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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

Kill Health Reform, Save Granny, and Stop the Nazis

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published at The New Republic on August 4, 2009
One of the abiding frustrations attending the campaign for health care reform is that the complexity of the subject enables opponents to, as Sarah Palin might put it, “make things up.” Pro-reform folk have to work overtime to swat down claims that range from the deeply exaggerated to the completely fabricated, only to see their arguments treated as equivalent to conservative howlers in “he said, she said” media coverage. (Harold Pollack tears apart a few particularly egregious provocateurs over at The Treatment today.)
My own personal favorite howler, based on an usually high ratio of drama to fact, is the “kill granny” meme, whereby health reform is alleged to be aimed at saving money by hurrying seniors to the graveyard. And as it happens, Pat Buchanan’s latest syndicated column offers a classicly twisted presentation of this claim, showing that the old demagogue has not lost a step in his ability to defy logic in pursuit of his political aims.
After announcing that “Obamacare” depends on reduction of end-of-life care costs, Buchanan suddenly takes us to the United Kingdom, where a government agency has issued guidelines opposing the routine prescription of steroids for chronic pain. Then we’re back in the USA:

Now, twin this story with the weekend Washington Post story about Obamacare’s “proposal to pay physicians who counsel elderly or terminally ill patients about what medical treatment they would prefer near the end of life and how to prepare instructions such as living wills,” and there is little doubt as to what is coming.

Having conflated British and American policies, and identified counseling designed to let seniors control their own care with a government restriction on a particular pain medication, Buchanan suddenly starts talking about an assisted suicide in Switzerland, notes that some people in America support that, too, and then gets to his real argument:

Beneath this controversy lie conflicting concepts about life.
To traditional Christians, God is the author of life and innocent life, be it of the unborn or terminally ill, may not be taken. Heroic means to keep the dying alive are not necessary, but to advance a natural death by assisting a suicide or euthanasia is a violation of the God’s commandment, Thou shalt not kill.
To secularists and atheists who believe life begins and ends here, however, the woman alone decides whether her unborn child lives, and the terminally ill and elderly, and those closest to them, have the final say as to when their lives shall end.

Note that the only “concepts about life” that Buchanan mentions are those of “traditional Christians” and “secularists and atheists.” Thus excluded from the debate are 40 million or so mainline American Protestants, 20 to 30 million “non-traditional” American Catholics (i.e., those who support abortion rights), and of course, Jews, Muslims and all sorts of other people who aren’t remotely “secularists and atheists.” Unbelievers are in turn stereotyped without evidence as holding a casual attitude towards human life, instead of, perhaps, a serious commitment to the rights of human beings who happen to be women or people near death.
But this doesn’t end Buchanan’s vast smear. Next he flies us back in space and time to early-twentieth-century Germany, where a treatise on assisted suicide by two professors in the Weimar era (you know, that decadent “liberal” period) is assumed to have led directly to Nazi Germany’s euthanasia policies. (Pat doesn’t mention that the Nazis were big opponents of abortion, at least for Aryans.)
So in one short column, Buchanan manages to associate “Obamacare” with the intentional infliction of pain on seniors to encourage them to commit suicide, as part of an anti-Christian and proto-Nazi drive to destroy “the sanctity of life.”
I’m not saying that opponents of health care reform generally embrace Buchanan’s ravings, but let’s face it: The man has enormous exposure via his column and his MSNBC appearances. And he merely adds a particular shrill voice to the chorus urging Americans that this complicated idea of health care reform is too risky to undertake. Why open the door to even a small chance of a Fourth Reich in America, via government-sponsored assisted suicide? It’s better to trust the devil we know.

A quick lesson: how to misinterpret a poll to prove that Democrats are as nutty as Republicans

This item by James Vega was originally published on August 3, 2009.
A David Paul Kuhn column over at RealClearPolitics offers the thesis – stated in his title – that not just Republicans, but “Both Parties have their Fanatics.” While recognizing that substantial numbers of Republicans indeed believe against all evidence that Obama was not born in the U.S. , Kuhn argues that Democrats are equally –and in fact even more — delusional than the Republicans because a spring 2007 Rasmussen poll showed that 35% of Dems believed that “George W. Bush had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.”
On this basis Kuhn unleashes a veritable fountain of pejorative adjectives, even dusting off Richard Hofstadter to promote his “Dems are even more nutty and fanatical than Republicans” equivalency thesis.
He says:

“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” was title of historian Richard Hofstadter’s famous Sixties essay. “I call it the paranoid style,” [Hofstadter] wrote, because “no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Kuhn continues:

Most conspiracy theorists’ fidelity is to theory, not truth. They tend to uphold a belief despite the facts. The possible, however improbable, trumps the logical. And it’s futile to attempt to disprove their belief. It’s like debating with those who believe the world is flat.

