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Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]Civility in political discourse is a difficult thing to maintain – as people engage in politics often because they believe strongly in what they are advocating. One of the ways to maintain this is to politely refrain from accusing your opponents of dastardly deeds – and instead, be circumspect and try to make uncontroversial points of agreement that undermine your opponents. For example, when debating the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate political spending, you might plausibly say in the course of argument that, “Without free speech, we would live in tyranny,” or “Attacking the First Amendment is un-American.” While the thrust of your argument may be that your opponents are – given the rest of what you’re saying – undermining the First Amendment, you don’t claim that they are advocating tyranny or are un-American. You don’t call them names, in other words. You criticize their actions as you perceive them. It’s a fine line – but an important one.

However, the news is 24/7, right?

And every minute needs to be filled up with some new scandal, some new story-of-the-day. This is how uncontroversial statements become provocative headlines – specifically provocative headlines that tap into a narrative the public already knows. These provocative headlines then quickly become talking points for someone as they attempt to use the news to push their message. So, for example, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer publish an op-ed in USA Today which – rather uncontroversially – claims:

Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.

Suddenly, the right wing begins complaining of the McCarthyite push for health care. (Pelosi called the Tea Party crowd “un-American”!!!!)

Now, again, John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor, writes in an op-ed for USA Today:

Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda. Terrorists are not 100-feet tall. Nor do they deserve the abject fear they seek to instill.

Relatively uncontroversial, you would think. But for those lacking the time to read this short piece, Jake Tapper summarizes it:

WH: Some Critics ‘Serving the Goals of al Qaeda’

Matt Drudge though saw the need to remove a few qualifiers in his big headline of the day:


The common thread here is this: in the midst of making an argument, an uncontroversial point is made. News reporters, eager to make their quota of new scandals for the day, remove all qualifiers from the sentence, take only a word or two, and recast the entire argument as pure demonization of the overall target of the piece.

This is one of the essential aspects of the Freak Show that is our Washington news.


Of course, some politicians seem to deliberately cross over these lines to make their points. Perhaps I’m biased here – and if so, tell me. But I think there’s a difference in how Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin often talk. At one point, for example, Cheney claimed that:

I think [the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Muhammad as a civilian is] likely to give encouragement — aid and comfort — to the enemy.

By rather directly describing the Obama administration’s actions as meeting the legal standard of treason, Cheney seems to be crossing a line. And of course, Sarah Palin famously “asked”:

Our opponent though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country?

I wonder – is it just my bias that makes me see the distinction between these two sets of statements? Or are they clearly of a different sort?

[Image by me and sysop licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in Barack Obama, Criticism, Health care, National Security, Politics, The Opinionsphere, The War on Terrorism | No Comments »

Harry Reid’s Heroism

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

I’ve said it before, but I’m saying it again:

If you’re trying to follow the ins and outs of the health care debate, there’s no better source than Ezra Klein. But for the moment, I wanted to cite one particular post of Klein’s citing Matt Yglesias:

[L]iberals have rarely found themselves hailing Reid’s leadership. But the fact of the matter is that there’s almost no precedent for the legislative mission he’s been asked to accomplish of turning 59 Democrats, one loosely Democrat-aligned Independent, and two slightly moderate Republicans into 60 votes for a package that’s simultaneously a dramatic expansion of the welfare state and a measure that reduces both short- and long-term deficits.

On top of the intrinsically difficult nature of the task, he’s facing a really ugly political situation back home. Because Beltway mores dictate that you can never hold a member of congress morally culpable for actions undertaken in the name of raw politically self-interest, it must have been very tempting for Reid to get distracted. But he’s stayed on point and focused, dealt with the timid members of his caucus, dealt with the ignorant members of his caucus, dealt with the egomaniacal members of his caucus, and dealt with the all-too-typical Senatorial combination of policy ignorance, egomania, and political cowardice among some members. For his troubles it looks like we’re going to get a bill that liberals feel churlish about at best. But it’s really an extraordinary achievement.

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Posted in Domestic issues, Health care, Politics, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

Nancy Pelosi’s Essential Leadership

Monday, November 9th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]At this point, whatever you think of Nancy Pelosi’s policies – or her personality – you have to admit this: she’s ruthlessly pragmatic, knows how to wield her power effectively, has excellent political instincts, and is one of the more effective Speakers of the House in recent memory. In an interview with Ezra Klein, Pelosi described her legislative philosophy:

“You get the votes,” she said, balling one hand into a fist, “and you take the vote,” and she punched her other hand. “Because you never know what can happen.”

Pelosi’s 11th hour compromise Saturday night – accepting the Stupak amendment – proved she was willing to do what it took to get the health care “bill that no one loved but almost everyone still believed in” passed. The Stupak amendment brought two key constituencies on board: the Catholic bishops and pro-life Democrats. As Minority Leader Boehner prepared to use legislative maneuvers to scuttle the bill on the grounds it would make everyone in the health insurance exchange pay “an abortion premium” – Pelosi’s acceptance of the Stupak amendment lead Cardinal Francis George, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to call Boehner to make sure “the GOP didn’t play any games,” blocking health care reform on the pretense of a pro-life position. At the same time, the Stupak amendment also allowed the bill’s sole Republican supporter to sign on, Congressman Anh Cao. The fallout among the pro-choice Democrats has been severe – but Pelosi must assume it’s manageable. Given the fact that this provision will likely be stripped from the final version of the bill, it seems a small price to pay to pass this historic legislation.

At the same time, Klein points out that Pelosi’s decision to push cap and trade legislation through months ago looks prescient today:

I’m not saying that cap and trade has great odds this year, but whatever chance it does have is a function of Pelosi passing it back in June. She got the votes, and she took the vote.

The House has now passed two bills tackling two major issues that have been growing worse for the past two decades but Washington has been unable to address due to partisan gridlock. Obama deserves much of the credit. But Nancy Pelosi has proven to be a formidable pol – and it is her leadership most of all that has gotten this legislation as far as it has.

Now, all eyes turn to the Senate – for both health care and cap and trade. In the coming months we will find out whether or not Washington is able to deal with either of these issues, or to once again put them off, drawing closer to the moment that is too late. But in the meantime, Nancy Pelosi has done her job.

[Image by Public Citizen licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in Domestic issues, Environmental Issues, Health care, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 1 Comment »

Shame on You, Mr. Hentoff

Monday, August 24th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Mr. Hentoff,

I have been following you for years – ever since my father suggested I read your column because you were honest and independent-minded and liberal. I have admired your steadfast positions, including on abortion and right to life issues. But your last column was truly shameful.

Given your career and the reputation you have built and maintained, you should be embarrassed to have such poorly sourced journalism attributed to your name. It reads like something an overeager Cato intern might have thrown together – with the sloppy reference to Pelosi condemning the “furor” as “un-American” and the casual defamation of Ezekial Emanuel. It’s hard to tell if you made these points out of laziness – not taking the time to investigate the standard right wing talking points on health care – or if you chose to use your stature to lie.

If you had chosen to read the op-ed published by Speaker Pelosi and Representative Steny Hoyer (conveniently linked to here) you would have noticed that they never called the protestors or the furor “un-American” as many right wingers have claimed. Instead, they made a statement which you doubtless agree with:

Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.

Which means your statement – misidentifying the co-author of the piece as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – calling them “blind to truly participatory democracy” began with a faulty premise.

Regarding your next point: If you had chosen to read the article you quote by Dr. Ezekial Emanuel (among others) instead of simply quoting the Washington Times editorial quoting the article – or if you had even done some sort of search beyond that single right wing editorial – you would have found that Dr. Emanual was not describing how he believes medical resources should be allocated – but considering what should be done in times or situations of extreme scarcity, such as during a pandemic or with extremely scarce resources such as organs to be donated. The article describes 8 systems for distributing extremely scare resources/services – and recommends 6 of them be incorporated into any decision-making process. The quote you push here is cribbed from the description of one system. It is a blatant falsehood to claim it represents Dr. Emanuel’s overall thought on the subject. And I know you are an old man, but would you seriously put forward the moral proposition that if your kidney is failing – and so is a 12-year old girl’s – you should get priority to that kidney?

To state that this quote means that Dr. Emanuel is in favor of medical rationing is a lie. To state that it means Dr. Emanuel is in favor of euthanasia is a lie. (In fact, one of the articles you link to clearly states that Dr. Emanual is and has been opposed to euthanasia.). To  insinuate that the plans currently under consideration are pushing such rationing or euthanasia or death panels is finally a lie too far.

You clearly know little about the bills under consideration – as you conflate the subsidies for voluntary end of life counseling and the Independent Medicare Advisory Board – as Sarah Palin in her ignorance did – into a “life-decider” panel that decides whether you merit “government-controlled funds to keep you alive.” You also make this ominous point:

The members of that ultimate federal board will themselves not have examined or seen the patient in question.

Of course, it is unclear what panel it is you are trying to describe here. As mentioned above, it seems a conflation of one panel in the proposed legislation – and a provision to subsidize end of life counseling – with both fearfully conflated and confused into one panel that has a quite different purpose. The closest thing to what you’re describing in the bill would be the Independent Medicare Advisory Board – which is an amended version of the current MedPAC which sets Medicare reimbursement rates. It would be checked by Congress and the President – either of whom would be able to reject any untoward recommendations by the board. In addition, either the IMAC or another advisory board would collect and distribute research on “best practices” in medicine – comparing the comparative effectiveness of different treatments for the same or similar diseases.

Of course, none of these boards would be making decision about individual patients – as you claim. But clearly, you didn’t take the time to look into any of this.

Shame on you, Nat Hentoff. This was a poor piece of journalism that only succeeds in spreading lies about health reform even further.

If you value your journalistic integrity, you should issue a retraction and apologize to Dr. Emanuel – or double down and explain what primary sources you have for your rather frightening conclusions. Until then, your opinion must clearly be dismissed as the shoddy piece of right wing talking points that it has become.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

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Posted in Health care, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 55 Comments »

Stopping the Democrats from Descending to Sarah Palin’s Level

Monday, August 10th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]By using the phrase “un-American,” Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are undermining the Democratic brand – threatening to bringing themselves down to the level of Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, George W. Bush, and Ann Coulter.

If you read the op-ed currently being misrepresented/hyped by Matt Drudge – “Pelosi/Hoyer op-ed in Monday USATODAY calls townhall protesters ‘un-American’…” he says – you can see they only use the phrase “un-American” once. They write:

Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.

This statement is uncontroversial. Yet it also is clearly designed to generate attention and it is making news because Democrats so rarely engage in this type of demagoguery – and because Drudge and his allies are trying to create an impression of a thuggish White House pushing its agenda using tactics adopted from the worst Republican politicians (identifying opponents as “un-American,” compiling an “enemies list,” declaring things justified by “national security” when they are really power grabs.) Democrats, liberals, and progressives have largely refained though from calling their opponents “un-American” or “terrorists” – even as matters grow extremely heated. Political attacks and populism are part of politics. Accusing the other side of representing the entrenched interests who their side’s agenda benefits (organized labor, environmental groups, abortion rights groups, etcetera for Democrats; big corporations, the wealthy, pro-life groups, the NRA, etcetera for Republicans) will always be part of the game.

But there are clear lines – and Democrats have largely respected them. John Kerry could have accused George W. Bush of negligently being responsible for September 11 – and he would have won had he done so. But it would have damaged the country. Karl Rove, knowing this is what he would have done, saw this vulnerability and did what he could to counteract it – but he still saw it was Bush’s weakness. Democrats could have made a concerted push to demagogue every policy Bush instituted after September 11 as “un-American” and “giving in to the terrorists.” But instead, they did not cross this line – despite the fact that Karl Rove and George W. Bush and those Republicans running against them equated the Democrats with “therapy for terrorists” and sympathy for the terrorists’ aims. Sarah Palin infamously inflamed crowds talking about Obama’s sympathy for terrorists and asserted that there were anti-American parts of America that wouldn’t vote for her. There are some who claim that these demagogic tactics are equaled by the Democrats who have claimed that Republicans are representing the rich at the expense of the poor and similar claims – but there is a clear difference between the approaches.

But as Democrats are becoming increasingly frustrated with the hardball politics of the opponents of health care reform, they are clearly tempted to try to tap into the Rovian playbook. For example, even mild-mannered Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote (in what was overall an extraordinarly good column) that:

[Republicans have] become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

The level of frustration on the part of the Democrats – aware that what they are actually proposing is popular – but seeing the public debate beginning to turn against their attempts to put into law these popular measures is growing exponentially. Neither Pelosi nor Hoyer nor Pearlstein have descended to the level of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, or Ann Coulter.  But by pushing the line – they threaten to undermine the Democratic Party.

Hardball politics is one thing. Calling your opponents “terrorists” or “un-American” is another.

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Posted in Barack Obama, Health care, Politics | 3 Comments »

The Obama I Remember

Monday, February 9th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]This is the Obama I remember – the one I’ve been waiting to appear since his election back in November:

If you wonder where his urgency comes from, check out the following graphs:

This first one is from Nancy Pelosi’s blog, The Gavel:

[Click on the above image for a full size version.]

CNN released this graph at the beginning of this year, attempting to place 2008’s job losses in historical perspective:

What’s scarier is that before September, 2008 was not shaping up to be a bad year in terms of job losses. Instead, in the last four months of the year, almost 2 million jobs were lost. 

This final graph is from Stephen at Live Granades:

As you can see, the 1974 decline was steeper – and the economy was able to bounce back from that quickly – although that recession was controlled all the way by the Fed – which now has exhausted it’s power.

The escalating rhetoric out of Washington today actually reminds me a great deal of the Bush administration’s reaction to September 11. After the attack, Cheney and Bush and the rest of the team demanded unfiltered intelligence briefings regularly – and as they saw the scope and depth of the dangers that might be facing us, they panicked. Every moment, they were staring into the abyss – and they decided to take any measures possible to prevent “the next attack” which everyone saw as imminent. Their fear was an existential fear – which led them to mistake the threat from Al Qaeda for an existential threat. They weren’t entirely wrong – but where they went extremely wrong was in how they refused to back down from their emergency measures after it became clear that another attack was not imminent – or that we were not under constant assault. 

Today, Obama faces a similar crisis – one that seems – with it’s precipitious declines in economic and financial measures – to be existential. It may be so. No one knows exactly what to do to fix this problem – but they know they must do something. As with the George W. Bush administration, mistakes will be made – and given the size of the government, they will probably be large mistakes. 

But the difference will come in the next step. Responding to an unprecedented crisis, any administration will likely screw up. If you get it right, it will largely be by accident. But following the crisis – when things are beginning to improve and the imminence of the threat to the nation is no longer pressing – we must reevaluate our entire strategic framework, see what worked and what didn’t, what backfired and what might be able to be improved. The great tragedy of the Bush administration was that they refused to do this for the War Against Terrorism. They never took a step back from the emergency mentality that set in after September 11 to evaluate if our strategy was actually working – and instead attacked as weak and even traitorous anyone who suggested doing so. 

Obama will do well to remember that the measures he is taking now are emergency measures to rescue the economy – and to be prepared to re-think America’s financial and economic model as soon as this crisis has passed. He has indicated he plans to do so – with his talk of a Grand Bargain. We need to make sure he follows through.

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Posted in Barack Obama, Economics, Financial Crisis | 11 Comments »

Stirring Up Trouble

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Kevin Hassett in an opinion piece for Bloomberg calls on Obama to rein in Pelosi and try to bring in the spirit of bipartisanship that Obama talked about so much. He even compares Obama’s calls to civility (while running a civil campaign) to George W. Bush’s calls for civility (while running an exceptionally dirty campaign, especially against his Republican opponents.) Hassett is outraged that Nancy Pelosi said – to the Republicans who were threatening to vote against the stimulus bill:

Yes, we wrote the bill. Yes, we won the election.

How uncivil of her! Hassett continues:

If [Obama] wants to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric, he should take Pelosi to the woodshed and insist that she include Republicans, collegially, in the process. He should stand up to his party and threaten to veto a bill if it fails to make reasonable concessions to his friends across the aisle. He should advise his own staff to begin returning the phone calls of senior Republican aides.

Contrast Hassett’s hissy fit about how the Republicans in Congress are being marginalized with the comments of these Republicans themselves:

“If [the] President carries this on it does open door for a new tone!” – Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.)

“Sharp differences are muted.” – Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas)

“President Obama is speaking to House Republicans right now on Democratic stimulus bill. Good sales man, bad product.” – Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)

There are complaints about how the Democratic majority is running the process on the Hill – and Obama should look into that. I think an open and fair process should be the standard no matter which party is in control. But the situation is nothing like Hassett’s piece suggests – as Rahm Emanuel’s outreach to Republicans also demonstrates. It makes it seem like Hassett is just trying to build a meme to use against Obama later.

Meanwhile, Congressman Tom Price has told Rush Limbaugh to back off:

…it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party. You know you’re just on these talk shows and you’re living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing….

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Posted in Barack Obama, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 3 Comments »

“A Partisan Speech” by Pelosi

Monday, September 29th, 2008

I just want to point out that it’s ridiculous for the Republicans to blame Nancy Pelosi’s speech attacking Bush’s economic policies as their reason for opposing the bill Bush is himself pushing.

Bush wants this bill.

Pelosi criticizes Bush’s past actions for leading to the need for this bill.

Republicans, incensed that Pelosi would criticize Bush, vote against Bush’s bill.


Posted in Economics, Election 2008, McCain, Politics | No Comments »

Yet Another Blatant Power Grab By the Obamas

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

According to the Rocky Mountain News:

“I move that the convention suspend the procedural rules and suspend the future conduct of the roll-call vote,” Clinton said. “All votes cast by the delegates will be counted. and I move Senator Barack Obama of Illinois be selected by this convention by acclamation as the nominee of the Democratic Party as the president of the United States.”

The motion was met with a rousing ovation. It was quickly seconded and approved by the thousands of people in attendance.

Pelosi did not wait for any “no” votes before slamming down the gavel.

Why do I suspect that some PUMAs out there are going to make a big deal about that last event?

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Posted in Election 2008, Obama, Politics, The Clintons | No Comments »

Mixing Theology and Politics

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Rachel Zoll, under the headline, “Pelosi gets unwanted lesson in Catholic theology” concludes with this scolding that seems directed only to the Democrats:

It is a complex discussion. The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, has some advice for candidates who seek to join the debate: Stick to politics – and support programs that truly help reduce the number of abortions.

“It is a big mistake,” Reese said, “for politicians to talk theology.”

What I find amusing about this whole conclusion to Zoll’s article is that it makes exactly the point that Obama and Pelosi were trying to make. Obama said that deciding when human life begins was “above his pay grade” and Pelosi said that the issue was complicaed. They both wanted to avoided theological discussions. Now, Rev. Reese is scolding them for talking about theology – which is, clearly, exactly what both wanted to avoid – and is exactly what many on the right are explicitly trying to do.

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Posted in Domestic issues, Election 2008, Morality, Obama, The Media | No Comments »

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