House Republicans Give Up on Debt Limit, Like Everyone Knew They Would
A week ago I justified my decision to ignore the current rounds of debt limit negotiations in the House by explaining that the GOP would inevitably cave. "The conservative wing fully expects a sellout," I wrote, while "the less conservative wing wants to make Democrats vote to fund Obamacare again but is ready to accept the Senate's inevitable move to split the riders from the debt limit."
Since then, Republicans have huddled three times to talk about the debt limit strategy. Their demands have shrunk from "ending the Obamacare bailout" to "restoring the military pension cuts of the 2013 budget deal" (which would increase spending, but whatever) to, finally—nothing. Here, this should explain:
As expected, the failure of 217* Republicans to agree on demands has ended in total surrender and a clean debt limit bill. They'll put it up and expect victorious Democrats to join a few dozen Republicans, and pass it.
"When you don't have 218 votes," shrugged John Boehner after today's meeting of House Republicans, "you have nothing." Did this mean the end of "the Boehner rule," that any increase in the debt limit would be matched by an equal amount of spending cuts or reforms?** "I hope not."
Spoiler: It does. This isn't even a fun or surprising story—it's a tale of the White House winning a 2013 showdown with Republicans, and of Republicans going on to convince themselves that they should take the loss and try to win the 2014 elections. Yes, at last month's House Republican retreat, the party was talking about some revised demands for the debt limit negotations. But they were also told by columnists and pollsters that the 2013 government shutdown had been a disaster for them, and that repeating it would weaken them in November.
*Given the three vacancies in the House, the majority needs one fewer vote than usual to pass a bill.
**"Or reforms" was added later.
Scott Walker and the Gaffe That Never Was
I spent most of yesterday in an auditorium, working under spotty Internet conditions, so I missed the full-court press from progressive groups that wanted reporters to know about an apparent Scott Walker lie. He was 17 years old in 1984, but seemed to have boasted about his vote for Ronald Reagan. Here was how it looked coming from American Bridge, the Dem oppo-research PAC:
Notice that the quote, given to Right Wing News, was three weeks old. Since January, Democratic groups have calmed their nerves about a Chris Christie 2016 campaign and started paying more attention to GOP donor faves like Walker. So somebody stumbled across this interview on a popular site that isn't much read by the left or the mainstream media.
Somebody found fool's good. John Hawkins, who conducted the interview with Walker, realized yesterday that the quote had been poorly transcribed. Walker didn't say "I had just become a teenager and voted for Ronald Reagan." He said, "I had just become a teenager, and a vote for Ronald Reagan mean limited government," etc. That's boilerplate, and not surprising given how often Walker cites Reagan. (He mentioned him 11 times in his memoir last year, usually in the context of how Reagan would have behaved boldly in this or that situation.)
So, what have we learned? Not much, but this is a useful hook for reminding the pundit class of how many people weren't influenced by the Reagan presidency. To have cast a vote for Reagan, in any of his races, you had to be born before November 1966. You'd be turning 48 this year. Fifty-four percent of the electorate is your age or older, but only about 40 percent of the overall population. Come 2016, there'll be as many voters who weren't old enough to vote for Reagan as voters who were. Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz—all of them fit in that category. And yet our pundits still talk about a successful Republican, one who cuts into the liberal and independent white vote, as one who wins "Reagan Democrats." It's weird. It's like saying, when the Democrats won back Congress in 2006, that they had won back "Nixon Democrats."
The New Republican Obamacare Bailout
When Democrats predict that the GOP will eventually have to embrace the Affordable Care Act, they usually start with the plight of rural hospitals. In the 25 states that have accepted the Medicaid expansion, these hospitals are taking in reimbursements when they cover the indigent who are newly covered. In the 25 states that haven't—no reimbursements. Red states (and red-run blue states like Wisconsin) first embraced the Supreme Court decision that made Medicaid expansion optional, and saved them from putting up 10 percent of the cost of a new annual entitlement. But the costs of doing nothing are burning up the plains.
How can a Republican governor fix this problem without accepting the Medicaid expansion? Ray Henry and Christina Cassidy explain: They've trying to bail out hospitals within the states. In South Carolina the state has agreed to reimburse 100 percent Medicaid spending at distressed hospitals. In Georgia the Republican charged with this year's budget is looking at a bailout worth "tens of millions of dollars." In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant wants $4.4 million for a bailout, and his argument for why is interestingly Leninist:
I mean, here we would be saying to 300,000 Mississippians, "We’re going to provide Medicaid coverage to you," and then the federal government through Congress or through the Senate, would do away with or alter the Affordable Care Act, and then we have no way to pay that. We have no way to continue the coverage.
There's no chance of the ACA being repealed until, maybe, 2017 if Republicans win the presidency. Bryant's looking three years ahead, suggesting that his state (and presumably other holdout states) can help grind down the law with stopgap bailouts to poor hospitals. The alternative: embracing Obamacare.
Doesn't it feel like only six or seven days ago that House Republicans were talking about ending "bailouts" for insurers in a debt limit deal? It was. They've dropped the idea. It's better for the party if they're not seen to be turning the screws on hospitals and insurers.
Ted Cruz Has a Joke About Al Gore
He told it in December.
He told it in January.
"It's cold!" riffed Cruz. "Al Gore told me this wouldn't happen."
He told it again today.
"It is really freezing in D.C.," he told a crowd at the Heritage Foundation, in a speech about energy policy. "I have to admit I was surprised. Al Gore told us this wouldn't happen!"
If it remains cold outside, I predict with 95 percent accuracy that Cruz will make this joke at next month's Conservative Political Action Conference.
Oklahoma Congressman Talks Woman Down From Kill-Obama Stance by Suggesting Other Crazy Things for Her to Think
One week ago a YouTube user named William Martin uploaded four minutes of video from a town hall held by Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine. It took a few days for the media to find a lede: An angry (and blurrily seen) woman told the freshman that President Obama "should be executed as an enemy combant," and Bridenstine didn't tell her that, no, this was probably a bad idea.
Bridenstine apologized after the video blew up, saying he "obviously did not condone and I do not approve of grossly inappropriate language," chastising anyone who attributed the remarks to him. Here comes the #slatepitch: I don't think Bridenstine's failure to reject the "execute" remark is his worst moment. His actual answer is chock-full of paranoid theories about the Obama administration's "lawless" behavior.
- He claims that Colorado "is now the prime location in the world for organized crime, where they are distributing all kinds of drugs," in the wake of marijuana legalization.
- He characterizes the background checks included in the failed Toomey-Manchin gun bill as "national gun registration." The bill prohibited that, as does current federal law.
- He claims that the Obama administration ended up getting a form of gun control by endorsing the Small Arms Treaty in the UN—an "international secretariat" that overrides American law. "The Second Amendment of U.S. is not open for debate by foreign governments," he says.
The effect of Bridenstine's rant: He wins back the crowd. They burst into applause at his defense of the Second Amendment from a threat that is not actually real.
Bridenstine is considering a run for Oklahoma's open U.S. Senate seat.
The GOP Civil War Du Jour: Everybody Versus the Social Conservatives
Jeremy Peters looks at the short, basically forgotten congressional campaign of Virginia state Sen. Dick Black and sees an example of a trend. The "Republican Party establishment," he writes, is trying to smother insurgent candidates by any means necessary, and in Virginia, it worked.
This is a fascinating little skirmish that's played out exactly as most Republicans wanted it to. Ever since the seat in rapidly blueing NoVa opened up, state Del. Barbara Comstock—a Republican lawyer, fixer, and pundit who made a well-timed 2009 run for office and won two terms since—was the front-runner. Comstock wasn't "liberal" in any way. She'd voted for the transvaginal ultrasound bill that became, in 2012, a club for Democrats. But she didn't wave around plastic fetuses and doubt the existence of some forms of rape. As Peters writes, Republicans feared that Black, in the D.C. media market, would become a new Todd Akin. Look at whom he credits with scaring Black out of the race.
First Mitt Romney endorsed her. Then came Citizens United and the president of Americans for Prosperity, the group financed by the wealthy Koch brothers.
