Friday Talking Points [109] -- Obama Enters Lions' Den, Bells Cat

As I sit down to write today's column... oh, excuse me... someone's at the door.

Phone problems? No, we're not having any phone problems, sorry. Tests? Well, OK, I guess you can run a test or two.

Sorry, where was I? Oh, right, today's column. Well, I have to say Obama's first State Of The Union address to a joint session of... what's that?

The punchdown block? You want to examine my phone system's main control box? But the phones are working perfectly... hey, wait a minute... can I see some identification?

Boy, that got rid of them quick!

Ahem. Where was I? Oh, right, last week. Last week, when conservative "journalists" weren't pulling fratboy pranks on federal property (and getting arrested for such -- here's a tip to conservative "gotcha journalism" types: if you're going to do something this risky, might I suggest not doing it in a federal building where the F.B.I. probably has an office on the next floor? I mean, you're making it too easy, guys, really.)


All kidding aside, this was a big week for Obama, and a not-so-big week for Democrats in Congress. Obama followed up Wednesday night's speech with a town hall meeting in Florida, and then a truly stunning performance today, managing to "bell the cat" in the Republican lions' den. More on that in the Talking Points section, though.

Next week, of course, the Tea Party folks are going to be center stage with their convention, which is all but disintegrating before their very eyes. After Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn decided the speaking fee wasn't worth it, the big-ticket headline speaker, Sarah Palin said she would indeed still be attending (and raking in a $100,000-plus fee for doing so). The audience to hear her speak may be a bit thin, though, because this week Mother Jones reported that the tickets weren't selling quite like hotcakes for Sarah's speech, and that in fact many folks are actually demanding refunds. Perhaps they could give the tickets out for free on the sidewalk outside -- an old political trick to assure that Palin won't be speaking to a room full of empty seats. Meanwhile, other Tea Party factions are vowing to either show up and protest the convention, or hold a convention of their own across town.

In other words, stay tuned, next week should be interesting.

But we've got to get on with this week, because we've got a lot to get to, especially in the longer-than-usual Talking Points section at the end.

But before we do, we must mention first that this week was a sad one for New England trivia buffs. Mount Washington, the highest point in New Hampshire, lost its decades-long perch atop the wind speed record list. Since 1934, Mount Washington has been proud that it held the world record for recorded surface wind speed, at a brisk 231 miles per hour (no, that's not a typo). But the World Meteorological Organization just announced that -- 14 years after the fact -- a new record was achieved in 1996 during Typhoon Olivia, at an unmanned weather station on Barrow Island, Australia. The new record blows away the old record (I just couldn't resist that one), clocking in at a screaming 253 miles per hour.

I've been to the top of Mount Washington several times. I highly recommend taking the cog railway up to the top, as it is the coolest tourist thing to do in the entire state of New Hampshire. From the official Mount Washington observatory web page, before we get back to writing about politics:

Mount Washington's 231 mph wind gust remains the fastest surface wind ever observed in the Western and Northern Hemispheres and the fastest wind ever observed at a manned surface station. Mount Washington's bitter cold, freezing fog, heavy snow and legendary wind have contributed to its reputation as being one of the planet's most extreme places, the "Home of the World's Worst Weather".


Once again, this was an easy call this week. Pretty much any week that has a State Of The Union address is going to belong to the president, no matter what else is going on, unless he royally screws the speech up.

President Barack Obama did not. He delivered a speech that was an interesting mix of ideas, with something in the mix for just about everybody. While this didn't cause much of anybody to change their Washington ways overnight, it did set out a certain tone for the rest of the year's agenda from the White House.

Obama appeared a little more emotional than he has been of late, and he appeared to recognize the horrendous job Democrats (himself definitely included) have been doing of selling their ideas. He also recognized the knee-jerk Democratic response to pretty much anything Republicans have to say about them -- which is to either cower in a corner, or (as the president put it) "run for the hills."

Of course, the follow-through on his speech will be vitally important, to see if it truly will change anything. The ball is in Congress' court right now, and so far, congressional Democrats have been, well... um... cowering in a corner as if that ball is a live hand grenade. Sigh. More on that in the next section.

An early test of the president's political acumen will arise within days, or weeks at the most, as the Pentagon is set to deliver a plan on how to get rid of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy of not allowing gay people to openly serve in the military.

