Friday Talking Points [114] -- When Will Rahm Go? Place Your Bets!

The debate outside the Beltway (and, increasingly, inside the Beltway as well) is whether Rahm Emanuel should leave his job sooner, or later.
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Before we get to the main course here, we've simply got to serve up a steaming hot dish of irony as an appetizer, first. And then, as the title promises, a fun contest that everyone at home can play.

But first, the news that Representative Alan Grayson, he of the fiery lefty rhetoric, is leading an opinion poll conducted in his district, heading into the election. Grayson was far and away the most popular candidate, at this point. He led the pack with 27.8 percent, which doesn't sound too impressive until you hear that nobody else got more than 3.7 percent (57.7 percent were, admittedly, undecided). But the delicious irony of this poll is that the respondents were Republicans. That's right -- Grayson is not just wildly popular among lefty Democrats across the land, he is also apparently more popular among Republicans in his own district than anyone they've got to put up against him. Grayson also, the last time fundraising numbers were released, raised more cash (from people across the country grateful he was actually standing up and fighting for the Democratic position) than anyone else. There's a lesson here among all the irony, if only Democrats would take it to heart.

This next item is just funny, in an admittedly sophomoric way. Senator Blanche Lincoln, corporatist Democrat from Arkansas, will be facing a challenger in the Democratic primary. The new candidate in the race is a lot more acceptable to Progressives, and seems to have a decent chance in the primary, from all accounts. The ironic thing is that his parents gave him a name which would be absolutely perfect for a Republican senatorial candidate in today's environment -- "Bill Halter." If he were a Republican senator, the headlines would just write themselves: "Bill Halter Halts Bill," or (with or without a hyphen, it works either way): "Bill Halter Filibuster."

Heh. OK, I warned you it was sophomoric.

There was one more story bubbling in Washington, which has been simmering on the back burner for a few weeks now -- the Rahmwars. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is doing exactly what Chiefs of Staff are not supposed to do in Washington -- "becoming the story." The ideal Chief of Staff is supposed to always, always operate in the background, so as not to distract media attention from his boss. But, for the past few weeks, Rahm has put himself front and center, feeding the flames of a debate about whether (1) Rahm is wonderful, and Obama himself (as well as all his other advisers) for some inexplicable reason won't do exactly what Rahm wants them to do, or (2) Rahm is wonderful, and everyone else is just jealous of his wonderfulness.

Actually, the debate outside the Beltway (and, increasingly, inside the Beltway as well) is whether Rahm should leave his job sooner, or later. This column weighed in on this debate way back in FTP [110], by begging (as we handed him the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award):

Please, Mr. Emanuel, please, please... don't you feel it's time to "spend more time with your family," for all our sakes? You were sold to us as "Rahmbo" -- the guy who would muscle Obama's ambitious agenda through Congress. Instead, you are the first one to wave a white flag in any negotiations, and the first one to throw what Democratic voters actually want into the trash. Wouldn't it be so nice to spend a whole bunch of time with your family right about now? Please?

Since that time, Rahm has fired several below-the-radar broadsides in the pages of the Washington Post ("below-the-radar" because his buddies are doing the sourcing for these articles rather than Rahm himself... "plausible deniability" and all of that...) which portray him as the only sane voice of reason in the Obama White House, and point the finger of blame at just about everyone else within reach. There's a technical name for this sort of thing, which is also the reason I refuse to watch ABC on Sunday mornings. It is called: "pulling a Stephanopoulos."

This sort of "mistakes were made, but not by me" legacy-polishing, it should be noted, is usually done as a politician is leaving the stage. Which is enough of a reason for us to optimistically look into the future, here. So we are going to open the betting for when Rahm Emanuel will exit the White House. Or, to be more accurate, when he will announce his exit. Because we're just going to assume (for the fun of it) that if Rahmbo's already covering his tracks by attempting to cast history over-favorably toward himself, then his exit can't be all that far ahead. To be followed, as is usual, by signing a book contract worth at least seven figures. Rahm was said to be interested it running for mayor of Chicago at one point, but whatever excuse he ultimately uses, we're taking bets on the actual date Rahm announces he is leaving.

All betting is to be in the form of our favorite fictional currency here, the quatloo. I will open the betting myself with a rather vague date, due to being conditional on other events. I bet 100 quatloos that Rahm Emanuel will announce his retirement the second Friday following the signing ceremony for the health reform bills. Rahm will thus be seen as leaving the White House on a political high note, and the White House will further try to bury the news by releasing it on the traditional "take out the trash" news day -- late on a Friday.

But that's just my fevered imagination. Let me know when you think Rahm will announce his exit. Put your quatloos where your mouth is, in other words, down in the comments.

Representative Charlie Rangel, winner of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award last week, has somewhat redeemed himself this week. Somewhat. He did so by stepping down from his chairmanship of what is arguably the most powerful committee in the House of Representatives, the Ways and Means committee. Rangel semi-voluntarily stepped down (it took a long chat with Pelosi to cause Rangel to see the light, as it were) on a "temporary" basis, for whatever that's worth, until his many ethics problems are resolved one way or the other.

This was the right thing to do, heading into an election year. Actually, it would have been the right thing to do just about any time, but it's even more the right thing to do now. And it was a hard thing for Rangel to do -- walk away from one of the most powerful positions not only in the House but in all of Washington. But, because the reason he had to do so is that he's under several ethical clouds, we cannot elevate his actions this week to the level of winning a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. Instead, he only qualifies for an Honorable Mention.

In an absolutely stunning turn of events, the coveted MIDOTW award this week goes to none other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- for the second week in a row! Since Reid is known more in this column for receiving MDDOTW awards, this is an incredible achievement for him.

Reid wins this week for not backing down. His standoff with Senator Jim Bunning over an emergency stopgap $15 billion bill to extend unemployment benefits for one month was atypical for Reid, because he did not immediately cave when presented with some Republican pushback, but instead called Bunning's bluff, and forced Bunning into a very uncomfortable position politically. More on this in the talking points part of the program.

Now, some might argue that we set the bar a wee bit low for Reid, and a case could certainly be made, since this wasn't really all that big a deal in the grand scheme of things in the Senate. After all, a majority leader with a 59-vote majority should do stuff like this on a routine basis. But we here at the FTP editorial offices feel that such good behavior needs some positive reinforcement, in the hopes it will begin to happen a bit more frequently.

In the end, Bunning backed down (he was really picking a fight with his own party, but that's a whole 'nother story), and Harry got exactly what he wanted. This show of strength is a very welcome one, heading into an election year pretty much guaranteed to see some epic political battles in the Senate.

So, for passing the second "jobs bill" in two weeks' time, and for not immediately turning into a spineless quivering mass in the face of Republican obstructionism, Senator Harry Reid is hereby awarded this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. Well done, Harry. Let's have a few more weeks like the last two, whaddya say?

[Congratulate Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on his Senate contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]

Just to show we're not head-over-heels Harry fans, though, we have to hand out two (Dis-)Honorable Mention awards this week, to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and to the aforementioned Harry Reid. Both Democratic congressional leaders have been playing a game of "You first... no, after you... no, I insist, you first..." ever since it became clear that reconciliation was going to be the way health reform was going to move forward. The problem is that the process is going to involve, at minimum, three votes. Two of these will be in the House, and one in the Senate. The House has to pass the bill that already passed the Senate, and then both houses have to pass the "sidecar" legislation (the Senate, using reconciliation rules to do so), and then they've got to send both bills to President Obama to sign, so that the whole thing works the way it is supposed to.

But Pelosi and Reid can't seem to agree on exactly which vote will happen when. Now, this is a House/Senate fight that is par for the course in Washington. House Democrats don't want to stick their neck out by voting for the Senate bill unless they know the Senate will pass the sidecar bill. But the vote may be easier in the Senate than the House, meaning that the tweaking will have to happen in the House's version of the sidecar. So it would make more sense for the House to pass it first, since it would avoid having to hold a second vote on it in the Senate, after the House changes it.

But you know what? The very fact that we're even pointing this out is a mess for the Democrats, because it feeds into the "we can't govern" image of Democrats that Republicans are sharpening up for the fall campaign. Get it together, guys. Figure out a schedule, and move forward. Enough inter-house bickering. Sheesh.

Reid also earned special mention this week for a monumentally bad job of framing an issue, but we're saving that for the talking points, as an excellent "bad example." Pelosi also deserves special mention for bungling the question of who would take over for Rangel as Ways and Means chairman, complete with candidates named and then withdrawn within hours. This could have been handled a lot more competently, Nancy.

But the real Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week goes to Representatives Bart Stupak and Eric Massa. Stupak's award will be known as the "Joe Lieberman Of The House" award for his actions on the health reform bill. Stupak (and, reportedly, about a dozen other Democratic votes) will torpedo the whole effort unless Democrats put stronger anti-abortion language into it than has ever existed before -- stronger even than Republicans ever got passed. This may be problematic, because the Senate may not be able to pass such language under reconciliation rules, but Stupak does not care about such trivialities. A deal may be worked out with him to bring the subject up as a separate bill, but so far Stupak is holding firm. With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans? Sigh.

Eric Massa, however, is yet another Democratic scandal in a couple of weeks worth of scandals. At least he had the decency to both admit that he's guilty (although "of what" is still kind an open question), and not just declare he won't run for re-election, but that he will actually resign his seat next Monday. In other words, while caught in a scandal, he's at least doing the right thing in how he's exiting the stage. But even though he did so, he cannot avoid the MDDOTW award he so richly deserves, for adding another Democratic scandal at the beginning of an election year.

Ironically, until he is replaced (due to other vacancies), this lowers the threshold in the House to get a majority vote by one. Meaning his departure could actually help the health reform situation. But even that doesn't deter us from award both Representative Massa and Representative Stupak their Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week.

[Contact Representative Massa on his House contact page (but you'd better do it quickly!), and Representative Stupak on his House contact page to let them know what you think of their actions.]

Volume 114 (3/5/10)

Senator Jim Bunning's recent one-man obstructionism in the Senate could have gone either way in the media. He was supposedly "standing up for a principle" about the budget. He wanted the bill paid for, as Democrats promised to do in earlier "pay as you go" legislation. And it could likely have been paid for quite easily, as while 15 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money to most of us, in Congress it is the equivalent of what you find when you search the couch cushions for small change.

But Bunning blew his opportunity to make his case before the press, by -- literally -- raising his middle finger to an ABC news team trying to get a quote out of him in a Senate hallway. This news team is still kicking itself for not having the cameras rolling when it happened, I have no doubt.

But the inside-the-Beltway chattering class is an insular one. They close ranks at perceived insults to "one of their own" from a mere politician. Which meant that the Democrats' framing of the issue actually won the day in the media -- kind of by default, but hey, we'll take whatever wins we can get in the framing battles.

Rather than dig in their heels, the rest of the Republicans soon realized how toxic this was all appearing to the public, and after letting the issue twist in the wind for four or five days, finally strong-armed Bunning into capitulation. The whole thing, politically, was a win for Democrats (and Harry Reid) and a loss for Republicans (and Bunning).

But we won't get these easy victories often. Not every Republican senator can be counted on to make obscene gestures to the press (although they'd all doubtlessly like to). So we present our usual suggestions for how Democrats can frame a few things, for the week ahead.

How Not To Frame An Issue

Sigh. Harry Reid just provided some ammunition for his challenger in this fall's election. Here, in our first-ever example of what not to do when creating talking points, is how Harry reported that the unemployment rate stayed at 9.7 percent last month, and that 36,000 jobs were lost (fewer than analysts expected, due to snowfall). Note to politicians: this is not how to "frame" an issue. Sigh.

Today is a big day in America. Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good.

Bunning backs down

Democrats need to use Bunning as the poster child for Republican obstructionism, pretty much every chance they can get. If the opportunity presents itself when talking to the media, you can always add "...and, of course, I would never act so rude towards a reporter, myself..." but that's just the icing on this cupcake, as it were. There's another point to this as well -- smacking Bunning around is enjoyable just in and of itself, but the real purpose is to warn other Republicans what could happen to them if they try stunts like Bunning's in the future.

"Jim Bunning proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Republicans truly are the 'Party of No' when he singlehandedly held up a bill that provided much-needed relief for thousands of unemployed Americans merely to score a political point. Bunning's obstructionism halted highway construction projects and COBRA benefits for thousands. Republicans consistently put politics above actual governing, and this is just the most recent example. Voters in November will be faced with the 'Party of No' versus the 'Party of Let's Get Something Done For America.' We feel the choice is clear."

Define the sidecar

This one is important to counter a Republican talking point which is simply incorrect. Republicans have been braying, ever since reconciliation began to be seen as a serious option, that "Democrats are jamming through legislation using a trick in order to change one-sixth of the American economy." This is wrong on two counts, and will therefore require two talking points to adequately address here. The first is the "one-sixth" part, and the second is the "trick" bit.

"Excuse me, but what my Republican colleague just said is factually incorrect. There are two bills here that we are talking about. The first already passed the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes. That's what will change 'one-sixth' of the economy. The second part is what is called a 'sidecar' bill -- just some minor tweaks to the original bill, like stripping out the Cornhusker Kickback Republicans complain about so much. So, factually, the only thing which will be handled through reconciliation is the sidecar. The main bill has already passed. Republicans are trying to say we're voting on the whole health reform package using reconciliation, but that is just not true."

It's a rule, not a trick

E.J. Dionne, in a recent column in the Washington Post, ripped into Republican hypocrisy in a way all-too-seldom seen in the editorial pages of the Post these days. Democrats should paste choice bits of Dionne's column onto three-by-five cards, and have them ready for any media interview this weekend. Preface any of these with "I want to read you something E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post the other day on that issue...."

Republicans, however, don't want to talk much about the substance of health care. They want to discuss process, turn "reconciliation" into a four-letter word and maintain that Democrats are "ramming through" a health bill.

It is all, I am sorry to say, one big lie -- or, if you're sensitive, an astonishing exercise in hypocrisy.

. . .

But the Founders said nothing in the Constitution about the filibuster, let alone "reconciliation." Judging from what they put in the actual document, the Founders would be appalled at the idea that every major bill should need the votes of three-fifths of the Senate to pass.

. . .

The underlying "principle" here seems to be that it's fine to pass tax cuts for the wealthy on narrow votes but an outrage to use reconciliation to help middle-income and poor people get health insurance.

Up or down vote

I'm going to turn this one over to President Obama, who put it better than I could have. The basic rule is to repeat "up or down vote" every time you get the chance, but Obama packed so much into this one paragraph that the "up or down vote" part is actually a minor point. Here, from Obama's remarks Wednesday, is the right way to frame these issues:

We have debated this issue thoroughly, not just for the past year but for decades. Reform has already passed the House with a majority. It has already passed the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes. And now it deserves the same kind of up or down vote that was cast on welfare reform, that was cast on the Children's Health Insurance Program, that was used for COBRA health coverage for the unemployed, and, by the way, for both Bush tax cuts --- all of which had to pass Congress with nothing more than a simple majority.

So now you're for the Cornhusker kickback?

Because the main bill has already passed, and because the Senate has a chance to modify it with the sidecar, hit Republicans for the things in the sidecar they should be voting for not against. Unless they were more interested in making political points, that is.

"The Republicans have been loudly decrying the so-called 'Cornhusker Kickback' and the other deals which passed in the original Senate bill. Well, we're taking those special deals out. So the Republicans can either vote with us to remove these deals, or they can vote for the Cornhusker Kickback to stay in the bill. They can't have it both ways."

Barking good quote

Senator Robert Byrd got off a good one this week, in a letter to the editor of a local West Virginian newspaper, after they printed an editorial which misstated some facts about reconciliation. The full story is amusing enough (and a great example of fighting back against erroneous "journalism"), but the money quote is downright hilarious:

With all due respect, the Daily Mail's hyperbole about "imposing government control," acts of "disrespect to the American people" and "corruption" of Senate procedures resembles more the barkings from the nether regions of Glennbeckistan than the "sober and second thought" of one of West Virginia's oldest and most respected daily newspapers.

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