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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: February 2010

Conservatives Soft on Domestic Terrorism?

In yet another insightful op-ed article, this one entitled “The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich kicks off an important discussion on a topic, otherwise much-ignored by the traditional media. Here’s Rich on the reaction of conservatives to the February 18th suicide bombing by Andrew Joseph Stack III, the anti-tax terrorist who flew a plane into the IRS office building in Austin, Tex., on Feb. 18:

What made that kamikaze mission eventful was less the deranged act itself than the curious reaction of politicians on the right who gave it a pass — or, worse, flirted with condoning it. Stack was a lone madman, and it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a “Tea Party terrorist.” But he did leave behind a manifesto whose frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner. That rant inspired like-minded Americans to create instant Facebook shrines to his martyrdom. Soon enough, some cowed politicians, including the newly minted Tea Party hero Scott Brown, were publicly empathizing with Stack’s credo — rather than risk crossing the most unforgiving brigade in their base.
Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, even rationalized Stack’s crime. “It’s sad the incident in Texas happened,” he said, “but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary. And when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the I.R.S., it’s going to be a happy day for America.” No one in King’s caucus condemned these remarks. Then again, what King euphemized as “the incident” took out just 1 of the 200 workers in the Austin building: Vernon Hunter, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran nearing his I.R.S. retirement…

Sound familiar? Rich continues,

…Had Stack the devastating weaponry and timing to match the death toll of 168 inflicted by Timothy McVeigh on a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995, maybe a few of the congressman’s peers would have cried foul.
It is not glib or inaccurate to invoke Oklahoma City in this context, because the acrid stench of 1995 is back in the air. Two days before Stack’s suicide mission, The Times published David Barstow’s chilling, months-long investigation of the Tea Party movement. Anyone who was cognizant during the McVeigh firestorm would recognize the old warning signs re-emerging from the mists of history. The Patriot movement. “The New World Order,” with its shadowy conspiracies hatched by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. Sandpoint, Idaho. White supremacists. Militias.
Barstow confirmed what the Southern Poverty Law Center had found in its report last year: the unhinged and sometimes armed anti-government right that was thought to have vaporized after its Oklahoma apotheosis is making a comeback. And now it is finding common cause with some elements of the diverse, far-flung and still inchoate Tea Party movement. All it takes is a few self-styled “patriots” to sow havoc.

Rich goes on to explain that most pro-terrorists hate the Republican Party almost as much as they hate the Democrats, because they are essentially anarchists. Nor would it be fair to imply that all anti-government activists are pro-terrorist. Says Rich: “They are not to be confused with the Party of No holding forth in Washington — a party that, after all, is now positioning itself as a defender of Medicare spending. What we are talking about here is the Party of No Government at All.”
But Rich does quote a GOP presidential aspirant, former MN Governor Tim Pawlenty, who recently urged an audience to emulate Tiger Woods’s wife and “take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government in this country.” Rich adds:

Such violent imagery and invective, once largely confined to blogs and talk radio, is now spreading among Republicans in public office or aspiring to it. Last year Michele Bachmann, the redoubtable Tea Party hero and Minnesota congresswoman, set the pace by announcing that she wanted “people in Minnesota armed and dangerous” to oppose Obama administration climate change initiatives. In Texas, the Tea Party favorite for governor, Debra Medina, is positioning herself to the right of the incumbent, Rick Perry — no mean feat given that Perry has suggested that Texas could secede from the union. A state sovereignty zealot, Medina reminded those at a rally that “the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”

The wholesale government-bashing that became epidemic during the Reagan Administration took root in the conservative fringe until it warped and found tragic expression in Oklahoma City in in 1995. Back then conservatives roundly denounced McVeigh’s act of domestic terrorism. It would have been good for conservatives to denounce with due fervor the domestic terrorist attempt at mass murder that ocurred on Feb 18th.

Health Reform and Reconciliation: The Budget Says Go For It

Amidst all the Republican caterwauling about Democratic intentions to “ram through” final enactement of health care reform via the budget reconciliation process, two very important points have gotten lost. First, reconciliation would not be used to enact a comprehensive bill; that’s already been done in both Houses. It would simply involve a relatively short list of changes to the Senate bill.
But second, and just as important, is this reminder from Brookings Institution economist Henry Aaron (via Jonathan Cohn):

The 2009 budget resolution instructed both houses of Congress to enact health care reform. The House and the Senate have passed similar but not identical bills. Since both houses have acted but some work remains to be done to align the two bills, using reconciliation to implement the instructions in the budget resolution follows established congressional procedure.

Unless provisions of the proposed “fix” of health care reform are adjudged as non-germane to the budget under Senate rules (and they will almost certainly be designed to avoid that problem), then use of reconciliation for that purpose is perfectly appropriate, and only questionable if you think the entire Congressional Budget Act, which provides for simple majority votes on both budget resolutions and reconciliation bills, is questionable. So Republicans who are screaming about this scenario need to be challenged to tell us if they favor repeal of the Budget Act, and an actual expansion of the ability of a Senate minority to obstruct legislation via filibusters.

New GOP Meme: Mocking the Unemployed, Uninsured

I do hope the DNC-DSCC-DCCC political ad-makers have their act together, because they are being presented a truckload of amazing material. Just in the last 24 hours we have a Republican U.S. Senator dissing the unemployed and three top conservative media personalities mocking the uninsured.
Ed Kilgore wrote earlier about Republican Sen. Jim Bunning screaming ‘tough shit” in response to an appeal for compassion for the jobless. Bunning is not running for re-election, due to his inept fund-raising skills, but he nonetheless makes an excellent poster boy for ‘GOP Obstructionist of the Week,’ although his fellow Kentuckian, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell is always a finalist.
Now we got GOP media superstars Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham making merriment from the hardships of people who can’t afford health insurance. Here’s a little bite from Media Matters for America‘s story, “Let them eat applesauce: Right-wing media mock the uninsured“:

…The O’Reilly Factor, radio host Laura Ingraham said she “liked the dueling sob stories, OK? One Democrat was trying to outdo the next on the sob story about how rotten our health care system is. Louise Slaughter won the Olympics of sob stories by saying one of her constituents had to wear her sister’s dentures. OK? It got so bad with the health care system.” She later added, “You had Harry Reid on the cleft palate with his — I mean, the whole thing was ridiculous.”

If Ingraham was trying to replace Ann Coulter as the new Marie Antoinette of the Republican party, she may have pulled it off. The article also quotes Limbaugh, “”What’s wrong with using a dead person’s teeth? Aren’t the Democrats big into recycling?” and Beck’s “I’ve read the Constitution before. I didn’t see that you had a right to teeth.” The article quotes other conservative media personalities in a similar vein.
It seems that the tea party movement has emboldened Republicans to more venomously articulate their contempt for the poor and disadvantaged. The cameras are rolling, and one hopes the Democratic ad-makers are collecting the product.

Grumpy Old Party

If you are unemployed, or if you are one of the millions of people hanging on to cancelled employer-sponsored health insurance via COBRA, your life will take a turn for the more insecure on Sunday, thanks to Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), who wants to make a symbolic gesture about federal spending. Bunning is refusing to let the Senate vote on totally noncontroversial extenders for these provisions, which will probably force a cloture vote and at least a week’s delay in restoring unemployment insurance and COBRA.
What makes this weird is that Bunning is taking this action not to secure any concessions on present or future legislation, but to express his grumpiness about something that’s already happened: Senate passage of the first chunk of jobs legislation by a 70-28 vote.
Now you have to appreciate that Bunning is a very angry old man. Never a very genial soul, he was pushed into retirement by his own party because it looked like he would be defeated even in a good Republican year, in part because he’s exhibited some signs of being a few bricks shy of a load. So he’s mad at his colleagues, and maybe even mad at his constituents, for their failure to let him serve in the Senate into his ninth decade of walking the earth.
The most appropriate response to Bunning’s grievances is probably the words the senator himself contemptuously uttered yesterday to Sens. Dick Durbin and Jeff Merkley when they cited the plight of the unemployed and soon-to-be-uninsured in asking him to let the extenders come to a vote: “Tough s__t!” The people he’s affecting with his little fit of pique have a lot more to complain about than Bunning, who’s largely wasted twelve years in the Senate being a grumpy old man. But he is a fitting symbol of the obstructionism of his party in Congress, which knows no bounds and feels no shame.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: Future Shock

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
On Tuesday, Intel CEO Paul Otellini delivered a speech at Brookings on long-term economic competitiveness. While there were some points with which I disagreed—specifically, his critique of the stimulus plan and his advocacy of wide-ranging corporate tax cuts—I agreed with his core thesis: We’re not investing adequately or strategically in our nation’s future, and we’ll pay a huge price if we don’t change course.
To support his argument, Otellini cited some startling statistics: Although we rank sixth among the top 40 nation’s in innovation-driven competitiveness, we rank dead last—40th out of 40—in the effort we’ve made over the past decade to improve future competitiveness. That sounded too bad to be true, so I hunted down Otellini’s source, “The Atlantic Century,” a 2009 study conducted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
The ITIF constructs an index based on 16 indicators in six different categories—human capital, innovation capacity, entrepreneurship, information technology infrastructure, economic policy, and economic performance. A few examples will make the point. We rank fourth in science and technology researchers as a share of our workforce, but only 20th in our rate of change over the past decade; fifth in corporate R&D investment, but 17th in the rate of change; fourth in government R&D investment, but 15th in the rate of change; seventh in broadband, but 22nd in rate of change; first in GDP per working-age adult, but 16th in rate of change; and so on.
While statisticians can always quibble with the report’s selection of indicators and the methodology used to weigh and assess them, it’s harder to argue with its overall thrust. Because we’re under-investing in the areas that will determine our future dynamism and standard of living, we’ll continue to lose ground relative to our competitors and may eventually lose ground in absolute terms as well. (In seven of the 16 ITIF indicators, we’ve actually gone backwards since 1999.)
To be sure, 1999 represented a cyclical peak. Still, it’s hard not to conclude that the past ten years were a lost decade. We can’t afford to lose the next one. Our challenge now is to adopt policies that build a stronger future while reining in our unsustainable budget deficits and protecting working families from the harshest consequences of disruptive economic change.
The way forward is neither obvious nor easy. But one thing is clear: Our margin for error is a lot smaller than it was a generation ago. We can no longer afford to waste resources, public or private, on expenditures that do not create economic or social value. The federal budget and tax code are honeycombed with unproductive payoffs to special interests; it’s time to purge them. And the private economy has been dominated by a financial sector that’s more interested in transferring wealth (to itself) than in creating wealth through sensible investments. Perhaps the 2008-2009 financial crash will force bright young people to stop producing complex derivatives and start working on innovations that improve our lives.


I generally agree with J.P. Green’s take on today’s health care summit, but would add a couple of points in an effort to answer his question: will this help pass health care reform?
I doubt too many Americans watched the whole seven-hour show, and it’s unclear yet how it will be covered in the MSM (though I’m afraid the Obama-McCain exchange will soak up more attention that it really merited). But certainly the president and congressional Democrats did a good job of trying to explain the fundamentals of health care reform: why the system’s broken; why an individual mandate, subsidies, and regulation of benefit levels are necessary to fix it; and why Republican panaceas such as interstate insurance sales, association health plans, health savings accounts, and state high-risk pools, won’t help and will probably make things worse. Anyone who did watch big chunks of the summit probably understands by now that you can’t just do the easy, popular stuff like banning exclusions of people with pre-existing conditions and let it go with that. You’d guess that a poll of people watching would rate the Democratic approach to health care reform as far superior to that of Republicans, and perhaps that impression will spread or seep through the media coverage.
The harder question is how the summit affects public opinion on the very key question of what comes next. From the president on down, Democrats frequently said there were many areas of fundamental bipartisan agreement, and Republicans frequently said it’s time to start over and work on a bipartisan plan. You could listen to all that talk and conclude it’s time for a new round of negotiations based on “common ground.” If you listened more closely, you’d more likely conclude that Republicans object to the basic design of any plausible comprehensive health care reform initiative, and that “common ground” is confined to some broad goals that have never been in doubt, and to some details that could theoretically still be addressed, but that aren’t game-changers for anybody. Any time Republicans seemed to sound too agreeable or friendly towards the president, one of their leaders (most notably House Minority Leader John Boehner) would reset the mood with some hammer-headed comments on “government takeover of health care ” or “abortion subsidies,” as though to remind all attendees that this is essentially an exercise in political theater.
The President’s concluding comments indicated that he wanted to let the summitry marinate for a while, and see if some new progress could be made within four or six weeks. But at that point, he made clear, it would be time to act, which means the House passing the Senate bill and then the Senate and House enacting what would normally be a conference committee report via reconciliation (which, as Democrats kept explaining today, is hardly an unusual procedure for major legislation). If, as appears most likely, Republicans simply retreat to their “start over” demand, you can expect Obama to unilaterally endorse a few more of “their” ideas (perhaps a stronger interstate sales provision with stronger federal regulation, or something more tangible on medical malpractice reform than grants to states, or maybe one of Tom Coburn’s fraud prevention or chronic disease management concepts), and then let the public decide who’s been reasonable. Since it would have probably taken that long to work out differences among House and Senate Democrats anyway, nothing much will be lost by this kind of delay, and perhaps the summit will have somewhat disrupted the conservative demonization campaign over the entire legislation.
At the very least, opponents of health care reform can no longer credibly complain that they haven’t been given a fair hearing for their “ideas” and their point of view. And Democrats have been given, and have largely taken advantage of, a fresh opportunity to get back to the basic arguments for health care reform.

Will Summit Help Pass HCR?

After watching a couple of hours of the health care reform summit today, I’d have to call it a big step towards enacting a credible bill. There were no major Democratic gaffes and the Republicans were unable to make a very persuasive case against the bill. Indeed, their incessant repetiton of the “my district hates this bill” put-down must have sounded a little scripted and unconvincing to viewers who were trying to make up their mind about the legislation, based on the best evidence presented by both parties.
President Obama looked large and in charge, calling everyone by their first names, while they all had to answer him as “Mr. President,” as he responded to most of the comments made by the Republicans and generally had the last word. This was a highly creative and effective use of the bully pulpit, which amplified the president’s image as a manager and a thoughtful leader who is sincerely trying to work some of the opposition’s ideas into the legislation. Again and again, he appealed to the Republicans to identify areas of agreement, which many Democrats noted, while few Republicans responded positively. President Obama’s performance will probably lend some cred to the public’s perception of the bill.
It was President Obama’s show. But other Dems acquitted themselves well enough. The Republicans did their best to appear as level-headed conservatives, not unduly influenced by tea party theatrics, and most pulled it off. Even the exchanges about resorting to budget reconciliation were impressively devoid of shrill demagoguery.
The civility of the exchanges is more a net plus for Dems because, as Chris Bowers notes in his OpenLeft post, “The largely positive impact of a boring health care summit,”

…makes charges of “communism” or “obstruction” seem a lot less credible. It looks like well informed people are discussing substantive legislation, rather than throwing bombs at each other…All in all, the summit is a huge net positive for the possibility of passing health reform this year. Democrats were losing the rhetorical battle on this bill, and a boring summit largely helps them.

A commenter called ‘workingclassdemocrat’ responds to Bowers, echoing,

I think summit deflated the fierceness of the GOP attacks. If nothing else, there haven’t been many “death panel” moments. That alone means the discussion is closer to reality. I think the time taken for this discussion and the buildup to it have allowed many on the left to reflect upon the benefit of choosing between this bill or nothing. Given the pressure of the media, the health industry, and the lack of pressure by the White House, something near to the Senate Bill is probably the reality.

The hysterical rhetoric about ‘socialism’ and Democratic reforms leading to economic disaster will probably sound a little less credible to open-minded voters, who the Republicans hope to win in November. No one can now say their views didn’t get a fair hearing, and the President addressed all of the critiques with calm, respectful authority. Hard to see any downside for the Dems.

Walking Dead Incumbents

To distract myself from the intense desire to scream while listening to Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) speak at the health care summit, I read a fine post by Nate Silver that explodes the myth that incumbents who don’t hold a majority in early polls are already toasty if not toast. This myth is being used by Republicans to declare a lot of Democrats as walking dead long before campaigns actually develop. Turns out, though, the available evidence doesn’t support that proposition. Here’s Nate’s conclusion:

1) It is extremely common for an incumbent come back to win re-election while having less than 50 percent of the vote in early polls.
2) In comparison to early polls, there is no demonstrable tendency for challengers to pick up a larger share of the undecided vote than incumbents.
3) Incumbents almost always get a larger share of the actual vote than they do in early polls (as do challengers). They do not “get what they get in the tracking”; they almost always get more.
4) However, the incumbent’s vote share in early polls may in fact be a better predictor of the final margin in the race than the opponent’s vote share. That is, it may be proper to focus more on the incumbent’s number than the opponent’s when evaluating such a poll — even though it is extremely improper to assume that the incumbent will not pick up any additional percentage of the vote.

Nate goes on to say that a much narrower version of the “50% incumbent rule,” which focuses on polls taken late in an election cycle, has more merit, but isn’t really a “rule” either. On the other hand, incumbents who register at above 50% in early polls do typically win. This ought to be kept in mind by Republicans who are fantasizing about a late “wave” that will sweep popular Democratic incumbents (and there are some) out of office.

Summit Spectacle

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the health care summit, and can’t decide just yet if it’s a spectacle of complex drama, or just one of the longest congressional hearings to be broadcast in a long time. For those unfamiliar with congressional events, the preliminary throat-clearing and personal preening must be excrutiating.
The Republican strategy for this event is pretty clear already: act like the administration is doing something really outrageous by using reconciliation to finalize the health care legislation already passed by both Houses. As I mentioned yesterday, this is factually ludicrous, but repeating talking points does sometimes work.
It’s pretty interesting that tea partiers are protesting the very existence of the event outside Blair House. Appointing themselves representatives of the people, and making unconditional demands on their behalf, has been a hallmark of their movement all along.


“Flip-flopping” on major issues can be hazardous to your political health. “Flip-flopping” when you’ve branded yourself as a brave principled “maverick” can be especially dangerous. And “flip-flopping” on grounds that you were confused about the issue in question is really, really bad, particularly when you are on the far side of 70.
That’s why John McCain may have ended his long political career the other day when he responded to attacks by primary challenger J.D. Hayworth on his support for TARP (popularly known from the beginning as the “Wall Street Bailout”) by claiming he was misled by the Fed Chairman and the Treasury Secretary into thinking the bill was about the housing industry, not Wall Street:

In response to criticism from opponents seeking to defeat him in the Aug. 24 Republican primary, the four-term senator says he was misled by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. McCain said the pair assured him that the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program would focus on what was seen as the cause of the financial crisis, the housing meltdown.
“Obviously, that didn’t happen,” McCain said in a meeting Thursday with The Republic’s Editorial Board, recounting his decision-making during the critical initial days of the fiscal crisis. “They decided to stabilize the Wall Street institutions, bail out (insurance giant) AIG, bail out Chrysler, bail out General Motors. . . . What they figured was that if they stabilized Wall Street – I guess it was trickle-down economics – that therefore Main Street would be fine.”

What makes this claim especially astonishing is that McCain was rather famously focused on TARP at the time. He suspended his presidential campaign to come crashing back into Washington to attend final negotiations designed to get enough Republican support for TARP to get it passed. He was, by all accounts, a very passive participant in these talks, but it’s not as though he wasn’t there. And you’d think his memories of the event would be reasonably clear, since it probably sealed his electoral defeat.
It’s not obvious how McCain can walk this statement back. And in terms of the political damage he inflicted on himself, it’s hard to think of a suitable analogy without going all the way back to 1967, when Gov. George Romney (father of The Mittster) destroyed his front-running presidential campaign by claiming he had been “brainwashed” by military and diplomatic officials into erroneously supporting the Vietnam War. He never recovered from that one interview line. (Sen. Gene McCarthy, who did run for presidential in 1968, was asked about the Romney “brainwashing” by David Frost, and quipped: “I would have thought a light rinse would have been sufficient.”).
McCain has a more sizable bank of political capital than George Romney ever did, but in a primary contest where he was already in some trouble, the suggestion that he was brainwashed by a Republican administration into fundamentally misunderstanding the central national and global issue of the moment–not to mention the central current grievance of voters with Washington–could be fatal. It doesn’t help that it will vastly reinforce Hayworth’s not-so-subtle claims that McCain is a fine statesman whose time has come and gone, and is now losing it.