Kevin Drum - 2013

House Dems Have a New Plan to Reopen Government

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 11:56 AM PDT

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 9:54 AM PDT

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 9:17 AM PDT

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 8:53 AM PDT

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 7:54 AM PDT

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.

The Shutdown in 10 Infuriating Sentences

| Fri Oct. 4, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

At its core, the dispute over the budget and the debt ceiling isn't complicated at all. But it is full of misconceptions and urban myths. Here are the 10 facts worth remembering past all the obfuscation:

1. Democrats have already agreed to fund the government at Republican levels.

2. Despite what you might have heard, there have only been two serious government shutdowns in recent history, and both were the result of Republican ultimatums.

3. Democrats in the Senate have been begging the House to negotiate over the budget for the past six months, but Republicans have refused.

4. That's because Republicans wanted to wait until they had either a government shutdown or a debt ceiling breach as leverage, something they've been very clear about all along.

5. Republicans keep talking about compromise, but they've offered nothing in return for agreeing to their demands—except to keep the government intact if they get their way.

6. The public is very strongly opposed to using a government shutdown to stop Obamacare.

7. Contrary to Republican claims, the deficit is not increasing—it peaked in 2009 and has been dropping ever since, declining by $200 billion last year with another $450 billion drop projected this year.

8. A long government shutdown is likely to seriously hurt economic growth, with a monthlong shutdown projected to slash GDP in the fourth quarter by 1 percentage point and reduce employment by over a million jobs.

9. No, Democrats have not used debt ceiling hostage taking in the past to force presidents to accept their political agenda.

10. This whole dispute is about the Republican Party fighting to make sure the working poor don't have access to affordable health care. 

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Conservatives' Biggest Fear: Being Called Racist

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 4:57 PM PDT

In Pacific Standard, Tom Jacobs writes about a new study that tries to figure out why so many people love to watch and listen to "outrage-based radio and television programs." After conducting a series of in-depth interviews, their answer, in a nutshell, is that unlike conversations with actual friends and neighbors, these programs provide a safe space where you don't have to worry about saying something that might get you ostracized:

But why is their pull apparently stronger among conservatives, who gravitate to such programming in much greater numbers than liberals? Based on their interviews, the researchers believe the answer lies in the fact those on the right have more to fear in terms of social condemnation for their views.

In conversation with conservatives, liberals risk being called naïve or willfully blind to potential threats—not very pleasant labels, but not especially damaging ones, either. In contrast, conservatives risk accusations of racism—and “being called a racist carries a particular cultural force,” the researchers write.

“The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the mind of conservative fans (we interviewed),” they report. Every single conservative respondent raised the issue of being called racist, and did so without even being asked.

“What makes accusations of racism so upsetting for respondents is that racism is socially stigmatized, but also that they feel powerless to defend themselves once the specter is raised,” the researchers add. “We suspect that this heightened social risk increases the appeal of the safe political environs provided by outrage-based programs, and may partially explain the overwhelming conservative dominance of outrage-based political talk media.”

It's worth noting that this is not, plainly, a representative sample of conservatives. It's specifically a sample of conservatives who listen to right-wing radio and TV, where they're barraged daily with affirmations that the entire liberal project is based on unfairly slurring conservatives as racists. So it's no surprise that this is at the top of their minds.

That said, this is still something I struggle with. It's obvious that race infuses a tremendous amount of American discourse. It affects our politics, our culture, and our history. Racial resentment is at the core of many common attitudes toward social welfare programs; our levels of taxation; and the current occupant of the White House. There's no way to write honestly about politics in America without acknowledging all this on a regular basis.

At the same time, it's also obvious that, in many ways, a liberal focus on race and racism is just flatly counterproductive. When I write about, say, the racial obsessions displayed by Fox News (or Drudge or Rush Limbaugh), it's little more than a plain recitation of obvious facts, and liberals applaud. Ditto for posts about the self-described racial attitudes of tea partiers. But conservatives see it as an attack. And why wouldn't they? I'm basically saying that these outlets are engaged in various levels of race-mongering, and by implication, that anyone who listens to them is condoning racism. That's such a uniquely toxic accusation that it makes any real conversation hopeless. Cognitively, the only way to respond is to deny everything, and that in turn forces you to believe that liberals are obviously just lying for their own partisan ends. This feeds the vicious media-dittohead circle, and everyone withdraws one step more.

I know I'm not saying anything new or insightful here. But just as there's no way to not talk about this, I wish there were some way to talk about it that didn't instantly estrange conservatives even further—but that also didn't water the truth down into mush. I imagine I'll be wishing for that for a very long time.

Republicans May Be Cynical, But Democrats Need Better Answers

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 12:54 PM PDT

As you know, the latest Republican ploy on the budget is to pass mini-CRs that fund a tiny handful of high-visibility programs: national parks, cancer treatment for kids, and keeping Washington DC running. This is all breathtakingly cynical, based on the idea that maybe the public won't get too mad about what Republicans are doing as long as all the damage from the budget impasse is behind the scenes.

Still, the optics of the Republican ploy are pretty obvious, and it's a little unnerving that Harry Reid could have been so unprepared to respond:

CNN's Dana Bash asked Senate Democratic leaders if they'd back the new piecemeal bill.

"What right do they have to pick and choose what parts of government can be funded?" asked Reid.

"But if you can help one child with cancer, why wouldn't you?" asked Bash.

...."Why would we want to do that?" asked Reid, keying off Bash. "I have 1100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home." He concluded by asking why someone of Bash's "intelligence" would ask something so silly. The video below reveals the gobsmacked faces of reporters.

Ugh. It's irksome that reporters like Bash are so eager to play gotcha with obvious Republican talking points, but them's the breaks. That stuff happens. Democrats need to have better answers, and they need to explain just why the Republican CRs are such contemptuous exercises in trying to gull the American public.

UPDATE: Commenters are upset about my interpretation here. There are two parts to this.

First, just as Reid started to say "Why would we want to do that?" Chuck Schumer interjected "Why pit one against the other?" A lot of you think Reid was keying off Schumer's statement, not Bash's question. That's possible, though the video isn't clear about this, and it's not how I initially read it.

But here's the second part: that's not what I meant to criticize anyway. Honestly, I just took it for granted that Reid wasn't literally saying "why would we want to help kids with cancer?" That's Sean Hannity crap. I was objecting to his comment about Nellis Air Force base. He sounds as though he's comparing some furloughed civilian workers in his home state with kids who have cancer. Fair or not, that's going to sound bad.

Reid also needs to learn to stay on message. He began his statement with a decent enough response to the CRs, but before he finished he wandered off into an aside about Republicans being obsessed with Obamacare. That may be true, but it was completely nonresponsive and stepped all over the point he needed to make.

President Obama Has Had Enough

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 11:00 AM PDT

I like this Ezra Klein analysis of where we are in the budget/debt ceiling crisis. It picks up after the White House spent several fruitless months trying to negotiate with Republicans and eventually giving in completely to their spending demands. But even that didn't do any good:

As the White House sees it, Speaker John Boehner has begun playing politics as game of Calvinball, in which Republicans invent new rules on the fly and then demand the media and the Democrats accept them as reality and find a way to work around them.

....The White House has decided that they can't govern effectively if the House Republicans can keep playing Calvinball. The rules and promises Boehner makes are not their problem, they've decided. They're not going to save him. And that also rules out unusual solutions like minting a platinum coin or declaring the debt limit unconstitutional. The White House doesn't want to break the law (and possibly spark a financial crisis) in order to save Boehner from breaking a promise he never should have made.

Top administration officials say that President Obama feels as strongly about this fight as he has about anything in his presidency. He believes that he will be handing his successor a fatally weakened office, and handing the American people an unacceptable risk of future financial crises, if he breaks, or even bends, in the face of Republican demands. And so the White House says that their position is simple, and it will not change: They will not negotiate over substantive policy issues until Republicans end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.

I think Obama is right. Conservatives are basically trying to invent a new Constitution because they don't like the way the current one works, and they're doing it by threatening the equivalent of nuclear war if they don't get their way. There's simply no way that any president can give in to that.

I Am Now Very Confused by John Boehner

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 10:26 AM PDT

I do not understand this:

With a budget deal still elusive and a deadline approaching on raising the debt ceiling, Speaker John A. Boehner has told colleagues that he is determined to prevent a federal default and is willing to pass a measure through a combination of Republican and Democratic votes, according to one House Republican.

The lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of not being named, said Mr. Boehner indicated he would be willing to violate the so-called Hastert rule if necessary to pass a debt limit increase. The informal rule refers to a policy of not bringing to the floor any measure that does not have a majority of Republican votes.

Other Republicans also said Thursday that they got the sense that Mr. Boehner, who held two meetings Wednesday with groups of House moderates, would do whatever was necessary to ensure that the country did not default on its debt.

That's good to hear. But it doesn't make sense. For months now, Boehner has been telling his caucus not to use a government shutdown as leverage to cut spending or defund Obamacare, but instead to use the debt ceiling as leverage. That's been his consistent strategy since March.

But now he's telling them that, in fact, the debt ceiling can't be used as a hostage after all? That's weird. Of course, at the same time that he's been begging his caucus to use the debt ceiling as leverage, he's also been promising that he will never "risk the full faith and credit of the United States." So this has been confusing all along.

I don't know what's going on anymore. In the meantime, however, here's a video of brave, brave Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) publicly berating some poor park ranger for being stuck doing a terrible job that Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) has forced her to do. Kinda makes you want to puke.