Sunday, January 31, 2010

Political Yin and Yang

I've been horrified over the last couple of days to see former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in teevee ads scaring old people about health care reform, lying about England's health care system by saying it lets old people die because they aren't of value to society. I always thought Koop was a man of high integrity. I was wrong. I won't embed the ad, but you can see it here: Koop raises specter of rationing

Atrios: Nothing About Nothing
After years doing this, I'm reasonably sure that Joe/Jill Conservative don't know jack shit about anything, including (if not especially) defense and military spending issues. What they do understand is how to reference dominant narratives, which is easy because they're, you know, dominant, and regularly parroted back to them.
DemfromCt (Daily KOS): Your Abbreviated Pundit Round-up

Maureen Dowd:

In the end, the Republicans may well go back to being inflexibly inflexible with this president, but for a moment in time, each side realized that the other side had something to say. It was, as The Times’s reporters Peter Baker and Carl Hulse called it, a televised marriage-therapy session "as each side vented grievances pent up after a year of partisan gridlock.

Which moment was that, Maureen? Only one side took a beating at the meeting and it wasn't the 'just say no' party that had something of substance to say. The examples you listed pale before the observation that Republicans opposed the stimulus and then showed up at ribbon cuttings paid for by the stimulus. Drawing false equivalence is exactly what's wrong with punditry. "The Jets and the Colts both showed up in the AFC title game, and both scored. Must have been a tie." "Opposing Bush on Iraq is the same as opposing Obama on health care'. Uh, no.

Obama’s advisers must wish they could do this every week for the cameras. It was a lot more elucidating than Joe Wilson shouting, "You lie!"

There's a reason Obama 's advisers must wish to do this every week. Can you think of what it is?

Frank Rich:

In Obama’s speech, he kept circling back to a Senate where both parties are dysfunctional. The obstructionist Republicans, he observed, will say no to every single bill "just because they can." But no less culpable are the Democrats, who maintain "the largest majority in decades" even after losing Teddy Kennedy’s seat — and yet would rather "run for the hills" than accomplish anything.

What does strong Senate leadership look like?

Anyone old enough to remember?

The conventional wisdom on the current Congress seems pretty compelling. This is a Congress facing incredible challenges, and is struggling to rise to the occasion.

It's a perception I've largely bought into. When I think about what would be possible if legislation could be approved by majority rule in the House and Senate -- the way the legislative branch was designed to function, and the way it operated for nearly 200 years -- it's hard not to feel bitter disappointment.

The American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein challenges these perceptions in a surprisingly compelling Washington Post op-ed today, describing this Congress as being on "a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66."

Of particular interest was Ornstein's description of the scope of the stimulus package.

The productivity began with the stimulus package, which was far more than an injection of $787 billion in government spending to jump-start the ailing economy. More than one-third of it -- $288 billion -- came in the form of tax cuts, making it one of the largest tax cuts in history, with sizable credits for energy conservation and renewable-energy production as well as home-buying and college tuition. The stimulus also promised $19 billion for the critical policy arena of health-information technology, and more than $1 billion to advance research on the effectiveness of health-care treatments.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has leveraged some of the stimulus money to encourage wide-ranging reform in school districts across the country. There were also massive investments in green technologies, clean water and a smart grid for electricity, while the $70 billion or more in energy and environmental programs was perhaps the most ambitious advancement in these areas in modern times. As a bonus, more than $7 billion was allotted to expand broadband and wireless Internet access, a step toward the goal of universal access.

Any Congress that passed all these items separately would be considered enormously productive. Instead, this Congress did it in one bill.

And while the economic recovery package was the most important legislative accomplishment of the last year, Ornstein also highlights successful bills on expanding children's health insurance, providing stiff oversight of the TARP funds, regulating tobacco, the largest land conservation law in nearly two decades, a credit card holders' bill of rights, and defense procurement reform.

And the House, meanwhile, has approved a historic cap-and-trade bill, sweeping financial regulatory changes, a jobs bill, and health care reform -- and maybe some of these might manage to work their way through a dysfunctional Senate.

Democratic leaders, Ornstein, argues, "deserve great credit for these achievements."

I wouldn't want the governing majority to rest on its laurels -- for the love of God, pass health care reform -- but Ornstein's overview of the first year of the 111th Congress paints a pretty compelling picture. Dems who feel the need to be defensive may want to read it, share it, and push its conclusions.

Beutler (TPM): #HealthCareFAIL: How The Dems Botched Their Signature Legislation

Talk about fits and starts.

A year ago Democrats committed to passing comprehensive health care legislation; six months ago, it became clear that their project wouldn't go smoothly; one month ago it was full speed ahead; and a week and a half ago it all fell apart.

