Political Animal


April 16, 2014 6:20 PM Day’s End and Night Watch

My Wednesday morning energy surge subsided, or maybe it was just sucked out of me by reading a day’s worth of dog-bites-man stories. By the time some interesting stuff (see below) appeared late in the day, it was just more than I could quickly absorb.

Here are the remains of the day:

* The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto spends a lot of space sniping at my TPMCafe column on racism from last week. I guess if he can wait a week to take me on, I can wait a day or two to respond.

* Pew’s latest “State of the News Media” report tries to grapple with the new effusion of online news enterprises against the background of continuing declines in traditional news-gathering and ad revenue. More about that tomorrow, too.

* Susana Martinez basically confirms every negative thing said about her in Andy Kroll’s Mojo profile of the New Mexico governor via her shrill overreaction to a relatively mild piece.

* At Ten Miles Square, Jonathan Bernstein runs through all the reasons Obamacare’s basic structure guarantees it bad publicity and poor polling numbers.

* At College Guide, Clare McCann notes new CBO numbers indicating the Pell Grant program is—temporarily at least—still some distance from insolvency.

And in non-political news:

* Pope Francis offers a couple of kids in the crowd at St. Peter’s Square a ride in the Popemobile.

That’s it for Wednesday. Let’s close with one more piece of hallucinogenic music. It’s a long one, but great fun: Procol Harum’s “In Held Twas I.”


April 16, 2014 5:49 PM Give ‘Em What They Want

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball did a piece over the weekend assessing the relative performances of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz at a big Tea Party event in New Hampshire, and her perspective is worth noting:

Paul began on a thundering note, invoking Thomas Paine and calling on listeners to “stand like men and women of courage and fight for your freedom.” He barely mentioned healthcare reform, focusing instead on his pitch to broaden the appeal of the GOP by changing the way it is perceived.
“If you want to grow the movement, we cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street,” he said. Paul went on to argue against indefinite detention, to mock Justice Department terrorist profiling, and to argue for more lenient sentences for marijuana dealing—nontraditional conservative subjects that seemed to perplex the audience.
Cruz, on the other hand, told the crowd only what he knew it wanted to hear. His speech, unlike Paul’s, was infused with personality, beginning with cute stories about his young daughters. Of his defiant five-year-old, Caroline, who likes to play a game she calls “attack the Daddy,” he mused that she must be taking her cues from Senate Republican leadership.

Ball compared their approaches in NH with the subjects they each chose for their big moments on the Senate floor, with Paul focusing on use of drones—not a big priority even for the conservatives who actually oppose it—and Cruz, of course, demanding a “defunding” of Obamacare.

Which flavor of “constitutional conservatism” did the Tea Folk of the Granite State prefer? It was no contest:

In interviews with a dozen audience members, I could find only one who preferred Paul to Cruz.

People prefer being told they are not just right, but damned right, and if Republicans spent all their time explaining why Tea Folk are damned right, then they’d win more elections, right?

April 16, 2014 4:58 PM The Obama-Biden Job Training Initiative

I was probably one of the few general-purpose gabbers in the country who got excited during the 2014 State of the Union Address when the president announced he’d asked Joe Biden to head up a major effort to overhaul federal job training programs. Conservatives sometimes pay lip service to such programs, but really believe employers themselves—and the harsh realities of market forces—are the only source for effective job training. And many liberals are suspicious of training programs as a poor substitute for more direct interventions to create or retain the jobs for which workers are already equipped.

Whatever you think of their importance, though, it’s hard to deny that existing federal training programs represent a hodgepodge of poorly coordinated and inadequately funded efforts operating in their own little bureaucratic ghetto. So I looked forward to a fresh look at them, and perhaps even a rare bipartisan initiative.

