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“Personal Relationships’ Can Only Go So Far”: No Modern Precedent For Partisan Polarization As Intense As Today’s GOP Status Quo

It’s a fact of contemporary domestic politics that many in Washington resist, but there’s a limit to the power of presidential schmoozing.

The President’s failure to build friendships with lawmakers has damaged his chances of finding bipartisan support for legislation, a senator from his own party said Sunday. “It’s just hard to say no to a friend,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“When you build that relationship and that friendship, you’re looking for ways to try to work things out and find a compromise and, you know, that friendship means an awful lot. When you don’t build those personal relationships, it’s pretty easy for a person to say, well, let me talk about it, you know, and not really make, you know, that extra effort.”

I wish this were true, because it would suggest the underlying problem would be fairly easy to solve. If Manchin were right, and President Obama’s “personal relationships” with lawmakers could lead to more responsible governing, a concerted effort could be made to turn the White House into The Friendliest Place on Earth.

Regrettably, though, Manchin’s remedy is deeply flawed.

Let’s put aside, at least for now, the fact that Obama has gone further than any modern president in bringing members of the opposing party into his cabinet and incorporating ideas from the opposing party’s agenda into his own policy plans – only to find that Republicans oppose the very ideas they used to support once they learn the president agrees with them.

Let’s instead focus on this notion of “building personal relationships.” I’m reminded of an anecdote from a year ago, when Obama invited several GOP lawmakers to the White House for a private screening with the stars of the movie “Lincoln.” The president extended the invitation in secret, so congressional Republicans wouldn’t face any lobbying to turn Obama down.

How many of the invited Republicans accepted the invitation? None.

The Beltway seems to accept as fact the notion that an aloof president has made no effort to cultivate friendships with members of Congress, but reality points in a very different direction. It’s not just movie nights, either – Obama has hosted casual “get-to-know-you” gatherings; he’s taken Republicans out to dinner on his dime; he’s taken House Speaker Boehner out golfing; and he’s held Super Bowl and March Madness parties at the White House for lawmakers.

When it comes to “building personal relationships,” we’ve seen the effort. It just doesn’t seem to have paid any dividends.

And why not? Because the importance of presidential schmoozing has been wildly exaggerated, based on an antiquated, romanticized vision. As we’ve discussed before, there have been times at which lawmakers were on the fence before a big vote, and a president could gently apply pressure with a White House dinner invitation and an after-meal chat on the Truman balcony. For those who believe these traditional norms still apply, there’s an assumption that Obama can get his way with Congress if only he engaged more.

But in 2013, those norms have been thrown out the window.

If lack of schmoozing isn’t the problem, what is? As we’ve discussed many times, traditional governing dynamics are largely impossible given that the Republican Party has reached an ideological extreme unseen in modern American history. It’s a quantifiable observation, not a subjective one.

The result is a situation in which GOP lawmakers refuse to compromise or accept concessions, partly due to partisan rigidity, partly out of fear of a primary challenge, and most of the time, both.

Indeed, the parties sharply disagree with one another – there is no modern precedent for partisan polarization as intense as today’s status quo – and presidential outreach won’t change that. Congressional Republicans tend to fundamentally reject just about everything the White House wants, believes, and perceives as true. Presidential friendships change nothing.

Let’s return to the thesis presented last year by Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein: “[W]e have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

The notion that schmoozing will lead to progress rests upon the assumption that congressional Republicans are responsible officials, willing to negotiate and work in good faith, and prepared to find common ground with Obama. All they need is some face-time and presidential hand-holding. Once they can get along on a personal level, a constructive process will follow.

It’s a pleasant enough fantasy, and I wish it were true, but everything we’ve seen over the last four years points in the opposite direction.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 23, 2013

December 24, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Supporting The Politicians”: Wal-Mart Exploits Employee Charity To Help Ted Cruz And John Boehner

Wal-Mart and other top U.S. corporations “reap worker political donations through charities,” according to a Bloomberg report published Monday.

Reporter Renee Dudley wrote that major companies, “forbidden to give money directly to political action committees, are taking advantage of controversial federal rules allowing them to ask employees to do it for them in exchange for matching charitable donations.” Dudley notes that the Federal Election Commission ruled in the 1980s that tying employees’ charitable donations to matching political contributions was legal, and that precedent has remained in place despite repeated disagreement within the agency, including a split vote in 2009. She reports the practice “has become commonplace,” and that those who contribute are mostly in management.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest private employer, draws particular attention in the Bloomberg story, which says the retailer’s program is distinguished by offering a two-to-one rather than one-to-one match, and by requiring that the charitable donations go to the company’s Associates in Critical Need Trust. Wal-Mart’s employee-to-employee charitable activities drew unkind scrutiny in November, when the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on a worker-to-worker food drive at a local store.

Bloomberg cites a 2004 memo from Wal-Mart’s then-general counsel pledging, “We’re going to be relentless in encouraging participation until 100% of our management associates are on board.” Center for Responsive Politics data for Wal-Mart’s “PAC for Responsible Government,” cited by Dudley, show a roughly even split in donations between Republicans and Democrats, with recipients including House Speaker John Boehner, Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz and hometown conservative Democratic Senator Mark Pryor. (A June report from the union-backed Making Change at Walmart campaign, factoring in donations from the Walton family which owns half the company, found that 69 percent of combined total Wal-Mart and Walton donations from 2000 to 2012 went to Republican candidates or committees.)

Wal-Mart did not immediately respond to Salon’s inquiry regarding Bloomberg story. Wal-Mart Vice President David Tovar told Bloomberg’s Dudley that the program was “a great way for people who contribute to the PAC to also do good for fellow associates,” and offered “an opportunity to support the company and the things we’re advocating for on behalf of the shareholders, our associates, our customers” at the state and federal levels.

As I’ve reported, Wal-Mart also maintains the Walmart Foundation, whose grantees have included non-profits in key cities where the company seeks to expand. The legally-distinct Walton Family Foundation is a major funder of anti-union education reform efforts.

Bloomberg’s story comes weeks after a day of civil disobedience actions mounted by the non-union workers’ group OUR Walmart, which is closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union. In an e-mailed statement, OUR Walmart activist Barbara Gertz called the Bloomberg story “further proof that Walmart is determined to spend millions to support politicians who vote to cut food stamps and who oppose increasing the minimum wage, instead of focusing on creating good jobs in our communities.” While OUR Walmart and allies have recently emphasized Wal-Mart employees’ widespread use of public assistance programs (including Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky calling those at the top of the company “welfare kings”), in October Wal-Mart’s U.S. CEO declared the company “cautious but modestly optimistic” that food stamp cuts would be good for business — a statement Congressman John Conyers told Salon “borders on the ludicrous.”

Gertz, a Denver Wal-Mart employee, said it was “upsetting to hear that Walmart not only exploited the associates in critical need fund to push a political agenda that hurts ordinary Americans, but it also may have done so in violation of federal laws.”


By: Josh Eidelson, Salon, December 23, 2013

December 24, 2013 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Corporations | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The GOP’s Sad Scrooge Agenda”: A Real Anti-Poverty Agenda Involves Raising The Minimum Wage

It’s the most wonderful time of the year … unless your unemployment benefits are set to run out three days after Christmas. But there’s a little bit of holiday cheer for the long-term unemployed: Democrats are showing some new spine in fighting to help them.

For decades Democrats have had, at best, a stealth agenda when it comes to fighting poverty. After backing GOP-inspired welfare reform in 1996, most favored work-support programs taxpayers couldn’t necessarily see, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, and borrowed Republican rhetoric dividing the deserving from the undeserving poor. Expanding eligibility for food stamps and Medicaid was mainly defended in terms of an agenda to support the working — i.e. “deserving” — poor, and even for someone as ostensibly liberal as President Obama, deficit reduction has been a higher-profile priority than fighting income inequality throughout most of his five years in office, and the word “poverty” rarely crosses his lips at all.

That’s slowly been changing, for Obama and his party. Increasingly Democrats seem to believe poverty and income inequality are not only important issues morally, but politically. Now comes the liberal group Americans United for Change with polling, advertising and a political campaign designed to make sure Republicans suffer for their Scrooge agenda in 2014.

Polling by PPP finds that in four swing House districts currently held by Republicans, at least two-thirds of voters support continuing the expanded unemployment benefits that are set to expire Dec. 28, just three days after Christmas. Even in Speaker John Boehner’s district, 63 percent of voters want benefits extended, including 52 percent of Republicans.

But it’s not just PPP polling. A new Pew poll finds the public supports maintaining programs for the poor over deficit reduction 59-33; among independents it’s 53-38.

Of course, one of the tough things about being a progressive is that you can often find poll data supporting your policy agenda. And yet when push comes to shove in the only polls that matter, the ones that open on Election Day, economic fairness issues haven’t driven liberal voters quite the way social issues have turned out conservatives. Of course that’s because conservatives have had a head start organizing on issues like abortion and gun rights while liberals too often assume the obvious correctness of their world view will prevail over time.

But the fight over unemployment looks different. Americans United for Change, along with labor groups, plans an advertising and media push focused on vulnerable Republicans. Already, an effort to publicize the cost of cutting unemployment in those members’ home districts has paid off in remarkable local media coverage, as Greg Sargent laid out two weeks ago.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already announced that extending unemployment is at the top of his agenda when the Senate reconvenes in January. He’ll of course face pushback from the Tea Party caucus — Sen. Rand Paul continues to insist that extending unemployment is a “disservice” to the unemployed, as if he has any interest in policies that would actually be of “service” to them. Sen. Ted Cruz insists unemployment benefits “exacerbate” joblessness. But vulnerable and moderate Republicans in the House and Senate could conceivably surprise Paul and Cruz — they don’t want to find themselves in the unemployment line come 2015.

Still, it’s not time to celebrate just yet. Democrats weren’t tough enough to insist that an unemployment extension become part of the budget compromise. And there’s been little comparable innovative organizing around restoring food stamp cuts. Of course, a real anti-poverty agenda involves not just improving the safety net but raising the minimum wage, strengthening union rights, increasing spending on both preschool and higher education and restoring fairness and progressivity to the tax code. None of those things is going to happen with the current Congress.

But the Democrats’ new strength and political savvy on unemployment insurance is just more evidence that the party is no longer exclusively playing defense when it comes to an economic populist agenda. If progressives can demonstrate real political benefits to that agenda, expect cowardly Blue Dog Dems and even some Republicans to see the light.


Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, December 23, 2013

December 24, 2013 Posted by | Minimum Wage, Poverty | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Duck And Jackass Dynasty”: Has It Become Acceptable Again For An American Politician To Embrace Unashamed Bigotry?

I got the gist of the “Duck Dynasty” thing after my first and only viewing: bunch of rural jackasses who somehow struck it rich get brought into our living rooms to be laughed at by the rest of us aristocrats.

Well, all right. When the archetype first appeared on television via the “Beverly Hillbillies” it was also enormously popular, but also taken as an illustration of how TV was living down to its condemnation by FCC Chairman Newton Minow as a “vast wasteland.”

In any event, A&E knew what it was doing when it put these people on the air, so its show of indignation in “suspending” one of them for speaking out against gays and the aspirations of African Americans falls a little flat.

What’s truly ghastly, however, is the reaction of a couple of political figures. Sarah Palin‘s opinion isn’t worth the eleven words I’ve just written to dismiss it. But Bobby Jindal still holds down office as the governor of Louisiana. That raises the question: Has it become acceptable again for an American politician to embrace unashamed bigotry?

In the old days, news that public funds (via the Louisiana state film and television incentive program) had helped finance racism and gay-bashing of the variety espoused by Phil Robertson, the outspoken duck dynast, would have presented a moral dilemma and created a political embarrassment for a governor. Most self-respecting political leaders would have run away from association with such views; that’s the essence, after all, of the “leadership” part of the equation.

Not for Jindal. His only public statement on the matter thus far has praised Robertson as a member of a family of “great citizens of the State of Louisiana.” He defends Robertson’s views on the “it’s a free country” principle, which as a debating point generally gets dropped by most people before the fourth grade. “Everyone is entitled to express their views,” he says.

In Jindal’s seven-sentence statement, not a word of defense for gay people so crudely mocked by Robertson. Not a word to remind us that the life of black sharecroppers in Louisiana’s Jim Crow era was not “godly” or “happy.”

In January of this year, Jindal lectured his fellow Republicans on the need to “stop being the stupid party.” Remember? He talked about how the Republican brand had been damaged by its candidates’ “offensive and bizarre comments.” That was supposed to represent the launch of a new GOP outreach to communities that had been excluded by Republican doctrine, including the gay and minority communities.

But that was eleven months ago. Now, according to Jindal, Republicans are supposed to embrace offensive and bizarre comments. The party’s transformation into a marginal and regional movement thus continues. Jindal has made himself the biggest jackass in the story, and his career as a national political figure the thing to be laughed at.


By: Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2013

December 24, 2013 Posted by | Bigotry, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Millions And Millions”: How Many People Has Obamacare Helped?

As the deadline to sign up for an insurance policy that takes effect in 2014 passes on December 23, the next crucial step in the debate about the future of the Affordable Care Act begins.

On January 1, Republicans will make the case that because of the estimated five million cancelation notices that went out last year, more people are uninsured under the president’s signature legislative accomplishment than newly insured.

The White House is preparing to rebut that argument aggressively. Last week, an administration official asserted that only about 10 percent of those who received those notices had not found a replacement plan, as most were offered another option by their current insurer. The remaining 500,000 or so have been offered a special exemption from the individual mandate.

But it will be almost impossible to know right away if the number of net insured went up in January, The Washington Post‘s Sarah Kliff explained on Friday.

“It’s the exact opposite of weather forecasting,” Stan Dorn, a senior expert at the Urban Institute, told Kliff. “There, you can be pretty confident of what will happen tomorrow but no idea about the future. Here it’s the reverse: Over time there will be significant gains, but that will take years, not months.”

All we have now is estimates, as some states are reporting signups and some are announcing actual enrollment numbers. As of Friday, 3.3 million people had signed up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act, with at least 970,000 of them having enrolled in private insurance plans, according to

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story, Campaign for America’s Future’s Dave Johnson points out:

—71 million Americans on private insurance have gained coverage for at least one free preventive health care service such as a mammogram, birth control, or an immunization in 2011 and 2012. In the first 11 months of 2013 alone, an additional 25 million people with traditional Medicare have received at least one preventive service at no out-of-pocket cost.

—Up to 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions—including up to 17 million children —will no longer have to worry about being denied health coverage or charged higher premiums because of their health status.

—Approximately 60 million Americans have gained expanded mental health and substance use disorder benefits and/or federal parity protections.

—41 million uninsured Americans will have new health insurance options through Medicaid or private health plans in the Marketplace. Nearly 6 in 10 of these individuals could pay less than $100 per month for coverage.

—Consumers have saved $5 billion over the past two years due to a new requirement that insurance companies have to spend at least 80 percent of premium dollars on care for patients (at least 85 percent for large group insurers). If they don’t, they must send consumers a rebate. In 2013, 8.5 million enrollees will receive rebates averaging $100 per family.

—Insurance companies must submit premium increases of 10 percent or more for review by experts. In 2012, 6.8 million Americans saved an estimated $1.2 billion on health insurance premiums after their insurers cut back on planned increases as a result of this process.

—Since the health care law was enacted, more than 7 million seniors and people with disabilities have saved an average of $1,200 per person on prescription drugs as the health care law closes Medicare’s “donut hole.”

—Over three million young adults have gained health insurance because they can now stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26.

—Individuals no longer have to worry about having their health benefits cut off after they reach a lifetime limit on benefits. Starting in January, 105 million Americans will no longer have to worry about annual limits, either.

—Using funds available through the Affordable Care Act, health centers are expanding access to care by building new sites and renovating existing sites. Health centers served approximately 21 million patients in 2012.

The millions and millions of people who’ve been helped by the law won’t be counted as the press tries to game out if Obamacare will reach the seven million private insurance signups the Congressional Budget Office predicted for its first year. But they’re definitely out there, and they’d be among the millions who would be affected if the GOP is ever successful in repealing the law.


By: Jason Sattler, The National Memo, December 22, 2013

December 24, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Obamacare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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