Friday Talking Points -- When Universes Collide

This is what happens when Hollywood causes metaphysical universes to collide. That's the way I see it, at any rate. The news that J. J. Abrams will now be directing movies in both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises has, quite obviously, sent ripples across the multidimensional continuum which are only now beginning to be perceived.

Case in point: President Barack Obama today, admitting he is incapable of "Jedi mind-melds" with recalcitrant Republicans in Congress. As any science fiction fan worth his or her salt can tell you (at great length, and with appropriate quotations, accents, and gestures), it's either a Vulcan mind-meld, or a Jedi mind trick. Spock never said: "These are not the droids you're looking for," and Luke Skywalker never tried a mind meld with Jabba the Hut, to put this another way.

Personally, I blame Abrams. No one man should have all that power, as Kanye might say.

If the Obama media team is smart, what they'd be doing even as I write this would be making two phone calls -- one to Mark Hamill, and one to Leonard Nimoy. Immediately -- as fast as air travel allows -- President Obama should cut a web video with Spock and Luke, and explain how he misspoke, what he meant to say, and offer profuse apologies to science-fiction fans everywhere (who are legion). You could have all kinds of fun writing the script for such a cameo-video, in fact. Any decent wordsmith should be able to come up with something hilarious without even breaking a sweat, in fact. The studios would love it, because it just builds fan anticipation for the next two movies in the franchises. Please, please, forward this idea to the White House, someone! The best damage control in the entire political universe! Heh.

The only other good that might possibly come of Obama's slipup might be seeing the inside-the-Beltway sorry excuse for a press corps be distracted from their current medical condition. This condition (sometimes terminal) is technically known as "cranio-rectal inversion blindness," or "the inability to see the world, through having your own head jammed so far up your own..." well, we'll just have to leave it to the foul mouth of John Boehner to complete that description, as we do strive to be a family column here. Ahem.

The big news in Washington "journalism" circles this week was not the side-issue of "did Obama personally come up with the sequester idea?" but the side-side-issue of "did Obama personally take Bob Woodward out to the woodshed and beat him mercilessly with a tire iron?" Or something like that, I must admit I'm not following this "story" as closely as some appear to be. I just sort of glance at the "Woodward admits 'it was more of a wet noodle'!" headlines, and then get on with my life, if you know what I mean. But then I don't live inside the Beltway, myself.

I found that the best commentary on the sequester this week was a seemingly-unrelated photograph of none other than Paris Hilton. Paris appears to be (life was too short for me to actually read the text explaining the photo, so this is all supposition) mugging for the cameras, while her boyfriend lies bleeding and in pain from some sort of ski accident. It's pretty easy to draw parallels to Congress and the bruised American economy, so maybe this is more of the metaphysical universe-collision fallout, who knows?

The Republican Party seems to be seriously fractured (as on so many other issues, these days) on whether to attack or retreat in their War On Women. State-level Republicans are apparently all trying to outdo each other for the "most Draconian and Hester-Prynne-ian restrictions on a woman's right to an abortion of all time" award, or else just continuing the tradition of Republicans saying monumentally stupid things about women. On the national level, however, John Boehner and about three dozen House Republicans decided to support the large number of Senate Republicans who voted for the Violence Against Women Act's renewal. Bet those three dozen are in districts which haven't been safely gerrymandered for the GOP, what do you think? But at least some Republicans are making some progress on the issue of women.

In other Republican news, the same guy who spearheaded the "freedom fries" renaming has now apparently slipped into some sort of alternate universe of his own, as he now says Dick Cheney is going to Hell for the Iraq War. How times change! The rest of us are left to wonder how sinful it is to glorify in all these Republican-on-Republican attacks (and we didn't even have to bring up Karl Rove...). What else? More proof that Republican economics just don't work, if you're into that sort of thing.

Virginia Republicans now have one more Republican on the voter rolls, as Scooter Libby had his right to vote restored personally by the state's governor. Gee, must be nice to get back your right to vote -- unlike so many felons in Virginia who are not as politically connected (to put it mildly).

The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case aiming to overturn the Voting Rights Act, because as we all know there simply is no racism in America anymore. Whoops -- except maybe over at Bloomberg Businessweek, I guess. Seriously, folks, what editor in his or her right mind would approve this cover artwork in the year 2013?

The Obama administration filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court case over California's Proposition 8 this week, speaking out for gay marriage. I still say everyone's paying attention to the wrong case, as I think any sweeping changes from the Supreme Court on gay marriage are going to come from the DOMA case and not the Prop 8 case, but we'll all have to wait and see, won't we? It was nice to see Obama following through so strongly on his new pro-gay-marriage position, though.

And finally, before we move along to the awards, we have to at least mention the news of the first pope in six centuries to resign. While the world watched, Pope Benedictus XVI exited the Vatican and the office of the Holy See. I don't know about the rest of the world, but my thoughts were deep and reflective upon such a momentous occasion. Specifically, I was thinking: "The pope's got a helicopter? How cool is that? Everyone knows about the Popemobile, but the Popecopter?!?"

OK, perhaps its just best we move right along. All this universe-colliding is making me lightheaded, obviously.


Representative Keith Ellison deserves some sort of mention for an epic rant he went on this week, while being interviewed by Fox's Sean Hannity. It is breathtaking to watch. If you ever wanted to see someone fire up a buzz saw and just rip into Hannity, here is your chance. Ellison begins with: "You are the worst excuse for a journalist I've ever seen," and then just steamrolls right on down the hill from there.

Now, we have to admit we're actually a proponent of political ranting, if done right. We've even offered up rant suggestions here in these very pages, over the years, on numerous occasions. But we're not sure how effective we'd rate the Ellison rant. It seems to falter a bit in the middle, although some of that is likely due to the delay times between Hannity and Ellison (he was in the Capitol, not on the set). So we're tossing it out there for you to decide -- what sort of award is this worthy of, if any? The "Most Hair-Raising Rant Of The Week," maybe? See what you think, and share your thoughts in the comments, as always.

Our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week is Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who joined together with David Vitter to cosponsor a bill to break up the big banks. Brown is pushing a simple idea, really: too big to fail is too big to exist. Or, as Brown put scarily put it in perspective:

The best example is that 18 years ago, the largest six banks' combined assets were 16 percent of GDP. Today they're 64-65 percent of GDP. So the large banks are getting bigger and bigger, partly because of the financial crisis, partly because of the advantages they have.

Ending the concept of "too big to fail" is an excellent idea, and it really should have been done about four or five years ago. For championing the issue, and for getting bipartisan support for his legislation, Sherrod Brown is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week.

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


Sadly, this one is an easy call this week.

Mitch McConnell is apparently married to Elaine Chao. This is news to us, but then we don't get invited to tony Washington cocktail parties, so perhaps we can be excused for not knowing that the Senate Minority Leader is married to an ex-cabinet member from a Republican administration.

But while our reaction upon hearing the news is likely similar to just about everyone's ("Huh... who knew?... that's interesting..."), apparently we're supposed to be having a different reaction, according to a group called "Progress Kentucky." This supposedly-liberal super PAC has been tweeting about McConnell's family, using what can only be called "race-baiting." Don't believe me? Decide for yourself: "This woman has the ear of (Sen. McConnell) - she's his wife. May explain why your job moved to China!"

The story doesn't even end there:

The Tweet links to a blog post on site run by conspiracy theorist and radio host Jeff Rense, who has promoted conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school shooting and Holocaust denialism. Another tweet noted that, "not many know McConnell's wife is Chinese."

A spokesman for the group took an astonishingly blithe attitude toward the problem, responding: "It's not an official statement. It's a Tweet. And we will remove it if it's wrong. People make mistakes in Tweets. It happens."

Um, sorry, guys, but that is not good enough. It's not even near being good enough. It's not even in the same time zone as what you should have said, in fact. What's even worse is this comes from a group with "Progress" in its title.

You guys should really hang your heads in shame. And then profusely apologize. Want to know how to handle this sort of thing? Here is Ashley Judd's response (Judd may actually be contemplating a run against McConnell, and is therefore the candidate Progress Kentucky is supposed to be benefiting):

Whatever the intention, whatever the venue, whomever the person, attacks or comments on anyone's ethnicity are wrong & patently unacceptable

Exactly right. Couldn't have said it better. For both allowing these tweets to be published, and then for the pathetic response, Progress Kentucky wins the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Contact Progress Kentucky via their web pages, to let them know what you think of their actions.]


Volume 247 (3/1/13)

Before we get on with taking a look at Obama's press conference today, we've got two items that just didn't fit anywhere else. Two candidates, in fact, for upcoming elections, both of which will be very interesting to keep track of, we think.

The first is in Arkansas, where Bill Halter has thrown his hat in the ring for the governor's race. You may remember Halter as the guy who tried to "primary" Senator Blanche Lincoln. This was a big election, and a lot of outside money poured in to help Halter defeat Lincoln. This sort of thing later led Rahm Emanuel to an epic level of profanity and offensiveness, it should be noted, which we're not going to repeat here (being a family-style column, of course). Halter is now trying for the governor's office, and we certainly will be watching how the race unfolds.

But we're going to make a bold prediction here, and say that one of the most (if not the most) interesting Senate races next year is going to be between two current House members from Iowa. Hopefully, Republicans will nominate Steve King, who has a bit of a problem keeping his own mouth under control. And also hopefully (although in a different sense), Democrats will nominate Bruce Braley, who is an all-around good guy and helped create the Populist Caucus in Congress. Karl Rove has already suggested he's going to sink money into the Republican primary in the hopes of defeating King, so there's that to look forward to as well. But, as mentioned, we think this may be the Senate race to watch in 2014. And we wish both Braley and Halter good luck on the campaign trail!

OK, this is running long enough, so let's just move right along to examining Obama's press conference today. Barack Obama is starting off his second term the same way he started off his first. In his first term, this phase (sadly) ended much too soon, as Obama seemed to abandon the concept. Perhaps he's learned his lesson, and perhaps he's channeling his inner Ronald Reagan more strongly this time.

In case you're confused, what I'm talking about is the correct use of the "bully pulpit." Or, as Reagan was fond of saying to the press: "I'm going over your heads to the American people." This theme was on full display today, and you get the sense that Obama has learned that wielding this power can indeed get results in Congress, if done right.

Having said that, here are the most effective excerpts from the full transcript of Obama's press conference.


   None of this is necessary

In his opening remarks, after calling the sequester cuts "stupid" (a theme he would return to), Obama did not mince words about how he saw the past week unfold. Towards the end of this excerpt, Obama begins his overall theme of "talking directly to the American people."

And let's be clear. None of this is necessary. It's happening because of a choice that Republicans in Congress have made. They've allowed these cuts to happen because they refuse to budge on closing a single wasteful loophole to help reduce the deficit. As recently as yesterday, they decided to protect special interest tax breaks for the well-off and well-connected, and they think that that's apparently more important than protecting our military or middle-class families from the pain of these cuts.

I do believe that we can and must replace these cuts with a more balanced approach that asks something from everybody: Smart spending cuts; entitlement reform; tax reform that makes the tax code more fair for families and businesses without raising tax rates -- all so that we can responsibly lower the deficit without laying off workers, or forcing parents to scramble for childcare, or slashing financial aid for college students.

I don't think that's too much to ask. I don't think that is partisan. It's the kind of approach that I've proposed for two years. It's what I ran on last year. And the majority of the American people agree with me in this approach, including, by the way, a majority of Republicans. We just need Republicans in Congress to catch up with their own party and their country on this. And if they did so, we could make a lot of progress.


   I am prepared to do hard things

Obama sets himself up as the "adult in the room" to counter the Republican caricature of him "just wanting taxes." He puts the whole argument into some well-needed perspective, and once again ends with an appeal to the public.

Look, we've already cut $2.5 trillion in our deficit. Everybody says we need to cut $4 trillion, which means we have to come up with another trillion and a half. The vast majority of economists agree that the problem when it comes to deficits is not discretionary spending. It's not that we're spending too much money on education. It's not that we're spending too much money on job training, or that we're spending too much money rebuilding our roads and our bridges. We're not.

The problem that we have is a long-term problem in terms of our health care costs and programs like Medicare. And what I've said very specifically, very detailed is that I'm prepared to take on the problem where it exists -- on entitlements -- and do some things that my own party really doesn't like -- if it's part of a broader package of sensible deficit reduction. So the deal that I've put forward over the last two years, the deal that I put forward as recently as December is still on the table. I am prepared to do hard things and to push my Democratic friends to do hard things.

But what I can't do is ask middle-class families, ask seniors, ask students to bear the entire burden of deficit reduction when we know we've got a bunch of tax loopholes that are benefiting the well-off and the well-connected, aren't contributing to growth, aren't contributing to our economy. It's not fair. It's not right. The American people don't think it's fair and don't think it's right.


   Why don't we do that?

Obama starts with his overall theme here, and then pivots to an important point -- how could Boehner be for something a few months ago, and be against it now? It doesn't make sense.

So in terms of going forward, my hope is that after some reflection -- as members of Congress start hearing from constituents who are being negatively impacted, as we start seeing the impact that the sequester is having -- that they step back and say, all right, is there a way for us to move forward on a package of entitlement reforms, tax reform, not raising tax rates, identifying programs that don't work, coming up with a plan that's comprehensive and that makes sense. And it may take a couple of weeks. It may take a couple of months, but I'm just going to keep on pushing on it. And my view is that, ultimately, common sense prevails.

But what is true right now is that the Republicans have made a choice that maintaining an ironclad rule that we will not accept an extra dime's worth of revenue makes it very difficult for us to get any larger comprehensive deal. And that's a choice they're making. They're saying that it's more important to preserve these tax loopholes than it is to prevent these arbitrary cuts.

And what's interesting is Speaker Boehner, just a couple months ago, identified these tax loopholes and tax breaks and said we should close them and raise revenue. So it's not as if it's not possible to do. They themselves have suggested that it's possible to do. And if they believe that in fact these tax loopholes and these tax breaks for the well-off and the well-connected aren't contributing to growth, aren't good for our economy, aren't particularly fair and can raise revenue, well, why don't we get started? Why don't we do that?


   Everybody is going to have to do something

Obama, once again, stakes out a very reasonable position. Why can't everyone sacrifice a little bit?

And I just want to repeat, Julie, because I think it's very important to understand, it's not as if Democrats aren't being asked to do anything, either, to compromise. There are members of my party who violently disagree with the notion that we should do anything on Medicare. And I'm willing to say to them, I disagree with you, because I want to preserve Medicare for the long haul. And we're going to have some tough politics within my party to get this done.

This is not a situation where I'm only asking for concessions from Republicans and asking nothing from Democrats. I'm saying that everybody is going to have to do something. And the one key to this whole thing is trying to make sure we keep in mind who we're here for. We are not here for ourselves, we're not here for our parties, we're not here to advance our electoral prospects. We're here for American families who have been getting battered pretty good over the last four years, are just starting to see the economy improve; businesses are just starting to see some confidence coming back. And this is not a win for anybody, this is a loss for the American people.


   Eventually Congress catches up

When asked about his leadership skills, Obama pointed out he didn't really need to lead, as the American people were already in agreement. Properly labeled (as far as bumpersticker-slogans go), this is the "When the people lead, the leaders follow" theory. Obama knows the polling is overwhelmingly on his side in this argument. The difference now seems to be that Obama is unafraid to say so in a very pointed manner.

Look, the issue is not my persuasive power. The American people agree with my approach. They agree that we should have a balanced approach to deficit reduction.

The question is can the American people help persuade their members of Congress to do the right thing, and I have a lot of confidence that over time, if the American people express their displeasure about how something is working, that eventually Congress responds. Sometimes there is a little gap between what the American people think and what Congress thinks. But eventually Congress catches up.


   Mayor Bloomberg and others may not feel that impact

When asked about the mayor of New York City's brushing aside Obama's warnings of what will be cut, Obama did not hesitate to beautifully frame the issue. This could be the clearest example of "speaking to those outside the Beltway" in the entire presser.

The Department of Defense right now has to figure out how the children of military families are going to continue with their schooling over the next several months, because teachers at these Army bases are typically civilians. They are therefore subject to furlough, which means that they may not be able to teach one day a week.

Now, I expect that we'll be able to manage around it. But if I'm a man or woman in uniform in Afghanistan right now, the notion that my spouse back home is having to worry about whether or not our kids are getting the best education possible, the notion that my school for my children on an Army base might be disrupted because Congress didn't act, that's an impact. Now, Mayor Bloomberg and others may not feel that impact. I suspect they won't. But that family will.

The Border Patrol agents who are out there in the hot sun, doing what Congress said they're supposed to be doing, finding out suddenly that they're getting a 10-percent pay cut and having to go home and explain that to their families, I don't think they feel like this is an exaggerated impact. So I guess it depends on where you sit.


   Jedi mind-meld

Sure, this one's going to get all the jokes. But Obama is making a very good point -- he is answering the "centrist" nonsense that has been kicking around inside the Beltway for a couple of weeks. This centrist fantasy hinges around Obama using magic "leadership" skills (which are never explained) to change the minds of the Republicans in Congress, as easy as clicking your red slippers together. The list of pundits who have written tripe about this idiocy grows daily, it seems, so it was indeed refreshing to hear Obama slap it down. Here's the whole transcript of the exchange, to show how vacuous the question is, when you attempt to actually put this "alternate universe theory" into words:

Q: Mr. President, to your question, what could you do -- first of all, couldn't you just have them [Republican congressional leadership] down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal? (Laughter.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I mean, Jessica, I am not a dictator. I'm the President. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right? So --

Q: But isn't that part of leadership? I'm sorry to interrupt, but isn't --

OBAMA: I understand. And I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I'm being reasonable, that most people agree I'm presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what's right. Well, they're elected. We have a constitutional system of government. The Speaker of the House and the leader of the Senate and all those folks have responsibilities.

What I can do is I can make the best possible case for why we need to do the right thing. I can speak to the American people about the consequences of the decisions that Congress is making or the lack of decision-making by Congress. But, ultimately, it's a choice they make.

And this idea that somehow there's a secret formula or secret sauce to get Speaker Boehner or Mitch McConnell to say, you know what, Mr. President, you're right, we should close some tax loopholes for the well-off and well-connected in exchange for some serious entitlement reform and spending cuts of programs we don't need. I think if there was a secret way to do that, I would have tried it. I would have done it.


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