Well, I should have known better. The administration has now announced the fruits of Biden’s labor today, and as one might have expected, they are limiting themselves to what they can do within existing resources without congressional approval:

Striving to show action on jobs, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are trumpeting $600 million in new competitive grants to spur creation of targeted training and apprenticeship programs that could help people land well-paying jobs.
Obama and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker arrived Wednesday afternoon in Pennsylvania, where Biden and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., were waiting to greet them. Obama and Biden were to make the grants announcement at the Community College of Allegheny County West Hills Center in the western Pennsylvania borough of Oakdale….
The programs that Obama and his Pennsylvania-born vice president are announcing do not need approval from Congress because they will be paid for with money that lawmakers have already authorized for spending….
The larger of the two grant programs will put nearly $500 million toward a job training competition run by the Labor Department that is designed to encourage community colleges, employers and industry to work together to create training programs that are geared toward the jobs employers need to fill. Applications will be available starting Wednesday.
The training is part of an existing competitive grant program for community colleges that prepare dislocated workers and others for jobs….
The Labor Department is also making an additional $100 million available for grants to reward partnerships that expand apprenticeship programs.

Now there’s nothing wrong with either of these initiatives. Community colleges are indeed an important and underfunded source of vocational training, and some of them have found innovative ways to partner with employers, trainers, unions, and other entities crucial to the job market. And I’ve long thought apprenticeships—a big part of the job preparation scheme in other countries, notably Germany—were an under-utilized avenue for skills training.

But this isn’t quite the top-to-bottom overhaul, supported by national-scale funding, I originally hoped for (not that House Republicans would have easily gone along in any event).

I suppose it is safe to say that appropriately scaled jobs initiatives rather than symbolic gestures is an endemic problem for this administration. Again, Obama is not the main problem here, but it would be nice to hear more recognition from the president and the vice president that this country is in a profound economic and moral crisis over the growing disconnect between the economic rewards distributed to capital as opposed to labor. Even if it is difficult for any one administration, especially one dealing with a hostile U.S. House of Representative, to take major steps to deal with this crisis, it needs to be explained every single day as the context for what can be done.

April 16, 2014 4:22 PM Abortion and Evolutionary Biology

Tom Edsall focuses today on the much-observed differences between the trajectory of public opinion on two religion-inflected hot-button cultural issues of recent years, same-sex marriage and abortion. The trend lines in favor of marriage equality are unmistakable—not only a rapid movement from “pro” to “anti” sentiment, but one accompanied by massive generational differences that appear to doom the “traditional marriage” position over time—and are largely absent on abortion, where, despite occasional efforts (especially by antichoicers) to spin small trends (usually based on subtle differences in how questions are asked) into something bigger, public opinion appears to have been fundamentally stable for decades.

Instead of probing around the edges of public opinion on abortion, Edsall instead leaps into conjecture that opposition to reproductive rights are based generally on evolutionary biology, and specifically on male efforts to restrict or otherwise control women’s naturally central role in reproduction. At National Review’s The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru legitimately complains that Edsall doesn’t deal with the consistent absence of gender differences in opinion on abortion, and also doesn’t explain why evolutionary biology doesn’t incline the same men who supposedly dictate abortion policy to insist on limiting the prevalence of lesbianism, another threat to the “natural order” of things.

Ponnuru, author of the antichoice tome Party of Death, likely regards his own position as being based on a combination of religious belief and science, which, as a Catholic, he considers mutually reinforcing. So he’s not terribly open to the idea that his desire to outlaw abortion is merely the product of an evolutionary impulse to control women, and has little or no rational content at all.

Now as it happens, I am, despite my recently acquired reputation as someone inclined to promiscuously accuse conservatives of racism, usually willing to take seriously the arguments—including religious arguments—people offer for taking the positions they choose to take on public policy topics. In fact, I’ve had quite a few arguments with fellow prochoicers who refuse to accept as genuine any rationale for opposing legalized abortion other than a generalized hostility to women or to women’s sexuality. But acknowledging that people can genuinely oppose abortion on religious grounds is not the same as denying that their religious views can be affected by secular attitudes towards women or sex or women having sex. The more I think about the very sudden enlistment of many millions of conservative evangelicals in the antichoice movement, mostly during the 1980s, the more it seems plain to me that it reflects a backlash to the liberalized sexual and gender trends that accompanied legalized abortion more than any mass self-education on embryology or thunderstruck reading of the random biblical quotations trotted out to justify Christian Right positions. But that’s very different from the claims cited by Edsall suggesting that the whole antifeminist cause is just a rearguard action dictated by male chromosomes.

Culture—including religion—matters a lot in politics. Wishing it away is a mistake. But the very good news for progressives is that culture—even religion—is more malleable than genetics. I sometimes despair of the abortion wars ever ending. But just as the antichoice (most recently becoming an anti-birth control) movement among conservative evangelicals seemed to come out of nowhere and sweep all before it, a contrary trend is entirely possible some day, and that’s also true among Catholics whose faith has built-in if slow and creaky mechanisms for changing doctrine. That seems a more optimistic scenario than waiting for men to rid themselves of a savage evolutionary hangover.

April 16, 2014 2:06 PM Lunch Buffet

I’m feeling better than I have in weeks, and awoke all rarin’ to blog—but couldn’t seem to force the political gods to generate much real news.

Here’s what I have for midday snacking:

* Mark Pryor has now led Tom Cotton in four straight polls of Arkansas voters, despite massive CW that he is toast.

* Iraq, Somalia, the Phillipines, Sri Lanka and now Syria comprise top five on Global Impunity Index of countries where journalists murdered and killers stay free.

* Oklahoma public school district adopts “secular” curriculum for study of Bible—developed by president of Hobby Lobby. Now what sort of intoloerant atheists could object to that?

* At The Atlantic, Emma Green wonders if new Tennessee law protecting “religious expression” in schools will actually protect bullying of gay kids.

* IRS considering new rules to treat employer-sponsored “perks” like job-site food and gym memberships as taxable compensation.

And in non-political news:

* AC/DC retirement rumors shot down.

As we break for lunch, here’s some 60s trippiness from Small Faces, with “Itchycoo Park.”

April 16, 2014 1:43 PM The Candidate’s Best Friend: Cash On Hand

We’ll soon be getting into the meat of the 2014 primary season, with North Carolina, Indiana and Ohio voting on May 6; Nebraska and West Virginia on May 13; and Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon and Pennsylvania on May 20. Polling is still sparse in most states, and polling of primaries is a risky venture in any case. But you can often separate contenders from pretenders late in the game by looking at their financial resources.

First quarter fundraising numbers for the fiery Senate race in Georgia show a pretty significant division of the field, particularly in terms of cash on hand for any sort of late push. I’m sad to report that Rep. Paul Broun heads into the home stretch with only $224,730. It’s beginning to look like it will take a scattered vote and an intense level of turnout among his devotees to vault everybody’s favorite wingnut to a runoff. Another early favorite, Karen Handel, also continues to struggle financially, with $386,795 on hand. (It’s beginning to become apparent that David Perdue’s presence in the race has sapped Handel’s past fundraising base in the network of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, David’s cousin.) Perdue has $700,000 on hand, but has likely already bought some ads, and also has the capacity to throw more personal money into the campaign whenever he wants. Meanwhile, Jack Kingston, the wily appropriator who is buying himself a conservative reputation, has $2.1 million on hand despite heavy ad spending. And most surprising of all, Phil Gingrey has $2.4 million. Gingrey, however, is having to deal with a stunning profusion of attack ads from an outside conservative group (largely funded by Joe Ricketts) that initially looked like its focus would be going after Democrat Michelle Nunn.

Speaking of Nunn, she now has $3.9 million on hand, following the obvious strategy of quietly campaigning while waiting for the GOP candidates to tear each other apart. And as noted before, those Republicans still have to get through a runoff after May 20.

April 16, 2014 1:09 PM The Awful Specter of a New Health Care Cost Spiral

If you want to remain anxious about something related to health care policy over the next few months, you’d be advised to focus not on the familiar Obamacare statistics of people covered or even short-term insurance premium trends, but on indicators that ol’ debbil, medical cost inflation, might be returning. Sarah Kliff has the basics from her new perch at Vox:

A four-year slowdown in health spending growth could be coming to an end.
Americans used more medical care in 2013 as the economy recovered, new reports show. Federal data suggests that health care spending is now growing just as quickly as it was prior to the recession.
“We’re at the highest level of growth since the slowdown began,” Paul Hughes-Cromwick, a senior health economist at the Altarum Institute, which tracks health spending. “You have to go back seven years to see growth like this.”
More health spending can sometimes be a good thing: it might reflect more Americans gaining health insurance and seeking out needed medical care as the economy recovers.
But it also present challenges for the government. More than a quarter of the federal budget already goes towards health programs. That number could rise if health care costs started growing faster than the rest of the economy again.

The cross-talk over resumed medical inflation reflects an older debate: was the four-year slowdown a product of the recession, or of the cost-containment features of the Affordable Care Act? And either way, is a new strategy for cost-containment urgently needed?

Any clear sign of renewed medical inflation will almost certainly lead both conservatives and progressives to ramp up the volume on their own prescriptions, with the former arguing for a more “market-oriented” system relying on competition among private actors (supplemented by disincentives to “over-utilization” of medical services) and the latter calling for a more aggressive public role in squeezing the profit margins of both providers and insurers. There could also be renewed attention to less prominently discussed cost-boosting factors, like the rapid consolidation of hospitals and other health care providers that the Washington Monthly’s Phil Longman warned would almost certainly touch off a cost spiral unless measures are taken to enforce antitrust laws and regulate providers much as we do “common carriers.”

The maddening thing, of course, is that Obamacare critics will blame the Affordable Care Act for any renewed medical inflation, even as they fight the very provisions—such as greater scrutiny of medical procedures, devices and pharmaceuticals reimbursed under Medicare—that might help bring and keep costs under control. Let’s hope the initial alarming numbers turn out to be premature, or just wrong.

April 16, 2014 11:42 AM “Personhood” As a Campaign Issue

At Plum Line this morning, Greg Sargent compiles a handy list of Republican Senate candidates who have either endorsed “personhood” initiatives endowing zygotes with full constitutional rights, or have rejected popular rape-and-incest exceptions to hypothetical abortion bans:

Co-sponsors of the Life at Conception Act include Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rep. Steve Daines of Montana, both expected general election candidates. Meanwhile, according to McClatchy, three leading GOP Senate candidates in North Carolina — Thom Tillis, Greg Brannon, and Mark Harris — all favor a “Personhood” constitutional amendment that would “grant legal protections to a fertilized human egg and possibly ban some forms of birth control.”
In Georgia, three top Senate candidates — Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, and Jack Kingston — all co-sponsored the “Sanctity of Human Life Act,” which gives “full human rights to human zygotes from the moment of fertilization,” as Laura Bassett puts it. In Iowa, state senator Joni Ernst — who is running against Dem Bruce Braley — supported a “Personhood” amendment to the state constitution. In Michigan, Terri Lynn Land didn’t mention rape or incest as exceptions to her anti-abortion stance in an interview with Politico. In Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy — who is running against Mary Landrieu — was marked down by the Louisiana Family Forum as opposing abortion in cases of rape and incest (a spokesperson said he is “staunchly pro life”).

Drawing attention to these positions can produce some real problems for the candidates in question. “Personhood” ballot initiatives have been overwhelmingly rejected twice in Colorado. Another was defeated in hyper-conservative Mississippi by a 58-42 margin. “Personhood” advocates have failed to get ballot initiatives certified in a variety of other states.

But for the most part, the “Personhood” movement has operated under the radar screen, and a surprising number of conservative pols have embraced it as way to distinguish themselves from the standard Republican “pro-life” stance focused on late-term abortions. Public attention may perhaps push some of them into the uncomfortable straddle assumed by Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who has disclaimed his earlier support for his state’s personhood movement even though he continues to cosponsor federal legislation based on the same idea of protecting zygotes from the moment of fertilization.

More generally, the focus on “personhood” is a useful way to expose the radicalism underlying the nearly universal Republican opposition to reproductive rights, aimed not only at banning abortion at any stage of pregnancy but at proscribing widely used birth control methods (or providing legal protection to those who seek to keep their employees from using employer-sponsored health insurance to obtain such contraceptives: the key issue in the Hobby Lobby case).

At a minimum, no candidate for Senate should be allowed to make it to November without clarifying their position on “personhood” or abortion exceptions. As Todd Akin showed in 2012, the rationalizations offered for antichoice positions are often highly illuminating.

April 16, 2014 10:37 AM Is Sebelius a Glutton For Punishment?

You have to get to the eighth graph in Jeremy Peters’ New York Times piece on Kathleen Sebelius today to find out that talk about the outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services running for the U.S. Senate this year are not coming from anyone who actually knows her. More likely, rumors that she may take on Pat Roberts emanate from people who would struggle to name any Kansas Democrat other than Sebelius, and also can’t imagine anyone passing up a shot at a statewide office.

Considering the abuse Sebelius has put up with since accepting the HHS gig—not just from Obamacare-haters, but from the antichoicers who perpetually torment any Democrat in her position—I have no idea why she’d want to get right back out there in the public eye or even serve in the Senate in the unlikely event she was elected. Maybe I’m underestimated her spirit-mindedness, or her capacity for punishment.

April 16, 2014 10:03 AM Real and Phony Wars

Every time you turn around these days, you hear of ferocious battles over fundamental principles between Republicans and/or within the conservative movement. Separating real from limited, or strategic/tactical, or even contrived conflicts has become essential to insightful political analysis.

So I pulled together a variety of insights on real and phony wars on the Right into a column for TPMCafe. As indicated here yesterday, the only genuine “battle” I’m sure about is over foreign policy, where we are probably about to see Rand Paul’s presidential aspirations come to grief over his refusal to fully bend the knee to ancient conservative orthodoxy on the use of force and defense spending. But questioning the nature and extent of disagreement among Republicans is a useful exercise on a broad array of issues, given conflict-happy media and the incentives various factions have for exaggerating their differences. When you look beyond the talk, it’s remarkable the extent to which today’s GOPers share a vision of America that makes my toes curl.

April 16, 2014 8:48 AM Daylight Video

On this day in 1943, a Swiss chemist accidentally discovers the hallucinogenic properties of LSD. So we’ll feature some trippy music today, beginning with Jimi Hendrix’ “In 1983…A Merman I Should Turn To Be.”

April 15, 2014 5:26 PM Day’s End and Night Watch

Still blogging from Highway 101. You don’t want to know.

Here are some remains of the day:

* Government forces clash with armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

* Legislation is moving in the legislature of the Gret State of Looziana to make the Holy Bible—the King James version, mind you—-the official State Book. I figure Bobby Jindal will endorse it before breakfast.

* Obama commutes long prison sentence of Texas man convicted of possession-with-intention-to-distribute after “sentencing error.”

* At Ten Miles Square, Mark Kleiman cites Mark Begich’s ad attacking Obamacare’s detractors as a model for red-state Democrats.

* At College Guide, Jon Marcus notes California has subpar record for percentage of Latinos attending and graduating from college.

And in non-political news:

* KFC offers Kentucky Fried Corsage for prom-goers.

That’s it for Tax Day. I guess we are honor-bound to feature the relevant Beatles song as a signoff, as performed by George Harrison and Eric Clapton in Tokyo:


April 15, 2014 5:08 PM Tax Complexity: Cui Bono?

A year ago Daniel Luzer posted a Ten Miles Square item noting that tax-preparation outfits are the most obvious beneficiaries of a complex tax code, and the folks who probably don’t want you to know the IRS is willing to do your taxes for you if you ask.

Why are taxes so hard? Part of the reason seems to be that tax preparation companies’ lobbying efforts ensure that doing your taxes are really complicated.
When doing your taxes you may notice that, if you’re like most people, virtually all of the information that you’re providing is already something the government has anyway. Why do you have to go through so much effort to show your work all over again?
In addition, if you’ve ever made a mistake filling out your taxes you’ll notice something interesting. It’s not like the IRS accountants just send the forms back to you and say “do a better job, citizen.” No, they usually just fix it for you. (Granted, this often means processing takes longer and you pay more money, but still.)
So, um, how hard are taxes really? Why can’t the government do most of it for you?
Actually, it can. The tax preparation companies just don’t want taxes to be too easy, because then Americans wouldn’t use their services.

It’s too late for most people to make up their minds to take a different direction in tax preparation this year. But print out a copy of Daniel’s piece and put it in your file of receipts for next year.

April 15, 2014 4:57 PM Mitt Returns to the Campaign Trail

If it was going to happen at all, Idaho’s intense U.S. House primary makes sense as a venue for Mitt Romney’s return to the campaign trail. Yes, he’s predictably backing endangered Republican Establishment incumbent Mike Simpson. But it’s not his ideological orientation, whatever you judge it to be after his many changes of protective coloration, that makes him attractive in eastern Idaho: it’s his special status as a trailblazer for LDS folk, as the Wall Street Journal’s Beth Reinhard reports:

Mitt Romney is making his first foray into the 2014 campaign airwaves, appearing in a new U.S. Chamber of Commerce television spot touting Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson in an increasingly heated Republican primary.
It’s not surprising that the chamber would turn to the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a fellow Mormon to vouch for the congressman. The conservative eastern Idaho district has one of the highest concentrations of Mormons in the country and heavily favored Mr. Romney in the 2012 election.
“You can take it from me: the conservative choice for congress is Mike Simpson,” Mr. Romney says directly to the camera, pointing to the congressman’s opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care law and support for federal spending cuts.

Yeah, having spent the 2008 cycle posing as a “true conservative” and then spending the 2012 cycle pandering to the Right before trying to etch-a-sketch back to the center (a maneuver he blew up with his 49% video), Mitt knows all about the importance of such incantations. But in this case his image will be projected into a place where he will always wear a halo.

April 15, 2014 4:22 PM Jindal Throws Common Core to the Wolves

I’ve been reporting now and then on the growing hostility to Common Core K-12 education standards among (though not uniquely among) conservatives, even as the states frantically race to implement the initiative originally backed and designed by 48 states.

We might have guessed that the first major GOP pol to come right out for killing Common Core would be Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been frantically searching high and low for right-wing traction to move forward with a 2016 presidential campaign. Here’s the story from the Times-Pic’s Julia McDonoghue:

Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he wants to withdraw Louisiana from a consortium of states developing the assessment associated with the Common Core academic standards if the Louisiana Legislature doesn’t choose to do so on its own.
Eight state House members sent a letter to Jindal Monday afternoon asking him to nix a years-old agreement that has Louisiana helping craft the Partnership of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. The governor, who once supported Common Core and the PARCC, said he is in favor of the state’s withdrawal from the group developing the assessment at this point. Jindal also indicated that he hopes the anti-Common Core efforts currently brewing in the Legislature succeed.

It’s not entirely clear that Jindal can really get his state out of Common Core at this late date, but it’s certainly not too late for him to make a big gesture to homeschoolers and other opponents of any real public role in education other than tax subsidies (his legally troubled voucher program already took him far down that particularly twisted road).

Nationally, the big question is whether Bobby’s aggressive flip-flop will start a landslide among 2016ers and/or conservative governors. It sure makes the 2016 calculations of big-time Common Core advocate Jeb Bush tricker than ever.

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