Americans for Prosperity is not in the "Republican establishment" as it's generally understood. In other New York Times stories, AFP appears as a pressure group moving the GOP into positions that voters hate. Why did it join the blanket party against Black? Because Black was going to make social conservative gaffes. And that element of the party, not a huge problem in office, causes problems during campaigns.
That's what "stopping the next Todd Akin" means. It doesn't mean crushing the Tea Party or electing moderates. Akin was not the Tea Party candidate in Missouri's 2012 primary—national Tea Party groups endorsed either the former state treasurer or a businessman who was making his first ever political run. Akin was a social conservative who went on to bungle his abortion views in an easy interview. And everyone on the right, from the RNC to the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, has been working to train Republicans to avoid sounding like Akin. Not changing what they stand for.
Actually, only one Republican in Congress has coupled a new tone with a policy shift. That's Rep. Richard Hanna, who represents parts of central New York, and who voted against the latest version of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. His reward: a radio ad in his district from the Faith Family Freedom Fund, the Family Research Council's PAC, which has a woman (natch) describing her shock at the vote. "When all other Republicans and some Democrats voted to stop federal funding of abortion," says the narrator, "he cast the only Republican vote to keep your tax dollars flowing to the abortion industry. No American should ever be forced to pay for the abortions of others."
The only way to stay politically safe, on abortion? Don't speak up. Don't get noticed.
Marijuana Politics: Now a Campaign Issue in Maryland
Today's minor news on the marijuana front comes in Time's interview with Joe Biden. Asked about the president's comments about marijuana, made during interviews for his New Yorker profile, Biden pivots to sentencing reform. "I support the President’s policy," he says. "I think the idea of focusing significant resources on interdicting or convicting people for smoking marijuana is a waste of our resources." This represents a sort of shift from the norm, when Biden blurts out something and the president has to respond.
The Biden interview, we're told, occured on the Amtrak from D.C to Philadelphia. That means it cut through Maryland, where dark-horse gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, a Democratic state delegate, is asking the front-runners (the lieutenant governor and the attorney general) to join her in backing decriminalization of marijuana. The state's Maryland Marijuana Decriminalization Act, which would reduce penalties for an ounce of the stuff to a $100 fine, may have the votes to pass in a legislature run by Democratic supermajorities. Mizeur wants to make sure.
"I was pleased to read about your support for this initiative," she writes to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in a letter. "Reform of marijuana laws is far from outside the mainstream views of leaders across the country; and here in Maryland, a recent Goucher poll reported just 6 percent of Marylanders favored jail time as a consequence for marijuana possession."
Rick Berman and the Libertarian Shell Game
Every few years, when a political battle becomes a slog for the left, the media recalls the existence of Berman and Co. The venerable right-wing marketing firm and its related network of "think tanks" (bare-bones organizations that place ads and op-eds) are not especially mysterious. Berman sat for a 60 Minutes profile in 2007, happily revealing how he churns donations from corporations into conveniently pro-corporate libertarian activism.* In 2010 the New York Times took a hard look at Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom and related organizations, cheeky groups that attacked animal rights and nutrition campaigns at the behest of the restaurant industry.
Berman's time has come again; today he's the subject of an A1 investigation and shaming from Eric Lipton, one of the best public interest journalists there is. Fittingly, it's probably the best "what the hell with this guy?" pieces in the Bermania genre. The hook is the Employment Policies Institute's push against a possible minimum wage hike, which Washingtonians have encountered every time they disembark at Capitol South Metro and see signs blaming Nancy Pelosi when teenagers can't find jobs. (Capitol South is the station closest to the House, which demonstrates how pointless the spending is—the House is not going to bring up a minimum wage hike.) Lipton buries EPI's** research with a few lines.
[EPI research director Michael] Saltsman, 30, who has an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan and previously worked for the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, drafts dozens of letters to the editor and opinion articles for newspapers, arguing that increasing the minimum wage would hurt more than help. Other special institute projects included a recent survey of lawmakers who support the minimum wage increase asking if they pay their interns — a report The Daily Caller, a conservative online publication, then released, calling out the lawmakers with unpaid interns as hypocrites.
The major reports released by the institute are prepared by outside academics, like Joseph J. Sabia, an associate professor of economics at San Diego State University, who has collected at least $180,000 in grant money from Mr. Berman’s group over the last eight years to deliver seven separate reports, each one concluding that increasing the minimum wage has caused more harm than good — or at least no significant benefit for the poor.
This is a story about lobbying, sure, but it's mostly a story about lazy journalism. Why would journalists grab quotes from EPI? Because they need to get "anti" quotes in their stories, and because the EPI is there. The group's spin is incredibly easy to see through. The Metro ads are too cute by half. (A previous Berman group campaign against animal rights activists featured pictures of cute dogs in states of surprise.) In his Twitter bio, Saltsman describes himself as a "Defender of the Minimum Wage"—meaning, he defends the current rate and doesn't want it going higher. The genius of EPI, like other Berman groups, is that it produces research for ideologues and donors who know what they believe already but need to balance coverage in the press.
*Correction, Feb. 10, 2014: This post originally misstated that Rick Berman appeared on 60 Minutes in 2009.
**EPI shares initials with the Economic Policy Institute, a left-wing think tank whose staffers are very unhappy with the alphabetical confusion.
Charlie Crist Thinks Opposition to Obama Might Be a Little Bit Racist
My latest piece is a read-through of Charlie Crist's new memoir, which is ... not the most exciting journey through a life in politics. Crist is oddly gentle about his old enemies, not even naming some. The worst anyone comes off? Karl Rove, when he calls Crist a "chickenshit" for not appearing at an appearance with President Bush in Florida, before the 2006 election. Honestly, of all the things that could have made Rove angry, doesn't that seem a little fair?
The closest Crist gets to controversy, something I left out of the review, comes in a collection of musings about the rise of the Tea Party. Crist has trouble understanding the alacrity with which anti-Obama anger became so mainstream.
"Sometimes," he says, "the public's feelings seemed partly racial. Sometimes, I'm sure they were not. But Barack Obama was the first African American in the White House. Florida had helped to put him there. And it was impossible to imagine an equal measure of virulence for any politician whose skin was white."
But this is based on TV reports and angry reactions to his embrace (literal and figurative) of the president. Crist leaves the circumstancial evidence on the page, and moves on.
Lies, Lies, and Second-Order Reporting
Paul Krugman and Jay Rosen have both written some nice, researched responses to my Wednesday rant about "perception is reality"-style politics reporting. Krugman's call-back to his 10-year-old observation about the John Kerry campaign is my favorite part of either piece. That year, Kerry ran on a health insurance expansion that would have cost $650 billion, and it got barely any coverage.* "When reports mentioned the Kerry plan at all, it was usually horse race analysis," wrote Krugman. "How it's playing, not what's in it."
This is a problem that, strangely, the expansion of live campaign reporting via video and Twitter hasn't fixed. Think of how much money news organizations spend to make sure they have cameras at every presidential campaign event. OK. Now, think of how quickly CNN or Fox or MSNBC cuts away from the live feed (unless the campaign has promised something new in the speech, like a response to a gaffe or foreign policy crisis) in order to ask for analysis from whatever chuckleheads are in the New York studio—usually analysis about how the speech they're not watching is going to play in the real America they're not in. It's all very strange.
That said I'd like to clarify what I was writing about here: "Journalists, in real time, are not the best arbiters of what people will come to believe months later." I was writing (as it says there) about incorrect stories. The idea that the CBO report was warning of 2.5 million fewer jobs, thanks to Obamacare, was wrong, as Paul Ryan pointed out the day after it got traction. If there are actually 2.5 million fewer jobs than there would have been minus Obamacare, come November, it's going to cut like a lightsaber through Democrats.
Similarly, if President Obama had ordered the ATF to let guns cross the border illegally in an Operation Fast and Furious, it would have been tremendously damaging. Because a version of the program predated his administration, it didn't carry beyond the conservative media. That's what I meant, and it's a better guideline than "whether a campaign is successful or not." The Romney campaign scored a few hits on Obama before losing to him. But the fake hits, no matter how much the press speculated about their power, did not sink in with voters.
*Correction, Feb. 10, 2014: This post originally misstated that John Kerry ran for president on a health insurance expansion that would have cost $650. The expansion would have cost $650 billion.