Kevin Drum - October 2013

Denny Hastert's Republicans Are Gone, Gone, Gone

| Sun Oct. 6, 2013 12:52 AM EDT

Eleanor Clift interviewed former House Speaker Denny Hastert for the Daily Beast this week, and the part that's getting the most attention is Hastert's claim that there's never really been a Hastert Rule. But that's not the most interesting part of the interview. It's this part, where Clift asks him why there's so much gridlock right now:

Pressed on the differences between then and now, Hastert said: “I didn’t have to deal with Barack Obama. I dealt with Bill Clinton, and he came to the table and negotiated.” In August 2000, with Clinton nearing the end of his term, Hastert needed to resolve some outstanding issues....Clinton asked, “What can I do for you?” “A haircut across the board,” Hastert replied. “I would suggest a 1 percent cut.” Can’t take that, Clinton said, offering all the reasons why that wouldn’t work. “What do you suggest?” Hastert asked him. A quarter of 1 percent, Clinton replied. “We dickered back and forth and settled on .86 percent, not because it was a magic number,” said Hastert. “But the moral of the story is Clinton would come to the table. I’m not going to go into the science of negotiating, but you can put one thing on the table and end up with something entirely different, but you’ve got to talk.”

I get that Hastert is being a good trouper here, and I don't really blame him for that. But the real moral of the story is exactly the opposite of what he suggests. In 2000, he asked Clinton for a particular level of funding; he dickered for a bit; and then eventually settled for a little less than he originally wanted. By contrast, in 2013 John Boehner asked for a budget at sequester levels of funding; Obama eventually agreed to give him 100 percent of what he asked for; and then Boehner turned down the deal anyway.

The difference isn't that Obama won't dicker. The difference is that House Republicans aren't willing to accept the funding levels they asked for in the first place. They won't let the government reopen unless they get more, more, more. The issue isn't Clinton vs. Obama, it's Republicans in 2000 vs. Republicans in 2013.

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Anthony Kennedy Denounces Anthony Kennedy's Supreme Court Jurisprudence

| Sat Oct. 5, 2013 2:52 PM EDT

Justice Anthony Kennedy thinks our political system should solve more problems on its own, instead of turning to the courts to solve them. Jonathan Adler is unimpressed:

In most cases, the Supreme Court intervenes not to help the democratic process to function, but rather to alter the way in which these questions have been resolved. Moreover, Justice Kennedy is more prone to support such intervention than most of his colleagues, having voted to invalidate DOMA, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, McCain-Feingold, the PPACA, the Stolen Valor Act, and so on. The only sense in which these questions were not “solved” before they came to the Court is in that the resolution was not that which Justice Kennedy would have preferred (or which Justice Kennedy believed is constitutionally compelled).

The Supreme Court, if it chose, could informally agree to overturn only those laws that are definitively unconstitutional. It has, needless to say, chosen nothing of the sort, with justices at both ends of the political spectrum routinely voting to overturn statutes based on wholly novel and often tortuous lines of reasoning. In recent years, this has been far more common among Kennedy and his fellow conservatives than among the liberal justices.

However, if Kennedy is serious, perhaps he should propose a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds majority to overturn an act of Congress. More prosaically, since Kennedy is so often a swing vote, he could personally decide never to overturn a law unless there were at least five other votes already in favor. But he pretty obviously hasn't the slightest intention of doing so.

We Are Witnessing a Destruction Test of P.T. Barnum's Philosophy of Life

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 10:00 PM EDT

So Republicans have settled on their messaging, and it's this: Democrats are refusing to negotiate. We keep offering compromise after compromise, but Democrats won't listen to any of them.

Will this work? The truth of a proposition has little or nothing to do with its pyschodynamics,1 so I suppose it has a chance. But it certainly shows a considerable contempt for the intelligence of the voting public. After six months of (a) refusing to meet with Senate Democrats to discuss the budget and (b) gleefully telling anyone who would listen that the shutdown and/or debt ceiling would be their ultimate leverage to force President Obama to agree to their laundry list of demands, you'd think it would be a hopeless task to pretend it was Democrats who wanted this fight all along. Add to that the fact that Democrats have already given in completely to Republican demands on spending levels, and you'd think it would be flatly impossible to pretend that Democrats were the ones refusing to negotiate.

But you never know. The fact that this is a cynical ploy doesn't mean it won't work. Ironically, given that Karl Rove is opposed to this strategy, it reminds me of his well-known—and frequently successful—tactic of turning an opponent's strong points against him. Republicans are pretty universally known as the party of instransigent zealots, so let's claim that it's really Democrats who are the intransigent zealots! And we'll do it by continually offering the same concession—i.e., nothing—in return for an ever-changing set of demands and pretending that this represents a sincere search for compromise. It's so crazy it could work!

1Bonus points if you can name the fictional character who said this. No googling!

Hostage Taking Then and Now

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 9:09 PM EDT

Here is Charles Krauthammer today:

President Obama indignantly insists that GOP attempts to abolish or amend Obama­care are unseemly because it is “settled” law, having passed both houses of Congress, obtained his signature and passed muster with the Supreme Court....Yet when the House of Representatives undertakes a constitutionally correct, i.e., legislative, procedure for suspending the other mandate — the individual mandate — this is portrayed as some extra-constitutional sabotage of the rule of law. Why is tying that amendment to a generalized spending bill an outrage?

Now let's imagine it is 2003, Democrats control the House of Representatives, and they have refused to allow the government to continue running unless President Bush's tax cut is repealed. Under pressure, they have since "compromised," and are now demanding only that the top rate cuts be repealed as their price for reopening the government. Here is Krauthammer:

President Bush indignantly insists that Democratic attempts to abolish or amend his tax cut are unseemly because it is “settled” law, having passed both houses of Congress, obtained his signature and passed muster with the Supreme Court....Yet when the House of Representatives undertakes a constitutionally correct, i.e., legislative, procedure for suspending the top end cuts, this is portrayed as some extra-constitutional sabotage of the rule of law. Why is tying that amendment to a generalized spending bill an outrage?

Please raise your hand if you can imagine Krauthammer writing that. Anyone? Now please raise your hand if you're pretty sure he'd have written the exact opposite.

On a related note, Krauthammer is part of the crowd that thinks it was foolish for Republicans to tie Obamacare defunding to a government shutdown. If they were going to do this at all, he figures they should have tied it to the debt ceiling increase instead. This is a hundred times more damaging, of course, the financial equivalent of threatening nuclear obliteration, but it polls better so he prefers it. It's a pretty good example of the dissolute state of the highbrow end of the conservative commentariat these days.

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 October 2013

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 3:08 PM EDT

Domino's favorite activity, by far, is to demand a belly rub. Here's how it works: she comes barreling down the stairs (because I'm usually downstairs) and starts squawking loudly. Then she tries to lure me into the living room, squawking the whole time, and waits for me to get down on the floor because she prefers that I be at her level. Then she walks back and forth in front of me while I pet her, with her squawks slowly turning into a sort of low rumble that's halfway between a meow and a purr. Then, after circling back and forth five or six times (never less), she plops down on the floor and turns over for a belly rub.

It's an extremely choreographed maneuver, with very specific sounds and dance moves. This morning I brought my camera with me for the 9 am showing and took a few selfies. This one is toward the end of the performance, with Domino already plonked on the floor and, as you can see, my hand rubbing her belly. In the picture she looks suspicious, but that's just a trick of the light. In real life, she was rolling around and completely blissed out.

This happens about a dozen times a day. It's lucky for her that I work at home.

House Dems Have a New Plan to Reopen Government

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 2:56 PM EDT

There's been a lot of chatter this week about Democrats using a discharge petition to force the House to hold a vote on a clean CR. The idea is that if you can get 218 signatures—200 Democrats plus 20 or so moderate Republicans—then the clean CR goes to the floor and gets a vote whether John Boehner likes it or not. Once those same 218 folks vote for it, it goes to the Senate and the game is over.

The problem is that even if you can round up 20 Republicans, which isn't clear at all, there are delays built in that would prevent a discharge petition from coming to the floor anytime soon. However, Greg Sargent reports that House Democrats have found an old bill lying around that could serve as the basis for a discharge petition that would take effect in about a week or so.

I have no idea if this is just more political theater, or if it has a genuine chance of working. But you can read all the details at the link. I expect to hear more about this over the next few days.

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President Obama and the Washington Monument Strategy

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 12:54 PM EDT

I have a question about the shutdown. This is real. I don't know the answer.

By far, the most visible aspect of the shutdown has been the closure of national parks. Republicans have been making endless hay out of this, especially the highly telegenic barrier crashing of the WWII Memorial by elderly vets a couple of days ago.

But it's not just Republicans. I've read a few more moderate voices claiming that this is just another example of the "Washington Monument strategy." That is, the Obama administration is deliberately shutting down high-profile government operations as a way of making the public mad. In turn, they hope that anger will be directed at Republicans who are making absurd demands as the price of re-opening the government.

During the sequester fight, this argument seemed at least plausible. Agencies didn't have a lot of discretion when the sequester cut their budgets, but they did have some discretion. Did Obama really have to cancel White House tours? Or did he do it because it was something that people would notice and yell at their congressional representatives about? It was unclear. It's certainly possible that there was enough discretion in the law to avoid this if anyone had wanted to.

But this time around, none of that is true. By law, the government is shut down. By law, only essential functions are allowed to continue operating. And by law, national parks aren't essential functions. They aren't being closed as part of a media strategy, they're being closed because there's no choice. Right? Or is there more to this?

The Obamacare Website Is Experiencing Technical Difficulties

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 12:17 PM EDT

Ezra Klein is blistering today about the continuing problems with the federal website used to sign up for Obamacare:

The Obama administration doesn't have a basically working product that would be improved by a software update. They have a Web site that almost nobody has been able to successfully use....Overwhelming crush of traffic is behind many of the Web site's failures. But the Web site was clearly far, far from prepared for traffic at anywhere near these levels. That's a planning flaw....Part of the problem, according to a number of designers, is that the site is badly coded, which makes the traffic problems more acute. 

....The Obama administration did itself — and the millions of people who wanted to explore signing up — a terrible disservice by building a Web site that, four days into launch, is still unusable for most Americans. They knew that the only way to quiet the law's critics was to implement it effectively. And building a working e-commerce Web site is not an impossible task, even with the added challenges of getting various government data services to talk to each other. Instead, the Obama administration gave critics arguing that the law isn't ready for primetime more ammunition for their case.

I'll stick to what I said a couple of days ago: these problems will all get fixed fairly soon and then everyone will forget about them. At the same time, I'll concede that the problems appear to be considerably bigger and deeper than I'd expected, even given the complexity of what HHS had to do. Underestimating demand is one thing, but some of the problems on the federal site make you wonder if it underwent any testing at all before it was launched. These aren't skeevy little bugs that only show up under weird circumstances. They're failures of basic functionality. It really does appear to be a cock-up.

But this too will pass. It's an embarrassment, but a short-term one. At least, it better be.

In Red States, More Heat Than Light Over Obamacare

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 11:53 AM EDT

Maeve Reston of the LA Times travels to Oklahoma to find out how Obamacare is doing in a deep red state:

The state attorney general is leading one of the last state challenges against the law in federal court. The state insurance commissioner issued a sharply worded warning to federally funded "navigators" who are helping people sign up for insurance. And frightening rumors about the law — uncountered by any positive spin — are dissuading some residents from considering it.

....States like California are spending millions to promote the law, but here it is difficult to find a trace of information about it beyond cable news....There are no billboards along the highways, no public service announcements on the radio. At a number of health clinics, there were no fliers last week about the law's insurance marketplaces.

....In dozens of interviews here, many said they feared they would be forced to buy insurance they couldn't afford. Some said they were told (erroneously) that insurance penalties would come out of their Social Security checks; others said they'd heard the law meant they'd soon have to travel several hundred miles to see a doctor.

....Leaders in the two consortiums that received federal money for a public education campaign in Oklahoma were still in the early phase of training as residents became eligible to sign up for insurance this week...."Around the first of the year," he added, "maybe we'll do some more speaking engagements, or hanging some signs, or maybe some advertisements on the radio."

The anti-Obamacare troops are well funded. Above-board advertising campaigns fueled by Koch money are joined by shadier rumor-mill campaigns that no one wants to publicly take credit for. Deliberate misinformation is rampant. You won't be able to see your doctor. The IRS will put a lien on your house. Old people will be denied care and left to die. All the money is going to undocumented immigrants. Part-time workers will lose their jobs. Doctors will be required to collect information about your guns. Microchips will be implanted in patients. Etc.

In the meantime, the pro-Obamacare troops, hobbled by their lack of enthusiasm for anything less than full single-payer national health care, have mostly left things in the hands of state and federal officials. These folks don't yell or scream, and they don't try to debunk crazy conspiracy theories. They have a more genteel approach, and in the long run it will probably work. In the meantime, though, the messaging war is a very one-sided fight indeed. In Oklahoma, it's hardly even a fight at all.

The Business Community Doesn't Really Care About the Government Shutdown

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 10:54 AM EDT

Joshua Green writes in the current issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek that business interests have lost their clout with the Republican Party. The evidence is the government shutdown: the business community is against it, but Republicans are prolonging the crisis anyway.

Fair enough. But I wouldn't take this too seriously. Here's a passage from Green's story that explains why:

But the shutdown and debt ceiling are both matters where they do—and the unwillingness of Republican lawmakers to shift course underscores the diminished clout of their traditional business allies, despite the financial largesse. Asked by the Associated Press if he had heard business groups express alarm about the economic impact of a shutdown, Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California replied, “No. And it wouldn’t make any difference if I did.”

Rohrabacher says two things here. The part that Green is writing about is the second half of his sentence: Rohrabacher claims that even if he got a lot of pressure from business interests, he'd keep the government shut down anyway. That's big talk. But the more interesting part is what Rohrabacher said first: he hasn't gotten a lot of pressure from business interests.

In fact, to hear him tell it, he hasn't heard even a whisper from business groups. And I think that's the key to all this: the Chamber of Commerce might be against the shutdown, but they haven't made much of an issue out of it. My sense is that this is widespread. So far, anyway, the posture of the business community has been that, sure, they're against the shutdown, but they don't really care much. For now, they're fine with the GOP continuing to play its games and make trouble for Democrats.

Do Republicans no longer care about corporate interests? Don't be silly. This hasn't even been tested yet. If Wall Street and the Business Roundtable and other groups start screaming seriously about this—and they will if it goes on long enough to cause some kind of market panic—then we'll find out how much clout they still have. Right now, they're just shrugging their shoulders and doing a bit of tut-tutting. Nobody should interpret that as a failure of business lobbying. They haven't even been trying so far.