain -- because he knows investors, the financial industry, and foreign markets are listening. Remember, the House Speaker recently reached out to Wall Street, asking how much wiggle room he has to play partisan games for a couple of months without doing significant damage to the American and global economy.

Wall Street executives told Boehner "even pushing close to the deadline -- or talking about it -- could have grave consequences in the marketplace."

It's why Geithner has to go on national television and assure the world that, as truly ridiculous as congressional Republicans can be, there's nothing to worry about -- the world's largest economy will not default, the full faith and credit of the United States government remains strong, and policymakers will "absolutely" do the right thing.

Whether the Treasury Secretary believes it or not is irrelevant -- he needs everyone else to.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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REIGNITING THE DEBATE OVER SIGNING STATEMENTS.... President Obama signed the budget deal for the fiscal year into law on Friday night, but issued a signing statement at the same time. This has renewed an interesting debate, not only about presidential power, but also about presidential consistency.

At Republicans' insistence, the budget agreement included a provision scrapping certain "czar" offices in the administration. Obama signed the legislation, of course, but let Congress know that he retains "the prerogative to obtain advice that will assist him in carrying out his constitutional responsibilities," and may solicit such advice "not only from executive branch officials and employees outside the White House, but also from advisers within it."

In other words, "I'm the president and I'll continue to seek policy guidance from my aides -- whether Congress likes it or not."

By any reasonable definition, it's a garbage provision in the law. Republicans know this "czar" dust-up is ridiculous -- Bush had even more "czars" than Obama does, and the GOP never complained about it -- and the notion that Congress will dictate the kind of advisers a president will have is not only silly, it seems to be plainly at odds with the separation of powers.

But putting aside whether the measure has merit, as a presidential candidate, Obama criticized Bush's use of signing statements -- and yet here is issuing signing statements of his own. Those arguing that there's a contradiction here raise a legitimate point.

That said, the details matter here. Before the '08 election, Obama, who taught constitutional law, criticized Bush's abuse of this power, but the emphasis was on how the Republican president exploited the practice. Administrations of both parties have been using signing statements for 200 years, but Bush used them in ways none of his predecessors ever did.

With that in mind, the Obama White House had a reasonable case to make yesterday when it insisted there is no contradiction.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Obama's use of signing statements as president is "actually entirely consistent with what he's said and with our policy."

Carney pointed to a 2007 interview Obama gave to then Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage, who won a Pulitzer Prize that same year for his reporting on Bush's use of signing statements. [...]

"No one doubts that it is appropriate to use signing statements to protect a president's constitutional prerogatives; unfortunately, the Bush Administration has gone much further than that," Obama said [in that 2007 interview].

I can appreciate why this seems like hair-splitting argument, but the context matters. The signing statement on Friday was in keeping with the standard Obama talked about four years ago -- he's protecting a president's constitutional prerogatives, in this case, who the president relies on as part of his team of aides and advisers.

If candidate Obama had said he would never use signing statements, and President Obama is doing the opposite, the criticism would certainly be warranted. But I think there's some relevant nuance to all of this. Obama criticized Bush's abuses, but otherwise, the president seems to be using this power in roughly the same way as all of his modern predecessors.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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DONALD TRUMP, PERFORMANCE ARTIST.... There was a point not too long ago when it became reasonable to ask a simple question about Glenn Beck: is this guy for real? It seemed entirely plausible that the media personality wasn't nearly as ridiculous as he was letting on, and was spewing nonsense just to get attention. Beck, in other words, may be far less crazy than he lets on, but revels in the act because the schtick works for him.

That debate was never really resolved -- I still don't know if Beck believes even half the things he says -- but it's probably time to start asking similar questions about reality-show host David Trump.

A couple of months ago, Trump discovered a way to get people to care about his political rhetoric -- he'd start touting conspiracy theories. The more he'd repeat them, the more Republicans would like him, and the more television producers would book him. This in turn created a vicious cycle -- Trump feels compelled to elaborate on the conspiracy, making up new details, and adding new twists and turns, which in turn makes the GOP's hysterical wing love him even more.

But like Beck, there's a problem with this tack. Namely, it requires the designated clown to keep pushing the envelope, making his stories even more ridiculous. Take Trump's "interview" the other day with Sean Hannity.

"Look, he was born 'Barry Soetero.' Somewhere along the line, he changed his name," said Trump -- referring to the surname of Obama's mother's second husband, Lolo Soetoro, whom she married four years after Obama was born. "I heard he had terrible marks, and he ends up in Harvard. He wrote a book that was better than Ernest Hemingway, but the second book was written by an average person."

"You suspect Bill Ayers?" said Hannity.

"I said, Bill Ayers wrote the book," Trump replied.

Trump also added during the discussion: "He was best friends with Bill Ayers. Bill Ayers was a super-genius. And a lot of people have said he wrote the book. Well recently, as you know last week, Bill Ayers came out and said he did write the book."

No sane person could believe any of this. The president was born Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., not Barry Soetero. He wasn't best friends with Bill Ayers, Bill Ayers was never a super-genius, and when Ayers said he wrote Obama's first book, he was being sarcastic, messing with the deranged right.

No one smart enough to tie their own shoes could actually believe what Trump told Hannity, which reinforces the suspicion that this is, once again, just an elaborate joke.

What's more, yesterday Trump talked to TPM, and blasted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for dismissing Trump's candidacy earlier this week. Trump said yesterday, "I think it's a very bad thing for Cantor to have done, because I'll tell you, people love this issue especially in the Republican Party."

When TPM pressed on whether he's actually hired investigators to dig up dirt on the president in Hawaii, Trump cut off the interview.

I have a hard time believing anyone is this stupid unless they're trying to be stupid.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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HIGH INTENSITY, LOW TURNOUT IN MADISON.... Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) -- remember her? -- headlined a conservative rally in Madison yesterday, apparently hoping to generate support for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) far-right agenda. More interesting than the message, though, was the turnout.

Attendees heard fairly predictable rhetoric. Palin, for example, insisted that Walker's anti-union agenda is "not trying to hurt union members." The Fox News personality also excoriated congressional Republicans for not being even more intransigent. The whole thing was organized by the Koch brother's right-wing Americans for Prosperity, and Palin spoke behind a podium with a sign that read, "I am AFP."

But who exactly heard all of this?

Away from the stage, the passionate arguments went right on, each side claiming the upper hand, the larger crowd, the right side of history. The police estimated a crowd -- at its highest point -- of about 6,500 people, though it was uncertain how many of those were Tea Party supporters and how many were there to protest. Either way, the figure was far smaller than the tens of thousands of demonstrators that had been reported around the Capitol on several days in recent months.

At the height of progressive protests in February and March, tens of thousands braved the elements to condemn the Walker agenda -- and wouldn't leave. Yesterday, Palin led a parade of odd right-wing figures, at an event paid for by powerful billionaires, and about 6,500 people showed up.

And of those 6,500, most of those in attendance were there to oppose Palin and her far-right allies, not support them.

It's a reminder about the changing tide. When Tea Partiers organize a rally and bring one of their highest-profile stars to headline, but are nevertheless outnumbered at their own event, which suffered from poor attendance anyway, it's not a good sign.

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

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April 16, 2011

A TEST ON TAXES.... President Obama unveiled his debt-reduction plan this week, and as expected, included modest tax increases on the wealthy as a way to improve the nation's finances.

A few hours later, the Republican National Committee sent out a fundraising email to its supporters. The subject line read, "Confiscator-in-Chief." RNC Chairman Reince Priebus proceeded to tell prospective donors:

"The Confiscator-in-Chief is at it again -- right in time for Tax Day.

"Today, President Obama proposed trillions in new taxes to bankroll the liberal Democrats' big government policies at a time when our economy is still struggling, gas prices are soaring and unemployment is still alarmingly high. [...]

"The tax hikes President Obama wants will only fuel Washington's addiction to spending rather than help curb it. More importantly, they will hurt one of the strongest engines of growth and job creation in our economy: small businesses. And they will harm middle class families by taking more money from their pockets at a time when Americans need every dime to cover their expenses."

As a substantive matter, Priebus is engaged in a little something known as "lying." The White House plan intends to increase revenues to address the budget shortfall -- a problem Republicans created and like to pretend they care about -- doesn't hurt small businesses and wouldn't touch middle class families. The RNC deceives its donors, counting on the adage, "A fool and his money are soon parted." And for all I know, there are just enough suckers among rank-and-file Republicans for this to work.

The question, though, is whether the pitch will work on a larger scale.

For quite a while, the effort from the right has been to make tax increases a new third rail in American politics. The idea of bringing in additional revenue to help finance a modern government is simply supposed to be impossible, and it's been a largely successful campaign -- income tax rates have only shrunk over the last two decades, despite massive deficits.

The question now is whether Americans are finally ready to tolerate at least some tax increases on some people (in this case, those making more than $250,000).

President Obama joked in his big speech the other day, "Most of us, regardless of party affiliation, believe that we should have a strong military and a strong defense. Most Americans believe we should invest in education and medical research. Most Americans think we should protect commitments like Social Security and Medicare. And without even looking at a poll, my finely honed political instincts tell me that almost nobody believes they should be paying higher taxes."

And so, the nation faces something of a test. We know the GOP experiment of counting on economic growth through massive tax breaks -- the entire Bush-era -- failed miserably. We also know the U.S. has some of the lowest tax rates in the world, and the lowest tax burdens domestically in more than a half-century.

Are Americans finally ready for a sensible change? There's certainly some evidence for it. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll asked Americans the best way to reduce the deficit. The Republican mantra -- the focus must be on spending cuts, and nothing else -- received 31% backing. A combination of cuts and tax increases, the agenda recommended by President Obama, was preferred by a 64% majority.

Just as importantly, are Republicans ready to be responsible? As recently as 20 years ago, the Reagan-Bush Republicans recognized that occasionally raising taxes was necessary. That's obviously changed, by the Washington Post reported this week that at least some GOP officials recognize that any kind of fiscal solution is going to have to include additional revenue, whether the party likes it or not.

As the RNC letter shows, there's a lingering immaturity that still dominates Republican thought. Shrieking, "He's going to raise taxes!" is intended to be the equivalent of "Boo!" Indeed, it's not just the RNC -- the most common Republican response to the president's debt-reduction plan was to emphasize Obama's vision of asking more of the wealthy, as if that alone were some sort of conversation-ender.

And maybe there's something to this strategy. The president's numbers in daily tracking polls this week have been ugly, coinciding with a bunch of headlines that read, "Obama wants to raise taxes." I don't know if one caused the other, but I wouldn't be too surprised.

But it's a debate worth having, and I'm glad Obama is showing responsible leadership on this. If Democrats engage in this discussion from a defensive crouch, they'll lose. If they take the fight to Republicans, and force the GOP to prioritize unpopular breaks for the rich above all else, the public is likely to respond positively.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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THE SPECTACULARLY MISGUIDED SPENDING CAP 'COMPROMISE'.... One of the lingering questions surrounding the debt ceiling is what conservatives will demand by way of a ransom. We know Republicans will have to raise the debt limit; we know they'll hold it hostage for as long as possible; but we don't know what they expect in terms of a payoff.

Dave Weigel reported the other day that there's growing talk about pushing some kind of spending cap as a condition for preventing an economic catastrophe. In this case, conservative Republicans like Jon Kyl and Ron Johnson support it, and some moderates from Democratic caucus -- including Joe Lieberman and Claire McCaskill -- are inexplicably on board, too. Indeed, after a meeting with "moderates" on Tuesday, Lieberman said he's convinced that "something like this has a chance."

That's genuinely horrifying. Regular readers may recall that we discussed this idea in February, but now that it's getting attention again, it's worth revisiting why this a spectacularly misguided and truly dangerous idea. For perpetually confused conservatives like Kyl and Ron Johnson to endorse the measure is predictable, but Lieberman and McCaskill really ought to know better. (As disappointing as Lieberman is on a whole range of issues, he's not usually this ridiculous on fiscal policy.)

Ezra Klein did a very nice job yesterday of cutting through the nonsense and describing the spending cap idea as "completely insane."

Spending caps are bad policy, and the McCaskill-Corker spending cap -- which holds spending to 21.5 percent of GDP, or three percentage points lower than it is right now -- is a badly designed spending cap. But beyond all that, it's laughable to posit it as a compromise: It's arguably the most radically conservative reform that could be made to the federal budget. More extreme, by far, than Paul Ryan's plan.

Start with the shell game at the core of this discussion: We're worried about the debt ceiling but talking about a spending cap. This works just fine if you hew to the conservative conceit that "we have a spending problem, not a taxing problem." But that applause line is just an effort to deny the contribution tax cuts have made to the deficit and keep tax increases from being part of a solution. If you think we have a debt problem -- and that's what being upset about raising the debt ceiling implies -- then do something about the debt. The "trigger" proposal the White House included in is budget, for instance, is tied to the debt, not to spending or taxes.

Of course, to the Republicans, that's a feature, not a bug. The virtue of a spending cap is that by focusing on only one contributor to debt, it admits only one solution to it: spending cuts. Savage ones. The Corker-McCaskill proposal is so aggressive that there are years when even Paul Ryan's budget, with all its fantastical assumptions and hard caps, wouldn't qualify. "You put McCaskill-Corker into law," says Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "and progressive policy is dead for the next quarter-century."

That's not an exaggeration. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a detailed report on the proposed cap this week, explaining that if it were to become law, policymakers would have no choice but to enforce devastating cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, as well as every other domestic priority.

In effect, the cap would be a straightjacket intended to prevent the government from responding to any challenges, foreign or domestic, for the foreseeable future. Any member of the Democratic caucus even considering such a move ought to have their head examined. Any member from either party that would make this a condition for raising the debt limit has gone stark raving mad.

The "solution" doesn't even match the problem, to the point that it seems cap proponents don't even understand the basics of their own question. Any serous evaluation of the fiscal issue shows the same truths: we lack the necessary resources to deal with a growing elderly population and escalating health care costs. How would a spending cap help this? It wouldn't; that's the problem.

As Ezra added, "Health-care costs are rising far in excess of GDP growth, and a spending cap does nothing to stop them. Seniors will go from 13 percent of the population now to 20 percent of the population in 2035, which means America will temporarily have fewer people working and more people dependent on government support. But the spending cap does nothing to reverse the aging process. And amid all these trends driving up spending, Republicans are pushing to make the Bush tax cuts permanent and Democrats are pushing to make most of the Bush tax cuts permanent. A spending cap does nothing about that, either. A spending cap is an effort to deny our real problems, not to fix them."

Steve Benen 10:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE FARCICAL RICK SCOTT.... Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) chatted with the hosts of Fox News' Fox & Friends yesterday, talking about taxes and budget shortfalls. The hosts were duly impressed.

[T]he message worked on Fox and Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade -- who at the end of a four-minute interview said Scott's message and proposals are resonating with Florida voters. His proof? Scott's approval ratings.

"The states that have to balance the budget are making the tough decisions, and getting appreciation for it. Your approval ratings are up," said Kilmeade.

Well, it's funny Kilmeade should put it that way, because that's the exact opposite of the truth.

Public Policy Polling shows Scott's approval rating plummeting to 32%. Quinnipiac recently found a similar level of support, putting the governor's support at 35%. A Suffolk University poll released this week found that only 28% of Floridians approved of Scott's job performance.

These are horrible poll numbers, especially for a governor who's only been in office for a few months.

There's no great mystery here. A bizarre criminal got elected governor of Florida, deliberately turned his back on job creation, slashed funding for popular and necessary programs, and unveiled a plan to "reform" Medicaid that would line his own pockets. Of course voters are feeling buyers' remorse. How could they not?

It's reached the point at which there are multiple reports of Florida Republicans getting organized to switch their party affiliations away from the GOP, as a way of protesting their ridiculous governor.

For Kilmeade to see all of this and boast on the air about Scott's rising approval ratings is hilarious, even by Fox News standards.

Steve Benen 10:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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HUNTSMAN CALLED OBAMA A 'REMARKABLE LEADER'.... There's certainly a credible case to be made that Jon Huntsman is a credible Republican presidential candidate. He's a conservative with domestic (governor of Utah) and foreign policy (Ambassador to China) experience, who enjoys a fair amount of respect from the GOP establishment.

But if there's a scenario in which Republican voters overlook stories like these, I don't see it.

Washington is a town famous for false praise. Lawmakers are often graciously thanking their "good friend" from across the aisle -- right before skewering that person as unpatriotic or ill-suited for governing.

So imagine the surprise to find a Republican offering what appears to be truly genuine admiration for a Democrat. And then to find out that the Republican might be thinking about running against that Democrat in 2012.

In a handwritten letter to President Obama obtained by The Daily Caller, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, calls the president a "remarkable leader" -- and underlines "remarkable" for emphasis.

The letter was sent in August 2009, eight months into Obama's term. It came the same week as another Huntsman letter to Bill Clinton, in which Huntsman praised the former president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Even if Huntsman denounces all of this and categorically condemns the entire Obama administration as part of his Republican presidential campaign, there are some things GOP primary voters -- especially this year's Republican electorate, dominated by the unhinged right -- just won't forgive, especially when there are more appealing alternatives.

When push comes to shove, Huntsman worked for Barack Obama and praised his leadership. In Republican presidential politics, that's about as serious a deal-breaker as announcing one's hatred of Reagan.

For what it's worth, a Republican strategist close to Huntsman suggested the White House leaked the letters to embarrass him. "Need any more proof that the White House most fears Jon huntsman?" the strategist asked. "I don't think so."

It's possible, but I doubt it. If the White House wanted to embarrass Huntsman with these letters, why would the president's team leak them on a Friday in April to a conservative outlet like the Daily Caller?

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THIS WEEK IN GOD.... First up from the God Machine this week is a bizarre attempt to spin the Roman Catholic Church's international scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of children, and the church's systematic efforts to cover up the crimes and protect the criminals.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, led by lay activist Bill Donohue, took out a full page ad in the New York Times this week, not only defending the church, but downplaying the severity of the scandal itself. As Donohue argued, thousands of children around the world were molested by priests, but not raped. What's more, most of the victims were post pubescent, so we're talking about the sexual abuse of children, but "the abuse did not meet the clinical definition of pedophilia."

Donohue concludes, "In other words, the issue is homosexuality, not pedophilia."

In the letter, Donohue says the claims of abuse that are surfacing today "are almost all old cases [italics his]." He cites a "landmark study" conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 (a study that was funded by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) to argue that "most of the abuse occurred during the heyday of the sexual revolution, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s."

"Why are priests being singled out when the sexual abuse of minors among other segments of the population is on-going today?" Donohue writes.

Toward the end of his letter, Donohue takes a thinly veiled shot at liberals.

"What accounts for the relentless attacks on the Church?" he writes. "Let's face it: if its teachings were pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and pro-women clergy, the dogs would have been called off years ago."

It takes a shocking amount of chutzpah to defend a religious institution engaged in a scandal of this magnitude by blasting gays and liberals, but here we are.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the Freedom From Religion Foundation lacked the legal standing to challenge the National Day of Prayer.

* Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli (R) "has issued an opinion that it is OK to pack heat in the pews or choir as long as the owner has a good reason, namely 'personal protection.'" (thanks to B.S. for the tip)

* France this week "formally banned the wearing of full veils in public places, becoming the first country in Europe to impose restrictions on a form of attire that some Muslims consider a religious obligation."

* English philosopher A. C. Grayling spent 30 years compiling this: "At first, 'The Good Book: A Humanist Bible' looks like the Bible that Christians believe in, politicians take oaths on and the Gideons put in hotel rooms. It is divided into books like Genesis, Lamentations and Proverbs. Each book is organized into chapters and verses. It is written in the stately cadences that signal the presence of important, godly matters. Begin to read, however, and you immediately see that God is not present."

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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A 'TEA PARTY PANEL'.... We're accustomed to seeing Sunday show line-ups dominated by Republicans. A couple of months ago, the viewers saw two Republican senators, three Republican House members, three likely Republican presidential candidates ... and zero Democrats from Congress or the Obama administration.

Tomorrow's guest lists aren't quite that egregious, but ABC's "This Week" will have a segment that's likely to stand out.

The headliner will be Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who certainly seems like a wise choice given the larger circumstances. But after him, host Christiana Amanpour will host a "Tea Party Panel." From ABC's press release:

Then, after the first 100 days of the new Republican Congress, the Tea Party has changed the debate in Washington. But for them, was the historic budget deal to cut federal spending a victory or a failure? Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL), Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), and Rep. Allen West (R-FL), all members of the House Tea Party Caucus, come to "This Week" to debate the looming debt crisis, whether they will vote to stop raising the debt limit, and if they are prepared for the potential fallout. And as Donald Trump courts Tea Party supporters as he weighs a bid for the GOP presidential nomination, do they think he can win?

Atrios joked yesterday that the House Progressive Caucus will surely "have their turn next week," knowing full well that this isn't going to happen.

In 2009 and 2010, Sunday show line-ups like these were common because of the abundance of far-right activism. In 2011, Sunday show line-ups like these are again common because there's a GOP majority in the House.

They were common for eight years because of the Bush/Cheney White House. They were common before that because of the Republican Congress.

I'm wondering what the circumstances might be that would tilt the scales in the other direction, but apparently they don't exist.

Now, there's a case to be made that Sunday show line-ups are largely irrelevant. The ratings aren't that imposing, and much of the country doesn't know these programs even exist. Perhaps. But these shows also help dictate much of the political establishment's discourse -- Joe Six Pack isn't watching the Sunday shows, but the "Gang of 500" is -- and shape the larger debate.

The more Republicans -- and in the case of tomorrow's "Tea Party Panel," extremely conservative Republicans -- dominate the guest slots, the more the conventional wisdom tilts to the right.

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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THE POLITICS OF PERSONAL GRIEVANCE.... Congressional Republicans all but dared President Obama to engage in a fiscal debate on their terms, demanding to know whether and how he'd tackle long-term debt reduction. The president agreed and presented a credible, realistic plan to cut $4 trillion from the debt over 12 years.

GOP officials obviously weren't going to like his vision, but I'm a little surprised they're still whining that Obama was mean to them.

The three Republican congressmen saw it as a rare ray of sunshine in Washington's stormy budget battle: an invitation from the White House to hear President Obama lay out his ideas for taming the national debt.

