Friday Talking Points [129] -- Incrementalism Wins Big

[ Posted Friday, June 25th, 2010 – 16:52 UTC ]

We're going to begin today with the news that a popular New Jersey beach is considering allowing women to sunbathe topless. And then move right on to the financial reform bill, by way of a neck-snapping segue. Just to warn you up front.

Asbury Park, New Jersey, will soon address a request from a woman who owns a yoga studio to change the rules for their beach by allowing gender equality in their blue laws -- specifically, allowing women the same freedom men have, to remove their tops while on the beach. Believe it or not, men had to fight for the right to appear topless in public long ago. It wasn't until 1937 that men won the right to appear bare-chested on beaches, helped along by Johnny Weissmuller (of swimming and Tarzan fame). Now women are fighting for the same rights, at least in Asbury Park. After all, it's a simple question of equality, right?

Well, yes and no. This is where journalists traditionally succumb to the urge to get cute. For instance, I could start this paragraph with "There are two big reasons why women going topless is different than men..." but I will, of course, refrain from doing so. The AP, in reporting this story, immediately gave in to such sophomoric language themselves:

Once among the top seaside resorts on the East Coast, Asbury Park is keeping abreast of vacationers' changing tastes: It is considering letting women go topless on a city beach.

Cue Beavis and Butthead: "Heh heh heh... he said a breast... heh heh." At least they didn't call the story "titillating."

But since we're on the subject of boobs on display for all to see, we now turn our attention further south to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. (see, I warned you it'd be a drastic segue...), to see what's going on with the efforts to rein in the abuses regularly practiced on Wall Street.

The newly-named "Dodd-Frank Bill" has emerged from the House-Senate conference committee, as yet another exercise in seeing things as "glass half-empty" or "glass half-full." In other words, incrementalism has won a big victory.

Now, getting anything this large done in this political climate can indeed be seen as a legitimate victory -- especially in an election year, when the long-standing D.C. tradition is to do absolutely nothing in fear of the voters' wrath at the polls. So I do give credit for the fact that a conference committee actually got their job done, and even on the schedule they set for themselves (although they had to work 20 hours straight to do so -- the final vote happened around dawn this morning, after an all-night negotiating session). This means Congress may actually put a bill on President Obama's desk to sign by July Fourth, as planned. That is no mean feat -- meeting such a schedule (remember how many of these deadlines were broken during the health reform battles?).

As for the bill itself, well, it's stronger than it could have been in places and weaker than it could have been in many other places. Meaning there's something in it for everyone to dislike -- which is one convenient way of defining "incrementalism." The "Volcker Rule" survived... kind of. Blanche Lincoln's derivatives reform survived... kind of. An independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency will be created... kind of independent, that is. Banks will no longer be able to gamble with publicly-backed deposits... kind of. Auto dealers won a free pass from having to deal with the consumer protection agency. Some credit and debit card reforms were adopted. Ending the concept of "too big to fail" wasn't even seriously considered, and so did not make the final cut (to no one's surprise). But many of the strongest reforms will gradually take place over the next two years... so here's hoping Wall Street doesn't crash and burn in the next two years. Everyone cross your fingers and hope!

Reactions to the bill are, predictably, all over the map. Progressives are calling it a watered-down piece of garbage that won't go nearly far enough to prevent future crises. Realists are calling it a good first step. The Right is... well, I have to admit I haven't bothered to find out what they're saying about it yet (but it's easy to guess, since Obama's for it: "This is the end of the United States of America as we know it -- Doomsday is approaching, folks!").

The main thing, at this point, is that the Democrats seem to be confident that they've got the votes to get it quickly passed by both the House and the Senate. Which will, substance of the bill aside, give President Obama another huge political victory. But, much like his previous huge political victory on health reform, the incremental nature of the beast is going to cheapen the victory itself, leaving many to bemoan "what might have been" due to weak-kneed Democrats.

In other words, the boobs -- in Washington, at least -- are definitely on display this summer.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

The Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was an easy call to make. President Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal as commander of United States forces in Afghanistan, and replaced him with General David Petraeus.

That wasn't the impressive part, though. In fact, the change in generals itself is beside the point, at least as far as this award is concerned. You can make a pro-McChrystal as well as a pro-Petraeus argument, in terms of which would help us achieve the objectives set out in Afghanistan, but we're avoiding that debate entirely here.

Because what was impressive about Obama's decision wasn't the decision itself, but rather the blinding, lightning speed of the decision. From the time the Rolling Stone story broke to the time Obama was announcing Petraeus was taking over, the only apparent delay was flying McChrystal halfway around the world so he could personally hand in his resignation to his Commander-in-Chief.

And, to be blunt, Obama usually doesn't operate this fast.

Regardless of whether you think Obama's decision was an excellent one or monumentally stupid, you've got to admit that the president was swift and decisive, and showed leadership. The entire crisis rose like a firework, exploded high above the heads of Washington, and then dissipated so quickly that the media barely had time to react. Much less the Republicans. Obama himself reportedly came up with the brilliant idea of naming Petraeus, since this particular general is so revered by Republicans that there will be the smoothest of all possible confirmation hearings for him in the Senate. And, within hours of Obama's announcement, Republicans from John McCain on down were praising the president's decision.

Stop and think about that for a moment -- Republicans praising President Barack Hussein Obama's decision... on any subject.

But the politics of Obama's decision, while impressive, wasn't the real reason he's winning the MIDOTW for the second consecutive week. Because what was really impressive was how fast it all happened. Within two days -- two days! -- the story broke, the firing happened, the reaction happened, and then the story was deemed "old news" and the media moved on. When is the last crisis or scandal in Washington you can remember that followed such a cycle in two days' time? "Never" is the only answer we here could name.

So, in the spirit of rewarding good behavior that this award was created for, Barack Obama is hereby awarded his nineteenth Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. Please, Mister President, please show this same swiftness of action and refreshing leadership the next time any such drastic action is needed.

[Congratulate President Obama on the official White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

There was certainly enough disappointment on the Wall Street reform bill to spread around this week. President Obama, in his victory statement, said almost exactly the same thing about this bill as he said on health reform: "I got 90 percent of what I asked for." But the problem with that is perhaps he needs to ask for a bit more in the first place, or (to put it another way) be a whole lot more specific about what exactly it is he's asking for.

Obama, as with all politicians, likes to present himself (at least 90 percent) on the side of the angels in any political fracas. What this is ignoring is that his administration actually fought on the side of watering several things down considerably from the original proposals. In other words, if Obama himself had got in there and fought hard, perhaps he could have wound up with 120 percent of what he asked for, rather than fighting to water it down to 90 percent. Hmmph.

But Obama is a realist, and the truth of the matter is that a coalition of Democrats in Congress were the ones who demanded such watering-down, or else they weren't going to vote for it (meaning nothing would have passed). This coalition consisted of the Blue Dogs (familiar villains to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party), and New York congresscritters who have mortgaged their souls to Wall Street for the crass coin of campaign donations. Any Democrat within a silver dollar's throw from Manhattan was apparently bought and paid for in this debate, and they delivered the goods to their financial overlords.

This entire group -- the Obama administration, the Blue Dogs, and the sold-out New Yorkers (whom we are going to christen the "Greenback Pigs" for wallowing at the Wall Street trough, in the hopes it'll catch on) -- is awarded a special Disappointing Democratic Group Sell-Out award, which we also just made up on the spot. For shamefully standing firm with the banks against the interests of Main Street, they certainly deserve all the scorn that can be humanly heaped.

But the real Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award goes to Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, for being the sole Democrat who voted with the Republicans this week to kill the jobs bill which would have extended unemployment payments and aid to the states (so they wouldn't have to fire policemen and teachers) in the midst of the Great Recession. Thought we had forgotten about you, Senator Nelson? Thought you slid beneath the radar, with so much else going on? Well, think again.

The whole story is disappointment embodied, and we uncharacteristically find ourselves at a loss for words to describe how we feel about Senator Nelson's vote. The only thing which can be said at this point is:

For shame, Senator Nelson. For shame, indeed.

[Contact Senator Ben Nelson on his Senate contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 129 (6/25/10)

We admit that we had to react rather quickly to the Wall Street reform bill news, so the talking points which have emerged from our feverish brains are not as specific as they could be. We'll likely rectify this next week, when specifics are going to be more available.

Also, that bit about "feverish" isn't just the usual hyperbole you've come to know and expect from this column. I spent the first part of this week fighting off a 48-hour sickness (which turned into a 72-hour thing) which caused me to sleep more than my cat (which takes some doing). So I had to struggle to even stay aware of what was going on, through about Wednesday evening.

If this week's talking points reflect this daze, I apologize in advance. Everything's back to normal here, so the week ahead will likely be a bit better. With this blanket apology firmly in position, let's begin the talking points part of the program.


   Wall Street reform

This is a repetition of an old talking point that I've been hammering for a while now. Hey, I said I've been sick. But, repetitious though this may be (actually the first three are semi-recycled), I do believe such a reminder is important as we head into the home stretch in Congress. The bill will likely be one of the main political subjects of the next week, as both houses vote on it, so Democrats everywhere need a little refresher course in how to talk about the subject, I feel. And first on the list is what to call it.

"Actually, we like to call what we're doing 'Wall Street reform' because that is what is at the heart of the Dodd-Frank bill. The reason such a huge step forward can even be taken politically at this point is that Wall Street lost America's trust by acting worse than a gambling addict betting the rent money. The rampant greed and recklessness Wall Street displayed, and the fact that the American taxpayer had to clean up the resulting mess is why this legislation exists. We promised to reform Wall Street, and that is exactly what we have done -- which is why the only honest thing you can call it is: 'Wall Street reform,' don't you think?"


   Reining in Wall Street

Wall Street, after all, is not very popular right now. Democrats need to use this to their advantage, heading into the election. Remind the voters over and over again what this fight is about, in the most negative language you can come up with.

"Democrats have shown we stand firm in reining in the abuses on Wall Street. Much like a runaway team of horses, a firm grip on the reins was what was needed, and that is exactly what the Dodd-Frank bill will provide. It's coming up on two years now since the American economy collapsed as a direct result of the foolish and destructive behavior of the biggest Wall Street institutions, and the rules they operate under are to this day the exact same rules which were in place the day everything fell apart. Democrats promised to fix the irresponsibility Wall Street showed to the taxpayers of this country, and the Dodd-Frank bill is an enormous first leap in that direction. Wall Street cannot regulate itself. Wall Street cannot be trusted to 'do the right thing.' The federal government needs to re-regulate the financial industry to prevent the destruction which followed the de-regulation of this industry. Luckily, Democrats were in charge to do just that -- even though almost all Republicans have so far stood in our way."


   Democrats stood for Main Street

Don't just point out what the fight is about, but also point out who you're fighting for. In this case, the media's already framed the issue for you, so all you have to do is use their idiom. Don't forget, also, to point out who you're fighting against in this political battle. Don't be afraid of saying "Republican," in other words.

"You know, throughout this whole debate, the media used the phrase 'Main Street versus Wall Street' and I think that's a good way to describe it. Democrats stood firmly on the side of Main Street. By doing so, Democrats have created a Consumer Financial Protection Agency which will be on the side of every American consumer in the future, Democrats have ended some of the worst abuses banks regularly impose on credit and debit card holders, and Democrats have battled Wall Street to impose some common-sense restrictions on their reckless behavior. In this fight, while Democrats stood with Main Street, Republicans stood firmly on the side of Wall Street greed. Republicans have fought us every step of the way, and we expect them to continue fighting us next week -- on the side of Wall Street, once again. We think the American voters are smart enough to decide this November which they'd like to see more of in Washington -- Democrats standing on the side of Main Street, or Republicans standing up for Wall Street excess."


   Is the BP escrow fund a good thing or not?

These next three are offered up because -- astonishingly -- some "thinkers" on the Right have actually been defending Representative Joe Barton's apology to BP for the president's "shakedown" -- that is, for BP to pay for the damage they created. Republicans have rediscovered their love of "the rule of law," since the framers of the Constitution didn't explicitly say what a company who creates a drilling accident a mile underwater should do (lack of foresight on the framers' part, I guess). That this is all the sheerest nonsense seems to have escaped many in the media. Which leaves Democrats a wide opening to keep the issue alive, which they should indeed do. The main criticism Democrats should make, at this point, is to change the focus entirely by asking detractors of the fund a very simple question.

"Republicans have been criticizing how the BP escrow fund came into being, and criticized President Obama for coming up with the idea and making it happen. But all this can be chalked up to knee-jerk anti-Obama-ism which emanates from the right just like oil spewing from the ocean floor. In all their garment-rending and chest-beating, though, these detractors are conveniently silent on a key point. So I'd like to ask you: do you think -- no matter how it was created -- that the BP escrow fund is a good idea or a bad idea? Do you think holding BP accountable for all damages, instead of just the $75 million they are legally liable for, is a good thing, or not? Do you think people and small businessmen on the Gulf Coast should get compensation money now -- when they can use it to save their business or their livelihood -- or much, much later, which is how it would happen without this fund? Because if you think the fund's a good idea, then you are merely quibbling that President Obama was too effective and decisive in his leadership for setting it up. BP could have set such a fund up any time they felt like it, but they didn't -- until President Obama challenged them to. The fact that President Obama was successful at doing so is really what annoys the critics, I think, because even they have to agree the fund is indeed a good idea and a good thing."


   Even Haley Barbour likes it...

Of course, if they answer "no" to the above question, then you've got to be ready with something to fling in their faces.

"Really? You really think the BP escrow fund to compensate their victims is a bad idea? Even Republican Haley Barbour -- who is not only governor of one of the states affected on the Gulf Coast, but actually a Republican Party leader -- changed his tune pretty quickly when he heard from his voters. After initially badmouthing the compensation fund, here's what Barbour had to say about it on last week's Meet The Press -- 'I think the president was smart, and I congratulate him and BP that they reached an agreement.' He went on to say several times that the fund was 'good for BP' or 'a good deal for BP.' So are you saying you disagree with Governor Haley Barbour that the fund is a good thing for everyone concerned?"


   Escrow fund a Libertarian's dream

When you get right down to it, you can make a very Libertarian argument for the fund itself. So why not do so?

"You know, this escrow fund is really in keeping with the libertarian or conservative ideal. BP is being forced to pay every dollar of damage -- which they would not have to do under current law. If BP didn't pay, you know who would wind up paying? Every American taxpayer. And true free-marketers always tell us that companies will self-correct their behavior, because if they don't they will lose all their customers and go out of business. Ponying up the $20 billion is a good business decision for BP, even if it did take the president to make them see the light. Government's not going to have to pay a dime -- again, a conservative principle -- and BP is going to voluntarily pay for their damage. And, finally, why are conservatives so against this fund when the alternative is to let everyone sue BP in court -- which could take decades -- and which would serve to enrich a group that conservatives normally love to hate: trial lawyers. No government money spent, the free market paying for their damage, and no trial lawyer gets a dime out of it... so please explain why this isn't a Libertarian's dream come true?"


   Rand Paul's underground electric fence

Speaking of the dreams of Libertarians this week... we come to Rand Paul and his fantasy (which he refuses to give details about) for how to fix our border problem with Mexico.

"Rand Paul's solution to people crossing our southern border is -- and I quote from his campaign website -- 'an underground electric fence, with helicopter stations to respond quickly to breaches of the border.' But he refuses to answer questions about what, exactly, an 'underground electric fence' is. Aren't fences -- whether electric or unplugged -- normally constructed above the ground? Paul won't say. Perhaps it's something like those 'invisible fences' to keep your dog in your yard, that's the only thing I can think of. Except Paul is silent on how, exactly, he's going to convince all the fence-jumpers to wear an electric dog collar before they attempt to trek through the desert. The whole idea is just one more example of how bizarre Rand Paul's thinking truly is."


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Friday Talking Points [129] -- Incrementalism Wins Big”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    The best indication that the new Financial legislation will screw over you and me is that Bank Stocks have risen dramatically since the announcement.

    Anything that is GOOD for banks and Wall St is BAD for Joe Q Public...


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Speaking of the dreams of Libertarians this week... we come to Rand Paul and his fantasy (which he refuses to give details about) for how to fix our border problem with Mexico.

    Well, there is always Obama's plan for Border Security..

    While Obama's plan is slightly... SLIGHTLY... better than Paul's, it's not sufficient..


  3. [3] 
    akadjian wrote:


    I think the dilemma that the Democrats face is twofold: 1) that many of them don't want to lose the strong financial support they've received from Wall St. in the past, and 2) they don't want to be portrayed as weak for losing on any issue (what happened to Clinton w/ healthcare)

    To earn the Wall St buck, they want to appear populist, yet when it comes to actual legislation, not really change much.

    Similar to how Republicans become deficit hawks when out of office. Appear populist. Get elected. Then spend like convicts with credit just out of jail.

    Both parties do it. Sell populism to the country, then turn around and play to business interests.

    The heart of this issue is that money is required to win elections. And most politicians from both sides find that the easiest way to get money is by serving the interests of large businesses.

    Some thoughts on ways to fix this:
    1) More media coverage of lobbyist influence
    2) Better campaign finance reform - probably not going to happen given that this has to come from the very people taking the money
    3) New ways of raising money - Alan Grayson's campaign, for example, where he raises lots of money from small online donors
    4) Improved public awareness of this system of greed
    5) A major politician like Barack Obama decides to take a stand and fight for an unpopular issue that benefits the middle class - even at the risk of losing

    As I've been writing this, I started realizing that this is what has bothered me the most so far about Obama and Democrats w/ a big 'D'. They seem afraid of losing. So they compromise down to a point where they win, but what do they win?

    I'd argue that if there was one issue worth taking a chance and taking a risk, it would be financial reform. Why? Because if you lose on this, you would still win big politically.

    I think Obama missed a huge opportunity with financial reform.


  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    My letter to President Obama and the Democratic Party would go something like this ...

    Dear President Obama,

    It's not too late to take a stand on real financial reform.

    Yes, you and the Democratic party will lose donations as large financial organizations start shifting their donations to the GOP.

    But you won't need this money. Because you will have a real message to take to the people.

    You can say "I fought for financial reform." And it will be easy to see who didn't.

    This is the message you need in November. Even if you are unable to pass this reform. You need to be able to say you fought.

    Why do Republicans believe they will win in November? Because the only message you have right now is "I passed a tepid, watered-down version of financial reform that didn't really change anything."

    The only way you can lose is to choose not to fight.

    I urge you, President Obama, to fight for real reform. Otherwise, not only do you risk the coming election, but you risk disillusioning an entire new generation of voters who supported you.

    David Akadjian

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