Friday Talking Points [111] -- Use It Or Lose It

President Obama this week has successfully put the Republican Party on the defensive. Now, this could be a fleeting thing, or it could be the start of a whole new way for Obama's administration to operate. Time will tell.

Obama started off the week putting Republicans on the defensive over a single Republican senator who had put "holds" on every single one of Obama's nominees awaiting Senate approval (the senator in question was in a snit over an earmark or two for his state worth around a billion dollars). The Republican, in a matter of days, removed his holds on all but three. Tuesday, Obama threatened to make a whole bunch of "recess appointments" if the Senate continued to obstruct him. Today, twenty-seven of sixty-three of Obama's nominees were approved by the Senate.

Super Bowl Sunday, Obama threw down a challenge to Republicans as well, in the form of a health reform summit meeting to be held between Obama and the Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress, which would be televised on C-SPAN. This was a gamble for Obama, but it already appears to be paying off, as Republicans scurry to figure out what to do about it.

This is called using political leverage. And it is what a lot of people have been waiting for -- for a long time, now. From Obama, from Democrats in general. The Democrats have an enormous majority in both houses of Congress, and it is about time they started acting like it, instead of behaving as if they're still somehow in the minority.

This means threatening Republicans. It means scaring them, using the "Party of No" label like a hobnailed club. The new message from Democrats, following Obama's lead, should be: "Obstructionism will no longer be allowed to happen outside the spotlights." It is one of the strongest political cases the Democrats have to make right now, and they should not be afraid to let the Republicans know that they're ready and eager to do so.

This is called driving the debate, or framing the discussion, and -- again -- it's about time.

Because political capital falls into the "use it or lose it" category. The more you use political capital to get good things done, the more goodwill and political capital you will reap from the voters. The less you use it when in power, the less you will have on election day.

Some may quibble about how effectively such political leverage has been used in the past week, but the fact that it's being used at all is a good sign, to me at least. Maybe it'll be used better in the future, since (as with just about anything) more practice using it will improve these skills. But for now, the fact that the Democrats are driving the debate for once is welcome enough news to me.


President Obama certainly deserves mention here for his impressive use of leverage against Senate Republicans this week. A quick recap: last week, one Republican senator was identified as having put a "hold" on over 70 of Obama's nominees to key positions in the Executive Branch. He put this hold on everyone not for ideological reasons, but because he wanted a billion tax dollars for his state. Obama exposed this, and within days he had lifted his hold on all but three of them. This Tuesday, Obama met with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, and reportedly told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that he had a choice -- either stop the unprecedented delays on his nominees, or Obama would just go ahead and make "recess appointments" next week anyway, which bypass the Senate's say in the matter.

Today, right before the Senate knocked off work for yet another week of vacation, the Republicans gave Obama half a loaf. They blinked, in other words. They allowed votes to approve 27 of the waiting appointees. This is phenomenal progress for one day's work in the Senate, I should point out. Of course, this still leaves around three dozen nominees waiting, but it should be seen as a good start. Obama, in his announcement of the victory, threatened again that if the Senate didn't move on the rest of them in a timely manner, he'd use recess appointments anyway the next time the Senate goes home for a week (early next month).

Now, I should mention that Big Labor is not happy, since Obama seemed to have cut a deal not to make any such appointments next week in exchange for the movement on the 27 who got approved. And they've got a good point, since the National Labor Relations Board has only two people currently sitting on it, when there should be five. But, nevertheless, I have to chalk this one up as a victory for the White House.

Because of the half-a-loaf nature of the victory, however, Obama will only get an Honorable Mention as a result.

The Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award will instead go to Senator Chris Dodd, who appears to be fighting the good fight to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (C.F.P.A.), which would look out for the average guy trying to get a mortgage, rather than the health of Wall Street banks. Now, this award may prove to be premature, since Dodd has been known to talk a good line and then quietly do what Wall Street wants anyway when he thinks no one is looking, but we're hoping that he proves worthy of the award this time.

Dodd, as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, not only strongly came out for creating the C.F.P.A. this week, but also earned his award for a very interesting tactic. Dodd had been in negotiations with the ranking Republican on the committee, but Dodd finally threw his hands up in the air, and declared these negotiations weren't going anywhere. So Dodd instead decided to start negotiating with a freshman Republican senator instead. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee apparently has a much more open mind about politically which side of this debate it would be a good idea to be on, and seems to be willing to buck his own party on the issue as well.

Now, no final legislation exists or anything, meaning that whatever comes out of it may be disappointing, but Dodd deserves credit for his "divide and conquer" technique here. Because this is the way the game is supposed to be played by the majority party. Get one guy from the other side to see your point of view, and peel him off and get his support in the hopes that others will follow.

As I said, it's too soon to see whether it will be successful or not, but on tactical grounds alone, Senator Chris Dodd deserves being named the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. By doing so, he ties Speaker Nancy Pelosi for second place on the all-time list, with ten MIDOTW awards each.

