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“Congressional Responsibility With No Accountability”: Why The Green Lantern Theory Of Presidential Power Persists

At today’s press conference, President Obama spent a fair amount of time pushing back on what some of us are calling the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.” This theory — which seems to hold broad sway over many in the press — holds that presidents should be able to bend Congress to their will, and any failure to do so proves their weakness and perhaps even their irrelevance.

What accounts for the persistence of this theory? The answer, I think, lies in the tendency of reporters and analysts who are trying to remain a neutral, nonpartisan posture to feel comfortable making process judgments, but not ideological ones.

The extent and limits of presidential power were at the center of one of the most interesting exchanges of the day. ABC News’s Jonathan Karl asked this question:

Mr. President, you are a hundred days into your second term. On the gun bill, you put, it seems, everything into it to try to get it passed. Obviously, it didn’t. Congress has ignored your efforts to try to get them to undo these sequester cuts. There was even a bill that you threatened to veto that got 92 Democrats in the House voting yes. So my question to you is do you still have the juice to get the rest of your agenda through this Congress?

Obama answered that Republicans have the option of cooperating with him to avert the sequester. He also said:

You seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people. So if, in fact, they are seriously concerned about passenger convenience and safety, then they shouldn’t just be thinking about tomorrow or next week or the week after that; they should be thinking about what’s going to happen five years from now, 10 years from now or 15 years from now. The only way to do that is for them to engage with me on coming up with a broader deal. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do is to continue to talk to them about are there ways for us to fix this.

As Jamelle Bouie quipped: “Barack Obama asks press to maybe, possibly, hold Republicans responsible sometime.” Bouie added: “Congressional Republicans have agency, and at a certain point, they need to be held accountable for their actions.”

But here’s the problem: If a reporter or analyst were to call out Republicans for failing to compromise with Obama, that reporter or analyst would be calling on them to adopt a particular policy position, such as moving towards a mix of new revenues and spending cuts to replace the sequester. It would amount to a criticism of the Republican position — i.e., that we should only replace the sequester with spending cuts. This is impermissible for the neutral writer, because it constitutes an ideological judgment. On the other hand, faulting Obama for failing to get Republicans to move his way does not constitute taking any kind of stand on who is right, ideologically speaking. It only constitutes a judgment of Obama for failing to manipulate the process adequately.

This sometimes works against Republicans, too. John Boehner was widely pilloried by commentators for failing to control his caucus during the fiscal cliff fight. But Boehner struggled to do this because many conservatives in his caucus had adopted the extreme and borderline delusional position that taxes must not be raised, ever, no matter what. Criticizing the position of conservatives, however, would constitute an ideological judgment, which is far harder for the nonpartisan writer to make than to claim Boehner just can’t control his Members because he’s ineffective — a process criticism.

This isn’t to absolve Obama of all responsibility to move Congress. Surely presidents have the power to set the agenda and get the public to think more about an issue. But as many others have explained at great length — see Jonathan Bernstein and Kevin Drum on this – the president’s influence over Congress is currently quite limited, historically speaking, for a host of reasons. And in the particular case of guns and the sequester, the Green Lantern argument is even more absurd: Toomey-Manchin wouldn’t have passed even if every Democrat had voted for it; and the sequester cuts can’t be replaced with a compromise of Obama’s choosing because Republicans control the House of Representatives.

The reason all these explanations don’t weigh on the Green Lanternites is the basic process/ideological imbalance identified above. It’s okay for the nonpartisan writer to criticize a president for failing to exert his will (a process judgment), but it’s not okay for the nonpartisan writer to fault Republicans for failing to agree to move in the direction of the policy a president wants (an ideological judgment). Today, for instance, Ron Fournier, to his credit, conceded that Obama was right in describing the limits on his powers. But he added: “Even if you concede to Obama every point of his Tuesday news conference, a president looks weak and defeated when he shifts accountability to forces out of his control.”

Perhaps this is how the public will view Obama; perhaps it isn’t. What is clear, however, is the basic imbalance here. While neutral commentators often hold up compromise, abstractly, as the Holy Grail, the process/ideology dichotomy makes it much easier for those commentators to fault the president for failing to work the process effectively enough to secure compromise than to pillory the opposition for being ideologically uncompromising.


By: Greg Sargent, The Washington Post, The Plum Line, April 30, 2013

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Father Of The Bride Meets Drugstore Cowboy”: Virginia’s Bob McDonnell Faces FBI Scrutiny

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is wrapping his final months in office, and would no doubt like to leave on a high note, en route to pursuing higher office.

But at this point, instead of spending time with volunteers in Iowa and New Hampshire, it looks like Governor Ultrasound will have to spend his time with his attorneys.

FBI agents are conducting interviews about the relationship between Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and a major campaign donor who paid for the food at the wedding of the governor’s daughter, according to four people familiar with the questioning.

The agents have been asking associates of the McDonnells about gifts provided to the family by Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and actions the Republican governor and his wife have taken that may have boosted the company, the people said.

Among the topics being explored, they said, is the $15,000 catering bill that Williams paid for the 2011 wedding of McDonnell’s daughter at Virginia’s historic Executive Mansion. But questions have extended to other, previously undisclosed gifts from Williams to Maureen McDonnell as well, they said.

Now, it’s worth clarifying that the FBI’s interest in McDonnell may be tangential — federal law enforcement has taken an interest in Williams and Star Scientific, and it’s not clear if officials suspect the governor of any criminal misdeeds.

But that doesn’t make this story any less damaging for McDonnell, whose political career is in severe jeopardy.

Following up on an item from a few weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that McDonnell’s daughter was married in 2011, and the governor said the bride and groom paid for the event. In reality, $15,000 came by way of Williams. McDonnell not only lied about the financing, but he somehow forgot to disclose Williams’ generous gift, as he’s legally required to do.

Complicating matters, shortly before the wedding, McDonnell’s wife attended an event in Florida to endorse Williams’ product, and shortly after the wedding, McDonnell hosted Williams at the governor’s home for a launch party for Williams’ product.

Then, the story got slightly worse.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has said his daughter and her husband paid for their own wedding. So a $15,000 check from a major campaign donor to pay for the food at the affair was a gift to the bride and groom and not to him, and therefore did not have to be publicly disclosed under the law, the governor says.

But documents obtained by The Washington Post show that McDonnell signed the catering contract, making him financially responsible for the 2011 event. The governor made handwritten notes to the caterer in the margins. In addition, the governor paid nearly $8,000 in deposits for the catering.

When the combination of the governor’s deposit and the gift from the donor resulted in an overpayment to the caterer, the refund check of more than $3,500 went to McDonnell’s wife and not to his daughter, her husband or back to the donor.

The new documents suggest that the governor was more involved with the financing of the wedding than he has previously acknowledged.

Some of this is just amusing on a semantics level. McDonnell’s spokesperson said the governor’s daughter paid for the event, and she “paid for it by accepting it as a gift from one of dad’s campaign contributors.”

But some of it is also interesting on a legal level. It’s true that family members of officeholders don’t have to follow the same disclosure requirements as the officeholders themselves, and in this case, McDonnell is arguing he had nothing to do with the $15,000 gift — it went directly from the governor’s donor to the governor’s daughter. The problem is all the evidence that ties McDonnell to the money.

Making matters slightly worse still, last week we learned Williams also paid for some McDonnell vacations. In 2011, the McDonnell family “vacationed at a lake house owned by Williams and drove the executive’s Ferrari from the home, at Smith Mountain Lake southeast of Roanoke, back to Richmond.”

Yep, Ferrari.

I thought I’d also I’d re-up TNR‘s Alec MacGillis great piece on the controversy, arguing that the governor “can kiss his 2016 hopes goodbye.”

Romney passed McDonnell over and one rarely hears McDonnell mentioned on the short list of 2016 hopefuls. He did not help his standing with conservatives nationwide when, in the just-completed legislative session, he signed a transportation funding package that raises hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and taxes.”

And now this: Father of the Bride meets Drugstore Cowboy. There’s a sad irony in this denouement. McDonnell’s successful makeover involved transforming himself from a disciple of Jerry Falwell into a model Virginia gentleman, sober and highbrow, in contrast with ideological brawlers like Ken Cuccinelli, the arch-conservative attorney general who is running to succeed him. But there’s nothing sober and highbrow about having a dietary-supplement maker funneling money to your daughter’s wedding. With just months left to go in McDonnell’s term, we must say: Bob, we hardly knew ye. Though who knows, in the years ahead we may see more of you yet — on late-night TV, hawking miracle pills.

And that was written before the FBI became interested in McDonnell’s ties to Williams.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 30, 2013

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Making Governing As Miserable As Possible”: Republicans Discover Sequester Budget Cuts Are Politically Unpopular

Back in February, a Pew Research Center poll showed that while Americans like the abstract idea of “spending cuts,” they don’t support reducing actual spending on, well, anything. Foreign aid very nearly (but not quite) achieved a majority in support of cuts, but for every other government activity – including education, entitlements, environmental protection and infrastructure – Americans are loathe to reduce the level of investment.

The GOP recently seems to have taken the public’s position to heart. Exhibit A is Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who took to the House floor last week to decry the so-called “sequester” because it “breaks everyone’s heart” to see services such as Head Start and Meals on Wheels cut. “There are numerous Republicans that voted against the sequestration because we knew all of these calamities were in the future,” Bachmann said. “Didn’t you know this was going to happen? We knew it. That’s why we voted against this bill.”

As the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler ably details, Bachmann is significantly rewriting history by claiming that she was against the sequester because it cuts too much from key services. At the time, she very publicly explained that she was against it – and other far more severe budget plans – because it did not cut enough.

But this trend goes far beyond Bachmann. Take, for instance, the GOP’s latest debt ceiling gambit. Come the fall, the federal debt limit will have to be raised again, and Republicans are already making noise about which policy concession they hope to wring out of the White House this time.

Unlike previous episodes, though, it seems that the GOP won’t demand entitlement cuts, but has instead decided that a revenue-neutral rewrite of the tax code (which would do nothing to reduce the deficit) will be the price of avoiding a self-induced economic calamity.

The reason for this shift is Republicans fear that embracing entitlement cuts such as those included in the president’s most recent budget “would be political suicide.” As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait puts it, “Oh! So you threaten to melt down the world economy unless Obama agrees to cut spending on retirement programs, and then he offers to do that, and then you decide it’s too unpopular?”

The only GOP goal at the moment seems to be making governing as miserable as possible for the Obama administration. That leads to a lot of heated rhetoric about the threat of the deficit and the imminence of a debt crisis, scaremongering about the U.S. turning into Greece and creating the impression that there are gobs of taxpayer dollars being flushed down some bureaucrat’s toilet somewhere, thus playing off the public’s fear of a budget deficit that it doesn’t understand but knows it doesn’t like.

But when push comes to shove – and people are actually living with the effects of government spending cuts as they, for instance, try to travel by air – the GOP’s true colors show.  So we wind up with a cockamamie budget discourse in which one party doesn’t really want to cut spending but offers to do so anyway, while the other demands spending reductions but then turns them down when the president agrees.  (Unless, of course, those cuts affect discretionary spending on the poor, in which case, the GOP does nothing to stop them, but, ala Bachmann, wants none of the credit.) And all the while, the economy sputters along without the support it so desperately needs.


By: Pat Garofalo, U. S. News and World Report, April 30, 2013

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Republicans, Sequestration | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Terribly Bad, Good Idea”: Tea Party Group Drafting Sarah Palin To Run For Alaska Senate

“Do the words ‘Senator Sarah Palin’ excite you?”

That’s the opening line of a recent email by The Tea Party Leadership Fund, which is trying to draft the former Alaska governor and past Fox News commentator to run for the Senate in 2014. The fund argues Palin has a clear path to victory in part due to recent polling showing incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, with less than 50 percent of the vote.

But, it being a draft, the group hasn’t talked with Palin about whether or not she’s interested. And Palin – whose PAC didn’t respond to request for comment from Whispers – is believed to be currently residing in Arizona, not Alaska. The fund’s Niger Innis says the interest of Tea Party members in a Palin run, however, is clear.

“We didn’t know that [the draft] was going to catch fire to the degree that it has. And what that tells us is that this is just the beginning,” he says. “It’s gone viral.”

But not all Tea Party groups are enthused about drafting Palin without first gauging her interest.

“I absolutely love her and I think she’s a breath of fresh air,” Amy Kremer, head of Tea Party Express, tells Whispers. “But until she says that she’s going to put her name in… we’re not going to go out there and advocate for her to get in the race.”

Judson Phillips at Tea Party Nation says the 2012 presidential election provided an important lesson about why drafting candidates is a bad idea. “One of the things we learned is that apparently Mitt Romney didn’t really want to be president,” he said. “The last thing the GOP needs is to put candidates who don’t want it.”


By: Elizabeth Flock, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, April 30, 2013

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Caring More About Activist Love Than Legislating”: GOP Creates Ted Cruz, Now Thinks He’s A Jerk

Here’s Senator Ted Cruz, Ted Cruzing it up, taking practically sole credit for killing gun background checks and trashing all his colleagues: 

The New York Times charitably says that “Friday’s speech was not the first time Mr. Cruz may have acted counter to some of the Senate’s norms,” before bringing up Cruz’s decidedly McCarthyite take on Chuck Hagel.

Cruz is at the FreedomWorks Texas Summit, and the news here is that he calls most of his colleagues “squishes” and gives a (quite self-aggrandizing) account of off-the-record Senate Republican caucus luncheons, which apparently involved a lot of people yelling at Cruz and Rand Paul and the other guy who also promised to filibuster the entire gun deal from start to finish. In this version of events, the three filibustering amigos were responsible for the failure of the entire proposal. As Dave Weigel points out, that’s not really how it happened. The bill failed — and was probably doomed to begin with — because a lot more than three senators opposed it, and the Cruz/Paul filibuster threat was worse politics for the party than allowing debate to proceed and then watching red-state Democrats cave. Which is what actually happened.

This unbecoming display of narcissism and lack of team spirit led Washington Post blogger and former uncompensated Mitt Romney flack Jennifer Rubin to call Cruz a jerk. Which he undoubtedly is!

For starters, it’s just not smart to annoy colleagues whose cooperation and support you’ll need in the future. Second, as a conservative he should understand humility and grace are not incompatible with “standing on principle”; the absence of these qualities doesn’t make him more principled or more effective. Third, for a guy who lacks manners (see his condescending questioning of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) he comes across as whiny. They yelled at me! Boo hoo, senator.

Basically all of this analysis is dead wrong. At least it’s wrong in the specific case of Ted Cruz, who will not need anyone’s “support in the future” because he doesn’t care about legislating.

Look at the video: He’s in a room of adoring — swooning — admirers and he is basking in their adoration. This is why he got into politics. And everyone who gets confused about why this whip-smart attorney is acting like the dumbest Tea Party wingnut imaginable should probably watch this video. He’s acting like this because he’s smart. It’s great politics to be a Republican in Texas who purposefully pisses off his fellow Republican senators with his intransigence and extreme rhetoric. It’s sort of like how Susan Collins has to act the sensible moderate (while voting basically as a party-line conservative Republican) because she represents Maine, but in Cruz’s case there is no end goal at beyond advancing his own career. And legislative victories aren’t an important part of becoming a beloved Tea Party favorite. In this case Cruz may be taking credit for a legislative victory he really had little to do with, but it also doesn’t matter at all to this crowd that, for example, Cruz failed to stop Chuck Hagel from becoming Defense Secretary. What matters is that he was a huge dick about it, not whether he won or lost.

There is no way to way to stop or shame or embarrass or cajole a politician like this into following the established “norms” of political behavior. The bigger a controversial firebrand he is, the more he riles up both liberals and Republican Senate leadership, the better he’ll look in the eyes of the people who write him checks and made him the nominee for U.S. Senate to begin with. What Rubin (who is not remotely in touch with the actual activist conservative movement base) sees as whiny these people see as, you know, heroic martyrdom. Conservatives love it when their heroes whine about being persecuted!

A healthy disrespect for norms isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a legislator. Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about tradition and norms either, but he does actually care about winning political (and policy) fights for the Republican Party. But Cruz is explicitly and purely self-serving. Cruz wants to be the guy who never compromises because compromises are incredibly unpopular and exploiting activist conservative disdain for the party and for Washington is a can’t-fail maneuver. Jennifer Rubin’s opprobrium is going to be even less of an issue for him than John McCain’s was.

Just look at this political science survey of FreedomWorks Tea Party activists: They’re ultra-conservative Republicans who hate the Republican Party. They also value ideological purity over pragmatism, to the point where winning victories matters less to them than loudly saying the right thing. (Not great on strategy, these guys.) People like Ted Cruz are doing their best to establish their personal brands at the expense of the actual Republican Party and even the conservative movement. And there’s no mechanism the party can use to get him back in line, because he doesn’t care about results and there’s an entire media and activist infrastructure set up to reward him.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, April 30, 2013

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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