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“A Ransom By Any Other Name”: The Larger Concern Is That Republican Tactics Are Too Dangerous And Destructive

Words have power and meaning, especially in politics, which is why the parties and their pollsters invest so much energy in choosing the most effective phrases possible. Fox News didn’t push “slimdown” as an ideologically pleasing alternative to “shutdown” for entertainment’s sake — it’s about winning an argument by defining the parameters of the debate.

Professional news organizations are often careful on this front because they don’t want to advance one set of talking points over another, and this in turn sometimes leads to interesting media pushback.

Last week, for example, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney used a variety of metaphors during a press briefing to describe congressional Republicans extortion strategies, but as Scott Wilson noted, one in particular was not well received.

[I]t was “ransom” — a word Obama has used repeatedly to describe Republican negotiating tactics — that struck the last press corps nerve. The usual briefing room decorum, such as it is, broke down entirely when Carney said finally that Obama would sign a debt-ceiling extension but not if it meant “paying a ransom” to Republicans.

“The president will not pay ransom for … ” Carney began.

“You see it as a ransom, but it’s a metaphor that doesn’t serve our purposes … ” NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro shouted back with broad support from other confused reporters.

There’s an official transcript online if you want to see the complete context, but it appears that “ransom” was a bridge too far for some of the journalists covering the White House.

I’m not unsympathetic to reporters’ concerns — “ransom” is not exactly a neutral term. Republicans have acknowledged publicly that they’ve held the debt ceiling “hostage,” but they have not gone so far as to accept “ransom” as a broadly agreed upon term.

But under the circumstances, I’m also not sure which word would satisfy the political establishment as less shrill.

Congressional Republicans threatened a government shutdown unless their demands were met, then they threatened a debt-ceiling crisis, too. GOP officials not only embraced the word “hostage” and threatened to do deliberate harm to the country unless they were satisfied by Democratic offers, but they also said they expected Democrats to make concessions in exchange for nothing — except the release of their metaphorical hostages.

If “ransom” is excessive, what’s the alternative that’s both temperate and accurate? Payoff? Is that better or worse?

It’s challenging to apply terms to circumstances like these, in large part because the conditions are so unusual. We’re just not accustomed to seeing major political parties threaten the nation with deliberate harm in order to get their way, and these radical tactics force us to use descriptions that would probably be overly harsh during more traditional political times.

Sometimes, though, a word may be provocative, and may even carry a politically charged meaning, but it may also be right. In the case of the latest Republican hostage crisis, I’d argue the larger concern isn’t whether “ransom” is too mean but whether the tactics are too dangerous.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 14, 2013

October 15, 2013 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, Government Shut Down, Republicans | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Disarming A Weapon Of Economic Destruction”: The Debt-Ceiling Crisis To End All Debt-Ceiling Crises

The most important fact about the shutdown crisis, which is soon to become the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, is that Democrats are not making any demands. The only thing they want is for the government to reopen and for the United States not to default. Since these are things Republicans also claim they want, they can’t be considered demands. Republicans, on the other hand, have lots of demands, even if they keep changing. That’s why the current Republican talking point—”Why won’t the Democrats negotiate?”—is fundamentally misleading. One way for this whole thing to end is for Republicans to give up their demands and admit they’ve lost. Unsurprisingly, they’re reluctant to do this. But what if Democrats started making a demand of their own?

Today, White House press secretary Jay Carney said something encouraging: that Barack Obama is never again going to negotiate over the debt ceiling. “Whether it’s today, or a number of weeks from now, or a number of months from now, or a number of years from now, it will always be Congress’s responsibility to raise our debt ceiling so that the United States can pay the bills that Congress has incurred,” Carney said. “It will always be, as long as he’s president, President Obama’s position that that responsibility is not negotiable. That there’s not a game of trading for political priorities or agenda items that Republicans have not been able to achieve through legislation or the ballot box.”

That’s a good start, but how about this. As part of the resolution to the crisis, Obama should demand that whatever agreement they come to include eliminating the debt ceiling. Not raise it, blast it to oblivion. The fact that we have a debt ceiling at all is ridiculous. It essentially requires Congress to approve every budget twice, once to spend the money, and once to pay the bills for the money they just spent. There’s only one other democracy in the world (Denmark) that has such a thing, and they set theirs high enough that it never matters. In the days before the Republican Party descended into madness, the debt ceiling was nothing more than an occasion for some harmless grandstanding by the opposition party, but now it has become a weapon of economic destruction that needs to be disarmed. So get rid of it. If Republicans don’t want the country to take on debt, they can try to put together a balanced budget and see if it can pass. But this insanity has to stop, and the way to do it is to take away the minority party’s ability to initiate what Bloomberg News calls “an economic calamity like none the world has ever seen.”

That’s what Obama ought to demand.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 7, 2013

October 8, 2013 Posted by | Debt Ceiling | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Government By A La Carte”: House Republican’s Goal, Shut Down The Government With No Political Repercussions

Plan A was for the House to pass a spending measure that gutted the Affordable Care Act, which the Senate could then clean up and send on to the White House. Plan B was the House bill to go ahead and defund the health care law and dare the Senate to pass it. Plan C was the House bill to delay health care benefits for a year and dare the Senate again.

Plan D was a half-hearted House Republican effort to embrace budget talks that House Republicans spent six months avoiding. And Plan E is, well, kind of silly.

House Republican leaders Tuesday told rank-and-file members that they will attempt to pass several separate bills to reopen the government a few agencies at a time.

A GOP aide confirmed that leaders want next steps to include passage of a series of continuing resolutions that fund individual government programs — an idea floated by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Monday.

Why House Republicans don’t just make Cruz the Speaker and get it over with is unclear.

Regardless, this new plan is hilarious. Republicans could pass a center-right spending bill and end the shutdown, but what they’d prefer to do is break up the federal spending bill into chunks, and slowly turn the lights on piecemeal. Staffers were referring today to “mini-CRs.”

The idea, apparently, is to identify the parts of the Republicans’ shutdown that make the public upset, then pass a spending measure that resolves just that part of the crisis while leaving the rest of the government shut down. Americans are annoyed by closed federal parks? No sweat, Republicans say, they’ll pass a mini-CR that provides funding to reopen the parks — and nothing else.

And then when some other part of the shutdown creates public pressure, presumably Republicans would consider flipping the switch on that, too. The goal, apparently, is to shut down the government without feeling the political repercussions of a wildly unpopular government shutdown.


It didn’t take long for Democratic policymakers to dismiss the nonsense.

“We just decided in there we’re not going to do that,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said after leaving Tuesday’s Senate Democratic Conference meeting.

White House spokesman Jay Carney also ripped the idea as “not serious.”

“If they want to open the government, they should open the government,” Carney said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it “just another whacky idea.” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) asked why opening federal parks is more important than “ensuring seniors, poor mothers, and children have access to meals and critical services?” A senior Senate Democratic aide said the House gimmick has “no chance” of success.

House Republicans can either keep their shutdown going, or they end this fiasco. The time for stunts, gimmicks, and partial pseudo solutions has long since passed.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 1, 2013

October 2, 2013 Posted by | Government Shut Down, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“All They Have Is Their Anger”: Why Republicans Can’t Destroy President Obama

Over the past few years, liberals like me have pointed out countless times that the Republican party was being (or would be soon, as the case might have been) terribly damaged by the ideological extremism and general nuttiness of the faction that took over the party between 2009 and 2010. But we have to be honest and acknowledge that it didn’t always work out that way. They were able to win a number of tangible victories despite the fact that the public doesn’t look favorably on the things they wanted to do. In many cases, an extremist Republican ousted a perfectly conservative Republican in a primary, and now the extremist Republican is in possession of a safe seat. And of course, they won a huge victory in the 2010 elections. For all the fun we’ve had at the expense of people like Michele Bachmann, the damage they did to the GOP wasn’t always as serious as we thought it would be.

But I think we’re seeing the limits that the House Republicans’ extremism imposes on their ability to accomplish a practical political task. The task in question is taking full advantage of an administration scandal or two in order to do maximum damage to the President. And they can’t seem to manage it.

Let’s look, for instance, at the point man on all these questions, Darrell Issa, who runs the House Oversight Committee. On Sunday, in an impolitic moment, Issa called White House spokesman Jay Carney Obama’s “paid liar,” making him seem not like a sober-minded investigator looking for the truth, but an angry partisan. Sensing an opening, David Plouffe tweeted, “Strong words from Mr Grand Theft Auto and suspected arsonist/insurance swindler. And loose ethically today.” Plouffe was referring to some rather colorful episodes from Issa’s pre-politics career (details here); though he was never convicted of anything, there were credible charges on both counts. In any case, it makes him something of an imperfect messenger for suggestions of administration wrongdoing.

But more importantly, Issa just doesn’t seem to be all that effective at this role. You might say that even if the Republicans had a real ace in that chairmanship it wouldn’t much matter, because the facts of the mini-scandals just don’t leave them much to work with. On the ultimate questions, like “Can they impeach the President over this?” that’s probably true, but along the way they might be having more of an impact.

And Issa isn’t the only one making himself look a little foolish. You’ve got all kinds of Republican members of Congress, including quite influential ones, talking about a fictional White House “enemies list” and making one baseless accusation after another which fall apart under even cursory scrutiny. As Steve Benen says, “Initially, GOP leaders saw value in avoiding cheap shots—they knew that if the story became a partisan food fight, it wouldn’t be taken seriously, and the political costs to President Obama would be limited. But as is usually the case, the overreach instinct among Republican partisans is simply uncontrollable.”

I think these kinds of outbursts happen because hatred today’s Republicans have for Barack Obama is completely genuine. If you compare it to how Newt Gingrich felt about Bill Clinton, it has a much harder edge. Yes, Gingrich wanted to destroy Clinton (and his rank-and-file despised Clinton), but he was driven more than anything else by his own grandiosity. He made plenty of strategic miscalculations, but it wasn’t because his rage got the better of him.

Anger can be useful. It motivates your supporters to work, organize, and vote. But eventually it can be your undoing if what the moment requires is something more careful and methodical. And there isn’t even anyone leading and coordinating this effort. It isn’t Issa, who’s blundering about. It isn’t John Boehner, who can barely hang on to his job (read this story, which contains the interesting news that a group of House Republicans were about to oust Boehner until God told them to back off for a while). Nobody’s in charge. All they know is that they hate Barack Obama, but that isn’t nearly enough.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, June 5, 2013

June 6, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Politics | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Here’s To Honesty And Ethics”: Mr. Grand Theft Auto, Arsonist, And Hit And Run Driver Darrell Issa Gets A Brush-Back Pitch

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), no doubt frustrated his efforts to manufacture White House scandals have faltered, started to lose his composure on CNN yesterday. Perhaps more interesting was the response from a close ally to President Obama.

After lashing out at White House Press Secretary Jay Carney as a “paid liar” — an attack seemingly based on nothing — the California Republican argued without proof that top Obama administration officials were responsible for the IRS controversy. Under scrutiny, however, Issa’s argument quickly crumbled, relying on out-of-context quotes.

It was, however, this reaction from David Plouffe that caught my eye. In President Obama’s inner circle, few are as influential as Plouffe, who ran the Obama campaign in 2008 and served as a White House Senior Adviser to the president up until late January of this year. So when he’s calling the chairman on the House Oversight Committee “Mr. Grand Theft Auto” and a “suspected arsonist/insurance swindler,” it reflects a striking escalation.

Unlike Issa’s rhetorical jabs, Plouffe’s brush-back pitch at least has the benefit of accuracy. As we discussed a few weeks ago, Issa, the man Republicans have tasked with leading investigations into alleged administration misdeeds, really has spent a fair amount of his adult life as a suspected criminal. This Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker from a couple of years ago remains relevant.

“Many politicians have committed indiscretions in earlier years: maybe they had an affair or hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Issa, it turned out, had, among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.”

This is generally one of those truths the political world knows, but chooses not to talk about. It’s not a secret — Issa’s background is the subject of insider jokes and private chatter — but it’s considered impolite to broach the subject publicly.

Which makes Plouffe’s rhetorical shot all the more interesting.

For the record, Lizza’s report on Issa highlighted one run-in with the law after another, including arrests and indictments. There are also many suspected crimes — he’s accused of deliberately burning down a building and threatening a former employee with a gun — which did not lead to formal charges, but which nevertheless cast the congressman in a less-than-flattering light.

The New Yorker report also noted an incident in which Issa was in a car accident with a woman who needed to be hospitalized. He drove away before the police could arrive because, as he told the person he hit, he didn’t have time to wait. Issa didn’t face charges, but he was sued over the matter, and agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

And in case those angles weren’t quite enough, the same article also noted instances in which Issa appears to have lied about his background.

The congressman, for example, claimed to receive the “highest possible” ratings during his Army career, despite the fact that at one point he “received unsatisfactory conduct and efficiency ratings and was transferred to a supply depot.” Issa also claimed to have provided security for President Nixon in 1971, which wasn’t true, and said he won a national Entrepreneur of the Year award, but didn’t.

Perhaps he’s not the kind of guy who should casually throw around words like “liar.”

But the key takeaway here is the fact that Plouffe was willing to go there in the first place, as if to say to Issa, “You want a fight over honesty and ethics? That’s a great idea.” What’s more, also keep in mind that if Democrats seriously pursue this as a line of criticism, Issa and his allies will be cautious in pushing back because they’d prefer not to have this conversation at all — the last thing Republicans want now is a discussion about Issa’s scandalous background and whether he’s the best person available to lead investigations into others’ suspected wrongdoing.

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June, 3, 2013

June 4, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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