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Cracker Squire

THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Democrats are taking a risk of looking like they are jamming health care through in the face of public opposition.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post:

Democrats think more government is the answer; Republicans say the opposite, that market competition is the best antidote to the ailing system. Republicans are focused on cost, both rising premiums and government expenditures. They haven't made universal coverage anything close to a priority. Democrats are more determined to expand coverage to many millions more who lack insurance. But they say they have not ignored costs. Their proposals, they argue, would reduce premiums and the deficit. Republicans say the projected governmental savings will never be realized.

The White House and congressional leaders now have about a month to pull together majorities in both houses.

Democrats may be forced to use reconciliation to enact health care with a bare majority, believing that in the end the public will not care much about congressional procedures, only outcomes. But if the deal-making from December is any guide, Democrats are taking a risk of looking like they are jamming health care through in the face of public opposition.

When Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) won his surprise victory last month, the anger over health care had as much to do with the process by which Democrats were trying to pass the bill as with the substance. That should be a caution to the Democrats that process can color public opinion.

Whatever happens in Congress, the health-care fight is heading toward a political referendum in November.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My, my . . . -- To Court Blacks, Foes of Abortion Make Racial Case (Please stay out of South Georgia Ms. Davis.)


Catherine Davis, the minority outreach coordinator for Georgia Right to Life

From The New York Times:

For years the largely white staff of Georgia Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, tried to tackle the disproportionately high number of black women who undergo abortions. But, staff members said, they found it difficult to make inroads with black audiences.

So in 2009, the group took money that it normally used for advertising a pregnancy hot line and hired a black woman, Catherine Davis, to be its minority outreach coordinator.

Ms. Davis traveled to black churches and colleges around the state, delivering the message that abortion is the primary tool in a decades-old conspiracy to kill off blacks.

This month, the group expanded its reach, making national news with 80 billboards around Atlanta that proclaim, “Black children are an endangered species,” and a Web site, www.toomanyaborted.com.

[With respect to the billboards, see a 2-5-10 article in The New York Times entitled "Anti-Abortion Ads Split Atlanta."]

Across the country, the anti-abortion movement, long viewed as almost exclusively white and Republican, is turning its attention to African-Americans and encouraging black abortion opponents across the country to become more active.

A new documentary, written and directed by Mark Crutcher, a white abortion opponent in Denton, Tex., meticulously traces what it says are connections among slavery, Nazi-style eugenics, birth control and abortion, and is being regularly screened by black organizations.

E-Verify fails to detect one out of two illegal workers whose employment authorizations are screened

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Department of Homeland Security's controversial and much-touted E-Verify program might be failing to detect one out of two illegal workers whose employment authorizations are screened, outside consultants have told the agency.

Tens of thousands of companies participate in E-Verify, either voluntarily or as a condition of doing business with the government.

The Internet-based program checks information provided by new hires against Social Security Administration and Homeland Security databases to confirm they are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents of the country.

An evaluation of E-Verify carried out for DHS by research group Westat found the program couldn't confirm whether information workers were presenting was their own, and, as a result, "many unauthorized workers obtain employment by committing identity fraud that cannot be detected by E-Verify," Westat told the department. Westat put the "inaccuracy rate for unauthorized workers" at about 54%.

E-Verify has previously faced criticism for failing to authorize individuals who are permitted to work in the U.S.

E-Verify was stepped up under former President George W. Bush, and the administration of President Barack Obama has maintained support for the program, taking a tough immigration-enforcement stance designed in part to win support for a broader campaign to create a path to legal residency and citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Editorial in The Washington Post: Neither side on the health care debate has a monopoly on the truth.

From an editorial in today's Washington Post:

The two sides have fundamentally different goals for health reform and therefore fundamentally different visions of what legislation should contain.

Democrats want a far-reaching measure that extends coverage to tens of millions of Americans currently without insurance and that imposes stringent new requirements on insurers. Republicans put little emphasis on expanding coverage but would like to increase competition; access will increase, they argue, as costs go down. They oppose new mandates and broad regulation.

There is, as Mr. Obama said Thursday, "legitimate philosophical disagreement" between the two sides, and neither has a monopoly on the truth. Democrats are right to stress the moral imperative of expanding coverage but are not being honest enough about what that will cost. Republicans such as Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had a point when they questioned whether promised savings will materialize. Likewise, Democrats are right about the interconnected nature of the health-care system and the consequent difficulty in achieving piecemeal change. But they may have erred in not giving enough credence to public anxiety about embarking on such a complicated and costly enterprise. When Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said that "we don't do comprehensive well," he struck a nerve.

Unfortunately, the session was less edifying on what it will take to pay for expanded access to health care or to contain rising health-care costs. Both parties acknowledged that those costs, if unchecked, could be calamitous -- for families, businesses, and state and federal budgets. But key elements of a solution aren't popular: taxing employer-provided health plans, for example, and denying coverage for treatments that don't work. So no one talked about those.

David Brooks on the meeting at the Blair House: Not as Dull as Expected!

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

Going in, I was as cynical as everybody else about the Blair House health care forum. I was planning to watch for a half-hour and then write about something else.

But the event was more meaningful than that. Most of the credit goes to President Obama. The man really knows how to lead a discussion. He stuck to specifics and tried to rein in people who were flying off into generalities. He picked out the core point in any comment. He tried to keep things going in a coherent direction.

Moreover, he seemed to be trying to get a result. Republicans had their substantive criticism of the Democratic bills, but Obama kept pressing them for areas of agreement.

The second useful thing about the meeting was that it bypassed the Congressional power structure. As usual, the quality of the comments got worse the closer you got to the party leadership. The Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid, gave remarks that veered between the misleading and the incoherent. Statements from Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, were partisan spin. The Republican leaders, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, were smart enough to stand back and let Senator Lamar Alexander lead the way, which he did genially and intelligently. While Alexander was speaking, Reid and Pelosi wouldn’t even deign to look at him.

Once you got to the other members, about two-thirds of the statements were smart and well-informed. This was not a repeat of the Baltimore summit, in which Obama dominated the room. This time, Obama was very good, but so were many others, like Mike Enzi, Jim Cooper, George Miller and Tom Coburn. If you thought Republicans were a bunch of naysayers who don’t know or care about health care, then this was not the event for you. They more than held their own.

[Also], you got to see how confident Republicans are. Obama’s compromise offer is one the Republicans can happily refuse. In their eyes, he is saying: If you don’t make some concessions now, I’m going to punch myself in the face. If you don’t embrace parts of my bill, I will waste the next three months trying to push an unpopular measure through an ugly reconciliation process that will probably lead to failure anyway.

Both parties see the same problem. The current system is a mess, with opaque prices and perverse incentives that mostly favor the insurance companies. But, as Yuval Levin has pointed out in National Review, the Democrats believe the answer is to create a highly regulated insurance system with inefficiencies eliminated through rational rules. The Republicans believe that the answer is to create a genuine market with clear price signals, empowered consumers and an evolving process.

Philosophically, it is hard to bring these two sides together. And there were times on Thursday when compromise seemed hopeless. But there were other times, when participants started talking nuts and bolts of the exchanges, when there was overlap: how to create interstate insurance markets without a race to the bottom; how to end insurance company power over those with pre-existing conditions.

Health care reform probably will not get passed this year. But there were moments, at the most wonky and specific, when the two sides echoed each other. Glimmers of hope for the next set of reformers.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. -- Galloway has some great lines today.

From Jim Galloway's Political Insider in the AJC in a post entitled "There’s the government you need, and the government you’re willing to pay for":

The sober language of reality is slowly spreading through the state Capitol.

They’re looking for $1.2 billion or more that can be sliced away, or paid for with new funds — be they called tax hikes, fee increases, revenue enhancements or tuition maximizations.

We are used to Republican rhetoric from Washington, where a congressman can rail against out-of-control federal spending from dawn to dusk — and in the evening still take credit for the money that Democrats send the way of his voters.

But in the state Capitol, where the GOP is actually in charge of the machinery, Republicans have gone quiet as they grope for the line that divides sloganeering from real life — the balance between what you and I need from government, and what we’re willing to pay.

There are tipping points in the argument between more budget cuts and the need to preserve what we have.

On the other hand, many Republican lawmakers — all of whom serve part-time, without much staff — are still of the opinion that, even after seven years of GOP control, they don’t have a firm grasp on state spending.

Go for it Mr. President; throw GOP off stride & mean it: Congressional Democrats warned White House officials 'not to go too far' on tort reform.

From The New York Times:

One way Mr. Obama could throw Republicans off stride would be to make a bold opening offer to embrace one of their health care priorities, like limiting medical malpractice lawsuits — an idea one Democrat close to the White House said had been under consideration.

But, this Democrat said, such an offer appeared unlikely, in part because Republicans seem dug in against the president’s plan and in part because it would arouse the ire of Mr. Obama’s Democratic base. In a conference call Wednesday, Congressional Democrats warned White House officials “not to go too far” on tort reform, one person familiar with the call said.

White House officials said Mr. Obama would use his opening remarks to make the case that Democrats and Republicans are not as far apart as they think on health care, because both parties are concerned about the deficit and rising health premiums — issues, the president will argue, that can be addressed only by controlling health care costs.

