Reporting on Politics and Policy.

April 18 2014 4:49 PM

We Won’t Get a Final Decision on Keystone XL Until After the Midterm Elections

The Obama administration is extending its five-year-long-and-counting review of the Keystone XL indefinitely, the State Department announced this afternoon, saying the delay will allow more time for government agencies to weigh in on the project and allow an ongoing court Nebraska case involving the proposed pipeline's route to play out.

While the White House isn't saying how long all that will take, it's a safe bet that the delay almost certainly means that the pipeline's fate will remain undecided until at least after November's mid-term elections. (Nebraska officials don't expect a final ruling on their case until late this year at the earliest, according to the Los Angeles Times.)

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In the meantime, that allows everyone to carry on with life as usual on the campaign trail. Republicans can keep blasting the president for keeping the project in limbo (Mitch McConnell: "Here's the single greatest shovel-ready project in America—one that could create thousands of jobs right away—but the president simply isn't interested."); vulnerable Democrats who have supported the project can continue to appeal to more conservative constituencies by hyping their break with the White House (Mary Landrieu: "Today's decision by the administration amounts to nothing short of an indefinite delay of the Keystone Pipeline."); and environmentalists can continue to use each additional hold-up as evidence that the project is ultimately doomed (League of Conservation Voters: The delay "makes us even more confident that the harmful Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will ultimately be rejected").

This isn't the first time that a delay in the process has pushed a decision to the safe side of Election Day for the administration. Back in November 2011, the White House announced that it planned to explore a new route for the pipeline, in effect pushing off a final decision on the controversial project past the 2012 election. Two years later and we're still waiting.

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April 18 2014 2:51 PM

Obamacare and the “Young Invincibles”

There were two major takeaways from yesterday's big Obamacare announcement: The first was that more than 8 million people had signed up for insurance through federal and state exchanges. The second was that 28 percent of those people who enrolled via the federal exchange were in the 18–34 bracket, the much-coveted demographic the industry has branded the "young invincibles" because they've typically gone without coverage out of a (highly questionable) belief that they just won't get sick.

As I explained yesterday, it's difficult to look at the 8 million figure and see it as anything but a success; the open enrollment total now sits comfortably above even the original CBO projection of 7 million. Despite all the handwringing and bad press that was caused by healthcare.gov, the White House can now say it didn't just live up to open enrollment expectations, it exceeded them.

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The second figure, that 28 percent, is a good deal harder to place on the failure-success spectrum. (The demographic is so important because the young, presumably healthy, are supposed to help offset the costs of older, typically sicker Americans who are also in the same risk pools.) The back-of-the-envelope math that had been used by those following the enrollment figures closely was pretty simple: Young Americans represent about 40 percent of uninsured Americans, so in an ideal world they'd also represent the same chunk of the total Obamacare enrollees. (In the months before the open enrollment period, the White House had suggested they were hoping for that mix as well, or about 2.7 million of the original 7 million projection.)

I don't need advanced math to tell you that 28 percent is less than 40 percent. So by that metric, the White House's Two Ferns-themed youth outreach came up well short, even though the final percentage of young enrollments was about 4 percent higher than it was during the early returns. So just how worried should the White House and its ACA allies be? It's tough to say. We're still waiting on the state-by-state breakdowns, which are actually more important than the national numbers. But in the meantime the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn offers up a noteworthy data point that should offer some degree of comfort to those hoping the law works as planned:

Only company officials know exactly what they were projecting—that’s proprietary information—but one good metric is the signup rate in Massachusetts, in 2007, when that state had open enrollment for its version of the same reforms. According to information provided by Jonathan Gruber, the MIT economist and reform architect, 28.3 percent of Massachusetts enrollees were ages 19 to 34, a comparable age group.
Yes, that’s right: The overall age mix for the Affordable Care Act is virtually the same as the age mix was in Massachusetts. More important, it vindicates the predictions of experts like Gruber who said, all along, that young people would be among the last to sign up. “To get to 28 percent overall, there had to be a lot of young people among the late enrollees,” says Larry Levitt, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “That also bodes well for who is likely to sign up next year.”

That optimism aside, clearly the administration was hoping more young/healthy Americans had signed up during the initial open enrollment period. There's a reason why Obama gave the 8 million figure top billing at yesterday's press conference, and why he blurred the young enrollment figure somewhat by talking about the percentage of enrollees under 35—a group that includes children under the age of 18 who are on their parents' plans—and not the more important 18–34 numbers. For now we'll have to wait and see what impact the young-old breakdown has on premiums.

April 17 2014 4:32 PM

Obamacare Enrollments Now Top 8 Million

At least 8 million people have signed up for health insurance through Obamacare, President Obama announced this afternoon in what amounted to his second ACA-themed victory lap at the White House this month.

The total number of enrollees has been serving largely as a shorthand for the law's initial success since the federal website stumbled (and stumbled again, and again) out of the gates this past fall. But despite that embarrassing start, the president and his allies are now more or less yelling the political equivalent of "scoreboard!"—and probably with good reason given the beating they took late last year. Embarrassment.gov aside, the White House can say now say it didn't just live up to enrollment expectations, they bested them with plenty of room to spare.

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The newest batch of enrollment numbers is the latest evidence of just how big the eleventh- (and, in some cases, technically thirteenth-) hour surge in enrollments actually was. This is well-covered ground by now, but it's worth a trip down memory lane: Only six people signed up for coverage on the first day healthcare.gov was open, a figure that climbed to only a little more than 100,000 in the site's first month. Even with the website trouble aside, the administration and its allies steadfastly maintained that they had always expected to see a sharp rise in the number of enrollments late in the game, and that's more or less what happened. Fast-forward to the end of February, and enrollments were at 4.2 million and climbing fast.

According to the White House, total enrollment through the federal and state exchanges exceeded 6 million with about four days to spare before the original March 31 deadline, before surging above 7 million and, ultimately, now past 8 million before all was said and done (thanks, at least in part, to a two-week extension). The original CBO projection, for comparison, had been for 7 million enrollees, a figure it later downgraded to 6 million following the disastrous website rollout. Depending on which one of those you want to use, enrollments exceeded expectations by either about 14 or 33 percent.

Still, the law won't sink or swim solely on the total number of people who signed up for coverage. There's still a looong way to go. As important as how many enrolled is exactly who did the enrolling. The president offered some good—but not great—news today on that front for his allies. He said that about 35 percent of those people who were enrolled through the federal exchange—which serves 36 states—were under the age of 35. (That's the key demographic given those people are young and presumably healthy, meaning they should help offset the costs for older, sicker enrollees.)

That figure is right in the middle of the 30 percent figure reported early in the open enrollment period, and the roughly 40 percent that the administration had hoped for. (As Politico points out, that figure includes children who are covered in these plans; the 18–34 bracket makes up about 28 percent of the 8 million enrollees.) It remains to be seen exactly what impact that will have on the risk pool.

This post has been updated.

April 17 2014 4:19 PM

Deporter in Chief   

Cynthia Diaz is an 18-year-old young woman who, beginning April 8th, did not eat for six days. She was on a hunger strike in protest of her mother’s detention confinement in an Arizona immigration immigration detention center. She and other hunger strikers have been camped out in front of the White House for two weeks. (Diaz’s hunger strike ended on April 14th; others are ongoing.) On a dreary rain-filled Monday, they held up a banner—“Mr. President Stop Deportations” it reads—and take turns making speeches in English and Spanish describing the sad tales of deportations that have broken up their families. They were spurred by two hunger strikes begun last month at detention centers in Tacoma, Wash. and Houston, Tex.

April 16 2014 1:42 PM

Republicans Are Expected to Win Big This Fall. Why Are They Worried?

Conservatives should be in a good mood. Their party is poised to gain a majority in both houses of Congress this fall. History and polls are both in their favor: Off-year elections tend to have older, whiter voters and are tipped against the president's party. Ten Senate seats could flip Republican, predicts the New York Times. Nate Silver thinks they'll win six; Larry Sabato of UVA's Center for Politics is guessing four to eight. Gains are expected in the House that will further increase the Republican majority—a dozen Democratic incumbents in the House are facing tossup races. Pundits think the size of the loss will hinge on the president's approval ratings, currently at a paltry 42 percent among likely voters.   

Yet the Republicans' anticipation is mixed with unease. Last week I went to a discussion called “Conversations with Conservatives” that’s put on by some “free market and liberty-minded members” of the House every month. Most of the talk was actually fretting—specifically about what to do if Republicans win their much-anticipated majority in both houses. Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the members who chairs the monthly gathering, lamented that Republicans think too much about elections and not enough about governing. Labrador wondered if Republicans would have the resolve to get things done. As for winning the midterms, “Majorities are good, but majorities with a mandate are better,” sighed Rep. Jim Jordan, one of the other organizers.

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Resistance to compromise is something of a right-wing creed, but a party in the majority is expected to govern—at least somewhat. So there are two less-than-ideal outcomes for hardline conservatives if Republicans take both houses. Passing bipartisan laws do these conservatives no favors with their base, but a Republican majority in both houses will make inaction hard to excuse. 

The perils of this paradox may be felt by more than just conservative hardliners. As Sarah Binder of Brookings points out to me, the two years leading up to a presidential election is the best time for the party to define itself in opposition to the one currently in the White House. Democrats managed to do this in the waning years of George W. Bush’s administration to good effect. Now, with a country that is endlessly reported to be becoming “more polarized than ever,” Republicans likely see strategic sense in standing firm on ideological grounds—it might not lead to good policy, but it’s good politics for them. But stridency elevates the danger of alienating voters with two more years of do-nothingness. Seeing how little Congress has accomplished in the last several years, it’s not as though voters are expecting members to suddenly become models of productivity, especially during an election year. So, however worried they may be, expect Republicans to damn the consequences and risk everything on doing nothing.

April 16 2014 10:00 AM

Montana State Sen. Matt Rosendale “Shoots Down” Drone in New Ad

Montana state Sen. Matt Rosendale has a better than decent chance of becoming a congressman next year. He's running in a crowded field, because the winner of this year's Republican primary is strongly, strongly favored to roll over the Democratic nominee in November. Rosendale's fundraising has been strong enough to put him "on the radar" of the NRCC; this was after Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy caught him attending a conspiracy theorist-hosted seminar called "Defend Rural America." Rosendale swiftly explained that he merely thought it "critical for the United States to maintain our sovereignty and not surrender it to any other entity."

I think that comes across in his new TV ad. "This is how I look from a government drone," he says, as we see him through the camera of a flying robot. "And this is what I think about it."

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Bang.

This is some next-level conservative identity politics. Fine, yes, candidates have been shooting stuff with guns since at least now-Sen. Joe Manchin shot up the cap-and-trade bill in a 2010 ad. Just weeks ago Alabama House candidate Will Brooke uploaded 102 seconds of pure id, as he shot, then mulched a copy of the Affordable Care Act. Rosendale, to my knowledge, is the first candidate who's filmed himself "shooting" a drone—a direct action that even Jesse Ventura is skittish about.

April 15 2014 5:41 PM

What if Bundy Ranch Were Owned by a Bunch of Black People?

For 20 years the federal government has fined Cliven Bundy for grazing his cattle on protected land. And for 20 years Bundy has refused to pay. Last month this dance came to an end when the Bureau of Land Management sent Bundy a letter informing him that it intended to “impound his trespass cattle” that have been roaming on federal property. It closed off hundreds of thousands of acres, and earlier this month, moved to round up Bundy’s cows.

Protesters challenged the BLM, and Bundy’s son was arrested for “refusing to disperse” from the area in question. Bundy’s cause caught fire on right-wing blogs, egged on by Fox News and conservative outlets like the National Review, which have held the confiscation as a dangerous intrusion on private property rights, despite Bundy’s lawbreaking. Defending his decision, the rancher told one right-wing radio host that he’s ready to take drastic steps beyond refusing to pay:

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I told you that I did the legal thing and the political thing and the media thing and it seems like it's down to “we the people” if we're going to get it done. You know the things like militias. You know, I haven't called no militia or anything like that, but hey, it looks like that's where we're at.

To that end, hundreds of people from outside Nevada—including “militia” armed with rifles and ammunition—have joined his protests, going as far as to set up camp and confront federal officials with brandished weapons. The federal government blinked, and the Bureau of Land Management announced an abrupt end to its cattle roundup, hoping to avoid violence and further confrontations.

A few things.

First, this entire incident speaks to the continued power of right-wing mythology. For many of the protesters, this isn’t about a rogue rancher as much as it’s a stand against “tyranny” personified in Barack Obama and his administration.

Second, it won’t happen, but right-wing media ought to be condemned for their role in fanning the flames of this standoff. After years of decrying Obama’s “lawlessness” and hyperventilating over faux scandals, it’s galling to watch conservatives applaud actual lawbreaking and violent threats to federal officials.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder how conservatives would react if these were black farmers—or black anyone—defending “their” land against federal officials. Would Fox News applaud black militiamen aiming their guns at white bureaucrats?

Somehow, given the degree to which right-wing media traffic in racial paranoia, I think we’d be looking at a different situation if the Bundy Ranch belonged to a bunch of black people. And as someone who closely follows the regular incidents of lethal police violence against blacks and Latinos, I also wonder whether law enforcement would be as tepid against a group of armed African-Americans. Judging from past events, I’m not so sure.

April 9 2014 5:32 PM

How Do I Get the AR-15 Ron Paul Is Offering Me? 

Should I accept a gun from Ron Paul? Few people have probably ever asked themselves that question. But an opportunity has arisen: Campaign for Liberty (C4L), a lobby group that purports to “promote and defend the great American principles” is giving away an AR-15 to one lucky patriot who signs up for a giveaway through this link. Ron Paul is the group’s chairman. Giving away the gun (according to his letter’s closing) is “for Liberty”. Of course, it’s also a fundraising ploy: entering to win directs you to a donations page.

April 8 2014 5:03 PM

No, Sam Yagan and OkCupid Aren’t Hypocrites

Last week’s furor over former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was sparked, in part, by OkCupid’s decision to blast Eich by way of its website. Users visiting the OkCupid homepage with Mozilla Firefox were greeted with a message asking them to use a different browser given Eich’s $1,000 donation to the Proposition 8 campaign to end same-sex marriage in California.

 "We've devoted the last ten years to bringing people—all people—together," read the message. "If individuals like Mr. Eich had their way, then roughly 8% of the relationships we've worked so hard to bring about would be illegal.” After Eich’s resignation, OkCupid released a statement announcing its support for the decision, "We are pleased that OkCupid's boycott has brought tremendous awareness to the critical matter of equal rights for all individuals and partnerships.”

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Judging from all of this, you’d think OkCupid and its leaders were incredibly friendly to LGBT Americans. Writing for Mother Jones, Hannah Levintova says this isn’t the case:

OkCupid's co-founder and CEO Sam Yagan once donated to an anti-gay candidate. (Yagan is also CEO of Match.com.) Specifically, Yagan donated $500 to Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) in 2004, reports Uncrunched. During his time as congressman from 1997 to 2009, Cannon voted for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, against a ban on sexual-orientation based job discrimination, and for prohibition of gay adoptions.

Cannon, notes Mother Jones, was also a reliable vote for laws to restrict abortion and related services:

Among other measures, Cannon voted for laws prohibiting government from denying funds to medical facilities that withhold abortion information, stopping minors from crossing state lines to obtain an abortion, and banning family planning funding in US aid abroad.

For Mother Jones, this is evidence of hypocrisy. I think it’s a nothingburger.

Yes, it’s entirely possible that Yagan’s donation was in support of Cannon’s anti-gay votes. But it’s also possible that Yagan—then, as now, a wealthy businessperson—was donating in support of Cannon’s conservative record on taxes and regulation. Indeed, Yagan also donated to Barack Obama in 2007, when the then-senator was a noted opponent of same-sex marriage. Is this evidence of Yagan’s anti-gay sympathies? Or was he giving in support of Obama’s other positions? 

Barring a statement from Yagan himself, it’s impossible to know. Support for a politician isn’t the same as support for an issue. It can be—odds are good that a Rand Paul donor has strong feelings on civil liberties—but it’s hard to know for sure. After all, most politicians have a wide array of interests and concerns, and a donation might be in support of any one of them. In the absence of any other information, a donation to Cannon in 2004 (or to Obama in 2008) says nothing about Yagan’s stance on a particular issue.

By contrast, Brendan Eich gave to a single-issue campaign. No one supports activists for the sake of supporting them—you do so to show your beliefs and priorities. Believe what you want about Yagan, but based on the evidence we have, there’s no comparing his donation to Eich’s. The former is ambiguous, the latter completely clear.

April 8 2014 11:47 AM

Democrats Are Doomed to Low Turnout

The biggest obstacle to Democratic control of the Senate this year isn’t the “six-year itch,” the economy, or President Obama’s approval ratings. It’s turnout. Yes, Republicans are projected to make gains this year, but they aren’t guaranteed a majority. That depends on the Democratic Party’s ability to muster its supporters in states like North Carolina and Louisiana, where Democrats can win, as long as they aren’t swamped by Republican voters.

Unfortunately for Democrats, a new poll—conducted by Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps for Women’s Voices Women Vote—finds that key members of their base are among those least likely to vote in 2014.

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According to Greenberg, only 64 percent of voters in the “Rising American Electorate” of 2012 (young people, unmarried women, and minorities) are “almost certain” to vote this November. That’s compared with 72 percent of all people who voted in 2012, and 79 percent of people outside the Rising American Electorate—older whites, married women, men—who lean Republican.

It’s game over for the Democratic Senate if this is the status quo in November; a world where older whites dominate the electorate is one where Democrats have lost across the board. If the party has a goal for the next six months, it’s to do everything in its power to bring its voters to the polls. Which, in practical terms, means an effort to give Democrats a material stake in the outcome. Hence today’s executive order on pay transparency—barring federal contractors from punishing employees who talk about pay—and Obama’s ongoing push for equal pay, unemployment benefits and a minimum wage increase. Obviously, there’s no chance these would reach the president’s desk. The point is to give Democrats a reason to care about the consequences of November.

If last year’s election in Virginia is any indication, there’s reason to believe this can work. Despite a huge drop in turnout—and an unappealing candidate in the form of Terry McAuliffe—Democrats won the governorship (and every other statewide office) by targeting their strongest supporters and running a sophisticated turnout operation, modeled on Obama’s 2012 effort. Then again, Democrats were helped by the unique circumstances of the Virginia race: In addition to its unpopular gubernatorial nominee, the state GOP was engulfed by a major scandal and discredited by its extreme nominee for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, who tarnished the entire ticket with his right-wing jeremiads against liberals, LGBT Americans, and others.

By contrast, Democrats this year are facing more competent candidates in an overall environment that favors the GOP. Raising turnout is possible—and Democrats aren’t doomed—but like making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs—the party faces an incredible challenge.

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