What’s The Matter With Thomas Frank?

Obama Green Lantern

Thomas Frank has fallen for the Green Lantern view of the presidency, thinking that the president has the power to do anything he wishes. His criticism of Obama:

Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?

Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn’t do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn’t reason with them—their brains don’t work like ours! He couldn’t defeat them at the polls—they’d gerrymandered so many states that they couldn’t be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp—heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

But bipartisanship as an ideal must also be kept sacred, of course. And so, after visitors to the Obama Library have passed through the Gallery of Drones and the Big Data Command Center, they will be ushered into a maze-like exhibit designed to represent the president’s long, lonely, and ultimately fruitless search for consensus. The Labyrinth of the Grand Bargain, it might be called, and it will teach how the president bravely put the fundamental achievements of his party—Social Security and Medicare—on the bargaining table in exchange for higher taxes and a smaller deficit. This will be described not as a sellout of liberal principle but as a sacred quest for the Holy Grail of Washington: a bipartisan coming-together on “entitlement reform,” which every responsible D.C. professional knows to be the correct way forward.

Frank both ignores the real obstacles which Obama faced and is not very accurate in describing Obama’s record. He forgets that the there was a very good reason that Obama never had a chance to reason with the Republicans–they decided right off the bat that they would oppose anything Obama supported for political reasons. Frank might check out the work of  centrists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann on how Republicans are responsible for the current gridlock along with  this Frontline documentary:

On the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, a group of top GOP luminaries quietly gathered in a Washington steakhouse to lick their wounds and ultimately create the outline of a plan for how to deal with the incoming administration.

“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told FRONTLINE.

Among them were Senate power brokers Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.

After three hours of strategizing, they decided they needed to fight Obama on everything. The new president had no idea what the Republicans were planning.

There were clear institutional limits on Obama in a system where forty Senators could block the majority on anything. The Democrats had sixty votes for a very brief time due to the delays in swearing in Al Franken and later Ted Kennedy’s death.  Even when Obama technically had sixty Senators voting with the Democrats, this included Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson who would never go for the type of leftist agenda Frank favored.

Obama chose to use his limited political political capital to concentrate on health care reform, passing a comprehensive health reform package after previous presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton were unsuccessful. Ted Kennedy once expressed regret at working with Richard Nixon and instead insisting upon a single-payer system at the time. Similarly Hillary Clinton convinced Bill to threaten to veto anything other than her plan, rejecting a Republican proposal which was very similar to the Affordable Care Act. It would be far better to accept what can be passed and then work to improve it over time.

Sure the Affordable Care Act is a confusing jumble, but that is because it built upon our current system. It would have been better if the system was even more complex and perhaps confusing, including either the public option or Medicare buy-in. Neither could pass because both Lieberman and Nelson opposed them. Obama certainly could have never received sixty votes for a single-payer plan, braking up the banks, or a bigger stimulus.

Beyond Congress, Obama was limited by conservative media bias on economic matters. Obviously Fox was out there spreading lies and attacking anything Obama wanted to do, but the problems weren’t limited to Fox and its viewers. Most of the media is owned by the wealthy, and much of the news, especially on television, is reported by wealthy television stars. They might not share the Republican views on social issues or their opposition to science and reason (leading to the conservative view of  a liberal media) but many of them are quite conservative on economic issues. They were biased towards tax cuts and cutting spending. Media reports on the economy typically stressed the size of the deficit and included the assumption that a reduction in government spending was necessary. Few pointed out the degree to which Republican spending and tax cuts in the Bush years contributed far more to the deficit than Obama’s stimulus spending. The atmosphere was hardly conducive to pushing an even bigger stimulus, regardless of how much more this would have helped the economy recover. He also ignores the degree to which Obama’s stimulus did help bring about economic recovery.

Just as Frank ignores the benefits of Obama’s policies, including the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus, he exaggerates what Obama did not do. No, Obama did not destroy Social Security and Medicare. It is the other party which has been seeking to do that. Offering  Chained CPI in exchange for a grand bargain on the deficit might never have been a good idea, but we can’t blame Obama for making a bad deal when such a deal was never made and we don’t know what he would have held out for before making such an agreement.

Obama’s record has much in it to displease the far left. It is doubtful that any other president would have achieved more than he actually did.

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Republicans Attack Obama For Capturing Terrorist Involved In Benghazi Attack

rush-limbaugh-600x400

One of the major attacks on Obama from the right was that they never captured those responsible for Benghazi–never mind how many people responsible for embassy attacks under Reagan and Bush were never apprehended, or that it was Obama that got bin Laden years after Bush let him escape at Tora Bora. Now one of those responsible for Benghazi has been captured

You might think that even Republicans would find this to be reason to celebrate, but instead many did what the usually do and twist anything into a way to attack Obama.

Fox claims this was done to boost Hillary Clinton’s book tour and presidential prospects.

Allen West calls this “Orwellian message control” to distract the populace from other problems.

On talk radio Rush Limbaugh and Joe Walsh are among those who join Fox in questioning the timing.

Steve Benen, Bob Cesca, and Caitlin MacNeal have more conservative reaction.

I imagine next they will threaten impeachment because Obama didn’t inform Congress before he acted.

This should really come as no surprise. The conservative movement is packed with people who will do anything for political gain, regardless of how much it harms the country. Attacking Obama is now their number one goal, but it didn’t start with Obama. They played politics with the 9/11 attack, and used it to justify both the war in Iraq and infringements on civil liberties. More recently they have played politics with the deaths of Americans in Benghazi. These are also the people who have fought to hinder economic recovery after their policies crashed the economy, and caused a lowering of our credit rating while playing politics over the debt ceiling.

Harry Reid has responded to the Republican attacks:

It doesn’t matter what your ideology is, you should feel good about this. There’s no conspiracy here, this is actual news. But the reaction of some of the Republicans, I’ve been told, is to downplay and insult the brave men and women of our special forces and the FBI. They’re trying to say, oh, it’s no big deal. I wonder if the men and women who captured the terrorist agree. But the Republicans said it’s no big deal.

Even in these days of polarization, created by the obstruction, the delay, and diversion of the Republicans, even in these days of polarization, their reaction is shocking and disgusting. They’re so obsessed with criticism, criticizing anything President Obama does. They’ll go so far as to sit here and insult the men and women in uniform and in law enforcement. They should stop and think, just for a little bit, about what it’s like to put your life on the line and to do something for our country — that’s what they did. They’re insulting these good men and women who did some courageous things, heroic things, in order to criticize President Obama. I think they’ve lost touch with reality; it’s really pathetic, there’s no other word for it.

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Obama Responds To Myth That Both Parties Are Responsible For Current Gridlock

Obama Green Lantern

There has been a lot of back and forth on line recently regarding whether Obama deserves blame for the gridlock in Washington. Ezra Klein explained the fallacies once again in the Green Lantern view of the presidency as a character with near infinite powers.  Ron Fournier continues to play the false equivalency game in trying to blame both the left and right, ignoring the considerable differences between the two and the unprecedented levels of obstructionism since Obama was elected.  He seems to think that being a typical politician and promising more than he can deliver is somehow equivalent to the Republicans deciding to oppose anything proposed by Obama from day one.

Jason Linkins suggested a more realistic view of Obama. If he isn’t Green Lantern, he might be more like Agent Coulson: “team-assembler, favorable environment provider, manager of discrete tasks and outsized personalities, quick to adapt to changing circumstances, eminently mortal, and yet (spoiler alert) at times resurrectable.” Last year Linkins wondered if Fournier could read when he made the same mistakes.

I was happy to see Obama directly respond to this at a fund raiser:

“You’ll hear if you watch the nightly news or you read the newspapers that, well, there’s gridlock, Congress is broken, approval ratings for Congress are terrible.  And there’s a tendency to say, a plague on both your houses.  But the truth of the matter is that the problem in Congress is very specific.  We have a group of folks in the Republican Party who have taken over who are so ideologically rigid, who are so committed to an economic theory that says if folks at the top do very well then everybody else is somehow going to do well; who deny the science of climate change; who don’t think making investments in early childhood education makes sense; who have repeatedly blocked raising a minimum wage so if you work full-time in this country you’re not living in poverty; who scoff at the notion that we might have a problem with women not getting paid for doing the same work that men are doing.

“They, so far, at least, have refused to budge on bipartisan legislation to fix our immigration system, despite the fact that every economist who’s looked at it says it’s going to improve our economy, cut our deficits, help spawn entrepreneurship, and alleviate great pain from millions of families all across the country.

“So the problem…is not that the Democrats are overly ideological — because the truth of the matter is, is that the Democrats in Congress have consistently been willing to compromise and reach out to the other side.  There are no radical proposals coming out from the left.  When we talk about climate change, we talk about how do we incentivize through the market greater investment in clean energy.  When we talk about immigration reform there’s no wild-eyed romanticism.  We say we’re going to be tough on the borders, but let’s also make sure that the system works to allow families to stay together…

“When we talk about taxes we don’t say we’re going to have rates in the 70 percent or 90 percent when it comes to income like existed here 50, 60 years ago.  We say let’s just make sure that those of us who have been incredibly blessed by this country are giving back to kids so that they’re getting a good start in life, so that they get early childhood education…Health care — we didn’t suddenly impose some wild, crazy system.  All we said was let’s make sure everybody has insurance. And this made the other side go nuts — the simple idea that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, nobody should go bankrupt because somebody in their family gets sick, working within a private system.

“So when you hear a false equivalence that somehow, well, Congress is just broken, it’s not true.  What’s broken right now is a Republican Party that repeatedly says no to proven, time-tested strategies to grow the economy, create more jobs, ensure fairness, open up opportunity to all people.”

Ron Fournier has been one of the more prominent journalists attacking Obama from the center with arguments based upon drawing a false equivalency. This has led to some criticism of centrists, but not all centrists have fallen for this idea that both sides are mirror images of each other. Centrists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein made it clear that Republicans are the problem in 2012:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. Its once-legendary moderate and center-right legislators in the House and the Senate — think Bob Michel, Mickey Edwards, John Danforth, Chuck Hagel — are virtually extinct.

The post-McGovern Democratic Party, by contrast, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent in the decades after the civil rights revolution, has retained a more diverse base. Since the Clinton presidency, it has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post…

Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

In the third and now fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading last year to America’s first credit downgrade

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Quote of the Day: Bill Maher on The Ryan Budget And Obamacare

“Game of Thrones returns this weekend on HBO. I’m sure you know it as a magical fantasy where you’re never quite sure who’s going to live or die. Or maybe I’m thinking of Paul Ryan’s budget.” –Bill Maher

Bonus Quote:

“Obamacare hit its numbers. Despite all the initial problems, Healthcare.gov surpassed the enrollment goal, over 7 million. Now the Republicans are saying that they’re going to repeal the Internet.” –Bill Maher

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Democrats Need A Message

One reason that the Republicans get people to turn out to vote in off year elections, often to vote against their economic self-interest, is that they have a message. The message might be based upon dishonest claims and incorrect views as to how the economy and government work, but it is a message. In contrast, many Democratic voters feel less interested in turning out to vote, especially in off year elections. To some degree the Democrats have difficulty in defining a message as they are a big tent party which wins elections by appealing to a wide variety of voters, ranging from center-right to left wing. Issues which appeal to some Democratic voters might turn off others.

The Washington Post describes how Senate Democrats are struggling to define a message:

Senate Democrats’ latest effort in that regard is a 10-point plan for legislation they intend to bring to the floor over the spring and summer.

The issues are familiar ones for Democrats, and poll well among Americans generally.

Yet they are top priorities to narrower slices of the Democrats’ constituency — particularly those who showed up to vote for President Obama in 2012, but who do not have a history or voting in off-year contests.

The first items up for Senate debate will be increasing the minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, and a bill to assure paycheck equity between male and female workers.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that those are measures that would have their greatest impact on young people, unmarried women, Latinos and African-Americans — all of whom can be difficult to turn out in years when there is no presidential election.

“This doesn’t replace a broader economic message. In the long run, we have to do that. But in the short run, this is very helpful,” said Lake, who has warned that the Democrats face a large turnout disadvantage in a year when Republican voters appear to be more motivated.

GOP pollster Neil Newhouse said the Senate Democrats’ targeted strategy echoes that of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, where he emphasized a number of “niche group” issues such as the Dream Act, mandatory contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act, student loan expansion and support for same-sex marriage.

Why haven’t Democrats been pushing for legalization of same-sex marriage more strongly in the past? As Michigan and other states saw recent legal victories for marriage equality I thought that, although this is an issue far more associated with Democrats than Republicans, the victories are in the courts and not the result of actions by the Democratic Party.

Perhaps Democratic leaders did not want to be associated with bringing about marriage equality out of a fear of losing socially conservative Democratic voters. Maybe, but I also wonder how many socially liberal people who lean Democratic don’t bother to get out to vote because of not seeing a real commitment from Democratic leaders for liberal causes.

Republicans have learned that people tend to take on the other views of the party they associate with when there is a consistent message. They get social conservatives to back their economic policies by joining these as a common conservative philosophy. If the Democrats were to put out a more consistent message, perhaps those who vote for Democrats for other reasons would also “evolve,” as Barack Obama has, on issues such as same-sex marriage.

Democrats should frame this as a consistent platform of keeping government out of the private lives of individuals, along with support for reproductive rights and ideally an end to marijuana prohibition (or at least a stronger defense of medical marijuana). It is amazing that Democrats have allowed Republicans to take an advantage on issues which should be seen as reasons to vote Democratic, from size of government as it relates to private lives to support for Medicare.

Democrats also think too small on economic matters. Rather than just concentrating on issues such as increasing the minimum wage, Democrats need an economic message showing how Democratic ideas strengthen and grow the economy while Republican economic policies lead to economic stagnation and a concentration of wealth in a small minority. Income inequality is an important issue, but only when placed in an overall economic message of expanding the economy and how extreme income inequality destroys the middle class. An economic message seen as merely dislike for the rich (or the Koch brothers) will never sell.

Of course making a coherent economic message which will not only mobilize their own voters but bring in new voters will take time and cannot be done in only one election year. The Republicans have been working for years at indoctrinating the country in their type of Voodoo Economics. It will also take several years to get out the message on how the economy actually works, but the Democrats might as well start now.

Health care remains one of the strongest reasons to vote for Democrats. Even those who have a negative view of the Affordable Care Act based upon Republican misinformation still prefer to improve it over either repeal or turning to any Republican alternative. As I have written before, Democrats need to go on the offensive on health care reform, not run away from the issue. Joe Conason has the same message again, with numbers now out showing that enrollment through the exchanges has exceeded the projected number of six million:

Success for Obamacare might boost the turnout projections that Republicans have tried so hard to suppress and that Democrats have so far proved unable to resuscitate.

Dominant forces in the Republican Party — including the tea party and its billionaire financiers — have staked everything on the commonplace assumption that Obamacare will drag down Democrats across the country.

Indeed, they make almost no other argument. Bolstering that cynical bet is the Democratic hesitation to mount a powerful counteroffensive on health care, with the impulse to push the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and other vital issues that still feel safer.

But as Clinton warns, they will find no shelter from this storm. They cannot hide from their own history; and the more they pretend to do so, the more they risk contempt. For decades, Democrats have insisted that all Americans must have health coverage — a momentous and admirable goal advanced by the Affordable Care Act.

With the numbers now on their side, they should lift their heads, raise their voices, and lean into the midterm debate. They have no better choice.

Cross Posted at The Moderate Voice

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Are Many Conservatives Really Liberals?

Liberal or conservative, opposite signs

Polls have generally showed self-identified conservatives outnumbering liberals, with a recent slight increase in the number of liberals. I have often speculated that this is largely due to the success the right wing noise machine has had in demonizing the word liberal. Americans come out more liberal than would be expected by these poll findings when we look at individual issues.

While the pendulum swings both ways, the trend has been toward more liberal policies over the years. Most people wouldn’t think of returning to the days of child labor. Medicare and Social Security are deeply entrenched, to the point that even when Republicans vote for ending Medicare as we know it they realize they have to hide what they are doing. Recent polls show increases in the number of people who support legalization of same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana. A majority even supports the individual components of Obamacare when asked without identifying the policy as Obamacare.

John Sides reviewed a recent book to argue that many conservatives are really liberals:

In Ideology in America, Christopher Ellis and James Stimson describe a striking disjuncture. When identifying themselves in a word, Americans choose “conservative” far more than “liberal.” In fact they have done so for 70 years, and increasingly so since the early 1960s.

But when it comes to saying what the government should actually do, the public appears more liberal than conservative. Ellis and Stimson gathered 7,000 survey questions dating back to 1956 that asked some variant of whether the government should do more, less, or the same in lots of different policy areas.  On average, liberal responses were more common than conservative responses. This has been true in nearly every year since 1956, even as the relative liberalism of the public has trended up and down.  For decades now there has been a consistent discrepancy between what Ellis and Stimson call symbolic ideology (how we label ourselves) and operational ideology (what we really think about the size of government).

Looked at this way, almost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics.  Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics.  Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views.  The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.

This raises the question: why are so many people identifying as conservative while simultaneously preferring more government?  For some conservatives, it is because they associate the label with religion, culture or lifestyle.  In essence, when they identify as “conservative,” they are thinking about conservatism in terms of family structure, raising children, or interpreting the Bible. Conservatism is about their personal lives, not their politics.

But other self-identified conservatives, though, are conservative in terms of neither religion and culture nor the size of government.  These are the truly “conflicted conservatives,” say Ellis and Stimson, who locate their origins in a different factor: how conservatives and liberals have traditionally talked about politics.  Conservatives, they argue, talk about politics in terms of symbols and the general value of “conservatism” — and news coverage, they find, usually frames the label “conservative” in positive terms.  Liberals talk about policy in terms of the goals it will serve — a cleaner environment, a stronger safety net, and so on — which are also good things for many people.  As a result, some people internalize both messages and end up calling themselves conservative but having liberal views on policy.

Ideology has two faces: the labels people choose and the actual content of their beliefs.  For liberals, these are mostly aligned.  For conservatives, they are not.  American conservatism means different things to different people.  For many, what it doesn’t mean is less government.

This idea that nearly 30 percent of self-identified conservative are really liberals would explain the increased support for liberal positions despite a majority identifying themselves as conservatives.

There are some limitations to this, largely due to problems with these labels. It seems to use a simplistic definition of liberals as being for more government and conservatives being for less, but that does not really explain the differences. There are many areas where I am for less government. There is nowhere that I support more government for the sake of more government.

I supported the Affordable Care Act because financing of health care is an area where the market has failed, as insurance companies found it more profitable to find ways to collect increased premiums while finding ways to avoid paying out claims. Conservatives opposed the Affordable Care Act based upon greatly-exaggerated arguments that it is more government (ignoring its similarities to health plans previously advocated by conservatives). Republicans widely supported an individual mandate to buy health insurance until this became part of the plan supported by Barack Obama (who ran against Hillary Clinton opposing the individual mandate). Similarly, conservatives previously supported ideas comparable to the health care exchanges.

On the other hand, conservatives support more big government when it comes to military spending, mandatory vaginal probes, and other intrusions into the private lives of individuals. Even Ron Paul, who voted no on virtually any spending by the federal government, would allow for far greater government restrictions on individual liberties if it came from the state or local level.

Republicans in office generally perform different than their rhetoric would, with big increases in the size of government under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. This has been described as being “ideologically conservative, but operationally liberal.” If we just go by their effects on the size of government, Reagan and Bush were the liberals while Barack Obama has been the most conservative president since Dwight Eisenhower. Part of this is because Republican rhetoric is incompatible with actually governing, leading Reagan and Bush to promote far more government spending than would be expected by their rhetoric. Many conservatives realize they didn’t get what they wanted from Bush, but continue to buy the myth of Ronald Reagan as a supporter of small government.

Another problem is a concentration on economic issues and the size of government, as misleading as those issues can be in assigning labels. How would they classify someone who wants to ban abortion, limit access to contraception, opposes same-sex marriage, and supports everyone carrying a concealed weapon, but doesn’t follow the entire Republican line on economic policy? I bet a lot of self-identified conservatives would have no real opposition to a modest tax increase on the wealthy and increasing some government economic regulations (especially if they don’t affect them personally) while holding a number of other conservative positions.

Today many are self-identified conservatives based upon social issues. This didn’t always identify conservatism. Barry Goldwater was a strong opponent of the religious right. He sure called it right in 1994:

Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.

Or maybe they just like being members of the club.  They like to listen to people like Glenn Beck and agree with what they say. However Beck has previously described himself as “a rodeo clown” and conceded, “If you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.”

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Republican Health Care Proposal Would Remove Employer Coverage From One Million And Increase Deficit

The Affordable Care Act is a great idea in principal, increasing the number of people with coverage and eliminating the abuses from insurance companies which had destroyed the individual market. So far it has been working out well as policy beyond the initial IT glitches. Republicans have repeatedly brought up horror stories, but each time they have turned out to be false when the details were examined (see here and here). Considering the complexity of the law it is certainly possible that some of the details might be improved upon. It also would not be surprising if the Affordable Care Act had aspects which might need changes considering the manner in which it was passed after the Democrats lost sixty votes in the Senate (in these days in which sixty votes are needed to pass anything of consequence over a Republican filibuster). Rather than passing the House bill, which I thought was better, or going to a Conference Committee to work out the differences between the two bills, it became necessary for the House to pass the Senate bill without any changes.

Republicans have been complaining a lot, but have not been very successful in suggesting improvements. Their overall health care proposals, on the rare times they bring one up, would increase out of pocket expenses for most Americans while increasing the number of uninsured. Republicans are now promoting a bill with some adjustments to the Affordable Care Act. Their plan is to change the definition of a full time employee from thirty to forty hours per week in order to reduce the impact of the requirement for companies with over fifty full time employees to provide insurance or pay a penalty.

The Congressional Budget Office came out with their analysis of this bill today (pdf here).  The result would be to 1) reduce the number of people receiving coverage thorough employers by one million people, 2) increase the number of people obtaining coverage through Medicaid, CHIP, or the exchanges by between 500,000 and one million, and 3) decrease the number of insured  by up to 500,000. As a consequence of the costs from these changes, the deficit would be increased by $25. 4 billion between 2015 and 2019. The deficit would be increased by $73. 7 billion between 2015 and 2024.

The irony here is that after the Republicans have made a lot of noise about policy cancellations (ignoring the fact that most of those who had policies canceled wound up receiving better coverage at a lower cost) it has repeatedly been their plans which would lead to more people losing insurance coverage. Another irony is the name of this Republican plan: The Save American Workers Act. How are they saving workers by reducing the number who receive health care coverage?

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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Benefits Of The Stimulus

I have already had a recent post on the success of the stimulus but as The New York Times brought the topic up again today, and there has been so much misinformation spread, it is worth reviewing again what was achieved by the stimulus:

The stimulus could have done more good had it been bigger and more carefully constructed. But put simply, it prevented a second recession that could have turned into a depression. It created or saved an average of 1.6 million jobs a year for four years. (There are the jobs, Mr. Boehner.) It raised the nation’s economic output by 2 to 3 percent from 2009 to 2011. It prevented a significant increase in poverty — without it, 5.3 million additional people would have become poor in 2010.

And yet Republicans were successful in discrediting the very idea that federal spending can boost the economy and raise employment. They made the argument that the stimulus was a failure not just to ensure that Mr. Obama would get no credit for the recovery that did occur, but to justify their obstruction of all further attempts at stimulus.

So the American Jobs Act was killed, and so was the infrastructure bank and any number of other spending proposals that might have helped the country. The president’s plan to spend another $56 billion on job training, education and energy efficiency, to be unveiled in his budget next month, will almost certainly suffer a similar fate.

This may be the singular tragedy of the Obama administration. Five years later, it is clear to all fair-minded economists that the stimulus did work, and that it did enormous good for the economy and for tens of millions of people. But because it fell short of its goals, and was roundly ridiculed by Republicans and inadequately defended by Democrats, who should have trumpeted its success, the president’s stimulus plan is now widely considered a stumble.

This enabled Republicans to champion an austerity policy that produced deep reductions in discretionary spending, undoing many of the gains begun in 2009. The result has been a post-stimulus recovery that remains weak and struggling, undermining an economic legacy that should be seen as a remarkable accomplishment.

The legacy of that policy, detailed by the White House last week in its final report on the effects of the stimulus, affects virtually every American who drives, uses mass transit, or drinks water. It improved 42,000 miles of road, fixed or replaced 2,700 bridges, and bought more than 12,000 transit vehicles. It cleaned up water supplies, created the school reforms of the Race to the Top program, and greatly expanded the use of renewable energy and broadband Internet service.

It’s probably too late for the White House to persuade skeptics about its program, but its assessment echoes the views of many independent economists and the independent Congressional Budget Office. “The Recovery Act was not a failed program,” the C.B.O.’s director, Douglas Elmendorf, told annoyed Republican lawmakers in 2012. “Our position is that it created higher output and employment than would have occurred without it.”

Government spending worked, helping millions of people who never realized it. And it can work again, whenever lawmakers agree that putting people to work is more important than winning ideological fights.

In retrospect the evidence is pretty clear that the stimulus should have been bigger, but at the time I have my doubts as to whether a bigger stimulus could have passed. Republican arguments about the harm of spending money we don’t have, even if simplistic and not well grounded in economics, were believed by too many people, and often accepted by the media. As I noted in December, the media often presents deficit-cutting as the centrist or desired viewpoint when there are times when increased government spending is needed to stimulate the economy. While Obama did too little, criticism of him must be balanced by the knowledge that the Republicans would have created far more damage with austerity budgets accompanied by further tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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The Battle For Control Of Congress 2014

While the media is increasingly talking about the 2016 presidential election, we have a major election coming up for control of Congress later this year. At present it appears that it is unlikely for the Democrats to take control of the House, and they are now fighting to retain control of the Senate. Predictions that the Republicans will hold the House and possibly take the Senate are based upon historical trends and which Senate seats are up for reelection this year. Of course it is possible to see a break from past trends.

Among the trends causing people to predict this to be a good year for Republicans: minorities and young voters don’t vote as often in off-year elections, a president’s party generally does poorly in the sixth year of the president’s term, a president’s party does poorly when the president has low approval ratings, and a president’s party does poorly when the economy is having difficulties.

On top of this, the Democrats are defending Senate seats in several red states this year, giving the Republicans a chance to pick up some seats. Fortunately the situation is reversed in 2016 with more blue-state Republicans up for reelection. Based upon these fundamentals in a presidential election which is likely to already be more favorable to the party, a Democrat winning the White House should also see a pick up of several Senate seats.

The Republican Party has been working in other ways to pick up votes. They have made voter suppression a major part of their electoral strategy, along with continuing the Southern Strategy based upon racism and now xenophobia. On the other hand, their history of racism may backfire with the increase in minority voters, possibly turning some southern states blue in the near future. We saw this first in Virginia and to a lesser degree in North Carolina. In the future this could extend to Georgia, Texas, and additional states.

Republicans have an advantage in keeping control of the House as so many House districts are gerrymandered to protect the incumbent. In addition, Democrats tend to be more concentrated in urban areas, meaning that even if more people vote for Democrats than Republicans, the Republicans will win more seats by small margins while Democrats will win a smaller number with bigger majorities. More people voted for Democrats than Republicans in Congressional races in 2012 but the Republicans retained control of the House. It would probably take at least  a seven percent margin of victory for Democrats to take control of the House. Republican representation in the Senate is also exaggerated compared to their level of support due to lesser populated Republican states having the same number of Senators as more populated Democratic states.

There are some things which could throw off the fundamentals this year, but we cannot count on voters suddenly no longer being fooled by the GOP line. At present the Republicans receive far too many votes from low-information white voters. Over time the number of younger voters who receive their fake news from Jon Stewart will overtake the older voters who receive their fake news from Fox.

While Obama’s approval rating is low, Congress has an even lower approval rating. Typically in such situations people like their own Congressman even if they disapprove of Congress. This year polls show that many people also think their own Congressman should be thrown out. Based upon this, I wouldn’t be surprised if more incumbents than usual get upset, but that might not necessarily help the Democrats over Republicans. In addition, more people see the Republicans as being more responsible for gridlock, in contrast to a common false media narrative of treating each party as being equally responsible. Maybe they will surprise the pundits and throw the Republicans out.

Another factor influencing whether predictions based upon the fundamentals must occur is that any competent Democratic strategist is aware of every point here, and the party is doing far more than they did in 2010 to try to change this. They are working to increase turnout among Democratic voters this year. They  have a technological edge both in regards to get out the vote efforts and fund raising. It even appears that the same problems which are placing Republicans at a disadvantage with younger voters is also impacting their ability to recruit young tech savvy political operatives. Besides using their technological advantages over Republicans in getting out the vote efforts, they can  motivate Democratic voters with fear of the consequences of the Republicans taking control of the Senate. Tea Party extremism has led to an end to talk of a grand bargain. Democratic compromises on entitlement programs might have discouraged some voters on the left from turning out for Democrats.

I think Democrats will do better if they can successfully explain the advantages of their policies as opposed to Republican policies. Democratic economic policies turned around the economic collapse caused by Republican economic policies, even if the Republicans have managed to slow recovery with their obstructionist moves, decided upon from the start of Obama’s term. The deficit rolled up by George Bush has dropped considerably since Obama took office. The CBO  projects a deficit of $514 billion in 2014, representing three percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This is near the average level for the past forty years, and a vast improvement from 2009 when the deficit was at 10.1 percent of GDP.

Despite early IT problems, which the Obama administration does deserve criticism for, the Affordable Care Act has turned into a tremendous success on a policy level, both in terms of health care reform and its benefits for the economy. Both the Medicare Advantage plans under George Bush and the original Medicare program had early implementation problems which took a couple of years to solve. Of course Republicans will continue to spread unsubstantiated scare stories and it is possible Obama might never received the credit he deserves. Health care premiums will be remain high on the individual market as they were high before Obamacare. Insurance companies will continue to use restricted panels of physicians and hospitals as they did before Obamacare, leaving room for Republicans to blame the Affordable Care Act for problems unrelated to the law.

Other factors could come into play. The Tea Party might oust electable Republicans and replace them with extremist candidates which the Democrats can more easily beat. While doubtful, the Tea Party might force Congressional Republicans into a situation analogous to the government shut-down before the election which reduces public support for Republicans. While it is doubtful it will really alter that many votes, even the changes in the late night comedians could help the Democrats over the Republicans.

The easy prediction is now that the Republicans will keep control of the House and control of the Senate is up for grabs. Depending upon whether the factors discussed above alter the usual fundamentals, we still might wind up seeing the pundits talking about all the reasons they knew we would have a different outcome after the results are known.

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The Success Of The Stimulus

Barack Obama’s economic stimulus was launched five years ago. Regardless of how successful it turned out to be, conservatives would attack it in order to try to avoid giving Obama credit for reversing the economic problems created by George Bush and Republican economic ideas. Michael Grunwald looked at the report from the Council of Economic Advisers on the success of the stimulus, finding that its report is consistent with other reports on economic improvement:

The main conclusion of the 70-page report — the White House gave me an advance draft — is that the Recovery Act increased U.S. GDP by roughly 2 to 2.5 percentage points from late 2009 through mid-2011, keeping us out of a double-dip recession. It added about 6 million “job years” (a full-time job for a full year) through the end of 2012. If you combine the Recovery Act with a series of follow-up measures, including unemployment-insurance extensions, small-business tax cuts and payroll tax cuts, the Administration’s fiscal stimulus produced a 2% to 3% increase in GDP in every quarter from late 2009 through 2012, and 9 million extra job years, according to the report.

The White House, of course, is not an objective source — Council of Economic Advisers chair Jason Furman, who oversaw the report, helped assemble the Recovery Act — but its estimates are in line with work by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and a variety of private-sector analysts. Before Obama took office, it would have been a truism to assert that stimulus packages stimulate the economy: every 2008 presidential candidate proposed a stimulus, and Mitt Romney’s proposal was the most aggressive. In January 2009, House Republicans (including Paul Ryan) voted for a $715 billion stimulus bill that was almost as expansive as Obama’s. But even though the stimulus has been a partisan political football for the past five years, that truism still holds.

The report also estimates that the Recovery Act’s aid to victims of the Great Recession — in the form of expanded food stamps, earned-income tax credits, unemployment benefits and much more — directly prevented 5.3 million people from slipping below the poverty line. It also improved nearly 42,000 miles of roads, repaired over 2,700 bridges, funded 12,220 transit vehicles, improved more than 3,000 water projects and provided tax cuts to 160 million American workers.

My obsession with the stimulus has focused less on its short-term economic jolt than its long-term policy revolution: I wrote an article about it for TIME titled “How the Stimulus Is Changing America” and a book about it called The New New Deal. The Recovery Act jump-started clean energy in America, financing unprecedented investments in wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable sources of electricity. It advanced biofuels, electric vehicles and energy efficiency in every imaginable form. It helped fund the factories to build all that green stuff in the U.S., and research into the green technologies of tomorrow. It’s the reason U.S. wind production has increased 145% since 2008 and solar installations have increased more than 1,200%. The stimulus is also the reason the use of electronic medical records has more than doubled in doctors’ offices and almost quintupled in hospitals. It improved more than 110,000 miles of broadband infrastructure. It launched Race to the Top, the most ambitious national education reform in decades.

At a ceremony Thursday in the Mojave Desert, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz dedicated the world’s largest solar plant, a billion-dollar stimulus project funded by the same loan program that financed the notorious Solyndra factory. It will be providing clean energy to 94,000 homes long after Solyndra has been forgotten. Unfortunately, the only long-term effect of the Recovery Act that’s gotten much attention has been its long-term effect on national deficits and debts. As the White House report makes clear, that effect is negligible. The overwhelming majority of the Recovery Act’s dollars have gone out the door; it’s no longer adding to the deficit. It did add about 0.1% to our 75-year debt projections, but allowing the economy to slip into a depression would have added a lot more debt.

Grunwald did warn of the political ramifications. As conservatives have convinced themselves that economic stimulus doesn’t work as a knee jerk reaction to anything proposed by Obama, politicians are likely to shy away from stimulus when needed in the future, following the European mistakes in promoting austerity. Such views in this country already led to the stimulus being significantly smaller than it should have been, especially in light of continuing problems with unemployment.

.Stimulus

Steve Benen has more facts and tables on the benefits of the stimulus, such as the table above on the effect of the stimulus on GDP.

Think Progress cited several Republicans who attacked Obama on the stimulus and then took credit for its benefits.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

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