August in Washington means the beginning of the official "silly season" of politics. This is because Congress takes the whole month off, and political news stories become rather thin on the ground. Intrepid political reporters, wishing to be on vacation themselves, get lazy and start going crazy over non-stories hyped into political wildfires seemingly overnight -- over the silliest of subjects. But these fun and games have not quite yet begun, because the Senate wrapped up work this week, and a few legal decisions of great moment were in the news.
Silly Season '10 may not even begin next week, since Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called the House back into a rare vacation-interrupting session, so they can get some emergency money out to the states to save thousands upon thousands of jobs for firefighters, teachers, and cops. The Republicans, in a stunning display of hubris, called this a giveaway to "special interests," but more on that later.
Perhaps an early harbinger of this year's silly season was the Capitol Police allowing a protest group to hang a senator in effigy, but drew the line at beating the effigy with sticks (although slapping him apparently met their standards). So, anyone planning an effigy party in the near future, be warned -- the line has now been drawn. Hanging an effigy -- OK. Beating said effigy with sticks -- not OK. And both the senator involved and the group protesting hail from the Right, making the silliness all that more enjoyable.
Silly news aside (or perhaps in the "so silly it's sad" category), we have to pause here to highly recommend an article in another publication. Now, we here know a few things about regular readers of this column (forgive me if you just wandered in here for the first time, feel free to skip down to the next section if this is so). Firstly, that you do not mind when we (quite frequently) enjoy the heck out of using the editorial "we" instead of just saying "I" like a normal blogger, just because it sounds so much cooler. Secondly, that you are a wonky-minded type of person, otherwise this whole article series would put you to sleep. And thirdly, that you are not afraid of reading an article longer than the usual 800-word editorial. Sometimes far longer....
For all these reasons (well, maybe not the first... but, tangentially, you'll love the article's oh-so-correct usage of accents in English -- such as "reëlect" -- which, we feel, is closely enough related to our first audience-criterion for us to make such an assumption)... where were we? Ahem. Oh, right -- as we were saying... for all the reasons stated above, we just know you're going to love an article in the recent issue of The New Yorker written by George Packer. It is titled "The Broken Chamber," which its subtitle explains by asking "Just how broken is the Senate?"
Anyone frustrated by the past eighteen months, especially the progress we have made versus the progress we could have made, needs to read this article. Everyone who has ever railed at Harry Reid for not getting more things done also needs to read this article. Everyone frustrated with Obama's legislative pace needs to read this article as well. In fact, if you have the pride to call yourself any sort of wonk at all, you really need to read this article.
But enough shameless magazine-plugging in the hopes of their sending us a free one-year subscription. Ahem. Instead, let's get to the week we've had, and then move on to what Democrats should be saying next.
As previously mentioned, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was surprisingly impressive last week, for announcing she was calling the House back into session right smack in the middle of their month-long summer campaign/vacation. Elena Kagan got confirmed by the Senate as our next Justice of the Supreme Court, which is impressive as well -- especially considering that 75 percent of all women who have ever served on the high court will do so together, as a full third of the court will now be female. It only took about 90 years after getting the right to vote, and maybe for the suffragettes' 100-year victory party, they'll achieve something approximating true parity (which would equate to either four or five seats). Both Pelosi and Kagan deserve at least an Honorable Mention this week.
The really impressive politician this week was the New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Unfortunately, while he has jumped party lines twice in his career, at this particular point in time he simply cannot be labeled a "Democrat," so we'll have to forego giving him this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, although I would encourage everyone to read the full speech he gave earlier this week in support of the "Two-And-A-Half Blocks Away From Ground Zero Mosque." Democratic House member Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes both "Ground Zero" and the mosque site, also released a strong statement of support (noticeable in the Democratic universe due to the shameful absence of other prominent Democrats echoing both Nadler and Bloomberg's sentiments).
No word yet on how those opposing the mosque have reacted to the predictable news that (gasp!) the Pentagon -- also a 9/11 target -- has a mosque inside the building! The smart money would be on "they'll ignore this news completely," what do you say?
But back to Democrats. Now, we're going to go out on a limb here, and make the assumption that Kristin M. Perry, Sandra B. Stier, Paul T. Katami, and Jeffrey J. Zarrillo are all Democrats. You may not have heard their full names, but they are the four plaintiffs in the case we're all going to remember as Perry v. Schwarzenegger -- which a federal judge just ruled on, effectively throwing out California's Proposition 8, which took away the right of gay people in the state to get married.
Of course, this fight is nowhere near over, and will likely end up before Elena Kagan and the other eight justices of the Supreme Court. Which could take years. But the ruling was indeed a victory on the tough legal road these four plaintiffs are traveling, and a stunningly sweeping victory as well. The judge, on fairly straightforward (sorry about the pun, there) Libertarian principles, ruled that the government really doesn't have any business in deciding who will get married to each other, and that everyone must be treated the same way under the Constitution (leaning heavily on the Fourteenth Amendment).
There is one interesting bit of irony here -- the judge was initially appointed by Ronald Reagan, and later re-appointed under George Herbert Walker Bush, after Democrats blocked his confirmation for two years. Gay rights activists, at the time, were incensed at his nomination, because he had been on the side of the International Olympic Committee against what were then called the "Gay Olympics" (and are now called the "Gay Games," if memory serves). They were forced to change their name on the reasoning that the I.O.C. owned the term "Olympics." As mentioned, this enraged gay rights supporters when he was named to the federal bench.
The moral of this story is: when judges receive a lifetime appointment on the bench -- whether initially from the Left or the Right -- sometimes they develop legal philosophies which surprise the heck out of their initial supporters.
In any case, for having the stomach to travel an extremely long and arduous legal road that few among us (no matter how discriminated-against we may feel, at times) would ever sign up for, and for their spectacular early victory in their legal fight, we are going to just assume they're all either Democrats or at the very least "fellow travelers" and go ahead and award a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week to Kristin M. Perry, Sandra B. Stier, Paul T. Katami, and Jeffrey J. Zarrillo this week. Keep fighting the good fight, and know that we're behind you all the way.
[I know of no public contact for any of these people -- and do not wish to impose upon their privacy in any case -- so if you want to show your support for their cause, please donate to any organization which is helping them with their case.]
We must confess a kind of free-floating disappointment with Democrats this week, although it seems to us that no particular one of them stood above (below?) the rest of the pack this week. This is probably due to a faulty memory on our part, we fully admit. Ahem.
But this past week had a lot of "disappointment by omission" rather than the more normal "disappointment by commission." A lot of Democrats were noticeable by their absence on a few key issues. The court ruling in favor of gay rights would have been a good time for Obama to start supporting the concept, but he didn't. This wasn't all that surprising, as he's always said he's not a gay marriage supporter, but still. California Senators Feinstein and Boxer came out in support of the ruling, though, as did a few other scattered Democrats. There was another vast silence from both the White House and most congressional Democrats on the mosque fracas -- a deeper silence than the one after the gay marriage ruling.
The Senate did a few good things, and let slip a few other good things, in their usual fashion. Senate Democrats (almost all of them, with the exception of a few newcomers like Al Franken, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Sherrod Brown, to name three) almost got the MDDOTW award en masse this week, just because that New Yorker article was so blood-curdling in its outspoken critique. I could also have handed the award to Harry Reid, because this week would also have been a dandy time to pass the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," as the House has already done -- which Harry failed to do (which doesn't exactly bode well for seeing this repeal actually happen this year). But Harry did, surprisingly, indicate that he's going to take on the whole Bush tax cuts issue before the election (and not after), so we gave him a pass this week as well.
In other words, a free-floating disappointment pervaded the week, without ever rising to the point of outright annoyance. So, reluctantly, we are going to forego the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week since nobody really stood out from the pack in the past seven days.
We will entertain suggestions for who richly deserves this week's MDDOTW award this week, just in case we forgot something egregious. It's certainly happened before.
Volume 133 (8/6/10)
Democrats face a new framing battle in the coming weeks. This will be an important one, and while it may not change the outcome of any election this November (it could, but it'd be hard to tell, even if it did), it will be absolutely crucial for the tenor of the debate not only now but possibly for a long time to come.
Because the "Bush tax cuts" are about to expire. A whirlwind history of these tax cuts is in order here, first. Bush pushed through a package of tax cuts at the very beginning of his term, in 2001 (he later added a few others, but this was the main bill). Because he got these approved through the congressional tactic known as "reconciliation" (which Republicans loved back then, before they discovered that they hated the tactic when it was used to pass healthcare reform), this meant that these tax cuts were not "permanent" but rather only went as far as the 10-year budget projections required at the time. Anyone who can add can quickly see that these 10 years are almost up. Now, in the intervening years, Republicans held Congress for longer than Democrats. So the question arises, "Why didn't Republicans, when they controlled both chambers and the White House, make these tax cuts permanent?" The answer to that is: because doing so scared the bejeezus out of the Republicans who truly are fiscally conservative. The budget projections for extending the tax cuts showed that, unlike the snake oil of "tax cuts pay for themselves" (which every Republican truly, truly believes; no matter how often it is proven wrong by actual facts), these tax cuts would -- very shortly after they were scheduled to expire -- blow an enormous hole in the budget, and require massive, massive deficit spending to continue. Which is exactly where we find ourselves now.
But this time around, Democrats have a secret weapon. Or call it "leverage," it sounds less militant. Because if Congress does nothing (which they excel at being able to do, of course), then the Bush tax cuts automatically expire. No vote is required -- if Congress sits on its hands, then POOF! all the tax cuts go away next year.
This is a powerful, powerful legislative lever. If only Democrats would realize it, and start tugging on it in a meaningful way.
The problem is, Republicans have defined their own framing already, meaning Democrats have to fight back in various ways. In the first place, Republicans have defined "not extending a tax cut" as "raising taxes" -- although this raise in taxes is due to their very own vote (since that's the way their bill was originally designed) and due to George Bush, and not anything Congress or the White House is doing this year. When examined, this is ridiculous, but chances are the media will never examine this basic premise unless Democrats do it for them. Secondly, the Republicans have (so far) succeeded in lumping all the tax cuts together. But there are tax cuts, and then there are tax cuts. Democrats have actually fought back on this front, after being led there by none other than Chris Wallace, who works for Fox News, in an interview with Senator Jon Kyl a few weeks back. Democrats need to continually separate in the public mind "the Bush tax cuts which we are going to extend (any tax cuts on people making less than a quarter-million dollars a year, in other words), and the Bush tax cuts on the top two percent of earners in this country (the tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy) which we are going to allow to expire."
So this week, in our "suggestions for how Democrats should frame things in their messaging" section, we're going to start with the battle over the Bush tax cuts -- which, much to our surprise, Harry Reid has indicated that he's going to tackle before the midterm election, rather than in a lame duck session afterward. Meaning this could become the defining battleground as campaign season heats up.
Up until this point, Democrats have "swung for the fences" (warning: baseball metaphors ahead...) in their legislative tactics, bringing up "comprehensive" bills on many subjects -- on the theory that if you cram everything into a giant bill, then even people opposed to one part of it or another will have to vote on the whole package as being an overall good thing. On the stimulus, on healthcare reform, on Wall Street reform -- and also on things which have yet to pass, such as immigration reform and energy policy reform -- Democrats have wrapped all related subjects into a single omnibus piece of legislation.
But, on the Bush tax cuts fight, they're going to need to do exactly the opposite. They're going to have to, in baseball terms (I warned you) "play smallball." Because, once again, Democrats don't need to actually pass anything for all the tax cuts to expire. Exploit this, by taking the "good" Bush tax cuts (such as eliminating the "marriage penalty" and other tax cuts which predominantly helped the middle class) -- one by one -- and passing small and very targeted bills which repeal each one of them, singly. Dare Republicans to vote against extending a tax cut, during an election!
"The Democratic leadership has decided to extend the Bush tax cuts on middle and lower income American workers. We are going to do this by breaking things up into individual bills. There will be a vote on extending the fix to the marriage penalty, for instance, and then maybe a vote on extending tax credits for families. Republicans have been complaining for awhile now about massive Democratic bills, so we're going to take their advice and extend these tax cuts one by one. I will be very interested to see how Republicans vote on each of these bills, because you had better believe we will be making this an issue on the campaign trail if the Republicans vote against tax cuts."
All Bush tax cuts are not created equal
Republicans are going to counter with "all or nothing" rhetoric. Be prepared for it.
"You keep talking about the 'Bush tax cuts' as if they are one single thing. They are not. Even the fact that we use the term in the plural should give you a clue that this is not a single thing. There is nothing to stop Congress from tackling these tax cuts individually, instead of having one massive up-or-down vote on every single tax cut President Bush passed. I know Republicans would like to fool the public into thinking that Democrats have only two options on this issue, but saying it over and over again doesn't make it true. We are going to examine each of these tax cuts, and we are going to extend the ones that truly benefit working Americans. We are not going to extend those which benefit the ultra-wealthy, since that would explode the deficit and the national debt."
Who's the deficit hawk now?