Republicans said they would frame their arguments in opposition to the Democrats’ expansive plan, and would emphasize a handful of ideas that were part of a House Republican alternative to the Democrats’ legislation in November, including allowing small businesses to band together to buy health insurance at lower prices, permitting the sale of insurance policies across state lines, expanding state high-risk pools to offer coverage to people who otherwise could not obtain it, and limiting damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

GOP's Demographic Wager: Wooing Latino Candidates -- Rep. Tom Price buying into new strategy.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Some high-profile Republicans are adopting a softer vocabulary on immigration and trying to recruit more Hispanic candidates, a response to the party's soul-searching about tactics that many strategists believe have alienated the country's fastest-growing voter bloc.

Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee and an opponent of past efforts to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, has been meeting with Hispanic leaders to find a new tone on that and other points of contention between Hispanic groups and conservatives.

For Republicans, such efforts carry risks, especially as conservative activists try to push GOP candidates to be more ideologically pure. Opposition to "amnesty," a buzzword used by critics of proposals to legalize the 12 million illegal immigrants believed to be living in the U.S., remains a reliable applause line.

Nonetheless, many in the party have concluded that opposition to immigration legislation, a debate that is sometimes racially charged, has alienated millions of otherwise conservative Hispanic voters.

Mr. Price, the Georgia lawmaker, said in an interview he began meeting with Hispanic groups in recent months to open a "line of communication so there is a reserve of trust." But he said he wasn't ready to talk about a path to legalization until he was convinced the U.S.-Mexico border is secured.

The new GOP language on immigration was evident in a recent appearance by Sarah Palin on Fox News. The former Alaska governor said that conservatives needed to be "welcoming and inviting to immigrants" and recognize that "immigrants built this great country."

Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, a group that advocates for strict limits on immigration, said strategists who urge a softer stance will be hard-pressed to find "any Republicans who want to stay in office who want to take their advice."

A more conciliatory approach, Mr. Beck said, would turn off independent voters, who tend to support more restrictive immigration policies, particularly at a time of high unemployment, and whose movements back to the GOP in recent months are likely to spur big gains for the party this November.

The views of independent voters also complicate matters for Democrats, who are trying to retain Hispanic voters while wooing independents and satisfying labor unions, which are divided on immigration. Mr. Obama has said he supports an overhaul, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but the issue has been overshadowed by the White House's primary focus on jobs and the economy.

Obama's continued audaciousness on health reform could backfire

Ruth Marcus writes in The Washington Post:

The White House does not enter Thursday's summit expecting Republicans to make a deal.

The real target of presidential bidding is his own party -- specifically House Democrats.

My worry is that going for broke and failing will leave no time or appetite for a fallback, scaled-down plan. And the moment to do something on health care -- not everything, but something significant -- will have evaporated, once again.

Given where we have been, if Obama gambles with reconciliation, it will raise questions about his judgment & be Democrats' path to destruction.

Michael Gerson writes in The Washington Post:

On health-care reform, the strategy of President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders is psychologically understandable -- as well as delusional.

It is easy to imagine the internal dialogue: "Well, they voted for me, overwhelmingly. I didn't hide my views on this issue; I highlighted them. If they actually knew what was in the plan, they'd support it. If I don't believe in this, I don't believe in anything. Sometimes you just have to lead." But there is a problem with this reasoning: After a year of debate, Democratic leaders -- given every communications advantage and decisive control of every elected branch of government -- have not only lost legislative momentum, they have lost a national argument. Americans have taken every opportunity -- the town hall revolt, increasingly lopsided polling, a series of upset elections culminating in Massachusetts -- to shout their second thoughts. At this point, for Democratic leaders to insist on their current approach is to insist that Americans are not only misinformed but also dimwitted.

And the proposed form of this insistence -- enacting health reform through the quick, dirty shove of the reconciliation process -- would add coercion to arrogance. Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared that "everything is on the table" -- as though Senate Republicans and Democratic moderates were the domestic equivalents of Iran. This is the political context that Democratic leaders have set for their historically "transparent" health summit -- a threat as transparent as a horse's head in a senator's bed.

Obama now approaches the Rubicon. The Senate is in disarray. Its procedures frustrate his purposes. Before crossing the river with his army, Julius Caesar is reported to have said, "Let the dice fly high!" For what stakes does Obama gamble?

First, the imposition of a House-Senate health-reform hybrid would confirm the worst modern image of the Democratic Party, that of intellectual arrogance. Parties hurt themselves most when they confirm a destructive public judgment. In this case, Americans would see Democrats pushing a high-handed statism. It is amazing how both parties, when given power, seem compelled to inhabit their own caricatures.

Second, this approach would almost certainly maintain conservative and Republican intensity through the November elections. In midterm elections, it is intensity that turns a trend into a rout. It is one thing to pour gasoline on a populist bonfire. It is another thing to pour gasoline on a populist bonfire while one is already being roasted.

Third, this action would undermine Obama's own State of the Union strategy, which seemed like a shift toward the economy and away from health-care reform. The White House finds it impossible to settle on a strategy and stick with it. Democrats keep being drawn back into debates -- Reid is now proposing the return of the "public option" -- they have lost decisively, as if one more spin of the roulette wheel will recover their losses.

Fourth, a reconciliation strategy would both insult House and Senate Republicans and motivate them for future fights. The minority would not only be defeated on health reform but its rights would be permanently diminished -- a development that would certainly be turned against Democrats when they lose their majority. Each side would have an excuse for decades of bitterness, creating a kind of political karma in which angry spirits are reincarnated again and again, to fight the same battles and suffer the same wounds.

Fifth, Obama would manage to betray many politically vulnerable members of his own party, proving himself a party leader of exceptional selfishness. Because the legacy of his presidency is at stake, or because of his pride, or because he is ideologically committed to an expanded public role in health care, Obama is pressuring Democratic members to join a suicide pact. When a president doesn't care about his party, his party eventually ceases to care about him.

Democratic leaders respond: Since we have already taken the damage for proposing health reform, we might as well get the benefit for passing something. But there is always more damage to be taken on a self-destructive political path. And, in this case, there is a respectable alternative: approve and take credit for incremental reforms while blaming Republicans for blocking broader changes.

Obama's decision on the use of reconciliation will define his presidency. If he trusts in his charmed political fortunes and lets the dice fly, it will raise the deepest questions about his judgment.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

David Brooks on health care reform: Into the Mire

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

Barack Obama came to Washington with the nation’s hope for change riding on his shoulders. He promised to reform the health care system. He hired many of the country’s top experts who had written brilliantly about how to do reform.

He immediately moved away from some of their ideas. This was understandable. America isn’t Plato’s Republic. It’s not a nation governed by experts. It’s a democracy. To get things passed, you’ve got to allow for political reality.

So President Obama promised to keep health insurance the same for most Americans. This meant it was going to be harder to bring down costs. This meant it wouldn’t be possible to replace the fraying employer-based insurance system. But these compromises could be justified.

Then the Congress began its deal-making. There were special favors put in for certain senators. There were special arrangements made for big Democratic donors, like the trial lawyers. These were compromises, too. They were ugly, and they soiled everybody involved. But, again, they could be justified for reasons of political expediency. The bill that emerged from the Senate was not to everybody’s liking. It wouldn’t reduce the nation’s overall health care spending.

But at least the Senate bill had some integrity. It would cover 30 million people without adding to the deficit. It did this in real ways. It included real Medicare cuts. Most importantly, it included an excise tax on luxury insurance plans.

The excise tax is one of those ideas health care economists of all stripes love. Currently, we have a perverse tax system that taxes salaries but not health benefits. This exclusion favors the rich over the middle class. It encourages extravagant health spending.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, taxing health benefits is one of the two most effective ways to bring down health care costs. Plus, it brings in a ton of revenue. According to the Lewin Group, a health care consulting firm, the excise tax in the Senate bill would bring in $957 billion between 2020 and 2029. This is what pays for expanding coverage. This is why the president could promise to veto any bill that adds a dime to the deficit.

But, alas, this is Washington, 2010. The muck rises. The compromises never stop.

As the year went on, health care reform grew more unpopular. If you average the last 10 polls, 38 percent of voters support the reform plans and 53 percent oppose. Obama’s reform is more unpopular than Bill Clinton’s was as it died.

As the political costs rose, members of Congress squealed louder. Congress is not a bastion of courage in the best of circumstances. When it is asked to actually pay for its expenditures, it verges on hysteria.

Some Republicans campaigned against the excise tax. John McCain had made the excise tax a centerpiece of his reform plan. But Scott Brown of Massachusetts and others ran against it.

Unions went next. They demanded a special deal so their members would be exempt from the tax. The Democrats caved and gave it to them.

Blood was now in the water. Everyone smelled weakness. If the White House hopes to pass something in this atmosphere, it needs every Democratic vote it can get. It needs to cater to every special-interest plea. Right now, the White House has no leverage.

Efforts to kill the tax mounted. On Jan. 27, Nancy Pelosi told a group of journalists, “The excise tax has no support, very little support, in our caucus.” The pollsters said it was a loser. That was a sign the Congressional leadership wanted it dead.

On Monday, the White House made another compromise. On the surface, it seems mundane. The imposition of the excise tax will be delayed until 2018, and the threshold at which the tax kicks in will be raised. In reality, the delay turns the tax into another Washington gimmick. Lord, give me virtue, but not yet.

The odds are high that the excise tax will never actually happen. There is no reason to think that the Congress of 2018 will be any braver than the Congress of today. It will probably get around the pay-go rules or whatever else might apply and it’ll postpone the tax again. The excise tax will turn into another “doc fix.” This is a mythical provision in which doctors are always about to get their reimbursements cut. But somehow they never do because the cuts are always pushed back, year after year.

So we’ve sunk another level in our tawdry tale. The White House, to its enormous credit, has tried to think about the long term. But it has been dragged ever lower into the mire by Congressional special interests that are parochial in the extreme.

This bill may be deficit-neutral on paper. But it has just become a fiscal time bomb. The revenue will never come. Compromises have to be made to keep it (barely) alive. But responsibility ebbs. Politics wins.

Fact # 1: In gov's race, Barnes formidable to Democratic opponents. -- Fact # 2: Democratic Party needs T. Baker & D. Porter active & in some office.

Aaron Gould Sheinin gives the Cracker Squire a little ink in the AJC:

There are five men running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, but only one of them is named Roy Barnes.

That, in the simplest form, is what has come to define the race.

Barnes, the once and possibly future governor, has near universal statewide name recognition that allows him to run as if he’s still an incumbent, plus millions of dollars in campaign cash. Barnes is Goliath and the other four candidates — Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Ray City Mayor Carl Camon, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former Adjutant Gen. David Poythress — have yet to prove they have either the slingshot or the stone to slay the giant.

The primary is July 20, just five months away. And while four, maybe five, Republicans have a legitimate shot to be the GOP candidate in November, can anyone not named Barnes win the Democratic nomination?

A December poll by the national firm Rasmussen Reports shows Barnes getting 48 percent of the primary vote to 17 percent for Baker, 4 percent for Poythress, 3 percent for Porter and 1 percent for Camon. A January poll from Rasmussen, too, shows Barnes neck and neck with any of the likely Republican candidates.

Sid Cottingham, a lawyer in South Georgia’s Coffee County, is a Democratic activist who runs the popular Cracker Squire blog. He’s also a Barnes supporter but calls himself a close friend to Porter and Baker. He said those two men have done important things for the party and he laments their decision to stay in the race despite Barnes’ advantages. If they lose the primary, they are both out of office.

“I’m a Democrat. I’m a very moderate Democrat, and our party’s ranks are slim,” he said. “Durn, we need Thurbert and we need DuBose.”

University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, an expert in Georgia politics who has written extensively about primary and runoff elections, was able to offer some hope to Baker.

“It seems there’s a scenario under which Thurbert Baker could [win],” Bullock said. “For [Porter and Poythress] it’s harder.”

Baker, who is black, would conceivably benefit from a high turnout among African-American voters in the primary. Typically, Bullock said, African-Americans cast about half of all votes in Democratic primaries.

So, Bullock said, Baker’s path is rocky. But any path for Porter and Poythress is downright treacherous.

The essential problem for Baker, Porter and Poythress comes down to a Catch-22 of cash and name recognition. Without the name recognition, it’s more difficult to raise money. Without money, it’s nearly impossible to raise your name recognition because the best, and some say only, way to raise name recognition in a state as large as Georgia is through television advertising. And without money, there’s no television advertising.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why Obama needs Rahm Emanuel at the top -- Sacking him is the last thing the president should do


Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post:

It is the current fashion to blame President Obama's disappointing first year on his chief of staff. "First, remove Rahm Emanuel," writes Leslie Gelb in the Daily Beast, because he lacks "the management skills and discipline to run the White House."

The Financial Times's Ed Luce reports that the "famously irascible" Emanuel has "alienated many of Mr. Obama's closest outside supporters," while the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons lumps Emanuel in with the "Core Chicago Team Sinking Obama Presidency."

They join liberal interests who despised Emanuel long before he branded them "retarded." Jane Hamsher of firedoglake.com, together with conservative activist Grover Norquist, demanded a Justice Department investigation into Emanuel, who is "far too compromised to serve as gatekeeper to the president."

As Emanuel would say: What the [expletive deleted]?

Clearly, "Rahmbo" has no shortage of enemies in this town, and with Obama's approval rating dipping below 50 percent, they have ammunition. But sacking Emanuel is the last thing the president should do.

Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter.

Obama chose the profane former Clinton adviser for a reason. Where the president is airy and idealistic, Rahm is earthy and calculating. One thinks big; the other, a former House Democratic Caucus chair, understands the congressional mind, in which small stuff counts for more than broad strokes.

Obama's problem is that his other confidants -- particularly Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs, and, to a lesser extent, David Axelrod -- are part of the Cult of Obama. In love with the president, they believe he is a transformational figure who needn't dirty his hands in politics.

The president would have been better off heeding Emanuel's counsel. For example, Emanuel bitterly opposed former White House counsel Greg Craig's effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year, arguing that it wasn't politically feasible. Obama overruled Emanuel, the deadline wasn't met, and Republicans pounced on the president and the Democrats for trying to bring terrorists to U.S. prisons. Likewise, Emanuel fought fiercely against Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to send Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York for a trial. Emanuel lost, and the result was another political fiasco.

Obama's greatest mistake was failing to listen to Emanuel on health care. Early on, Emanuel argued for a smaller bill with popular items, such as expanding health coverage for children and young adults, that could win some Republican support. He opposed the public option as a needless distraction.

The president disregarded that strategy and sided with Capitol Hill liberals who hoped to ram a larger, less popular bill through Congress with Democratic votes only. The result was, as the world now knows, disastrous.

Had it gone Emanuel's way, a politically popular health-care bill would have passed long ago, leaving plenty of time for other attractive priorities, such as efforts to make college more affordable. We would have seen a continuation of the momentum of the first half of 2009, when Obama followed Emanuel's strategy and got 11 substantive bills on his desk before the August recess.

Instead, Congress has ground to a halt, on climate legislation, Wall Street reforms and virtually everything else. Emanuel, schooled by Bill Clinton, knew what the true believers didn't: that bite-sized proposals add up to big things.

Contrast Emanuel's wisdom with that of Jarrett, in charge of "intergovernmental affairs and public engagement" -- two areas of conspicuous failure. Jarrett also brought in Desiree Rogers as White House social secretary; the Salahi embarrassment ensued. Then there's Gibbs. It's hard to make the case that you're a post-partisan president when your on-camera spokesman is a hyper-partisan former campaign flack.

No wonder Emanuel has set up his own small press operation and outreach function to circumvent the dysfunctional ones that Jarrett and Gibbs run. Obama needs an old Washington hand to replace Jarrett and somebody with gravitas on the podium to step in for Gibbs.

The failure of the president's message also reflects on his message maven, Axelrod, who is an adept strategist but blinded by Obama love. A good example was Obama's unproductive China trip in November. Jarrett, Gibbs and Axelrod went along as courtiers; Emanuel remained at his desk in Washington, struggling to keep alive the big health-care bill that he didn't want in the first place.

In hiring Emanuel, Obama avoided the mistakes of his Democratic predecessors, who first gave the chief of staff job to besotted loyalists. Now in trouble, Obama needs fewer acolytes and more action. Rahm should stay.

Obama's challenge: Reclaiming the mantle of change

David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post:

[On July 21, 2009] the president hosted Brad Paisley at the White House for a celebration of country music.

It was good music and good politics. Many of Paisley's fans probably hadn't voted for Obama; symbolically, country is red-state music and, in the popular mythology, at least, white people's music. It was a little like Nelson Mandela embracing the sport of rugby, beloved by white South Africans, as a way to unite a divided nation, as recounted in the movie "Invictus."

Paisley was the perfect connection. He's a country superstar, born in West Virginia and now living in Tennessee.

The emotional highlight came when Paisley performed a new release called "Welcome to the Future." It's a foot-tapping song about the classic country themes of dislocation and change, but it's really about the election of Barack Obama and what it meant for the country.

Paisley told the president that he began writing the song on election night in 2008, when he "watched the world turn on a dime." He turned to Michelle Obama and said he had been thinking recently about how the first lady's great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, had been a slave in South Carolina.

Then Paisley let it rip . . .

Take a look at the YouTube clip. Unless you have a heart of stone, you'll get a lump in your throat.

Paisley explained what the evening meant to him in a posting on CNN.com: "On November 4th, I felt an emotion like I haven't felt in my entire life. I think whoever you voted for, you had to be moved."

That's the door that Obama's presidency opened for the country. The question is: What happened to that gut-moving sense of change, and how can Obama bring it back?

The commentary pages have been thick with discussions of how Obama lost his mojo. Most of them reflect the writer's political stance: Conservatives think Obama has been too liberal, and liberals argue that he hasn't been liberal enough. What these polemics overlook is that Obama pledged to transcend these labels. That's why he was elected -- to be an agent of change for a partisan Washington system that had become dysfunctional.

One of the most provocative Obama critiques I've read is an essay in the Nation by Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School. He argued that to regain his status as a change agent, Obama must challenge the central node of our political sickness, which is Congress. It has been so enfeebled by political money and partisan feuds that it is, says Lessig, "a bankrupt institution."

Obama campaigned against this broken system, but in office he has relied on politicians for his top advisers. Of his 15 Cabinet appointments, eight are former members of Congress or governors. It's an administration that looks like the status quo, rather than change.

A strategy that challenges Washington's immobilism has a chance of passing the Brad Paisley test. For what unites liberals and conservatives, rockers and country crooners, is that they agree Washington is an abomination. This is still Obama's best card if he can play it boldly.

Paisley has another song I like, called "American Saturday Night," about the wild cultural diversity of this country and how it all fits together: "It's like we're all livin' in a big ol' cup, just fire up the blender, mix it all up." That's the country that elected Barack Obama, and it still wants a strong leader who can fix the mess.

The Fat Lady Has Sung -- We have to demand the truth from our politicians & be ready to accept it. We simply do not have another presidency to waste.

Tom Friedman writes in The New York Times:

Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.

President Obama’s bad luck was that he showed up just as we moved from the fat years to the lean years. His calling is to lead The Regeneration [— the generation that renews, refreshes, re-energizes and rebuilds America for the 21st century]. He clearly understands that in his head, but he has yet to give full voice to it. Actually, the thing that most baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can’t come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics — when it is so obvious.

Mr. Obama won the election because he was able to “rent” a significant number of independent voters — including Republican business types who had never voted for a Democrat in their lives — because they knew in their guts that the country was on the wrong track and was desperately in need of nation-building at home and that John McCain was not the man to do it.

They thought that Mr. Obama, despite his liberal credentials, had the unique skills, temperament, voice and values to pull the country together for this new Apollo program — not to take us to the moon, but into the 21st century.

Alas, though, instead of making nation-building in America his overarching narrative and then fitting health care, energy, educational reform, infrastructure, competitiveness and deficit reduction under that rubric, the president has pursued each separately. This made each initiative appear to be just some stand-alone liberal obsession to pay off a Democratic constituency — not an essential ingredient of a nation-building strategy — and, therefore, they have proved to be easily obstructed, picked off or delegitimized by opponents and lobbyists.

So “Obamism” feels at worst like a hodgepodge, at best like a to-do list — one that got way too dominated by health care instead of innovation and jobs — and not the least like a big, aspirational project that can bring out America’s still vast potential for greatness.

To be sure, taking over the presidency at the dawn of the lean years is no easy task. The president needs to persuade the country to invest in the future and pay for the past — past profligacy — all at the same time. We have to pay for more new schools and infrastructure than ever, while accepting more entitlement cuts than ever, when public trust in government is lower than ever.

On top of that, the Republican Party has never been more irresponsible. Having helped run the deficit to new heights during the recent Bush years, the G.O.P. is now unwilling to take any responsibility for dealing with it if it involves raising taxes. At the same time, the rise of cable TV has transformed politics in our country generally into just another spectator sport, like all-star wrestling. C-Span is just ESPN with only two teams. We watch it for entertainment, not solutions.

While it would certainly help if the president voiced a more compelling narrative, I am under no illusion that this alone would solve all his problems and ours. It comes back to us: We have to demand the truth from our politicians and be ready to accept it ourselves. We simply do not have another presidency to waste. There are no more fat years to eat through. If Obama fails, we all fail.

Texas primary on March 2: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is lagging in the polls against incumbent. Wouldn't a Hail Mary be wonderful!


From The New York Times:

Just a year ago, many Republican leaders considered Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to be the odds-on favorite to become the next governor of Texas. A popular lawmaker from the old-guard Republican establishment, she was seen as someone who could widen the party’s appeal after the setbacks it suffered during the 2008 national election.

Back then, the incumbent, Gov. Rick Perry, appeared vulnerable, having won a four-way re-election fight in 2006 and having hitched himself to the most conservative wing of the Republican Party.

But the political winds have shifted for Ms. Hutchison in the last few months, and she now finds herself far behind in the polls, as Mr. Perry has managed to surf a wave of anger here over President Obama’s policies.

Never has a race for governor in Texas so clearly defined the difference between the country-club wing of the Republican Party, where elite business leaders sit astride the financial engines of Dallas and Houston, and the populist Reagan Republicans, talk-radio-fueled voters who are upset about issues like budget deficits, gun control and legalized abortion.

In a sense, Mr. Perry is the embodiment of white, conservative Democrats from the South who switched parties after Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Ms. Hutchison, who was first elected to the Senate in 1993, has rallied most of the Republican establishment behind her. Former President George Bush has endorsed her, as has former Vice President Dick Cheney. While former President George W. Bush has not taken a public stand, several people close to him are working for her, among them Karen Hughes, his former political adviser.

But two weeks before the Republican primary on March 2, Mr. Perry has turned his fortunes around by promoting the Texas economy and railing against every decision in Washington, including the economic stimulus bill, the bank bailout legislation and the move to limit carbon emissions. On the stump, he often sounds as if he is running against the federal government.

“Do you want a leader who loves Texas and all it stands for or a creature of Washington that tears down the state?” he said at a recent rally where former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska endorsed him. The crowd of 5,000 people, many of them from the Tea Party movement, roared in approval.

Last week Ms. Hutchison acknowledged that her prospects were in doubt. Accepting the endorsement of Roger Staubach, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, she said a Hail Mary pass was “looking better all the time.”

Mr. Perry has thrown his lot in with anti-tax crusaders and social conservatives. He has taken every opportunity to use his bully pulpit to bully Congress, the Senate and Mr. Obama, even when the federal government is offering money to the state.

Last fall, he rejected new federal money for education and unemployment benefits, saying it would drive up state spending.

So relentless has Mr. Perry been in attacking Washington that he has even criticized Ms. Hutchison for steering $8.7 billion in federal projects to Texas over the last five years.

Ms. Hutchison acknowledges that a bigger-than-expected turnout is critical to her pulling off an upset. “I need for the November Republicans to turn out in the primary,” she said.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

From the Cracker Squire Archives -- Some sage advice from the Dean: Georgia legislators moving toward deepening the racial divide.

According to the AJC in an article entitled "Lawmaker will resurrect slavery apology":

Despite several failed attempts to get Georgia to apologize for slavery, State Rep. Al Williams says he is reviving the resolution this session because it is still a cause worth fighting for.

Six other states, mostly in the South, already have passed resolutions apologizing or expressing regret for slavery: Florida, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia. The U.S. House voted in 2008 to apologize for slavery, and President Barack Obama has said such an apology was appropriate but not particularly helpful in improving the lives of black Americans.


I am a big fan of Rep. Williams. I wrote the following about him in a 1-18-05 post partially entitled "A shot heard (or that should have been heard) round the State":

Rep. Williams of Liberty County reminded us that currently we are in a war for the soul of the Democratic Party. We have the problem and face the challenge of bringing back within the fold white males.

While acknowledging that historically being the big tent party makes it tough to hold our various constituencies together, it is something we must be vigilant about and do.

And we must quit allowing it to be said that our party has a problem with God, morality and ethics. Since when, he asked, was our party not a party about God, morality and ethics.

He said it was hogwash and a crime to let the Republicans get away with claiming to own God, to own values.

Just because our party is for choice does not mean that we have no morals.

And to hear otherwise from national party members perceived to be elitists and claiming to speak for the party does nothing to help. As he put it, "The average voter in Hahira [a small, rural community in Lowndes County] could care less" about such elitist talk.


But on the topic of this post -- whether Georgia should pass a resolution apologizing or expressing regret for slavery -- I am with the now retired Dean of Georgia Journalism and Politics, Bill Shipp, as set forth in a 3-18-07 post entitled "Some sage advice from the Dean: Georgia legislators moving toward deepening the racial divide":

[T]he slavery issue is . . . troubling. It is a replay of the change-the-flag controversy of a few years back. For blacks, the outcome of the apology issue could be as calamitous as the flag-changing campaigns. The Democratic black leadership in the General Assembly must have lost their institutional memory.

Then-Gov. Zell Miller in 1993 stirred up a firestorm of controversy when he tried briefly to remove the Confederate battle symbol from the state flag. The fuss nearly cost him re-election to a second term.

Then along came former Gov. Roy Barnes with an active agenda for reforming schools, improving transportation and enhancing the economy. Black leaders wanted more. They demanded that the Confederate cross be dropped from the Georgia flag. They threatened boycotts and promised to make a national issue of their cause. The white business community panicked and insisted that Barnes move quickly on the flag issue. He did. The flag was changed, and the black-white racial divide returned in the Gold Dome.

Barnes' political career collapsed. A biracial coalition of Democrats that had ruled Georgia for 40 years disappeared overnight. The GOP became Georgia's white majority party. Black lawmakers lost nearly all political influence. Legislative and congressional districts were redrawn to maximize white Republican voting strength and squeeze out Democrats of all colors. However, black activists, led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, proclaimed proudly that they had prevailed in the flag fight. Georgia's new state flag includes no Confederate cross, though it is a virtual replica of the official Confederate national flag.

Now in 2007, the slavery apology debate is traveling a parallel course. If a floor debate occurs, Georgia will be back in the national headlines, and our races will be further divided. Blacks might even get an apology for slavery, but, in the end, they will be further than ever away from acquiring the power and influence needed to confront their constituents' real problems.

Sen. Evan Bayh has always been my man. My feeling on his action: 'He had a responsibility to stand & man the pumps rather than run for the lifeboat.'

From The Washington Post:

Sen. Evan Bayh's surprise decision not to seek reelection touched off a debate Tuesday among strategists and scholars about whether the Indiana senator's depiction of the "brain dead" politics and hyper-partisanship of Congress is accurate or overblown -- and, if accurate, whether walking away was the right decision.

Bayh dealt a triple blow to his Democratic Party and to President Obama with his announcement Monday that he is sick of the partisanship in Washington and will not seek a third term. The decision put his seat -- and, some forecasters said, possibly his party's Senate majority -- in jeopardy, sent a discomforting message to already demoralized Democrats about this year's political climate and reminded voters that Obama has yet to usher in the post-partisan era, a major theme of his 2008 campaign.

But it was as much Bayh's stated reasons for leaving as the consequences that stirred controversy. "If in fact he believed that the Senate was broken and dysfunctional, then he had a responsibility to stand and man the pumps rather than run for the lifeboat," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

God Bless America! Forget predator drones, etc.; most Marines in Marja operation are fighting the old-fashioned way: on foot, with rifle.


Working in partnership with Afghan soldiers, U.S. Marines are undertaking a major operation to flush out insurgents and allow the Afghan government to reassert control over an area in southern Afghanistan called Marja.

From The Washington Post:

They had slogged through knee-deep mud carrying 100 pounds of gear, fingers glued to the triggers of their M-4 carbines, all the while on the lookout for insurgents. Now, after five near-sleepless nights, trying to avoid hypothermia in freezing temperatures, the grunts of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment finally had a moment to relax.

As the sun set Thursday evening over the rubbled market where they set up camp, four of them sat around an overturned blue bucket and began playing cards. A few cracked open dog-eared paperbacks. Some heated their rations-in-a-bag, savoring their first warm dinner in days. Many doffed their helmets and armored vests.

Then -- before the game was over, the chapters finished, the meals cooked -- the war roared back at them.

The staccato crack of incoming rounds echoed across the market. In an instant, the Marines grabbed their vests and guns. The 50-caliber gunner on the roof thumped back return fire, as did several Marines with clattering, belt-fed machine guns. High-explosive mortar rounds, intended to suppress the insurgent fire, whooshed overhead.

And so went another night in the battle of Marja.

The fight to pacify this Taliban stronghold in Helmand province is grim and grueling. For all the talk of a modern war -- of Predator drones and satellite-guided bombs and mine-resistant vehicles -- most Marines in this operation have been fighting the old-fashioned way: on foot, with rifle.

Top Terror Prosecutor Is a Critic of Civilian Trials


Andrew McCarthy, a former federal terrorism prosecutor, has attacked the Obama administration for supporting civilian justice for terrorists.

From The New York Times:

He was the lead prosecutor 15 years ago in one of the country’s biggest terrorism trials: a group of men led by a blind Egyptian sheik had plotted to blow up the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and other city landmarks.

“Are you ready to surrender the rule of law to the men in this courtroom?” the prosecutor, Andrew C. McCarthy, told the jury in Federal District Court in Manhattan in a closing argument. Ultimately, the 10 defendants were convicted.

But last Dec. 5, Mr. McCarthy, who is no longer in government, joined a group of speakers outside the same courthouse rallying against the Obama administration’s decision to bring Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to Manhattan for a civilian trial.

“A war is a war,” Mr. McCarthy declared. “A war is not a crime, and you don’t bring your enemies to a courthouse.”

In the debate over how and where to prosecute Mr. Mohammed and other Sept. 11 cases, few critics of the Obama administration have been more fervent in their opposition than Mr. McCarthy, a 50-year-old lawyer from the Bronx who had built a reputation as one of the country’s formidable terrorism prosecutors.

Now he has a different reputation: harsh critic of the system in which he had his greatest legal triumph.

Mr. McCarthy has relentlessly attacked the administration for supporting civilian justice for terrorism suspects. He has criticized the military commissions system and called for creation of a national security court. After the arrest of the suspect in the Christmas bomb plot, he wrote, “Will Americans finally grasp how insane it is to regard counterterrorism as a law-enforcement project rather than a matter of national security?”

Friday, February 19, 2010

Forget party affiliation. It is time to be an American. -- Party Gridlock in Washington -- 'These days I wonder if this country is even governable.'

From The New York Times:

Senator Evan Bayh’s comments this week about a dysfunctional Congress reflected a complaint being directed at Washington with increasing frequency, and there is broad agreement among critics about Exhibit A: The unwillingness of the two parties to compromise to control a national debt that is rising to dangerous heights.

After decades of warnings that budgetary profligacy, escalating health care costs and an aging population would lead to a day of fiscal reckoning, economists and the nation’s foreign creditors say that moment is approaching faster than expected, hastened by a deep recession that cost trillions of dollars in lost tax revenues and higher spending for safety-net programs.

Yet rarely has the political system seemed more polarized and less able to solve big problems that involve trust, tough choices and little short-term gain. The main urgency for both parties seems to be about pinning blame on the other, before November’s elections, for deficits now averaging $1 trillion a year, the largest since World War II relative to the size of the economy.

Mr. Bayh, the centrist Democrat from Indiana, lodged his complaint about excessive partisanship and Congressional gridlock on Monday by way of explaining his decision not to seek re-election. But he is hardly alone in sounding an alarm about the long-term budgetary outlook, which has Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security costs growing at unsustainable rates and an inefficient tax system that cannot keep up.

“I used to think it would take a global financial crisis to get both parties to the table, but we just had one,” said G. William Hoagland, who was a fiscal policy adviser to Senate Republican leaders and a witness to past bipartisan budget summits. “These days I wonder if this country is even governable.”

Sensing political advantage, Republicans are resisting President Obama’s call for a bipartisan commission to cut the debt, although recent studies have implicated the tax cuts and spending policies of the years after 2000 when they controlled Congress and the White House. Even seven Republican senators who had co-sponsored a bill to create a commission nonetheless voted against it recently.

The president is not giving up. On Thursday, administration officials say, he will sign an executive order establishing the 18-member National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He also will name as co-chairmen Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican Senate leader from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, a moderate Democrat from North Carolina who, as President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, brokered a 1997 balanced budget agreement with Congressional Republicans.

“There isn’t a single sitting member of Congress — not one — that doesn’t know exactly where we’re headed,” Mr. Simpson said in a telephone interview Tuesday just before word of his role got out. “And to use the politics of fear and division and hate on each other — we are at a point right now where it doesn’t make a damn whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican if you’ve forgotten you’re an American.”

While he criticized some liberal Democrats’ refusal to reduce entitlement benefits, Mr. Simpson also dismissed Republicans’ antitax arguments that deficits could be controlled with spending cuts alone. “But they don’t cut spending,” he said, referring to the years Republicans governed with President George W. Bush.

Elected Republicans, however, are under intense pressure from their party’s conservative base to oppose any tax increases — a line in the sand that dims any prospects for bipartisan cooperation. Yet economists, including veterans of past Republican administrations, are vocal in insisting that the debt problem is too great to be solved without increasing revenues somehow and perhaps moving to a new consumption tax system like Europe’s.

The same economists also say a significant deficit-reduction plan is not possible unless Mr. Obama breaks his campaign promise not to raise taxes for households making less than $250,000. Last week, Mr. Obama said he would not impose that condition or any other on a fiscal commission.

As debt rises, so do interest costs; by 2014, at a projected $516 billion, they will exceed the budget for annual appropriations for domestic programs. The government will be competing with the private sector for credit, forcing interest rates higher and imperiling future prosperity.

Foreign investors now own more than half of the publicly held debt, and officials for the largest creditor, China, have fretted publicly about the fiscal course of the United States. While few expect foreigners to dump their assets, since the resulting plunge in values would hurt them as well as everyone else, the fear is that investors will demand higher interest payments and reduce or stop future debt purchases, threatening the government’s ability to finance its borrowing.

Lesser financial and fiscal crises have brought the two parties together to compromise on tough choices about taxes and spending. They include the 1983 accord between President Ronald Reagan and a Democratic-controlled Congress that reduced the financial strains on Social Security, based on proposals from a commission led by Alan Greenspan, and budget agreements in the 1990s that contributed to a four-year run of surpluses at the end of the decade.

Those bipartisan deals were done during times of divided government, when one party had the White House and the other controlled at least one chamber of Congress, giving each side some governing responsibility to find solutions. Now, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the parties have less incentive to work together.

Republicans today see opposition as a way back to power in November, and their party is more ideologically antitax than in the past, especially now that it is courting the Tea Party movement. Conservative activists so oppose compromise of any sort that several lawmakers have drawn primary challengers for working with Democrats.

Because the worst of the fiscal problem remains years away and therefore somewhat hypothetical to most people, there is also not the same incentive to act immediately that drove, for example, the 1983 deal, when Social Security was facing an imminent crisis.

“We literally tweaked the Social Security system,” Mr. Simpson said. The changes, which still are being phased in 27 years later, resulted in big savings over time. Economists say future measures will have to be more severe the longer they are delayed.

In 1987, a global markets crash led the Reagan administration and Democrats to agree to a deficit-reduction package of spending cuts and tax increases. In 1990, the successful budget summit between Democrats and the administration of President George Bush came about after deficits had spiked again, threatening a fiscal crisis of mandatory and deep across-the-board cuts.

Yet Mr. Bush’s breaking of his “no new taxes” promise so infuriated conservatives that they helped defeat him in 1992. One of his critics was Newt Gingrich of Georgia. By the mid-1990s, Mr. Gingrich was House speaker and his party controlled Congress. After a politically damaging government shutdown, in 1997 he reached a deal with Mr. Clinton that helped balance the budget.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, the government projected surpluses of $5.6 trillion for the coming decade.

In an analysis of what happened next, the economists Alan J. Auerbach and William G. Gale found that much of the accumulated debt owes to Bush-era policies and to the recession, with its costs in lost income taxes and automatic benefits for the unemployed. The one-time costs of stimulus and bailout measures are “really small stuff” relative to the rest, Mr. Auerbach said.

In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans by a two-to-one ratio say Mr. Obama is trying to work with Republicans, while by more than two-to-one they say Republicans are not reciprocating. As for the deficit, 41 percent say the Bush administration is most to blame, 24 percent say Congress and 7 percent say Mr. Obama.

Yet politicians’ failure to reduce deficits has long reflected voters’ opposition to the necessary steps. The poll also found that by a two-to-one ratio Americans oppose cutting health care and education; 51 percent oppose lower military spending.

Obama has forgotten Scott Brown election if he uses reconciliation: Obama to Offer Health Bill to Ease Impasse as Bipartisan Meeting Approaches

The New York Times reports:

President Obama will put forward comprehensive health care legislation intended to bridge differences between Senate and House Democrats ahead of a summit meeting with Republicans next week, senior administration officials and Congressional aides said Thursday.

Democratic officials said the president’s proposal was being written so that it could be attached to a budget bill as a way of averting a Republican filibuster in the Senate. The procedure, known as budget reconciliation, would let Democrats advance the bill with a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority.

Congressional Democrats, however, have not yet seen the proposal or signed on.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Democrats Reel as Sen. Bayh Says No to 3rd Term -- He has been isolated for a year since warning Dem leaders they were scaring off independent voters.

From The New York Times:

Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana announced on Monday that he would not seek re-election, sending a wave of distress over his fellow Democrats and focusing new attention on the view that unyielding partisanship had left Congress all but paralyzed.

Mr. Bayh, a centrist and the son of a former senator, used the announcement that he would not seek a third term to lambaste a Senate that he described as frozen by partisan politics and incapable of passing even basic legislation.

“For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should,” Mr. Bayh said. “There is too much partisanship and not enough progress — too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous challenge, the people’s business is not being done.”

Mr. Bayh’s decision staggered Democrats. It was the latest in a series of setbacks that illustrate just how far the party’s fortunes have fallen since President Obama came to office more than a year ago, sweeping big majorities into the House and Senate with him.

Mr. Bayh was on the short list of candidates Mr. Obama considered for vice president before settling on Joseph R. Biden Jr. He was among the most prominent of moderate Democrats in Congress, but has been increasingly isolated over the past year as he has warned Democratic Congressional leaders that the push for big-ticket and expensive legislation was scaring off independent voters.

Mr. Bayh’s exit darkens what already was a bleak election map for Senate Democrats. Because of retirements, Democrats face tough odds in retaining seats in Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, North Dakota and now Indiana. Democratic incumbents face tough going in Arkansas and Nevada. Republicans, though, have their own problems as they struggle to hold on to seats left open by retirements in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio.

What was most striking about Mr. Bayh’s announcement was the deep disillusionment he expressed with his place of employment, a feeling reflected in recent polls. In a New York Times/CBS News poll last week, 75 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the job Congress was doing; just 8 percent said members of Congress deserved re-election. Mr. Bayh pointed to the partisan standoff over efforts to create a commission to address the mounting national debt. Republicans blocked an effort pushed by Mr. Obama to create a bipartisan commission by legislation, with seven Republicans who had co-sponsored such an approach announcing they would vote against it.

In an interview, Mr. Bayh said he was startled at how much the Senate had changed since he arrived in 1998, and even more since his father, Birch Bayh, served in the Senate, from 1963 to 1981.

“This is colored by having observed the Senate in my father’s day,” Mr. Bayh said. “It wasn’t perfect; they had politics back then, too. But there was much more friendship across the aisles, and there was a greater willingness to put politics aside for the welfare of the country. I just don’t see that now.”

“In my father’s day, you legislated for four years and campaigned for two; now it’s full time. The politics never stops,” he said. “My bottom line is that there are a lot of really good people trapped in a dysfunctional system desperately in need of reform.”

Maybe Oxendine had a mother who told him never to lie? -- Oxendine in 2003 to insurance companies: ‘You’ll give me money because you’re afraid not to’

From Jim Galloway's Political Insider in the AJC:

[The following is from] a Fortune magazine article from June 2003. The original can be found here.

The short piece by Carol J. Loomis stems from comments made by Oxendine before a group of auto-insurance executives:

Want an unvarnished look at how Georgia’s Republican insurance commissioner, John Oxendine, 41, views the businesses he oversees? Here, courtesy of a newsletter company, Risk Information, is what Oxendine said at a recent conference it held for auto-insurance managers.

First, Oxendine said, those managers ought to be wary of the 12 states in which the insurance commissioner is elected — Georgia is one of them — because “we are different.” Details: “We are a pain in the butt. We are very high-maintenance…. I am not a professional regulator, I am a politician…. I’m going to do what I think is going to get me reelected.”

Oxendine does believe, he says, that insurers are entitled to a fair and reasonable profit: “I am not one of these Socialists never ever going to give out a rate increase.” But, he said, “you need to realize that you have to find a way to always make me look good in front of the voters.”

As for campaign contributions, he noted he wasn’t allowed to take them from insurance companies, but money from individuals is entirely acceptable. And gettable: “I’m the incumbent. You all are going to give me money because you’re afraid not to.”

Maybe this man had a mother who told him never to lie?

Georgia only state to add undocumented immigrants in 2008?

From the AJC:

In 2008, as the economy tanked and illegal immigrants were increasingly targeted by law enforcement, virtually every state in the nation witnessed a decline in the number of undocumented Americans.

Every state, that is, but Georgia.

Georgia added 20,000 immigrants without papers in 2008, according to a surprising study by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Georgia’s unauthorized immigrant population rose 4 percent from 460,000 to 480,000.

Meanwhile, across the United States that year, the number of undocumented residents declined from 11.6 million to 10.8 million – a 7 percent drop.

David Broder: The straw that broke Evan Bayh's tenure

David Broder writes in The Washington Post:

The last time Sen. Evan Bayh was the subject of this column was in October, when he organized a letter from 10 moderate Democrats informing Majority Leader Harry Reid that they would oppose any increase in the statutory debt ceiling unless it was accompanied by a serious move to rein in the national debt.

Specifically, the Indiana Democrat and his colleagues asked for a vote on the proposal to create a bipartisan commission to examine all aspects of spending and taxation and recommend deficit-cutting steps for a guaranteed vote by the House and Senate by the end of this year.

The Bayh threat worked. President Obama, who had been silent on the subject, belatedly gave the action-forcing commission his blessing, and Reid called it up for a Senate vote. But despite winning a 53-to-46 majority, it fell short of the 60-vote margin needed to avoid a filibuster.

This was the final straw that pushed Bayh over the edge to announcing Monday his retirement from the Senate -- a move that shocked fellow Hoosiers and Democrats. Only 54, with $13 million in his campaign account, comfortably ahead in a state where he has won every time he's been on the ballot, Bayh told me that the "sorry episode" of the commission vote, as he called it, was what convinced him it was time to quit.

Both parties were to blame, he said. Twenty-three Republicans (and one independent) voted no, seven of them people who had previously co-sponsored the commission bill. So did 22 Democrats, many of them committee chairmen looking out for their own prerogatives.

I cannot fault Bayh for leaving, nor can I disagree with his statement that "short-term political advantage" trumped the national interest in this case and in many others in this sorry excuse for a Congress.

He is not alone in turning his back on the Senate. Eleven incumbents have announced their retirements -- an unusually large crop. Three other retirees -- Republicans Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and George Voinovich of Ohio -- are, like Bayh, former governors of their states. A fifth retiree, Sam Brownback of Kansas, is leaving to run for governor.

The former governors have formed an informal caucus of their own within the Senate, inviting former mayors and state attorneys general to join them. What they have in common is the discipline of coming from jobs where they are judged by their results rather than their words. And most of them have learned to work comfortably and cooperatively with colleagues from other parties, as state or local officials regularly do when dealing with the federal bureaucracy.

Bayh told me that one of the senators he will miss most is Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 man in the Senate GOP hierarchy and another former governor. Alexander's view of politics is strikingly similar -- and far removed from those in both parties who, as Bayh put it, elevate ideology and partisanship over practical accomplishment.

Alexander was the only member of the Republican leadership to vote for the commission bill that Bayh wanted. In the past few weeks, Alexander has assembled a bipartisan group of 10 senators who are co-sponsoring a bill to update and improve clean-air legislation. He is also teaming with Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia on a bill to facilitate construction of nuclear plants.

The Senate has become a source of frustration for those within its ranks as well as for those who simply watch it and wait impatiently for it to act. The coming exodus of former governors will hurt its already weak productivity. But two sitting governors, Florida's Charlie Crist and North Dakota's John Hoeven, and one former governor, Delaware's Mike Castle, are in the running this year, and there are several attorneys general aiming for the Senate.

Obama continues to do his part, convening a bipartisan summit on health care next week and creating by executive order a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction, fulfilling Bayh's hope as much as he can.

The opportunity for rescuing Congress from gridlock is still there, but the odds against it are growing.

Value of congressional earmarks increased in fiscal 2010

From The Washington Post:

Congressional reformers contend that they corrupt the process, and President Obama has vowed to sharply reduce them. But Congress devoted nearly $16 billion to lawmakers' pet projects in their home states and districts last year -- a slight increase in funding over the previous year, although the number of earmarks decreased.

Geez. Give the guy a break will ya: Environmental Advocates Are Cooling on Obama

From The New York Times:

There has been no more reliable cheerleader for President Obama’s energy and climate change policies than Daniel J. Weiss of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

But Mr. Obama’s recent enthusiasm for nuclear power, including his budget proposal to triple federal loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors to $54 billion, was too much for Mr. Weiss.

The early optimism of environmental advocates that the policies of former President George W. Bush would be quickly swept away and replaced by a bright green future under Mr. Obama is for many environmentalists giving way to resignation, and in some cases, anger.

Mr. Obama moved quickly in his first months in office, producing a landmark deal on automobile emissions, an Environmental Protection Agency finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, a virtual moratorium on oil drilling on public lands and House passage of a cap-and-trade bill.

Since then, in part because of the intense focus on the health care debate last year, action on environmental issues has slowed. The Senate has not yet begun debate on a comprehensive global warming bill, the Interior Department is writing new rules to open some public lands and waters to oil drilling and the E.P.A. is moving cautiously to apply the endangerment finding.

Environmental advocates largely remained silent late last year as Mr. Obama all but abandoned his quest for sweeping climate change legislation and began to reach out to Republicans to enact less ambitious clean energy measures.

But the grumbling of the greens has grown louder in recent weeks as Mr. Obama has embraced nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and “clean coal” as keystones of his energy policy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

3 House retirements spur debate on whether Republicans are losing momentum

From The Washington Post:

A trio of House Republican retirement announcements over the past 10 days have sparked a debate between the leaders of the two major parties over whether the GOP is losing momentum in its quest to score major gains at the ballot box this fall.

With the three latest lawmakers choosing not to seek reelection in November, Republicans will have to defend 18 open seats and Democrats 14. The raw numbers contradict the conventional wisdom that Democrats would head for the sidelines after GOP Sen. Scott Brown's special election victory Jan. 19 in Massachusetts.

Yes!! -- Obama will help select location of Khalid Sheik Mohammed terrorism trial

From The Washington Post:

President Obama is planning to insert himself into the debate about where to try the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, three administration officials said Thursday, signaling a recognition that the administration had mishandled the process and triggered a political backlash.

Holder, in an interview Thursday, left open the possibility that Mohammed's trial could be switched to a military commission, although he said that is not his personal and legal preference.

Word of Obama's increased attention to one of the biggest national security issues he inherited comes as disagreement grows over the Justice Department's use of federal courts to try accused terrorists. George W. Bush's administration employed that strategy at least 100 times, but the public mood has shifted since the Mohammed trial announcement and a thwarted Christmas Day airline bombing plot.

If the White House is unable to find a civilian court where the Mohammed trial can be held, and if the political pressure continues, the administration may be forced to shift to a military commission.

Pres. Obama: Please read what David Brooks has to say today. It is the gospel & your legacy. -- Federal activism will not mark the next three years.

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

By 2008, Americans were disgusted with their government. They were sick of partisan gridlock and general incompetence. Along came Barack Obama offering to usher in a new era. It was time, he said, to put away childish things.

There were actually two elements to the Obama campaign. First, he promised a less partisan government. Second, he promised a more activist government. His postpartisan style was accompanied by conventional Democratic policy substance. It was clear voters wanted the first element, but it was never clear how many wanted the second.

Obama was inaugurated in the midst of an economic crisis, and the activist policy proposals took precedence. If, a year ago, you had been asked to describe the administration’s goals in one sentence it would have been this: Barack Obama will usher in the third great wave of Democratic reform. Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson had the Great Society. Obama would take the third step, transforming health care, energy, education, financial regulation and many other sectors of American life.

A distinct Obama governing style emerged, which was half Harvard Economics Department and half Boss Daley. The administration is staffed by smart pragmatists who are optimistic about the government’s ability to devise comprehensive plans. Their proposals were processed by Congressional Old Bulls who made sure the legislation served Democratic interest groups.

The stimulus package, the cap-and-trade legislation and the health care bill were all blends of expert planning and political power-broking. This project would have permanently changed government’s role in national life.

It was not to be. Voters are in no mood for a wave of domestic transformation. The economy is already introducing enough insecurity into their lives. Unlike 1932 and 1965, Americans do not trust Washington to take them on a leap of faith, especially if it means more spending.

The country has reacted harshly to the course the administration ended up embracing. Obama is still admired personally, but every major proposal — from the stimulus to health care — is quite unpopular. Independent voters have swung against the administration. Voters are not reacting to the particulars of each bill. They are reacting against the total activist onslaught.

A president can’t lead a social transformation without a visceral bond with the center of the electorate and without being in step with the rhythm of the times. Obama is lacking these things. As a result, the original Obama project, the third Democratic wave, is dead.

The administration resists this conclusion, just as it took the Bush administration a while to recognize that Social Security reform, and the larger privatization dream, was dead. But federal activism will not mark the next three years.

The next challenge is to find a new project, a new one-sentence description of what this administration hopes to achieve. It is obvious: President Obama will show that this nation is governable once again. He should return to the other element in his original campaign.

That would mean first leading a campaign of brazen honesty with the American people. He could lay out the fiscal realities and explain that voters cannot continue to demand programs they are unwilling to pay for.

Second, he could propose some incremental changes in a range of areas and prove Washington can at least take small steps. Senator Lamar Alexander has been arguing that, given the climate of distrust, this is not a good period to push big, comprehensive reforms. He’s right.

Third, Obama could serve as a one-man model for bipartisan behavior. Right now, the Republicans have no political incentive to deal on anything. But the president could at least exemplify the kind of behavior voters want to see in their leaders. For example, he could take several of the Republican health care reform ideas — like malpractice reform and lifting the regulatory barriers on state-based experimentation — and proactively embrace them as part of a genuine compromise offer.

Fourth, he could continue to champion his fiscal commission. Republicans are being completely hypocritical on this, unwilling to embrace an idea they once supported because it might lead to tax increases. If he really put aside the publicity gimmicks, he could illustrate the difference between responsible government and the permanent campaign.

Fifth, it’s time to have a constitutional debate. We might require amendments of one sort or another to fix the broken political system.

We can spend the next few years engaging in kabuki bipartisanship, in which each party puts on pseudo-events to show that the other party is rigid and rotten, or somebody can break the mold. We can spend the next three or seven years squabbling about the shrinking puddle of discretionary spending, or somebody can break out of the fiscal vice.

It would be an incredible legacy: Barack Obama restored America’s faith in its own institutions.

Poll Finds Edge for Obama Over GOP Among the Public

From The New York Times:

At a time of deepening political disaffection and intensified distress about the economy, President Obama enjoys an edge over Republicans in the battle for public support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

While the president is showing signs of vulnerability on his handling of the economy — a majority of respondents say he has yet to offer a clear plan for creating jobs — Americans blame former President George W. Bush, Wall Street and Congress much more than they do Mr. Obama for the nation’s economic problems and the budget deficit, the poll found.

They credit Mr. Obama more than Republicans with making an effort at bipartisanship, and they back the White House’s policies on a variety of disputed issues, including allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military and repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The poll suggests that both parties face a toxic environment as they prepare for the elections in November. Public disapproval of Congress is at a historic high, and huge numbers of Americans think Congress is beholden to special interests. Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans say members of Congress deserve re-election.

As the party in power, Democrats face a particular risk from any wave of voter discontent; unfavorable views of the Democratic Party are as high as they have been since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, though Republicans continue to register an even worse showing. The percentage of Americans who approve of Mr. Obama’s job performance, 46 percent, is as low as it has been since he took office.

Still, the poll suggests that Mr. Obama and his party have an opportunity to deflect the anger and anxiety if they can frame the election not as a referendum on the president and his party, but as a choice between them and a Republican approach that yielded results under Mr. Bush that much of the nation still blames for the country’s woes. That is what the White House has been trying to do since the beginning of the year.

For all the erosion in support for Mr. Obama, Americans say he better understands their needs and problems and has made more of an effort to be bipartisan than Congressional Republicans, the poll found.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Poll finds most Americans are unhappy with government

From The Washington Post:

Two-thirds of Americans are "dissatisfied" or downright "angry" about the way the federal government is working, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. On average, the public estimates that 53 cents of every tax dollar they send to Washington is "wasted."

And the new poll shows that the political standing of former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who was the keynote speaker last week at the first National Tea Party Convention, has deteriorated significantly.

The opening is clear: Public dissatisfaction with how Washington operates is at its highest level in Post-ABC polling in more than a decade -- since the months after the Republican-led government shutdown in 1996 -- and negative ratings of the two major parties hover near record highs.

Once Stigmatized, Food Stamps Find Acceptance (one in eight Americans now get aid)

From The New York Times:

A decade ago, New York City officials were so reluctant to give out food stamps, they made people register one day and return the next just to get an application. The welfare commissioner said the program caused dependency and the poor were “better off” without it.

Now the city urges the needy to seek aid (in languages from Albanian to Yiddish). Neighborhood groups recruit clients at churches and grocery stores, with materials that all but proclaim a civic duty to apply — to “help New York farmers, grocers, and businesses.” There is even a program on Rikers Island to enroll inmates leaving the jail.

“Applying for food stamps is easier than ever,” city posters say.

The same is true nationwide. After a U-turn in the politics of poverty, food stamps, a program once scorned as “welfare,” enjoys broad new support. Following deep cuts in the 1990s, Congress reversed course to expand eligibility, cut red tape and burnish the program’s image, with a special effort to enroll the working poor. These changes, combined with soaring unemployment, have pushed enrollment to record highs, with one in eight Americans now getting aid.

The revival began a decade ago, after tough welfare laws chased millions of people from the cash rolls, many into low-wage jobs as fast-food workers, maids, and nursing aides. Newly sympathetic officials saw food stamps as a way to help them. For states, the program had another appeal: the benefits are federally paid.

But support also turned on chance developments, including natural disasters (which showed the program’s value in emergencies) and the rise of plastic benefit cards (which eased stigma and fraud). The program has commercial allies, in farmers and grocery stores, and it got an unexpected boost from President George W. Bush, whose food stamp administrator, Eric Bost, proved an ardent supporter.

“I assure you, food stamps is not welfare,” Mr. Bost said in a recent interview.

Still, some critics see it as welfare in disguise and advocate more restraints.

So far their voices have been muted, unlike in the 1990s when members of Congress likened permissive welfare laws to feeding alligators and wolves. But last month, a Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina, Andre Bauer, criticized food stamps by saying his grandmother “told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed.”

Mr. Bauer, the lieutenant governor, apologized for his phrasing but said, “somebody has to have the gumption to talk about the cycle of dependency.”

The federal government now gives bonuses to states that enroll the most eligible people.

In 2008, the program got an upbeat new name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP. By contrast, cash welfare remains stigmatized, and the rolls have scarcely budged.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In poll, Republicans gaining political ground on Obama

From The Washington Post:

Republicans have significantly narrowed the gap with Democrats on who is trusted to deal with the country's problems and have sharply reduced several of President Obama's main political advantages, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey paints a portrait of a restless and dissatisfied electorate at the beginning of a critical election year. More than seven in 10 Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and as many say they're inclined to look for new congressional representation as said so in 1994 and 2006, the last times that control of Congress shifted.

Asked how they would vote in the November House elections, Americans split evenly -- 46 percent siding with the Democrats, 46 percent with the Republicans. As recently as four months ago, Democrats held a 51 to 39 percent advantage on this question.

Obama's overall approval rating is holding steady, with 51 percent of respondents giving him positive marks and 46 percent rating him negatively. On the big domestic issues -- the economy, health care, jobs and the federal budget deficit -- bare majorities of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing.

Only on fighting terrorism does Obama receive majority support for his performance, with 56 percent saying they approve. But the poll shows majority opposition to the administration's plan to try terrorism suspects in federal courts.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

McCain, Facing GOP Foe in Primary, Tilts Starkly, and Often Awkwardly, to the Right.

From The New York Times:

Mr. McCain now sharply criticizes the bailout bill he voted for, pivoted from his earlier position that the Guantánamo Bay detention facility should be closed, offered only a muted response to the Supreme Court’s decision undoing campaign finance laws and backed down from statements that gays in the military would be O.K. by him if the military brass were on board.

Mr. McCain has been long vexed by the more right-leaning corners of the Republican Party, especially the ones here at home, who are forever straw-polling their way toward his (fictional) downfall. His support for immigration policy overhaul, campaign finance restrictions and his past opposition to the Bush administration tax cuts and the Federal Marriage Amendment all contributed to his problems here.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Republicans are rushing to capitalize on what they call Wall Street’s “buyer’s remorse” with the Democrats.

From The New York Times:

[There is an ongoing campaign by the financial industry] to thwart Mr. Obama’s proposals for tighter financial regulations.

Just two years after Mr. Obama helped his party pull in record Wall Street contributions — $89 million from the securities and investment business, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics — some of his biggest supporters . . . have become the industry’s chief lobbyists against his regulatory agenda.

Republicans are rushing to capitalize on what they call Wall Street’s “buyer’s remorse” with the Democrats. And industry executives and lobbyists are warning Democrats that if Mr. Obama keeps attacking Wall Street “fat cats,” they may fight back by withholding their cash.

“If the president doesn’t become a little more balanced and centrist in his approach, then he will likely lose that support,” said Kelly S. King, the chairman and chief executive of BB&T.

“I understand the public outcry,” he continued. “We have a 17 percent real unemployment rate, people are hurting, and they want to see punishment. But the political rhetoric just incites more animosity and gets people riled up.”

[M]any Wall Street lobbyists and executives said they . . . were rethinking their giving.

“The expectation in Washington is that ‘We can kick you around, and you are still going to give us money,’ ” said a top official at a major Wall Street firm, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the White House. “We are not going to play that game anymore.”

Wall Street fund-raisers for the Democrats say they are feeling under attack from all sides. The president is lashing out at their “arrogance and greed.” Republican friends are saying “I told you so.” And contributors are wishing they had their money back.

Many bankers, he said, failed to appreciate the “white hot anger” at Wall Street for the financial crisis.

Mr. Obama’s fight with Wall Street began last year with his proposals for greater oversight of compensation and a consumer financial protection commission. It escalated with verbal attacks this year on what he called Wall Street’s “obscene bonuses.” And it reached a new level in his calls for policies Wall Street finds even more infuriating: a “financial crisis responsibility” tax aimed only at the biggest banks, and a restriction on “proprietary trading” that banks do with their own money for their own profit.

“If the president wanted to turn every Democrat on Wall Street into a Republican,” one industry lobbyist said, “he is doing everything right.”

Though Wall Street has long been a major source of Democratic campaign money (alongside Hollywood and Silicon Valley), Mr. Obama built unusually direct ties to his contributors there. He is the first president since Richard M. Nixon whose campaign relied solely on private donations, not public financing.

Wall Street lobbyists say the financial industry’s big Democratic donors help ensure that their arguments reach the ears of the president and Congress.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Good advice for Obama: Obama need not wait to change relations with Congress

David Broder writes in The Washington Post:

It was toward the end of President Obama's riveting visit on Jan. 29 with the House Republicans in Baltimore -- a rare 90 minutes of candor on both sides that produced the most fascinating and revealing politics in memory -- when Rep. Peter Roskam of suburban Chicago was called on for a question.

"Oh, Peter is an old friend of mine," Obama said. "Peter and I have had many debates. . . . Peter and I did work together effectively on a whole host of issues."

As I learned on a visit to the congressman's Capitol Hill office last week, when Roskam moved from the Illinois House to the state Senate in 2000, he found Obama already serving there. They were both assigned to the Judiciary Committee and, after taking each other's measure in a sharp debate on health care, they collaborated on death penalty reform, ethics legislation and other issues.

"You took on some big things," Roskam reminded the president. "One of the keys was you rolled your sleeves up, you worked with the other party and ultimately you were able to make the deal." By contrast, he continued, over the past year House Republicans have felt that "they've really been stiff-armed by Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi. Now, I know you're not in charge of that chamber, but there really is this dynamic of, frankly, being shut out. . . . I think all of us want to hit the reset button on 2009. How do we move forward?"

This was the kind of straight-talk question that made the session at the GOP House retreat so special. Obama responded frankly and well. Rhetoric is a problem on both sides, he said, because "what we say about each other sometimes . . . boxes us in, in ways that make it difficult for us to work together. . . . So just a tone of civility instead of slash-and-burn would be helpful."

In hopes of improving communication, Obama promised to "bring Republican and Democratic leadership together on a more regular basis with me," and the first of those monthly meetings with Senate and House leaders of both parties is scheduled for this week.

And in response to Roskam's specific question, the president pledged to be "talking more about trade this year," which he did last week, though he still has not pushed Congress to ratify the trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that were negotiated by his predecessor.

The session in Baltimore, which followed the shock of the Democrats losing the Kennedy seat in Massachusetts, has produced some signs of a changed tone in Washington. But to my surprise, Roskam told me that he has had no word from anyone in the White House since his overture to Obama.

This tells me that, even after Baltimore, the president and his people may not realize the degree to which Republican frustration with Pelosi's management of the House has created opportunities for Obama -- if he is willing to engage as directly as he did in his Illinois Senate days.

Roskam recounted to me the story of two of his own minor amendments to the health-care bill that were rejected by his Ways and Means Committee along with dozens of others he deemed reasonable and bipartisan. That is a common experience for Republicans and a source of grievance.

"It's really up to Obama," Roskam said. "He's at a crossroads. My question to him was not an admonition. It was an invitation" to govern differently in this second year.

Looking at the campaigns in Massachusetts and Illinois, the first two states to vote this year, it is clear as can be that voters are trying desperately to figure out how to change the dynamics of Washington. They will support candidates in either party who offer hope of stifling the poisonous partisanship and addressing the real-world problems of jobs, deficits and health care.

But Obama does not have to wait for the voters to change Congress -- which they will do, come November. He can, as his friend from Springfield days reminded him, start that change now by being himself.