They expected a peace offering, a gesture of goodwill aimed at smoothing a path toward compromise. But soon after taking their seats at George Washington University on Wednesday, they found themselves under fire for plotting "a fundamentally different America" from the one most Americans know and love.

"What came to my mind was: Why did he invite us?" Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said in an interview Thursday. "It's just a wasted opportunity."

Paul Ryan was reportedly "furious" and complained that the speech "was extremely political, very partisan."

It's worth fleshing this out, because there are some important angles to keep in mind.

First, the Republicans' politics of personal grievance is based solely on their hurt feelings. They're not saying the president lied or that his numbers don't add up, but rather, they're outraged that Obama was a big meanie. That's kind of pathetic, and it reinforces fears that the House GOP majority is dominated by right-wing lawmakers with temperament of children.

Second, exactly what kind of reaction did Republicans seriously expect? Their fraudulent and callous budget plan, approved yesterday despite bipartisan opposition, eliminates Medicare. It punishes the elderly, the disabled, and low-income families, and rewards millionaires and billionaires. It calls for devastating cuts that would do widespread damage to the middle class and the economy. Were Republicans seriously waiting for Obama to politely pat them on the head and say, "It's OK, you tried your best. I'll give you an A for effort"?

Third, why is it Republicans expect one-sided graciousness? They expected a "peace offering" after pushing their own plan that was "deliberately constructed to be as offensive to Democrats as it's possible to be," and didn't even bother with insincere "nods in the direction of bipartisanship." I'll never understand why Obama is expected to be conciliatory with those who refuse to do the same.

And finally, having a debate pitting two competing visions isn't a bad development. Greg Sargent's take on this rings true.

Throughout the first two years of Obama's presidency, leading Republicans have regularly claimed that Obama is taking America towards socialism. Yet when a Democratic president stands up and aggressively defends his vision and worldview, and contrasts it sharply with that of his foes, something's wrong. That's not supposed to happen.

Obama's characterization of the GOP vision was harsh. But so what? Politics is supposed to be an impassioned argument over what we all think the country should be. Is it possible to cross lines? Sure, but Obama didn't cross any lines -- in fairness, neither has Ryan -- and no one was blindsided. No one was the victim of any sneak attack. We should want politicians who think their opponents' worldviews are deeply wrongheaded to be free to say so in very vivid terms. Otherwise, what's the point of it all?

I'd add just one last point. For two years, Obama pleaded with Republicans to play a constructive role, work in good faith, and compromise. They refused. Lucy doesn't get to complain when Charlie Brown doesn't want to run at a football that's going to be pulled away anyway.

Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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April 15, 2011

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

* Libya: "Military forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who have surrounded [Misurata] and vowed to crush its anti-Qaddafi rebellion, have been firing into residential neighborhoods with heavy weapons, including cluster bombs that have been banned by much of the world and ground-to-ground rockets, according to the accounts of witnesses and survivors and physical evidence on the ground."

* Afghanistan: "A suicide bomber in a police uniform assassinated the provincial police chief in Kandahar on Friday afternoon, the latest in a series of high-profile killings of government officials in the southern city, according to Afghan officials."

* A couple of tidbits of good economic news: "The Federal Reserve reported that U.S. factories increased production for the ninth straight month. Separately, the Labor Department said consumer prices rose just 0.1 percent last month excluding food and gas prices. That's lower than the 0.2 percent increase economists were expecting."

* Apparently, when President Obama is speaking privately to supporters, and he doesn't think anyone else is listening, he says pretty much the same things he says in public.

* This Taxpayer Receipt idea is actually pretty good.

* On a related note, a lot of Americans don't want to hear this, but by industrialized international standards, taxes in the United States are quite low.

* Late yesterday, the latest in a series of Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood failed.

* Fox News inexplicably ran a story that seemed to link an Obama speech at George Washington University with a student suicide the same day. The Republican network pulled the story today after a request from the university.

* An especially good column from Paul Krugman, and not just because it included a quote from John Cole.

* Gen. Stanley McChrystal will serve on a White House commission on military families. Pat Tillman's mother is urging his removal from the panel.

* GOP policy on the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay: "For Republicans, Gitmo is now the fictional Chateau d'If: Everyone there is guilty, and no one held at Gitmo should ever be allowed to leave."

* True: "You don't win the future by cutting back on your physical infrastructure out of fear of taxing pollution. Just saying."

* And after Republicans dragged Walgreens into their culture war, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is now using LensCrafters' name. The company apparently doesn't appreciate it, and noted that the right-wing lawmaker is "using our name without our knowledge or permission."

Anything to add? Consider this an open thread.

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

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QUOTE OF THE DAY.... Almost immediately after Paul Ryan unveiled his budget plan, David Brooks gushed that the agenda "will become the 2012 Republican platform, no matter who is the nominee."

To quote Rupert Giles, I'd like to test that theory.

During a Tea Party rally in New Hampshire, likely presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R) endorsed the Ryan proposal, saying, "as a general matter and directionally, I think Paul Ryan's plan moves in the right direction." But when I pressed him over whether he supports maintaining some of the Medicare cuts that are part of health care reform, Pawlenty demurred, and took another question.

After Pawlenty praised Ryan's "direction," Igor Volsky asked, "Do you support the Medicare cuts in his plan that he keeps from Obamacare?"

Pawlenty responded, "Anybody else have a question besides this guy?"

I suspect we'll be hearing this kind of response quite a bit over the next year or so. The Republican presidential field will have all kinds of litmus tests -- abortion, gays, taxes, climate change, Affordable Care Act -- but how many will endorse the elimination of Medicare?