[Congratulate Senator Chris Dodd on his Senate contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Harry Reid, on the other hand, was not exactly a master of political leverage this week.

Today Reid slammed the door on the jobs bill being pushed by a Republican and Democratic senator, in favor of a much more limited version he will write. The jury's still out on whether this is going to be a smart move or not, since by breaking the bill down into tiny pieces it remains to be seen which pieces will be voted on, or passed. And there are some important pieces left behind by Reid, including an extension on unemployment benefits which will need to pass immediately when the Senate returns, or else the checks are going to stop for a lot of folks out there.

But Reid managed to win the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week for another reason. Because Reid was quoted shooting down the idea of reforming the filibuster in any way any time soon. Now, it's an interesting parliamentary question which is far too complex to go into here, but the upshot is that nobody's really sure how many votes it would take to change the filibuster. Some say 67. Some say 51 (at the beginning of a new session of Congress).

The trick here isn't to win this battle (which isn't by any means assured), the trick here is to make your opponents think you are serious about making the attempt. This scares the Hell out of Senate minorities, because it is a "nuclear option" which would change the Senate's dynamic in an enormous way.

The thing with "nuclear options," though, is that you're never supposed to actually use them -- they're supposed to be a "deterrent." In this case, if you start fast and loose talk about doing away with the filibuster, and you do so constantly whenever Republicans force a "60 vote" cloture, then you make them think twice about how often they do so. There's a good example of how to do this correctly down in the talking points, from Senator Tom Harkin.

But the thing you don't do is to throw the leverage away before you can even use it. Harry Reid needs to take a trip to his home state's Las Vegas, and learn that when you're playing cards, you play your cards close to the vest and try to make the other guy guess what you are thinking.

Instead, Harry (once again) tosses away his most potent weapon, before the fight even begins. His comments leave no doubt that the filibuster's going to change any time soon, meaning the Republicans know it's an empty threat.

For tossing aside such powerful leverage, and (sadly, once again) gaining absolutely nothing in return for doing so, Harry Reid wins his record-breaking sixteenth Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Contact Senator Harry Reid on his Senate contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 111 (2/12/10)

In the spirit of this section, I am going to outrageously spin the past few weeks to make myself look good. Ready?

Two Mondays ago, I wrote a column titled "Obama Should Hold Press Conference Soon" (which is pretty self-explanatory). Lo and behold, none other than the blog section of the Wall Street Journal picked it up. A few days later, the New York Times wrote a story entitled "Few News Conferences, but Still Taking Questions" (which somehow failed to cite my article, a mere oversight, I'm sure). Then a few days after this, the Washington Post chimed in (which also inexplicably left my article out). This Tuesday, President Obama surprised the White House press corps by appearing in the press room to cent think that is true. This yawning chasm between fact and what people believe is the direct fault of the Democrats, who for some strange reason fail to understand that this is something they should be bragging about.

"Republicans love to say last year's stimulus package was a failure, but I personally can't understand why they would say that about something that lowered taxes on ninety-five percent of working Americans. Yes, you heard that right -- Democrats lowered taxes on all but the ultra-wealthy. These taxes will show up this year when Americans do their paperwork with the IRS, and I can't for the life of me understand why Republicans are still badmouthing the stimulus, since I thought they were supposed to be in favor of lower taxes. Democrats lowered taxes, Republicans voted against it. Voters should remember who got this tax cut passed this year at tax time."


   Gays in the military

Here is a winning item for Democrats, which the Republicent think that is true. This yawning chasm between fact and what people believe is the direct fault of the Democrats, who for some strange reason fail to understand that this is something they should be bragging about.

"Republicans love to say last year's stimulus package was a failure, but I personally can't understand why they would say that about something that lowered taxes on ninety-five percent of working Americans. Yes, you heard that right -- Democrats lowered taxes on all but the ultra-wealthy. These taxes will show up this year when Americans do their paperwork with the IRS, and I can't for the life of me understand why Republicans are still badmouthing the stimulus, since I thought they were supposed to be in favor of lower taxes. Democrats lowered taxes, Republicans voted against it. Voters should remember who got this tax cut passed this year at tax time."


   Gays in the military

Here is a winning item for Democrats, which the Republicans can be almost guaranteed to shoot themselves in the collective foot with, by going over the top in the language they use. Allowing gays in the military has overwhelming support from the American people. It is a wedge issue the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner on, and the corner is shrinking -- even though many Republicans don't yet realize it. So get out in front on this, and make it a big huge issue in Congress soon, because it will help Democrats politically (as well as being the right thing to do).

"Getting rid of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is not only the honorable thing for Congress to do, it is also widely supported by the American public. A recent poll showed that three out of four Americans support allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the United States military. Even 64 percent of Republicans think it's the right thing to do. I call on Democrats and Republicans alike to join together and get rid of this outdated policy for good. The American people are out in front of the politicians on this one, and I for one will support repealing the current policy and allowing gays and lesbians serve their country without having to hide who they are."


   Harkin on the filibuster

Senator Tom Harkin wrote a wonderful piece this week for the Huffington Post, which I encourage everyone to read in full. Below is an extended excerpt, as a talking point (actually, a collection of several similar talking points). Because it is so well-written, I'll allow Senator Harkin's words to make the case. Harry Reid really should be taking notes, here.

When many people think of the filibuster, it brings to mind the classic 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But Senator Smith -- Jimmy Stewart's character -- was a little guy using the filibuster to stop the special interests. Today, that has been turned upside-down. It is the special interests using the filibuster to stop legislation that would benefit the little guy.

Among other bills, Republicans have filibustered legislation to provide low-income energy assistance; efforts to strengthen the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ensure our children are not exposed to unsafe toys; and efforts to ensure that women are guaranteed equal pay for equal work.

The problem is not only that Republicans are using the filibuster to kill good bills that would help working Americans. The larger problem is that the Republicans' indiscriminate use of the filibuster has made it all but impossible to conduct everyday business in the Senate. On an almost daily basis, the Republican minority -- just 41 Senators -- stops bills from even coming to the floor for debate and amendment.

In the 1950s, an average of one bill was filibustered in each two-year Congress. In the last Congress, 139 bills were filibustered. The Republican abuse of the filibuster is unprecedented, routine, and increasingly reckless.

Just last week, a Republican Senator blocked the nomination of every single executive branch nominee -- 70 in all. This isn't about reasoned opposition. It is about systematic, indiscriminate obstruction of the majority's ability to conduct even routine, non-controversial business.

The Senate cannot continue down this path of obstruction, paralysis, and de facto minority rule. That is why I have introduced a bill to change the Standing Rules of the Senate to reform the cloture procedure in the United States Senate.


   Deficit reduction

Republicans are all set to use this as a political blunt instrument against Democrats. Democrats need to counter this by turning it around, which undercuts the Republicans' purposeful vagueness.

"I've been hearing a lot of hot air on the subject of deficit reduction from my Republican colleagues lately, but it's funny that they never seem to get very specific. Look at the federal budget, and please, let me know where all your magic deficit reduction is going to come from. First, we have military spending -- bet that's not on the Republican list for cuts, what do you think? Next, we have discretionary spending, which Obama is proposing a three-year freeze on. Republicans haven't supported such a freeze. Most of the rest of the budget is Social Security and Medicare. So, what exactly are the Republican plans for those? Do they agree with the House Republican who wants to just give everybody vouchers instead of Medicare? Are they going to slash Medicare funding some other way? Or are they talking about privatizing Social Security once again? Boy, that would have worked out just dandy for retirees when the stock market crashed. I'd really like to know from Republicans exactly where they're going to find all of these magical savings. You say you're serious about deficit reduction, well, where would you cut first?"


   Republican hypocrisy on stimulus funds

Once again, Democrats have to defend their own policies, instead of just assuming everyone knows all about them. President Obama has been leading the pack on this one, stating to the House Republicans "A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon cuttings for the same projects that you voted against."

Keep this drumbeat up. This quote is from Ryan Rudominer, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the guys responsible for trying to get more Democrats elected to the House), and it shows how to spotlight Republican hypocrisy beautifully.

Not only have nearly 70 House Republicans been caught trying to take credit for recovery funding that's brought the economy back from the brink of collapse, but now it's come to light some were writing private letters lobbying for projects in their districts while trashing the Recovery package publicly.


   Make political hay on the nominees

Don't just go gently into the night on this, Democrats. Make some political hay over it! Get the word out, instead of assuming that since everyone inside the Beltway has heard the story, that everyone in the country has heard it. Bang the drum!

"At this point in President Bush's term, the Senate had failed to act on six of his nominees to important jobs in the federal government. As of last week, the Senate had failed to act on over seventy of President Obama's. This is political obstructionism at its worst. Republicans have been using tricks to deny the president his chosen nominees in important positions, some of which relate to national security. That's right -- Republicans are playing politics with this nation's security. We have had enough, and President Obama has had enough. Last week we found out that one Republican senator had held up every remaining nominee -- all to get a billion dollars for his state. Republicans say they're against this sort of deal-making, except when it is one of their own doing it. This week, Republicans finally realized that holding up every nominee over a billion dollars for one state was indefensible politically, and we have since confirmed about half of those who were waiting for months while Republicans scored cheap political points and ground the Senate to a halt. We call upon them to move immediately on the remaining nominees when the Senate returns to business, or President Obama will be forced to use recess appointments to fully staff the government in these critical times."


   The GOP sends you a Valentine

Republicans have their usual crop of funny (to them, at least) Valentine's cards up on their national website. They're not as good as last year's, but I had to throw it in here at the end, just for the one with Rahm Emanuel's face on it -- because it is the perfect way to end the column. It reads (this has not been edited, this is exactly what it reads):

Happy <Expletive> Valentine's Day


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground