Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

The Rise of the Austerity Hawk Democrats

“Our plan includes more cuts,” Chuck Schumer bragged at a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday when comparing Harry Reid’s debt plan to John Boehner’s.

The fact that Senate Democrats are trying to out-cut the cut-obsessed Republicans pretty much sums up the current political debate in Washington. “Harry Reid’s plan wins the austerity sweepstakes,” Adam Serwer wrote yesterday. “It's the austerity party vs. the austerity party,” blogger Atrios tweeted.

President Obama has actively shifted the debt debate to the right, both substantively and rhetorically. Substantively by not insisting on a “clean bill” to raise the debt ceiling at the outset and actively pushing for drastic spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs as part of any deal. And rhetorically by mimicking right-wing arguments about the economy, such as the canard that reducing spending will create jobs (it won’t), or that the government’s budget is like a family’s budget (it isn’t), or that major spending cuts will return confidence to the market and spur the economy recovery we’ve all been waiting for (Paul Krugman calls it “the confidence fairy”).

“For the last few months, I and others have watched, with amazement and horror, the emergence of a consensus in policy circles in favor of immediate fiscal austerity,” Krugman wrote on July 1. “That is, somehow it has become conventional wisdom that now is the time to slash spending, despite the fact that the world’s major economies remain deeply depressed. This conventional wisdom isn’t based on either evidence or careful analysis. Instead, it rests on what we might charitably call sheer speculation, and less charitably call figments of the policy elite’s imagination.”

In the last few weeks, the austerity hawk choir has only gotten louder. President Obama has successfully used the bully pulpit to undermine the case for progressive governance. 

Even after the 2010 election, which supposedly was a referendum on government spending, there was little evidence that the public cared about the deficit and a lot of evidence that they wanted Washington to address the jobs crisis. For example, 56 percent of Americans ranked the economy and jobs as their top priority for the new Congress following the election, while only 4 percent named the deficit.

By a two to one margin, according to a July Quinnipiac poll, Americans still believe that reducing unemployment is more important than cutting the deficit. But they only narrowly believe that reducing unemployment is more important than reducing federal government spending, by a 49 to 43 margin. And the public now says that “major cuts in federal spending” would help, not hurt, the economy, a 15 point reversal from March.

Things might have been different had President Obama made an aggressive and sustained argument that the government still has an important role to play in spurring an economic recovery and creating jobs. Instead, the president sided with the austerity hawks and strengthened the elite Washington consensus.

Throughout the debt ceiling debate, Obama keeps touting how he’s bucking the activists in his own party. It seems as if the president wants to run against the Democratic base in 2012 and position himself as the supposedly sensible centrist candidate. As a result, the president’s approval ratings among liberals are at the lowest point of his presidency.

That “triangulation” strategy worked for Bill Clinton in 1996, although he had the benefit of a rapidly growing economy. My guess is the 2012 election will be much more like 2004 than 1996, when the country is fiercely divided about the incumbent leader, unsure of the opposition, and in a politically restive mood. If that’s the case, Obama will need his base to knock on doors, make phone calls and persuade undecided voters who to vote for. That’s how Bush won in ‘04, by ratcheting up Republican turnout in states like Ohio. The more Obama bucks his supporters—and keeps ignoring the jobs crisis in favor of deficit hysteria—the dicier his path to re-election becomes, especially if the economy continues to lag.

But let’s forget about the 2012 election for a moment. Right now, the public is being deprived a real and vital debate about how to solve the economic crisis. Obama is governing like a moderate Republican. Republicans are governing like Grover Norquist. The net effect is that US politics keeps shifting further and further to the right.

--Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

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'Jobs' Missing From Washington Conversation

In the past few weeks President Obama has made a relentless sales pitch for a “grand bargain” deal to cut the deficit and raise the debt ceiling. He’s persuaded many leaders in his own party, including liberal stalwart Nancy Pelosi, who said yesterday “it is clear we must enter an era of austerity.”

If only President Obama and the rest of Washington’s political class had tried to solve the jobs crisis with such aggressive persistence. The fact is, aside from the stimulus bill, the Obama administration never seriously pushed for a comprehensive jobs bill, even though it’s been clear for quite some time that more action is needed from Washington to help solve the economic crisis. Republicans, meanwhile, always propose the same solution to any problem: massive tax cuts for rich people and giant corporations. No wonder the public is in a restive mood and getting more anxious as the economy continues to lag and both parties ignore the number-one issue facing the country.

According to a new Washington Post poll flagged by Greg Sargent, only 39 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling the economy (the number for Congressional Republicans is even lower, at 28 percent). Voters trust Obama more than the GOP to handle the budget deficit, yet remain incredibly pessimistic about the federal government and the economy as a whole. Only 20 percent of voters feel positive about how the federal government works, the lowest number since October 1992, and 90 percent of voters describe the state of the economy as “negative.” Eighty-two percent of voters say jobs are “difficult to find” where they live. A mere 29 percent of voters say the Obama administration has made their lives better, while 37 percent say worse and 33 percent report no effect.

It goes without saying that these are very bad numbers for the president. “Washington’s obsession with the deficit, at the expense of job creation, is doing nothing to help Obama’s standing on the all-important issue of the economy, where the president continues to slip,” Sargent writes.

The president and his advisors are convinced that massive spending cuts, as part of a larger deficit reduction deal, is the only way for Obama to win back elusive independent voters in 2012. “Obama’s political advisers have long believed that securing such an agreement would provide an enormous boost to his 2012 campaign, according to people familiar with White House thinking,” the Post reported Monday. “In particular, they want to preserve and improve the president’s standing among political independents, who abandoned Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections and who say reining in the nation’s debt is a high priority.”

At a time of rising economic insecurity, the White House is placing a very risky bet. I’d argue that independent voters—and the electorate as a whole—will ultimately judge the Obama administration based on how the economy is performing, not on the size of the deficit. If the jobs crisis doesn’t improve by November 2012, no one will remember the deal Obama struck to prevent an economic catastrophe.

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

Grover Norquist's Culture of Corruption

Grover Norquist is once again playing kingmaker, determining not just the direction of the Republican Party but of the entire US economy. His anti-tax zealotry has made it virtually impossible for Republicans to cut a sensible deal to raise the debt ceiling. But just yesterday, Norquist seemingly flip-flopped and said that the expiration of the Bush tax cuts would not violate his anti-tax pledge, leaving the door open to Republicans supporting a “grand bargain” deal to cut spending, lower corporate taxes and restructure Social Security and Medicare, which sounds like an awfully good offer for the GOP (for Democrats, not so much). The White House is using Norquist to bolster its case while every reporter in Washington is amplifying his words. Norquist has since walked his original statement back.

I’ve got another question: who cares what Norquist says and why does he still have any credibility left? Just a few years ago he was a central player in the Jack Abramoff scandal, using his connections to launder nearly $1 million from Abramoff’s Indian tribe clients to conservative activist Ralph Reed and Christian anti-gambling groups who were fighting a proposed state lottery in Alabama, according to an extensive report by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

“Call Ralph re Grover doing pass through,” Abramoff wrote in an e-mail reminder to himself in 1999. In return, Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Return (ATR), took a piece of the cut. “What is the status of the Choctaw stuff?” Norquist wrote to Abramoff that same year. “I have a 75g hole in my budget from last year. ouch.”

According to the New York Times:

Indian tribes say Mr. Abramoff dropped Mr. Norquist’s name when he began trying to win their business. Mr. Norquist used his platform to argue against taxing Indian gambling. Mr. Abramoff billed the tribes tens of millions of dollars to try to fend off antigambling groups and regulators and to send members of Congress on lavish overseas trips. The tribes say Mr. Abramoff also instructed them to give money to Mr. Norquist’s groups as way of getting an audience with the Bush administration. The tribes gave $1.5 million to Americans for Tax Reform and $250,000 to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, the group founded by Mr. Norquist and Ms. [Gail] Norton.

Adds The New Yorker:

At the start of 2000, the casino battle intensified. Reed needed more cash, and the Choctaws agreed to supply some. After discussing several options, Reed and Abramoff again decided to send the money via Norquist, but this time, apparently, he kept some of it for Americans for Tax Reform. “I need to give Grover something for helping, so the first transfer will be a bit lighter,” Abramoff wrote to Reed on February 7, 2000.

Ten days later, Abramoff sent another e-mail to Reed: “ATR will be sending a second $300K today. How much more do we need? We can’t lose this.” Once again, Americans for Tax Reform apparently took a cut of the money, prompting Abramoff to write to himself a few days later: “Grover kept another $25K!”

The committee also released correspondence relating to a meeting that Norquist helped organize in May, 2001, at which some of Abramoff’s Indian clients met with President Bush. On April 5th, Abramoff wrote to Norquist, “Here’s the first of the checks for the tax event at the White House. I’ll have another $25K shortly.” Sixteen months later, on August 12, 2002, Abramoff wrote to an official with the Saginaw Chippewas, another of his client tribes, “Last year Grover set a meeting for certain select tribal leaders (Coushatta and Chitimach were the only ones) and the speakers of the house of several legislatures to meet with the President in a small meeting for photos, etc. The tribes paid for the event (total cost was $100K for the entire thing, and each tribe put in $50K). Grover has asked me to line up a few tribes to do so again.”

Joked Mark Salter, a top aide to John McCain: “By his own admission, Grover couldn’t be any closer to Abramoff if they moved to Massachussetts and got married.” The Weekly Standard pointed to Reed and Norquist as “symbols of how onetime anti-Washington political insurgents traded in their idealism for gobs of corporate cash.”

All three were key figures in the Bush-era “culture of corruption.” Abramoff went to prison in 2006 for conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion. He got out in December 2010, right after Republicans recaptured the House and Norquist’s anti-tax agenda received a major boost. Abramoff’s reputation is still in tatters. Norquist’s should be too.

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

Will Obama Fight for Post-Warren Consumer Bureau?

In a Nation article last month, “Disarming the Consumer Cop,” I reported how the bank lobby and its Republican allies in Congress were trying to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) before it goes live on July 21 and prevent Elizabeth Warren from becoming the bureau’s full-time director.

The lobby won a partial victory yesterday, when the Obama administration shunned Warren and nominated Richard Cordray—a former Ohio attorney general who was head of enforcement at CFPB—to run the bureau. Cordray has a strong track record of investigating foreclosure fraud and other corporate malfeasance, but he does not have the clout or expertise of Warren. She was the natural pick to run the agency she conceived of and by far the most qualified person for the job. Choosing somebody other than her was a colossal capitulation by the Obama White House.

I’m sure the Obama administration had its reasons for not picking Warren: her appointment might have further inflamed Republicans at a time when Obama needs their support to raise the debt ceiling; she’d complicate his outreach to Wall Street and fundraising strategy for 2012; she wasn’t going to win any popularity contests inside the Treasury Department.

But Warren’s attributes far outweighed her negatives. The administration pushed her out the door at the very moment it needed her the most. She’s the best spokesperson Obama has on economic policy, especially compared to a Wall Street–friendly stiff like Tim Geithner, and has spent her whole life fighting for the middle class, which is the stated priority of the Obama administration. The consumer bureau is the most popular and tangible aspect of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which was the most popular piece of legislation enacted by the administration in its first two years in office.

In the last election, voters who blamed Wall Street for causing the economic crisis supported Republicans over Democrats by fourteen points! The public viewed Obama as a big spending friend of the banks. No one would ever say that about Warren.

Even though she’s out of the picture, the GOP still wants to disarm the CFPB and reiterated their vow yesterday not to confirm Cordray unless the White House agrees to major changes to the bureau. The Wall Street Journal reported that “the White House may be willing to make some minor concessions to win confirmation of Mr. Cordray.” But unless the administration is willing to completely restructure the CFPB and forgo its independence, Republicans will not confirm Cordray. That leaves Obama with no choice but to give him a recess appointment, which is what he should have done with Warren.

Thus far, the president has been extremely reluctant to use his recess authority, making only twenty-eight appointments, even though nearly 20 percent of his judicial and executive branch nominations have been blocked by Senate Republicans.

The CFPB goes live on Thursday. Without a full-time director in place, the CFPB will be able to supervise the nation’s largest banks and enforce consumer protection rules from other agencies but will not be able to assume any of its new powers, such as policing the shadow banking industry or cracking down on “unfair, deceptive or abusive,” financial services products.

If he wants the CFPB to do its job, Obama needs to act swiftly. He wasn’t willing to fight for Warren. Will he now fight for the CFPB? If he doesn’t, its very survival is at stake.

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

Obama's Pivot to Jobs Long Overdue

The Obama administration is currently making the curious argument that cutting spending and restructuring the social safety net will make it easier for them to pivot to the issue of jobs.

Jonathan Bernstein finds some credence to this claim, but count me as a skeptic. For two years a stubbornly high unemployment rate has been the gravest problem facing this nation. The Obama administration shouldn’t need to pivot to the issue of creating jobs—it should have been the top priority for the administration from day one and every day since.

Yet the administration keeps arguing that it has done everything it could do on the jobs front. First, it argued that the stimulus would be sufficient; then it argued that there was no political will for a second stimulus once it became clear that the first wasn’t big enough; then it said that a jobs plan couldn’t pass the Republican Congress, and now it claims that it can’t do anything on jobs without first reducing the deficit, or that a deal in and of itself will boost the lagging economy.

All we seem to get are more and more excuses from the White House. “The truth is that creating jobs in a depressed economy is something government could and should be doing,” Paul Krugman wrote on Monday. “Yes, there are huge political obstacles to action—notably, the fact that the House is controlled by a party that benefits from the economy’s weakness. But political gridlock should not be conflated with economic reality. Our failure to create jobs is a choice, not a necessity—a choice rationalized by an ever-shifting set of excuses.” If you don't believe there's anything the federal government could be doing on the jobs front, check out Robert Reich's six-point jobs plan, which he tweeted last week.

Not only is the White House not pushing as aggressively as they could to create jobs, they’re also embracing the right-wing talking points of their opponents, Krugman notes, such as the Hoover-esque claim that cutting spending will jumpstart an economic recovery, which worked out brilliantly for Hoover. Suddenly the president has become the anti-Keynes, which makes it hard to believe that he’ll start arguing for Keynsian policies to boost the economy following any debt deal.

I have a difficult time seeing how a grand bargain on the debt ceiling will make it easier for the administration to pass an infrastructure bank or other job-creation ideas through Congress, when Congressional Republicans' stated goal is to do everything in their power to bring down Obama in 2012. Nor will independent voters—the supposed key constituency of deficit reduction—suddenly warm to the Obama administration if the economy remains in the tank. It seems pretty obvious that the 2012 election will be determined by the magnitude of the unemployment rate and growth, or lack thereof, in real disposable personal income, not the size of the deficit. I’m not exactly sure why Obama seems to believe otherwise.

A number of pundits are arguing this week that the president is simply following the same playbook that Bill Clinton used to win re-election in 1996. But there are a number of problems with the Clinton parallels, as I detailed in a Nation article, “Obama: Triangulation 2.0,” earlier this year.

Number one: Clinton had the benefit of a rapidly growing economy. Obama does not.

Number two: Clinton won the battle of public opinion by resisting sharp Republicans cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” Obama, on the other hand, has proposed raising the enrollment age of Medicare, from 65 to 67, and major reductions in Medicare spending.

Number three: Clinton had Newt Gingrich as a foil. John Boehner and Eric Cantor, though beholden to the Tea Party, are more formidable foes for Obama.

We need to raise the debt ceiling. Only crackpot Tea Partiers and hopefuls for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination argue otherwise. But if the Obama administration and leaders in both parties had tackled the jobs crisis with the same urgency that they’ve shown in debt ceiling negotiations, there would have been no need to talk of one day pivoting to jobs.

--Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

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Democrats to Obama: Don’t Cut Social Security and Medicare

“I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” President Bush said after the 2004 election. He used that capital to push for the privatization of Social Security. By the time the fight was over, after both Democrats and Republicans rebelled against his radical scheme, Bush had almost no political capital left. What should have been the high point of the Bush Presidency instead signaled the beginning of the end.

President Obama could soon be facing a similar moment if he decides to put significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare on the table as part of a deal with Republicans to raise the debt ceiling, as the Washington Post and New York Times are reporting. The president and Congressional leaders will meet again at 11 am today to discuss the issue.

Leaders of both parties have agreed that the debt ceiling must be raised to avoid a potential economic catastrophe. Yet the GOP has had the upper hand in this discussion from day one, insisting that any agreement—which everyone assumes is inevitable—includes massive spending cuts. Republicans know they made a huge mistake by voting for Paul Ryan’s radical budget plan, which led them to lose a special election in New York’s 26th Congressional district and could lead to many more GOP losses in November 2012. They’ve been begging the White House to give them a lifeline on Medicare. It seems they may get one and then some, with a Democratic president offering to cut two of the signature achievements of his party—not to mention two of the most popular government-run programs in the country—in the midst of a prolonged recession.

By agreeing to such a deal, Democrats would be neutralizing their best argument in the coming campaign, writes the New York Times:

The degree that any deal wins bipartisan support on slowing the growth of Medicare, for example, it would deprive Democrats of what has been one of their most potent arguments heading into 2012: their assertion that Republicans would gut the traditional Medicare system and leave older Americans vulnerable to rapidly rising health care costs.

According to the Times, here’s how the White House will attempt to sell the deal:

They argue that Democrats will be in stronger shape politically heading into November 2012 if they help enact a credible deficit reduction deal, allowing them to mount the argument that they protected Medicare from a much more drastic overhaul by Republicans.

That sounds eerily similar to the argument the White House made about its response to the economic crisis—it could’ve been so much worse! And look how that turned out in 2010.

The unemployment rate—not the size of the deficit—will determine the election results of 2012. You’d think that point would be self-evident by now. But for months Washington has been caught in what Greg Sargent calls a “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop,” obsessed with cutting spending but oblivious to creating jobs. These very spending cuts will not only be politically unpopular, they may also lead to more job losses—a negative double whammy for the White House.

That’s why many Democrats are eyeing this deal wearily. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told the Times:

“Depending on what they decide to recommend, they may not have Democrats. It is a risky thing for the White House to basically take the bet that we can be presented with something at the last minute and we will go for it.”

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have both said that Social Security cuts should be off the table, as have members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Said Representative John Garamendi at the Capitol last month:

“You want a fight? If anybody in this building wants to take on Social Security—privatize it, change the benefits by altering the consumer price index or by any other method—know this: You’ve got a fight on your hands.”

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus reiterated that message in a letter to the White House today. Sargent has an excerpt:

First, any cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be taken off the table. The individuals depending on these three programs deserve well-conceived improvements, not deep, ideologically driven cuts with harmful consequences. These cuts would hurt households and damage the country’s economic recovery as well.

Second, revenue increases must be a meaningful part of any agreement. Tax breaks benefiting the very richest Americans should be eliminated as part of this deal. Republican insistence on protecting these tax breaks will force middle-class families to shoulder the burden of even deeper budget cuts, and this is unacceptable.

Time’s Michael Crowley nicely summarized today why Democrats are angered by President Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling: he failed to use his leverage by extending the Bush tax cuts in December, he ineptly framed the debate and he caved to Republicans on the specifics (it wouldn’t be the first time).

This deal could easily fall apart due to Congressional resistance and blowback from the Democratic base. The White House’s latest “big idea” may very well be greeted as a giant thud.

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

Van Jones Previews the American Dream Movement

Economic justice was a major theme at last week’s Netroots Nation conference and Van Jones’s keynote speech previewing a new “American dream movement” was widely considered the highlight of the progressive summit.

Jones and MoveOn.org will officially launch the new “Rebuild the Dream” campaign in New York City tonight. This morning I interviewed Jones and MoveOn executive director Justin Ruben about what the campaign will look like and what they hope to accomplish in the coming year.

Jones, a former green jobs adviser to the Obama administration, envisions “Rebuild the Dream” as a progressive response to the Tea Party. “The entire DC establishment, in both parties, has been captured by the bad logic of war and austerity, and the gravitational pull of the Tea Party,” says Jones. “The peace and prosperity agenda that most of us voted for in 2008 doesn’t have a center of gravity anymore and that’s why people feel so demoralized. But we’re about to re-establish that center of gravity.” The aim is to “change the conversation” by building a movement for economic justice that will advocate on behalf of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, college graduates who can’t find a job, Americans who’ve lost their homes or whose mortgages are underwater, and embattled cops, firefighters, nurses and teachers.

The pushback to the nation’s austerity craze began in Wisconsin, which inspired Jones and MoveOn to launch their new campaign. “Madison is bringing out a new sense of hope and determination among people in the political process,” says Jones. Adds Ruben: “We were seeing energy after Wisconsin, from our members, that we hadn’t seen in a really long time, especially on anything related to the economy.” Now they want to connect what is happening in Wisconsin to the rest of the country under one common banner. “There will be more moments like Wisconsin,” says Ruben. “And we’d be crazy to try to predict what they’ll be. Part of what we’re doing is creating a context so that if Wisconsin happened now, there would be even more mobilization in the country around it. It won’t just be solidarity with Wisconsin, but will spark more energy around the country that will be locally and nationally focused.”

Along with MoveOn, some of the most influential groups in the progressive community have signed on to the “Dream” campaign, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Campaign for America’s Future and the Center for Community Change. The goal is to move beyond dependence on President Obama and the national Democratic Party by building and boosting independent sources of power, which can then persuade elected officials to support a progressive economic agenda. David Dayen of Firedoglake summarized this nicely after watching Jones’s speech at Netroots Nation:

It’s also a moment to create a movement based on principle. In a very telling moment in Jones’s PowerPoint presentation, he described how the issue groups filtered up to the Obama meta-brand in 2008, and in one move, he wiped out Obama from the picture in favor of the American Dream Movement. In other words, an icon or a symbol of progress won’t cut it anymore. The movement is sustained not based on an individual but on an idea. It’s a movement that says “I support Democrats when they support me.” It’s the only way for a movement to endure, rather than become subservient to a personality. And we’ve seen proof of this just this year in places like Wisconsin and Ohio.

The first step, Jones says, will be to create a giant crowd-sourced document and hold thousands of house parties over the summer to solicit ideas for a new “Contract for the American Dream.” The coalition will then use that document as an organizing and activism tool, pressing elected politicians to support the “Dream” agenda, possibly as early as over the August Congressional recess. These efforts will be bookended by the national Take Back the American Dream Conference in October. Maybe by that point, Washington will start to take notice.

--Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

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The Koch Brothers' Echo Chamber

This past weekend, 1,000 conservative activists gathered in Minneapolis for the RightOnline conference. The “grassroots” summit was convened by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which was founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, who are among the most prolific funders of the conservative right.  

A new video by Robert Greenwald and his Brave New Foundation illustrates the Koch brothers’ echo chamber by looking at one prominent example: Social Security. “What the Koch brothers want to do is destroy Social Security, because Social Security is a federal government program that has been enormously successful,” says Senator Bernie Sanders, who narrates the video.

The video shows how the Koch’s perpetuate the myth that Social Security is in crisis by funding prominent think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, pundits on Fox News and CNBC, and politicians like Paul Ryan. The $28.6 million that flows to the think tanks leads to over 300 policy papers advocating the dismantlement of Social Security, which in turn provides new fodder for conservative talking heads and politicians. The film debunks three top “Social Security distortions”—that the retirement age must be raised, that the program is going bankrupt, and that Social Security must be privatized. “The Koch brothers job is to do everything they can to dismember government in general,” said Sanders, “and if you can destroy Social Security, you will have gone a long way forward in that effort.”

 Here’s the video:

Tea Party Darling Michele Bachmann Rallies Conservative Convention

Minneapolis—This week Joe Klein had an interesting piece in Time about how the 2012 GOP presidential race is shaping up to be a battle between outsiders vs. insiders. Mitt Romney is the obvious insider of choice. Michele Bachmann, despite being a three-term member of Congress, is making a strong push to be the outsider who rallies the GOP faithful against the party establishment. Her appearance at the conservative RightOnline conference in Minneapolis today illustrated why she may be the dark horse to watch this cycle. (It’s also worth noting that the “grassroots” conference is run by the Koch Brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity Foundation.)

Bachmann drew enthusiastic cheers from the packed ballroom at the Hilton—complete with a gaudy blue and red stage with white stars—by talking up her opposition to Obamacare (she’s sponsored a bill to repeal it), the financial and auto bailouts, and raising the debt ceiling. “When are we going to buck up, when are we going to say no?” she asked rhetorically. Don’t be surprised if she leads the opposition among House Republicans to any impending deal between the Obama administration and the GOP leadership to raise the debt ceiling.

Bachmann’s making an unapologetic bid for the Tea Party vote, saying the movement represents far more voters than the “right-wing fringe of the Republican Party” and was “just gaining strength.” She asked the crowd to hold up a $1 bill to illustrate how the nation is drowning in debt. “42 cents on the dollar is borrowed money!” she said. Bachmann even talked about the unemployment rate among black and Hispanic Americans in front of the nearly all-white, predominantly middle-aged crowd. And the avowed social conservative kept the focus on jobs and the economy, despite ending her speech by quoting a passage of the Bible about the Philistines, reflecting the newfound center of gravity among the Republican base.

Unlike compromise candidates like Romney, who are considered more electable but have in the past taken positions at odds with the GOP base, Bachmann is an unapologetic Tea Party disciple. “Bachmann-Palin,” one crowd member yelled during her speech. Although a huge oil painting of Palin rested just outside the ballroom, Bachmann is positioning herself as a calmer, saner, more intelligent version of the Mama Grizzly. She seems far less crazy in person than she does on TV. Democrats would be smart not to underestimate her potential appeal. (Though she couldn’t escape a “glitter bomb” protester at the end of her speech.)

The GOP presidential primary is starting to look eerily familiar to the Democratic presidential primary in 2004. If Mitt Romney is John Kerry, the flawed yet formidable frontrunner, Michele Bachmann could become Howard Dean, the bomb-throwing hero of the grassroots. It’s insurgent vs. establishment all over again. As is usually the case, I’m guessing the establishment will ultimately prevail, although the attendees at RightOnline might have something to say about that.

Netroots to Obama White House: Where’s the Love?

Given the angst about the Obama administration at this year’s Netroots Nation conference—from the president’s policies on Afghanistan and civil liberties to his prioritization of deficit reduction over jobs—there was much speculation about what type of reception White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer would get during his appearance Friday morning. And sure enough, Daily Kos moderator Kaili Joy Gray—a k aAngry Mouse”—grilled Pfeiffer about the president’s positions on jobs, gay marriage, Libya and his reluctance to fight back against the GOP and use his executive authority to circumvent Republican obstruction.

Things were testy from the start, when Gray asked Pfeiffer why Obama has not introduced a new jobs plan to boost the lagging economy. “It is a false decision to say we don’t have a jobs bill,” Pfeiffer responded. “We have a number of proposals in Congress that have been blocked by Republicans.” He pointed to a national infrastructure bank, a national wireless program, clean energy investments and tax credits for small businesses as examples. “You can expect the president will unveil a number of new initiatives,” Pfeiffer said when pressed on the issue.

Also on the economic front, Pfeiffer was asked if the White House would draw a line in the sand during negotiations with the GOP over raising the debt ceiling. “On Social Security, the president will do nothing to slash benefits, privatize the program or change the nature of the program,” Pfeiffer responded. “The same with Medicare.” But Pfeiffer refused to say whether the retirement age would be raised for either program. “I'm not going to have a negotiation with Republicans here on the stage with you,” he answered somewhat testily.

The discussion also touched on a number of other issues, including foreign policy and gay rights. “When will you stop kicking gay people out of the military?” Gray asked, referencing the implantation date of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “As soon as we possibly can,” Pfeiffer answered.

She also pressed the communications honcho on whether Libya would turn into another Vietnam, and why the White House has not sought Congressional authority for the mission. Pfeiffer answered that the administration “went in in a limited way with a multilateral coalition,” and was not in violation of the War Powers Act—an answer unlikely to satisfy critics of the Libya mission in Congress.

Gray asked Pfeiffer why Obama hadn’t filled vacant administration posts blocked by the GOP via recess appointments and whether Elizabeth Warren would be named the permanent director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Pfeiffer praised Warren’s “amazing work in getting that bureau stood up,” but would only say that “she’s one of the people who is under consideration, and we hope to have an announcement on that soon.”

Despite her relentless questioning, Gray didn’t get much out of the defensive Pfeiffer, and her strident tone even alienated a number of Obama’s progressive critics in the room. “This #NN11 questioner does not represent the netroots and is blowing a valuable opportunity,” wrote Adam Green of the Progressive Campaign Change Committee on Twitter. “Overall critique of #Nn11 questioner: she was out of the loop on what progressives are doing to strategically pressure Obama to fight.”

Indeed, the Q&A was unlikely to change the White House’s opinion of the so-called “professional left,” or vice versa. Thus far, the panels at Netroots Nation have been largely preoccupied with the Republican Party’s assault on workers in states like Wisconsin, and the corrosive effect of corporate money and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on our political system. (Full disclosure: I was on a panel yesterday about “Structural Barriers to Progressive Success.”) What the Obama administration is and is not doing almost seems like an afterthought.

For other Netroots Nation coverage, check out John Nichols on Feingold and Ari Melber on Wisconsin.

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