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Friday Talking Points [140] -- Pledging Nonsense

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The White House has been in the news this past week, mostly for who will be leaving it soon. One is tempted to insert the old "will the last to leave please turn out the lights" joke here; but one will not, because one holds oneself to a higher standard than that. Ahem.

The first announcement was that Larry Summers will be leaving after the elections, and returning to the ivory tower from whence he came. At first, this seemed to be good news for progressive Democrats, since they've never been big fans of Obama's economic team in the first place. Budget director Peter Orszag and economic guru Christina Romer have already departed, and now Larry Summers will be the next to go. Rumors swirl around Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's exit as well, although they've (so far) been unconfirmed rumors. What's not to love for Lefties, right?

Well, maybe not. Because once the White House officially confirmed that Summers would be leaving, the rumor mill immediately turned to who will replace him -- and settled on "someone from the corporate world." Some rumors were more specific than this, but they all agreed it would be someone to Wall Street's liking, since Wall Street is feeling so put upon by Obama, even though the entire rest of the country sees Obama as being too close and too friendly to Wall Street. Meaning we may look back fondly at the days of Obama's first economic team, which must be kind of depressing for progressives to think about.

The next wave of rumors centered around Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. Now, Emanuel has been the target of much of this kind of speculation, ever since it was announced that the Chicago mayor's office will be empty next year (since Rahm's publicly admitted that he would love for this to be his next job). And Axelrod's departure will actually be to begin the "re-elect Obama in 2012" political campaign next year, so it's not like he's going to be totally removed from the Obama inner circle or anything.

But I can't help but scratch my head a little at the timing of these announcements and rumors (confirmed and unconfirmed). Now, it is entirely natural for presidential teams to experience quite a bit of turnover halfway through the term. These high-level jobs are brutal, requiring every waking moment and every last shred of energy from the people who take them. They can kill a person's family life. And when the midterms are especially punishing, presidents always want to "shake up the team" and offer a "new direction" immediately afterwards. This, as I said, is a normal Washington occurrence from presidents of either party.

What's unusual is that this sort of thing normally doesn't occur until after the election. Speculation usually doesn't begin in earnest until the returns are in. To say nothing of actual official announcements, as Obama made this week on Summers.

So I'm left with decidedly mixed feelings on the announced (and merely rumored) departures from the Obama White House. The timing seems a bit premature, and we won't know whether any of these is a "good thing" or a "bad thing" until we get a good look at who will be named as replacements. Obama will have the opportunity to significantly change directions on his economic team (and their policies), but it remains to be seen whether he will actually do so or not. The most significant change, though, will be if Rahm Emanuel's departure actually happens. His chief of staff job is not only the most important one being possibly vacated (in terms of raw power), it is also the most important in terms of "tone." Rahm's tone has been pretty dismissive and foul-mouthed and downright "tone deaf" during his time in the job. Getting someone in there with a little more respect for the people who actually elected Obama could do a world of good for the president among his base.

But we'll just have to wait until after the election to see who gets the nod for any of these positions. Making further speculation now meaningless.

On a personal note here, I have to say that getting today's column out is going to be a struggle for me, since I seem to be coming down with a cold. So it's going to be shorter (and possibly "crankier") than normal, I have to warn everyone up front, due to a severe lack of energy on my part. But then, it was kind of a "blah" week all around for Democrats, so it's a good week to be under the weather, I guess.

Having said that, let's move on to the awards, such as they are this week....

 

Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

For the first time in over a year, we're not handing out a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week. Nobody impressed us all that much in the past week, if truth be told. So for only the sixth time since we instituted this award, it will not go to anyone this week.

President Obama did a fairly good job during the week of getting his message out, appearing in a CNBC televised town hall meeting, and then holding a few "backyard" mini-town-halls on his own. He actually started making the case for the new healthcare reforms, only about a year or so too late. But for the past month or two, Obama has certainly realized that he has just not being doing all that great a job communicating his agenda to the public, and has been working steadily to reverse this trend. One can only wonder where we'd be at right now if he had started doing so a few months earlier.

But while he was mildly impressive this week, we feel this should be part of a "normal" week for him, and so he doesn't even rise to the level of Honorable Mention.

Howard Dean wrote an impressive article this week suggesting Democrats throw the "individual mandate" section of the new healthcare law under the bus, which I agreed with earlier this week. But, again, it fell short of what we would call "impressiveness."

Harry Reid did (finally) hold a vote on the Pentagon's budget -- which included both the DREAM Act and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy -- but it was just a vote to begin debate, and Reid lost the vote, so it wasn't really all that impressive.

The House did manage to pass some small business tax breaks, but this was really news from the previous week, when the Senate passed it, so it doesn't really qualify.

Now, we admit that we may have missed some spectacularly impressive Democrat during the past week, so we leave the award category open to nominations in the comment section. But until someone brings such impressiveness to our attention, we're going to leave this category blank this week.

 

Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

The Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week was equally hard to select this week, for the opposite reason -- there were almost too many candidates to choose from. Sigh.

In both the House and the Senate, on the question of extending the Bush tax cuts, Democrats decided to just cave. Obama had teed this issue up as a big fight for the campaign season, but timid Democrats in both houses convinced the party leaders that it wasn't a good idea to, you know, actually stand for something during an election. Even though the issue is extremely popular with the public (as poll after poll shows), and even though this is a core difference between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Make no mistake about it, this is complete and abject abdication (if not surrender) on the issue. The refusal of either house to even hold a vote on it is not going to help Democrats one iota on the campaign trail. Republicans are still going to try to use the issue to beat up on Democrats with, even without a vote. And now, on top of the issue itself, Republicans can also use the "Democrats can't get anything done" theme as well.

Harry Reid could have used the week to highlight Republican obstructionism a bit better, and all Democrats could have beat up on Republicans for voting against a military budget in time of war (boy, doesn't that take you back a few years?). Republicans also voted down campaign finance reform, and if they had "held middle class tax cuts hostage to tax cuts for millionaires" it would have been easy to show the public the face of Republican obstructionism, but even with the votes they held, Democrats seemed strangely subdued in the "making political hay" department -- which does not exactly bode well for their campaign strategy.

So, if truth be told, we really wanted to send every Democrat in Washington a MDDOTW statuette this week, but our meager budget just doesn't allow this kind of extravagance, merely to make a snarky point.

So we settled on three particularly egregious examples of disappointment this week, instead.

Our first MDDOTW goes to Senator Mary Landrieu, who is taking a page from the Republican playbook and putting a "hold" on one of Obama's nominees (the replacement for Orszag). She's still in a snit over the deepwater drilling moratorium, it seems, and is using the tactic of the hold to make her snittiness known to the White House. This MDDOTW is awarded with special With Friends Like These... clusters of poison ivy leaves, we should mention.

The second two MDDOTW awards go to the two Democrats who voted with the Republicans on the military budget. Now, Harry Reid had to vote "nay" on the bill for technical reasons (this is the only way he can bring the bill back up for a vote again), but Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor simply have no excuse. Both senators from Arkansas voted against the military appropriations bill, guaranteeing its defeat. Instead of putting the pressure on the few remaining moderate Republicans (in other words, the two senators from Maine) to jump the aisle, Lincoln and Pryor defecting made it a moot point which way Snowe and Collins voted. Thanks, guys.

The Democratic plan (especially in the Senate) right now appears to be "wait until after the election, and then we'll do our jobs." This is just pathetic. And it may be self-defeating as well. The Republicans have been firing up their base over the scary, scary notion that Democrats are planning to pass all sorts of Marxist things in the "lame duck" session of Congress, but their worries are likely not going to be borne out, with the possible exception of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." As I pointed out earlier this week, there are three or four Senate races which could change the balance of power in the Senate not next January, but immediately after the election. If Democrats lose in Colorado or Illinois, for instance, then they'll be down one (or two) votes in such a lame duck session. So how are Democrats going to get anything through a 58-42 (or even 57-43) Senate any easier than they can with 59 votes?

Especially since Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, and Mary Landrieu will all still be in the lame duck Senate (to say nothing of the rest of the Blue Dogs). So, for being even more disappointing than Democrats in general this week, all three will receive a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Contact Senator Mary Landrieu on her Senate contact page, Senator Blanche Lincoln on her Senate contact page, and Senator Mark Pryor on his Senate contact page, to let them know what you think of their actions.]

 

Friday Talking Points

Volume 140 (9/24/10)

Republicans in the House unveiled their new plan to fix everything that's wrong with America. It runs to 21 pages, unlike Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" which clocked in at only two pages and ten bullet items. This virtually guarantees that nobody outside of the rabid Republican base (and a few hapless journalists) are ever going to actually read the thing. And we already know how the Republican base is going to vote anyway, right?

But the relative meaningless of this document aside, I had planned to provide an in-depth look at the contradictory and deficit-exploding nature of the new Republican plan today. Unfortunately, due to my aforementioned under-the-weather-ness, this will not be possible. Instead, I'm going to provide three critiques of the new Republican "Pledge to America" -- two of which were written by conservatives in the media. In other words, this week the Talking Points pretty much write themselves. The Republican plan is already getting derision from the Right, making it even easier for Democrats to dismiss (if not outright ridicule).

Our first review is excerpted from Andrew Sullivan's column, charmingly titled "The GOP's Fiscal Fraudulence."

Sullivan, on the spending cuts in the plan:

This is a joke. The stimulus is already disappearing; the bailout of the banks may even make a profit. More importantly, without tackling entitlements, none of this matters a jot. And a good rule of thumb is that when you hear politicians saying they are going to "eliminate wasteful and duplicative programs", you know they are bullshitting you on fiscal responsibility.

He then goes on to eviscerate the rest of the plan:

Taxes? They will rescind the sunsetting of the Bush tax cuts (a sunset that was passed by Republicans), including those for people earning over $250,000 a year, adding something like $700 billion to the long term debt, starting now. So the only place left to look is defense. There is nothing there -- except a plan to retain Gitmo, exempt the national security state from any cuts at all, maintain the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (I assume, because they go unmentioned), add new spending for missile defense, and on and on.

Given the gravity of the debt crisis, this is the most fiscally irresponsible document ever offered by the GOP. It is to the far right of Reagan, who raised taxes and eventually cut defense, and helped reform social security to ensure its longterm [sic] viability. It is an act of vandalism against the fiscal balance of the US, and in this global economic climate, a recipe for a double-dip recession and default. It is the opposite of responsible conservatism.

Pretty strong words, eh?

Over at conservative website RedState, influential Righty blogger Erick Erickson weighs in with: "Perhaps the Most Ridiculous Thing to Come Out of Washington Since George McClellan," and he doesn't exactly mince words, either:

These 21 pages tell you lots of things, some contradictory things, but mostly this: it is a serious of compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes in search of unanimity among House Republicans because the House GOP does not have the fortitude to lead boldly in opposition to Barack Obama.

I have one message for John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and the House GOP Leadership: If they do not want to use the GOP to lead, I would like to borrow it for a time.

Yes, yes, it is full of mom tested, kid approved pablum that will make certain hearts on the right sing in solidarity. But like a diet full of sugar, it will actually do nothing but keep making Washington fatter before we crash from the sugar high.

It is dreck -- dreck with some stuff I like, but like Brussels sprouts in butter. I like the butter, not the Brussels sprouts. Overall, this grand illusion of an agenda that will never happen is best spoken of today and then never again as if it did not happen. It is best forgotten.

He ends by lamenting "what could have been" [emphasis in original]:

There is no call for a Spending Limitation Amendment or a Balanced Budget Amendment. It is just meaningless stuff the Democrats can easily undo and that ultimately the Senate GOP will even turn its nose up at.

The entirety of this Promise [sic] is laughable. Why? It is an illusion that fixates on stuff the GOP already should be doing while not daring to touch on stuff that will have any meaningful longterm [sic] effects on the size and scope of the federal government.

This document proves the GOP is more focused on the acquisition of power than the advocacy of long term sound public policy. All the good stuff in it is stuff we expect them to do. What is not in it is more than a little telling that the House GOP has not learned much of anything from 2006.

I will vote Republican in November of 2010. But I will not carry their stagnant water.

Once again, a pretty strong condemnation from the Right. These, I point out, are the guys who are supposed to have been impressed and even enthusiastic about the new Republican "Pledge to America."

But my favorite was from Ezra Klein over at the WashingtonPost.com site, who had no compunctions about pointing out the glaring contradictions in the plan in his article titled "The GOP's bad idea":

[The Republicans'] policy agenda is detailed and specific -- a decision they will almost certainly come to regret. Because when you get past the adjectives and soaring language, the talk of inalienable rights and constitutional guarantees, you're left with a set of hard promises that will increase the deficit by trillions of dollars, take health-care insurance away from tens of millions of people, create a level of policy uncertainty businesses have never previously known, and suck demand out of an economy that's already got too little of it.

You're also left with a difficult question: What, exactly, does the Republican Party believe? The document speaks constantly and eloquently of the dangers of debt -- but offers a raft of proposals that would sharply increase it. It says, in one paragraph, that the Republican Party will commit itself to "greater liberty" and then, in the next, that it will protect "traditional marriage." It says that "small business must have certainty that the rules won't change every few months" and then promises to change all the rules that the Obama administration has passed in recent months. It is a document with a clear theory of what has gone wrong -- debt, policy uncertainty, and too much government -- and a solid promise to make most of it worse.

Take the deficit. Perhaps the two most consequential policies in the proposal are the full extension of the Bush tax cuts and the full repeal of the health-care law. The first would increase the deficit by more than $4 trillion over the next 10 years, and many trillions of dollars more after that. The second would increase the deficit by more than $100 billion over the next 10 years, and many trillions of dollars more after that. Nothing in the document comes close to paying for these two proposals, and the authors know it: The document never says that the policy proposals it offers will ultimately reduces [sic] the deficit.

Klein also ends on a fairly withering note:

It is hard to believe in both deficit reduction and policies that would add trillions to the deficit. It's also hard to warn of the dangers posed by regulatory uncertainty and then propose changing all the rules.

At the end of the day, America may be an idea -- but it is also a country. And it needs to be governed. This proposal avoids the hard choices of governance. It says what it thinks will be popular and then proposes what it thinks will be popular -- even when the two conflict. That, I fear, is a bad idea.

As I said, any of these (or any of the other dozens of articles panning the new "Pledge") can easily be turned into a Democratic talking point by simply prefacing it with "Well, here's what even the conservatives are saying about the plan..." or similar introductions.

[I do apologize once again for the do-it-yourself nature of the talking points this week, hopefully by next Friday I'll be back up to my usual fighting trim.]

 

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