Paul Waldman

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Photo of the Day - Nomination Hearing Edition

 

This is from the confirmation hearings for Loretta Lynch to be Attorney General; that's her in the center. I think Cruz is saying to himself, "Can I be president and serve on the Supreme Court at the same time? I don't think the Constitution says otherwise. Yeah, that'd be real nice..." 

 

The Terrifying Political Power of the Upper Middle Class

Today's Plum Line post concerns the plan to eliminate the tax benefit of 529 plans, which the Obama administration proposed and then withdrew in the face of opposition from both Republicans and Democrats:

The Republicans who are crowing about the White House's retreat ought to remind themselves that this is yet another illustration of a dynamic they often bemoan: that it's easy to give people a government benefit, but much harder to take it away once it’s in place. And while they sneer in disgust at the moochers who get food stamps or Medicaid, the program they're now celebrating is a government giveaway, too, just one that is mostly given away to people who don't need it.

Here’s the real lesson from this whole affair: If you want to create a politically bulletproof government benefit, like the 529 program or the mortgage interest deduction (which costs the government about $70 billion a year), just make sure it’s technically open to anyone, but that the chief beneficiaries will be people who are doing well. They'll squawk if it ever gets threatened, and it's an absolute certainty that their representatives in Congress—Democrat and Republican alike—will hear them loud and clear.

The lesson of this retreat is clear: don't mess with the government benefits that the upper middle class gets. They're wealthy enough that Congress cares about them, and numerous enough that they constitute a significant voting bloc. 

For Republicans, Medicaid and Medicare Are Mirror Images

Yesterday, Indiana governor and possible presidential candidate Mike Pence—a conservative's conservative by any measure—announced that he had come to an agreement with the federal government to accept the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid. Like other Republican governors, he wanted to change the plan a bit, just to make sure poor people knew that getting health coverage for free would be bad for their moral fiber. So the Indiana plan will charge small premiums—up to 2 percent of an individual's income—which will make only a tiny impact on the state's balance sheets, but will send a clear message to those layabouts; Pence talked about giving people the "dignity to pay for their own health insurance." (I'm sure that Pence declines to take a government  handout in the form of the mortgage interest deduction, because that would undermine his dignity.)

While even a small premium can impose a hardship on people who are extremely poor—and there are other concessions Pence insisted on that will have the effect of making the coverage more stingy and giving the state the ability to throw people off—this is still extremely good news, because hundreds of thousands of people in Indiana who couldn't afford coverage before will now get covered. But Pence doesn't want anybody to get the idea that he doesn't hate Medicaid. As Dylan Scott explains, Republican governors always seem to find different names to call their Medicaid programs when they accept the Affordable Care Act's expansion, and they never utter the vile word "Obamacare," even though that's the source of the money they're taking:

But Pence might have been the boldest yet. His office effectively portrayed his state's plan as a blow to Medicaid and government-funded health care.

"With this approval, Indiana will end traditional Medicaid for all non-disabled Hoosiers between 19 and 64," Pence's office said, "and will continue to offer the first-ever consumer-driven health care plan for a low-income population."

This is actually the inverse of the way Republicans talk and act when it comes to Medicare. These Republican governors want to expand Medicaid for very practical reasons: having huge numbers of uninsured poor citizens creates a less healthy workforce, imposes costs on the state through uncompenstated care, and is generally an economic drag. Under the ACA, the federal government will pay nine out of ten dollars for expanding it, so you have to be an idiot not to take it (there are still quite a few such idiots left, of course). But in public, ideology demands that they claim that Medicaid is awful and they want nothing to do with it; in the extreme case, you get someone like Pence trying to convince people that he's striking a blow against the program by expanding it.

When it comes to Medicare, however, it's exactly the opposite. Republicans actually dislike it, precisely because it's a huge government program that works. But because it's so popular, they have to pretend in public that they're its greatest defenders. Here, for example, is an ad run by Indiana senator Dan Coats in his last election:

You've got to love that—his opponent voted "to force seniors into Barack Obama's government-run health care program, reducing the protection Medicare provides." Utterly nonsensical? Sure. But "Dan Coats will fight to strengthen Medicare," I guess by protecting it from the government. Or something.

You'll notice that every attempt by Republicans to privatize or other undermine Medicare is presented as a plan to "strengthen" it, the mirror image of how GOP governors now say they're weakening Medicaid by expanding it. Maybe someone should propose moving poor people into Medicare, which Republicans say they love so much. Then they'd have no idea what to say. 

Photo of the Day, British Silliness Edition

The photo of this guy swimming with a Dalek on his head was apparently taken at some sort of whimsical British swimming competition, but the context is really irrelevant. The point is, this is a guy swimming with a Dalek on his head. Godspeed to you, good sir.

The Kochpublican Party

In my Plum Line post today, I take a look at the announcement that the Koch brothers and their allies plan to spend $889 million (an awfully specific number) on the 2016 elections. My guess is they'll blow through that and make it to $1 billion, what with their can-do American entrepreneurial spirit and all. What strikes me about this isn't the sums involved—their combined worth is over $80 billion, so it isn't like they're going to have to lay off any of the household staff because of their political spending—it's the fact that they've obviously decided that there's no reason to be shy about this anymore. And they're probably right:

So the Kochs appear to have concluded that the efforts by Democrats (especially Harry Reid) to turn the Koch name into a symbol of everything that’s wrong in American politics have failed. No longer must they cower in their mansions and take pains to conceal their political spending, fearful of the piercing barbs aimed by liberal politicians and commentators, when all they want is for Americans to fully appreciate the majesty of laissez-faire economics. Free at last, free at last, thank Citizens United, they’re free at last.

If you were expecting journalists to express much consternation at the idea that a group of the super-wealthy are openly announcing their intention to buy the next election, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, the news is being reported more like that of a record-breaking contract for a professional athlete: wonder at the sums involved, but precious little moral outrage. That’s mostly because political reporters tend to believe that election campaigns are already nothing but a parade of deception and manipulation, an enterprise that’s inherently corrupt. So what’s a little more corruption?

Read the rest here.

Bobby Jindal's Doomed Crusade

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Bobby Jindal has been something of an odd man out in the emerging 2016 presidential race. While people like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio (not to mention Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney) get headlines for their every contemplation of the race, Jindal is largely ignored by the national media. Yet for years he was touted as a future presidential candidate, precocious and ambitious, an Indian-American who speaks with a Southern drawl and who could be a compelling national figure.

While no one is going to put Jindal on a list of the nation's most successful governors, he has a longer resume than most of the field, and his list of blasphemies against the ever-evolving conservative creed are few. Yet with the relative lack of attention, maybe he decided he needed an angle. But the choice that he seems to have made, at least for the moment, is an awfully curious one. Jindal is positioning himself as the most Christian of all the candidates, and one ready to lead a clash of civilizations to boot.

You might say, well, isn't that good strategy? Aren't evangelicals the very heart of the GOP? Yes, they are. But consider: there's always a competition for their votes, and one or two candidates usually make religion central to their candidacy. And they never get the nomination. Before we get to what Jindal is doing now, let's have a little reminder from the past. Here's a Rick Perry ad from 2012:

 

He's not ashamed to admit he's a Christian! So brave. But keep that idea in mind. Now here's Mike Huckabee from 2008:

When this ad aired there was a weird discussion about whether the lines in the bookcase behind Huckabee were supposed to be a cross, as though a hidden subliminal message were necessary in an ad in which Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, says, "What really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ." In any case, you'll recall that Huckabee, like Perry, did not actually become the Republican nominee. Nor did Gary Bauer in 2000, or Pat Buchanan in 1988 and 1992, or Pat Robertson in 1988. With the exception of George W. Bush, the actual GOP nominees of recent years—Romney, McCain, Dole, George H.W. Bush—have not been the most religious; indeed, many of them were greeted skeptically by evangelicals. Yet they ended up winning.

So why Bobby Jindal would think that being not just the most devout but the most, shall we say, aggressively Christian would be the path to victory is kind of hard to understand. This isn't about whether he's sincere in his religious beliefs, which I'm sure he is. But a more thoughtful politician wouldn't send out an invitation to a prayer rally on government letterhead reading, "Jesus, Son of God and the Lord of Light, is America's only hope." And then send a letter to the 49 other governors inviting them to come, and saying of the rally, "There will be only one name lifted up that day—Jesus!" (h/t Peter Montgomery) And then say triumphantly at the rally, "Our god wins!" That's not exactly a message of inclusion.

What differentiates Jindal from prior candidates is that he's advancing a theory that is widespread yet almost never embraced by anyone with national political ambitions: that we are in a war both cultural and religious, and the enemy is Islam. He wouldn't state it quite that baldly, but when he's out there warning that fictional Muslim "no-go zones" are coming to America and proclaiming "Our god wins!" there isn't much doubt what sentiment he's playing to.

In contrast, four years ago Rick Perry was tapping into Christians' sense of persecution, the belief that they're losing a war in which the enemy is secularism. Without question, that's a war Jindal wants to fight as well. But he's going farther in portraying Islam as the enemy than anyone else in the race. If history is any guide, making himself into the crusader candidate isn't going to do the trick. 

Charts of the Day, Declining Deficit Edition

If you're like me, you can't wait for an excuse to head on over to the historical tables of the president's budget and grab some data to make a couple of graphs. O.K., so you're not like me in that respect, because you're not a weirdo. But I am, so when I saw that the Congressional Budget Office had come up with its latest budget projections, I knew it was graph time.

The good news is that the deficit in 2014 was $483 billion, or 2.8 percent of GDP. While that would be a lot of money to have in your bank account, it's the lowest deficit since 2007, and lower than the average of the last 40 years. It's also a spectacular reduction since its height in 2009, when it was $1.4 trillion and almost 10 percent of GDP. Now...on to the graphs! (A note: I've used the CBO's assumption of 2 percent inflation over the next decade to obtain the figures for real dollars.) We start with the deficit in dollars, then as a proportion of GDP.

Keep in mind that the projections could be right or wrong; for all we know, there could be a world war in 2020 or the virtual reality economy could explode in 2022, bringing an unprecedented era of wealth and tax revenue. But on the whole, things are looking pretty good, given where we were a few years ago. 

Photo of the Day, Snowstorm Edition

 

This one is from 1910, in New York City. So you people with your plowed streets, ergonomic shovels, and fully functioning wifi should just shut up and be thankful you don't live a hundred years ago. 

News From Elsewhere

Republicans have now reached the point where they agree that things like inequality and wage stagnation are important, and they should discuss them with voters. Which isn't a bad first step, but I'm skeptical about whether they can take the obvious next step. That's the topic of my Plum Line post today:

The current Republican efforts to reposition themselves on economic questions remind me a little of how Democrats used to talk about national security before the Iraq War went south and discredited Republican wisdom on the issue. Democrats were always defensive about it, and when they tried to come up with a new message for whatever campaign was looming, the point was never to win the argument over national security. They just wanted to minimize the damage the issue could do to them, or at best, fight to a draw so that the election would hinge on issues where they were stronger.

If Republicans are to do that now on economics, it isn’t a bad start to say their focus has to shift to what people who aren’t wealthy or business owners (or both) care about. Now they just have to come up with an answer to this question: Okay, so what are you going to do about it?

At the moment the answer is, not much. Just look at the interview John Boehner and Mitch McConnell did with 60 Minutes last night. They said that inequality is a problem, and Barack Obama has made it worse. Then Scott Pelley asked some questions about why it exists and what might be done to combat it. Everything that they responded was about employers and the wealthy. Regulations are crippling business! Taxes are too high! How about Obama's proposal for free community college tuition? We can't afford it. So there you go: exactly the same policies as before, but we'll introduce them by saying, "Yeah, inequality, wage stagnation, yadda yadda yadda, we care, whatever."

Finally, as an extra bonus, here's a column I wrote for CNN.com on the latest GOP attack on Social Security.

Why Fictional "No-Go Zones" Could Be the 2016 Campaign's Next Culture War

Have you heard about the "no-go zones"? If not, just ask the uncle you dread seeing at Thanksgiving; by now he's already gotten a dozen chain e-mails about them. Despite having been widely debunked, this little nugget of misinformation is showing remarkable resilience. In and of itself that's nothing new; one poll earlier this month found that a majority of Republicans still think we found WMDs in Iraq. What's interesting about the no-go zones is how deeply the idea plays on certain fears and resentments that are rather common among a group of Americans to whom politicians are now starting to pay a great deal of attention, namely the Republican primary electorate.

To catch you up, a rumor recently began circulating that in many countries in Europe, Muslims have established areas where not only are non-Muslims afraid to go, but where police refuse to go and some version of Sharia law has replaced the actual laws of the country. As is usually the case with these kinds of delusions, some true facts are hidden within; for instance, manic Islamophobes have seized on the fact that the French government has designated certain areas as "zones urbaines sensibles," or "sensitive urban zones," as evidence that entire regions of that country are gone from French sovereignty. In fact, the ZUS's are merely neighborhoods with high crime and unemployment that have been targeted by the French government for economic development. But it sure sounds like the kind of surrender to foreigners we could expect from the French, doesn't it?

The truthiness of the no-go zones—at least to those with a certain cast of mind—keeps driving the rumor forward no matter how often it gets debunked. When Fox News "terrorism expert" Steve Emerson went on the network and said that "In Britain, it's not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don't go in," it made enough news in Britain that Prime Minister David Cameron got asked about it. He called Emerson "a complete idiot," and Emerson apologized, as did other Fox on-air personalities.

You might have thought that would take the air out of the idea, but instead it appears to be spreading. Bobby Jindal, who at this stage seems to be positioning himself as the candidate for voters who think Pastor Huckabee might not be quite Christian enough, went to England last week to lecture the British about no-go zones in their country that don't actually exist. As Byron York reported, many conservative voters in Iowa ate up Jindal's fantastical charges. "To them, Jindal was warning about the danger of enclaves of unassimilated Muslim populations in an age of Islamic radicalism, a problem they fear could be in store for the United States."

And that's where the idea is moving: away from debating about what is or isn't happening in Europe, to what might be coming to the United States. Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, an extremely influential figure among the religious right, recently warned that Dearborn, Michigan, and "parts of Minneapolis" are now ruled by Sharia law. In response, Representative Keith Ellison—one of two Muslim members of Congress, who represents Minneapolis—sent Perkins a warm and patient letter inviting him to the city, where he could see that while there are many Muslim Americans who live there, all federal, state, and local laws remain in effect.

While you might think that any whipped-up fears having to do with Muslims are about terrorism, this is as much or even more about immigration. It's an exaggerated version of what so many find disturbing when they see significant numbers of immigrants in and around their communities: that the new arrivals will make them feel like aliens in their own home. People will be speaking a different language, eating different foods, participating in a different culture, and all of it will seem strange and unsettling.

In truth, that's a temporary situation. There aren't too many people who drive through a Chinatown or an Italian neighborhood in a major city and feel the urge to roll down their window and shout, "I want my America back!" Hispanic immigration seems threatening to so many because it's newer and closer to where they live. Take that discomfort, make its face an even more alien-seeming group, add in the threat of violence and turn the whole thing up to eleven, and you've got the no-go zones.

With the issue of same-sex marriage possibly resolved for good when the Supreme Court rules in a few months, this could be the campaign's new culture war, one that pits what those primary voters see as "our" America against an alien one that doesn't seem to them like America at all, where Spanish-speaking immigrants and terrorist sleeper cells join forces to conquer and remake the country from within. My guess is that before long, other Republican presidential candidates will chime in with warnings about the terrifying future where an archipelago of Muslim no-go zones spreads to cover all of America. So what if it isn't happening elsewhere and won't ever happen here? Once the candidates realize what a potent bit of fear-mongering the no-go zones could be, they won't be able to resist.