Friday, October 16, 2009

What Steve and Greg said . . .

Al From, the founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, urging Democratic policymakers to give up on the public option now, to help ensure passage of the rest of the health care reform bill. As one might have guessed, it's an unpersuasive pitch.
In a nutshell, From argues that by pursuing a public plan, Democrats would make it easier for Republican obstructionists "to cloud the prospects for reform," by diverting attention from the rest of the debate and focusing on a public option that "Americans disagree on."
It's hard to know where to start with something like this. Dems should drop the popular idea that would save money and help consumers because Republicans, who can't block reform by themselves anyway, are putting insurance company's interests at the top of their priority list?
Of particular interest, though, was From's specific advice to President Obama. From recommends, among other things:
[M]ake one more effort to bring moderate Republicans along. Transformational reforms, such as civil rights legislation and Medicare in the 1960s, have always been passed with bipartisan majorities. Health-care reform should be no exception. The president promised a post-partisan politics. What better place to forge it than on his most important initiative?
No, no, no. For one thing, the president never "promised a post-partisan politics." Obama assured voters he'd reach out to Republican lawmakers in good faith, and he has. But "post-partisan politics" is a media creation/buzzword. For another, the White House has gone out of its way to try and secure GOP support for reform, but the president's hand has been consistently slapped away.
But it's especially frustrating to see From talk about the "bipartisan majorities" on major bills from bygone eras. It's a popular observation among conservatives, and it's foolish.
Scott Lemieux recently explained, "Of course Medicare and Social Security had lots of Republican support: There were lots of northern liberal Republicans in Congress, whose support was often needed to counterbalance the reactionary segregationists in the Democratic caucus. In the current context, conversely, the liberal northern Republican is virtually extinct, and the few remaining ones are 1) subject to much stronger party discipline than was the case in 1937 or 1965, and 2) are more heterodox on social than fiscal matters. So thinking that the same kind of legislative coalition was viable would be silly."
When Congress took up "civil rights legislation and Medicare in the 1960s," moderate and center-left Republicans were still fairly common. Democratic leaders had trouble finding sensible GOP lawmakers who were anxious to work on progressive policy goals. President Obama, however, is stuck trying to find common ground with a right-wing reactionary party that not only opposes common-sense reform measures, but is running a scorched-earth campaign to destroy his presidency.
Nicholas Beaudrot put it this way: "[I]t's simply not meaningful to compare the present circumstances to those faced by Lyndon Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to bipartisanship.... Barack Obama faces partisan polarization not seen since Woodrow Wilson was President."
Is From not aware of this?
Greg Sargent: Castellanos’ Firm Also Has Contract With U.S. Chamber Of Commerce 
We’ve spent some time here looking at the web of contracts and clients that pay GOP consultant Alex Castellanos’ firms, even as he also goes on CNN regularly to discuss the main issues of the day as an onstensibly independent-minded, if right-leaning commentator.
One of Castellanos’ firms, as you know, was the ad buyer behind a major insurance industry TV campaign against health care reform. His firm also has raked in nearly $500,000 from the Republican National Committee, which enlisted him to craft anti-reform talking points.
Here’s one more interesting data point: Another one of his firms, Purple Strategies, also has a contract with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most determined and well-funded foes of Obama’s governing agenda.
J.P. Fielder, the Chamber’s spokesperson, confirms that Castellanos’ firm is doing the advertising on the Chamber’s ongoing multi-million-dollar campaign hailing the virtues of the free-market system — which has the specific goals of derailing Obama’s climate change and health care reform initiatives.
To be clear, there’s nothing necessarily amiss here, and I wanted to take this occasion to clarify something. The reason we’re digging into Castellanos is not because of Castellanos per se, but because his case tells a larger story about how Washington works. You hear a lot about the revolving door between government and lobbying. But there’s another, less-remarked-on revolving door: One between consulting and commentary.
Castellanos is by no means the only figure who cycles back and forth between the two, and there are plenty of high-profile Democrats who do the same thing. It’s an accepted fact of life in D.C. that commentators — Republicans and Democrats alike — offering ostensibly independent-minded commentary also take in big bucks consulting for businesses with specific legislative goals.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that in and of itself, but it does create journalistic challenges for the networks, who have to grapple with how to identify these commentators. Witness how CNN is struggling to deal with Castellanos’ case. More broadly, the commentary/consulting revolving door is a story we’re hoping to dig into more and more on this blog. Castellanos is just one example. We’re hoping to document much more of it here going forward.
The New York Times has a piece today on the Republican Party's deliberate decision on the Hill to reject pretty much everything on the Democratic agenda thus far. As the congressional minority sees it, the strategy will pay electoral dividends.
Congressional Republicans ... are certain that the politics are on their side. Dismissing Democrats' attacks on them as "the party of no," they point to polls and other signs indicating that high unemployment and deficits have created vast unease with Mr. Obama's agenda as the 2010 midterm elections approach. [...]
"I just don't think that there's a downside to voting no -- I really don't," said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. "That's quite aside from whether you should or shouldn't, or whether the country needs it or doesn't need it. The basic rule is you rarely pay a price at the polls for being against something."
Republican incumbents "have far more to lose," he said, "by having the Republican base conclude that they're just throwing in the towel and compromising on a big-government agenda."
This makes plenty of strategic sense. Republicans want to motivate their base, and their base doesn't want to see the GOP cooperate with Dems. There's also a basic calculus at play -- if President Obama and his congressional allies succeed, voters are likely to reward Democrats anyway. Better to oppose and obstruct, and then hope for the best (or, in this case, hope for those in power to fail).
The NYT's Jackie Calmes added that the Republican strategy on this exposes the party "to criticism that they have become political obstructionists with no policy agenda of their own. And that could keep them from extending their appeal to the centrist voters who are essential to rebuilding the party's strength nationally."
Perhaps, but the GOP seems willing to take the risk. The hope is that frustrated voters will just oppose the majority, regardless of whether Republicans have been intellectually-stunted obstructionists with no ideas of their own. For all I know, that may very well work.
But here's the point that the article overlooks: the more Republicans adopt an attitude of "whatever it is, we're against it," the less reasonable it is to expect the White House to forge bipartisan majorities. The minority is the opposition party, which is, as its name implies, supposed to oppose what the majority wants. What's wrong with that? Nothing.
But there's something very wrong with the idea that the president and/or his allies are somehow failing in their responsibilities if they come up short on convincing those who don't want to be convinced, and prefer a scorched-earth strategy to constructive cooperation.
Glenn Beck picks the strangest things to get hysterical about. Yesterday, for example, he nearly had a breakdown discussing a speech interim White House Communications Director Anita Dunn delivered earlier this year. Dunn noted comments from "two of my favorite political philosophers: Mao Tse-Tung and Mother Theresa." She jokes, "Not often coupled with each other!"
In the video of a speech to high school graduates earlier this year, Dunn cited Mao's response to skeptics who pointed out that their party was facing steep disadvantages while fighting the Nationalist Chinese: "You fight your war, and I'll fight mine." After asking the audience to "think about that for a second," she said, "You know, you don't have to accept the definition of how to do things, and you don't have to follow other people's choices and paths, OK? It is about your choices and your path."
Likewise, Dunn cited Mother Teresa's response to a young person who wanted to work at her orphanage in Calcutta: "Go find your own Calcutta." Dunn then reiterated: "Go find your own Calcutta. Fight your own path. Go find the thing that is unique to you, the challenge that is actually yours, not somebody else's challenge."
It doesn't sound especially shocking. That is, unless you're Beck, who insisted on the air yesterday that Dunn "worships" "her hero" Mao Zedong. At one point, referencing Dunn, he gets up and attaches a communist hammer and sickle to a blackboard, right around the time he tries to connect Dunn to the deaths of 70 million Chinese: "This is her hero's work! 70 million dead!"
In reality, Mao references aren't especially unusual in American politics. In last year's presidential campaign, for example, John McCain quoted Mao on the campaign stump, and Beck didn't seem to mind. A few years ago, George W. Bush encouraged Karl Rove to read a Mao biography. Media Matters found prominent conservatives like Barry Goldwater's "alter ego" Stephen C. Shadegg, Cato Institute president Edward H. Crane, and GOP strategist Ralph Reed all referencing lessons from Mao Tse-Tung.
Now, I suppose it's possible that McCain, Bush, Reed and others are secret conservative admirers of Mao's reign, and should hereafter be featured with hammers and sickles, but it's probably saner to assume that they, like Dunn, have simply used Mao as a historical reference.
There is a larger context here. Dunn recently trashed Fox News, describing the Republican network as "opinion journalism masquerading as news." She followed up over the weekend, accurately describing Fox News as "a wing of the Republican Party."
Yesterday's hour-long tantrum was, in all likelihood, Beck's form of payback.

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