Paul Waldman

Mitch McConnell Doesn't Understand What the Debt Ceiling Is

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Now that Republicans have pretty much resigned themselves to the idea that there is going to be some kind of tax increase for the wealthy, they're comforting themselves with the idea that come early next year, they'll still be able to reenact the lovely conflict we had over the debt ceiling in 2011 and hold the American economy hostage to their demands. President Obama has quite sensibly said that we ought to just get rid of the debt ceiling itself, since it serves no purpose and allows a party to engage in just this kind of economic blackmail if it's desperate and cynical enough. So Republicans are pushing back, none more so than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the process, McConnell has revealed that he has no idea how the debt ceiling actually works.

Conservatives Get Glum

Flickr/Kristina Alexanderson

A look around the web today makes clear that the crisis of American conservatism in general, and conservatives' relationship to the media in particular, is clearly our topic. First, none other than William Kristol, the very axis about whom the Republican establishment spins, is extremely worried about what has become of his movement:

And the conservative movement​—​a bulwark of American strength for the last several decades​—​is in deep disarray. Reading about some conservative organizations and Republican campaigns these days, one is reminded of Eric Hoffer’s remark, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” It may be that major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of refounding of the movement as a cause is necessary. A reinvigoration of the Republican party also seems desirable, based on a new generation of leaders, perhaps coming​—​as did Ike and Reagan​—​from outside the normal channels.

The Obama Administration Plays Hardball On Medicaid

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act.

When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, it also gave Republican states a gift by saying they could opt out of what may be the ACA's most important part, the dramatic expansion of Medicaid that will give insurance to millions of people who don't now have it. While right now each state decides on eligibility rules—meaning that if you live in a state governed by Republicans, if you make enough to have a roof over your head and give your kids one or two meals a day, you're probably considered too rich for Medicaid and are ineligible—starting in 2014 anyone at up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible. That means an individual earning up to $14,856 or a family of four earning up to $30,657 could get Medicaid.

Republican governors and legislatures don't like the Medicaid expansion, which is why nine states—South Dakota, plus the Southern states running from South Carolina through Texas—have said they'll refuse to expand Medicaid (many other states have not yet said whether they'll do it). But some states asked the Obama administration whether they could expand Medicaid a bit—maybe not cover everyone up to 133 percent like the law says, but add a few people to the rolls. And yesterday, the administration said no. It's all or nothing: either you expand Medicaid up to 133 percent, or you get none of the new money. Was that the right thing to do? Well first, let's talk about that money.

The Situation Goes West

(AP Photo/MTV)

Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, is not pleased with Hollywood. In particular, Manchin is upset with MTV, which is replacing the cancelled Jersey Shore with another sober anthropological exploration of youth culture in a unique sociocultural milieu. This time it's Manchin's home state, and the show is called Buckwild. As you might imagine, like their peers in the Garden State, the cast members of Buckwild look to be doing little to burnish their state's image; instead they'll be getting drunk, hooking up, fighting, and generally making fools of themselves, albeit in a characteristically West Virginian way (there's a preview for the show here).

What Raising the Medicare Eligibility Age Means

President Johnson signing Medicare into law in 1965.

After a campaign in which Republicans attempted to pillory Barack Obama for finding $716 billion in savings from Medicare (via cuts in payments to insurance companies and providers but not cuts to benefits), those same Republicans now seem to be demanding that Obama agree to cuts in Medicare benefits as the price of saving the country from the Austerity Trap, aka fiscal cliff. Oh, the irony! You'd almost think that they weren't really the stalwart defenders of Medicare they pretended to be.

And there are some hints that the Obama administration is seriously considering agreeing to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as part of this deal. It's a dreadful idea, and as we discuss this possibility, there's one really important thing to keep in mind: Medicare is the least expensive way to insure these people. Or anybody, for that matter. In all this talk of the bloated entitlement system, you'd be forgiven for thinking Medicare was some kind of inefficient, overpriced big government program. But the opposite is true, and that's why raising the eligibility age is such a dreadful idea.

Can the Republican Party Move Back to the Center?

Those two guys in the front knew how to do it. (White House/Pete Souza)

Shaping the next phase in the history of the Republican party is an ongoing project that won't really be completed until they have another president, and their 2016 nominee could well be that person. Part of what makes this process interesting is that there is no obvious choice. Republicans are famous for nominating the person who is "next in line," usually someone who ran previously and lost. Every Republican nominee dating back to Richard Nixon has fit this pattern, with the exception of George W. Bush in 2000 (and Gerald Ford, who is obviously a special case). But the people who lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 revealed themselves to be an extraordinarily unappealing group; Paul Ryan didn't exactly emerge from the race looking like a giant; and there are multiple governors like Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels who could be strong competitors. So the next GOP nominee could be a hard-right conservative, or a relative moderate, or something in between.

As E.J. Dionne points out in his column today, when a party spend some time in the wilderness, its path back to power usually involves some ideological accommodation:

Jim DeMint's Smooth Move

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Today, South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, who was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool, announced that he is retiring just two years into his six-year term. And will he be returning home to Greenville, perhaps to open a general store and be closer to good people of his state? Of course not. That's not what senators do when they retire. They become high-priced lobbyists, cashing in on their years of service by selling their insider status to the highest bidder.

But DeMint won't be doing that either. Instead, he'll become president of the Heritage Foundation, the right's largest and most influential think tank, despite the fact that DeMint was never one for thinkin'. As our old friend Ezra tweeted upon hearing the news, "To state the obvious, you don't make Jim DeMint the head of your think tank in order to improve the quality of your scholarship."

Why Are Chemical Weapons Different?

Mustard gas artillery shells in storage at a U.S. government facility in Pueblo, Colorado.

The civil war in Syria came back into the news the other day, when our government warned Bashar al-Assad that should he use chemical weapons against rebels and the population that surrounds them, he will have crossed a "red line." The consequences of the red-line-crossing were left unspoken. Perhaps military action on the rebels' side? An indictment in the International Criminal Court? We don't know, but it'll be bad.

Dominic Tierney beat me to it, but this news raised something I've found troubling for a long time. If you order your own civilian population to be shot, burned to death, or cut to pieces with shrapnel, the international community will be very displeased. But if you order that population to be killed by means of poison gas, then that's much, much worse. But seldom do we ask why.

It Isn't Easy Being Fox

Karl Rove on election night, insisting it wasn't over.

Fox News has been in the news a bunch over the last two days, with stories like Roger Ailes' wooing of David Petraeus, and now the discovery by Gabriel Sherman of New York that the network has benched Karl Rove and Dick Morris, though for slightly different reasons. Morris is just an embarrassment because he's always so hilariously wrong about everything, while Rove apparently angered top management by challenging the network's call of Ohio for Obama on election night. "Ailes's deputy, Fox News programming chief Bill Shine, has sent out orders mandating that producers must get permission before booking Rove or Morris." This highlights something we liberals may not appreciate: it isn't easy being Fox.

For starters, MSNBC and CNN don't get nearly as much attention for their internal conflicts as Fox does. That's not only because there's a healthy appetite among liberals for these kinds of stories, but also because there seem to be many people within Fox who are happy to leak to reporters about what goes on there, presumably because they don't like their employer's politics. Without them, we'd never know about these things. But more importantly, Fox has a lot of people and factions to keep happy. To see what I mean, let's start with Ed Kilgore's explanation for the sidelining of Morris and particularly Rove:

Insiderism in Action

Bob Woodward got himself a nice little scoop, an audio recording from spring 2011 in which Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland delivers a message from her boss Roger Ailes to David Petraeus, encouraging him to run for president, among other things. The facts that Ailes sees himself as a Republican kingmaker and that Fox is not just an observer but a participant in American politics are news to no one, of course. Nor is McFarland's fawning tone a surprise, nor the fact that she asks Petraeus whether there is "anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?" (Petraeus responds that he'd like the coverage to be a bit more fawning). Others have pointed to various parts of the conversation, particularly when McFarland passes on Ailes' advice that Petraeus should only accept the job of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, since from there the Obama administration would feel that they couldn't contradict him, which would put him in a good position to run for president (Petraeus replies that he'd also like to be CIA director, the post he eventually got).

But there was another part of the conversation I found most interesting. "Can I give you the gossip that I picked up?" McFarland says. She then proceeds to lay out what she has learned, as a well-connected insider, about the Obama administration's hidden agenda:

Better-Looking, Spunkier Senator From Kentucky Now a Possibility

In 1964, George Murphy was elected as the junior senator from California. Murphy, a Republican, had been a song-and-dance man in the thirties and forties, appearing in Hollywood musicals. Despite having a substantial career as a political operative after leaving show business (he had led the California Republican party, among other things), the idea that a performer would be a U.S. senator struck some people as absurd, so much so that satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song about Murphy ("At last we've got a senator who can really sing and dance!"). When Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California two years later, it didn't seem so funny anymore.

It's Time to Kill the Debt Ceiling

(AP Photo/CBS News, Chris Usher)

There are a number of strange aspects to the negotiation/maneuvering/posturing now taking place between the White House and congressional Republicans about the Austerity Trap (a.k.a. fiscal cliff), but one that hasn't gotten much attention is the disagreement over the debt ceiling. As part of their initial offer, the White House included something I and other people have been advocating for some time: Just get rid of the debt ceiling altogether. The Republicans, particularly in the House, don't seem to be interested. But we should take a good look at how crazy their position on this issue is.

In an ordinary negotiation, each side has things it wants, while it dislikes some or all of the things the other side wants. A union wants higher wages for its workers, while the company doesn't want to pay the higher wages. You'd rather have your partner do the laundry while you do the dishes, but your partner doesn't like doing the laundry either. The White House wants to increase taxes on the wealthy, which Republicans don't like, while Republicans want cuts to social programs, which the White House doesn't like.

But the debt ceiling is something entirely different. In this case, what Republicans want is the ability to plunge the country into a financial catastrophe, making life miserable for who knows how many Americans. That's what they want. Seriously.

How to Talk about a Changing America

New American citizens at a naturalization ceremony at the Grand Canyon. (Flickr/Grand Canyon NPS)

After the election revealed the central demographic problem the GOP faces—it is emphatically the party of white people in a country that grows more diverse by the day—there was some triumphalism among liberals about this state of affairs. But the always humane and thoughtful Harold Pollack reminds us that we should reserve some sympathy for the people who feel unsettled by the rapid pace of change in 21st century America:

Party of Rich Guys Suffers from Image as Party of Rich Guys

Typical Republican youth.

Losing is never good for your party's image, but Mitt Romney may have left the GOP in a particularly bad position by reinforcing the party's most unappealing characteristic. As a son of privilege worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Romney would have to have labored hard to convince voters he wouldn't just be a representative of his class, perhaps in the way George W. Bush did 12 years before (though buying a ranch, putting on a cowboy hat, and clearing brush might not have worked as well for Romney). Instead, he did just the opposite, again and again drawing attention to the fact that he was a rich guy representing a party of rich guys ("Corporations are people, my friends," "47 percent"). Combine that with the current argument over upper-income tax cuts, and Republicans are going to have a particularly difficult time in the near future convincing voters they have their interests at heart.

Not that this is a new problem. As John Sides explains, "Party images do not change quickly or easily. They reflect the accretion of political agendas and actions—big and small, symbolic and substantive." Nevertheless, over the years the GOP has successfully widened its electoral appeal to include some lower- and middle-class voters, but those are almost entirely white voters, and mostly in the South and lower Midwest (contrary to popular belief, Barack Obama performed perfectly well with white voters everywhere but in the South). They did it with a combination of racial and cultural appeals, some of which were more defensible than others. But their problem is that there just aren't enough voters who respond to those appeals about snooty coastal latte-sippers and parasitic welfare recipients to make a majority. Some thoughtful Republicans are trying to grapple with this issue, but the fact is that Republicans are always going to struggle with their image as the party of, by, and for the wealthy.

The reason that won't change is pretty simple: That's who they are.

Ongoing Conservative Delusions

Ted Cruz, the future of the Republican party. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

There's a phenomenon I've long noticed among liberals dissatisfied with Barack Obama, whereby they'll say, "He's never said X!", with X being some kind of defense of liberal values or articulation of the liberal position on a particular issue. But if you actually look through his speeches and comments, you'll find that just about every time, he has in fact said whatever it is he's being blamed for never saying. Maybe he hasn't said it often enough for your liking, but the real problem is probably that saying it didn't have the effect you wanted.

I thought of that reading this article by Molly Ball about a gathering of conservatives yesterday at which new senator Ted Cruz of Texas was the headliner:

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