Monthly Archives: May 2010

GOP: We Want Government!

E.J. Dionne has a nice piece today about the GOP’s inconsistency, perhaps hypocrisy.

Many tragic ironies are bubbling to the surface along with the oil. Consider the situation of Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican conservative who devoutly opposes the exertions of big government.

"The strength of America is not found in our government," Jindal declared in his response to President Obama’s February 2009 address to Congress. "It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens."

But with his state facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions, Jindal is looking for a little strength from Washington. His beef is that the federal government isn’t doing enough to help. "It is clear we don’t have the resources we need to protect our coast," he said this week, expressing his frustrations with "the disjointed effort to date that has too often meant too little, too late."

You can’t blame Jindal for being mad. But will he ever acknowledge that "compassionate hearts" were not sufficient for coping with this catastrophe? Did he ever ask BP how prepared it was for something like this? Or was he just counting on the company’s "enterprising spirit"?

A few weeks ago, I responded to a commenter on my News Commonsense blog who argued that the oil spill is Obama’s Katrina.  I asked, “Is your complaint that Obama didn’t wait long enough to let market forces work?”  There are plenty of other examples of the GOP’s forked tongue.

One is happening in my neighborhood where I have commented on our listserve about how the same neighbors who complain about local government’s lack of services or laud its quick response to a crisis are sometimes the very same people who make general and often vague criticisms about big government.

Meanwhile, I’m reading The Political Brain by Drew Westen, a 2007 book that argues for a more passionate and articulate defense of progressive principals.  Early in the book he cites the Democrats’ tendency to shy away from emotional arguments in favor of rational ones, which frequently results in their trying to decipher voters’ policy choices and then couching their arguments in those terms.  Which voters then see as pandering and a lack of core principles.  He also argues that if an articulation of core principles doesn’t alienate 30 percent of the population, the message is weak.  A third of the voters will never be with you and trying to appeal to them with a universal message is doomed to failure.

The “government is the problem” started by Ronald Reagan can and should be forcefully countered.  I hope Westen’s book lays out a clear roadmap.  I’ll let you know, but in the meantime, let’s hope more progressives start fighting back as Dionne is doing today.

How Reporters Subtly Inject Opinion

There are plenty of ways reporters add opinion or subjectivity into supposedly objective news articles.  Lori Montgomery of The Washington Post does it here with a simple word:  only.  It’s in a story about Obama’ plan to ask for authority to cut “pork” in the budget.

I’m all for cutting pork.  I’m all for cutting Social Security and Medicare spending.  That’s not my point.  Read the two ‘graphs.

Some outside analysts were equally dismissive of Obama’s rescission proposal. "A lot of people want to believe our looming budgetary crisis is caused by bridges to nowhere" and other pork barrel projects, said Cato Institute vice president Gene Healy. "But it’s not true. That sort of thing is a rounding error" compared with defense spending and entitlement programs, he said.

To that list, others would add Obama’s tax policies: A new report scheduled to be released Tuesday by the Pew Economic Policy Group found that Obama’s plan to extend a series of middle-class tax cuts would add $2.3 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years — saving only about $800 billion compared with a GOP plan to extend the cuts for high-earners as well.

Think about this.  $800 billion is the cost of the stimulus plan that many conservatives deride as exorbitant wasteful spending.  Adding $800 billion to a $2.3 trillion tax cut would be more than a 33 percent increase in its cost.  Yet, it is “only” $800 billion, suggesting to the reader that it is an insignificant amount for which the Obama administration must, what, apologize, rationalize, repeal?  Montgomery seems to be taking sides with the GOP here by suggesting that the difference between giving tax cuts to the middle class and adding “high-earners,” which are undefined in the article, is insignificant, i.e., only.

Post Neglects to Fact Check Right-Wing Screed

At first, I thought this article was indicative of the right’s bending the truth to fit its ideology, but on further reflection, it is more a damning indictment of Outlook editors at The Washington Post.

I’ve written a few opinion columns for The Post and have been challenged for assertions I made in them.  But that scrutiny apparently doesn’t hold when the newspaper is trying to refute charges of liberal bias.  To do that, it seems to allow conservatives to draw any conclusion they want.

The article is provocatively titled “America’s new culture war:  Free enterprise vs. government control” by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.  Its thesis is that most Americans want free enterprise capitalism while the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress want “European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution.”

The entire article is intellectually dishonest, and Post editors should be ashamed for not challenging Brooks’ assertions.  He cites a Gallup Poll that

…found that 86 percent of Americans have a positive image of "free enterprise," with only 10 percent viewing it negatively. Similarly, in March 2009, the Pew Research Center asked individuals from a broad range of demographic groups: "Generally, do you think people are better off in a free-market economy, even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time, or don’t you think so?" Almost 70 percent of respondents agreed that they are better off in a free-market economy, while only 20 percent disagreed.

I support stricter financial industry regulation, more environmental controls, a safety net for the poor, more federally financed infrastructure projects and a few other Obama administration policies.  I also have a “positive image of ‘free enterprise’” and I generally think people are better off in a “free-market economy.”  That doesn’t mean I oppose sensible controls or support libertarian concepts of the wild west in our economic system.

To suggest these poll results support Brooks’ contention that Obama and company are out of the mainstream is ludicrous, particularly if you look at that same March 2009 poll at the time of the stock market’s nadir.

  • People were split 50-50 on wanting “smaller government and fewer services or bigger government and more services”
  • 54% said it was a “good idea for the government to exert more control over the economy than it has in
    recent years.”
  • 56% thought Obama’s stimulus plan was a “good idea.”

The poll was wide-ranging, and if anything, doesn’t merely not support Brooks’ contention that Obama is out of sync with the American people; the poll actually refutes Brooks’ thesis.

Moreover, there is no evidence that Obama and company want to dissolve free markets or abandon capitalism for socialism as Brook argues.  Why does The Post let him draw such fallacious and dishonest conclusions?

The article, given precious center-front page placement in Outlook, is replete with disingenuous, erroneous or duplicitous conclusions.

If we reject the administration’s narrative, the 70-30 nation will remain strong. If we accept it, and base our nation’s policies on it, we will be well on our way to a European-style social democracy. Punitive taxes and regulations will make it harder to be an entrepreneur, and the rewards of success will be expropriated for the sake of greater income equality.

Brooks also argues that unfettered permission to maximize profits without regard to societal good is not only preferable but a convenient measure of success.

Earned success involves the ability to create value honestly — not by inheriting a fortune, not by picking up a welfare check. It doesn’t mean making money in and of itself. Earned success is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others. Earned success is the stuff of entrepreneurs who seek value through innovation, hard work and passion. Earned success is what parents feel when their children do wonderful things, what social innovators feel when they change lives, what artists feel when they create something of beauty.

Money is not the same as earned success but is rather a symbol, important not for what it can buy but for what it says about how people are contributing and what kind of difference they are making. Money corresponds to happiness only through earned success.

What Brooks seems to miss is that for many Americans, it is becoming impossible to earn success by creating “value honestly.”  The widening gulf between rich and poor is not because the poor are working any less hard.  They simply are pawns of those who want a greater share of the fruits of others’ labor.

Ironically, he concludes by citing Sen. Scott Brown’s victory as a symbol of the revolt of the “70% coalition.”

Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat from Massachusetts in January by declaring himself not an apparatchik Republican but a moral enthusiast for markets. "What made America great?" he asked. "Free markets, free enterprise, manufacturing, job creation. That’s how we’re gonna do it, not by enlarging government." His cultural pitch for free enterprise hit just the right chord, even in liberal Massachusetts. It struck at the heart of the 30 percent coalition’s agenda for America.

Scott Brown is one of four Republican senators who just voted for the administration’s financial regulatory reform bill.

I guess The Post’s Outlook editors didn’t notice either.

Why Obama Can’t Sell Democrats in 2010

Karen Tumulty and Shailagh Murray today claim Obama must be the messenger-in-chief for Congressional Democrats in the mid-term elections.

Strategists at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue say it is now clear that, although Obama’s name will not be on the ballot, it will fall to him to build the case for the activist approach that he has pressed his party to take over the past 16 months. And just as important, they say, he must take the lead in making the argument against the Republicans.

His ambitious agenda is "why the president was elected," said David Axelrod, Obama’s top political strategist. "We need to make the case as to what we are doing, and why that’s consistent, and why we don’t want to go backward."

It makes sense to many, who view Obama as a gifted speaker who can arouse the electorate as he did in the 2008 presidential campaign.  Moreover, while it’s true that off-year elections have been determined largely by local issues, campaign strategies and the advantages of incumbency, history is not helpful now for two reasons.  Obama himself, while holding moderately favorable ratings, is reviled by his opponents, making this year’s elections more dependent on his own popularity or lack thereof, and alas, a measure of bigotry among a small portion of the electorate.  Secondly, as online communication by the grassroots has become more sophisticated, supporters of both parties have the advantage of determining what’s important in the election.  Candidates find it increasingly hard to maintain control of their campaign’s strategy and positioning.  So Democrats want the president to deliver their message and make this a national campaign.

But no one else has the president’s power to make the case for his party’s agenda and, conversely, against the opposition. Democrats on Capitol Hill have made no secret of their desire to see Obama get more seriously into the fray. While it’s an easy applause line to decry that Washington is broken, they complain that the president has not been forceful enough in laying the blame on the Republicans. In part, they suggest, that is because Obama and his advisers are too protective of the post-partisan brand of politics that got him elected — but that has lost some of its sheen as his major initiatives have passed on largely party-line votes.

"I’m all for drawing contrasts," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, using a phrase that politicians often employ as a euphemism for going negative. The president’s challenge, he said, is the same as that faced by Democrats who are on the ballot this year: "You must define yourself, you must define your opponent before they do, and you must frame the choice."

The problem is Obama was very effective communicating an emotion in the 2008 campaign, but now he has specific policies to promote and has clearly failed to explain the principles and moral foundations of them.  While I agree that he needs to paint the GOP as the party of no, he doesn’t seem capable of rallying support for his agenda.  Why?  He is too intellectual.  As do many Democrats, he wants to explain why his policies are good but does so in the language of a policy wonk, not as an inspirational leader.  He makes no appeal to the “common good.”  He does not frame his choices as between right and wrong.  And if he should, he comes off unconvincingly, as if he has condescended to connect with the hoi pilloi. Rather, he sticks to the issues in the conventional framing and language, which doesn’t serve Democrats well.

Democrats should not talk about "the environment," "the unemployed" or "the uninsured." Instead, they should replace those phrases with ones that have more appeal to voters, such as "the air we breathe and the water we drink," "people who’ve lost their jobs" and "people who used to have insurance."

That’s the advice of one of the party’s newest and more unusual gurus, Drew Westen. Westen is a psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta who, unlike most political advisers, has never worked full time on Capitol Hill or for a political campaign.

To some, Westen is another George Lakoff who has argued for different framing for progressives but has not been able to gain traction with Congressional Democrats.  In fact, it seems clear that the Dems have no Frank Luntz, whose language advice seems to resonate with Congressional Republicans.  But Westen has a point.

"There are a few things if you know about the brain, they change the way you think about politics," he said in an e-mail. "If you understand we evolved the capacity to feel long before we evolved the capacity to think, instead of barraging people with facts (the standard Democratic way of talking to voters) you speak to people’s core values and concerns."

While calling the GOP “the party of no” is a good tactic, Dems also need to make the case for an activist government in terms people understand.  The Gulf oil spill is a good place to start.  In fact, Tom Friedman has argued that Obama and Democratic congressmen have missed an opportunity.  But seizing an opportunity with ineffective language can do more harm than good.  The oil spill is not about globs of oil appearing on Gulf beaches or dead birds.  It’s about “people who are losing their jobs while their property is destroyed because of businesses driven solely by profits and their exorbitant executive salaries.” 

The language used in the financial reform effort has been better but still has room for improvement.  “Moving money between Wall St. firms doesn’t create jobs for anyone, only million-dollar pay days for traders and their bosses.” It’s a battle not just between “Wall St. and Main St.”  but “between American who create and do the jobs that make us great as a country and those who care only about themselves.”  We need to use capital “to build a future, not a mansion.”

Dems need to push back against the Republicans demonization of government workers, or in GOP parlance, “bureaucrats.”  “The government is us.  Good, democratic government is the principle the nation was founded upon.  Government is your neighbor.  The police officer, the teacher, the fireman, the people who deliver the services we all cherish.  If it weren’t for government we wouldn’t have interstate highways, social security, Medicare and civil rights.  Government is what provides a check when you lose your job.  Government is the worker who ensures food for children of parents who’ve lost their livelihood.  Government is what keeps our skies safe, are bridges sound and our energy abundant.  What Americans care about is not the size of government but the effectiveness of government. 

We need talk about how “we’re all in this together.”  Even the “common good” can be better positioned as “looking out for each other, caring about our neighbors.  What makes American great is our capacity to work for the greater good, a good that makes our communities safe and friendly.  Our liberty is not a selfish one, but one we want for every American.  We’ve learned over the past 235 years that when we have opportunities we accept responsibilities.

“What has happened to us in the firs
t decade of this century is that incomes have declined for the first time since the Great Depression.  We have seen the middle class decimated by greedy bankers, regulators who care about business profits instead of us, and politicians who care more about their own election than the future of America.  A campaign worth having is a campaign that’s worth winning—or losing—on principle. Our principles are equal opportunity and a level playing field for all, especially the people who work to make America great.”

I question whether Obama, who is disciplined on messages but sometimes lacks passion that seems real, can pull off this message.  Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, maybe.  But not Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi.  So who can speak for Democrats?

Maybe Obama has it in him.  The Republicans clearly fear it.

Republicans said they, too, have taken notice of Obama’s tougher language, and they warn of potential long-term consequences. "I think at some point he risks undermining his own credibility," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "People expect the president of the United States to rise above the back-and-forth of election-year politics, but I guess that’s the risk he’s taking."

As if to say, leave the dirty work to us.

Rand Paul Would Allow Private Businesses to Discriminate Based on Race

He supports the idea of allowing private businesses to discriminate.  He says he doesn’t support discrimination, but he believes that if Woolworth’s doesn’t want to serve black folks at the lunch counter, it should have that right to discriminate.

The damning conversation begins toward the end of the interview at exactly one hour into the interview with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Cuts and Tax Hikes

Looming deficits will require both tax hikes, especially on the upper class who have seen their tax responsibility slashed over the past 30 years while their incomes soared, and spending reductions in the biggest program elephants in the room.  Michael Gerson, of course, doesn’t, speak of tax fairness or returning to the levels when America’s economy was at its zenith.  It needn’t be one or the other.  But at least Gerson has the cuts right.

There can be no serious reduction in federal spending without entitlement reform. Social Security and Medicare eventually will need to be transformed from middle-class entitlements given because of age to entitlements given to those with lower incomes.

…Necessary changes will not resemble the relatively painless deficit reduction deals of 1990 or 1993. This round may require not only the means testing of Social Security and Medicare but also the reduction or elimination of middle-class entitlements such as the mortgage interest deduction and the employer health-care exclusion.

I agree with all four cuts.  But then he suggests the number of public employees must be reduced.  Do we really need fewer financial and environmental regulators?  Do we need fewer teachers and police officers?  Can we get buy with fewer road repairs, snowing plowings, median mowings and parole officers?

I bring up the last four because they are of particular interest in my locality.  I’m attending a meeting tonight about what local organizations can do to get the grass mowed on our highway medians, which grows so high due to dwindling funds in the highway department responsible for maintaining them that site lines are obscured, creating traffic hazards.  My neighbors were upset about the lack of snow plowing during the past winter’s storms, which left many streets pot-marked—and still that way three month later.  And last week, some neighbors learned that a convicted sexual offender had rented a house immediately across from our local elementary school.  They were all up in arms and contacted the local parole office.  Within a day or so, the parole officer apprehended the man for violating the terms of his parole.  There are  a lot of communities who can’t afford that level of service. 

With more oil spills, stock meltdowns, and sexual predators in our communities, if Gerson gets his way, people may yearn for the days when we had adequate government.

Meek Democrats

Doesn’t this say it all about the Democrats, who can’t hit a slow pitch softball?  They give Congressman “Abstinence” Souder a free pass.

House Democratic leaders, after taking a beating from the GOP for their handling of a sexual harassment scandal involving then-Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), stayed relatively quiet about the Souder controversy.

Do the Dems return the beating?  Not a chance.

SCOTUS Lack of Judicial Experience

So the GOP now thinks one needs judicial experience to be on the SCOTUS.  But 40 of the 111 justices in history did not have judicial experience. 

Certainly, the list includes many of the most important justices, some conservative, some liberal. Among them, Chief Justice John Marshall, widely credited with establishing the judiciary as a genuinely co-equal branch of government; Chief Justice Earl Warren, who led the court in a period of expanding individual and civil rights; Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who led the court in reversing that direction; Justice Joseph Story, considered, along with Justice Marshall, to be one of the formative figures in early American jurisprudence; Justice Robert Jackson, a former attorney general whose Supreme Court opinions on the limits of executive power are routinely cited at Supreme Court confirmation hearings by the nominees and the senators; and Justices Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, to name just two more.

The “Morning Edition” story is by one of the best observers of the Court Nina Totenberg.

Real World Justices

The right is now trying a new message:  that Elena Kagan is too elite for the SCOTUS.  Given this need for only real Americans — those who lived in the Midwest or Southern small towns and avoided brainwashing at elite educational institutions — to become Supreme Court justices, who should be kicked off the Court? Antonin Scalia, who grew up in Trenton, N.J., and went to schools in NYC and then to Harvard? Or Sam Alito, another product of that un-American melting pot, the southern New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, who went to two other elite universities, Princeton and Yale? And yes, John Roberts and Clarence Thomas went to Harvard and Yale, respectively.