Friday, February 26, 2010

Obama Takes Ownership

Ezra sums up the purpose of today's health care summit.
The big story out of the summit is not that Republicans and Democrats extended their hands in friendship, but that the White House has dug its heels into the dirt. The Democrats are not taking reconciliation off the table, they are not paring back the bill, and they are not extricating themselves from the issue. They think they're right on this one, and they're going to try and pass this legislation.

Today was a boost for that effort. The Democrats got hours to make their case, at an event they planned, with one of their own controlling the discussion. For that reason, I imagine that this will be the last bipartisan summit we see for awhile. The format is simply too kind to the president, and he takes advantage of it ruthlessly. When the camera panned, you could almost see Republicans wondering why they'd accepted the invitation.

The people who came off best were those who knew the most about the issue. Paul Ryan and Tom Coburn on the Republican side. Dick Durbin and Chris Dodd for the Democrats. But above all of them, the president, who got to enter, adjudicate and conclude discussions at will -- not to mention say when others didn't know that much about the issue, or weren't offering comments in good faith. That willingness to put himself above Congress, combined with the structure of the event, allowed Obama to fully dominate the proceedings, and he used the opportunity to firmly assert ownership over the health-care bill. This is now his legislation.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Old and In the GOP

Jonathan Chait comments on the success of the GOP in gaining support among the over-65 crowd.
Daniel Larison flags a Pew Survey showing that the Republican party's recent gains have come overwhelmingly among the elderly. Specifically, since 2006, Baby boomers, Generation X and Millenials have all moved 5-6 percentage points away from the Democratic Party and toward the GOP when asked which party in Congress they intend to vote for. (Though all those groups still, on the aggregate, plan to vote Democratic over Republican.) The oldest cohort, the "Silent Generation," has shown a staggering 17 point shift toward the GOP.

This seems to suggest that Republicans have successfully stoked fears of fears of "redistribution of health" -- cutting expenditures on Medicare and shifting resources toward the uninsured. (Lamar Alexander: "[D]on't cut grandma's Medicare and spend it on some new program. If you can find some savings in the waste, fraud, and abuse of grandma's Medicare, spend it on grandma.") It also explains why President Obama's health care proposal now completely fills in the Medicare "doughnut hole." The Democrats need most of all some deliverable to show to the elderly.
I would go one step further and suggest that Democrats can reverse this trend by highlighting Republican budget proposals that are based on privatizing Social Security and Medicare, hardly a pro-oldster policy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Tortured Defense

Keven Drum examines the tortured logic used by the former Bush Administration torture apologists.
A few days ago, Jonathan Bernstein pointed out that former Bush/Rumsfeld speechwriter Marc Thiessen was continuing to claim that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in 2003 helped foil a terrorist plot to crash an airplane into a Los Angeles skyscraper. This was obviously a lie. Why? Because the cell leaders of the LA plot were arrested a year before KSM was captured.

Apparently this kind of crude, low-rent deception isn't limited to Thiessen. It turns out that the same sort of clumsy lying was also part of the CIA's classified "Effectiveness Memo," which the Bush administration relied on to bolster its legal case for torturing terrorist suspects. In Newsweek yesterday, Michael Isikoff reported that the recently released Justice Department report about the lawyers who approved the CIA's interrogation program spilled the beans on what this memo said. In particular, the memo defended torture by claiming it was critical to the capture of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubayda:
One key claim in the agency memo was that the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogations of Zubaydah led to the capture of suspected “dirty bomb” plotter Jose Padilla....“Zubaydah’s reporting led to the arrest of Padilla on his arrival in Chicago in May 2003 [sic].”

But as the Justice report points out, this was wrong. “In fact, Padilla was arrested in May 2002, not 2003 ... The information ‘[leading] to the arrest of Padilla’ could not have been obtained through the authorized use of EITs.” (The use of enhanced interrogations was not authorized until Aug. 1, 2002 and Zubaydah was not waterboarded until later that month.)....As Newsweek reported last year, the information about Padilla’s plot was actually elicited from Zubaydah during traditional interrogations in the spring of 2002 by two FBI agents, one of whom, Ali Soufan, vigorously objected when the CIA started using aggressive tactics.
If torture were really as effective as the Thiessen/Cheney wing of the conservative movement thinks, they'd hardly risk resorting to such obvious lies to defend it. They'd have so much good evidence in favor of it that they wouldn't need to bother. But apparently they don't.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's Not My Tea Party