Steve Benen 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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WORST. CHARACTER REFERENCE. EVER.... Republican television personality Donald Trump told a radio show yesterday, "I have a great relationship with the blacks. I've always had a great relationship with the blacks."

That kind of phrasing may sound ridiculous -- because it is -- but Trump need not worry; Pat Buchanan has his back.

For those who can't watch clips from work computers, Buchanan defended Trump on MSNBC this morning, saying, "I don't find any malice in what he said in that statement about the black folks."

And if there's one person who can speak with credibility on what does and does not represent racial animus, it's Pat Buchanan.

Remember, a couple of years ago, Buchanan encouraged the Republican Party to engage in more race baiting and insisted that the key to GOP success in the future is doing more to appeal to whites.

Not exactly the ideal character witness.

Steve Benen 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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LIKE LEMMINGS OFF A CLIFF.... House Republicans, after a very brief debate and a week of consideration, actually voted to pass Paul Ryan's radical budget plan this afternoon. The final vote was 235 to 193. No Democrats voted for the measure, and despite some GOP anxiety going into the vote, only four Republicans had the nerve to vote against it. [Update: Here's the roll call.]

ryanvote.jpg

The GOP leadership and Paul Ryan are no doubt pleased with themselves for pushing this extremist proposal through the House so quickly, with a largely unified caucus. As it turns out, perhaps the only people even happier with the outcome are House Democrats.

For anyone who takes these matters seriously, the Ryan plan is a radical mess. Its numbers don't add up and it's based on fraudulent expectations. It eliminates Medicare, guts Medicaid, slashes funding for key domestic priorities, and lavishes another massive tax break on millionaires and billionaires. The whole initiative is sold as a deficit reduction plan, but it doesn't actually reduce the deficit -- it just shrinks government and transfers wealth from the bottom up, imposing cruelty on elderly, disabled, and working families.

But nearly every single Republican in the chamber voted for it anyway. A year after running a campaign agenda that bashed Democrats for Medicare reductions, practically the entirety of the House GOP just voted to privatize Medicare out of existence.

Democrats can barely believe their good fortune.

Paul Begala noted the other day, "I hope every vulnerable Republican in Congress signs on to the Ryan plan to kill Medicare, because we will beat 'em like a bad piece of meat." Non-partisan election analyst Charlie Cook thinks the plan may even put the GOP's House majority in jeopardy.

And this morning, DCCC Chair Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) told Greg Sargent, "When we win back the majority, people will look back at this vote as a defining one that secured the majority for Democrats."

The polling on this is unambiguous -- Americans aren't buying what Republicans are selling. Indeed, the GOP has it entirely backwards, killing programs the public wants expanded, cutting taxes the public wants raised.

Not only did 98% of the House Republican caucus agree to take the leap off this cliff, they did so knowing full well that this budget plan has absolutely no chance whatsoever of passing the Senate.

It's likely Americans won't watch today's developments especially closely. There's been very little national debate about this budget plan -- it was only introduced last week -- and the public doesn't realize exactly what this agenda includes.

But it's Democrats' job to remind Americans about this remarkable vote every day for the next year and a half. By all indications, Dems are eager to do just that.

This was a test for the Republican Party. In 2011, is the party really that radical? Does it really have that few moderates left? Is the GOP really that far gone that extremism that was up until very recently considered beyond the pale can now enjoy overwhelming support in the party?

We received a loud-and-clear answer to these questions this afternoon. Voters will have their chance to offer an answer of their own a year from November.

Steve Benen 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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THE BRITISH MODEL THE GOP IS SO FOND OF.... A few months ago, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama urged President Obama to follow the lead set by our friends across the pond: "We need a budget with a bold vision -- like [the one] unveiled in Britain."

This isn't an uncommon sentiment on the right. British officials are pursuing policies similar to those Republicans are demanding in the United States, so GOP praise for Cameron and his austerity agenda has been incorporated into the party's talking points on many occasions.

And how's that British model working out?

In the United States, the debate over how to cut the long-term budget deficit is just getting under way.

But in Britain, one year into its own controversial austerity program to plug a gaping fiscal hole, the future is now. And for the moment, the early returns are less than promising.

Retail sales plunged 3.5 percent in March, the sharpest monthly downturn in Britain in 15 years. And a new report by the Center for Economic and Business Research, an independent research group based here, forecasts that real household income will fall by 2 percent this year. That would make Britain's income squeeze the worst for two consecutive years since the 1930s. [...]

"My view is that we are in serious danger of a double-dip recession," said Richard Portes, an economist at the London Business School. "This is going to be a cautionary tale."

To be sure, there are some differences between Tories and Republicans -- Tories are so serious about deficit reduction, they're willing to raise taxes. Republicans want to privatize Medicare out of existence, while British conservatives are just cutting social programs' budgets.

But the larger point remains the same. The Cameron government believes the path to prosperity runs though fewer public services, less public investment, and counting on low interest rates to save the day. This experiment isn't working at all.

Remind me again why Republicans are so eager to follow Britain's lead? Why they see the cautionary tale, and don't care?

Steve Benen 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE STORY IS THE GOP BASE, NOT TRUMP'S LEAD.... Last week, an NBC poll showed reality-show personality Donald Trump running second nationwide in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Earlier this week, a CNN poll showed Trump tied for the lead.

This morning, Public Policy Polling shows the strange man actually taking the lead.

Trump's broken the perpetual gridlock we've found at the top of the Republican field, getting 26% to 17% for Mike Huckabee, 15% for Romney, 11% for Newt Gingrich, 8% for Sarah Palin, 5% for Ron Paul, and 4% for Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty.

The same poll found 23% of Republican primary voters -- nearly a fourth -- will only consider birthers when picking a presidential candidate, while 38% will only consider candidates who reject the racist conspiracy theory (the rest weren't sure).

Yes, it's true that at this stage in the process, high name recognition plays a significant role, and Trump has been a well known national figure for many years. But that alone doesn't explain the results from three credible national polls. Indeed, they can't -- Trump was just as well known last month, and his support wasn't nearly this strong.

But while the PPP survey seems likely to touch off another round of discussion about Trump's viability as a national candidate, I still think that's missing the point. In fact, I don't really expect him to run for office at all.

The likely reason Trump's support is so high is his willingness to run around to media outlets, spewing conspiracy theories and bizarre ideas that resonate with easily-fooled extremists. And as the lunacy gets more intense, polls show more Republican voters gravitating to the guy.

The symptoms aren't as relevant as the disease. In this case, the GOP base includes a big chunk of very strange people who connect with a clownish television personality who's playing to their worst instincts.

And that's what's important here. What the polls tell us about Trump's support is secondary to what the polls tell us about the hysterical wing of the Republican Party and their prominence in the contemporary GOP.

A reality-show personality has been whining incessantly about the president's birth certificate, and a sizeable contingent of the GOP base has decided that's enough to make him an attractive presidential candidate. The question isn't whether Trump can win; the question is what we're learning about the strain of madness running through today's Republican Party.

Steve Benen 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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HOUSE DEMS' CLEVER MOVE PUTS GOP IN TOUGH SPOT.... If you were fortunate enough to be watching the House floor this morning, you happened to catch the House Democratic minority pulling an entertaining fast one on Republicans.

The House will vote this afternoon on Paul Ryan's radical 2012 budget plan, but before members weigh in on that measure, an amendment was brought up, allowing House members to vote on the even-more-unhinged Republican Study Committee budget plan, whose architects think Paul Ryan is a moderate.

It wasn't expected to be close, since Democrats and less-crazy Republicans would defeat it. But Dems had a better idea: why not vote "present" and let Republicans fight amongst themselves?*

A proposal by conservatives to make deep cuts to spending and tax rates was defeated, but only after last-minute maneuvering by Democrats on the House floor.

The Republican Study Committee's (RSC) alternative to Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) 2012 budget went down in a 119-136 vote, gaveled shut only after Democratic leaders started pushing members to switch their "no" votes to "present," in order to force a face-off between conservatives and the Republican leadership. A total of 176 lawmakers voted "present."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Twitter: "Dems voting present on RSC budget to highlight GOP divisions, plans to end Medicare - which bdgt does GOP support? Ryan or Ryan on steroids?"

It was a clever idea. Most Republicans were inclined to support the truly insane RSC proposal, but with so many Dems voting "present," there was a very real chance that the RSC plan would actually pass -- and it, not Paul Ryan's plan, would be the approved budget plan for the House.

And it nearly worked. Many Republicans who'd voted for the RSC plan had to scramble to switch their votes and avoid a huge embarrassment. Indeed, the result itself was still pretty embarrassing -- there are 176 members of the Republican Study Committee, but only 119 Republicans voted for the RSC's plan.

For Congress watchers, this was quite a bit more drama than we're accustomed to seeing. David Kurtz noted that "chaos erupted" on the House floor, while The Hill said the final minutes of the vote "were characterized by shouting more typical of the British parliament than the U.S. Congress."

Let me just state this again for the record: Nancy Pelosi is a very effective caucus leader.

* edited for accuracy

Steve Benen 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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

* Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is the latest Republican presidential hopeful to create a "testing the waters" account that will allow him to start raising money for his national campaign. He's the fifth candidate to do so, and probably means Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will have to wait until 2016 to launch his own pointless campaign.

* Redistricting is already causing a stir in Iowa, with Rep. Tom Latham (R) announcing this morning he'll take on Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) in the newly-redrawn 3rd district. It'll be one of many contests pitting incumbent House members against other incumbent House members.

* Michigan Republicans had hoped to recruit former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) to run for the Senate next year against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D), but he announced this morning he isn't running.

* The conventional wisdom suggests the Democratic majority in the Senate is likely to disappear in 2012, but Nate Silver's latest analysis notes, "I don't think the Republicans are terribly heavy favorites: instead just a wee bit above 50 percent."

* On a related note, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Patty Murray yesterday outlined her committee's plans for the 2012 cycle, including an informal endorsement of Rep. Shelley Berkley's (D) campaign in Nevada. Murray said DSCC is "aggressively recruiting" candidates in Massachusetts, Indiana, Maine, Arizona, and Texas, and hopes bitter GOP primaries in some of those races will improve Dems' odds.

* In Ohio, state Treasurer Josh Mandel is arguably the only credible Republican eager to take on Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), and has begun staffing up for the campaign.

* In New Hampshire, former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) lost by an 11-point margin last year, but she's nevertheless trying to set up a rematch against Rep. Frank Guinta (R) for next year.

* Speaking of the Granite State, it's generally assumed that Mitt Romney is the heavy favorite in New Hampshire's presidential primary, but Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour intends to try there anyway.

* And in case Rep. Ron Paul and Sen. Rand Paul weren't quite enough, Dr. Robert Paul is apparently considering a Republican Senate campaign in Texas, in the seat currently held by the retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

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

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BREAKING BREAD WON'T BE ENOUGH.... Last week, the New York Times' David Brooks was one of the highest-profile pundits to celebrate Paul Ryan's budget plan. Given the proposal's radical and fraudulent qualities, it was not Brooks' finest moment.

But with President Obama offering a serious, credible debt-reduction alternative this week, I've actually found myself curious what Brooks would have to say this week.

This wasn't what I wanted to see.

President Obama and Paul Ryan are two of the smartest, most admirable and most genial men in Washington. It is sad, although not strange, that in today's Washington they have never had a serious private conversation. The president has never invited Ryan over even for lunch.

As a result, both men are misinformed about the other, and both have developed a cold contempt for the other's position. Obama believes Ryan wants to take America back to what he sees as the savage capitalism of the 1920s (or even the 1760s). Ryan believes Obama wants to turn America into a declining European welfare state.

As Atrios noted, "It's not too big a jump to conclude that the lack of an invitation from Obama for lunch was a detail fed to Brooksy by Ryan. The point being, when they aren't obsessed with making life impossible for poor and old people, they're obsessing about their social calendar. Really weird people."

Agreed. I'd add that the rest of Brooks' piece is premised on Ryan's credibility. The columnist takes it on faith that the Republican Budget Committee chairman is deeply and genuinely concerned with unsustainable debt. Indeed, Brooks sounds the alarm that "global markets" may soon "lose confidence in America's debt, with catastrophic consequences."

What Brooks simply doesn't want to consider is the fact that Paul Ryan's numbers don't add up; Ryan's plan barely tries to reduce the deficit for the next couple of decades; and that the Wisconsin Republican's budget proposal includes a massive tax cut to the very wealthy, moving further away from debt reduction, and paid for in part by slashing benefits to the elderly, the disabled, and low-income families.

That's not a partisan spin or an ideological twist on facts. That's Paul Ryan's plan. It's as fraudulent as it is extreme.

Whether Ryan and the president grab a sandwich together won't change this basic truth.

Steve Benen 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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THE CANDIDATE IN DESPERATE NEED OF A CALCULATOR AND AN ECONOMICS TEXTBOOK.... Late last year, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) gave us his first big hint that his grasp of economics is awfully weak. In December, commenting on unemployment, Pawlenty declared that the private sector is losing jobs while public-sector jobs are "booming" -- which is the exact opposite of reality.

But as his presidential campaign continues, Pawlenty's grasp on the basics appears to be getting worse.

Tim Pawlenty endeared himself to enthused Republican activists [in New Hampshire] Thursday with an impassioned attack against President Barack Obama's rhetoric on the looming debt-ceiling fight, accusing him of misleading on the issue.

"President Obama has set up a false choice," Pawlenty said at an evening meeting of the Nashua Area Republican City Committee. "He has said either raise the debt ceiling or the United States of America will default on its bills to outside creditors, which could set off a series of negative events."

Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and presidential hopeful, was forceful in opposing any increase in the country's debt limit.

As Pawlenty sees it, once the government reaches the debt ceiling, the Obama administration should start moving money around, picking and choosing which bills should be paid first with the existing cash flow. Told this might cause anxiety in the credit market, and disrupt the economy, the former governor said he wasn't sure that's true.

Dave Weigel called Pawlenty's approach "fairly stupid," and it is. The larger point, though, is that pretty much everything Pawlenty says about economic, fiscal, and monetary policy is also fairly stupid.

His claims about his own budget record are at odds with reality. Pawlenty's condemnation of the stimulus doesn't match his reliance on the stimulus to boost Minnesota's economy. When Pawlenty recently commented on fiat money, his remarks were accurately described as "idiocy."

Let's also not forget that in December 2008, at the height of a global economic crisis and the United States facing a brutal depression, Pawlenty stepped up to offer a solution: a five-year spending freeze and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Now, I don't know Pawlenty well, and it's possible he's smarter than he's letting on. Maybe he's running around making blisteringly stupid claims in order to impress the right-wing GOP base. That's what Republican presidential candidates generally do.

But if Pawlenty actually means what he's saying, his approach to economic, fiscal, and monetary policy isn't just wrong; it's dangerous. If he's selling nonsense to win a primary, Pawlenty is a cynical hack. If he's sincere, Pawlenty has absolutely no idea what he's talking about.

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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'TOO MUCH REVENUE'.... About 10 years ago, President Clinton handed off a large budget surplus to President Bush, who immediately set out to make it disappear. As the Republican president saw it, if the government was taking in more than it was spending, it necessarily meant Washington was "charging" the American people too much.

The government, the argument went, had "too much revenue." The proof was right there in the surplus -- roughly $200 billion more was coming in than going out.

A decade later, the Republican approach has changed. If Bush's logic (I use the word loosely) were right, and surpluses, by definition, meant Americans were charged too much, then it stood to reason that deficits, by definition, meant Americans are being charged too little.

Except, that's not how this game works. We have a $1.5 trillion deficit and a $14 trillion debt, most of which is the result of Republican fiscal irresponsibility. But the standard GOP line now is that it's important to address this problem without taking in so much as an extra penny.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) got this started late last year, arguing, "I really want to see that we can come together and agree upon the notion that Washington doesn't need more revenues right now." As foolish as this argument sounds, it's become a standard GOP talking point. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) declared this week, "We don't need more revenue!" Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Texas) insisted yesterday that the federal government has "too much revenue as it is."

I'd like to think this is absurd on its face. The analogy is admittedly imprecise, but imagine a family was in debt and struggling with its finances, and the breadwinners declared, "We'll be better off if don't bring any additional money. Indeed, maybe we should ask our employers to cut our pay."

Alex Seitz-Wald explained this well.

As a share of GDP, government revenue in 2009 (the most recent year available) was at its "lowest since 1950." ... But even before the recession, there simply wasn't enough money coming into the federal government to cover costs, forcing the government to borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spends, as Republicans like to remind Americans so frequently. [...]

There wasn't "too much revenue" in 2001, and there's far less today.

To reduce a budget shortfall, the government needs more money coming in, less money going out, or some combination of the two. The Republican solution in 2011 is to ensure the government has less money coming in, which isn't one of the sane options.

Steve Benen 10:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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