Monday, June 14, 2010

Learning all the wrong lessons

John Cole: What He Said

Sometimes I can’t improve on a comment:

This is rich: an op-ed in today’s Times advises the Obama administration to be less partisan and more ethical in its political dealings. It’s written by Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer for the Bush administration from 2005 to 2007.

I’m guessing that was a part time job.


Marshall: Obama Oddly Unpopular in Former Slave States

Roll Call has a good article (sub.req.) today about the role of former President Bill Clinton in the 2010 election. The gist of the piece is that Clinton is turning out to be an important asset in this cycle since there are many parts of the country where he can go and campaign effectively where Barack Obama just can't. I talked to one candidate running in a race below the Mason-Dixon line a while back. And this person told me that where he's running, outside of the few places, Barack Obama is just toxic. Not surprising. But it was bracing to hear it from the candidate's own mouth.

What strikes me about the Roll Call article is that there's not a single mention in the piece that Barack Obama is ... well, black.

I don't want to make it like Obama's unpopularity in a lot of parts of the South is solely or even mainly tied to his race. I don't believe that. Not just because I don't want to paint with too broad or over-stating a brush. But there is actually some very relevant evidence to the contrary. If you go back to 1994 and 1995 you'll remember how Bill Clinton had a very similar geographical spread to his dire unpopularity. In a sense, he became kind of black in the middle years of his presidency, notwithstanding the fact that his political appeal in 1991-92 was precisely that he was a white Southerner with all the right cultural inflections. Some of us tend to forget that this is some of what Toni Morrison meant when she famously called Clinton America's 'first black president'.

All that being said though, c'mon ... A big part of the importance of Bill Clinton this year is that he can slip into parts of the country where President Obama is a political liability and give Democrats some presidential star power. Those places are predominantly in the South or to a degree even more in the border states. You simply can't explain this phenomenon without taking the President's race into serious account. The truth is that it's not either/or but additive. The layers of politics and race are reinforcing. But it's there.

Yesterday, on "Fox News Sunday," Bill Kristol made a comment about the BP oil spill disaster that seems pretty common of late, but which seems relatively backwards to me.

The Weekly Standard editor suggested there was no reason to hold President Obama "personally accountable" for the disaster and spill fallout, but Kristol nevertheless sees this as "a blow" to "Obamaism." He added, "I mean, it's a blow to the notion that the federal government, a notion that he's deeply identified with, is sort of omnipotent."

If this seems kind of familiar, it's because George Will said something very similar two weeks ago. The president, Will said, is "being unfairly blamed," but since Obama told the country that government could solve problems, and the government hasn't solved this problem, Will said the lesson of the disaster is that government isn't really to be trusted after all.

At face value, the argument is baseless, to the extent that conservative pundits are beating a straw man -- neither President Obama nor anyone else in Democratic politics has ever argued that the federal government is "sort of omnipotent."

But more importantly, while Kristol, Will, and others on the right see this entire ordeal as a vindication of their political philosophy, I tend to think they have it backwards. After all, what does the conservative worldview tout as a matter of course? That nearly every area of public policy should feature less government, more private enterprise, fewer regulations, and less federal oversight.

And in this case, we tried that. It was the guiding principle of the last decade, when oil companies were effectively told they could do as they pleased, without pesky federal mandates and oversight. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico isn't the result of Kristol's vision of "Obamaism" gone awry; it's the opposite -- the idea that if we just get government out of the way, everything will be fine looks patently ridiculous right now.

Indeed, notice that the basis for much of the right's criticism of the administration right now is, paradoxically, the sense that the government isn't doing enough. This from the crowd that doesn't want government doing much of anything, ever.

Conservatives, then, are learning all the wrong lessons. It's not the first time, and it probably won't be the last.

Greg Sargent:

* It's the deregulation, stupid: One of the outstanding questions about Obama's handling of the spill has been whether he'd seize on it to make an aggressive case against the knee-jerk deregulatory ideology that ran rampant before he took office.

Now he's done that in an interview with Politico, taking direct aim at the hypocrisy of those who pose as anti-government diehards but are suddenly demanding a robust Federal response to the spill:

"I think it's fair to say, if six months ago, before this spill had happened, I had gone up to Congress and I had said we need to crack down a lot harder on oil companies and we need to spend more money on technology to respond in case of a catastrophic spill, there are folks up there, who will not be named, who would have said this is classic, big-government overregulation and wasteful spending."...

"Some of the same people who are saying the president needs to show leadership and solve this problem are some of the same folks who, just a few months ago, were saying this guy is trying to engineer a takeover of our society through the federal government that is going to restrict our freedoms."

The problem for Obama, of course, is that the perception of government impotence in the face of the spill risks undercutting Obama's larger project of restoring public trust in government's competence.

It's an interesting paradox: Even as the spill's destruction dramatically illustrates the need for more robust Federal regulation, the government's inability to respond effectively to the spill now that it's in motion risks undermining his larger effort to move the debate in the right direction. Polls show very low confidence in the government's handling of the spill.

One can only hope the public realizes that the inability to halt the spill shouldn't have any bearing on the argument over whether more Federal regulation, and real Federal energy reform, are required to prevent such disasters in the future.

* Senator Bill Nelson, for one, is not satisfied: He wants to know who's in charge of the cleanup.

* Michael Crowley on why the Gulf spill may not trigger a major shift in the conversation: We're stuck in a recession, and Big Oil still holds vast sway over our economy.


In April, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) was speculating about his expectations for the midterm elections. With Republican hopes sky-high, Sessions said anything less than a GOP takeover of the House is worth "a warm bucket of spit."

The message has changed quite a bit since April.

Last month, NRCC Recruitment Chair Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that some leading Republicans have told him privately that they want to make gains -- but not enough to actually get a majority. This attitude is apparently more widespread than I'd expected.

Republicans have been engaging in some premature drape-measuring for a few months in anticipation of winning back control of the House of Representatives. Some top GOP aides privately admit that they got ahead of themselves.

Turns out, not all Republicans are rooting for their own to win the House.

"I want Republicans to make massive gains but I want them to fall one vote short of taking the House," said Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary to President George W. Bush. "I want to see more evidence that Republicans are ready to govern. I want to see more substance, particularly on what spending they will cut."

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who has been tasked with recruiting candidates by House Minority Leader John Boehner, confirmed that this view is held by numerous party operatives and leaders, though none in Congress.

There are apparently a variety of factors driving this motivation -- including the notion that President Obama would be more likely to win a second term if he ran against a GOP House -- but the core concern seems to be that governing next year will be hard, and their proposed cuts might spark a backlash, so Republicans might as well let Dems worry about doing the heavy lifting.

DNC spokesperson Hari Sevugan said fear of holding the House is a sign that "Republicans aren't interested producing solutions to America's problems."

I think this truth was already apparent, but I suppose it's helpful to have another reminder.

Sargent: Senate Dems to BP: $20 billion escrow fund NOW

As you know, President Obama is ratcheting up the pressure on BP by demanding that BP create an independently-monitored escrow fund to handle claims by people and businesses affected by the Gulf disaster. The White House hasn't named a specific figure, beyond saying it wants a "substantial" sum put in the account.

What's getting less attention is that virtually the entire Senate Dem caucus has thrown its weight behind this demand, and has named a figure: $20 billion.

Senate Dems have sent a harshly-worded letter to BP execs demanding the money, and note the barb directed at BP over its public relations push:

In order to ensure BP fully and quickly covers the costs of this disaster, we are calling on BP to immediately establish a special account of $20 billion, administered by an independent trustee, to be used for payment of economic damages and clean-up costs. Establishment of this account would serve as an act of good faith and as a first step towards ensuring that there will be no delay in payments or attempt to evade responsibility for damages. Although creating this account at this level in no way limits BP's liability, we believe it will do more to improve BP's public image than the costly public relations campaign your company has launched.

We appreciate your interest in fully and quickly reimbursing those who have been injured by your actions. We believe the establishment of the $20 billion account to compensate victims and provide for clean-up is a useful first step for demonstrating that BP intends to meet its commitments. In light of the urgency of this matter we ask the courtesy of your response no later than June 18, 2010.

The letter is signed by virtually the entire Dem caucus. It's a sign that Dems -- perhaps belatedly -- are displaying some real anger here and are keeping the spotlight on BP and the need to hold it accountable.

The House GOP leadership has now endorsed lifting the liability cap, but Republicans have repeatedly blocked efforts to lift it in the Senate. Dem Senate leaders, it seems, recognize they have a winning issue on their hands and intend to press the point.

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