This is an interesting case, politically, for a few reasons. When Bill Clinton tried to allow gays to serve in the military, it was a political disaster for him which resulted in him signing the very DADT policy that Obama is now going to attempt to do away.

But it's 2010, not 1993. And American attitudes have changed dramatically on the issue in the meantime. Republicans, however, have not noticed this change yet. They are going to smugly try to block this move, confident that it'll play well with the voters. But again, this is 2010. So we'll see if that turns out to be such a smart strategy for them.

For Obama, this may play very well indeed. He can honestly tell gay rights supporters: "See, when I said I'd get to it, I meant it." And he can make a very strong case that waiting a year was the right thing to do -- because it allowed the Pentagon to (reluctantly) get on board. By telling the generals to prepare their own plan for getting rid of it, Obama has gained some buy-in from the military, as opposed to the pushback that would have resulted in their being told what to do, instead of asked how they could do it. And that may actually give the plan more chance of success, politically.

There's no guarantee it will be successful, I hasten to point out, but my read of the political situation is that taking it slowly may have increased the chances for success. And if it does succeed, it will go a long way toward Obama mending bridges with both gay rights supporters and the far Left. We'll see how it all turns out, but right now the outlook for success is better than it ever has been in the past, so I remain hopeful.

But for Obama's speech in general, and for his appearance today at the Republican enclave (again, more on that in the Talking Points), President Obama has walked away with this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.

[Congratulate President Obama on the White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


While the MIDOTW award was easy to pick this week, the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award was not. Because there were simply too many candidates -- pretty much the entire Democratic caucus in both houses of Congress.

Because that is far too many statuettes to hand out (we're on a budget here), I'm going to symbolically hand out two awards to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Democratic leadership (if that isn't an inherent oxymoron) in Congress was all but non-existent this week, as it was last week. What is going on with healthcare reform? Who knows?

It became painfully obvious that there simply was no "Plan B" after the Massachusetts special election. The Democratic disarray and dissembling was epic last week.

Representative Alan Grayson summed it up best, in a line that normally would have qualified him for MIDOTW, by stating that Americans were going to have a choice this fall between insane Republican ideas, and complete Democratic incoherence. Grayson put it as: "We can't let people around this country think that the only choices between the political parties are the crazies and the lazies." Other Democrats, sadly, have not heeded this message yet.

Now, some might quibble with the term "lazies" (even though it does make for a memorable rhyme), since it is true that running around in circles screaming "The sky is falling!" actually takes a lot of energy.

But it doesn't get you anywhere, in the end.

So, while Pelosi and Reid will have their names engraved on the MDDOTW awards this week, they are really given to pretty much the entire Democratic leadership on the Hill, for wasting yet another two weeks, and acting like there's plenty of time to pass legislation. To which I respond: how did that work out for you guys last year? The clock is ticking, folks. Get it together. Time is running out.

[Contact Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her Speaker contact page, and Majority Leader Harry Reid on his Senate contact page, to let them know what you think of their (in-)actions.]


Volume 109 (1/29/10)

President Obama gave an extraordinary speech today, and then followed it up with an extraordinary question-and-answer session, as well. The "extraordinary" part was the audience he gave this speech to -- the House Republican annual strategy conclave. I can't say with 100 percent accuracy that no sitting president has ever done this before, but I can say that I certainly can't remember it ever happening in my lifetime. This is Daniel going into the lions' den, folks.

Even more extraordinary, while Obama spent his opening remarks offering yet another hand across the aisle to Republicans in a call for at least a tiny bit of bipartisan support, he followed it up during the question period by strongly defending both his record and his goals. The entire session was so out-of-the-ordinary that it deserves a lot more attention than the national media will likely give it.

Because the president actually made the Democratic case on a number of issues. This really shouldn't be extraordinary, but sadly, it is. Because Democrats simply aren't very good at doing so. Bill Clinton was really the last one who could do so consistently, in detail, and in such reasonable tones and language that it convinced the larger audience of the American public as well that his was a position that was principled and well-thought-out.

Today's Friday Talking Points run rather long, but in this case I actually would highly encourage everyone to read the full transcript of Obama's remarks to the Republicans, because it is well worth your time. In fact, we're going to turn over all our talking points to quotes from Obama's question-and-answer session, because other Democrats need some schooling on how to effectively do this stuff right.

Democrats have a chance to do better than people expect in this year's elections. To do so, they have to (1.) deliver on passing intelligent legislation, and (2.) drive home the message that the only thing Republicans are interested in is saying "no" to everything -- even to ideas Republicans came up with.

Because Republicans, right now, are convinced that (as the wife of one of their holy men used to say) "Just Say No!" is a winning election strategy for them.

The only way to counter this is to introduce some doubts. And the only way to do that is to make America see that they're going too far in their obstructionism. Democrats should remember the lesson of Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton's budget battle which shut down the federal government. Newt thought he won that battle, because on the face of it, he did. But in the court of public opinion, Newt lost badly and Clinton gained politically by the whole fracas.

So, Democratic office-holders, reflect on the Gingrich government shutdown -- and the political lessons to be learned from it -- while reading how the president framed some issues today.


   Facts on the economy and deficit

The first answer Obama gave showed two themes he would return to in subsequent answers: facts are facts, and the numbers have to add up. In the first section, Obama addresses Republican complaints about the stimulus package (the Recovery Act), and in the second takes on the idea that "across-the-board" tax cuts can solve every problem, every time.

We had lost 650,000 jobs in December. I'm assuming you're not faulting my policies for that. We had lost, it turns out, 700,000 jobs in January, the month I was sworn in. I'm assuming it wasn't my administration's policies that accounted for that. We lost another 650,000 jobs the subsequent month, before any of my policies had gone into effect. So I'm assuming that wasn't as a consequence of our policies; that doesn't reflect the failure of the Recovery Act. The point being that what ended up happening was that the job losses from this recession proved to be much more severe -- in the first quarter of last year going into the second quarter of last year -- than anybody anticipated.

So I mean, I think we can score political points on the basis of the fact that we underestimated how severe the job losses were going to be. But those job losses took place before any stimulus, whether it was the ones that you guys have proposed or the ones that we proposed, could have ever taken into effect. Now, that's just the fact, Mike, and I don't think anybody would dispute that. You could not find an economist who would dispute that.

Now, at the same time, as I mentioned, most economists -- Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative -- would say that had it not been for the stimulus package that we passed, things would be much worse. Now, they didn't fill a 7 million hole in the number of people who were unemployed. They probably account for about 2 million, which means we still have 5 million folks in there that we've still got to deal with. That's a lot of people.

The package that we put together at the beginning of the year, the truth is, should have reflected -- and I believe reflected what most of you would say are common sense things. This notion that this was a radical package is just not true. A third of them were tax cuts, and they weren't -- when you say they were "boutique" tax cuts, Mike, 95 percent of working Americans got tax cuts, small businesses got tax cuts, large businesses got help in terms of their depreciation schedules. I mean, it was a pretty conventional list of tax cuts. A third of it was stabilizing state budgets.

There is not a single person in here who, had it not been for what was in the stimulus package, wouldn't be going home to more teachers laid off, more firefighters laid off, more cops laid off. A big chunk of it was unemployment insurance and COBRA, just making sure that people had some floor beneath them, and, by the way, making sure that there was enough money in their pockets that businesses had some customers.

You take those two things out, that accounts for the majority of the stimulus package. Are there people in this room who think that was a bad idea? A portion of it was dealing with the AMT, the alternative minimum tax -- not a proposal of mine; that's not a consequence of my policies that we have a tax system where we keep on putting off a potential tax hike that is embedded in the budget that we have to fix each year. That cost about $70 billion.

And then the last portion of it was infrastructure which, as I said, a lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon-cuttings for the same projects that you voted against.

Now, I say all this not to re-litigate the past, but it's simply to state that the component parts of the Recovery Act are consistent with what many of you say are important things to do -- rebuilding our infrastructure, tax cuts for families and businesses, and making sure that we were providing states and individuals some support when the roof was caving in.

And the notion that I would somehow resist doing something that cost half as much but would produce twice as many jobs -- why would I resist that? I wouldn't. I mean, that's my point, is that -- I am not an ideologue. I'm not. It doesn't make sense if somebody could tell me you could do this cheaper and get increased results that I wouldn't say, great. The problem is, I couldn't find credible economists who would back up the claims that you just made.

. . .

Here's what I'm going to do, Mike. What I'm going to do is I'm going to take a look at what you guys are proposing. And the reason I say this, before you say, "Okay," I think is important to know -- what you may consider across-the-board tax cuts could be, for example, greater tax cuts for people who are making a billion dollars. I may not agree to a tax cut for Warren Buffet. You may be calling for an across-the-board tax cut for the banking industry right now. I may not agree to that.

So I think that we've got to look at what specific proposals you're putting forward, and -- this is the last point I'll make -- if you're calling for just across-the-board tax cuts, and then on the other hand saying that we're somehow going to balance our budget, I'm going to want to take a look at your math and see how that works, because the issue of deficit and debt is another area where there has been a tendency for some inconsistent statements. How's that? All right?


   America is falling behind

I wrote about this yesterday, in my thoughts on Obama's State Of The Union. Obama is totally reframing the "clean energy" debate in a masterful way -- it's not about arguing about global warming, it's about America leading the world. If we don't lead, we are destined to follow. Are you going to be the one deny America the chance to be Number One in the future?

The one thing that I've also said, though, and here we have a serious disagreement and my hope is we can work through these disagreements -- there's going to be an effort on the Senate side to do so on a bipartisan basis -- is that we have to plan for the future.

And the future is that clean energy -- cleaner forms of energy are going to be increasingly important, because even if folks are still skeptical in some cases about climate change in our politics and in Congress, the world is not skeptical about it. If we're going to be after some of these big markets, they're going to be looking to see, is the United States the one that's developing clean coal technology? Is the United States developing our natural gas resources in the most effective way? Is the United States the one that is going to lead in electric cars? Because if we're not leading, those other countries are going to be leading.

So what I want to do is work with West Virginia to figure out how we can seize that future. But to do that, that means there's going to have to be some transition. We can't operate the coal industry in the United States as if we're still in the 1920s or the 1930s or the 1950s. We've got to be thinking what does that industry look like in the next hundred years. And it's going to be different. And that means there's going to be some transition. And that's where I think a well-thought-through policy of incentivizing the new while recognizing that there's going to be a transition process -- and we're not just suddenly putting the old out of business right away -- that has to be something that both Republicans and Democrats should be able to embrace.


   Republicans are the ones with radical rhetoric

It's a very weird day in America when Republicans applaud the phrase "Bolshevik plot," I have to say. This is in line with the whole "remember Newt Gingrich" theme -- warn Republicans that they are the ones painting themselves into a corner that may be seen by voters as radical. [Obama is responding to the healthcare reform issue here, for context.]

But if you were to listen to the debate and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot. No, I mean, that's how you guys -- (applause) -- that's how you guys presented it.

And so I'm thinking to myself, well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist -- no, look, I mean, I'm just saying, I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually what many Republicans -- is similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

So all I'm saying is, we've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality. I'm not suggesting that we're going to agree on everything, whether it's on health care or energy or what have you, but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, this guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America.


   Where are your numbers?

The Republicans are all set to make lots of political hay over the fact that they "have ideas" but that they "are ignored" by Democrats. The Democrats need to counter this with the fact that Republicans never offer up actual numbers with any of their plans, or submit them to the Congressional Budget Office (C.B.O.) for independent analysis. "If wishes were horses, all men would ride," in other words. If it cannot be scored in numbers, it is opinion, and not a serious proposal. Drive this point home.

...let's just take the health care debate. And it's probably not constructive for us to try to debate a particular bill -- this isn't the venue to do it. But if you say, "We can offer coverage for all Americans, and it won't cost a penny," that's just not true. You can't structure a bill where suddenly 30 million people have coverage, and it costs nothing.

. . .

[After being interrupted] Let me -- I'm using this as a specific example, so let me answer your question. You asked a question; I want to answer it.

It's not enough if you say, for example, that we've offered a health care plan and I look up -- this is just under the section that you've just provided me, or the book that you just provided me -- summary of GOP health care reform bill: The GOP plan will lower health care premiums for American families and small businesses, addressing America's number-one priority for health reform. I mean, that's an idea that we all embrace. But specifically it's got to work. I mean, there's got to be a mechanism in these plans that I can go to an independent health care expert and say, is this something that will actually work, or is it boilerplate?

If I'm told, for example, that the solution to dealing with health care costs is tort reform, something that I've said I am willing to work with you on, but the CBO or other experts say to me, at best, this could reduce health care costs relative to where they're growing by a couple of percentage points, or save $5 billion a year, that's what we can score it at, and it will not bend the cost curve long term or reduce premiums significantly -- then you can't make the claim that that's the only thing that we have to do. If we're going to do multi-state insurance so that people can go across state lines, I've got to be able to go to an independent health care expert, Republican or Democrat, who can tell me that this won't result in cherry-picking of the healthiest going to some and the least healthy being worse off.


   You aren't driving the bus

Republicans (and the media) need to be told in no uncertain terms that "bipartisanship" does not mean that Republicans get 100 percent of everything, all the time. The media loves to buy into this framing, and it has to be forcefully countered.

You know, Mike, I've read your legislation. I mean, I take a look at this stuff -- and the good ideas we take. But here's -- here's the thing -- here's the thing that I guess all of us have to be mindful of, it can't be all or nothing, one way or the other. And what I mean by that is this: If we put together a stimulus package in which a third of it are tax cuts that normally you guys would support, and support for states and the unemployed, and helping people stay on COBRA that your governors certainly would support -- Democrat or a Republican; and then you've got some infrastructure, and maybe there's some things in there that you don't like in terms of infrastructure, or you think the bill should have been $500 billion instead of $700 billion or there's this provision or that provision that you don't like. If there's uniform opposition because the Republican caucus doesn't get 100 percent or 80 percent of what you want, then it's going to be hard to get a deal done. That's because that's not how democracy works.


   Facts are facts -- deal with it

Beat the drum of "you're entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts" as often as Republicans hand you the opportunity to do so.

...with all due respect, I've just got to take this last question as an example of how it's very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we're going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign.

Now, look, let's talk about the budget once again, because I'll go through it with you line by line. The fact of the matter is, is that when we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion. -- $1.3 [trillion.] So when you say that suddenly I've got a monthly budget that is higher than the -- a monthly deficit that's higher than the annual deficit left by the Republicans, that's factually just not true, and you know it's not true.

And what is true is that we came in already with a $1.3 trillion deficit before I had passed any law. What is true is we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade -- had nothing to do with anything that we had done. It had to do with the fact that in 2000 when there was a budget surplus of $200 billion, you had a Republican administration and a Republican Congress, and we had two tax cuts that weren't paid for.

You had a prescription drug plan -- the biggest entitlement plan, by the way, in several decades -- that was passed without it being paid for. You had two wars that were done through supplementals. And then you had $3 trillion projected because of the lost revenue of this recession. That's $8 trillion.

Now, we increased it by a trillion dollars because of the spending that we had to make on the stimulus. I am happy to have any independent fact-checker out there take a look at your presentation versus mine in terms of the accuracy of what I just said.


   Dissing talking points?

Hey, wait a minute! I resemble that remark....

Now, I just want to point out -- and this brings me to the second problem -- when we made a very modest proposal as part of our package, our health care reform package, to eliminate the subsidies going to insurance companies for Medicare Advantage, we were attacked across the board, by many on your aisle, for slashing Medicare. You remember? We're going to start cutting benefits for seniors. That was the story that was perpetrated out there -- scared the dickens out of a lot of seniors.

No, no, but here's my point. If the main question is going to be what do we do about Medicare costs, any proposal that Paul makes will be painted, factually, from the perspective of those who disagree with it, as cutting benefits over the long term. Paul, I don't think you disagree with that, that there is a political vulnerability to doing anything that tinkers with Medicare. And that's probably the biggest savings that are obtained through Paul's plan.

And I raise that not because we shouldn't have a series discussion about it. I raise that because we're not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know, that's -- the other party is being irresponsible; the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens; that the other party is doing X, Y, Z.

That's why I say if we're going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can't start off by figuring out, A, who's to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side. And unfortunately, that's how our politics works right now. And that's how a lot of our discussion works. That's how we start off -- every time somebody speaks in Congress, the first thing they do, they stand up and all the talking points -- I see Frank Luntz up here sitting in the front. He's already polled it, and he said, you know, the way you're really going to -- I've done a focus group and the way we're going to really box in Obama on this one or make Pelosi look bad on that one -- I know, I like Frank, we've had conversations between Frank and I. But that's how we operate. It's all tactics, and it's not solving problems.


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground