03/30/2012 09:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points [204] -- The Herd Mentality

This week, the punditocracy had no Republican primary contest to distract their attention ("The upcoming primary/caucus in some state I've never traveled through because it's a flyover state could be the crucial turning point in the entire race... details at 11:00..."), and so the political pontificators and prognosticators had nothing else to talk about (one would think) except the serious business before the Supreme Court this week -- Obamacare.

After watching this media performance all week, I am left wondering whether Obamacare includes any treatments for groupthink (also known as "Herd Mentality Syndrome"). The subset of media mavens known as the "court-watchers" received prominence this week, because the anchors and various assorted politicos aren't required to understand legal issues (unlike the "good hair" requirement, for instance). These court-watchers decided to have some fun (that's the most charitable read I can come up with), and sent the rest of the media on a rollercoaster ride of gargantuan proportions.

Heading into the week, a growing chorus had determined that Obamacare was so downright constitutional it's a wonder the Founding Fathers didn't just include it in the document in the first place. Wild and starry-eyed predictions of a 7-2 (or even 8-1) victory reverberated across the airwaves. This kicked into a frenzy after Monday's arguments, since it seemed that the Supreme Court had agreed among itself to ignore a basic underlying tenet of American law: nobody has standing to bring a lawsuit until actual harm (physical, fiscal, or otherwise) has been proven to have been done to them. If the justices had followed this bedrock tenet, then nobody would have been able to challenge the constitutionality of the individual mandate until they had actually had to pay more on their taxes as a result -- meaning the case couldn't even start until 2015.

Because of this seeming unanimity on the court, a frenzy of utterly baseless speculation raged on what would be said the second day, when the mandate's constitutionality was discussed. Rash predictions (such as the 7-2 or 8-1 instances above) dominated the conversation, and terms like "slam-dunk for the Obama administration" were bandied about with aplomb.

Then came Day Two. Hoo boy, now the conversation turned to such terms as "trainwreck" to describe the government's position. Day Three only solidified this perception, and doom and gloom ruled the airwaves for the rest of the week.

In fact, other than war frenzies, I don't think I've ever seen a purer example of "inside-the-Beltway" groupthink among the media. The pendulum swung so fast its a wonder someone's nose didn't get chopped off.

Of course, all such inane speculation is completely meaningless. The oral arguments in front of the majesty of the justices sitting en banc is nothing short of a dog-and-pony show. I would wager -- in any case before the Supreme Court -- that the oral arguments don't influence a single justice's thinking over 99 percent of the time. By the time a case gets to the highest court in the land, the paper trail it has generated is long and weighty. The original case generates volumes of writing, the appeal also adds a few tomes to the stack, and then the most important bits -- the written arguments by the two sides appearing before the Supreme Court -- are plonked on the top like icing on a very large cake.

This is what decides Supreme Court cases. Not making some hapless lawyer squirm in front of you. You'd think that the court-watchers would know this, but if they came out and said "this is all for show, the decision's likely already a done deal," then they would be talking themselves out of a job, after all.

Today is, reportedly, the day the Supremes meet and actually cast a vote on the case. But, short of a mind-reading device to see what is in the mind of Justice Kennedy (and maybe even Chief Justice Roberts), we're all just going to have to wait until June to find out.

No matter where you stand on the Obamacare issue, I urge everyone to just take a deep breath and be patient. Hard as it is to do, please ignore the groupthink and the herd mentality. Nobody knows how the Supreme Court will rule -- and anyone who tells you differently is a fool.

(OK, I had to get that last bit in, because April Fools' Day falls on a weekend day this year. My apologies for jumping the gun.)


We've got a special award to hand out before we get to this week's individual Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week winner.

A group award is necessary (perhaps a MIDGOTW award?) for every single person who stood around in the freezing cold this winter to collect signatures from a sometimes-hostile public to force a recall election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Today, the elections board ruled that the "recall Walker" folks had indeed collected the necessary half-million signatures to call an election in the next few months. The group turned in twice the required number of signatures, so this comes as no surprise. They've also targeted the lieutenant governor and several state senators as well, which (if successful) could flip their entire government back to Democratic control.

This is a stunningly impressive feat, especially when you consider that these signatures were collected in the depths of winter in a very northern state. To everyone who froze their toes and chapped their faces asking their fellow citizens to sign a petition a few months ago, a Most Impressive Democratic Group Of The Week award is the least we can do to thank you.

Moving along to the solo award, we simply have to hand Representative Bobby Rush his own Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week as well, for appearing in a "hoodie" on the floor of the House of Representatives this week. Rush was engaging in a bit of political theater, and he was rewarded with being kicked off the floor for not complying with its dress code.

Any regular reader of this column knows what a sucker we are for political theater, and this was a particularly effective stunt. No matter where you stand on the case of the unarmed teenager in Florida who was shot dead, you have to admit that you noticed what Rush did this week to call attention to the case. Which is the very definition of effective political theater, and which is why we award the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week to Bobby Rush.

What we found bitterly ironic about the story, however, was what the person presiding over the House at the time (Representative Gregg Harper, Republican from Maine) read to the chamber after Rush was escorted out. Imagine these exact words being spoken in the House -- say, 90 or 100 years ago -- and then tell me a different image of what was going on didn't appear in your mind: "Clause five of Rule 17 prohibits the wearing of hats in the chamber when the House is in session. The Chair finds that the donning of a hood is not consistent with this rule. Members need to remove their hoods or leave the floor."

[Congratulate Representative Bobby Rush on his House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


In terms of the sheer volume of disappointment, there really can only be one person even in the running for the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week, can there?

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. certainly disappointed a lot of folks this Tuesday and Wednesday (see above). His job was to argue the constitutionality of Obamacare's individual mandate in front of the Supreme Court. Apparently (from published reports) he had something of a meltdown.

Now, we here at Friday Talking Points headquarters are not trained legal analysts, which we (unlike a lot of yahoos in the media) are not ashamed to admit. So we have no way of knowing if the groupthink on Verrilli's performance (or lack thereof) is correct or not. As we've already said, even if it is correct we seriously doubt it'll have more than about a one percent chance of influencing any of the justices' votes.

But having said all of that, for the tidal wave of disappointment rolling out of Washington this week, it's pretty hard to make a case for anyone else winning the MDDOTW award this week.

What we wonder is: if the Supremes decide Obamacare is constitutional, will this perception in the media of Verrilli's competence change? But, of course, we'll just have to wait and see on that one.

For now, we (reluctantly, due to our lack of the legal knowledge necessary to determine how deserving the award truly is) award the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week to Donald Verrilli.

[Contact the White House on their official contact page, to let his boss know what you think of Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr.'s actions.]


Volume 204 (3/30/12)

We're not going to provide talking points today, sorry. If you would like to make your own, I strongly recommend this article in the Huffington Post by Peter D. Rosenstein, where he puts forward a brilliant idea: bring back "Harry and Louise." Combine this with the data from last week's Friday Talking Points and the ads just write themselves, really.

Paul Ryan got his budget voted out of the House this week, but that subject will be around for quite a while, so we're going to resist the urge to tear it apart, for at least one more week.

Instead, we'd like to shine a spotlight on an appearance Mitt Romney made this week (in the midst of the Supreme Court frenzy, on Tuesday night) on Jay Leno's television show. Greg Sargent of The Washington Post wrote about it the next day (with an incomplete transcript containing a few key omissions) in his "Plum Line" column, which did spark a bit of interest in the media. But this interview really deserves more attention than it's been getting -- especially from Democrats whose job it is to run 2012 campaigns.

Now, Leno's a pretty "soft" interview, since it's just a late night talk show, so politicians don't face an actual journalist or anything. Plus, Leno's much more conservative than, say, David Letterman, so he's not known for grilling conservative politicians. Rachel Maddow he ain't, to put it another way.

But Jay Leno owns a whole bunch of collectible cars. He's a "car guy." As such, he actually talks to people who aren't millionaires on a regular basis -- unlike Mitt Romney. So when the subject turned to health care and the Supreme Court, Jay had a very interesting take on things, which he tried to explain to Romney.

Here's the entire transcript of the segment (which you can view on NBC's website):

ROMNEY: ... People can own their own insurance as they go from job to job, they won't have to worry about getting a condition that would keep them from being insured.

LENO: But what about pre-existing conditions, and children? That's... I mean... I know people who could not get insurance up until this Obamacare, and now they're covered with pre-existing conditions. I mean, to me, that -- and children also -- it seems like children and people with pre-existing conditions should be covered.

ROMNEY: Yeah. Well, people who have been continuously insured, let's say someone's had a job for a while, but insured, then they get real sick, and they happen to lose a job or change jobs, they find, "Gosh, I got a pre-existing condition and I can't get insured." I'd say "No, no, no" -- as long as you've been continuously insured, you ought to be able to get insurance, going forward. So you have to take that problem away, you have to make sure that legislation doesn't allow insurance companies to reject people because...

LENO: So you would make the law stand for children and people with pre-existing conditions?

ROMNEY: People with pre-existing conditions -- as long as they've been insured before, they're going to be able to continue to have insurance.

LENO: Well, suppose they were never insured before?

ROMNEY: Well, if they're 45 years old, and they show up, and they say, "I want insurance, because I've got a heart disease," it's like, "Hey guys, we can't play the game like that. You've got to get insurance when you're well, and so... and then if you get ill, then you're going to be covered."

LENO: Yeah, but there are a lot of people... I only mention this because I know guys that work in the auto industry, and they're just not covered because they work in brake dust, and they could get... so they've just never been able to get insurance. And then they get to 30, 35, they were never able to get insurance before. Now they have it. That seems like a good thing.

ROMNEY: We'll look at a circumstance where someone was ill, and hasn't been insured so far. But people who have had the chance to be insured -- if you're working in an auto business for instance, the companies carry insurance, they insure all their employees -- you look at the circumstances that exist. But people who have done their best to get insured, are going to be able to be covered. But you don't want everyone saying, "I'm going to sit back until I get sick and then go buy insurance."

LENO: No, of course, of course...

ROMNEY: That doesn't make sense. But you have to find rules that get people in that are playing by the rules.

This, to the best of my knowledge, is the most detailed questioning any Republican presidential candidate has been faced with on the health care subject during the entire primary race, even though Jay Leno doesn't sanctimoniously call himself a "journalist." That's lesson number one -- all "journalists" please take note: this is how to interview a politician about policy.

There is one interesting detail about this exchange, and one monumental point to be made by Democrats. First, the detail. Notice that Jay, when talking about his buddies who work "in the auto industry" mentions the fact that some can't get insured because they work around "brake dust." Brake dust is what you find when you open up a car's brake system to service it. There are only really two job classifications which deal with brake dust in the entire auto industry: those who work in plants manufacturing brake shoes and brake pads, and auto mechanics who service brakes. Jay is most likely talking about mechanics, since these are likely to be the friends he has -- likely the people who help him fix his own cars.

This point completely escapes Romney. To be fair, his father ran an auto manufacturing company, so when he hears "auto industry" (which is how Jay framed it), he most likely thinks of workers on the assembly line, and not local mechanics.

But still -- notice Romney's absolute ignorance of the conditions many working Americans face: "... if you're working in an auto business for instance, the companies carry insurance, they insure all their employees...." It is beyond Romney's comprehension that there are workers in America who do not have employers who offer health insurance. This is the major disconnect in Romney trying to understand what Jay is driving at -- to Romney, everyone who works gets health insurance. Of course "the companies carry insurance" and "insure all their employees," to put it another way. Why wouldn't they?

This is just another example of how out of touch Mitt Romney is from the concerns of millions of Americans. Mitt has no concept of an average automobile repair garage. Why would he? He's likely got "people" who deal with such problems. Try as I might, I just cannot picture Romney chatting with the guy fixing the brakes on one of his multiple Cadillacs.

But the even bigger issue Romney's answers raise is the one most everyone else is focusing on: What happens to the people who don't fit into Romney's perfect and rules-abiding employee? He never says what that guy who is 45 and can't get insurance is supposed to do. In essence, he is actually making the case for the individual mandate -- you have to buy insurance when you're healthy, even if you don't feel like it. While he does not say exactly how he would write a law which achieves this goal, it seems he agrees with the very concept the Supreme Court is considering in the Obamacare case.

That's being charitable to Mitt. If we assume the worst, however, what Romney is saying is, in essence, you are out of luck when it comes to purchasing insurance ever again in your whole life if you ever let your insurance coverage lapse for any reason whatsoever -- financial, job-related, whatever.

This is the thought that Democratic strategists need to follow through to its logical end: What happens to that guy? According to Mitt, insurance companies should be allowed to say "you haven't had continual insurance coverage your entire life, and you have a pre-existing condition, so we are not going to insure you, sorry."

Okay, what happens next? The guy then must spend his entire life savings and bankrupt himself in an effort to pay his rising medical bills.

Okay, what happens next? Well, once he's broke, not only can he no longer pay for any of his retirement, but he also has to get medical coverage from the taxpayers. It's either that, or crawl off into the woods and die -- there is simply no other option.

Okay, so what does that mean? Well, it means that Mitt Romney, should his health ideas ever make it into law, will wind up with a lot more people on Medicaid and Medicare. How, exactly, does that fit in with the Republican platform? Mitt is saying he'd protect the insurance companies' bottom lines by allowing them to reject people with pre-existing conditions (who didn't have perfect records of insurance coverage for their entire lives), and he'd move all those people onto the taxpayer's dime, instead.

To put it another way: Mitt is arguing for a "big government" solution to the problem.

This is so far from Republican orthodoxy that it really deserves to be called out. In fact, clips from this Leno appearance would make dandy fodder for some election ads later this year.

Which is where I end, with the humble suggestion that the Obama election team save a copy of this video, and present it to the voters as part of their choice this November. Obamacare... or Romney allowing the insurance companies to go back to denying care for pre-existing conditions (which throws more people onto the taxpayer's dime). Take your choice.


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