Saturday, March 27, 2010

Strange Winning Ways

Matt points to a fundamental truth about movement conservatives in the wake of the Frum they define success.
I think that to understand what’s wrong with the conservative movement today, you need to think about Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign. In ‘64, the GOP establishment felt that Goldwater was too radical. They said that nominating a hard-rightist like Goldwater would be counterproductive. But conservative activists worked hard, and they did it. Goldwater got the nod. And, just as the establishment predicted, Goldwater got crushed. And just as the established predicted, it proved to be counterproductive. The 1964 landslide led directly to Medicare, Medicaid, Title I education spending, and the “war on poverty.” In the 45 years since that fateful campaign, the conservative movement managed to gain total control over the Republican Party and to sporadically govern the country. But it’s only very partially rolled back one aspect of the Johnson administration’s domestic policy.

Which is just to say that the conservative movement from 1964-2009 was a giant failure. By nominating Goldwater, it invited a massive progressive win that all the subsequent conservative wins were unable to undue. But the orthodox conservative tradition of ‘64 is that it was a great success that laid the groundwork for the triumphs to come.

Which is to say that it’s not just a movement incapable of thinking seriously about the interests of the country, it can’t think rigorously about its own goals. 2009-2010 has already seen the greatest flowering of progressive policy since 1965-66. No matter how well Republicans do in the 2010 midterms, the right will never fully roll back what the 111th Congress has done. And yet, as Andrews suggests, if they win seats in 2010, conservatives will consider their behavior during 2009-10 to have been very successful.

Far Frum Home

Sully on the Frum firing fiasco.
The Times of London has some useful perspective. Here's the timing, so use Occam's Razor. David writes his "Waterloo" post on Sunday afternoon at 4.59 pm. On Monday morning, the Wall Street Journal publishes an editorial lacerating Frum:
Mr. Frum now makes his living as the media's go-to basher of fellow Republicans, which is a stock Beltway role.
Mid-morning, Frum gets a summons to lunch at AEI, where one way he "makes his living" is removed. This could all be a total coincidence. But the right's fatal miscalculation on healthcare - and their clear defeat last weekend - must surely have led to some gnashing of teeth and fury.

The tea-partiers yell and shoot and throw bricks; the neoconservatives just take one of their own dissidents out and metaphorically shoot him.

The assumption is that conservative intelligentsia acts often as a kind of group-think Politburo in Washington, an elaborate and bizarre conspiracy theory until you realize it's completely true. They loathe liberals; but they hate intellectually honest conservatives more.

Especially when those intellectually honest conservatives are proven right.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pretzel Logic

Jonathan Chait looks at the strategic logic that the Republicans have embraced in their fight against HCR.
The most amusing spectacle of the health care debate has been watching Republicans rally with the utmost earnestness around principles that literally nobody within their party had ever considered before the health care debate. So, we've seen them rail against the use of budget reconciliation, previously a procedure they'd employed for major tax cuts, as something akin to dictatorship. They've embraced the notion that passing major legislation that commands less than fifty percent in the polls is an abrogation of democracy, an idea none of them considered when they passed a Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003 that lacked plurality support.
The most comical iteration of this phenomenon has to be the ongoing attempts by Republicans to overturn health care reform in court on the grounds that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. First of all, as Paul Campos notes, this would be a wild exercise in judicial activism,  opposition to which is the alleged lodestar of conservative judicial philosophy. And second, until very recently, Republicans considered the individual mandate not only Constitutional but utterly uncontroversial. Last year, Republican Senators Robert Bennett, Lindsey Graham, Mike Crapo, Judd Gregg and Lamar Alexander all co-sponsored a health care bill that included an individual mandate. Olympia Snowe voted for a Senate Finance Committee health care bill that included an individual mandate before subsequently voting with her entire party to call the mandate unconstitutional. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, currently suing to overturn the individual mandate, once supported a mandate that parents purchase insurance for their children.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

HCR & Foreign Policy

Heather Hurlburt on Democracy Arsenal looks at the foreign policy implications of the enactment of health care reform.
1. An international boost. Israeli, Russian and Chinese leaders and elites have all let it be known more or less quietly that they treat Obama as if he is weak abroad because they perceive him as weak at home. I heard a fabulous story about a senior Iranian official explaining off-the-record to a Westerner how Obama wouldn't accomplish anything this year "in analysis that would have sounded right at home on FOX." Those elites follow American politics closely and will understand that this is a big, big win. They'll also get the message that Obama doesn't go away easily.

2. Momentum. Internationally, it looks as if this long drawn out process will close just before we finally get a new START Treaty, a mark of both serious steps down the road to reducing the nuclear threat and a success in renovating the US-Russian relationship. That in turn will be followed by a signature Obama initiative, the 43-nation Nuclear Security Summit, which will build new momentum for international action against the supply side of nuclear materials. After that, Iraq will confound the skeptics by putting a government together -- not elegantly, but successfully.

3. Space and Oxygen. As my colleague Paul Eaton discussed with the Times' Peter Baker earlier this weekend, many international issues have been off the agenda while health care burned bright. There will be more bandwidth for other, merely vital, issues now -- from Afghanistan to foreign assistance reform to human rights and democratization. This has a downside, though: with the healthcare debate lost, the opponents of a sane, pragmatic foreign policy will have more oxygen to ramp up the volume on Iran and other issues.

4. Ambition. Just the progress to this point threw Obama's approval rating back over 50%. Progressives both in and outside government have been needing a little boost of energy. This moment should give us lots of case studies about 1) how the Administration likes to work and will work when the crunch is on and 2) how to advocate to the Administration effectively -- and ineffectively.

Monday, March 22, 2010

HCR Passes!!

Jonathan Chait leads the cheers for Obama and the historic passage of healt care reform.
Let me offer a ludicrously premature opinion: Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import. We don't know what will follow in his presidency, and it's quite possible that some future event--a war, a scandal--will define his presidency. But we do know that he has put his imprint on the structure of American government in a way that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has.

The last two generations have no model for such a president. The only two other Democratic presidents of the last four decades are Jimmy Carter, a failure, and Bill Clinton, who enjoyed modest successes but failed in his most significant legislative fight. Obama, who helped pull the country out of a depression and reshaped the health care system, has already accomplished far more than Clinton. (This isn't necessarily Clinton's fault--he lacked the votes to break a Republican filibuster that Obama has--but the historical convention is to judge a president by what he and the Congress achieve together.) He will never be plausibly compared with Jimmy Carter.

Historians will see this health care bill as a masterfully crafted piece of legislation. Obama and the Democrats managed to bring together most of the stakeholders and every single Senator in their party. The new law untangles the dysfunctionalities of the individual insurance market while fulfilling the political imperative of leaving the employer-provided system in place. Through determined advocacy, and against special interest opposition, they put into place numerous reforms to force efficiency into a wasteful system. They found hundreds of billions of dollars in payment offsets, a monumental task in itself. And they will bring economic and physical security to tens of millions of Americans who would otherwise risk seeing their lives torn apart. Health care experts for decades have bemoaned the impossibility of such reforms--the system is wasteful, but the very waste creates a powerful constituency for the status quo. Finally, the Democrats have begun to untangle the Gordian knot. It's a staggering political task and substantive achievement.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Threading the Needle

Steve Benen points out the remarkable hurdles that the Democrats have had to overcome to actually bring a health care reform bill to the brink of passage.
It's probably an esoteric point, but it's worth pausing to appreciate just how ridiculously challenging it was to craft this health care reform proposal. There's a very good reason this legislation has never passed up until now, and why presidents who've tried have failed, and it goes beyond just right-wing hysterics and corporate pushback.

Think about the scope of the task -- Democrats were told they needed a health care reform bill that spends a lot of money on covering the uninsured, lowers the deficit, strengthens Medicare, helps businesses, eases government budgets, protects consumers, and controls costs, all at the same time. It would also need to earn the blessing of Congressional Budget Office, the American Medical Association, the AARP, and the nation's largest labor unions.

Democrats were also told they needed to do all of this in the face of unanimous and apoplectic Republican opposition, far-right manipulation of gullible conservative activists, and media coverage that largely ignores the substance of the bill while pretending every right-wing attack deserves attention.

This is a needle that's almost impossible to thread. And yet, that's exactly what the White House and congressional leaders have done. It's no small feat.

Monday, March 15, 2010

MUSIC: OK Go Video

Rube Goldberg goes viral in this video from the LA indie band (originally from Chicago) OK Go.  After disagreements with their label, EMI, over this video and its 2007 Grammy winner "Here It Goes Again," the band left the label altogether this month, got outside funding, and are on their own.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

History Beckons

Matt points out what should be obvious, that the reason governments are elected is to actually DO THINGS!
I don’t think the arguments mounted by Pat Caddell and Douglas Schoen that Democrats will face political disaster if they pass health reform hold water. Or, rather, I think they disingenuously fail to consider the alternative. If reform passes, Democrats will almost certainly lose a whole bunch of seats in November. But if reform fails, Democrats will also almost certainly lose a whole bunch of seats in November. At the margin, passing reform helps the party’s prospects in the midterms in my view, but the midterms outlook is just bad and there’s nothing to be done health care-wise at this point to change that.
A larger question any member of congress reading the op-ed ought to ask himself is “so what?” If reform passes and is signed into law, then immediately Barack Obama’s position in history is secured. When people look back from 2060 on the creation of the American welfare state, they’ll say that FDR, LBJ, and BHO were its main architects, with Roosevelt enshrining the principle of universal social insurance into law and Obama completing the initial promise of the New Deal. Members of congress who helped him do that will have a place in history. Nobody’s going to be very interested in a story like “Mike Ross served a bunch of years in Congress and people were impressed with his ability to win a relatively conservative district; he didn’t achieve very much and one day he wasn’t in Congress anymore.”

Which is just to say that nobody lasts in office forever, no congressional majority lasts forever, and no party controls the White House forever. But the measure of a political coalition isn’t how long it lasted, but what it achieved. From the tone of a lot of present-day political commentary you’d think that the big mistake Lyndon Johnson made during his tenure in the White House was that by passing the Civil Rights Act he wound up damaging the Democratic Party politically by opening the South up to the GOP. Back on planet normal, that’s the crowning achievement of his presidency.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rep. Ryan's Roadmap

Jonathan Chait has a cogent analysis of the budget proposal from Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.
The roadmap clarifies the essence of the Republican Party's approach to domestic policy issues. The essence is opposition to the downward redistribution of income. The principle first emerged under Ronald Reagan, but only in fits and starts--Republican presidents agreed to a tax reform in 1986 and a deficit reduction in 1990 that did redistribute income from rich to poor. Over the last twenty years, though, opposition to downward redistribution has hardened into the sacred tenet of Republican policymaking. Ryan's plan both codifies this principle and shows just how far the party is willing to go in its service.

Every major element of Ryan's plan reflects this commitment. Begin with his proposed tax changes. Ryan would not only retain the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners, he would further lower the top tax rate to 25%. On top of that, he would repeal all taxes on corporate income, inherited estates, capital gains, and dividends. In other words, he would completely eliminate the most progressive elements of the tax code, and slash the next most progressive element. In their place he would impose a value-added tax, which would not bring in nearly enough revenue to replace the revenue lost from his tax cuts, but would fall much more heavily on the poor and middle class.
It's worth keeping in mind that the current tax system in this country is only very slightly progressive. State and local taxes are regressive, federal taxes are somewhat progressive, and the net effect redistributes income, very slightly, from the rich to the not-rich:
Ryan's plan would make the federal tax code regressive, especially at the top, on top of an already-regressive state and local tax base. According to the Tax Policy Center, the richest 1% of all taxpayers, who earn more than 21% of the national income and currently pay about 25% of federal taxes, would pay 13% of federal taxes under Ryan's plan. (Ryan's response argues that the corporate income tax he'd eliminate is already born by consumers anyway, a contention most economists including the CBO reject, and even if true would only chip away slightly at the overall critique of his plan's regressive nature.) Ryan's tax plan alone would amount to the greatest shift of resources from the non-rich to the rich in the history of the United States, by far.

And that is just the beginning. Ryan would impose a series of dramatic social policy changes that would all push in the same direction. He would blow up the employer-based health care system, pushing workers into an under-regulated individual market. Instead of sharing medical risk with their fellow employees, they'd bear it entirely by themselves, which would be good for the healthy but bad for the sick. He would convert Social Security into primarily a network of individual investment accounts--meaning that some workers would do well and others poorly. And he would convert Medicare into a voucher system, capping the value of each voucher at well below the rate of medical inflation, which would make the elderly bear a far greater share of medical risk.
All these changes push in the same direction. The basic thrust of liberal public policy over the last century is to keep in places the market system but use government to slightly mitigate against risk--the risk of getting sick, the risk of outliving your savings, the risk that you just won't make much money in the first place. The downside of these policies is that, in order to mitigate the downside risk, you also have to mitigate the upside benefit. If you're unusually rich, you have to pay a somewhat higher tax rate than most people. If you're unusually healthy, you have to subsidize medical care for people who aren't. If you were able to invest well enough to cover your entire retirement, some of your good fortune will be siphoned off to those who weren't. The rewards for getting rich, or merely being born rich, will remain enormous, just slightly less so than in a completely free market.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why They Oppose Health Care Reform

Ezra looks at a recent Gallup poll showing Americans opposing Health Care Reform by a narrow 48-45 margin (consistent with most other recent polls) and goes behind the numbers to see what the opponents actually oppose.
The country is closely divided on health-care reform, with a slight plurality in opposition. Moreover, health-care reform is actually getting a bit more popular as it nears passage. Presumably, that's because people are hearing more about the bill and less about why the bill is failing.

But Gallup did something interesting and asked respondents who disapproved of the bill why they disapproved. The top reason was that the bill "will raise the cost of insurance or make it less affordable." It's understandable why people say that. But the best evidence we have is that it's not true.

When the Congressional Budget Office looked at this question (pdf), they found that for Americans in the large-group market (134 million of us), premiums would go down by 1 to 3 percent. For Americans in the small-group market (25 million of us), the change in premiums would be between an increase of 1 percent and a decrease of 2 percent -- so the likeliest outcome was a savings of about 1 percent. And they found that people in the individual market (32 million of us) would find that a given insurance product would become 7 to 10 percent cheaper, but that they'd purchase much better insurance under the bill (that meant their premiums would go up, but because they could now buy something better). And that's before accounting for subsidies, which make things even more affordable for small businesses and people in the individual market.

The next most common objection was that the plan "doesn't address real problems." I'm not really sure what this means, so I can't comment on it. But it's followed by people who simply want more information on how this would all work. I'm not certain this can properly be called opposition. Later in the series, you have 3 percent of people who don't like the plan naming the public option as their problem. The public option, of course, isn't in the plan any longer. Some people think the plan is "socialism." By definition, it is not. Some people simply think we should take more time with the legislative process. They are hardy souls.

The argument over reconciliation was always a distraction. If you follow the rules, you're following the rules. The GOP's more salient objection was that it's somehow unethical to pass a bill that polls show doesn't have support. That wasn't the party's position during George W. Bush's administration, but that doesn't make it wrong.

But it only works if you think that Americans are really against this bill. If you think they don't know much about it, or have been misinformed about it, then it is not only proper, but core to how our government was structured, for the representatives of the people to assess the legislation and make the decision they think to be in their constituents' best interest. Then, of course, an election will happen, and those representatives will have a chance to defend their decision and their constituents will have the opportunity to render a verdict. Gallup's poll is evidence, first, that the public is closely divided on health-care reform, and second, that many of those in opposition do not know that much about the bill.

Monday, March 8, 2010

When Republicans Ruled the Roost

Ezra recalls the glorious days of parliamentary rigour when the Republicans controlled Congress and were trying to pass the Medicare prescription drug bill in November 2003.
A 15-minute vote was scheduled, and at the end of 15 minutes, the Democrats had won. The Republican leadership froze the clock for three hours while they desperately whipped defectors. This had never been done before. The closest was a 15-minute extension in 1987 that then-congressman Dick Cheney called “the most arrogant, heavy-handed abuse of power I’ve ever seen in the 10 years that I’ve been here.”

Tom DeLay bribed Rep. Nick Smith to vote for the legislation, using the political future of Smith's son for leverage. DeLay was later reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee.
The leadership told Rep. Jim DeMint that they would cut off funding for his Senate race in South Carolina if he didn't vote for the bill.

The chief actuary of Medicare, Rick Foster, had scored the legislation as costing more than $500 billion. The Bush administration suppressed his report, in a move the Government Accounting Office later judged "illegal.”

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a "no" vote, spent the night "hiding on the Democratic side of the floor, crouching down to avoid eye contact with the Republican search team."

Rep. Butch Otter, who provided one of the final votes after hours of arm-twisting from the Republican leadership, said, “I thought there was a chance I would get sick on the floor.”

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Under The Tea Party

Matt Taibbi uses a segment on CNBC that featured Rick Santelli arguing that there was no such thing as predatory lending prior to the real estate crash to go off on the Tea Party movement.
This whole scene sort of encapsulates what’s wrong with the Tea Party movement. The movement, and let’s admit this, has some of its roots in legitimate grievances about government waste and some not-entirely-inaccurate observations about what’s left of the American welfare state. Of course what resonates most with the suburban whites who mostly make up the Tea Party are stories about minorities and immigrants using section 8 housing, food stamps, Medicaid, TANF and other programs, with the Obama stimulus being for them a symbol of this ongoing government largess. The heat of the Tea Party movement comes from the racial frustrations that actually exist out there, in the real world outside New York and LA, as urban expansion and immigration increasingly throw white and nonwhite communities together, with white Tea Party types more and more often blowing gaskets over increased crime rates, declining school standards, and mislaid or wasted tax revenue.
That this perception that minorities are the prime or sole consumers of government entitlement programs is absurdly inaccurate — white people, for instance, are overwhelmingly the largest nonelderly recipients of Medicaid, making up 42.8% of the program’s rolls nationwide, compared to 22.2% for blacks and 27.9% for Hispanics — is beside the point. The point is that the Tea Party is built largely on this narrative of “personal responsibility,” where the central demons are unwed black and Hispanic mothers and absent black and Hispanic fathers, who are, let’s face it, not uncommon characters in the American melodrama.

Which is another subject for another time, but let’s just say this: the Tea Party movement contains a lot of people who are far more impressed by what they can see with their own eyes than with what, for instance, they read about. I’ve been to Tea Party events where global warming was dismissed by speakers who, without irony, pointed to the fact that there was snow on the ground outside. And while very few people have ever actually seen a CDO manager or a Countrywide executive, or were aware if it when they saw them, the Tea Party folks sure as hell have seen who their neighbors in foreclosure are.

The Fox/CNBC types have very cannily latched on this narrative to rewrite the history of the financial crisis. They know that Tea Partiers will go for any narrative that puts blame on poor (and especially poor minority) homeowners, because the idea of poor blacks and Hispanics borrowing beyond their means fits seamlessly with their world view. But this is a situation where poor minorities were really incidental to a much larger fraud scheme that culminated in a welfare program — the bank bailouts — that dwarfs the entire “entitlement” infrastructure. But the millions of people who are actually in the Tea Party movement seem to have absolutely no idea that their so-called leaders, the Santellis of their world, are shilling for tax cheats and crooks and welfare bums of the sort they would despise (perhaps even more than their black and Hispanic neighbors), if they could actually see them.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

It's Different for Democrats

Ezra comments on the difference in approach to the media by Democrats and Republicans.
People say the media is more viscerally sympathetic to Democrats than Republicans. But working in the other direction is the fact that Republicans understand the media much better than Democrats do. Take the reconciliation process. The media is giving blanket coverage to this "controversial" procedure being used by the Democrats. But using reconciliation for a few fixes and tweaks isn't controversial historically, and it's not controversial procedurally. It's only controversial because Republicans are saying it is. Which is good enough, as it turns out. In our political system, if Democrats and Republicans are yelling at each other over something, then for the media, that is, by definition, controversy. This is something Democrats did not understand when George W. Bush was in power.
He then reviews the near total absence of media coverage of a reconciliation debate and vote in May 2003 and goes on to point out some of the reasons.
And why was there nothing? Because Democrats weren't complaining. The tax cuts  might have been controversial, but they weren't creative enough to polarize the procedure the Bush administration was using to pass them.

But some of the credit for that has to go to the Bush administration, which took seriously the need to institutionalize reconciliation when they were strong and popular rather than weakened. When Bush came into office, he used reconciliation for his first tax cuts. That was a sharp break with precedent: Reconciliation had never been used to increase the deficit, and the process was so poorly suited to the purpose that the Bush administration had to let all of them sunset after 10 years. It was a bizarre, bizarre bill. But by using it for his popular first round of tax cuts, Bush normalized it such that Democrats couldn't really complain when he used it for his much more controversial second round of tax cuts.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reconciliation Bipartisanship? Not!

Ezra looks back at reconciliation in the past.
Among the odder arguments Republicans are making against the reconciliation process is that the process should only be used for bipartisan bills, and since they refuse to vote for health-care reform, Democrats can't give their package of fixes an up-or-down vote.
But reconciliation hasn't been limited to bipartisan bills. Here's the recent record: The 1995 Balanced Budget Act was passed in reconciliation. The final vote was 52 to 47. The 2001 Bush Tax Cut was passed in reconciliation. The final vote was 58 to 33. The 2003 Bush Tax Cut was passed in reconciliation. The final vote was 50 to 50, with Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote. The 2005 Deficit Reduction Act was also passed in reconciliation with a 50 to 50 vote and a Cheney intervention. The 2006 Tax Relief Extensions Act was passed in reconciliation. The final vote was 54 to 44. This is as you'd expect: If bills had overwhelming bipartisan majorities, they wouldn't need to go through reconciliation.

As it happens, Republicans controlled the Senate during each and every one of these bills. And they got less votes than Democrats will likely get for the health-care fixes. It's also worth reminding people that it's harder for Democrats to get Republican votes because voters elected a lot more Democrats in the past two elections. Republicans had a number of moderate Democrats who could be brought into a 58-vote majority, and Democrats don't have as many moderate Republicans who can do the same.

Monday, March 1, 2010


In the category of Its OK If You Are Republican, Josh made this comment today.
Mike Kinsley once had a great line to the effect that what really irked Republicans about Bill Clinton's fundraising tactics was that he'd violated the cardinal rule of Washington which was that Democrats only get to use the latest and brassiest campaign tactics after the GOP has already been using them for several cycles.

And it seems like we've got something similar with reconciliation. What's outrageous is that Democrats have decided to avail themselves of the rules that Republicans have been using consistently for almost thirty years.

The only bizarre thing is how many reporters (though, candidly, fewer than I'd anticipated) really do think this is an immutable law of the universe.