Reporting on Politics and Policy.

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.

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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.

April 7 2014 9:43 AM

Programming Note: Prog Spring II

For the past few months I've been expanding my 2012 Slate series Prog Spring into a book. Some common questions that arise about this:

"Do you have a publisher?" Yes.

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"Are you done?" No, and that's a dispiriting question to ask someone as he or she writes a book. Ask another way.

"How's it coming?" Pretty well. I've done almost all of the research and about a third of the writing. Most of that was done on two short breaks in 2013. I need to take a few more to finish the thing by the due date.

This is a meandering yet direct way of saying that I'm off this blog for the next few weeks. For the next five days, I'll actually be on a boat, covering the annual Cruise to the Edge—one of at least three luxury tours that are now run to attract progressive rock bands and fans. The whole story will appear in Slate, and the last interviews for the book will occur somewhere near a pool or conch shell. But that'll mean radio silence from me. While I'm gone some of my talented new colleagues may appear in this space, for which I will owe them dearly. 

And I'm off.

April 7 2014 8:27 AM

A Patriotic Double Feature of The Unknown Known and Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Dana Stevens and I just recorded a Spoiler Special for The Unknown Known, Erroll Morris' long-awaited, critic-confounding documentary about Donald Rumsfeld. Off the clock, I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest blockbuster in the Marvel movie universe, and the one most likely to incite anger on Fox News followed by anger-at-the-anger on The Daily Show. It wasn't planned this way, but the two films went together like a white wine and fish pairing.

The Unknown Known comes to the screen with heavier expectations, of course, and an aura of Importance. Eleven years ago, as Americans began to turn on the postwar occupation of Iraq, Morris released the definitive interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. It wasn't McNamara's first on-screen apology—he had, as the movie shows, been making them for years—but it was indeliable and perfectly timed. He even went on tour to promote the movie. Morris won an Oscar, and used his 2004 acceptance speech to worry that America had fallen into another "rabbit hole." 

Donald Rumsfeld was not paying attention. He watched The Fog of War only years later, after Morris approached him about sitting for a film of his own. Rumsfeld had retired under durress in 2006 and published his own memoirs five years later, accompanying them with online troves of old documents. Half a dozen other documentarians had approached him about telling his story, but Rumsfeld didn't want a hagiography. He wanted, and got, days of interviews (33 hours of tape) with a documentary-maker, and interviewer, respected as the absolute best at his craft. It quickly beccame evidence that Morris would not get another secretary of defense to apologize for what he'd done. Instead, he got a film about rhetoric and hubris, with a subject who is caught short only once, when he's presented with evidence that enhanced interrogation techniques did migrate from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib.

But that's it. Just one gotcha. Rumsfeld appears otherwise at ease. This left me with the impression I talked about in the podcast—singular as he is, Rumsfeld represents a confident, collected hubris that's shared by plenty who achieve real power. When Rumsfeld grappled with journalists, or when they covered his machinations, he was amused but unmoved. Like Dick Cheney, he's reminded the press just how little Bush administration policy the Obamaians have decided to reverse. Rumsfeld's brashness was unusually destructive. The brashness itself? Not unusual at all.

The Captain America sequel, naturally, makes its black hats and white hats more distinct. As I can probably [SPOIL] by now, the film substantially rewrites Marvel history by borrowing a conceit from conspiracy thrillers. In this reality, as in ours, Operation Paperclip brought Nazi scientists into the United States, where their brains could be applied to useful, beat-the-Soviets science. In this reality, one of the lucky green-carders was Armin Zola, chief scientist of the Hydra secret society. He did what S.H.I.E.LD. told him too, but also seeded it with sleeper agents (thousands of them) working toward the ultimate goal of a mass-murder algorithm, enforced by floating, armed helicarriers, that would enforce "stability" by eliminating Hydra's enemies. Along the way, he employed the Winter Soldier, who wears a mask to conceal (from the audience, for a while) his identity as Captain America's former best friend Bucky, thought dead but actually brainwashed and outfitted with a cybernetic arm.

Plenty of critics have called this one of the best, or the best, of the Marvel films. I think the conspiracy plot is (ironically) behind all that. The first Captain America was a loving, corny nostalgia trip, in which the Nazis—as if they weren't bad enough!—were revealed to be doing the work of a demonic, genocidal super-soldier. This sequel is aggressively contemporary, up to a montage in which the Winter Soldier's enemies include Julian Assange and the late (ah, get it?) Hugo Chávez. Director Joe Russo told Asawin Suebsaeng that the villains' plot was ripped from the headlines about the presidential "kill list."

It's played for darkness, for a while. The problem is that it doesn't make sense. Why three helicarriers instead of a fleet of drones? Why create only one Winter Soldier, when unlike the creator of Captain America's super-soldier serum, Zola remained alive for years, aware of how to build perfect assassins? The filmmakers paid great attention in building a realistic D.C. (to the extent that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s base is located on the Virginia side of the Potomac, immune to the city's height limit), but the allegory is actually quite comforting compared with its inspiration.

In a closing scene, Black Widow justifies the destruction of the program and leaking of every S.H.I.E.L.D. secret in front of a governent panel. To paraphrase, she argues that the world's become a dangerous place, and people like her were part of the reason; this is exactly why she can be trusted to keep it safe. It reminded me of a line Rumsfeld used in some of The Unknown Known's found footage, a fascinating post-Cold War panel of former defense secretaries. "Who do we want to provide leadership in the world? Somebody else?" The blockbuster, which is supposed to unsettle us, gives assurance that the most venal foreign policy was all the fault of a few identifiable villains. Nazis, no less. It can't happen again. The Unknown Known assures us that it will.

tl;dr: A documentary about Donald Rumsfeld turns out to be more realistic and powerful than a superhero movie, though the superhero movie has many more explosions and fistfights.

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