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“Times Are A Changin”: Once Upon A Time, Everybody Wanted To Be “Tough on Crime”

Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some policy changes meant to reduce the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, people have come to view mandatory minimums as a disaster from almost any standpoint, and as some people have pointed out, mandatory minimums were originally a Democratic idea. Those of you who are too young to remember the early 1990s might not appreciate the raw terror that gripped Democrats in those days. People regularly lost elections when their opponent’s opposition researchers found some obscure vote that could be twisted into a direct mail piece saying, “Congressman Smith voted to let violent criminals out of jail—so they could rape and murder their way through our community. Is that the kind of man we want in Washington?”

As it happens, at the time I was working for a political-consulting firm that created some of those mail pieces. Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime attacks for both primary and general elections, targeting other Democrats and Republicans alike. In 1994, it reached an absolute fever pitch. My firm had about 30 clients, all Democrats, and we did tough-on-crime pieces for every single one. In many cases, we’d make ten or so different mail pieces for a client, and eight of them would be about crime. In other words, in every last race we worked on, every candidate was accusing every other candidate of being soft on crime. The highlight of my consulting career was when I lay down on a sidewalk so our photographer could trace around my body with chalk for a murder aftermath scene we staged.

Of course, it was all tinged with the inescapable whiff of race—the most famous soft-on-crime attack from the era was George H.W. Bush’s 1988 assault on Michael Dukakis over the “Willie Horton” case.  These days we look at the elder Bush as a kindly old man who does things like wear silly socks and shave his head in solidarity with a young cancer patient, and his place in history has been immeasurably aided by the fact that his presidency was nothing like the spectacular disaster of his son’s. But we shouldn’t forget that in order to reach the White House, H.W. enthusiastically led one of the most despicable campaigns of racist fear-mongering in the history of American politics. It isn’t that crime wasn’t genuinely high in those days, because it was. But the media took people’s real concerns and whipped them into a frenzy of fear, talking about crack babies condemned to lifetimes of mental retardation (which turned out to be completely bogus) and terrifying young black male “superpredators” (ditto), turning individual horror stories into lightning-fast policy changes, like the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass, which produced a local-media frenzy the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before or since and led directly to California’s “three strikes” law.

At the time, the question was never, “Is this proposed measure to increase prison sentences a good idea?” The only question, asked by politicians from both parties, was whether it couldn’t be made much tougher. If you suggested that “tough” might not be the best standard by which a policy should be judged, you were risking your political career. Republicans embraced this zeitgeist with glee, and Democrats embraced it out of abject fear.

Fortunately, times have changed, and it’s now possible to have a rational discussion about crime. That simple fact—that politicians can support a variety of proposals on crime and punishment without worrying that their careers will be over as soon as somebody utters the phrase “soft on crime”—is something for which we should be enormously thankful, as much work remains to be done. As Greg Sargent pointed out, “this is an issue around which Dems concerned about racial justice, and conservative libertarians (such as Senator Paul) who share race-based concerns in their better moments, and conservatives who see the issue more through the prism of their opposition to government overreach and ‘one size fits all’ solutions, should theoretically be able to find common ground.”

The most important change in the last 20 years is that crime has fallen so dramatically (see here for instance), and in response we’ve seen a real cultural shift. I’m sure there are still politicians who’d love to tar their opponents as soft on crime. But they know it probably wouldn’t work. And that means there’s at least a chance we can make real policy change.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, August 13, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Holding The Credit Rating Hostage, Again”: The GOP’s Big New Plan To Take Down ObamaCare

With crucial pieces of the Affordable Care Act set to kick in later this year, some conservative lawmakers have been trying to rally support within the party to shut down the government to block the law, or to force President Obama to scrap it.

That threat — a refusal to pass a budget (or in D.C. jargon, a “continuing resolution”) to fund the government until ObamaCare is defeated — hasn’t gained traction with the party at large. Yet now, multiple reports say the thinking inside the GOP is to shift the ObamaCare battle from the budget fight to another looming fall showdown: The debt ceiling. (For a refresher, read the Guardian‘s helpful history of the debt ceiling here.)

From the Washington Examiner’s Conn Carroll:

House leadership firmly believes that attaching anything “new” to a continuing resolution is politically untenable, while passing a higher debt limit, without attaching anything new, is also politically impossible. Hence the House leadership’s desire to fight ObamaCare through the debt limit, but not the CR.

The plan is to pass a 60-day CR extension that keeps discretionary spending at the existing sequestration levels. Then House leadership wants to combine Democratic desires to roll-back sequestration with conservative desires to delay/defund ObamaCare into the debt limit fight. [Washington Examiner]

A government shutdown, besides failing to actually defund ObamaCare, has the potential to be politically disastrous for the GOP. Republicans bore the brunt of public rage over the government shutdown in 1995 when they refused to bargain with President Clinton, and they would likely suffer the same fate should they go that route again now. No wonder conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer have labeled the strategy “really dumb.”

Though the impact of a debt ceiling standoff is tougher to predict, the fallout would be more economic than political, potentially sparing the GOP on that front. Still, if the debt ceiling isn’t raised — meaning the U.S. couldn’t borrow more money to pay its existing debts, thus threatening the nation’s credit rating — the fiscal consequences for the country could be catastrophic. That’s why this gambit would represent a “massive escalation” in the ObamaCare funding showdown, argues New York‘s Jonathan Chait.

Closing the federal government for a limited period would have mostly political consequences (probably for the Republicans). The substantive effects build up cumulatively and start to really harm the economy after weeks on end, but the two sides could negotiate through a shutdown.

The debt ceiling is another story. The effects of missing the deadline would be immediate and, while unpredictable, potentially very large and irreversible. That’s why Obama now insists, after disastrously allowing himself to be extorted in 2011, he won’t negotiate the debt ceiling, but has never made an analogous pledge about a continuing resolution. [New York Magazine]

Unlike the very vocal threat to shut down the government over ObamaCare, the latest rumored standoff is, for now, merely rumblings from behind closed doors. And there’s at least some reason to believe it will amount to no more than an empty threat in the end.

The Republican leadership has been increasingly under pressure to appease the right wing of the party. Publicly insisting that ObamaCare funding will be fought further down the road would soothe the demand for that fight in the first place, while kicking the can down the road, perhaps indefinitely.

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent points out, this is exactly what happened with the last debt ceiling fight. In January, Boehner said the upcoming sequester debate, not debt ceiling fight, gave the GOP its best position to push for major budget cuts. Yet the sequester came and went without the GOP winning those deep concessions.

There’s some reason to think the same dynamic is at play here, too. The health care exchanges mandated under the ACA go into effect October 1. If Republicans really try to defund ObamaCare during the debt ceiling talks, they will, in effect, be arguing a settled debate.

Here’s Sargent:

So now, under this emerging plan, Republicans would be moving to demand a delay in ObamaCare’s implementation — after the exchanges kick in — in exchange for not allowing the country to go into default, even though Boehner himself has already admitted the debt limit must be raised to avoid putting the full faith and credit of the U.S. at risk?

What all of this comes down to is that GOP leaders need to decide if they are going to level with their base, and acknowledge that blocking ObamaCare by using this fall’s confrontations as leverage is just a nonstarter, period, full stop — whether we’re talking about a government shutdown, the debt limit, or whatever. [Washington Post]


By: Jon Terbush, The Week, August 15, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, Government Shut Down | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The End Of The Evangelical Era”: The Stamp Of Approval Of Christian Conservatives Has Become Far Less Meaningful

Saturday, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, two of the many candidates whose names are being bandied about for the 2016 presidential race, made a pilgrimage to Iowa to speak at the Family Leadership Summit. There, as part of a nine-hour marathon of speeches to an audience of 1,500 evangelical Christians, Cruz and Santorum joined a host of conservative politicians and public figures—including Donald Trump, that standard-bearer of wingnuttery—in lambasting Obamacare, the Internal Revenue Service, and the GOP establishment. Pastor Rafael Cruz, father of Senator Cruz, spoke vividly and at length about liberals’ attempts to turn the country into a socialist paradise. “Socialism requires that government becomes your god,” he said. “That’s why they have to destroy the concept of God. They have to destroy all loyalties except loyalty to government. That’s what’s behind homosexual marriage.”

More than highlighting the candidates and issues that will drive the 2016 primaries, the event illustrates the waning influence of Christian conservative leaders like Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats, the summit organizer. Most GOP contenders will seek a blessing from multiple evangelical heavyweights—Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, to name a few—but these are, increasingly, empty rituals. Even if the aging scions of the Christian Right can agree on the best GOP candidate (which, in 2012, they struggled mightily to do), their stamp of approval is far less meaningful for evangelical voters than it was two decades ago.

At the summit, Congressman Steve King, the Iowa arch-conservative, encouraged pastors to defy the Internal Revenue Service, which forbids religious leaders whose churches have tax-exempt status from speaking out on partisan issues, and preach politics from the pulpit. Ted Cruz mocked his Republican colleagues for their failure to repeal Obamacare and suggested that the U.S. reform its tax code by dismantling the IRS. Santorum scolded moderate and libertarian Republicans for abandoning social issues like same-sex marriage. These are red-meat issues for older conservative Christians, but could hurt Republicans among younger and more moderate evangelicals. For example, a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that a slim majority of young white evangelical Protestants supports same-sex marriage.

Other potential 2016 candidates are already in Vander Plaats’ sights, even if they were absent at the summit. Texas Governor Rick Perry attended last year’s Family Leadership Summit and Vander Plaats has spoken approvingly of Senator Rand Paul. Notably, however, Vander Plaats is less enthusiastic about politicians with even a whiff of moderate sympathies; he decried Senator Marco Rubio’s bipartisan work on immigration reform, saying there was “no way” Iowa evangelicals would vote for him in 2016. He also had critical words for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; according to Vander Plaats, Christie’s conservative credentials aren’t strong enough to capture the nomination.

George W. Bush was the last Republican candidate who was considered sufficiently socially conservative to garner approval from evangelical leaders like Robertson and Jerry Falwell and still win a general election. In January 2012, faced with the prospect of Mitt Romney—a moderate and a Mormon—as the presumptive Republican nominee, 150 members of the evangelical old guard gathered on a ranch in Texas to reach a consensus on the best alternative to Romney. After mulling their alternatives in the motley GOP field, which included Bachmann, Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich, the leaders endorsed Santorum, a Catholic with a strong emphasis on social issues and a sharp contrast to Romney the business maven.

Their followers’ response, in the primaries that followed, was mixed. Romney’s eventual nomination remained almost certain; conservative evangelicals’ support for Santorum only helped delay the inevitable until May. But in the general election, nearly eight in ten evangelicals voted for Romney.

“The days of evangelical leaders crowning political princes are well behind us,” says Robert P. Jones, the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit public opinion research organization. “Evangelicals are still a huge part of the GOP base, but they’re no longer taking their cues from a handful of well-known leaders.”

Keeping the spotlight on Iowa is one of the best ways for Christian conservative leaders to retain some influence over the nomination process. But preserving their foothold will be an uphill battle. To Vander Plaats’ chagrin, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, is threatening to do away with the Ames Straw Poll, an event that’s traditionally been important for party fundraising, saying that it has “outlived its usefulness.” The Straw Poll, which was first held in 1979, has been a crucial way for the Christian Right to advance their agenda in the presidential race since 1988, when Pat Robertson pulled off a spectacular first-place finish, setting the tone for the rest of the primary. If the Iowa Republican Party scraps the event, Vander Plaats says, his group is ready to fill the gap with another Family Leadership Summit in 2015. But it wouldn’t be the same kind of media magnet as the Ames Straw Poll, which offers fried butter on a stick as well as GOP candidates.

The extreme rhetoric that revved up the crowd this past weekend isn’t likely to resonate as strongly among mainstream GOP voters or even more moderate evangelicals. If the Family Leadership Summit is any guide, the efforts of potential 2016 candidates like Ted Cruz to secure evangelical leaders’ support—and, by proxy, Christian conservatives’ votes—will define the margins, not the center, of the GOP race.


By: Amelia Thompson-Deveaux, The American Prospect, August 13, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mitch McConnell Digs A Hole, Falls In”: Frankenstein Has Found That His Monster Is Running Out Of Control

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) talked to a local reporter this week about the Affordable Care Act, which he described as the “single worst piece of legislation passed in the last 50 years in the country.” The Republican senator restated his position that “we need to get rid of” the law.

But McConnell also made an off-hand comment that seemed wholly uninteresting at the time: “I mean, there are a handful of things in the 2,700 page bill that probably are OK, but that doesn’t warrant a 2,700 page takeover of all American health care.”

In 2013, with the right’s hysteria over health care seemingly getting worse, the comments are apparently controversial.

In an ordinary political environment, McConnell’s remarks would hardly be newsworthy…. But the political environment surrounding Obamacare is anything but ordinary — with the ferocious Republican assault on the bill, the party’s exaggerated warnings that it will ruin American freedom, and the base’s determination to scrap every last bit of it. So McConnell’s remarks quickly became fodder for his conservative primary challenger, Matt Bevin, who accused the GOP leader’s of “flip-flop[ping] on repealing Obamacare in its entirety.”

“We have to do whatever it takes to repeal Obamacare, and if we can’t repeal it, we have a responsibility to the American people to defund it,” Bevin said in a statement Thursday, responding to McConnell’s remarks. “If Mitch McConnell had ever worked in the private sector, he might understand that. If Senator McConnell is not willing to act to end Obamacare, he needs to get out of the way.”

So let me get this straight. For reasons that have never really made any sense, McConnell described “Obamacare” as the “single worst piece of legislation passed in the last 50 years in the country.” He vowed to “get rid of” the law. He condemned it (falsely) as a “takeover of all American health care.”

And for some Republicans, this position is too moderate and accommodating.

This is silly, but let’s not overlook the larger context: McConnell helped create this mess in the first place. If he’s annoyed by the inflexibility, the senator has no one to blame but himself.

I imagine McConnell was probably trying to offer himself a little general-election cover by saying “there are a handful of things in the 2,700 page bill that probably are OK.” The more the senator says he wants to destroy the entirety of the law — every letter of every page, no matter how effective or popular the idea — the more vulnerable he is to criticisms from the American mainstream.

Would McConnell take coverage away from young adults who can now stay on their family plans through age 26? Would he scrap protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions? Would he end tax breaks for small businesses? Would he end breaks for seniors on prescription medication? McConnell left himself an out — sure, there are some elements he can tolerate, but he still hates the law.

But McConnell is in a red-state primary fight, and it’s apparently a problem to say anything even remotely supportive of the dreaded “Obamacare.”

Sahil Kapur concluded, “That McConnell is being attacked for his remark illustrates the box Republicans have put themselves in while feeding conservatives’ greatest fears about the Affordable Care Act.” So true. GOP leaders, including McConnell, have to realize that they created this monster — they have spent years telling Republican activists and Republican media that “Obamacare” is a communist/fascist/Nazi takeover that will kill the elderly, destroy capitalism, and quite likely end civilization as we know it.

GOP leaders’ rhetoric has never made a lick of sense — Obamacare is a pretty moderate law, built around mainstream ideas that have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support — but McConnell and his allies pushed this garbage anyway, in part to keep the Republican base fired up, and in part because it was good for fundraising.

And now Frankenstein has found that his monster is running out of control. Well, Mitch, you probably should have thought of that before.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 15, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Misleading Others And Lying To Themselves”: Why John Boehner Has To Keep Making Crazy Threats

You probably read yesterday about the efforts of John Boehner and the Republican leadership in the House to convince the rank-and-file members that shutting down the government until Obamacare is defunded is a Bad Idea, and not a Brilliant Political Maneuver. Robert Costa’s account in the National Review has the basic narrative. It looks, now, like Boehner has succeeded in defusing the shutdown threat. All he had to do was promise something worse. Now we are going to not raise the debt ceiling instead.

As Jonathan Chait points out, replacing the shutdown threat with a default threat is actually much crazier and more potentially disastrous. But Boehner couldn’t get Republicans to agree to just give up on defunding Obamacare this year. He had to promise to exchange their one crazy plan to do so with another one that will go into effect later. And when it is time for that one to go into effect, he will need to find something else to distract them for a little while, until the next crazy plan is ready to go. As Brian Beutler says, we’ve seen this play out over and over again. Boehner has to promise to let Republicans do some apocalyptic thing later in order to get them to avoid doing some apocalyptic thing now. So far we’ve avoided an apocalypse.

But the people Boehner is trying to deal with here don’t see any of these threats as particularly apocalyptic. They don’t really see anything at all that might contradict their ideological stances. The House members Boehner’s trying to walk back from the ledge don’t read the Times or the Post. They don’t care what Brookings or the CBO or CRS say. They believe every “nonpartisan” or “objective” information source to be a part of the vast liberal conspiracy, and they rely for their facts and predictions strictly on sources explicitly aligned with the conservative movement. And those sources are just telling them crazy, untrue things, all the time.

That’s Boehner’s problem: He’s trying to ease his members into the real world, where defunding Obamacare is impossible as long as Obama is in the White House, and where attempts to do so via incredibly unconventional means could have disastrous consequences. What makes his job more difficult is that this reality isn’t acknowledged by most of the conservative organizations his members, and his party’s voters, exclusively follow.

Take Heritage, for years the most influential conservative think tank (it is still in the top five, depending on how you categorize advocacy groups like FreedomWorks). Heritage has been attempting to convince Republicans that a shutdown wouldn’t be such a big deal. Polls commissioned by Heritage say a government shutdown wouldn’t cause anyone to lose their seats, so have at it! The poll, by the way, was conducted entirely in Republican or Republican-leaning House districts.

Now, the venerable Heritage Foundation isn’t saying this. The poll, and the shutdown encouragement, were issued by “Heritage Action for America,” the 501(c)(4) group founded as Heritage’s sister organization in 2010, to take advantage of the new post-Citizens United “almost anything goes” rules for supposed “social welfare” organizations. “Think of it as the Heritage Foundation with teeth,” Betsy Woodruff said in the National Review. So far Heritage Action has been using those teeth to drag the GOP into the world of right-wing fantasy, in which the Farm Bill must be rejected because it does not cut food stamps enough, and the border “surge” amendment to the immigration reform bill must be opposed because $38 billion worth of fences and agents aren’t enough.

For years, the Heritage Foundation’s mission was to craft conservative policy ideas that would both be possible to implement and be broadly popular. School vouchers and welfare reform and tax cuts are all ideas within the realm of the politically possible, and they are also all ideas that have polled quite well at various times. This was effective: Reagan and George W. Bush’s domestic agendas came largely prepackaged by Heritage. But now the organization is using its lobbying arm to just demand total fealty, damn the consequences, to the most extreme form of conservatism possible. That is something of a shift. But it’s a shift the movement has seemingly embraced in the Obama era. Now even supposedly “sober” and “grown-up” conservatives argue that breaching the debt ceiling wouldn’t be so bad — may even indeed be pretty good depending on how you look at it! — and work to convince Republicans that the way to handle demographic change is with strict immigration limits and the militarization of the border, combined with making the party even more dependent solely on white votes.

This is not a left-winger pining for the days of Republican “moderation.” Heritage and the National Review were always very conservative. They were just realistically conservative. Professional conservatives graduated some time ago from misleading others to lying to themselves.

If you want evidence, look at the rapturous praise that greeted the publication of “American Betrayal” by Diana West, a book that argues that … McCarthy was right about everything and that the FDR administration was a puppet regime for Stalin, and that we purposely delayed winning World War II so that the Soviets could have more of Europe when it was finished. The book is just untrue, start to finish. Conservative historian Ronald Radosh — writing in the online publication of David Horowitz, a man who is not unfriendly to wild conspiracy theories about leftists — patiently and at length knocked down nearly every single one of its claims in a review. The book is so silly that Radosh planned to ignore it, but he couldn’t once he saw how the movement had fallen for it:

But I changed my mind after seeing the reckless endorsements of its unhinged theories by a number of conservative individuals and organizations. These included the Heritage Foundation which has hosted her for book promotions at a lunchtime speech and a dinner; which is serializing America Betrayed; PJ Media which has already run three favorable features on West; Amity Shlaes, who writes unnervingly that West’s book, “masterfully reminds us what history is for: to suggest action for the present”; and by conservative political scientist and media commentator Monica Crowley, who called West’s book “A monumental achievement.”

Hey, there’s Heritage again! And Amity Shlaes, who wrote a book about how FDR made the Depression worse with liberalism. That book didn’t really coherently build an economic case against Keynesianism but because it had a thesis conservatives liked it quickly became popular, and she has been writing for Forbes and the Wall Street Journal ever since. (And Bloomberg View, for some reason.) This West book is just another step away from reality, into the sweet embrace of fantasy. FDR didn’t just make the Depression worse, he also surrounded himself with Stalinists! The far right has been pushing this shit for decades, obviously. It used to be the mainstream right’s job to make sure it only traveled as far as was politically expedient. Now they lap it up themselves.

This is why Boehner is having so much trouble. He can’t live entirely in this wonderful fantasy world. He has to actually raise the debt ceiling and make sure essential government services get funded. All the institutions designed to make his life easier, to corral the voters, activists and even legislators into supporting the agenda and ensuring the future success of the Republican Party, are all too busy make-believing about the 1930s and convincing themselves that they can defeat Obamacare if they simply want to bad enough, to be of any assistance.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, August 15, 2013

August 16, 2013 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, Government Shut Down | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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