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“The Sky Is Falling!”: The Coming Return Of “Dems In Disarray!”

Be warned: “Dems In Disarray” is on its way back. That phrase is familiar to you if you’re a reader of the political press, because it has appeared in headlines so often it became a cliché long ago. The bitter joke among professional liberals is that political reporters are so predisposed to write about Democratic infighting that it will be applied to anything; if two Democratic members of Congress go to lunch and one orders a hamburger while the other gets a chicken sandwich, the reporter at the next table will start writing his “Dems In Disarray!” story.

Or at least that was the case for as long as anyone could remember, until Republican intra-party conflicts became so intense that they dominated everyone’s attention. And for the last few years, Democrats have been uncharacteristically unified, in both their policy goals and their tactics. But with likely losses in the upcoming midterm elections, followed by the winding down of the Obama presidency, we’re going to be hearing more and more about internal Democratic disagreement.

The stories are just starting to trickle in now. Here’s Politico, writing about how state and local Democratic officials are “going rogue” and taking on the Obama administration over policy. There are the endless stories about the Democrats wishing the President would play less golf, and the stories about Democrats who wish he would invite them along. As we get closer to November, we’ll probably be seeing more and more about Dem candidates “distancing” themselves from Obama, doing what’s best for themselves instead of what’s (supposedly) best for their party.

It isn’t that there’s something inaccurate about these stories in and of themselves. But if there is a change afoot, it has less to do with any sudden increase in Democratic disagreement than it does with some completely predictable political factors.

The first is the midterm election. Democrats could do almost everything right from here to November and still have a terrible night on November 4th. Redistricting and a more efficient distribution of voters have left Republicans with a built-in advantage in the House, so that they can hold on to a comfortable majority even if more people vote for Democrats for Congress, as happened in 2012. In the Senate, Democrats are defending more seats than Republicans this year, many of which are in conservative states. The Democrats running in those states would have to distance themselves from any Democratic president, but particularly one who’s so hated by conservative voters.

Then there’s the fact that the Obama presidency is approaching its final two years. At such a time, every ambitious Democrat is going to look for ways to forge a unique identity and elevate their profile. That means both more disagreement with the White House, and more competition for attention between Democrats, even those who aren’t running for president.

So there may in fact be less Democratic unity than we’ve seen in recent years. At the same time, it’ll be easy to make too much of the supposed disarray. At the moment it doesn’t look like there’s going to be much of a contest for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, a truly remarkable fact. While there are some policy differences within the party, you don’t see organized factions squaring off against each other in any meaningful way. There may be a “fight for the soul of the GOP” going on, but Democrats aren’t doing much soul-fighting.

And while there is some simmering displeasure with the President over issues like government surveillance and immigration, his approval among Democrats actually remains fairly high. His current approval among Democrats — around 80 percent — is where he’s been for significant portions of his presidency. That approval was in the 90s in the initial honeymoon period, then stayed around 80 percent for most of 2010 and 2011, then rose back up in the election year of 2012 as partisan loyalties became more salient, then settled back again. As a point of comparison, George W. Bush’s approval among Republicans fell as low as 55 percent in the final months of his presidency.

So when you see those “Dems In Disarray” headlines, not just this year but in the waning days of the Obama presidency, keep in mind that unless there’s a dramatic change, there won’t actually be anywhere near the level of “disarray” that these accounts suggest.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, August 25, 2014

August 27, 2014 Posted by | Democrats, Media, Midterm Elections | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Show Us Your Model”: Once Again, Republicans Outraged By Facts, Especially When They’re Complex And Sophisticated

It might be easy to believe we’re approaching Peak Trutherism, what with good old-fashioned birthers now being supplemented by BLS truthers and poll truthers. But just you wait—should Barack Obama win this election, we’ll see an explosion of election trutherism that will be truly unprecedented in scope. In the meantime, we can content ourselves with the newest variant, Nate Silver trutherism, which isn’t coming just from conservatives.

In case you don’t know, Silver runs the blog FiveThirtyEight, which after producing a series of highly accurate predictions during the 2008 campaign got swallowed up by The New York Times. Silver makes electoral projections by taking as many different polls as he can find and running them through an algorithm. Rather than just averaging the polls’ results, the algorithm uses a series of variables, including state polls and each pollster’s prior record, to produce a number of different estimates. As of today he gives Obama a 77.4 percent chance of winning, higher than it has been at some points but not too far off from where he has estimated for most of the campaign.

In the last few days, we’ve seen a couple of different Silver narratives emerge as attention to him has increased. First, you have stories about how liberals are obsessing over Silver, “clinging” to him like a raft in a roiling sea of ambiguous poll data. Then you have the backlash, with conservatives criticizing him not because they have a specific critique of the techniques he uses, but basically because they disagree with his conclusions (No way is Obama going to win!) and because he’s a liberal so therefore he must be intentionally warping his data to produce more Obama-friendly results. For instance, Joe Scarborough recently declared that Silver has to be wrong, because while Silver says Obama has an advantage, Scarborough knows the race is a toss-up, which I guess he feels in his gut. The most hilarious criticism came in this column in The Examiner, which noted, “Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice.” So there.

Then you’ve got the reporter backlash. At Politico, Dylan Byers raised the possibility that Silver would be completely discredited if Mitt Romney won, because “it’s difficult to see how people can continue to put faith in the predictions of someone who has never given that candidate anything higher than a 41 percent chance of winning.” But of course, if you say there’s a 41 percent chance of something happening and then it happens, you wouldn’t actually be discredited, because 41 is not zero. And that’s not even mentioning the huge number of pollsters who make absurdly wrong predictions all the time and continue to ply their trade. Furthermore, as Ezra Klein points out, a lot of these criticisms come from writers at Politico, the most strategy-obsessed, who-won-the-day publication there is. Looking at the election’s eventual outcome systematically is almost an affront to their business model.

But Silver is only a threat to reporters if they see explaining who is going to win as their primary job. And if that’s how they see their job, they really ought to apologize to the public and find another career. Because there are few things as useless to the citizenry as a reporter giving his or her opinion on who is going to win.

After all, there are lots of interesting and revealing things going on in campaigns. There’s a debate about where the country is now, where it has been, and where it ought to go. There are interesting characters we can learn about. There are policy issues aplenty. Even the dramatic moments of the campaign can be reported on and examined without asking, “Will this change the race?” I’m not saying you have to banish any of the who’s-up-who’s down stuff completely (I certainly talk about it here), but if you actually feel threatened by someone coming along with a persuasive answer to the question of who’s going to win that wasn’t derived from listening to campaign spinners, then you really ought to re-examine what you’re doing.

Finally, let me address the question of Silver’s liberal fans. Do they love the fact that he gives them reason to feel optimistic? Sure. But that’s only half the reason they love him. If he were not as rigorous as he is but was producing the same results, liberals wouldn’t be as taken with him as they are. There are Democratic polling outfits out there, and while liberal blogs might cite them fairly often, none of them have produced the same devotion Nate has. On the other hand, would liberals be as interested in Silver if his analysis consistently predicted a Romney win? Probably not. In other words, it took both to make Silver a liberal hero. His projections had to make liberals feel optimistic, and he had to be going about things in the kind of nuanced, detailed way he is. Liberals are pleased as punch that the thing they want to be true can be supported by a highly complex and sophisticated analysis. They want to feel good, but they also want to feel smart.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, November 1, 2012

November 2, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joe Scarborough And The Straw Man Problem

Joe Scarborough has an op-ed in Politico premised entirely on the false premise that left-wingers who once “condemned [President Bush] as an immoral beast who killed women and children to get his bloody hands on Iraqi oil” have now “meekly went along” with President Obama’s Libya intervention.

Now, there are all kinds of things wrong with this argument. For one, there are some massive differences in the two cases. Scarborough describes the Libya intervention as an “invasion,” but that’s quite a stretch given that no ground troops are involved. Libya is a multilateral response to an imminent massacre, while Iraq was neither. Third, and worst of all, those who most fervently opposed the Iraq invasion — the blood for oil folks described by Scarborough — are all opposed to the Libya intervention. Has he not been following the debate on this?

The whole failure of Scarborough’s argument points to one of my professional hobbyhorses, which is the need for opinion journalists to quote the people they’re criticizing. It’s a really simple step, but it’s absolutely vital, one that allows your readers to see if the belief you’re attacking is actually held by anybody influential. If Scarborough decided to find some examples of lefties who were wildly denouncing Bush as a wanton murderer of civilians driven by a lust to steal Iraqi oil who also supported the Libya intervention, he’d have quickly discovered that there aren’t any, and that his whole argument is based on a false premise.

Indeed, at the end of his op-ed, Scarborough does cite one real life-example — Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who he calls “one of the few liberals to take a principled stand.” But she’s not the exception. She’s just the one actual case study he bothered to look at.

Now, calling people out by name is sort of rude, and the most prestigious outlets of opinion journalism tend to shy away from it. I believe New York Times columnists are actually instructed not to argue with each other in print, which leads to these weird “Tell Joe I won’t pass the salt until he apologizes” indirect debates. It’s probably no surprise that a chummy guy like Scarborough would only want to name liberals he praises, while leaving the targets of his criticism unnamed. But this is a habit of opinion journalism that leads to terrible, straw man arguments.

By: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, March 29, 2011

March 29, 2011 Posted by | Ideologues, Iraq, Libya, Middle East, Neo-Cons, Politics, Right Wing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year: ‘A government takeover of health care’

In the spring of 2009, a Republican strategist settled on a brilliant and powerful attack line for President Barack Obama’s ambitious plan to overhaul America’s health insurance system. Frank Luntz, a consultant famous for his phraseology, urged GOP leaders to call it a “government takeover.”

“Takeovers are like coups,” Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo. “They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.”

The line stuck. By the time the health care bill was headed toward passage in early 2010, Obama and congressional Democrats had sanded down their program, dropping the “public option” concept that was derided as too much government intrusion. The law passed in March, with new regulations, but no government-run plan.

But as Republicans smelled serious opportunity in the midterm elections, they didn’t let facts get in the way of a great punchline. And few in the press challenged their frequent assertion that under Obama, the government was going to take over the health care industry.

PolitiFact editors and reporters have chosen “government takeover of health care” as the 2010 Lie of the Year. Uttered by dozens of politicians and pundits, it played an important role in shaping public opinion about the health care plan and was a significant factor in the Democrats’ shellacking in the November elections.

Readers of PolitiFact, the St. Petersburg Times‘ independent fact-checking website, also chose it as the year’s most significant falsehood by an overwhelming margin. (Their second-place choice was Rep. Michele Bachmann’s claim that Obama was going to spend $200 million a day on a trip to India, a falsity that still sprouts.)

By selecting “government takeover’ as Lie of the Year, PolitiFact is not making a judgment on whether the health care law is good policy.

The phrase is simply not true.

Said Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill:  “The label ‘government takeover” has no basis in reality, but instead reflects a political dynamic where conservatives label any increase in government authority in health care as a ‘takeover.’ ”

An inaccurate claim

“Government takeover” conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the law Congress passed, parts of which have already gone into effect, relies largely on the free market:

Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies.

• Contrary to the claim, more people will get private health coverage. The law sets up “exchanges” where private insurers will compete to provide coverage to people who don’t have it.

• The government will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors.

• The law does not include the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurers.

• The law gives tax credits to people who have difficulty affording insurance, so they can buy their coverage from private providers on the exchange. But here too, the approach relies on a free market with regulations, not socialized medicine.

PolitiFact reporters have studied the 906-page bill and interviewed independent health care experts. We have concluded it is inaccurate to call the plan a government takeover because it relies largely on the existing system of health coverage provided by employers.

It’s true that the law does significantly increase government regulation of health insurers. But it is, at its heart, a system that relies on private companies and the free market.

Republicans who maintain the Democratic plan is a government takeover say that characterization is justified because the plan increases federal regulation and will require Americans to buy health insurance.

But while those provisions are real, the majority of Americans will continue to get coverage from private insurers. And it will bring new business for the insurance industry: People who don”t currently have coverage will get it, for the most part, from private insurance companies.

Consider some analogies about strict government regulation. The Federal Aviation Administration imposes detailed rules on airlines. State laws require drivers to have car insurance. Regulators tell electric utilities what they can charge. Yet that heavy regulation is not described as a government takeover.

This year, PolitiFact analyzed five claims of a “government takeover of health care.” Three were rated Pants on Fire, two were rated False.

‘Can’t do it in four words’

Other news organizations have also said the claim is false.

Slate said “the proposed health care reform does not take over the system in any sense.’ In a New York Times economics blog, Princeton University professor Uwe Reinhardt, an expert in health care economics, said, “Yes, there would be a substantial government-mandated reorganization of this relatively small corner of the private health insurance market (that serves people who have been buying individual policies). But that hardly constitutes a government takeover of American health care.”

FactCheck.org, an independent fact-checking group run by the University of Pennsylvania, has debunked it several times, calling it one of the “whoppers” about health care and saying the reform plan is neither “government-run” nor a “government takeover.”

We asked incoming House Speaker John Boehner’s office why Republican leaders repeat the phrase when it has repeatedly been shown to be incorrect. Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, replied, “We believe that the job-killing ObamaCare law will result in a government takeover of health care. That’s why we have pledged to repeal it, and replace it with common-sense reforms that actually lower costs.”

Analysts say health care reform is such a complicated topic that it often cannot be summarized in snappy talking points.

“If you’re going to tell the truth about something as complicated as health care and health care reform, you probably need at least four sentences,” said Maggie Mahar, author of Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much. “You can”t do it in four words.”

Mahar said the GOP simplification distorted the truth about the plan. “Doctors will not be working for the government. Hospitals will not be owned by the government,” she said. “That’s what a government takeover of health care would mean, and that’s not at all what we”re doing.”

How the line was used

If you followed the health care debate or the midterm election – even casually – it’s likely you heard “government takeover” many times.

PolitiFact sought to count how often the phrase was used in 2010 but found an accurate tally was unfeasible because it had been repeated so frequently in so many places. It was used hundreds of times during the debate over the bill and then revived during the fall campaign. A few numbers:

• The phrase appears more than 90 times on Boehner’s website, GOPLeader.gov.

• It was mentioned eight times in the 48-page Republican campaign platform “A Pledge to America” as part of their plan to “repeal and replace the government takeover of health care.”

• The Republican National Committee’s website mentions a government takeover of health care more than 200 times.

Conservative groups and tea party organizations joined the chorus. It was used by FreedomWorks, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

The phrase proliferated in the media even after Democrats dropped the public option. In 2010 alone, “government takeover” was mentioned 28 times in the Washington Post, 77 times in Politico and 79 times on CNN. A review of TV transcripts showed “government takeover” was primarily used as a catchy sound bite, not for discussions of policy details.

In most transcripts we examined, Republican leaders used the phrase without being challenged by interviewers. For example, during Boehner’s Jan. 31 appearance on Meet the Press, Boehner said it five times. But not once was he challenged about it.

In rare cases when the point was questioned, the GOP leader would recite various regulations found in the bill and insist that they constituted a takeover. But such followups were rare.

An effective phrase

Politicians and officials in the health care industry have been warning about a “government takeover” for decades.

The phrase became widely used in the early 1990s when President Bill Clinton was trying to pass health care legislation.  Then, as today, Democrats tried to debunk the popular Republican refrain.

When Obama proposed his health plan in the spring of 2009, Luntz, a Republican strategist famous for his research on effective phrases, met with focus groups to determine which messages would work best for the Republicans. He did not respond to calls and e-mails from PolitiFact asking him to discuss the phrase.

The 28-page memo he wrote after those sessions, “The Language of Healthcare 2009,” provides a rare glimpse into the art of finding words and phrases that strike a responsive chord with voters.

The memo begins with “The 10 Rules for Stopping the ‘Washington Takeover’ of Healthcare.”  Rule No. 4 says people “are deathly afraid that a government takeover will lower their quality of care – so they are extremely receptive to the anti-Washington approach. It’s not an economic issue. It’s a bureaucratic issue.”

The memo is about salesmanship, not substance. It doesn’t address whether the lines are accurate. It just says they are effective and that Republicans should use them. Indeed, facing a Democratic plan that actually relied on the free market to try to bring down costs, Luntz recommended sidestepping that inconvenient fact:

“The arguments against the Democrats’ healthcare plan must center around politicians, bureaucrats and Washington … not the free market, tax incentives or competition.”

Democrats tried to combat the barrage of charges about a government takeover. The White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly put out statements, but they were drowned out by a disciplined GOP that used the phrase over and over.

Democrats could never agree on their own phrases and were all over the map in their responses, said Howard Dean, former head of the Democratic National Committee.

“It was uncoordinated. Everyone had their own idea,” Dean said in an interview with PolitiFact.

“The Democrats are atrocious at messaging,” he said. “They’ve gotten worse since I left, not better. It’s just appalling. First of all, you don”t play defense when you”re doing messaging, you play offense. The Republicans have learned this well.”

Dean grudgingly admires the Republican wordsmith. “Frank Luntz has it right, he just works for the wrong side. You give very simple catch phrases that encapsulate the philosophy of the bill.”

A responsive chord

By March of this year, when Obama signed the bill into law, 53 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg poll said they agreed that “the current proposal to overhaul health care amounts to a government takeover.”

Exit polls showed the economy was the top issue for voters in the November election, but analysts said the drumbeat about the “government takeover” during the campaign helped cement the advantage for the Republicans.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat whose provision for Medicare end-of-life care was distorted into the charge of “death panels” (last year’s Lie of the Year), said the Republicans’ success with the phrase was a matter of repetition.

“There was a uniformity of Republican messaging that was disconnected from facts,” Blumenauer said. “The sheer discipline . . . was breathtaking.”

By: Bill Adair, Angie Drobnic Holan, PolitiFact-December 16th, 2010

December 17, 2010 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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