Friday Talking Points [99] -- Misdirection

When a stage magician makes a flourish, causing a puff of smoke and a flash of light to appear, there's a reason for it. It is called "misdirection." It is meant to dazzle the audience with a shiny object, so that they don't notice what is going on elsewhere on the stage, or perhaps even in the magician's other hand. It is an effective technique, so effective that it is the basis for most stage magic tricks. And there's a huge story that's sucking up a lot of oxygen from the inside-the-Beltway media scene right now that seems to be tailor-made misdirection which has been tossed into the media shark tank in order to stir up a feeding frenzy.

I speak, of course, of whether NBC's Chuck Todd will (or will not) shave off his goatee.

No, of course, I'm kidding. The real head-scratcher for serious media-watchers right now is what the "war" between the White House and Fox News was meant to distract us from this week. The "war" itself is laughable, for a number of reasons. The first is that all presidents do this to one extent or another. Press access is not a constitutional right or anything, meaning that the White House is free to invite anyone it wants into the press room, and exclude anyone it wants. Secondly, it's not "unprecedented" in any way, shape, or form. White Houses criticize the press all the time, and sometimes kick them off official planes, or completely deny them access in retaliation for stories they've run. It happens all the time, from both Republican and Democratic presidents. Anyone who thinks differently just doesn't have all that good a memory.

But the final reason why the whole thing is so ludicrous is calling Obama's White House "Nixonian" in its dealings with Fox News. This is laugh-out-loud funny, because Roger Ailes, the man who runs Fox News was Richard Nixon's media advisor during his first successful campaign for the White House, in 1968. So you've got the man who designed Nixon's press policies now being held up as the victim of (as conservative critics say) the same exact press policies being used against him. The irony's so thick the only way to escape it is with a big old belly laugh.

BWAH Hah hah hah!

There, feel better? It almost makes you nostalgic for the time (not so long ago) when Republicans used to sneer at liberals for "playing the victim." This constant sneering at such "victim card" tactics was actually so successful that the Left has mostly abandoned the tactic at this point. But the Republicans, being out of power, seem bent on resurrecting it in many ways. And, true to form, they have hit upon a new version of their tried-and-true tactic of accusing their opposition of doing what they do on a regular basis. Ailes and Lee Atwater were the authors of so many dirty-tricks campaigns for Republicans, it's hard to count them all up.

But even I'm getting distracted by this non-story. Which brings me back to the real point I'm trying to make here -- why did the White House choose this moment to pick a fight with Fox News? This wasn't a slip of the tongue by one person up there, it seems more like a concerted effort. So what are they trying to distract the media's attention from this particular week? Or, more ominously, why is the White House throwing such political red meat to their base at this particular time? Is it to distract progressives from something the White House is doing behind its back?

My guess (which could ultimately prove to be wrong, of course) is that this whole fake (but shiny... oh, so shiny!) distraction was waved in front of the media in order to give some elbow room to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as they are doing the toughest work yet on healthcare reform legislation. That has been the real story of the week, even though it is mostly dueling rumors and leaks (so far). Obama showed a masterful ability to distract Republicans earlier this year, by pushing so many issues simultaneously that the Republicans couldn't react to all of them with sufficiently indignant rage, because there were just too many things for them to focus on. Rage diluted is rage denied, in other words.

You could even call it a variation on Ailes' "orchestra pit theory." In Roger Ailes' own words:

If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, "I have a solution to the Middle East problem," and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?

Providing a center-ring tiger fight for everyone in the Washington media circus to focus on has taken the spotlight off the closed-door negotiations which will ultimately decide what the healthcare reform bills from the House and Senate will look like. This is serious, serious horse-trading, and the last thing Pelosi and Reid need right now is screaming Republicans with nothing better to talk about. Hence, the Fox News tempest in a teapot was served up instead.

As I said, I could be wrong about that, but it seems like the most logical answer at this point. We'll see... we'll see. Maybe it's all just Ailes contemplating a run for president, who knows?

For those following healthcare reform news closely, it has been a week of wading through rumors. I picked my favorite rumor and ran with it in yesterday's article, just because it seemed like a fun thing to do, so I'm no better than the rest.

The week has consisted of Pelosi and Reid actually cranking the handle on the congressional sausage grinder. They've been busy nailing down exactly what will appear in the bills they send to the floor of both the House and Senate for debate. There is no hard schedule as to when this will happen, but (it is rumored) next week may see a bill in the House. Or one in the Senate. Or both. Or neither.

Kidding aside, the process does appear to be moving forward. There are so many rumors at this point it's almost impossible to keep track of them, but if you're interested in catching up on a few, here's a story about House rumors and about Senate rumors for you to peruse.

The way things stand (it is rumored) is that Nancy Pelosi is very, very close to having enough House Democrats to pass what is being called a "robust" public option in the House. She may fall short of the 218 votes needed, or she may be able to corral them. The problem, for House Blue Dogs, is that the most "robust" public option saves more money than the more watered-down public options. So they don't have the convenient excuse of "fiscal responsibility," since the fiscally responsible thing to do is, obviously, to back the lowest-cost plan: the most-robust public option. There is also (it is rumored) a struggle going on over abortion among House Democrats, as well, to complicate things.

But even if Pelosi doesn't get the most robust public option, her "fallback" position is still a much stronger public option than the Senate is likely to produce. Meaning she is doing her job well -- using the House bill to stake out a bargaining position that is as progressive as possible, so she'll have a strong hand to play in the inevitable conference committee between the two houses (which will write the final text of healthcare reform legislation).

Harry Reid is also moving leftward (it is rumored) from the position Max Baucus staked out. This column is pleased to say that (it is rumored) Reid appears to have settled on Chuck Schumer's compromise idea of the "opt out" plan -- because this column came out for the idea almost immediately when Schumer brought it up two weeks ago. It really does seem, to us, like a brilliant political solution to an almost intractable squaring off between the two camps. Have a nationwide public option, but allow states to opt out if they want. Not only does this allow Democrats from both camps to claim "victory" for their position, it also punts the political decision back to the state level, and throws an enormous gauntlet down to Republicans everywhere -- "Put up or shut up. Don't like the public option? Opt out. See what your voters think about that."

Schumer's opt out plan isn't perfect, but what is in politics? It seems like the best way to get the strongest possible public option actually passed and put on President Obama's desk, and (it is rumored) it seems like Harry Reid is now pushing it as his most-favored option. This is because it appears to be acceptable to (it is rumored) all but two Senate Democrats at this point -- a higher vote count than I've heard for anything else proposed.

The problem may be (it is rumored) with the Obama White House. Depending on which rumor you believe, this is due to Rahm Emanuel pushing for Olympia Snowe's "trigger" option (he has publicly stated previously what a wonderful plan he thought the trigger was, so this is pretty believable); or it could be President Obama himself pushing for Snowe's trigger, and using his chief of staff to convey his position (also fairly believable). But the trigger doesn't seem to have many Democratic fans on Capitol Hill, so the trigger idea may get put on the back burner, at least until the all-important conference committee.

Like I said, it's all tea-leaf-reading and which particular rumor you give credit to, at this point. But enough rumor-mongering, let's get on to the awards!


I'm not sure they're all Democrats, so I can't honestly give them this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, but the musicians who have joined the "Close Gitmo Now" effort certainly deserve an Honorable Mention for their efforts. This group includes: Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, Michelle Branch, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, David Byrne, Rosanne Cash, Marc Cohn, Steve Earle, the Entrance Band, Joe Henry, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., Trent Reznor, Rise Against, and The Roots.

Tom Morello, from the band Rage Against The Machine, after learning that his music was used at Guantanamo Bay in such a fashion, had this to say:

Guantanamo is known around the world as one of the places where human beings have been tortured -- from water boarding, to stripping, hooding and forcing detainees into humiliating sexual acts -- playing music for 72 hours in a row at volumes just below that to shatter the eardrums. Guantanamo may be Dick Cheney's idea of America, but it's not mine. The fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me -- we need to end torture and close Guantanamo now.

You can read the whole story, including statements from other musicians, on the CloseGitmoNow website.

But the real winner of the MIDOTW award this week was the 300,000-plus people who called up Congress to urge them to pass strong healthcare reform. This effort was driven by Barack Obama's old campaign organization, which has now been rebranded as Organizing For America.

They set a target of 100,000 calls to Congress in a single day, and they shattered this goal by a factor of three. So while the real MIDOTW award goes to the people who called in, we simply don't have the funds to strike up 300,000 statuettes, so we're sending the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award to the organizers instead.

Getting 100,000 people to call Congress is impressive. Getting over a quarter million is astounding. Of course, just because the one-day drive is over, this doesn't mean that you can't still pick up the phone and call your representatives as well, just to remind everyone. Grassroots pressure works.

[Congratulate Organizing For America on their web page to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


The Obama White House, in a move sure to arouse some controversy (ahem) earned a (Dis-)Honorable Mention this week, for picking a fight with Fox News. Washington protocol in such situations is to ignore such detractors instead of giving them the limelight. Doing so, we are sorry to say, makes the White House look petty.

There's a reason for the old saying: "Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton." [Note: I couldn't find a believable source for who actually originated this quote, sorry. Please post one as a comment, if you've got one.] Whoever said it first, the idea is simple -- picking fights with the media does nothing, in the end, but diminish you and sell more papers for your opponent.

Unless, of course, this is a grand scheme to misdirect everyone, as I discussed earlier. If true, the effectiveness of such a tactic won't be able to be judged for a while to come. Which is why the White House didn't sink to the level of earning the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

But until the key question is answered -- is Fox News "playing" the White House, or "getting played" by the White House? -- I have to say that the Obama team is running a risk of having this tactic blow up in their face. Which is disappointing. Maybe -- we'll see... we'll see.

But the real winner of the MDDOTW is also not going to win us any friends among hardcore Democrats, because Representative Alan Grayson has become such a darling of the Left. We certainly applauded Grayson when he used strong language against Republicans on healthcare, but Grayson apparently has problems knowing where "the line" is in acceptable political debate. This week, on MSNBC, Grayson joined in the Fox fracas by saying (Huffington Post has the video): "Fox News and their Republican collaborators are the enemy of America."

Now, his other comments, such as the fact that Republicans are the enemy of anyone who wants "anything good for this country," or that 99 percent of Americans "have the good sense to ignore" Fox News should all be seen as fine and good.

But it wasn't that long ago that such language was being used by Republicans to question the patriotism of Democrats on a wide range of issues (supporting George Bush on Iraq, for instance). Remember? The Left howled with indignation over such scurrilous remarks, and rightly so. There are "lines" you are not supposed to cross in acceptable political discourse, and calling into question your opponents' patriotism is supposed to be one of them. But this must apply equally to all, or else it is nothing but hypocrisy for Democrats to complain when such language is used against them.

So calling a cable television news channel and your opposing party "the enemy of America" is no better, Representative Grayson, than Republicans saying Democrats "hate America" for not wearing the silly flag pins. We'd do well to remember this.

Which was why Grayson's remarks were so disappointing. So, while the decision will no doubt be unpopular among Democrats, we simply must award the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week to Alan Grayson.

[Contact Representative Alan Grayson at (202) 225-2176 (his House contact page seems to be for constituents only), to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 99 (10/23/09)

A story was floated this week that it would be a good idea to "rebrand" the Democrats' public plan option as "Medicare for everyone" or "Medicare for all." Thankfully, it sank quickly, and made barely a ripple on the media's pool of consciousness.

I say thankfully, because although the merits of the attempt at framing are pretty good on the face of it (this idea, incidentally, has been being kicked around the blogosphere for months now), it is simply too late in the game for such rebranding. This may have worked wonders back in March or April, when the subject was first being discussed, and the "public option" language was first being widely used. If Democrats had unanimously started talking about "Medicare for all" it may indeed have done wonders for the whole concept, and built some strong public support.

But at this stage, it's not going to work. I hate to say it, because the idea itself does have some merit. But timing is important, too, and I just think it's too close to the finish line to change your team's uniform (how's that for a mixed-up metaphor?).

Of course, others may disagree, and I fully admit it's a worthy subject for debate, but I'd rather put forth some other framing here instead. So without further ado, here is this week's list of talking points, for Democrats everywhere (but especially those interviewed on the news this weekend) to consider using.


   The hypocrisy of Medicare Republicans Against Medicare

Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner of New York put out a great press release this week, which pointed out the fact that 55 Republicans "currently receive government-funded; government-administered single-payer health care -- Medicare."

This tactic also would have been a lot more welcome a few months back, but it still has power in the whole debate, I feel, so it's worth pointing out here in the hopes that it can still do some good. In Weiner's own words:

"Even in a town known for hypocrisy, this list of 55 Members of Congress deserve some sort of prize. They apparently think the public option is OK for them, but not anyone else."


   Republicans just voted against supporting the troops

While this is dangerously similar to what we just awarded Grayson a MDDOTW award for, it's been used so often by Republicans that it might also do some good. A large number of Senate Republicans just voted against this year's Pentagon budget, because they didn't like the expansion of hate crimes which was stuck to it at the last minute. Put in the position of either voting for the Pentagon (but seeming to support gay rights) and voting against gay rights (but voting against the Pentagon), many Republicans chose the latter. Because this is such perennial fodder in election campaigns as a bludgeon against Democrats, we think that this one skates up to the line of acceptable political rhetoric without crossing over it.

So, even though we still have a few reservations about the tactic in general, here is what Harry Reid had to say after the vote:

"I'm disappointed that Senate Republicans have decided that defeating hate crimes legislation takes precedent over supporting our troops. It is outrageous and unacceptable that Senate Republicans would vote against pay raises for our troops, battlefield equipment upgrades and increased funding for veterans' health care as we continue to fight two wars. And they decided to do this all for the sake of stopping passage of landmark legislation that will bring justice to those who commit violent crimes based on bigotry and prejudice. What message does that send to our country and, more importantly, to our troops?"


   It's not a "war," folks

This one is just a personal pet peeve of mine. I do not like using "war" terminology for political debates (or for sports announcing, for that matter). I know -- it is so easy to do so, because literally everything in politics is presented these days in such "us against them" terminology by the mainstream media. Meaning that, at times, I'm just as guilty of this as others. But I do try to keep it to a minimum, and in this particular case it just seems way overblown.

"You know, I find it interesting that everyone is talking about Fox News and the White House being 'at war' with each other, or 'going to war' with each other, when nothing could be further from the truth. Fox News, and all other media outlets, would do well to remember the fact that America is currently fighting two very real wars right now. We have hundreds of thousands of troops in harm's way even as we speak. I think it does a grave disservice to members of our military in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world when we are in two wars, to call a minor dispute between a news organization and the president a 'war.' Has anyone died in this Fox/White House 'war'? No? Then please, let's stop using such language in respect for our troops who are bravely facing death each and every day."


   Trust-busting Democrats

This seems like the story everyone swept under the rug this week, but it could have an enormous effect on our entire healthcare system, no matter what the final bill looks like.

"Little attention has been paid this week to the Democrats' efforts in Congress to repeal a loophole in monopoly law which exempts health insurers. Repealing this loophole will allow the monopoly laws to be enforced against the industry for the first time since World War II. This seems like a very important piece of what Democrats are going to accomplish, but it hasn't gotten much attention. So I'd just like to applaud the trust-busting that Democrats are currently attempting in Congress."


   Cut Wall Street pay!

The announcement that the companies which taxpayers bailed out will have some limits on what they can pay their top executives really needs some attention as well. While the rules announced don't go nearly as far as legislation which died earlier this year would have, the rules are also a lot better than what many were expecting. So it should be seen as at least half a loaf. And since this idea is so wildly popular with the public, Democrats need to beat their own drum on it a little.

"I don't know how any executive at any company which, quite simply, would not exist today if it weren't for taxpayer money propping them up can complain about the limits to pay recently announced by the Obama administration. Quite simply, if you wreck your company, and by doing so, risk wrecking the entire American economy -- you do not deserve a bonus. It's that simple, really. Most Americans would agree with that sentiment, as well, I think."


   The victim card

See, I set out to ignore the whole Fox fracas, and yet I keep coming back to it again and again. Those "shiny, shiny" news stories are really too irresistible at times, I guess. Last word on the subject this week, I promise.

"You know, I find it highly amusing that Republicans -- from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin to Fox News -- seem to be rediscovering a political tactic which has been all but discarded by the Democrats, mostly because it proved to be so ineffective and generated so much backlash from those in the political center. I speak, of course, of 'playing the victim card.' Republicans used to sneer and denigrate Democrats for always whining about being a victim, for this reason or that. Now, it appears, it's about the only tool left in their political toolbox, other than saying 'no' to everything under the sun, of course. So, to Republican 'victims' everywhere, I have one thing to say -- politics ain't beanbag. Grow up, and stop crying in your beer."


   GOP's record: 1000 hours wasted so far!

This one comes from the creative shop over at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (the Democrats who are charged with electing more Democrats to the Senate next year). They put out a new web ad which is highly amusing. It parodies the "Mac v. PC" ads Apple has been running, with the stiff-necked Republican as someone who "just kind of wants to see [Democrats] fail," and goes on to say that Republicans have wasted "1,000 hours" in the Senate so far. This reinforces the whole "Party of No" image the Republicans have embraced, and is very effective in doing so.

From the ad, and a good way to wrap up a week of misdirection:

"Ideas are hard, blocking them is easy, especially in the Senate ... We won't get caught as long as [Americans are] confused by all the noise and misinformation we throw out there."


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground