Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Tensions of Obama-ism, Pt. II

Can he get worthwhile legislative victories and govern as a uniter? Edward Luce of the Financial Times says no (registration required, link via Brad DeLong):

Forget bipartisanship Obama: shoot for the moon: The problem started even before he was inaugurated. Mr Obama was faced with two conflicting objectives. First, try to revive a rapidly sinking economy by crafting a big fiscal stimulus – one that should be “timely, targeted and temporary” in the words of Lawrence Summers, Mr Obama’s chief economic adviser. Second, try to win over as many Republican votes as possible. In the event, Mr Obama got the worst of both worlds – a poorly designed stimulus that won only three (out of 41) Republican votes in the Senate. The price of those three was high. In order to appeal to the Republicans, a third of the “stimulus” was frittered away in minute tax cuts that most families either saved or used to help reduce their household debts. Designed to stimulate the economy and Republican support, the tax cut achieved neither. Second, its overall size was cut from $1,200bn to about $800bn – considerably lower than most economists believed was necessary to kick-start the economy. In order to win over Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, the Democrats removed $83bn of short-term spending from the bill at the cost of 400,000 jobs....

A year later, little has changed. This week pundits got excited about a $15bn jobs promotion bill that was enacted in the Senate. The excitement was confined to political observers, who noted that the bill passed with the support of 13 opposition votes, including that of Scott Brown, the Republican who took the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in last month’s Massachusetts election. It was celebrated as a victory for bipartisanship. What it did not herald was much of a victory for jobs. Economists confined their observations to the fact that the bill, which offers employers a one-year holiday on the 6.2 per cent payroll tax they pay if they hire someone who has been out of work for more than two months, was unlikely to make a notable dent in unemployment. Businesses are suffering from a lack of demand not supply....

Finally, Mr Obama’s bipartisan instincts arguably contributed to the parlous state of healthcare reform today. The most serious blow to the bill came last summer when Mr Obama allowed a small group of centrist Democratic and Republican senators to negotiate on a compromise. The exercise robbed Mr Obama of three valuable months and ceded the initiative to people who had no prior record of fighting for healthcare reform. It also created the space for the demagogic “townhall” meetings in which the bill was depicted as a Trojan horse for socialism, euthanasia and an all-seeing federal bureaucracy. The net result? No Republican votes....

American presidents with the greatest record of bipartisan legislative achievement, notably Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, got their way by intimidating opponents, not by splitting the difference. As Machiavelli famously observed, it is better for a prince to be feared than loved. For all his intelligence, nobody fears Mr Obama...

One popular theory right now is that as long as the Republicans remain in la-la land, the president may have to choose between sound policy and political comity. But right now he's trying for the latter, and in so doing he's sacrificing the former and getting neither. (Actually, to be fair, I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say he's not getting any sound policy changes - health care, if it passes, will be huge, and the stimulus, for all its flaws, was necessary and successful, even in its watered-down form).

My gripe: I think the choice between good politics and good policy is a false one. Matt Yglesias argued a while back that a larger stimulus would have boosted the economy much more than the one we got, which in turn would have done a lot more to reassure nervous Democrats than limiting its price tag (and, correspondingly, its effectiveness) did. I agree with this analysis. The public wants political reconciliation, but it also wants policies that work. If Obama can get the policy right, than he's solved more than half of his problem - the rest is just a messaging battle, trying to convince people that the Republicans a) have no serious policy ideas and b) have consistently refused to negotiate in good faith. I think that's a political fight Democrats can win, but if they can't marry their political argument with tangible policy victories, they'll be in hot water come November.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Finally, A Party I'd Go To

The Post reports that there's a new movement afoot: coffee parties!

From a pretty funny story today:

Furious at the tempest over the Tea Party -- the scattershot citizen uprising against big government and wild spending -- Annabel Park did what any American does when she feels her voice has been drowned out: She squeezed her anger into a Facebook status update.

let's start a coffee party . . . smoothie party. red bull party. anything but tea. geez. ooh how about cappuccino party? that would really piss 'em off bec it sounds elitist . . . let's get together and drink cappuccino and have real political dialogue with substance and compassion.

Friends replied, and more friends replied. So last month, in her Silver Spring apartment, Park started a fan page called "Join the Coffee Party Movement." Within weeks, her inbox and page wall were swamped by thousands of comments from strangers in diverse locales, such as the oil fields of west Texas and the suburbs of Chicago.

I have been searching for a place of refuge like this for a long while. . . . It is not Us against the Govt. It is democracy vs corporatocracy . . . I just can't believe that the Tea Party speaks for all patriotic Americans.. . . Just sent suggestions to 50 friends . . . I think it's time we start a chapter right here in Tucson . . .

The snowballing response made her the de facto coordinator of Coffee Party USA, with goals far loftier than its oopsy-daisy origin: promote civility and inclusiveness in political discourse, engage the government not as an enemy but as the collective will of the people, push leaders to enact the progressive change for which 52.9 percent of the country voted in 2008.

Finally, there's a national movement to unite two of my favorite things: civil, compassionate, and inclusive political discourse geared towards progressive change...and coffee! Now, all we need is someone to start a Beer Party Movement. That's not as pressing for me personally - after all, being a poli-sci nerd and a college student tends to turn many evenings into beer + political conversation, but for the rest of America, yearning for the hoppy, malty, and substantive experiences that Georgetown students enjoy so frequently...

(By the way, I should take this opportunity to throw in my lot with James Fallows, the Atlantic's national correspondent, who describes himself as an "inveterate coffee-and-beer drinker -- coffee until 3pm, beer thereafter." This is really more of an aspiration for me, since a college student's budget does not permit that much beer - unless you're drinking the cheap stuff, and I've already shown myself to be a beer snob. Someday!)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stimulus Reality Check

If you're ever wondering who to believe about the stimulus. Or about anything, really.

"The stimulus [...] has had no effect on jobs. None. Not anywhere." - Rush Limbaugh, six weeks ago

"Where are the jobs?" - John Boehner, six days ago

"The legacy of the stimulus isn’t jobs or economic growth – it’s more dangerous debt." - Sarah Palin, six days ago

"John Edwards and Tiger Woods have had a better year than the stimulus bill [...] If you spend nearly a trillion dollars, you should create at least a few jobs." - Mitch McConnell, five days ago

"We now know there was $860 some billion spent in the stimulus bill, and it didn't work. It was a failure. Jobs weren't created." - Eric Cantor, five days ago

"CBO estimates that in the fourth quarter of calendar year 2009, ARRA (The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) added between 1.0 million and 2.1 million to the number of workers employed in the United States, and it increased the number of full-time-equivalent (FTE) jobs by between 1.4 million and 3.0 million. [...] CBO also estimates that real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) was 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent higher in the fourth quarter than would have been the case in the absence of ARRA." - The Congressional Budget Office, today

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Just a Pragmatic, Jobs-and-Transportation Kind of Guy

When Bob McDonnell was running for governor of Virginia, his campaign was pretty careful to play down his Christian Right bona fides and focus on pocketbook issues - namely, the state economy and Virginia's (very serious) transportation problems. Eventually, the opposition got around to exposing his ultra-conservative, borderline-reactionary views on women, homosexuality, and other matters, but it wasn't enough to sway the election. For one, Creigh Deeds, who seemed to think he could run for governor while comatose, couldn't have excited Virginia Democrats if his life depended on it, so he couldn't make much hay out of the outrageous arguments in McDonnell's 1989 master's thesis from Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network University (now called Regent University, because apparently naming a school after a TV station just wasn't resulting in the sort of gravitas universities strive for).

In the thesis, McDonnell (among other things) criticizes feminists for the breakdown of the family, argues that the government should "restrain, punish, and deter" behavior such as homosexuality or the purchase of pornography, and attacks Griswold v. Connecticut. These are the marks of someone who is unapologetically opposed to almost every major social development of the last 60 years - someone whose positions on social issues are well to the right of mainstream America. For example, the Catholic Church is very strongly opposed to birth control, but 96% of married Catholics use it. And a 2004 CBS-NYT poll showed that only 16% of Americans, and only 25% of self-identified Republicans and conservatives, believe that pharmacists should be able to refuse birth control to customers for religious reasons. 78% of Americans said they should not be able to do so -- and that's just the number who believe individual pharmacists shouldn't be able to refuse to sell birth control. Imagine the number of Americans who would oppose a blanket ban - so that instead of being refused contraception by one pharmacist and having to drive to another pharmacy, you weren't allowed to buy contraceptives at all. That was the law in Connecticut before the Supreme Court decision McDonnell criticized. And that, apparently, is what he wants for everyone.

But for the Deeds campaign, it was too late. It's tougher to get people to care about social issues in a recession, and the "Bob's For Jobs!" slogan stuck. Christian conservatives were OK with this; in fact, they were ecstatic about it. Students I interviewed at Patrick Henry College, a small college for home-schooled Christian conservatives, said that the McDonnell campaign was a model for conservative Christians nationwide. One student enthusiastically argued that, "if we follow his lead in 2010," conservative Christians would lead Republicans to victory. Critics of the Christian Right have long claimed that it misleadingly uses "stealth candidates" to win elections - people who masquerade as pragmatic, jobs-focused problem solvers, but are really culture warriors at heart. Christian conservatives argue that they're not hiding anything, and sometimes they even claim that social issues really aren't at the heart of their platform. McDonnell himself, resisting pressure by Deeds into a debate over abortion, said, "I've never made social policy a huge part of my campaigns or a huge part of my agenda."

That's, um, an interesting reading of his legislative record. He introduced bills banning late-term abortion and requiring informed consent for all women seeking abortions. He introduced a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Virginia. This is more than enough to cast doubt on his claim that social policy has "never" been a huge part of his agenda.

Still, McDonnell promised to be a governor focused on jobs, transportation, and public safety. When pressed on his thesis, he softened his tone. In September, the Washington Post reported that although McDonnell's position against gay marriage hadn't changed, he had come to believe "that discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or marital status has no place in government or on the job."

Well, that settles that, then. Except for this:

Gay and lesbian state workers in Virginia are no longer specifically protected against discrimination, thanks to a little-noticed change made by new Gov. Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell (R) on Feb. 5 signed an executive order that prohibits discrimination "on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age, political affiliation, or against otherwise qualified persons with disabilities," as well as veterans.

It rescinds the order that Gov. Tim Kaine signed Jan. 14, 2006 as one of his first actions. After promising a "fair and inclusive" administration in his inaugural address, Kaine (D) added veterans to the non-discrimination policy - and sexual orientation.

This reminds me of the old story about the turtle and the spider. The spider sees the turtle about to cross a stream, and he says, "Let me ride on your back." The turtle says, "Absolutely not! You'll sting me, and I'll drown!" The spider replies, "I promise, I won't."

Halfway across the stream, the spider stings the turtle, and the turtle begins to drown. As he sinks into the water, the turtle says, "Why did you do that?" The spider replies: "It's my nature."

People who are on a mission from God do not let settled law, public consensus, or campaign promises stand in their way. And anyone who voluntarily associates with Pat Robertson - a vile, hateful bigot who profits from corrupt cooperations with murderous dictators - does not deserved to be considered for dog-catcher, much less governor of a state. McDonnell appeared on the 700 Club with his friend Pat back in 2006. This was seven years after the discovery by a Virginia Pilot reporter that Robertson had misled viewers of his show to donate money for what they thought was Rwandan genocide relief. Robertson diverted a portion of those donations to fund a diamond-mining operation he had initiated with the help of Mobutu Sese Seko, the totalitarian dictator of Zaire who was one of the most corrupt leaders of all time. Robertson also got into the mining business with Charles Taylor, the warlord of Liberia who is currently on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor is accused of funding a civil war in Sierra Leone so he could get access to its diamonds - and it was diamond-mining in Liberia that he and Robertson worked on in 1999. Taylor's brutality in Liberia and Sierra Leone included slavery, mutilation, rape, the use of child soldiers, and the horrific deaths of up to 250,000 people.

This was a guy Pat could do business with! After all, they shared the same religion: the worship of the almighty dollar.

So watch that YouTube clip. It shows the then-attorney general of Virginia, later-candidate and now-governor of Virginia, smiling happily with the founder of his alma mater. As if they were at an ice cream social.

So, call me paranoid, but I was a little suspicious when Bob claimed he was just campaigning on jobs and transportation. Is he a warlord or a conspirator with warlords? No. Has he done anything illegal? No.

I want to be very clear that I don't consider McDonnell to be in any way involved with the despicable acts of Pat Robertson. But I do consider his continued association with Robertson, in light of these revelations, to be a spectacular failure of moral and civic leadership, and a particularly sad example of just who he was willing to embrace in order to win.

Where was the principled stance from McDonnell on breaking with his mentor? Why didn't he refuse to go within 10 miles of the 700 Club?

Because he's a culture warrior at heart, and Pat Robertson is a culture warlord. And you need the base to win. You can get the moderates with your pragmatism, but you can't abandon the base. I'm sorry to hear that LGBTQ workers for the state of Virginia have lost protection against discrimination. But I'm not naive enough to be surprised.

What He Said

I don't know how many times I can link to E.J. Dionne and say, "That's what I think, too!" But assuming I haven't reached my limit, read this. He demolishes the lie that Obama's agenda is in peril for being too left-wing:

Nobody wants to admit that on health care, the moderates won all the big fights. Single-payer was out at the start. The public option died. A Medicare buy-in died. The number of Americans who would be covered shrank. The insurance companies held on to their antitrust exemption. If a bill eventually becomes law--as it must if the Democrats are not to look like a feckless, useless lot--the final proposal will be much closer to the moderate Senate version than to the more progressive bill passed by the House.

And if the Republicans refuse to cooperate, this will not mean that the bill isn't moderate. It will mean only that Republicans refuse to vote for a moderate bill.

But if all the media talk about the "failure of moderation" is nonsense, this doesn't get liberals or Obama off the hook.

While liberals were arguing about public plans and this or that, and while Obama was deep into inside deal-making, the conservatives relentlessly made a straightforward public case based on a syllogism: The economy is a mess. Obama and the Democrats are for big government. Big government is responsible for the mess. Therefore the mess is the fault of Obama and the Big Government Democrats.

Simplistic and misleading? Absolutely. But if liberals and Obama are so smart, how did they--or, if you prefer, "we"--allow conservatives to make this argument so effectively? Why do the mainstream media give it so much credence?

Of course, I think the conservatives' argument is wrong. But at this point, I have to admire their daring and discipline.

And the key point of the entire piece:

Moderate and progressive Democrats alike have eight months between now and this fall's elections to change the terms of the debate and prove they can govern. Otherwise, they'll be washed out by a tidal wave.

It's the best concise summary and analysis of the fights over the stimulus and health care that I have yet read.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What's Wrong with the Media

I captured this myself! From the Atlantic Wire:

Let's review. According to the article, there is a "strong consensus" among economists that the stimulus was necessary, and according to David Leonhardt, the most prominent economic research firms - IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody' - "all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs."

But wait! It doesn't play well. So the headline asks, was it worth it? Let's see. Why don't you ask one of the 1.8 million people who are employed today because of the stimulus bill?

There was a similar story - and an even worse offender, it pains me to say - on my beloved, usually-above-this-sort-of-thing NPR this morning. (Yes, I embrace the NPR-liberal label. You should see my coffee mug!) Just read the highlights of this article and then brace yourself for its ridiculous, tacked-on conclusion.

It begins with Obama's qualified language about the intent and effect of the stimulus bill: "'I don't want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problem,' Obama said when he signed the $787 billion bill last February. 'But today does mark [...] the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs.'"

Then the article goes on to say that both the White House and the CBO estimate the stimulus kept about 2 million people employed, that the economy is growing again, that job losses have slowed down to "a trickle," and that private economists mostly agree the stimulus worked. It further notes that insofar as the stimulus was insufficient, it was because it probably wasn't big enough, and it was too focused on tax cuts.

Let's see: too much spending and not enough tax cuts. Who does that sound like to you?

But that's not all. The article quotes Obama rebuffing GOP criticism by noting his concession on the tax cuts, then darkly notes that most people don't think their taxes were cut. (The text reads more neutrally than the damning tone the correspondent took on Morning Edition today.) Why don't people think their taxes were cut? Because they were given the tax cut over several paychecks, not in a lump sum. The article notes that behavioral economists agree this is the best way to encourage spending, because people are more likely to save a lump-sum tax cut. But just like the Atlantic Wire, NPR can't help itself: well, that's all well and good, but what about the *politics*? He may have cut taxes in the most effective way, but if he can't campaign on it, what's the point?

Then: the conclusion. Are you ready?
The Obama administration is still paying a price for its marketing missteps. Rightly or wrongly, the president's first big initiative is widely seen as missing the mark.
Rightly or wrongly? How about just "wrongly"? And "widely seen" as missing the mark? Yeah - by people who a) didn't understand its intent and b) are playing politics (as well as lying). This sort of wishy-washy nonsense is exactly what happens when nervous reporters want to avoid the appearance of bias - so instead of saying what's true (namely, that a modest, probably-too-small stimulus bill fulfilled its main goals, but that it would have been more effective if centrists and Republicans hadn't insisted on trimming the price tag and replacing spending measures with relatively less-effective tax cuts -- a White House concession which earned the President zero GOP votes in the House), they have to present "both sides" - reality and the Republican talking points - and then shrug at the end, saying "well, we know what's true, but Republicans say different. It's a debate!"

All while decrying the politics of the bill, never stopping for once to imagine that, in this instance, good policy was the enemy of good politics, and the President - being serious about governing, something no one in Washington is apparently used to - opted for the former.

So, happy birthday, stimulus bill. Maybe by the time the media marks your second birthday, people will have begun to take serious problems seriously - and we can get some better analysis. I'm not going to hold my breath.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How to Build a Legacy (or, I Could Do This Punditry Thing, Part III)

I don't have as much time to comment on this as I'd like, but take a look at David Brooks's column this morning. If you don't have a spare five minutes, I can sum it up for you: "I don't like parts of Obama's agenda, so I have decided that the voters don't either, and his presidency must be dead. How can Obama rescue his presidency? Only by embracing my politics!"

How convenient!