The problem with the Senate is not that you can’t get 60 people out of 100 people to agree on something. It’s that roughly half the folks will lose any chance at a promotion, and they may even lose their job, if they agree with the other half. Bipartisanship isn’t impossible because people disagree on the finer points of American policy, though many of them certainly do. It’s impossible because the parties are locked in a zero-sum struggle for control, and you don’t gain an advantage if you give the other side a major accomplishment and then tell the American people they really did a good job reaching out to your and your colleagues. That’s the equivalent of saying to your employer, “Don’t give me a promotion, and in fact, think hard about whether you might want to lay me off next year.”
As I’ve said before, it is very near to impossible to build out an ideological model explaining why Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit would vote against the deficit-neutral health-care reform bill. But it’s very easy to build out a model explaining why Republicans would vote for a bill that would help them if it passed and against a bill that would hurt them if it failed. Same goes for Democrats. Good-faith disagreement is not the explanation that best fits the data.
Month: February 2010
I fear Josh Marshall was right in this prediction regarding the outrage over Senator Richard Shelby’s blanket hold of all of Obama’s nominees until he got a guarantee of some pork spending:
Perhaps, like so many other times, this will be today’s outrage that is the new normal by tomorrow.
Marc Ambinder gets the politics of this exactly right in his description.
Yet, the outrage seems to be dying down. The fact that someone like Shelby has this power doesn’t seem to disturb the general public as much as whether or not he is forced to go through the spectacle of using it.
Here’s hoping the Democrats find some dramatic way to showcase this dramatic exhibit of how off-the-rails the Senate has become.
[Image not subject to copyright.]
[digg-reddit-me]On Saturday night, Sarah Palin addressed the Tea Party Convention in Tennessee. Her performance recalled her national debut as McCain’s vice presidential nominee – feisty-ness, outrageous accusations leveled with a winning smile, sharper digs at Obama’s character than her muddled criticisms of his policies. But there was a new political confidence – a confidence in her ability to position herself to best catch the prevailing political winds. One of her main lines of attack against Obama was to re-try the Rovian strategy of calling him weak on terrorism:
The events surrounding the Christmas Day plot reflect the kind of thinking that led to September 11th. That…the…threat then, as the USS Cole was attacked,our Embassies were attacked, it was treated like an international crime spree, not like an act of war. We’re seeing that mindset again settle into Washington. That scares me for my children and for your children. Treating this like a mere law enforcement matter places our country at grave risk. Because that’s not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this. They know we’re at war. And to win that war, we need a Commander-in-Chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.
Sarah Palin though isn’t really attacking Barack Obama’s positions on national security directly. He has been rather cautious in moving in the direction she’s attacking him for moving. The person Sarah Palin should be attacking is Judge William Young, who oversaw the trial of shoe bomber Richard Reid. (Republicans across America have recently taken to condemning George W. Bush’s handling of Reid because it was so similar to how Barack Obama handled Abdulmutallab.) Judge Young confronted Reid – as well as the government’s prosecutors of Reid. In Court, he eloquently defended the very position Sarah Palin is attempting to paint as “soft” on terrorism: a respect for the Rule of Law, a view of these terrorists as scum unworthy of being honored as warriors. He looked into the face of this terrorist and diminished him and all of his comrades. Young’s remarks are well worth reading (or re-reading.) I’d seem them referenced before and seen quotations – but today I finally read the transcript. (H/t Andrew Sullivan.)
We are not afraid of any of your terrorist co-conspirators, Mr. Reid. We are Americans. We have been through the fire before. There is all too much war talk here. And I say that to everyone with the utmost respect.
Here in this court where we deal with individuals as individuals, and care for individuals as individuals, as human beings we reach out for justice.
You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. You are a terrorist. To give you that reference, to call you a soldier gives you far too much stature. Whether it is the officers of government who do it or your attorney who does it, or that happens to be your view, you are a terrorist.
And we do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not treat with terrorists. We do not sign documents with terrorists.
We hunt them down one by one and bring them to justice.
So war talk is way out of line in this court. You’re a big fellow. But you’re not that big. You’re no warrior. I know warriors. You are a terrorist. A species of criminal guilty of multiple attempted murders.
In a very real sense Trooper Santiago had it right when first you were taken off that plane and into custody and you wondered where the press and where the TV crews were and you said you’re no big deal. You’re no big deal.
What your counsel, what your able counsel and what the equally able United States attorneys have grappled with and what I have as honestly as I know how tried to grapple with, is why you did something so horrific. What was it that led you here to this courtroom today? I have listened respectfully to what you have to say. And I ask you to search your heart and ask yourself what sort of unfathomable hate led you to do what you are guilty and admit you are guilty of doing.
And I have an answer for you. It may not satisfy you. But as I search this entire record it comes as close to understanding as I know.
It seems to me you hate the one thing that to us is most precious. You hate our freedom. Our individual freedom. Our individual freedom to live as we choose, to come and go as we choose, to believe or not believe as we individually choose.
Here, in this society, the very winds carry freedom. They carry it everywhere from sea to shining sea. It is because we prize individual freedom so much that you are here in this beautiful courtroom. So that everyone can see, truly see that justice is administered fairly, individually, and discretely.
It is for freedom’s seek that your lawyers are striving so vigorously on your behalf and have filed appeals, will go on in their, their representation of you before other judges. We care about it. Because we all know that the way we treat you, Mr. Reid, is the measure of our own liberties.
Make no mistake though. It is yet true that we will bear any burden; pay any price, to preserve our freedoms.
Look around this courtroom. Mark it well. The world is not going to long remember what you or I say here. Day after tomorrow it will be forgotten. But this, however, will long endure. Here, in this courtroom, and courtrooms all across America, the American people will gather to see that justice, individual justice, justice, not war, individual justice is in fact being done.
The very President of the United States through his officers will have to come into courtrooms and lay out evidence on which specific matters can be judged, and juries of citizens will gather to sit and judge that evidence democratically, to mold and shape and refine our sense of justice.
See that flag, Mr. Reid? That’s the flag of the United States of America. That flag will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag still stands for freedom. You know it always will. Custody, Mr. Officer. Stand him down.
Young’s obvious strategic confidence in America, in our strength and in the resiliency of our way of life, demonstrates how weak-kneed the preemptive surrender advocated by Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney is in comparison.
[Image by Kamal H. licensed under Creative Commons.]
- Must-Reads of the week (incl. cool picture of Times Square snowball fight from Dec. 2009) http://2parse.com//?p=4824 #
- The big issue of 2010 (& 2012). http://2parse.com//?p=4818 #
- Let’s keep all that talk of a failed first year in office to a minimum. http://2parse.com//?p=4817 #
- How To Oppose Doing What the People Want: Pretend It’s Something Else. http://2parse.com//?p=4814 #
- Explaining Republican Obstructionism: Party First. http://2parse.com//?p=4789 #
- Pretty much everything you need to know about President Obama & the budget deficit is contained within this chart. http://bit.ly/dckDnH #
- This lede bugs me… http://2parse.com//?p=4799 #
- By @ggreenwald: Not even the Bush administration argued that the Constitution applies only to American citizens… http://2parse.com//?p=4793 #
- Just a typo. http://imgur.com/GEn6A #
- Respected Republican Answers the Question: "But how will you save all that money?" http://2parse.com//?p=4790 #
- From @ezraklein: "This is why people love Barney Frank." http://bit.ly/bjS9ZE #
- I've rarely enjoyed Venn diagrams so much. (#3 is brilliant…) http://bit.ly/anuX9b #
- Obama: You're Calling Me a 'Bolshevik' for Using Republican Ideas for Democratic Ends… http://bit.ly/cDZzBj #
- From @ezraklein: "Our government’s partial role is pricier than the whole of government-run systems." http://2parse.com//?p=4759 #
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1. Ezra Klein on Rep. Paul Ryan, Health Care, and the Deficit. If you want a serious, policy-oriented daily take on health care and fiscal issues, turn to Ezra Klein. This week, he began the opinionosphere’s discussion of Rep. Paul Ryan’s serious attempt to balance the budget (which has no chance of being embraced even by the Republicans or Democrats.) Later, he interviewed Rep. Ryan – though it read more like a discussion between two serious people about fiscal policy and health care reform. Klein later attempted to see where along the political spectrum the Senate health care reform bill fell:
Take Rep. Paul Ryan’s health-care plan…as the conservative pole on this issue. Then take single-payer and place it on the other side of the spectrum. Where does the Senate bill fall?
It’s closer to Ryan’s plan than to single-payer. A lot closer, in fact.
Yet this basic fact – that Obama has taken a rather conservative approach to health care substantively similar to the 1994 plan Republicans counter-proposed to Bill Clinton – has been obscured by a Republican Party intent on obstructing Obama’s agenda to gain partisan advantage. As Klein explains, the problem is that the incentives for each party don’t line up:
[T]hat’s the underlying reality of health-care reform. Substantive compromise is easy. In fact, the bill is a substantive compromise. It’s a deficit-neutral, universal-coverage scheme that relies on the private insurance market and looks like one of the Republican alternatives from 1994. What’s hard is political compromise. Because there, the two positions are that Democrats are helped if a bill passes and Republicans make gains if a bill fails. There’s no way to split the difference between those positions.
At the same time, however, Klein castigates Democrats as well as Republicans for failing to put the national good over their own political situations:
The distinguishing feature of the budget conversation, however, is that it happens at a very abstract level. This red line needs to come down to meet this black line, and this huge number needs to eventually become this slightly-smaller number. That’s all fine for a floor speech, but when you start trying to muscle the red line into position or subtract from the very big number, things get real specific, real quick. Suddenly, you’re telling seniors that there are treatments they just can’t get and you’re telling workers that the insurance system is going to have to change. And just as Conrad doesn’t have much appetite for doing that to his constituents on the small things that most of them don’t notice, very few legislators have demonstrated much appetite for doing this to the country on the big things that pretty much everyone notices.
2. I do not accept second place for the United States of America. Edward Alden and E. J. Dionne comment on what is brewing to become the big issue of the 2010 elections, not coincidentally countering the main narrative put forth by the right wing.
3. A successful first year. Norm Ornstein and John P. Judis explain some of the significant accomplishments of Obama’s first year in office.
4. Virtual insanity. Andrew Sullivan’s main theme this week has been the virtual insanity of the Republican Party. He writes: “On every single major issue of the day, they are incoherent.” He quotes Daniel Larison:
Republicans have been treating temporary, tactical political victories as if they were far more significant, strategic victories, when, in fact, they have no political strategy worth mentioning.
Then of course are the highlights from that Daily Kos poll in which – for example – 59% of Republicans believe Obama should be impeached for something-or-other.
5. Reid v. Abdulmutallab. Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly gets some hard hits in on the ridiculousness of the Republican response to Obama’s handling of the panty-bomber. And Benen doesn’t even get into the fact that Abdulmutallab is now cooperating.
6. Obstruction. I examined some of the theories of why the Republicans are so uniformly obstructionist.
7. Madden vs. Real Life. As a football-related article for this Super Bowl weekend, Chris Suellentrop for Wired explored how the video game Madden is affecting the real game of football.
[Image by Doug Kim, used with permission of the creator, and in anticipation of the snowstorm that might rock Manhattan today as I’m commuting home.]
[digg-reddit-me]Andrew Sullivan pointed to two rather positive takes on the Obama administration over the past year from right wing Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein and liberal magazine reporter John P. Judis reporting on the regulatory agencies.
Judis in The New Republic:
[T]here is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for–but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.
The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901–1914, 1932–1938, and 1961–1972) of the last century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism–from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”
Judis explains several ways conservatives attempted to eviscerate the regulatory apparatus including appointing lobbyists for those being regulated to head the agencies and through the clever use of cost-benefit analysis:
The conservative version of cost-benefit analysis stressed costs rather than benefits and subjected only regulation–not deregulation–to cost-benefit scrutiny. Conservatives also sometimes adopted bizarre formulas for assessing costs and benefits. They assigned less monetary value to improvements or protections in poor communities because the residents were willing (that is, able) to pay less for them, and they used a spurious correlation between a society’s wealth and the health of its citizens to argue that the costs of regulation outweighed the benefits. Under George H.W. Bush, for example, OIRA argued that OSHA regulations on chemical contaminants would end up harming workers more than exposure to chemicals. Wrote James McRae, the acting head of OIRA, “If government regulations force firms out of business or into overseas production, employment of American workers will be reduced, making workers less healthy by reducing their income.”
(Presumably it was this article that Jon Stewart was referring to in his O’Reilly interview.)
Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute – no fan of Obama’s agenda – can’t deny the significant accomplishments of this Democratic Congress:
[T]his Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president — and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The deep dysfunction of our politics may have produced public disdain, but it has also delivered record accomplishment.
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.
And of course, this has something to do with Obama, as NPR reported:
In his first year in office, President Obama did better even than legendary arm-twister Lyndon Johnson in winning congressional votes on issues where he took a position, aCongressional Quarterly study finds.
As I wrote last week, listing some additional accomplishments:
He pulled the nation back from the brink of a financial crisis and recession without nationalizing the banks or bailing them out yet again. He moved America back from the panicked emergency measures adopted by George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. He salvaged some deal from Copenhagen despite the Chinese attempts to undercut America’s position. He appointed a moderate, liberal pragmatist to the Supreme Court. He has made many long-term bets in domestic and foreign policy which we have yet to see play out. And of course, there is his attempt at health care reform – combining the most significant attempt at cost control in a generation with the most significant expansion of access to medical insurance. (The two goals being surprisingly compatible as Milton Friedman acknowledged.) Though this last bill still has not had its fate decided, these are serious and substantial accomplishments that form the basis of a solid legacy.
(Of course, there are disappointments as well – but let’s keep all that talk of a failed first year in office to a minimum.)
[Image not subject to copyright.]
I’ve been meaning to draw attention to Edward Alden’s political take on the most significant sentence in Obama’s State of the Union:
President Obama’s best bipartisan applause line of the speech–“I do not accept second place for the United States of America”–should become the mantra for his administration’s effort to revive its faltering agenda. It captured the central theme of his speech–that the failure of those in the country’s most powerful institutions to rise above their narrow, immediate interests has paralyzed America’s ability to tackle an urgent series of challenges that threaten its future prosperity and global leadership. Yet while Washington fiddles, Wall Street gambles, and the media chortles, other countries are moving ahead.
E. J. Dionne comments on the same line in a column for The New Republic identifying what he labels the sleeper issue of 2010: American decline.
Beneath the predictable back-and-forth between Obama and his Republican adversaries over government spending lies a substantively important difference over how the United States can maintain its global leadership.
For Republicans, American power is rooted largely in military might and showing a tough and resolute face to the world. They would rely on tax cuts as the one and only spur to economic growth.
Obama, Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, believe that American power depends ultimately on the American economy, and that government has an essential role to play in fostering the next generation of growth.
One thing no one has commented upon is how well this narrative refutes the narrative the right wing is building. I noticed some time earlier that Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and much of the right wing had been coalescing around the narrative they were pushing about Obama – which I called the Unified Theory of Obama. The conclusion of all their various claims – the story that tied them all together was this:
Therefore, Obama is using his presidency to deliberately and radically weaken America – by spending more money than it can afford to; by destroying its economy with health care reform and cap and trade; by giving up America’s moral leadership of the world (by bowing to foreign leaders and apologizing for past mistakes); by engaging in “various kinds of strategic retreat, most particularly in reversing policies stained by even the hint of American unilateralism or exceptionalism;” by moving away from the Bush administration’s foreign policy and national security approaches thus giving “encouragement — aid and comfort — to the enemy.”
[Image not subject to copyright.]
Luntz’s latest memo advising Republicans on how to fight financial reform, obtained by Sam Stein, is a classic of the genre. The unstated argument of the memo is that, being determined to oppose legislation that most Americans support, Republicans should simply pretend they are arguing against something completely different.
This is depressingly and utterly predictable given what happened with the health care debate (government takeover! government-mandated abortion! death panels!) and with the national security debate and on net neutrality and on a range of issues.
[digg-reddit-me]Republicans are pushing back against the notion that they are simply obstructionists, that they are the “Party of ‘No’!” But as they do so, their obstructionism has reached new heights.
Specifically, you could look to these examples: Senator Mitch McConnell; Senator Judd Gregg; and Senator John McCain (who thought he was in favor of net neutrality before he started to raise money opposing it and calling it a “government takeover of the internet;” and on cap and trade legislation, which he was one of the major supporters of until Obama proposed it; or then changing his position on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.)
What you think about Republican obstruction determines what you think of Obama. The almost unanimous view of the right wing opinionosphere is that Obama is the most left-wing world leader since Mao Zedong. Obama’s supposed radicalism justifies and explains the unified Republican opposition. Yet no reasonable observer can judge Obama’s policies and actions as very far from the center. He has been ambitious, but cautious. So, with that explanation found to be implausible, what other explanations are there?
Andrew Sullivan posits one which seems the typical and politicized answer – and the one I would have given before the health care debate:
The core narrative of Obama’s promise and candidacy remains what it always was, in my view. He’s struggling against ideology to enact pragmatic reform.
There is truth to this claim – but it is insufficient given Obama’s pragmatism and moderation. On a range of issues, Republicans supported Bush and opposed Obama (for example, compare the treatment of failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid with that of failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab or even deficit spending in general.) This suggests the ideological motivation is not sufficient. Ezra Klein describing Senator Mitch McConnell’s vote against the Conrad-Gregg Deficit Commission posits an explanation that seems most compelling in understanding our current political gridlock, in predicting who will do what:
McConnell’s actions cannot be explained by beliefs, which is something that makes people very uncomfortable. But they can be explained by party incentives, which is something that makes people even more uncomfortable. We’re very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We’re much more concerned by the idea that they don’t disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.
Simply put, for the most part, voters are not electing individuals with ideologies, but parties incentivized and empowered to obstruct to get into power. This creates the dynamic described in an email sent to James Fallows by a source who claims to have witnessed this conversation regarding the stimulus bill:
GOP member: ‘I’d like this in the bill.’
Dem member response: ‘If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?’
GOP member: ‘You know I can’t vote for the bill.’
Dem member: ‘Then why should we put it in the bill?’
Ezra Klein, citing John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, explains why this is an effective political strategy, even if it means giving up on governing:
“People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals,” write Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, “and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.”
Disagreement and deal-making, in other words, signal something going wrong in the political process. They signal that legislators aren’t acting in service of the common-sense consensus of the American people, and are instead serving special interests. Moreover, that’s often true.
In other words, most people, not having the time to figure out what is really going on as misinformation and ideology muddy the news, apply heuristic reasoning – shortcuts for guessing answers to complex problems. People don’t judge policies on the merits as there are conflicting claims, but instead on stories about the process as legislation is being debated and stories about effects after a policy is in force. Given this, its clear that Republicans are taking advantage of the dynamic described well by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com:
Republicans can brand any policy as “partisan” simply by opposing it, however moderate it might in fact be.
With the typical focus on ideology, this seems backwards. But a focus on ideology doesn’t explain the underlying facts – either the public opinion about what is happening in Washington or the uniform opposition of Republicans. At some point, this dynamic will change – because the media will need a new story and the public will grow bored and the facts will eventually seep into the public consciousness. Remember how effective the fear-mongering was after September 11? Eventually, it began to be seen as a stale political tactic – and though it may work again, for the moment, it seems to have lost its magical power. So, too, will this strategy – even if the Democrats never figure out that the effective way to counter this is to just pass the damn bills with good policy and defend them vigorously in public.
[Image not subject to copyright.]
Jonathan Chait over at his blog on The New Republic:
Pretty much everything you need to know about President Obama and the budget deficit is contained within this chart: