Paul Waldman

Friday Music Break

"Pearl"

In honor of today's poor job numbers, we've got Janis Joplin, with "Mercedez Benz." For you kids out there, Joplin was a singer who was popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. She performed at a concert called "Woodstock," which was kind of a big deal. Ask your parents about it. This song was recorded three days before she died at age 27.

Obama Gets Personal

Barack Obama prepares to feast on Mitt Romney's entrails. (Flickr/Barack Obama)

Campaigns often feature a division of labor when it comes to speaking about the candidate's opponent, one in which the candidate makes polite but firm criticism, while the surrogates (campaign staff, other elected officials) say much harsher and more personal things. A good campaign makes sure that the two proceed along the same thematic lines so they reinforce one another, but the fact that the candidate himself is more genteel in his language is supposed to preclude a backlash against him for being too "negative." Frankly, I've always thought this is overblown, particularly the strange custom whereby it's deemed a bit unseemly to refer to your opponent by name, such that saying "Mitt Romney is a jackass" would be horribly uncouth, but saying "My opponent is a jackass" is somehow more acceptable.

As the campaign goes on, however, this protocol is observed less and less, and the comments the candidates make take on a harder edge, beginning to resemble the comments their staffs make. It seems we may be entering a new phase, as witnessed by this:

The Myth That Won't Die

A shot from a 2008 McCain for President ad.

John McCain is no longer a substantively important figure in American politics. As a member of the minority party in the Senate, he chairs no committees. He is not a leader among his peers. Since losing in his second run for president, he continued his decades-long record of not bothering to engage in the legislating part of being a legislator (over a three-decade-long career, McCain has exactly one significant piece of legislation to his name, a law that was overturned by the Supreme Court). Yet he continues to be a politically important figure, appearing more often on the Sunday shows than anyone else and having his ideas and his opinions regularly reported on.

Which is why I simply must speak up now that the biggest myth about John McCain is cropping up again. It's the idea that, noble and modest as he is, McCain has always been terribly reluctant to discuss the fact that he was a POW in Vietnam.

Look, up in the Sky! It's a Tax! It's a Penalty! It's a Stupid Argument over Semantics!

Flickr/Alyson Hurt

Since not much campaign news happens over the July 4th holiday, Mitt Romney took the opportunity to change his campaign's tune on whether the Supreme Court was right that the penalty in the Affordable Care Act for those who can afford health insurance but refuse to get it is actually a "tax." To review, the Supreme Court said the government has the authority under its taxing power to penalize those who refuse to get insurance, leading Republicans to cry, "Tax! Tax! Tax!" with all of their usual policy nuance and rhetorical subtlety. The only problem this poses for Romney is that calling it a tax means that Romney imposed a tax with his health care plan in Massachusetts, which means admitting that Romney sinned against the tax gods. So first his spokesman came out and said that no, it's really just a penalty, but then Romney came out and said, well, if the Supreme Court said it's a tax then it's a tax, but it wasn't a tax when I did it, because the Supreme Court didn't call it that.

What does all this arguing over semantics tell us? It tells us that the press and public are both complicit in creating the hurricane of stupidity that every presidential campaign devolves into.

Mitt Goes into the Fog

Flickr/Austen Hufford

I just want to elaborate on a point I made in passing in my column today about Mitt Romney's complex ideological dance. When it became clear that Romney would indeed be the Republican nominee, people began speculating about how he would execute the "move to the center" that every nominee must undertake, since in the primaries you're appealing to your party's base, while in the general election you have to appeal to independents. It's particularly tricky for Romney, since every time he switches positions on something people are reminded that he switches positions on things a lot, and that gives Democrats the opportunity to remind everyone of his flip-flopping past.

So has Mitt managed to find a way out of this dilemma? I think he has.

Can We Take John Roberts's Word at Face Value?

Flickr/Donkey Hotey

For years, conservatives have articulated a clear legal philosophy to guide their beliefs about the proper role of the courts and the way judges should arrive at their decisions, much clearer than the philosophy liberals espouse. They said they supported "originalism," whereby judges would simply examine the Constitution as the Founders understood it to guide its interpretation today. They said they opposed "judicial activism," wanting judges to simply interpret the law instead of making their own laws. Liberals always replied that these ideas were a disingenuous cover for something much simpler: conservatives just want judicial decisions that support their policy preferences. They see whatever they want in the Constitution, and define "judicial activism" as nothing more than decisions whose outcomes they don't like.

The reaction to Chief Justice John Roberts joining the Supreme Court's four liberals to uphold the Affordable Care Act shows something revealing about the conservative perspective on the Court and the law. Despite all the time they've spent asserting that the decisions they like are based only on principle, they seem incapable of even considering that a decision they didn't like could possibly be based in anything other than politics. Could John Roberts have sided with the liberals because in this case, he decided that they were right? Oh, come on, they reply, who are you kidding?

Failures of Spin

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is ordinarily a spinner of unusual skill. He's relentlessly focused on his message and doesn't let any interviewer frame a question in a way he (McConnell) doesn't like. Which is why it was a little odd to see Fox News' Chris Wallace catch him without a handy talking point when it came to covering the uninsured. This excerpt is a little long, but you have to see the whole thing:

Friday Music Break

"The Ghosts That Haunt Me"

For today's edition of Slow, Mournful Songs About Superheroes, we have Crash Test Dummies with "Superman Song." And here's a bonus link to Quentin Tarantino's weird yet insightful monologue from "Kill Bill Vol. 2," in which David Carradine argues that "Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race." To be honest, I always found Superman to be the least interesting of superheroes. He's just too...super. But I like the song.

Peggy Noonan Feels the News

She's feeling something. (Flickr/kylebogucki)

When he began his still-brilliant show a few years ago, Stephen Colbert said, "Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you." And there's nobody who feels the news quite like Peggy Noonan, America's most unintentionally hilarious columnist. Pretty much every time she writes a column or goes on television, Noonan can be counted on to tell us about a feeling out there in the land. It's seldom a powerful feeling; instead, it's more often a stirring, an inchoate emotion still in the process of crystallizing. It might be a yearning, or an unease, or a doubt or a fear, but it lingers just out of our perception until Peggy Noonan comes along and perceives it for us.

Did you think the impact of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling was that millions of uninsured Americans will now be able to get health insurance, and after 2014 none of us will ever need to fear the words "pre-existing condition" again? Nay, good-hearted Americans:

On Medicaid, Republicans Explore New Moral Depths

Florida governor and aspiring Bond villain Rick Scott, looking forward to denying poor Floridians health insurance. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

As the lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act worked their way up to the Supreme Court, I always found the challenge to the expansion of Medicaid to be the strangest part. Quick context: the program provides insurance for poor people, splitting the cost between the federal government and the states. But the current rules say that each state gets to set its own eligibility standards, which meant that if you live in a state run by Democrats and you're poor, you can get Medicaid, but if you live in a state run by Republicans, you have to be desperately poor to get Medicaid. For instance, in Mississippi, a family of four has to have a yearly gross income below a princely $9,828 to qualify. Because if a family is living high on the hog with their $10,000 a year, they aren't really poor, right?

Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act fixed this, by changing Medicaid so that everyone with up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($30,657 for a family of four) would qualify. And to make things easier on the states, the bill provided that the federal government would pick up almost all of the tab. The federal government pays 100 percent of the cost of paying for the new enrollees through 2016, 95 percent in 2017, 94 percent in 2018, 93 percent in 2019, and 90 percent from then on. In other words, the federal government is saying to states, "Here's a bunch of free money to insure a whole lot of your citizens, which will make them healthier and more productive." And almost every state run by Republicans replied, "How dare you do such a thing to us! It's unconstitutional! We're suing!"

What CNN Could Have Done

Oops!

If you were watching cable news when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling, you were probably confused at first. Initially, both CNN and Fox News announced that the individual mandate had been struck down, only to come back a few minutes later and correct themselves, after their screaming chyrons and web site headlines had already gone up announcing the administration's defeat. Let's forget about Fox, since they're just a bunch of nincompoops anyway. The more interesting question concerns CNN. The most common explanation for this screwup is that they have come to value being first over being right, which is true enough. But I think it also suggests that they don't really understand their audience. And by trying to be just as fast as MSNBC or Fox, they lost an opportunity to differentiate them

Republicans Will Soon Stop Talking about Health Care

foxnation.com

The Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act, particularly Justice Roberts siding with the liberals, took most everyone by surprise this morning. But if you tune in to Fox News or surf around the conservative blogs, they seem to be taking it somewhat philosophically. They're not happy, but there's little rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Mostly they're saying, well, we'll just have to win this in November (see here for a representative sample). There's also a good deal of discussion of the fact that the Court declared that the requirement to carry health insurance is permissible under the government's taxing power. After all, if there's one thing Republicans know how to do, it's complain about taxes. Mitch McConnell quickly took to the floor of the Senate to condemn the decision, and no doubt Mitt Romney will soon say something so vague that no one can determine what he actually thinks.

But here's my guess: Republicans are going to drop health care very quickly.

Romney Campaign Puts the Screws to The Washington Post

Today's Washington Post

Campaign professionals tend to believe that the most potent attack you can make uses your opponents own words against him, preferably if they're on video and can be replayed over and over. If you don't have that, it helps to have third-party validation of your attack from the most credible, non-partisan source you can find. Which is why it's so helpful when an established news organization reports something damaging about your opponent, which you can then talk about and put in your ads. If the third-party source is credible enough, you won't have to argue about whether the allegation is true, but merely about what it means and how much it matters.

Which is why the Obama campaign was so pleased when the Washington Post reported that under Mitt Romney (and after he departed), Bain Capital invested in a number of companies that specialized in helping other companies outsource work to foreign countries. Not only was this new information that could be used to attack Romney, but it had the imprimatur of the Post. Within days, the story was showing up in the president's speeches and the campaign's ads. So the Romney campaign is doing what it can to wind back the clock on the story:

Bain Isn't Going Anywhere

Image from Obama campaign ad.

Consider these two headlines. First, from the Atlantic Wire: "Bain Attacks Are Working In Swing States." Then, from Business Insider: "POLL: Most People Have Never Heard of Bain Capital." And here's the punch line: Both articles are about the same poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal. So which is it?

On "Owning" Health Care

These guys aren't too worried about owning health care.

In the search for silver linings to a Supreme court decision striking down part or all of the Affordable Care Act, many people have suggested that should it happen, Americans will turn all their displeasure about the health care system on conservatives. Specifically, it is that that they will "own" the health care system. James Carville says that if the ACA is overturned on a 5-4 vote, "The Republican party will own the health care system for the foreseeable future." Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger says, "If the court were to strike down this major reform effort, 40 years in the making, the court would own the resulting health care system for the next decade and beyond. It’s a slightly highbrow version of the universal rule: 'You broke it, you bought it.'" The Republican party is one thing, but the Supreme Court "owing" health care? What does that mean? That people will be protesting outside the Court when their premiums go up? First of all, they won't, and second of all, I don't think the Court's conservative justices could care less if they did.

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