POLITICS
01/06/2014 03:07 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

As Unemployment Insurance Debate Heats Up, Dems Accused Of Using Unemployed As 'Distraction'

This past weekend, your Sunday morning news shows finally and at long last took notice of the fact that 1.3 million Americans, unemployed for the long-term, were poised to lose their unemployment insurance. Naturally, the issue could not have been taken up prior to this weekend, because it might have looked as if the producers of these shows had a reservoir of empathy for normal human Americans, so they bravely waited for the day before the crisis was set to commence before spending any of their bandwidth discussing it.

Gene Sperling, appearing on "Meet The Press," made the best case possible for extending this lifeline, through the three-month extension proposed by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.):

DAVID GREGORY: So, Gene Sperling, the president's goal is to get those unemployment benefits restored for those folks who are out of work. Republicans are saying, "Okay, if you can do it fiscally responsibly." So what are the prospects of passage of this?

GENE SPERLING: Well, what I would say is that tomorrow, tomorrow is the day that 1.3 million Americans go to their mailbox and find that the check that they've been relying on to put food on their table, put gas in their cars to look for a new job, will not be there. And tomorrow is also the day where the United States Senate will have a chance to vote on the first bipartisan solution, which is a three-month extension.

Whereupon David Gregory asked Sperling, "How do you [extend unemployment benefits] in a fiscally responsible way." Sperling, pointed out that "14 of the last 17 times" the benefits had been extended "with no strings attached," though a better way of answering the question might have been to point out that it is always fairly fiscally responsible to help people avoid freezing and/or starving to death.

Gregory's advocacy for a "fiscally responsible" way to rescue the long-term unemployed echoed Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) position on the matter, which he enunciated on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos": "With regard to unemployment insurance, I've always said that I'm not opposed to unemployment insurance, I am opposed to having it without paying for it." Paul's terms appear to be largely shared by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

(Paul went on to restate his case that the unemployment benefits were themselves a disincentive to work -- something he's long gotten wrong, and recently suffered the embarrassment of citing a study on the matter incorrectly, drawing a "you know nothing of my work" reaction from the study's author.)

Meanwhile, it appears that a strange meme has begun to emerge on the matter, holding that the administration's focus on relieving those who have lost the unemployment insurance lifeline -- indeed, their whole focus on income inequality -- is meant to serve as a "distraction" from the Affordable Care Act. Here's Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), on CNN's "State of the Union":

CANDY CROWLEY: Let me ask you about a couple of things that came up in my earlier interview with Gene Sperling. There are two issues that are likely to kind of dominate at least the early months of Capitol Hill that is, first, the extension of long-term unemployment benefits. Basically, for people who’ve been unemployed for six months or more. In the states, they can get up to a combined state and federal unemployment benefits, they could get up to 73 weeks, close to a year and a half. Where do you stand on that?

SCOTT WALKER: Well, two things. One, let's be clear, the reason why the White House is so actively pushing this is they want to desperately talk about anything but Obamacare.

I sort of understand the argument Walker is making. Or rather, I understand why he's making it. Democrats don't mind having a wedge issue in an election year, and theoretically, the unemployment insurance situation could provide one (though it's fair to say that lots of Democrats just genuinely want to provide this relief).

Nevertheless, Walker shouldn't be concerned. Obamacare happens to be one of the most relentlessly covered stories in the world. Perhaps the White House would prefer to talk about anything else (though on "Meet The Press," Gene Sperling said point-blank that he'd be overjoyed to discuss Obamacare). But more to the point, if the Affordable Care Act is still ass-over-teakettle, in terms of delivering on its promises, come October, there will be no running from it if you are a Democrat who supported the bill. It's thus quite impossible to "distract" from it -- Obamacare supporters are, for better or worse, "all-in" on their Obamacare bets.

Also, there's this little sticky matter of there having been a firm date on the calendar at which point unemployment insurance benefits were always going to lapse. That pretty much necessitated a discussion on the matter right here and right now, without regard for what's going on in the life of the Affordable Care Act.

Peggy Noonan, on "Face The Nation," took this argument even further, suggesting that any discussion of the economy at all was a "distraction from Obamacare":

NOONAN: [Obama] does not want to talk about Obamacare. It is widely assumed that in 2014 the bad news of Obamacare, the dislocations, the lost coverage, the price hikes, the premium hikes, et cetera, et cetera, that all of this will continue. It's not the website. The website is the old story. It is the program. It will unveil over the next two years and it's going to be problematic. The president does not want to talk about it. The Democrats do not want to talk about it. Therefore, income equality, minimum wage, et cetera, et cetera. They need to change the subject.

This would make more sense if everything else happening in the world wasn't always a distraction from Obamacare. You know, like the Iran nuclear negotiations, and the Syria conflict, and the minimum wage advocacy, and comprehensive immigration legislation and filibuster reform. Of course, it's possible that the White House would prefer to talk about things that are not Obamacare. It's also possible that other things simply exist, and must be discussed from time to time.

It's also rather amusing that in the search for an Obamacare distraction, the White House would alight upon the tire fire of growing income inequality, which has widened on the president's watch. Shouldn't a distraction cast you in a more positive light? The income inequality issue does the White House no favors -- let's recall that in September of 2013, University of California, Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez calculated that "the top 1% captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the recovery." If the White House is desperately searching for something to take attention away from Obamacare, this would seem to be a really peculiar choice.

But hey, for the sake of argument, let's just say that the White House is using advocacy for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed as a way of distracting from Obamacare. And as long as we're having this thought exercise, let's see if there's a way to remove this distraction, or defuse this wedge issue.

Hmmmm. Right off the top of my head, an idea emerges: just pass the extension. It's not like the GOP is going to pay a political cost for doing so, and if their argument is that it would remove a "distraction" and return focus to the woes of Obamacare, then they actually make political gains.

Unless of course, they don't actually believe this, and are using Obamacare as a distraction from extending unemployment insurance.

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