Matt notes what the polling tells us about the Tea Partiers.
Turns out that the “tea party” movement sweeping the nation is disproportionately composed of individuals who have higher-than-average incomes. It’s also disproportionately composed of men. And disproportionately composed of white people. And disproportionately composed of self-identified conservatives. And disproportionately composed of self-identified Republicans.
In other words, well-to-do conservative white men don’t much care for Barack Obama’s policies. Which, of course, is something we already knew from the exit polls back in November 2008.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It's Not a Fair Fight When One Side Changes the Rules

Paul Waldman on TAPPED reviews the core imbalance that plagues the legislative process in Washington...the fact that the Republicans have changed the rules and not only suffered no consequences, but are actually benefiting.
If you're a Democrat, chances are that on more than a few occasions in the last few months, you've heard about the latest tactical maneuver from Republicans in Congress and said, "This time they've gone too far. Surely they'll pay a price for this latest outrage."

Maybe it was when they filibustered a defense-appropriations bill (not supporting our troops!). Or maybe it was when, just after the attempted Christmas bombing, they held up confirmation of the man President Barack Obama appointed to head the Transportation Safety Administration, leaving the agency leaderless. Or maybe it was the "Shelby Shakedown," when Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby put a "hold" on 70 administration appointees so he could get some pork for his home state. Or maybe it was the way they argued that trying terrorist suspects in civilian court made Obama soft on evildoers, when the Bush administration did the same thing hundreds of times.

Every society has its rules and its norms. The former come with penalties, but the latter persist only so long as the community has some kind of informal enforcement mechanism. We used to have laws against adultery, but today marital fidelity is a norm -- you can't be imprisoned for violating it, but if it is revealed, you may suffer some public shaming. In Washington, it turns out, many of the norms people thought existed can be violated without cost.

When this session of Congress started, Republicans said to themselves something like the following: It's true that the minority in the Senate has never tried to filibuster everything, but what's to stop us? Democrats may complain about obstructionism, but to most of the Americans who pay only passing attention to politics, it just looks as if "Washington" can't pass anything -- not that one party is at fault. So the minimal cost of looking obstructionist is far outweighed by the political benefit of keeping the Democrats from accomplishing anything.
He concludes:
What we are left with is a situation in which one party is assiduously adhering to the norms it believes are still in place, while the other party long ago concluded that norms are meant to be ignored. Republicans aren't so much the "party of no"; they're the party of "yes we can" -- yes we can filibuster everything, yes we can put holds on nominees for no good reason, yes we can argue in the most dishonest ways imaginable (see panels, death), yes we can be as hypocritical as we like. The Democrats, on the other hand, continue to be the party of "maybe we shouldn't."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

It's My Party and I'll Rage If I Want To

Steve Benen hits the nail on the head with respect to Obama, tea-partiers, and taxes.
National Review published a couple of items recently about President Obama having cut taxes for 95% of working families. This is, in reality, what happened, but the conservative magazine was incredulous. "If the taxes of 95 percent of Americans actully [sic] had been cut, surely somebody other than Obama would have noticed," one NR writer put it.
It was a curious argument. It doesn't matter what President Obama did -- in this case, approval of a tax cut -- it matters what people perceive, even if the perceptions are patently false.
And perhaps no group of people is fueled more intensely by misperceptions of reality than the Tea Party crowd.
Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.
Now, we know that this 44% is wrong. We also know that in nearly every instance, the 46% are wrong, too. Indeed, my challenge to them would be to go look at their most recent paystub, and then dig up their paystub from, say, December 2008, before Obama took office. The math isn't that hard -- did their tax rate go up, down, or stay the same? Opinions and perceptions are nice, but arithmetic can be stubborn.

But as this relates to politics, John Cole noted that these folks "don't even know what they are mad about." Indeed, it's easy to forget this, but the first Tea Party crowds started protesting in March 2009 -- exactly one month after President Obama signed one of the largest tax-cut packages in American history into law. The protestors wanted to make clear that they are "taxed enough already," choosing to pretend that they hadn't just received a tax cut from the president they hate so intensely.

John added, "It really is quite amazing what you can do with a group of people who are completely uninterested in the truth, unwilling to believe anything that comes from someone other than Rush or Glenn Beck or an 'acceptable' source of information, and who have a vested interest in believing what they want to believe, reality be damned."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Health Care or Terrorism

Courtesy of Sully, a poster for the current political debate.


MUSIC: Mad World

A truly revelatory cover version of the early-80s Tears for Fears song "Mad World" performed by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews in a video directed by Michael Gondry.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Kitchen Analogy

EJ Dionne quotes a clever story told by Congressman Jay Inslee (h/t Ezra) discussing why passing health care reform is essential for the Democrats and the incoherence of those who already voted for the bills yet are leery of voting for final passage.
This made no sense to Inslee, a Democrat from Washington state. First elected to the  House in 1992, he was swept out of office in the 1994 Republican landslide that followed the collapse of Bill Clinton's health-care efforts. Four years later, Inslee returned to Congress.

"I introduced myself as a fella who was defeated in 1994, the last time we didn't pass meaningful health-care reform," Inslee recalls saying. "I said it was a painful event, and I didn't want them to go through that pain." In politics, he told his colleagues, assuming the "fetal position" can be the most dangerous thing to do.

And then he recounted all the grief he and his family went through while work on their kitchen renovation dragged on and on and on. "During that time, I had blood lust against my contractor," Inslee said. "Six months went by, and he was still arguing with the plumber. Eight months went by, and there were still wires hanging down everywhere, and he was having trouble with the building inspector."

But eventually, the job got done. "And now I love that kitchen," Inslee recalls saying. "I bake bread in that kitchen. My wife cooks great meals in that kitchen. The contractor's now a buddy of mine, and I've had beers with him in that kitchen."

Inslee looked at his colleagues and declared: "We've got to finish the kitchen." His point was that Americans won't experience any of the benefits of health-care reform until Congress puts a new system in place.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Odd Constitutional Powers

Matt points out one of the more intriguing dichotomies of Presidential powers in the American constitutional system.
A pretty odd feature of our political system, namely that the president seems most empowered in precisely those areas of governance that ought to give you the most concern about tyrannical abuses.
If the President wants to do something like implement a domestic policy proposal he campaigned on—charge polluters for global warming emissions, for example—he faces a lot of hurdles. He needs majority support on a House committee or three. He also needs majority support on a Senate committee or three. Then he needs to get a majority in the full House of Representatives. And then he needs to de facto needs a 60 percent supermajority in the Senate. And then it’s all subject to judicial review.

But if Scooter Libby obstructs justice, the president has an un-reviewable, un-checkable power to offer him a pardon or clemency. If Bill Clinton wants to bomb Serbia, then Serbia gets bombed. If George W Bush wants to hold people in secret prisons and torture them, then tortured they shall be. And if Barack Obama wants to issue a kill order on someone or other, then the order goes out. And if Congress actually wants to remove a president from office, it faces extremely high barriers to doing so.

Whether or not you approve of this sort of executive power in the security domain, it’s a bit of a weird mismatch. You would think that it’s in the field of inflicting violence that we would want the most institutional restraint. Instead, the president faces almost no de facto constraints on his deployment of surveillance, military, and intelligence authority but extremely tight constraint on his ability to implement the main elements of the his domestic policy agenda. I think it’s telling that the US has generally not advised countries engaged in a democratic transition (think Germany and Japan after WWII or Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, etc. after the fall of Communism) to imitate our form of government.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Socialist? Bolshevik? Are You Kidding?

Daniel Larison on The American Conservative (h/t Adam Serwer on TAPPED)  summarizes the lunacy of depicting centrist opponents as being on the fringe politically.  As he states at the end of the third paragraph below, "It is not analysis of political reality. It is therapy for the person making the statement."
From the start, Republicans had been labeling Clinton a radical leftist, when he was on the whole the most “centrist” Democrat in the White House since Grover Cleveland. The 1994 result itself was the product of a number of factors, including a huge number of retirements in the House, but these included the demoralization of union members and party activists in the wake of NAFTA and the failure of health care legislation. I very much doubt that the midterm elections are going to be anything like ‘94, but one similarity that exists is the disillusionment and loss of enthusiasm among party activists and rank-and-file voters. On the whole, aside from a few badly-handled, largely symbolic culture war controversies, Clinton governed as a “centrist” more or less from the beginning, and he moved even farther away from liberals after 1994, which did not stop the charges that he was a huge leftist.
Many progressives always remained cool to Obama throughout the primaries and the general election, and many netroots and other activists on the left never really embraced him as one of their own. They discerned correctly that Obama was running a primary campaign that put him to the right of his other two main rivals, and the best observers on the left realized that Obama did not have a record of challenging entrenched interests. As Election Day approached, Obama pursued the safe course of becoming ever more conventional and comfortable with the ideas of the Washington establishment, and his most prominent economic advisors and Cabinet members were mostly drawn from the friends and disciples of Rubin. As the health care debate continued, progressives kept losing ground, and the rank corporatism of the Senate version finally precipitated serious protests and discontent on the left. This was not a case of ideological activists and voters making even greater demands on an administration that was already doing what they wanted. It was instead a sign that some progressives were losing patience with the substance of the bill and the nature of the reform being proposed. Whatever else the last year has shown us, it has not shown us that the administration and the Democratic Party is currently in thrall to the left.

The impulse to label an opponent as an extremist is a common and tempting one. It is a very easy thing to do, provided that you are not concerned with accuracy or persuading undecided and unaffiliated people that you are right. These labels are not descriptive. They are a way to express the extent of one’s discontent and disaffection with the other side in a debate. When some Republican says that Obama and his party have been governing from “the left,” he might even believe it inasmuch as Obama and his party are to his left politically, but what he really means is that he strongly disapproves of how Obama and his party have been governing. He may or may not have a coherent reason for this disapproval, but declaring it to be leftist or radical leftist conveys the depth of his displeasure. That is, it is not analysis of political reality. It is therapy for the person making the statement.

The same thing goes for progressives who were trying to find words to express how outraged they were by Bush. Inevitably, many resorted to using labels such as theocrat, extreme right, radical right and the like. These did not correctly describe the content of Bush’s politics, but they did express the critics’ feelings of disgust and loathing for Bush’s politics. That doesn’t mean they weren’t right to be disgusted and outraged, but the words they used to express these sentiments typically had no relationship to the substance of what Bush was actually doing. Likewise, there could be merit in objecting to Obama’s agenda, but if critics begin by using the wrong definitions and descriptions they will not be critiquing an agenda that really exists, but it will instead be a fantastical one that they have imagined. Where this creates problems in understanding political reality is when partisans begin believing their own inaccurate descriptions of their opponents and then when they draw conclusions about the political landscape based on their misinterpretations of their opponents’ beliefs.

Bungle in the Budget

Brad DeLong quotes from an editorial in the Financial Times to comment on the Obama 2011 budget. / Comment / Editorial - Budget distractions: The Obama administration’s 2011 budget... the mood is more siege mentality... deficit dread sweeps the country and hence Washington, the focus is on short-term medication of the deficit rather than two altogether more important tasks – strengthening the recovery and securing lasting fiscal health... reckless politicians have persuaded voters that runaway deficits threaten their livelihoods more than a renewed slowdown. This makes the administration sound a bit like a small European country eager to reassure Brussels: it wants to cut the deficit to 4 per cent of GDP within three years.
Such a large swing is fine if growth proves robust, but dangerous if it does not, which is far from unlikely. Unemployment is likely to stay above 9 per cent into 2011....
Deficit-reduction noises may be no more than that: what matters politically is to be seen to care about the deficit but not do anything painful to shrink it. Besides, the US can afford a few more large deficits: net public debt, now just over half of GDP, is manageable. In the fine tradition of US budgets, however, the real fiscal threats are left unaddressed: untamed growth in health spending; demographic pressures on social security; and waste and lack of control over military spending, a sacred cow comfortably nestled in every congressional district. A proposed three-year spending freeze signally fails to apply to any of these....

Obama must push harder: that structural fiscal problems are not of his making does not make them any less of his responsibility.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Parliamentary Futility

Steve Benen picks up and expands on a comment made by Ron Brownstein of the National Journal on a fundamental absurdity of modern American politics.
Ron Brownstein noted recently:
We are operating in what amounts to a parliamentary system without majority rule, a formula for futility.
In some respects, it's even worse than that. In nearly all modern democracies, parties that win elections get a shot -- they're able to do what they want to do, putting their party platform to work. If the policies are effective and voters are satisfied, the parties are rewarded. If not, they're punished.

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

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

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