2012 - %3, December

Republicans Get Religion on Campaign Data

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 6:08 AM EST
"Data is the new black."

If the first rule of espionage is to keep your cover, Patrick Ruffini's sortie into the heart of the left-wing conspiracy should probably be considered something of a bust. It didn't help that he announced his intentions one day in advance, via Twitter:

The 34-year-old former RNC staffer is one of the GOP's top gurus for all things digital. Roots Camp, an annual gathering hosted by the New Organizing Institute, is where Democratic organizers go to debrief—or, as in the case of Obama for America's army of attendees, take a victory lap. The names of the panels alone tell the story: "Unfucking Elections with Data"; "Memeification of Rapid Response Social Media Fast & Furious"; "How to generate 1000 tweets using segmented email blasts"; and my personal favorite: "Hot Open Source Web Mapping."

This isn't a place for pundits to ruminate about The Narrative; it's a nuts-and-bolts education venture. And this year's lesson is clear: 2012 was the year campaigns' digital outfits and field organizers began to merge as one, and as a consequence, any session that so much as hints at how to bridge the two seems to be overflowing with dozens of twentysomethings, fresh from electoral success, tapping away on their laptops. As one of the early arrivals at the Friday after-lunch panel on microtargeting ("Modeling Monkey Owners") put it, "Data is sexy now."

When I track down Ruffini, he's lurking in the back of a breakout session, dressed to blend in in green Chuck Taylors and a fleece jacket, tweeting up a storm and taking notes. About 100 people are crammed into seats or on the floor or propped up against the walls to hear Aaron Strauss, the director of targeting and data at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, explain why Nate Silver, the New York Times' polling guru, is full of crap. This would normally be the part of the story where Strauss is struck down by a lightning bolt or some other such instrument of divine retribution, but Strauss makes a compelling case.

The audience, like an overflowing freshman seminar with the cool professor, listens attentively as Strauss breaks down the fundamental issue with Silver's analysis of which states are most likely to swing back and forth. It assumes that the demographics most likely to swing one way or another are those in the middle. That's just not what the numbers say, Strauss insists. The problem, supposedly, is that Silver's information is limited to crude exit polling, whereas Strauss' information comes from phone calls and in-person contacts. "That's where it crumbles," he says. "That's where the house of cards fall down."

Since Election Day, there's been much introspection on the right about the various ways in which the left is kicking its ass—and how the GOP can turn things around. It needs to become more appealing to Silicon Valley. It needs to reinvest in Big Data. It needs its own Analyst Institute. It needs a ground game. Ruffini has been a source of much of that harping, which is part of the reason he's made his visit to Roots Camp in the first place.

"I don't know that I'm surprised by anything I've seen here," Ruffini says when it's over. But it's revealing nonetheless. "I'm sort of more impressed by the scale of it, the level of participation and interest in these topics, that I've seen tangentially discussed in Republican circles, but mostly in conference rooms, not at conferences. And for what it's worth, that perspective, the data-driven perspective, did not win out in our campaigns this year."

The right has no shortage of conferences for activists, but nothing as purpose-driven and digitally savvy as Roots Camp. For that matter, it has no real answer to the New Organizing Institute itself, which operates in perpetual election mode, grooming Democratic field operatives across the country. "I mean look I think you've got RightOnline, you've got a number of major conferences that cater to conservatives," he says. "I don't know that any are quite as focused on digital as this. It's the next step in the evolution." And Ruffini's not the only one studying up on the new Chicago machine. When top Democratic and Republican campaign aides gathered at Harvard last week to talk about the race, GOPers packed talks by Obama staffers. As one Republican strategist told BuzzFeed, "We got our butts kicked, so I'm going to school."

There's a certain irony to the right's newfound introspection: After four years of demonizing the commander-in-chief as an Alinskyite radical, conservatives have fallen in love with community organizing.

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Pay No Attention to the Plan Behind the Curtain

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 1:16 AM EST

David Brooks says Republicans should agree to a small deal that gives in a bit on taxes in return for a few modest spending cuts. However, it would come with a condition:

That on March 15, 2013, both parties would introduce leader-endorsed tax and entitlement reform bills in Congress that would bring the debt down to 60 percent of G.D.P. by 2024 and 40 percent by 2037, as scored by the Congressional Budget Office. Those bills would work their way through the normal legislative process, as the Constitution intended. If a Grand Bargain is not reached by Dec. 15, 2013, then there would be automatic defense and entitlement cuts and automatic tax increases.

I'm pretty sure I don't understand this. But if I do understand it, Brooks is saying that Democrats and Republicans should agree on a plan (automatic defense and entitlement cuts and automatic tax increases) and then start work on a pair of alternate plans (leader-endorsed tax and entitlement reform bills). If the alternate plans fizzle out, the first plan will go into effect.

But....this still means that Democrats and Republicans have to agree on the first plan, the one that will go into effect if the alternate doesn't pan out. And right now, that's what they're doing: trying to agree on a plan. It won't suddenly get easier to do that just because they agree to maybe replace it someday with an alternate plan, something that Congress can do any time it wishes anyway.

There's no magic here. Agreeing on a plan is hard. There are no cute psychological ploys or Jedi mind tricks that will make it any easier.

Proposals Made on Background Are Not Real Proposals at All

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 12:53 AM EST

I buried a point in an update to my earlier post about John Boehner's new deficit proposal, and I want to give it a short post of its own to make sure it gets a bit of attention. The point was this: every news account of Boehner's proposal says that it includes (a) an increase in the Medicare eligibility age, and (b) a change in the way inflation is calculated, which would reduce Social Security benefits. But neither of those things is in the letter he sent to President Obama. So where did they come from?

The answer, apparently, is from anonymous GOP aides on background. And if that's the case, it should have been clearly reported that way. Because that's not a proposal at all, it's a way of pretending to make a proposal that can be disavowed and denied at any time if it becomes inconvenient. If it were real, after all, Boehner would have put it in his letter. It's not as if he didn't have enough room.

And on a substantive note, if the inflation proposal is real, I hope that Obama rejects it unless it's matched at least dollar-for-dollar with a proposal to increase Social Security revenues. Raising the maximum taxable income so that it once again covers 90% of earnings would just about do it. Generally speaking, I don't mind making a deal on Social Security, but it needs to be a balanced deal that pairs up benefit cuts with tax increases. Under no circumstances should any Democrat accept a deal that includes only a benefit cut.

Can Obama Stop Netanyahu's New Settlement Project?

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 12:16 AM EST

Robert Wright thinks that President Obama needs to respond forcibly to Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to undertake a new round of settlement construction in a highly contested area east of Jerusalem. "This was more than a slap at Obama," he says, "It was a slap at the United States." Here's his proposal:

[1] Write out a statement that he's willing to deliver on TV. It should criticize Netanyahu sharply and say something that will shock the Israeli people: If the prime minister is going to behave this outrageously, America can no longer guarantee that it will stand by Israel's side at the United Nations. It can no longer guarantee that it will veto Security Council resolutions that declare West Bank settlements in violation of international law. Indeed, America may now introduce such a resolution--that's how outrageous this latest settlement project is.

[2] Call Netanyahu, read him the statement, and tell him that if the settlement plans haven't been reversed within 48 hours, Obama will deliver the statement on TV.

That's never going to happen, but it's something to fantasize about, I suppose. Honestly, Netanyahu seems hellbent on making sure that Israel doesn't have a single friend left in the world aside from the United States, and even that's a relationship he's apparently willing to strain to the breaking point. The part I don't get is what he thinks the endgame is here. If Netanyahu's new settlement finally puts a stake through the heart of a two-state solution, and Israel is left isolated and almost entirely friendless, what's left? Permanent occupation within a vast sea of global hostility? Is that really the plan?

Exclusive: Dick Armey Quits Tea Party Group in Split Over Direction (UPDATED)

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 7:15 PM EST
Dick Armey

This story has been updated. Click here for the latest.

In a move not publicly announced, former Rep. Dick Armey, the folksy conservative leader, has resigned as chairman of FreedomWorks, one of the main political outfits of the conservative movement and an instrumental force within the tea party.

Armey, the former House majority leader who helped develop and promote the GOP's Contract with America in the 1990s, tendered his resignation in a memo sent to Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, on November 30. Mother Jones obtained the email on Monday, and Armey has confirmed he sent it. The tone of the memo suggests that this was not an amicable separation. (See Armey's email below.) Armey demanded that he be paid until his contract ended on December 31; that FreedomWorks remove his name, image, or signature "from all its letters, print media, postings, web sites, videos, testimonials, endorsements, fund raising materials, and social media, including but not limited to Facebook and Twitter"; and that FreedomWorks deliver the copy of his official congressional portrait to his home in Texas.

"The top management team of FreedomWorks was taking a direction I thought was unproductive, and I thought it was time to move on with my life," Armey tells Mother Jones. "At this point, I don't want to get into the details. I just want to go on with my life." 

In the email, Armey indicated that he wants nothing to do with FreedomWorks anymore. He asked that all user names, passwords, and security-related data created in his name be emailed to him by the close of business on December 4. He even insisted that FreedomWorks—"effective immediately"—was "prohibited" from using a booklet he authored. Was Armey's resignation a reaction to the recent election results? "Obviously I was not happy with the election results," he says. "We might've gotten better results if we had gone in a different direction. But it isn't that I got my nose out of line because we should've done better."

Armey declined to specify his disagreements with FreedomWorks. Asked if they were ideological or tactical, he replies, "They were matters of principle. It's how you do business as opposed to what you do. But I don't want to be the guy to create problems."

After leaving Congress in 2003, Armey joined the conservative advocacy group Citizens for a Sound Economy as co-chairman. The following year, the organization, which had been cofounded by Charles and David Koch, split off to become FreedomWorks. Its sister outfit, Americans for Prosperity, has been a prominent grassroots conservative group.

FreedomWorks, under Armey's leadership, was a key player in the rise of the tea party in 2010. The organization helped elect tea party favorites, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Armey led the fight to eliminate Obamacare, emailing every Republican member of Congress after the 2010 elections with a strategy for gutting President Obama's signature health care law. FreedomWorks has acted an connector between tea party groups around the country, organizing protests against Obamacare and expanding the ranks of the conservative movement. In 2010, Armey and Kibbe together published Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto.

Mother Jones contacted Kibbe and FreedomWorks spokeswoman Jacqueline Bodnar for comment. Neither responded. 

Armey says he doesn't know what he will do next, but he is considering consulting work.

Here is Armey's November 30 memo to Kibbe:

November 30, 2012
To: Matt Kibbe, President, FreedomWorks Inc.
From: Honorable Richard K. Armey
Regarding: Resignation

This is to inform you that as of 5:00 P.M. ET on November 30, 2012 I resign my position of Trustee at FreedomWorks, Inc. and my positions of Chairman of FreedomWorks and FreedomWorks Foundation.

As I resign from all board positions and duties, please see below a list of dispositions on outstanding issues: I expect to be fully compensated through the expiration date (December 31, 2012) of my current consulting contract with FreedomWorks. Henceforth FreedomWorks shall be prohibited from using my name, image, or signature in any way or for any purpose without my written permission or in the event of my death, without my heirs written permission.

Effective immediately I expect that Freedom Works shall remove my name, image, and signature from all its letters, print media, postings, web sites, videos, testimonials, endorsements, fund raising materials, and social media, including but not limited to Facebook and Twitter. I expect to receive via email at [redacted] by the close of business, December 4, 2012, all user names, passwords, security questions, and security answers for all accounts, web sites and social media, including but not limited to Facebook and Twitter, created in my name.

Effective immediately FreedomWorks is prohibited from using my booklet or any updated versions of my booklet "Hitting the Ground Running" without my written permission which I innovated while still in congress and trusted to Max Pappas to update for new member orientation. I request that FreedomWorks deliver the copy of my official congressional portrait to my home in Texas.

UPDATE: More details emerged on Monday about Dick Armey's departure from FreedomWorks. The Associated Press obtained a contract dated September 24 indicating that Armey will make $8 million in consulting fees in exchange for leaving the organization. In an email to Mother Jones, Armey confirmed the $8 million deal, and said the contract was between him and FreedomWorks board member Richard Stephenson.

A handful of key FreedomWorks officials said Monday that they, too, were leaving the organization. According to Roll Call, Max Pappas, the former vice president for public policy and government affairs, and campaigns director Brendan Steinhauser are both quitting the group. Two staffers who worked with Steinhauser have also departed.

FreedomWorks president and CEO Matt Kibbe and several of the group's board members have not returned calls for comment.

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John Boehner's Smoke-and-Mirrors Deficit Proposal

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 6:29 PM EST

Earlier today, I argued that contrary to popular opinion, John Boehner has not agreed to raise more revenue as part of a deficit reduction plan. He's rather vaguely said he might agree to this, but he's steadfastly declined to produce any details. "I'll believe Boehner is serious," I said, "as soon as an actual proposal is on the table and both Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan say they've signed onto it."

Well, good news! Today Boehner wrote a three-page letter to President Obama outlining his proposal. And it was signed by, among others, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. So now we're cooking. What does the letter say?

For starters, it's not really a three-page letter. The first two pages are just some throat-clearing about how disappointed Republicans were in Obama's initial proposal and how sweetly reasonable they plan to be in response. That response, however, turns out to be a grand total of two paragraphs long, and basically says they're endorsing the "middle ground" plan that Erskine Bowles proposed on November 1 of last year. I looked far and wide for this plan, and as near as I can tell, it doesn't really exist. The only record I could find was Bowles' oral testimony before the supercommittee last year. Here it is:

Mr. BOWLES: You all are between $250 and $400 billion of additional cuts on discretionary, so I assumed that we could reach a compromise of an additional $300 billion on discretionary spending cuts.

On health care you are somewhere between $500 and $750 billion of additional health care cuts. I assumed that we could get to $600, and I got there by increases in the eligibility age for Medicare that I discussed with Senator Kerry when he was talking to me. That is about $100 billion. That would take you from the 500 where the Democrats are to $600 billion, and it happens to come not on the provider side, which I think would kind of balance that out.

On other mandatory cuts, you are somewhere between 250 and 400, so I settled on 300 there, and we had enough cuts in our plan to get you to 300 on the other mandatory....You agreed actually on CPI in your two plans of approximately $200 billion.

....That gets me to revenue. And on revenue I took the number that the Speaker of the House, I had read had actually agreed to, and I was able to generate $800 billion through revenue from the Speaker’s recommendation.

So that's it. The only specific proposals there are increasing the Medicare eligibility age, which is a terrible idea, and changing the way inflation is calculated to slow down automatic spending increases. However, Boehner doesn't appear to have included the inflation proposal in his letter, probably because it would affect tax brackets as well as Social Security benefits if it were implemented government-wide. Republicans have long championed adopting a new inflation calculation in order to reduce Social Security benefits, but they usually get cold feet when you suggest that if it's good for Social Security, it ought to be good for everyone else too.

So what we're left with is: $800 billion in revenue plus $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. But these are nothing more than numbers that Erskine Bowles pulled out of the air because they were in between some other numbers. They're just vague goals.

Now, it's true that Bowles thinks that closing deductions and loopholes is the way to go about raising revenue, and he even has a few suggestions along these lines. But that doesn't matter. What matters is what Boehner & Co. are willing to sign up for, and Boehner's letter makes it clear that Republicans also want to lower tax rates, which means they'd need to find way more deductions and loopholes than Bowles has ever proposed. So far, though, they've declined to make even a single concrete suggestion. Nor have they committed to genuinely raising revenue, as opposed to "raising" revenue via tax reform that will supposedly supercharge the economy and thereby increase tax payments automatically. Until they do, this is just hot air. 

Am I being too cynical? Maybe. After all, Boehner has said that he's willing to close loopholes and deductions. And maybe the details can only get hammered out behind closed doors, in order to keep the lobbyists at bay until both sides have an agreement. We'll see. But I will remain cynically skeptical until the day that Boehner publicly proposes $800 billion in actual deductions and loopholes he wants to close. That day hasn't come yet.

UPDATE: Jeez. Even Erskine Bowles doesn't support the supposed "Bowles plan" in Boehner's letter. I guess maybe Boehner should have checked with him first.

UPDATE 2: There's nothing in Boehner's letter about changing the way inflation is calculated, but all the news accounts I've read say that Boehner's plan includes it. So maybe it's there after all. I'm just not sure where.

UPDATE 3: Apparently, the inflation thing came during background briefings from anonymous GOP aides. Needless to say, this means no one is really standing behind it and it can be easily denied in the future if need be. Color me unimpressed until someone in the Republican leadership makes this proposal publicly. They could have put it in their letter pretty easily, after all.

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Do We Really Need a Second Gitmo?

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 3:57 PM EST

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – Joint Task Force Guard Force Troopers transport a detainee to the detainee hospital located adjacent to Camp Four in 2007.

One Senate Republican likes Gitmo so much she wants to build a new offshore detention center—or at least force President Obama to allow Guantanamo to accept new detainees, which it hasn't done since he first took office and issued an executive order intended to close the facility.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2013 is up for a vote as soon as Monday afternoon, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has proposed an amendment that would compel the administration to come up with "a plan for the identification or establishment of a facility outside the United States as the location for the long-term detention" of suspected members of Al Qaeda. Her amendment is backed by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

Ayotte's amendment doesn't say that Gitmo can't be the designated facility, but it leaves open the possibility of a new, alternative Gitmo elsewhere—as long as it's not in the United States, where the terrorists could use their Muslim Heat Vision to escape. Ayotte's ambiguous wording here is likely intentional, since Inhofe has proposed an amendment that would explicitly compel the Obama administration to send new detainees to Guantanamo. So where does Ayotte have in mind for America's brand new detention facility? The Palmyra Atoll? Baker Island? Perhaps some sort of high-security facility placed on a conveniently located orbiting asteroid?

Obama Blocks EU's Efforts To Limit Airplane Emissions

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 3:47 PM EST

Climate negotiators are meeting in Doha through the end of this week, but as I reported last week, no one expects anything big to come out of that meeting. The US negotiating team showed up at this year's conference claiming that our country is making an "enormous" effort to deal with climate change. "Those who don't follow what the US is doing may not be informed of the scale and extent of the effort, but it's enormous," negotiator Jonathan Pershing told the folks in Doha.

Forgive me for being a cynic, but…come on. Let's start by pointing out that, as this most recent climate negotiation was revving up, President Obama was quietly signing a law that blocks US airlines from participating in the European Union's plan to curb emissions from airplanes.

The European Union initiated a new policy last January that requires airlines to buy carbon offsets for all international flights into and out of EU nations. But after the US threw a hissy fit about the plan, the EU agreed to delay implementation for a year in order to let the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations agency governing aviation policy, take a stab at the issue instead. (EU-based airlines still have to pay the carbon fee; only foreign carriers are exempt during the one-year delay.)

It wasn't a surprise that Obama signed the bill into law. The Senate and House voted to block US airlines from participating in the carbon offset program several months ago, and the departments of State and Transportation have been on the record opposing the move since last year. The White House says that it is "firmly committed to reducing harmful carbon pollution from civil aviation both domestically and internationally," but that it thinks that the EU's plan "is the wrong way to achieve that objective." Officials want ICAO to come up with a multilateral alternative.

But as Reuters points out, ICAO has been talking about how to deal with airline emissions for more than a decade. Perhaps the EU-US spat will increase the pressure to actually do something, but I'm not that convinced it will. The US and other opponents of the EU's plans are likely to block anything too significant within the ICAO as well.

This is also significant for the climate negotiations, as a carbon levy on planes and cargo ships is an option for long-term financing that negotiators have been discussing for some time now. Blocking the EU's efforts to make that happen isn't exactly a promising sign. Meanwhile, ICAO predicts that emissions from aviation will increase 300 to 700 percent by 2050.

It's also worth pointing out that the airlines are going to pass the cost onto consumers, and it's only expected to cost about $2.60 to $3.90 per ticket in the initial years. If you can afford to fly to Europe in the first place, chances are that's not going to kill you.

Watch: Bob Costas Calls for Gun Control After NFL Murder-Suicide

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 3:43 PM EST

On Saturday morning, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins—his girlfriend and the mother of his three-month-old daughter, Zoe—before killing himself at Arrowhead Stadium in front of his coach and general manager. Despite calls for the NFL to cancel the Chiefs' Sunday afternoon game against the Carolina Panthers, Chiefs players voted to play; before Kansas City's 27-21 win, the team held a moment of silence for victims of domestic violence but notably did not publicly mourn Belcher.

While CBS dropped the ball in its coverage of the shooting during Sunday's edition of The NFL Today, NBC's Bob Costas went out of his way during Sunday's prime-time game to make a case for tougher gun laws. Quoting a column written by Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock, Costas said in the above video: 

"Our current gun culture," Whitlock wrote, "ensures that more and more domestic disputes will end in the ultimate tragedy and that more convenience-store confrontations over loud music coming from a car will leave more teenage boys bloodied and dead."

"Handguns do not enhance our safety. They exacerbate our flaws, tempt us to escalate arguments, and bait us into embracing confrontation rather than avoiding it. In the coming days, Jovan Belcher's actions, and their possible connection to football will be analyzed. Who knows?"

"But here," wrote Jason Whitlock, "is what I believe. If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today."

The Belcher murder-suicide is just the latest example of guns mixing poorly with NFL players. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune's NFL Arrests Database, which includes every incident more serious than a speeding ticket since 2000, there were three gun-related arrests last offseason alone: Denver Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil flashed a gun in a July road rage incident; Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Kiante Tripp and two others allegedly had guns with them during a July burglary; and former Detroit Lions cornerback Aaron Berry was accused, also in July, of threatening three people with a firearm.

Here are a few other notable gun-related incidents involving past or present NFL players:

  • Junior Seau: The former San Diego Chargers linebacker was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Oceanside, California, house in May. The 43-year-old's death was ruled a suicide by the San Diego County coroner.
  • Plaxico Burress: In the fall of 2008, the then-New York Giants receiver accidentally shot himself in the leg at a Manhattan club with a gun that wasn't registered in New York state.
  • Marvin Harrison: The former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver was interviewed by Philadelphia police but never charged in an April 2008 shooting. Nearly two years later, GQ's Jason Fagone wrote a story that cast doubt on Harrison's story.
  • Tank Johnson: Police raided the house of the former Chicago Bears defensive lineman in December 2006, seizing a .44 magnum Smith & Wesson revolver, a .50 caliber Desert Eagle handgun, a .45 caliber handgun, a .308 caliber Winchester rifle, and two assault-style rifles, including a Colt AR-15 and a .223 caliber.
  • Rae Carruth: The former Carolina Panthers wideout became the first active NFL player to face murder charges when, in 1999, he and three friends conspired to kill his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, and the baby she was carrying.

Also watch Chiefs' QB Brady Quinn's heartfelt comments about Belcher after Sunday's game.

This post was edited to include Seau's death.

Today's Dictionary Update: Serious vs. Unserious

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 2:27 PM EST

As a public service, here is today's installment of Capitol Hill lexicology. Today's subject: serious vs. unserious deficit proposals. As committed descriptivists here, we naturally define these words by their actual usage among contemporary users of the language:

Serious (ser ee uhs) adj. any of a group of proposals that immiserates large numbers of ordinary people, either immediately or in the future, via cuts to broad-based social welfare programs.

Unserious (un ser ee uhs) adj. any proposal that slightly inconveniences rich people via modest tax increases or annoys military contractors via small cuts to the Defense Department.

As near as I can tell, that's about it. Have I missed any nuances?