Which brings up the issue that Chris Wallace, to his credit, first raised -- how can Republicans be making such a huge stinking deal over the deficit, and then turn around and ignore it for tax cuts for the rich? This is a key thing for Democrats to point out, as it cuts the Republican "we're the biggest baddest deficit-cutters around" chest-thumping position off at the knees.
"Senate Republicans have been demanding that everything passed has to be paid for, in an effort to pander to the voters worried about the deficit and debt. So, as a Fox News commentator put it a few weeks ago: 'How are you going to pay the $678 billion just on the tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 a year?' How exactly do you intend to pay for this? Are you just going to borrow $700 billion from China and hand it over to the wealthiest of the wealthy? Is that really the best way to attack the deficit and the debt? Or was all that 'deficit hawk' stuff just a fib you were telling voters?"
Tax cuts for the rich, or firemen's salaries?
This is really the same as the last point, just put in a slightly different way.
"Once again, I have to quote Chris Wallace, from Fox News: 'The fact is those would cost $678 billion over 10 years. At a time Republicans are saying that they can't extend unemployment benefits unless you pay for them, tell me, how are you going to pay that $678 billion to keep those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy?' Do you agree with Senator Kyl, that while we absolutely have to raise taxes or cut spending in order to extend unemployment benefits, or provide states with money so they don't have to lay off firefighters and police officers, or -- shamefully -- to pay for health problems the first responders to 9/11 are now facing -- that we absolutely must be fiscally responsible on all that stuff; but that, as Kyl put it, 'you should never have to offset cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans' -- or, in other words: 'the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny will provide the $700 billion we're going to need to pay for this'?"
Give them a taste of what's coming
Democrats, to be really effective on television interviews where they are contrasted with a Republican, should have a list of tax cuts ready to go, and run down this list and hammer their opponent with each item.
"Democrats are going to bring these tax cuts up one by one, so I'd just like to ask my colleague whether he (or she) would support voting to extend the tax cut which did away with the marriage penalty? Would you vote to repeal that? How about the increased child tax credit? Democrats plan to extend this, can we count on Republican support? Will you vote to keep the child tax credit where it is today? How about keeping the lowest tax bracket, for the working poor -- would you vote to extend this?"
[Note: this list can be as long as you'd like it to be, just keep adding middle-class items to it...]
My special interests are more special than your special interests
Republicans, John Boehner in particular, just tried a familiar tactic: smear the opponent's position with the label "special interests." Democrats really should fight back on this one, hard. The Democratic National Committee has already taken the lead on this fight, with a web ad featuring three public school teachers. I would strongly recommend they immediately follow up on this ad with one by firefighters, and one by police officers. Here is the kicker line from the ad:
"Until you understand that, you need to come down off the Hill and visit my classroom and see just what it is that I do on a daily basis before you lump me in with the fat cats on Wall Street and the banks."
Saved the good news for last
Well, here we are in August. August has not traditionally been a good month for President Obama, or his agenda. Two years ago, it was the month of Reverend Wright. One year ago, it was the month of "death panels" and town halls. This year, possibly... just possibly... it might be different. The Democrats in the Senate hunkered down recently with some folks from the White House to plan ahead for the upcoming month, so that they don't get caught sleeping this year. Talking points were passed around (full disclosure: we had nothing to do with this). And even (gasp!) a Democratic narrative -- the first one I've heard of in decades, mind you -- was printed on cards for Democratic senators to refer to (and hopefully memorize). Now, this may sound like stupid political tricks. But it is important. Very important. Democrats need to explain exactly what their party stands for, and what the opposition stands for -- forcefully -- every chance they get. They are operating at a loss, because Republicans have had a narrative of their party for about thirty years now. Democrats, rather than just passively being defined by their opponents need to make their own case to the public. And this is an excellent first step in doing so. Here is the text from the front of these pocket cards (the back has a bullet list of talking points as well -- Huffington Post has the PDF download).
Democrats are on the side of the middle class. We are fighting to cut taxes for small businesses and middle-class Americans, end tax cuts for CEOs who ship American jobs overseas, and create clean energy jobs that can't be outsourced.
Republicans are on the side of Wall Street bankers and CEOs. They support tax cuts for corporations who ship jobs overseas. But their economic policies failed under President Bush. Millions of people lost their jobs, the deficit exploded and the middle class got hammered. Now they want to return to the same failed policies of the past. We can't afford to go back.
-- Chris Weigant