Health care reform is now on life support. To mix metaphors, it's on life support and the back burner at the same time. How the Democrats' signature agenda item went from a foregone conclusion to a prospect in peril is a tale of missteps and bad luck. No single player or event brought us to where we are today. But if any of the below episodes had gone...more smoothly, this might've been a done deal.

You know how the saying goes: Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. And you can be sure that if health care reform fails, the people below will make like John Edwards--quick-like.

1. Let's Do This The Hard Way...Just For Fun
It was a move that baffled and outraged reformers and Democratic members of Congress: Back in the early days of summer, while the House and the Senate Health Committee adhered to a standard legislative framework for drafting a reform bill, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) went in a completely different direction. Convinced, against all evidence, that the GOP would play nice on major social policy, Baucus decided to huddle with a motley crue of Democrats and Republicans, culled from his committee. It started in June as the "coalition of the willing"--Baucus, along with Sens. Kent Conrad (D-ND), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Mike Enzi (R-WY), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT)--but Hatch soon bolted, leaving the Gang of Six. Their meetings dragged on through the August health care flame wars into September, ultimately yielding...nothing. Baucus introduced a bill on his own, with the aim of winning over Snowe, and put it through the normal committee process. It wasn't approved until October 13.

2. Rumblings In Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) died on August 25, and because of his illness, he could not play a major role in the health care debate. The impact he might have had can't be known, but his passing ultimately deprived Dems of a 60th vote. At the time of his death, Massachusetts law required the seat to be filled by special election after 145-160 days. But at his request, the state government changed the law to allow the governor to appoint an interim senator to fill the vacancy. That change allowed Sen. Paul Kirk (D-MA) to cast the 60th vote for health care to get it through the Senate the first time. But it set the stage for the blow that put Kennedy's own lifetime cause into a coma.

3. Math Math Math
Three words Democrats are tired of hearing at this point: Congressional Budget Office. At about a zillion different stages in the legislative process, Democrats had to wait for the CBO to "score" the cost and budgetary impact of the reform proposals on the table. But if Democrats could go back to 2009 to get some of that time back, they'd probably nix a four week back-and-forth between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and CBO-chief Doug Elmendorf, which dragged a process that was supposed to be over in August, then October, into November.

4. Snake, Meet Tail
There's no getting around it. As SEIU President Andy Stern said recently, Senate Democrats "had a chance, a gift, from the American people--60 votes, so they could, for the first time in their life, debate any single issue they chose to debate. And they squandered it." With Republicans out of the equation, Democrats needed to stand united--and they didn't. On October 26, after canvasing his caucus, Reid declared that he would include a public option in his health care bill. The next day, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) announced his intent to filibuster. Reid unveiled his bill on November 18, and managed to get it on to the floor. But he couldn't get it off the floor--passed--until he rounded up 60. For weeks, liberals and Democrats huddled to find common ground on the public option. At the last possible moment, after they thought they'd come to an agreement, Lieberman rose again: No public option; no compromise; either it goes, or I go. He won.

5. It's The Republicans!!
Thusfar, this has largely been a story about Senate Democrats. With 60 votes, why didn't they charge ahead? But the Senate is the Senate, and even a 40 vote minority can cause pointless delay. And delay they did. Republicans filibustered the move to debate the health care bill (30 hours); and through separate filibusters, delayed final passage of the Senate bill--December 24, 2009--by about a week.

6. No! It's The Democrats!!
But as soon as the bill passed, Democrats skipped town. For weeks. Reid went to Nevada--"I'm just going to sit back and watch my rabbits eat my cactus"--and other key players took time off. Exhaustion had clearly set in. But they needed those weeks.

7. #CoakleyFAIL
Why did they need those weeks? Because they'd soon lose a Senate seat. Kennedy's seat. The Democrats had planned to use the Senate bill as a baseline--send it over to the House for some changes, then back to the Senate for (truly) final passage. Another 60 vote hurdle. But after running a lethargic, gaffe-ridden campaign, Democrat Martha Coakley lost to surging challenger Scott Brown, who ran on a vow to be the 41st vote against health care. Suddenly Democrats needed a Plan B.

8. #ObamaFAIL
Democrats are settling on a Plan B. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen. But they came to the last-ditch strategy in the heat of a panic. It wasn't a pre-cooked contingency. Because Democrats never thought they'd need one. They took it for granted. And as a result, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said, health care reform is on life support.

Drum: Healthcare Reform's Final Minutes

From the "agony of defeat" file:

Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said negotiators from the White House, Senate and House reached a final deal on healthcare reform days before Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts.

....Harkin said “we had an agreement, with the House, the White House and the Senate. We sent it to [the Congressional Budget Office] to get scored and then Tuesday happened and we didn’t get it back.” He said negotiators had an agreement in hand on Friday, Jan. 15. Harkin made clear that negotiators had reached a final deal on the entire bill, not just the excise plans, which had been reported the previous day, Jan. 14.

The bad news: this means that if Democrats had taken this stuff even slightly more seriously, healthcare reform would already be a done deal. Idiots. The good news: if negotiations really were complete, it should mean that creating a reconciliation deal to accompany passage of the existing Senate bill ought to be fairly easy. A few parts would probably have to be jettisoned since they wouldn't be allowed under reconciliation rules, but that's life. The vast bulk of the compromise would stay in place and just needs to be turned into legislative language.

Why this isn't happening is a mystery.

  • Sully adds:

    So why isn't the blueprint for a reconciliation package relatively easy now? Or are they simply waiting for tempers to cool, for an outreach to Republicans to show the public that nothing is being rammed through, for an exposure of the paltry nature of the GOP's plans, a re-establishment of the focus on jobs and the economy ... and then HCR through reconciliation? Without the drama. Outside the framework of the Massachusetts victory. I dunno; Kevin is mystified. But one cannot help wonder.

    Meep, meep?

Sargent: Frank Luntz: Obama Had The Advantage Today, But GOP Should Do This Again

I just got off the phone with Frank Luntz, the well-known GOP pollster who was aggressively called out by Obama at today’s televised face-off with Republicans, and he conceded Obama had the advantage today — but said he’d still advise Republicans to debate him again, because it put them on his “level.”

Luntz also confided that Obama had approached him after the event and joked with him about calling him out. “We had a laugh about it,” Luntz told me in an interview just now. “He said, `It’s good for business.’”

During today’s event, Obama singled out Luntz, poked fun at his obsession with polling and focus groups, and cast him as a symbol of what’s wrong with Washington. “It’s all tactics, and it’s not solving problems,” Obama said.

Asked who won today’s face-off, Luntz said something that people on both sides would agree with.

“I call it in favor of the American people,” Luntz said. “I think it was good for everybody. I’ve never seen this before. I’ve never seen the President of one party interacting with the other party.”

Pressed on who had the upper hand, Luntz conceded: “Obama had the advantage. But he always has the advantage” because he’s President. Luntz said it was a boon to Obama, because he “demonstrated bipartisanship before a national audience.”

But Luntz said he’d counsel Republicans to do it again. “It was good for Republicans — it put them on the same level with the president and it will get their ideas heard,” he said.

“I would advise both sides to do it again,” Luntz said. “It should become a tradition. It demonstrates respect for the political process when both sides engage in debate.”

Okay then, White House and Republicans, when do we get to see this again?

Dennis G.: A great moment among many …

I have been enjoying the clips of President Obama kicking it old school with the House GOP in my hometown of Baltimore yesterday. There were many enjoyable moments, but I really enjoyed part of the exchange with Rep. Chaffetz of Utah. The Freshman GOPer was in full concerned troll mode as he baited President Obama with his “sadness”.

The young lad served up a litany of crocodile tears including a wing-nut meme that way to many in the media and on the left have bought hook, line and sinker:

CONGRESSMAN CHAFFETZ: You said you weren’t going to allow lobbyists in the senior-most positions within your administration, and yet you did. I applauded you when you said it—and disappointed when you didn’t.

Oversimplification and a reduction of evidence to a simplistic binary frame is a favorite sophistic tactic of the wing-nuts and single-focus advocates (left, right and center). Often, this reduction to a binary frame is based on a false assumption that binary absolutes are the only measure of purity (and therefore: truth).

The rejection of a holistic view of how the world actually works drives me nuts. The attacks on President Obama over lobbying and transparency are rooted in this mindset and Chaffetz seemed to be the designated wing-nut given the assignment to confront President Obama with this lazy meme as just another talking point in his litany of wankery. While the entire exchange is worth watching, I really enjoyed this answer by the President:

THE PRESIDENT: In terms of lobbyists, I can stand here unequivocally and say that there has not been an administration who was tougher on making sure that lobbyists weren’t participating in the administration than any administration that’s come before us.

Now, what we did was, if there were lobbyists who were on boards and commissions that were carryovers and their term hadn’t been completed, we didn’t kick them off. We simply said that moving forward any time a new slot opens, they’re being replaced.

So we’ve actually been very consistent in making sure that we are eliminating the impact of lobbyists, day in, day out, on how this administration operates. There have been a handful of waivers where somebody is highly skilled—for example, a doctor who ran Tobacco-Free Kids technically is a registered lobbyist; on the other end, has more experience than anybody in figuring out how kids don’t get hooked on cigarettes.

So there have been a couple of instances like that, but generally we’ve been very consistent on that front.

This was a great answer for the Wing-nuts and the folks in the media trained to carry their water (as Dougj pointed out the other day).

The issue of corruption in Washington is one that I’ve spent some time following and there has never been, in my lifetime, a President who aggressively confronted corruption—until now. This is one of the success stories of the first year of the Obama Administration and I think things will be even better in the second year.

Ezra Klein:

Remember the old joke, "I was at a fight and a hockey game broke out?" Well, earlier this afternoon, I was at a photo opportunity and a policy debate broke out.

Obama's Q&A session with the House Republicans was transfixing. What should have been a banal exchange of talking points was actually a riveting reminder of how rarely you hear actual debate -- which is separate from disagreement -- between political players.

This was a surprise. The session was clearly proposed so that Obama could appear to be taking real steps to reach out to Republicans. That implied warm feelings and a studied unwillingness to cause offense. But that was not the event we just saw. Instead, Obama stood at a podium for an hour and hammered his assailants. That makes it sound partisan and disrespectful. But it wasn't. It was partisan, but respectful.

There's a value in proving that you understand the other side's ideas deeply enough to disagree with them. And that was the message of Obama's session. Not that the Republicans were right. But that he'd looked hard enough at their ideas to realize they were wrong. I'm willing to work on tort reform, Obama said, but it's not a credible way to rein in health-care spending. The GOP budget might save a lot of money in theory, he admitted, but it does that by voucher-izing Medicare and holding its spending constant even as health cost increase -- which means seniors will go without a lot of necessary care. And it's hard to take that proposal seriously coming from the party that spent the past few months saying slight decreases in Medicare Advantage reimbursement represented an unforgivable threat to seniors.

Yglesias: Opportunity Knocks

Adam Nagourney writes:

At a moment of what appears to be great if unexpected opportunity, the Republican Party continues to struggle with disputes over ideology and tactics, as well as what party leaders say is an absence of strong figures to lead it back to power, from the party chairman to prospective presidential candidates.

I guess I don’t really understand what it is that the GOP has a great opportunity to do. The view they’re articulating at the moment is that (a) the deficit should be lower, (b) taxes should be lower, (c) Medicare shouldn’t be cut, (d) defense spending should be higher. With unemployment at 10 percent, this is a somewhat potent political message that helped them become only slightly less popular than the other party. That’s a huge improvement from where they were 18 months ago. But it’s not a governing agenda. What would they do if they took over?


Congressional Republicans decided quite a while ago to reject compromise at all costs and block the Democratic majority from governing. Sam Stein reported yesterday that some in the GOP are starting to second guess the strategy.

Some senior Republican strategists and party veterans are beginning to fret that the party's refusal to work with President Obama, even when he crosses onto their own philosophical turf, could ultimately erode some of the political gains they've made this past year.

Over the past two weeks, Republicans in Congress have united in nearly unanimous opposition to a series of ideologically conservative policy suggestions, starting with a commission to reduce the deficit, a pay-go provision that would limit new expenditures, and a spending freeze on non-military programs.

Opposition has usually been based on specific policy concerns or complaints that the measures aren't going far enough. But the message being sent is that the GOP's sole mission is presidential destruction.

Now, some in the party are beginning to worry.

Well, sort of. Stein's piece is solid, but it quotes former lawmakers and GOP strategists, not sitting Republican lawmakers. It's one thing for party officials just outside the decision-making center to raise concerns; it's something else when someone with actual power and direct influence shares those concerns.

And at this point, Republicans realize that they're taking obstructionism to levels unprecedented in American history, and they realize that the public may disapprove, but they're willing to take the risk.

Indeed, this week should have made this abundantly clear -- Republican obstructionism has reached the level at which they oppose ideas they support.

I'm delighted that some in the GOP are "beginning to worry" about the reflexive, knee-jerk opposition to literally everything Democrats consider, but I'm at a loss as to how the majority is supposed to work constructively with a minority that would rather destroy the political process than approve its own proposals.

Frank Rich in the NYT:

[Obama] must be less foggy on the specifics of what that agenda is. Though on Wednesday night he asked Congress to “take another look” at the health care bill, even now it’s unclear what he believes that bill’s bedrock provisions should be. He also said he wouldn’t sign any financial regulatory bill that “does not meet the test of real reform,” yet tentatively praised a House bill compromised by a banking lobby that is in bed with Democrats and Republicans alike. The Senate, of course, has yet to produce any financial reform bill.

Americans like Obama far more than they like any Congressional leader. They might even like more of his policies if he spelled them out. But none of that matters if no Democrat fears him enough to do any of his bidding and no Republican believes there’s any price to be paid for always saying no.

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