Having thus set the stage with these hefty portions of hyperbole and Hofstadter, Kuhn then says the following:

The disparate treatment of the two conspiracy theories is unmistakable. More Democrats fell into the “truther” camp than Republicans fall into the “birther” camp. But the mainstream media has covered the “birther” poll far more vigorously. It’s easy to understand, unless one is invested in the opposing camp, why these incongruities irk the political right.

Wow. Take that, you damn Democratic nutcakes. Democrats are not only nuttier than Republicans, but the liberal media, as usual, is giving them a free pass.
This is dramatic, to be sure, but unfortunately there’s a huge and basic fallacy in the argument.

What Makes Dogs Blue?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published at The New Republic on July 29, 2009.
While Jon Chait is definitely right that much of the difficulty with House Blue Dog Democrats on health reform (like climate change) has had to do with the legislative timing, there is still a residual question about their generally reluctant position with respect to much of the Obama agenda. And the oversimplistic answer to this oversimplistic question has often been that Blue Dogs tend to represent marginal districts they could lose by toeing the party line.
So now comes the ever-insightful Mike Tomasky with an analysis of exactly how vulnerable those Blue Dogs really are. He keeps this analysis clean by limiting himself to those Members from districts carried last year by John McCain—i.e., those where fears of a voter backlash are most reasonable. And his conclusion is that the vast majority of Blue Dogs seem to have little to worry about based on their 2008 performance.
His conclusion:

Yes, some Democrats have to be very careful and not be seen as casting a liberal vote. But they’re a comparatively small number. A very clear majority of these people have won by large enough margins that it sure seems to me they could survive one controversial vote if they [put] some backbone into it.
But many of these folks manage to sell this story line to Washington reporters who’ve never been to these exurban and rural districts and can be made to believe the worst caricatures. I say many of these Democrats are safer than they contend. People need to start challenging them on this.

Mike’s post is very valuable in dealing with broad-brush stereotypes of the Blue Dogs and of Democratic “centrists” generally. He doesn’t, of course, deal with alternative explanations, including the diametrically opposed possibilities that they believe what they say they believe on policy issues as a matter of principle, or that they are deeply beholden to interests (whether home-grown or national) who oppose Obama’s agenda.
But let’s stick with electoral calculations. Mike plausibly assumes that any Democrat in a “red” district whose 2008 margin of victory exceeded McCain’s might be in a pretty strong position to take a bullet for the donkey team. Here, however, are three provisos to this argument:
1) Risking serious GOP competition” is not as compelling a motive as “risking defeat,” but anyone familiar with how Members of Congress think would understand that the former is treated as a personal disaster by anyone ill-accustomed to heavy fundraising and campaigning. This is hardly a Blue Dog exclusive: some may remember the disputes over racial gerrymandering during the early 1990s, in which some members of the Congressional Black Caucus stoutly defended the “packing” of their districts with African-Americans, at the arguable expense of overall Democratic prospects, on grounds that they deserved a safe, not just a winnable, seat. (To their credit, many CBC members volunteered for less safe seats during the next round of redistricting). And in all fairness, it should be remembered that many of the “loyal” Democrats who fulminate about Blue Dog treachery haven’t had a competitive race since their first elections. Avoiding actual accountability to voters is hardly an honorable motive, but it’s real.
2) It’s generally assumed by many analysts that 2010 is likely to be a pro-Republican year, particularly in districts carried by McCain in 2008. So 2008 performance levels aren’t necessarily dispositive of 2010 prospects. But equally important, more than a few Blue Dogs are from states where Republicans are likely to control redistricting after 2010. Invincible Members tend to be treated kindly in opposition-party redistricting; potentially vulnerable Members could wind up with much more difficult districts than they represent today. This may seem to be a remote worry, but again, it’s real.
3) Most Blue Dogs, whatever you think of their principles, loyalty, or ethics, are not stupid people. They understand that association with “liberal” Obama initiatives may be a problem, but that the value of the “D” next to their name on the ballot also depends on Obama’s success as a president. So like any politician, they undertake a personal cost-benefit of their positions on legislation and the overall effect on Obama, the party, and political dynamics generally. This, as much as concerns over “timing,” helps create the Kabuki Theater atmospherics of Blue Dog rhetoric. Most Blue Dogs want Barack Obama to succeed, but many would prefer that he do so without their own votes.
This last factor helps explain why, in addition to the important timing concessions, the Blue Dogs have reached an agreement with Henry Waxman that will allow health care reform to emerge from the House, but probably with only enough Blue Dog votes to avoid disaster. It remains to be seen how many of the conceded and ultimately insignificant “no” votes from Democrats can be sorted into the principled, the suborned, or the politically endangered. In any event, the Blue Dog bark may be worse than its bite.

Bring on the Fire, Mr. President

This item by J.P. Green was first published on July 28, 2009.
Count me in as one of the more pro-Obama bloggers. I am generally pleased by the leadership he has provided to far, although I still sometimes have difficulty getting my head around the concept of being proud of a president — it’s been a long time. Yes I admire his speeches, but I also admire President Obama’s low-key, no drama leadership style, which is a good way to get things done — most of the time.
With respect to health care, however, there is something that should be said, and Frameshop‘s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Feldman says it exceptionally well in his article “On Health Care, Obama Needs More Drama“:

Given the widespread fear that has spread throughout the national healthcare debate, I was surprised by the virtual absence of emotion in President Obama’s press conference performance…As a candidate, his speeches about “change” were so powerful that they spawned a pop culture industry. And yet, now that he is President and talking healthcare “change”–a national policy that will end the daily suffering and humiliation of tens of millions of Americans–Obama’s rhetorical passion has been displaced by the soporific drone of a mid-grade federal accountant. Where is the passion, Mr. President?

Feldman quotes a ho-hum passage from the President’s press conference, and adds “Obama’s words seemed to be governed by the logic of balance sheets rather than the emotion of lives in the balance.” Feldman may be overstating the President’s lack of discernable passion about health care reform, but he has a point. The balance sheet stuff is important — Americans want to know that proposed reforms are fiscally sound, and they are not going to get screwed by higher taxes. But it is up to the President, more than anyone, to arouse the citizenry’s anger at the gross injustice of the current “system.” Voters should be reminded of the urgency of heath care reform as a life or death issue for many Americans, because it is. With that accomplished, Feldman argues, then the President can shine the light on his fiscal prudence. Feldman adds,

OK, sure…The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action, true. I agree. But healthcare reform is also about: the infuriating inhumanity of the current system…!
People are living lives in fear–children are dying, for goodness sakes. This is about injustice and the anger that tens of millions of people have been trapped in lives of fear as a result of health insurance business model that Congress has been too cowardly to confront for decades. And this is about the very real, very legitimate fears that people have as a result of thinking about the social and cultural shift that will result from having a public healthcare system that did not exist before…These are legitimate fears, and people are talking passionately about them all over the country.

Feldman calls for corrective action:

Obama’s single greatest strength as a politician has been his ability to speak in such a way that it makes Americans feel that we are soaring to new heights together…Franklin Roosevelt had that gift. John Kennedy had that gift. And Barack Obama has that gift, too. And needs to use it.

It’s going to take every bit of leverage the President can muster to get a decent health care bill enacted, and Feldman is right that the President’s remarkable ability to arouse and inspire is a weapon that should be unsheathed before it’s too late.

Is Obama Redefining Bipartisanship?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published at The New Republic on July 24, 2009
In recent news coverage of congressional action on health care reform, we’re back to one of Washington’s favorite games: the bipartisan trashing of the idea that Barack Obama cares about bipartisanship. Here’s a nice distillation of the CW from the New York Times’ Robert Pear and Michael Herszenhorn:

White House officials said they had a new standard for bipartisanship: the number of Republican ideas incorporated in the legislation, rather than the number of Republican votes for a Democratic bill. Mr. Obama said the health committee bill “includes 160 Republican amendments,” and he said that was “a hopeful sign of bipartisan support for the final product.”

Slate‘s John Dickerson sees this as the administration “replacing the traditional definition of bipartisanship with their version in the hopes that people don’t notice but still like the result.”
This bait-and-switch interpretation of the White House’s m.o., is, of course, political gold to Republicans, since it simultaneously absolves them of any responsibility the breakdown in bipartisanship while labeling the president as both partisan and deceitful. As has been the case throughout this year when Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship has been called into question, it is broadly assumed that the “traditional” definition of bipartisanship–pols getting together in Washington and cutting deals–is what candidate Obama was talking about on the campaign trail.
But there’s actually not much evidence of that. Obama eschewed Washington’s aisle-crossing metric in many of his campaign speeches, including his famous speech announcing his candidacy in February of 2007, his speech the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, and even on an occasion that screamed for the clubby bipartisanship of Washington, a bipartisan dinner on the eve of his nomination in which he shared the stage with his John McCain.
Obama made the same point over and over again in his rhetoric about bipartisanship: It’s about focusing on big national challenges without letting minor details get in the way of progress, and it’s about forcing the parties in Washington to deal with those challenges in the first place. It’s certainly not about the president of the United States going to Mitch McConnell and John Boener and saying: “Okay, boys, what do you want to do now?” In the past, I’ve called it “grassroots bipartisanship,” since it’s aimed more at disgruntled rank-and-file Republicans and Republican-leaning independents than at Republican elected officials. But whether that’s right or not, it’s clearly a conditional bipartisanship that depends on the willingness of the opposition to share the agenda on which Obama was elected.
Do congressional Republicans today share Obama’s goals, and simply disagree with Democrats on some details of implementation? With a very few exceptions, no, they don’t. On climate change, the range of opinion among congressional Republicans and conservative interest groups ranges from outright denial of global warming, to rejection of climate change as the top energy priority (viz. Sarah Palin’s recent op-ed refusing to acknowledge any issue other than “energy independence”), to rejection of any immediate action as impossible under current conditions. This refusal to cooperate is all the more remarkable since Democrats have themselves unilaterally compromised by embracing a market-oriented approach to regulating carbon emissions–the same approach once championed by the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee–called “cap-and-trade,” which Republicans have now branded “cap-and-tax.”
And are congressional Republicans and conservative elites committed to universal health coverage? Maybe a few are, but the GOP’s opposition to Democratic health reform efforts has increasingly involved a defense of the status quo in health care (aside than their bizarre insistence that “frivolous lawsuits” are the main problem). Their violent rhetoric about the costs associated with universal health care is matched only by their violent opposition to any measures that would reduce those costs.
So you really can’t blame the White House for citing outreach to Republicans and adoption of Republican amendments as evidence of about the most bipartisanship they can reasonably achieve. If, like Dickerson, and many commentators from both ends of the political spectrum, you define bipartisanship in a way that excludes anything that doesn’t involve the sacrifice of basic principles or the abandonment of key policy goals, then to be sure, Barack Obama is not pursuing bipartisanship in that manner. But then he never was.

Let’s be honest. In international affairs, beneath clichés of “strength” versus “weakness” there are hard, inescapable military realities. It is these realities – not political rhetoric – that define what America actually can and cannot do

This item by James Vega was first published on July 21, 2009.
The continuing Republican criticisms of Obama as being “weak” and “apologizing to everybody” instead of being “strong” and “resolute” present these kinds of dichotomies as if they were abstract moral options between which Obama – and America – were completely free to choose. But the reality is that behind the abstract political rhetoric of terms like “strength” and “weakness” there is always the more practical level of military reality and the military strategies that can be based on it.
All of George Bush’s goals, threats, promises, language and rhetoric regarding the Arab-Persian world, for example, were not simply expressions of certain abstract moral values in which he just happened to believe but were firmly rooted in a very specific military analysis and strategy – a strategy that had been developed in the 1990s after the first invasion of Iraq. The basic premise of this strategy was that with the extraordinary military technology America had developed – known under the general rubric of the “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)” — America – in alliance with Israel — could militarily dominate the Middle East.
Looking at maps after the 1991 invasion of Iraq and considering the weak defense Saddam had mounted (US tanks had come within 70 miles of Bagdad, after all) these strategists concluded that by invading Iraq, converting it into a pro-US ally and setting up major military bases there we could obtain a central and decisive strategic position in the region. An invasion and pacification of Iraq would allow us to establish major American air, armor and infantry forces directly on Iran’s border and simultaneously threaten Syria and Jordan from the rear. This would severely weaken the main lines of communication and supply from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the occupied territories. In a domino effect, Israel would then find both Hezbollah and Hamas much more isolated and easier to control. Taken together, this would result in a combined US-Israeli military dominance of the region so powerful that it would allow us to then profoundly intimidate Iran and any other anti-US forces.
Two major corollaries followed from this basic military strategy. First, America had no real need for European or international allies (other than as window dressing) and second, America did not need to seek popular support in Muslim world. Military force by itself would be sufficient to achieve all our objectives. A massive network of U.S. air and land force bases in Iraq would serve as a permanent staging area for the fast and overwhelming projection of US military power and influence across the region while the dramatic success of the political and economic system we would install in Iraq would inspire Muslims to follow the U.S. example.
9/11 provided the opportunity to put this strategy into effect. From that time all of the rhetorical and political stances Bush took – and which Republicans continue to advocate today – were based on this underlying military analysis and military strategy.
Unfortunately, as all Americans are now painfully aware, from a purely military point of view, this strategy simply did not work.

Fun For Fiscal Hawks In California

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on July 21, 2009.
One of the odder political phenomena of 2009 has been the strength of the neo-Hooverite argument that the most appropriate response to the deepest recession since the 1930s is radical retrenchment of public spending policies to mitigate (or, at the state and local level, avoid) deficits. Most Republicans and some Democrats have embraced the rhetoric of hard-core fiscal hawkery, with particularly tough words for those state and local governments who have suddenly, through no particular fault of their own, watched revenues drop through the floor.
Well, the fiscal hawks ought to be enjoying the latest news from California, where Republican manipulation of a two-thirds-vote requirement for enactment of a state budget has led to a no-tax-increase deal to close an astounding $26 billion state shortfall.
The deal does have a revenue component that manages to take money out of California’s economy without actually increasing the state’s revenue base: it will increase and speed up tax withholding, and exploit an arcane provision related to Prop 13 that enables the state to borrow (to the tune of $1.9 billion) property tax dollars from local governments, who will in turn, of course, be forced to cut their own spending.
The spending side of the deal includes $1.2 billion in unspecified cuts to prison expenditures–virtually guaranteed to force early release of prisoners, a practice that earlier led to public demands, in California and elsewhere, for mandatory sentencing rules and restrictions on parole and probation.
But the crown jewel of the spending cuts in the California budget deal is the continuation and extension of furloughs for public employees that amount to a 14% pay cut. This isn’t exactly great news for California businesses that will feel the impact of reduced consumer spending by state employees.
Given the Golden State’s size, there’s no question the budget deal (if, indeed, it secures legislative approval) will represent a significant blow to national economic recovery. But it will undoubtedly please those for whom public spending is the villain, and “sacrifice” in every area other than taxes is the panacea.

The Less-Information Lobby

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on July 16, 2009.
One of the hardiest lines of argument in American politics, going back for decades now, is that public opinion research, or more colloquially, “the polls,” are a threat to good government, accountability, principled leadership, or even democracy itself. Few insults carry as much wallop as the claim that a politician or a political party is “poll-driven.” And in sharp distinction from most anti-information campaigns in public life, hostility to polls is not a populist preoccupation, but an elite phenomenon.
Last week Conor Clarke offered a vintage summary of the no-polls position at The Atlantic Monthly. Clarke’s fundamental contention is this:

News organizations are supposed to provide information that holds government accountable and helps the citizenry make informed decisions on Election Day. Polls turn that mission on its head: they inform people and government of what the people already think. It’s time to do away with them.

Note Clarke’s planted axiom about the purpose of “news” as a one-way transmittal belt of information to the citizenry. Under this construction, government feedback from the public is limited to the “informed decisions” made on election day. This is not terribly different from George W. Bush’s taunting remark in 2005 that he didn’t need to pay attention to critics of his administration because he had already faced his “accountability moment” in November of 2004.
Putting that dubious idea aside, Clarke goes on to make three more specific arguments for “getting rid of polls:” they reinforce the “tyranny of the majority; they misstate actual public preferences (particularly when, as in the case of polling on “cap and trade” proposals; they public has no idea what they are being asked about); and they influence public opinion as much as they reflect it.
In a response to Clarke at the academic site The Monkey Cage, John Sides goes through these three arguments methodically, and doesn’t leave a lot standing. He is particularly acerbic about the argument that polls misstate actual public opinion:

[P]eople tell pollsters one thing, but then do another. Sure: some people do, sometimes. Some say they go to church, and don’t. Some say they voted, and didn’t. All that tells us is to be cautious in interpreting polls….
So what do we do? We triangulate using different polls, perhaps taken at different points or with different question wordings. We supplement polls with other data — such as voter files or aggregate turnout statistics. Polls can tell us some things that other data cannot, and vice versa.

In this response Sides hits on the real problem with poll-haters: the idea that suppressing or delegitimizing one form of information (and that’s all polls are, after all) will somehow create a data-free political realm in which “pure” or “real” or “principled” decisions are made. Willful ignorance will somehow guarantee honor.
As Sides suggests, the real problem isn’t polling, but how the information derived from polling is interpreted and combined with other data–from election returns to weekly and monthly economic indicators–to influence political behavior. And that’s true of the variety of polls themselves. We’re all tempted to cite poll results that favor our predetermined positions. But the use of questionable polls for purposes of spin (e.g., the ever-increasing dependence of conservatives on Rasmussen’s outlier issue polling) is, as Sides says, an issue of interpretation rather than of some inherent flaw in polling:

Clarke is right about this: we are awash in polls. The imperative for journalists and others is to become more discerning interpreters. The imperative for citizens is to become more discerning consumers. When conducted and interpreted intelligently, we learn much more from polls than we would otherwise. And our politics is better for it.

So instead of fighting against the dissemination of polls like Odysseus lashing himself to the mast to keep himself from heeding the Sirens, political observers would be better advised to listen more carefully and process the information more thoughtfully. The desire for less information is a habit no one as smart as Conor Clarke should ever indulge.

How Stupid Talking Points Get Started

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on July 13, 2009
In looking for something else this morning, I ran across a couple of conservative blog posts that almost perfectly illustrated how rapidly routine information can be distorted into talking points used in attacks on the Obama administration, the Democratic Congress, and in this case, state and local governments.
The original source of those talking points was a General Accounting Office report on how state and local governments were (so far) using money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a.k.a. the economic stimulus package. According to the report:

Across the United States, as of June 19, 2009, Treasury had outlayed about $29 billion of the estimated $49 billion in Recovery Act funds projected for use in states and localities in fiscal year 2009. More than 90 percent of the $29 billion in federal outlays has been provided through the increased Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) and the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) administered by the Department of Education.

A Reuters blogger named James Pethokoukis linked to the report under the headline, “Maybe this is why the stimulus isn’t creating tons of jobs yet,” implying that the amounts were small and the spending wasn’t going into “infrastructure” projects.
Now keep in mind that of the estimated $787 billion in stimulus funds, only $185 billion was slated to occur in Fiscal Year 2009, mainly because FY 2009 began last October 1. I do wonder if Mr. Pethokoukis might have been confusing fiscal years with calendar years.
His apparent surprise that 90 percent of the state-local funds spent so far for FY 2009 are going to something other than “infrastructure” indicates (1) he wasn’t paying much attention when ARRA was enacted and (2) he doesn’t seem to understand that it’s inherently a bit speedier to adjust a Medicaid match rate or disburse a block grant than it is to fund specific highway projects. The GAO report indicates that $9.2 billion in highway funds for have already been obligated but not spent, which is about a third of the total highway money in the stimulus package (about what you’d expect given the time frames). Moreover, a significant portion of the roughly $111 billion in “science and infrastructure” money in ARRA will not flow through states and localities (e.g., most of the scientific research money).
But whatever you think of Mr. Pethokoukis’ brief and sardonic take on the GAO report, here’s how it devolved at the hands of Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s The Corner, under the headline, “Ninety Percent of Stimulus Funds Spent on Bailouts for State Government:”

The [GAO] study found that 90 percent of the stimulus funds spent so far have gone toward bailouts for fiscally irresponsible state governments. These states made commitments on health care and education spending commensurate to what they could afford during the boom years. When the economy crashed and tax revenues dried up, they had no way to pay for these commitments short of raising taxes, which none of them wanted to do. (Most states’ constitutions restrict their ability to run deficits.)
This is what the stimulus was really all about — not creating or “saving” jobs, but preventing states from suffering the consequences of their profligacy.

Note that the relatively small portion of stimulus money GAO was analyzing, which excluded direct federal expenditures and tax provisions, has now become “the stimulus funds spent so far.” And the temporary Medicaid match rate increase, along with funds to prevent education cuts and a very small provision for flexible state funds, has become “preventing states from suffering the consequences of their profligacy.”
Aside from the fact that the Medicaid, education and flexible money Mr. Spruiell is saying “aha” about was in the original legislation, and was fully debated and (in the case of the education and flexible funds) reduced before ARRA was enacted, he does not seem to understand that (1) it’s hardly “profligate” to fail to immediately slash Medicaid rolls or dump school costs on local property taxpayers when state revenues drop massively in a major recession, and (2) if states and localities weren’t “profligate” and made these cuts, they would contribute to the recession and heavily offset the impact of federal stimulus funds, through both reduced consumer spending and personnel layoffs (which were happening all across the country before ARRA was enacted, and which are still happening to some extent because what Spruiell calls “bailouts” weren’t sufficient).
Maybe that’s why not a single one of the 22 Republican governors–including the up-until-recently fiscal conservative hero Mark Sanford of SC–objected to the Medicaid money that always represented over half of the federal-state assistance in ARRA, and why only two–Sanford and Sarah Palin–tried to reject anything other than a very specific set of funds aimed at expanding unemployment insurance coverage.
But loose talk about “bailouts” from people who haven’t followed the debate and don’t know the numbers or the issues can go viral pretty fast, so don’t be surprised if you or your conservative friends soon get emails claiming that 90% of all the stimulus funds are being spent on profligate state social programs.

Seizing the “Historic Moment”

This staff post was originally published on July 10, 2009
Robert Creamer’s HuffPo post, “How Progressives Can Deliver on the Promise of Change in 2009 — Seven Rules for Success,” is a good read for Democrats mulling over the “So what do we do now” options. Creamer, author of ‘Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, ‘ one of the more well-regarded political strategy books of recent years, makes some bold challenges, including:

…We must always present our case in populist terms. We represent the interests of average people — not the elites that benefit from the status quo. The other side will try to argue that we favor a “government takeover” of health care that allows “Washington Bureaucrats” or some other elite to control our lives. If we spend all of our time talking about “insurance exchanges” and the arcana of health care policy we will lose.
We must frame the debate for what it is — a battle between the private health insurance companies and their multi-million dollar CEO’s on the one hand, and the interests of average Americans on the other. Populist frames are necessary for each one of our fights. Populism always trumps policy-speak.

Not a bad strategy slogan. And here’s a piece of Creamer’s carpe diem:

7). This historic window for progressive change will close if we don’t act, just as surely as a hole in the line disappears in football if a running back doesn’t burst through.
Mike Lux’s book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be surveys the history of progressive change in our country. He finds that it is not randomly spread. It occurs in clumps – during “big change moments.”
We are blessed to live in one of those big change moments. But, Lux finds, the lengths of those moments have varied enormously depending mainly on how well Progressives execute.
…For the next year, every Progressive in America needs to realize that he or she has an opportunity to make history that simply isn’t available to most people at most times. That means that all of us have a responsibility to all of the Progressives that have gone before us — and to our kids and grandkids — to make the very most of this precious opportunity.
More than anything else people want meaning in life. They want to do something of lasting importance. At this very moment we have that opportunity. It is up to each of us to seize it.
…But — just as in last year’s election — the critical ingredient that will allow us to be successful is the mobilization of millions of Americans. It simply won’t happen without us.
Some people are lucky enough to be able to say: “I was there at Selma.” For many, it was the proudest moment of their lives. Their eyes well up when they speak of it. It changed the course of history.
We all have the opportunity to be present at another one of those moments. To be there, each of us has to empty the stands — march into the arena – and help make history…It’s simple as this: If we don’t take advantage of this historic moment we may not have another for many years to come. If we do, we will help lay the foundation for a period of unparalleled possibility and hope.

Creamer urges progressives to get active with groups working for reforms and offers other pointers for making the most of the current political environment. As always, his insights provoke thought and inspire action.