05/22/2009 08:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Friday Talking Points [78] -- A Mixed Week

President Obama and the congressional Democrats just had their first spat. While others have more-than-adequately delved into the fracas of Obama's national security speech and Harry Reid stripping out funding to close Guantanamo, what I was struck by this week was how Obama is better defining his character as president. This is going to be important later this year, when energy plans and health care reform legislation become protracted fights in Congress.

And I was beginning to get a little nervous, I have to say. But now, after Obama pushed back on his national security policies, I feel a little bit better for the prospects of both health care reform and a new energy policy. Because while Obama always starts the debate by projecting an image of "can't we all work together" on any difficult subject, it is becoming more and more clear that, when pushed, there is simply a point where Obama draws a line in the sand and decides to push back. And so far, he's done a fairly good job of holding his ground on a few crucial issues.

Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't agree with everything Obama said in his national security speech -- in fact I strongly disagreed with large chunks of it. And the gap between his words and his rhetoric was on full display, in front of the actual Constitution itself in the National Archives. Republicans are already crowing about this, in effect calling Obama "Bush lite," and saying that Obama's policies vindicate the Bush/Cheney policies.

But setting that nonsense aside, I thought it was interesting that in this, his first big intra-party fight with Democrats on Capitol Hill, he stood up for his principles (even if I don't agree with all of them). Harry Reid had gotten cowed into supporting a measure by the fear-mongering of the rightwingers, who (with a straight face, last week) were stating that Obama was going to move all the Guantanamo prisoners into American neighborhoods (possibly NEXT DOOR TO YOU!), give them American citizenship on a platter, and then sign them up for welfare checks and turn them loose on the public. Sadly, this is not an exaggeration or parody of their position. The ludicrousness of this was apparently lost on the Senate Majority Leader, who immediately joined in the Republican idiocy.

Obama rightfully tried to lay such nonsense to rest in his speech. Now, Reid does have one valid point, and that is that the Obama administration hasn't given them a plan for what exactly we are going to do with the people in Guantanamo once we shut the place down. Even in his speech, Obama merely laid out broad outlines. But Obama made a good point too -- we already hold a bunch of terrorists in supermax prisons within America, and none of them has ever escaped.

Seeing Obama push back in this fashion was a good sign. Because, up until now, Obama has shown that he much prefers to back away from the details, and only give broad outlines of what he would like from Congress. The one notable exception to this so far has been on budgetary matters. Obama let House Democrats take the heat for crafting both the stimulus plan and last year's budget, and only drew his line in the sand in the later innings of those games. Politically, it's a smart tactic -- Obama stays above the fray of competing ideas by using sweeping rhetoric to outline his general goals, and then looks good at the end when he succeeds in getting something passed.

But that is simply not going to work on health care. Because the battlelines are already drawn on the issue. Republicans already have their talking points ready to go. They don't have an alternate plan, but they sure know how they're going to attack the Democrats' plan. And Obama is going to need to draw the line -- with a veto threat, if need be -- on at least one major contentious issue in this fight: the "public option."

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, when the Republican talking point playbook was made public. Since then, the Democrats have actually been given an enormous gift. For once, the media has picked up on their framing of the issue. Everyone now talks about the "public option," and not "government-run health care" (which Republicans obviously favor). This doesn't normally happen, but it is a rare and fragile flower. It could easily be crushed once the Republicans crank up their message steamroller (which is waiting in the wings, even as I write this). All the GOP has left is fear -- scaring citizens with the imagined horror of the Democrats' secret health care plan. But Republicans know the game of fear-mongering quite well, so it's a formidable opposition Obama and the Democrats face.

The problem is, nobody seems to be championing the "public option" from the Democrats' side -- at least no one with a big enough megaphone to get through the mainstream media's filter. This problem can be traced directly to President Obama. Obama is in his early-innings "can't we all just agree" mode right now, which recently produced a spectacular photo-op with health care industry leaders pledging to voluntarily cut their profits. Which didn't last long, and you can expect they'll wind up contributing to the fight against the public plan over the next few months.

How Obama handles this situation could define his presidency, to a large extent. The fur is really going to start flying in June and July, when Congress actually starts hashing out the details. But if Obama is not the lead voice for the public option, it likely will not survive.

Now, I have gotten worried about Obama's aloofness before (most notably, during the campaign), and later been forced to admit that Obama's sense of political timing was better than mine. So perhaps he's still warming up.

But when it comes time for lines in the sand on health care (complete with veto threats), I am a bit more hopeful this week than I have been recently that Obama will indeed stand up not just to Republicans but also to opposition from members of his own party.

Which could be the difference between health care reform that might actually mean something (with a public option), and health care reform which gets lots of bipartisan votes, but which, in the end, will only tinker around the edges of the problem. The goal is not 80-plus votes in the Senate, it is to change the system and fix it so it works. And Obama has now shown that once he decides on a course of action, he will stand up for it and defend it, and not back down -- even against fellow Democrats. That makes the chances for real health care reform (as opposed to some window-dressing measure that everyone feels good about, but which doesn't solve the problem) a lot better, in my opinion.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

President Obama does deserve at least passing mention here, even though his actions this week don't even rise to an Honorable Mention. He did sign a credit card reform bill, and also a military procurement bill, both of which he had set a deadline of Memorial Day for passage. It's tough to get Congress to actually do things on these "deadlines," so Obama at least gets a hat tip for managing to do so. And he did stick to his pledge to close Guantanamo, when many were predicting a week ago that he would back down from his promise.

But the first Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week goes to Senator Chris Dodd, who wrote the Senate version of the credit card bill, and was the main force behind shepherding it through the Senate. Of course, it's not as good a bill as it could have been, most notably in the fact that it refused to cap credit card interest rates. And it won't take effect for nine months, which gives the banks plenty of time to hike rates before the new law takes effect. But it is a very big step in the right direction, and should be seen as such. And we have Senator Dodd to thank for getting it passed (again, by an arbitrary Obama deadline) before Memorial Day.

And although his voice was mostly lost in the Pelosi/CIA debate, the other MIDOTW award goes out to former senator Bob Graham. In the midst of the fray over Pelosi and the CIA briefings, Graham wrote a thoughtful opinion piece for the Washington Post where he goes to the root of the problem: reforming the rules for secret briefings to allow some sort of dissent to take place. While his proposals don't go far enough (in my opinion) he was certainly a voice of reason in the shrill debate on the subject. And for that alone, he also gets a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.

Congratulations to both Senators Dodd and Graham this week on their MIDOTW awards.

[Congratulate Senator Chris Dodd on his Senate contact page to let him know you appreciate his efforts. Senator Bob Graham is retired and has no official public contact page that I am aware of.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

While President Obama's speech on national security was disappointing in several respects, it didn't rise to more than the level of a (Dis-)Honorable Mention this week. Because after last week (where he won the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week for reversing course on torture photos and military commissions), this was actually a step (or half-step) in a better direction. Obama defended his actions (which he largely failed to do last week), and stood firm on closing Guantanamo, so this week for Obama was actually a bit better than last.

Obama was not alone in the (Dis-)Honorable Mention category this week, though. Because Republicans are once again trampling all over their supposed devotion to their "get the federal government off the backs of local government" stance, by dictating from the House of Representatives what the District of Columbia may and may not do. The local D.C. government passed a half-measure on gay marriage (which would not have legalized it in the District, but would have recognized gay marriages performed in states where it is fully legal). Republicans, predictably, went berserk. They introduced a bill in the House which would unequivocally ban gay marriage in D.C. The bill likely doesn't have much chance of passing (or even making it out of committee), but the (Dis-)Honorable Mention goes to the two Democrats who co-sponsored the bill: Dan Boren from Oklahoma, and Jim Jordan from Ohio.

But the real Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award goes to the all-time champion for the category, winning his tenth MDDOTW (nobody else has won more than six), none other than Senate Majority "Leader" Harry Reid. Because this tenth award is a special occasion, I vow forevermore to use quote marks in his title. He will no longer be referred to herein as Senate Majority Leader, but as Senate Majority "Leader" instead.

Sigh. Maybe the recent polls are right, and he'll get voted out by the good citizens of Nevada. The fact that I am even remotely hoping that a Democratic senator be defeated in the polls shows the depths of my disappointment with Reid. Because at this point, I think Democrats might actually get more done with 59 seats in the Senate (and someone else leading them) then they are going to with 60 seats and Harry Reid at the helm. That's an awfully harsh assessment, but then I've been calling for Reid's ouster from the leadership for a long time now, so you'll have to excuse me.

Reid, this week, let the Republicans walk all over him on the Guantanamo issue. And, even more telling of his "leadership," he allowed Senate Republicans to attach to the credit card bill an amendment from the Republicans to allow people to carry loaded and concealed firearms in national parks. No hunting is allowed in national parks, I should point out, so this isn't a deer rifle we're talking about.

This was unnecessary, and showed how incredibly weak Reid is. The Senate leader is supposed to have more control about this sort of parliamentary maneuvering, and a strong Majority Leader can be almost as powerful (if not more so, on legislative issues) than the president himself.

That this does not describe Reid should be patently obvious to all by now.

For this continued display of spinelessness, Senate Majority "Leader" Harry Reid wins his tenth Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Contact Senator Harry Reid on his Senate contact page to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 78 (5/22/09)

Seems like we've got a lot of Republican foolishness to address this week (more than usual, I mean). So let's get right into it here, in the Friday Talking Points part of the program, where we outline the way Democrats could be framing these issues (some would say "should" but this column is, of course, way too modest to make such a claim). Ahem.

Without further ado, here are this week's talking points.



   What do you do with him after you torture him?

It is rumored that the reason President Obama is accepting the concept of "preventative detention" for some of the prisoners in Guantanamo is that they were tortured so fast that all of the information against them would not be allowed into any court which is not referred to in the same breath as a large bipedal marsupial native to Australia. So to speak.

Confessions obtained under torture simply aren't "evidence" in court, in other words. And if you don't have any other evidence to charge them with, then what are you going to do with them? That may be where Obama finds himself (although there are nothing but rumors to back that up with, I fully admit). This talking point isn't really a defense of Obama's "preventative detention," but rather a way to put it in perspective.

"Obama finds himself in a difficult situation, which he inherited from his predecessor. If there are prisoners in Guantanamo whose only reason for being there is statements they made under torture or other duress, then trying them in any sort of court or tribunal is impossible. This is one of the major problems with torture -- what are you supposed to do with a prisoner after he's been tortured? That is the problem Obama inherited from George Bush and Dick Cheney."



   The gift that keeps on giving

Dick Cheney, meanwhile, has gotten so much media attention recently that the media is actually getting embarrassed about it, and timidly suggesting he might be a wee bit "overexposed." But when Cheney himself seems to be the driving force behind it, well, sometimes you've just got to play the hand you're dealt.

"I guess since Rush Limbaugh resigned the position, the real leader of the Republican Party right now is Dick Cheney. I think I've seen more of Cheney in the past week than we saw of him throughout his entire 'secret bunker' term in office. (pause for laughter) I have to say, if the Republican Party truly believes that Dick Cheney is the face their party wants as their poster boy, more power to them. I would personally like nothing better than to see Dick Cheney on the campaign trail next year, appearing with as many Republican candidates as possible."



   Stopping war profiteering

This was a lot bigger issue than you would have known from the scant media attention it got. Military procurement reform isn't exactly a sexy subject (for instance: I threw the word "sexy" in there, just so people wouldn't fall asleep reading that sentence). But Democrats need to beat this drum very loudly this weekend, which was the whole point of Obama's deadline in the first place.

"On this Memorial Day weekend, Democrats are standing up to some of the worst abuses in the way the Pentagon spends money, which I see as standing up for our troops and ending what can only be called war profiteering. For far too long, while we were fighting two wars, Republicans blocked every effort Democrats made towards reforming the handshake deals and outright waste and fraud in the system of providing our fighting men and women with the tools they need to do their jobs. I consider my vote on the bill which ended such war profiteering my most patriotic vote this year, and I am glad that it happened before this Memorial Day weekend."



   Democrats stood up to the banks

OK, the credit card "bill of rights" (seems like every bill these days is a "bill of rights" of one species or another) wasn't as strong as it could have been. Lots of very strong reforms wound up on the committee-room cutting floor. But even what did pass simply would not have been possible under the Republicans, and this needs pointing out. Democrats really need to take credit for their accomplishments a lot more than they have been doing.

"This week Democrats passed the most sweeping reforms of the worst practices of the credit card industry in living memory. Congressional Democrats were on the side of the consumer, and Republicans were on the side of the big banks, once again. This is why Democrats being in charge of Congress is a good thing, because we can finally pass some laws which protect the little guy instead of always protecting the profits of the credit card industry. Republicans fought this idea tooth and nail, which is why passing this bill under a Republican Congress never had a chance. Democrats made it happen. We consider this a good beginning towards the goal of making the credit industry a lot better for the consumer, but by no means the end of that road."



   Michael Steele spoils our fun

I have to say I am massively disappointed in Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, because he apparently prevailed in an "emergency" meeting of the RNC this week, which was supposed to vote to rename the Democratic Party the "Democrat Socialist Party." Saner heads actually prevailed. Which spoiled the barrels of fun I've been having on this issue since I first learned of it. So I have to say to Steele: "Spoilsport!"

"I noticed that the Republican Party met this week on the pressing emergency of renaming their opponents' political party. But apparently it was a big enough emergency to call the meeting, but not a big enough one to win the vote. I find it interesting that every time a single Democrat says something a bit off-script, the media immediately rolls out gigantic 'Democrats Divided!' headlines, but when there is an actual, ongoing, bitter internecine struggle for the leadership of the Republican Party, the media mostly yawns."



   Back to the future!

Michael Steele, while giving his speech to the emergency RNC meeting, loudly proclaimed that the time for Republicans to stop their disastrous slide with the public was now officially over, and there would be no more looking back at the past. Here's the punchline: in pretty much the same sentence, he repeatedly referenced the burning Republican question: "What would Ronald Reagan do?" The irony was, of course, completely lost on Steele. But that wasn't even the funniest irony from them this week, incredibly enough.

"The Republican Party seems to be caught in nostalgia for better days. First we had Michael Steele telling Republicans there would be no looking back, and from now on they were going to look to the future -- by asking what Reagan would do. Then, later in the week, the RNC released an ad which referenced not only a campaign ad from 1964, but one run by a Democrat. Since they seem to be going 'back to the future,' I would like to help them out by suggesting a new campaign slogan for them to use in 2012: 'I like Ike!' "



   Pelosi Galore

Incredibly enough, that wasn't the worst Republican ad of the week.

"The Republican Party continued down their Memory Lane stroll to 1964 this week by putting out an ad which compared Nancy Pelosi to the James Bond villain Pussy Galore. I guess this is their outreach program to try to improve their standings with women voters. Or something. To tell you the truth, it's kind of hard to tell what they were thinking with this ad."


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Full archives of FTP columns:

Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground