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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.

Ex-WashPo Blogger Wrong About Why He Was Wrong

I wasn’t going to write about Dave Weigel, the talented journalist who left the Washington Post on Friday and joined MSNBC on Monday, because the media have already thoroughly parsed this rather insular media story. But then I read Weigel’s own account of recent events.

Surprisingly, Weigel repeats the very error that drove his traditional media detractors. Weigel’s critics think his mistakes were about objectivity, and apparently he agrees. But this story was not really about bias. It was about negativity and power.

At 3:06 on Monday morning, Weigel posted a 2,300-word confessional essay at the conservative website BigGovernment.com. He copped to the "cocky” mistake of harshly criticizing conservatives, both in private messages to a media e-mail list and through bursts of attitude on his Twitter account. And his big takeaway, issued in the final sentence of the piece, is that he was too mean: “No serious journalist—as I want to be, as I am—should be so rude about the people he covers.”

Of all the problems ailing serious journalism, an excessive willingness to offend powerful people does not exactly top the list. The Post counters that it wasn’t Weigel’s offensive impact alone but rather that his comments fed a view that the paper’s reporters “bring a bias to their work.”  That sounds all right, but doesn’t actually add up, either.

The fact is that modern news organizations give reporters plenty of room to say positive things about the sources and subjects on their beat. Bias is workable when it tilts towards power.

Journalists can praise the troops and laud presidential appointees and root for the government to succeed against terrorists, recessions and oil spills. Going negative, however, and rooting against the home team is tougher to pull off.

So while many saw Weigel’s fall as a revenge of the inventions—blogs are blurry, Twitter is scary and his colleague’s media listserve was just a press conference waiting to happen—his problem was actually pretty basic. He got caught going negative on people who matter. 

The same thing happened four years ago to John Green, who was suspended from his influential perch as executive producer of Good Morning America. Green wrote an e-mail to a colleague that was leaked to The Drudge Report—why is Drudge always involved?—that said, “Bush makes me sick.” Now, there would not have been a scandal, if you think about it, for a comment about the president making a reporter feel healthy, or happy or proud. The AP’s Washington bureau chief, for example, sounded both proud and encouraging when he praised the late Pat Tillman in a 2004 e-mail to Karl Rove, later revealed in a House Committee report:

Rove exchanged e-mails about Pat Tillman with Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier, under the subject line "H-E-R-O." In response to Mr. Fournier's e-mail, Mr. Rove asked, "How does our country continue to produce men and women like this," to which Mr. Fournier replied, "The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight."

There was no discipline or backlash among traditional reporters when the email leaked. (The AP ran an item regretting the “breezy” style of the exchange.) So once you untangle the traditional media’s peculiar standards for "bias,” it's clear that a few degrees warmer than neutral is usually fine, while a few degrees colder than neutral can get you canned.The structural incentives here are obvious, though usually unstated. Being positive keeps sources calm and access open, while being negative—especially when it seems "avoidable"—undercuts the access stories that drive so many bureaus.  And this is where Weigel’s insults overlap with something more important.

Weigel could have dispensed with his digital Burn Book and still practiced great journalism. (That’s what he says he’ll do now.) Solid reporters have to be pretty negative, however, hassling powerful people and scrutinizing motives while defying their very credible threats of retaliation. We will have a new general in Afghanistan because one reporter just met that challenge. But it’s worth appreciating how Michael Hastings’s bombshell article narrated glaring truths that were not so much hidden from the press as concealed with the press. Many beat reporters simply “would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks,” as Politico explained in an unusually candid description of access journalism. (Politico later cut the blunt line from its McChrystal coverage.)

Losing access is a genuine challenge for reporters, of course, and needlessly antagonizing sources can definitely hinder reporting. But when the press marches out to discuss its definitional values, it’s important to avoid confusing tactics with ideals. Access is not "journalism,” and while erring on the side of positive may be fine for the Rolodex, it’s more of a nod towards establishment bias than a quest for “neutrality.” And readers can tell.
 

Knocking Kagan's Experience, GOP Attack May Backfire

As the Senate begins hearings for Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination, Republicans are returning to a critique that separates Kagan from every sitting justice. She has no judicial experience. 

Unlike aspersions about Kagan’s personal life, or her military recruitment policy at Harvard, playing the rookie card is not just empty political theater. It has a whiff of legitimacy. After all, most judges are promoted from the bench and judged by their record judging others. Yet in Kagan’s case, the attack may backfire on the GOP.

In gearing up for the confirmation hearings, several Republican senators knocked Kagan for never serving as a judge. Texas Republican John Cornyn even suggested that she could be disqualified by her résumé. “Americans believe that prior judicial experience is a necessary credential for a Supreme Court Justice,” Cornyn declared. The RNC has the same playbook, sending reporters “research briefs” tweaking Kagan for having “no judicial experience.”

The Senate Republicans complaining about Kagan’s experience, however, actually caused the problem that they claim to lament. 

While many observers have focused on Kagan’s service in the executive branch, it is worth recalling that she was previously nominated to the bench. President Clinton nominated Kagan to serve on the DC Circuit in 1999. Had the Senate confirmed her then, she would have spent eleven years on a federal bench by now. But Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked her nomination. The GOP prevented Kagan from ever receiving a vote on the Senate floor, or from the preliminary step of a committee vote. In fact, Orrin Hatch, who remains the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee today, refused to schedule a hearing to consider Kagan’s nomination or allow her to testify.

That record shows how the current GOP attacks are strikingly cynical, even by Washington’s low standards. Senate Republicans denied Kagan the chance to gain judicial experience, and now they are criticizing her for that lack of judicial experience. Add in gender and it gets worse.

While both parties have contributed to the degraded confirmation process, the GOP tactics against Kagan during her first nomination were especially controversial, since she was considered one of the few female candidates for the High Court.The courts and the Senate remain glaringly unequal arenas for women, regardless of their qualifications. First, male judges still outnumber women across the judiciary. But then, the women who are nominated to the federal bench still face a tougher road. 

A statistical study of confirmations from 1985 to 2000, when Kagan’s nomination lapsed after the Republicans’ procedural delays, found that the Senate took 50 percent longer to confirm female nominees than their male counterparts.  During one confirmation debate in 1998, the Clinton administration suggested that Senate Republicans were even profiling judicial nominees. An administration briefing stressed of the nominees that Republicans had delayed the longest, a whopping 86 percent were women or minorities. And that was before the year of the “Wise Latina.”

In the end, there is fairly straight line from the Senate Republicans’ sexist math for female nominees in the 1990s to the pending nomination of Elena Kagan. The White House, however, hasn’t bothered to slam the GOP’s hypocrisy in ripping Kagan for failing to hold a job they prevented her from taking. (Obama officials declined comment for this story.) Most observers, meanwhile, are bullish on Kagan’s prospects without wading into nomination history or the hurdles for female nominees. It’s an understandable strategy, but also a missed opportunity. After all, the Republicans’ procedural tactics and filibusters are still thwarting votes on dozens of bills and, as it happens, 178 other people nominated by President Obama—including forty-one judicial nominees. They're just waiting. Who knows, maybe one of them would make a good Supreme Court justice someday.
 

Where Maddow and Krauthammer Meet on Obama's BP Response

For all his talents, it is evident that Barack Obama is not well suited for this long hot summer spill.  Now Americans may continue to give him a pass. The President did not cause this environmental tragedy, after all, and his trouble taking stage direction for the "symbolic" portion of crisis-management may ultimately look more like benign authenticity than a shortcoming in leadership.  Obama's ongoing response to the most consequential domestic crisis of his presidency, however, is still revealing.  Charles Krauthammer, the neoconservative Obama critic, argues in his Friday column that this week's presidential address showed the nature of Obama's ambition -- and its limits:

Barack Obama doesn't do the mundane. He was sent to us to do larger things. You could see that plainly in his Oval Office address on the gulf oil spill. He could barely get himself through the pedestrian first half: a bit of BP-bashing, a bit of faux-Clintonian "I feel your pain," a bit of recovery and economic mitigation accounting. It wasn't until the end of the speech -- the let-no-crisis-go-to-waste part that tried to leverage the Gulf Coast devastation to advance his cap-and-trade climate-change agenda -- that Obama warmed to his task. Pedestrian is beneath Obama. Mr. Fix-It he is not.

Then Krauthammer walks through a few standard conservative environmental complaints, but circles back to Obama's constitution in closing:

Obama is dreamer in chief: He wants to take us to this green future "even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet precisely know how we're going to get there."... That's why Tuesday's speech was received with such consternation. It was so untethered from reality. The gulf is gushing, and the president is talking mystery roads to unknown destinations. That passes for vision, and vision is Obama's thing. It sure beats cleaning up beaches.

And whatever you think of Krauthammer, here's where one premise of his critique matches progressive concerns about the substance of Obama's response. 

In her masterful alternative address as "fake president," MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow didn't really play out a "more liberal" approach to the crisis. She simply advocated stonger remedial meausures on the ground ("a new federal command specifically for containment and cleanup of oil that has already entered the Gulf of Mexico with priority of protecting shoreline that can still be saved"), and a zero tolerance policy for drilling ("Never again will any company, anyone be allowed to drill in a location where they are incapable of dealing with the potential consequences of that drilling"). She wanted a President focused on clean-up and targeted policy remedies first, and broader reforms second.  And when she did speak to reform -- the energy bill came third -- Maddow, unlike Obama, was actually precise about both policy objectives and the procedural route to victory:

The United States Senate will pass an energy bill this year.  The Senate version of the year will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy sources will be doubled or tripled.  If senators use the filibuster to stop the bill, we will pass it by reconciliation which still ensures a majority vote. If there are elements of a bill that cannot procedurally be passed by reconciliation, if those elements can be instituted by executive order, I will institute them by executive order. 

When is the last time you even heard The President say "filibuster" in a major address?

In any event, Maddow and Krauthammer still diverge on the policies Obama should enact. But unlike much of the commentariat, they both want less dreaming, less posturing, and more details.

After Obama, Gibbs Bats Cleanup in Virtual Press Conference

Just after President Obama's national BP address on Tuesday night, press secretary Robert Gibbs took a few extra questions. But they weren't from the White House press corps.

Gibbs cracked open the door of the press room to any citizen with an Internet connection, and on short notice, about 14,000 people submitted or voted on questions about the oil spill. Over 7,200 questions were submitted, and participation was deep, with an average thirteen votes cast per person. Several questions, read aloud by White House new media director Macon Phillips, focused on regulatory requirements for emergency shut-off switches, media access to the spill zone, techniques for cleaning up the spill and international collaboration in assisting the clean-up effort.

At one point, the citizen press conference cut to a video question from a young man named Jon Hocevar, standing on a dock in Grande Isle, Louisiana, who asked whether Obama would "end our reliance on fossil fuels and...shift to a clean and renewal energy future." The pointed query sounded more like activism than journalism, and it was—Hocevar directs Greenpeace's "Oceans Campaign." On Tuesday, the environmental group posted Hocevar's question on YouTube under the headline "Greenpeace question for President Obama."

The White House obviously took lots of heat for both its policy stance and press message on BP. Gibbs's unusual foray online, dubbed "Open for Questions," seemed partly a calibration to show that the public face of the administration is not only talking to the usual suspects from the podium but also listening to a wider group of voices. (The White House has used the "Open for Questions" platform for cabinet secretaries and the president before, and Gibbs dabbled with the platform during the transition, though he ducked the most highly voted question at the time, about torture.) Here at The Nation, I had suggested the White House open up its press access as part of its public communication about this crisis:

Obama is rightly annoyed by the made-for-TV quality of oil spill criticism—the main character needs to show more anger in this scene—but instead of complaining on TV about TV, he should try changing the channel. He could hold more press conferences, and invite not only White House reporters but also environmental experts for a deeper exchange on the crisis. (Think less emotion, more acoustic switches.) To engage people in the Gulf region, he could dust off some of the technology from the old days and convene an unfiltered, online town hall for the most popular questions from regular people and citizen media on the ground. In other words, the solution to the White House's press woes is pretty obvious: Stop complaining about the media you have, and start engaging the media you want. Of course, that assumes Obama's stated desire for a deeper, more substantive conversation is genuine. He just has to prove it.

Compared to the devastation in the Gulf, of course, these questions of public engagement feel quite minor. But the White House deserves some credit for making staff available to engage citizens, experts and activists in a twenty-five-minute conversation that was a bit more open and thorough than much of the conventional national discussion of this environmental tragedy.

———
The White House's "Open for Questions" video is available on YouTube.

The Solution to Obama's BP Press Problem

Maureen Dowd's new column proposes that all the squirtgun scolding after Joe Biden's press party reinforces the myth that Obama is cozy with the press. But Biden is kicking it with journalists, she argues, precisely because Obama is so consistently down on the Fourth Estate:

The press traveling with Obama on the campaign never had a lovey-dovey relationship with him. He treated us with aloof correctness, and occasional spurts of irritation.... Sometimes on the campaign plane, I would watch Obama venture back to make small talk with the press, discussing food at an event or something light. Then I would see him literally back away a few moments later as a blast of questions and flipcams hit him.

I spend a lot less time near Obama than Times columnists, or the White House press corps, but that description definitely matches my experience on Obama's plane in the 2008 campaign. The plane was proximity without access. Obama was generally nearby; reporters could cover how he looked, what he said at events or snippets of substance-free banter with the press. Yet he rarely took questions— whether casually in the aisles or through scheduled press conferences—and his aides focused on handpicked interviews over freewheeling free-for-alls. These tendencies have only hardened in the White House.

As president, Obama has done far fewer press conferences than recent predecessors. He had gone a whopping 300 days without a formal press conference when he summoned reporters to talk BP a few weeks back. (Had you even heard about that drought? Now imagine if President Bush tried that move.) Meanwhile, Obama and his aides often chide the "day-to-day chatter of cable television," and Obama recently offered this tart defense of his response to the oil spill: "I don't always have time to perform for the benefit of the cable shows."

Now politicians typically wrestle with the press, and many complaints about the 24/7 news cycle are on point. But Obama has not only chosen to empower TV-driven news coverage of his administration, he has done so at the cost of access for print and alternative media. The White House arranges far more TV interviews for the president than print interviews. (The line about performing for cable shows came during an interview with the Today.) The decrease in official press conferences further limits access for print reporters, since it is the only venue for many print reporters to ever have a shot at questioning the president. And during one of the few press conferences that Obama has held as president, he made the highly unusual choice of refusing to take a single question from the four national newspapers (the New York Times, the Journal, the Washington Post and USA Today.) These are longstanding problems, but BP's never-ending story may bring them to a head.

Obama is rightly annoyed by the made-for-TV quality of oil spill criticism—the main character needs to show more anger in this scene—but instead of complaining on TV about TV, he should try changing the channel. He could hold more press conferences, and invite not only White House reporters but also environmental experts for a deeper exchange on the crisis. (Think less emotion, more acoustic switches.) To engage people in the Gulf region, he could dust off some of the technology from the old days and convene an unfiltered, online town hall for the most popular questions from regular people and citizen media on the ground.

In other words, the solution to the White House's press woes is pretty obvious: Stop complaining about the media you have, and start engaging the media you want. Of course, that assumes Obama's stated desire for a deeper, more substantive conversation is genuine. He just has to prove it.

Free Elena Kagan!

Elena Kagan's first "interview" as a Supreme Court nominee quickly hit some turbulence.

 

Kagan sat down with Arun Chaudhary, an Obama administration staffer, for a White House video presenting Kagan "in her own words." Like a campaign bio ad with a dash of 60 Minutes, the three-minute film shows Kagan's rise, as she sits, flanked by an American flag, ticking through her work as a law clerk, dean and government attorney.

 

Yet the video, like Kagan, says virtually nothing about her legal views.

 

And the video, like the White House, aims to divert rather than answer public questions about this important nominee.

 

While Obama's staff often use web videos to share information and advocacy directly with the public, routing around the media filter, the Kagan spot drew unusually sharp complaints from reporters and legal commentators. A CBS News report of press secretary Robert Gibbs's dismissive response to questions about the video was the most linked story online Wednesday. And Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, compared the White House's Kagan press strategy to Sarah Palin's stint on the 2008 campaign trail. That's probably the only name that tops Harriet Miers for heartburn on Pennsylvania Ave right now.

 

Supreme Court nominees do not usually do media interviews before their confirmation hearings, however, so it's not like the White House has breached decorum or Washington expectations. There is a much larger dynamic in play.

 

Obama has tapped a thoroughly qualified individual with a very thin paper trail. This is an individual who used to argue that Supreme Court nominees should "reveal" themselves and disclose their "views on important legal issues" in confirmation hearings. Kagan even blasted the modern, evasive confirmation process as an "embarrassment" -- a "vapid and hollow charade."

 

But now, White House officials say Kagan has dropped those ideas altogether.

 

"Does anyone, anywhere, believe that her 'reversal' is motivated by anything other than a desire to avoid adhering to the standards she tried to impose on others?," asks attorney Glenn Greenwald, a vocal Kagan critic. It's a good question, since applying standards fairly and uniformly is a key quality that many people look for in judges.

 

The broader issue is whether the U.S. Senate will find a way to dispense with a review of judicial nominees that purports to ignore ideology and judicial values - a process that everyone who is not up for confirmation rightly sees as, yes, a charade. Even senators admit it.

 

"The not-so-dirty little secret of the Senate is that we do consider ideology, but privately," explained Sen. Chuck Schumer in 2001, when he was leading an aggressive effort on a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to bring ideology out of the shadows and back into the confirmation process. The ideology test was more about how than if, argued Schumer, so overtly ideological hearings would actually serve transparency. "Examining the ideologies of judicial nominees has become something of a Senate taboo," he explained, "in part out of a fear of being labeled partisan, senators have driven legitimate consideration and discussion of ideology underground."

 

Schumer did make some progress in nudging his colleagues to nudge appeals court nominees, as Jeffrey Toobin reported in a thorough 2003 article, but by John Roberts' hearings it was back to judges calling "balls and strikes." That metaphor, draining judges of any larger legal vision, has stuck. In fact, during a single day of hearings for Obama's last nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, there were over 25 references to "balls and strikes" or umpires.

 

Many people would prefer an honest airing of the views, ideology and legal principles of the people headed for the most powerful lifetime job in America. President Obama may have uncorked more than he bargained for, in nominating a qualified, talented but largely unknown attorney -- who happens to have a clear record supporting ideological candor for nominees -- in order to fill the large, liberal shoes of Justice John Paul Stevens.

Let's learn more about her. She's not Sarah Palin and she's not an umpire. Here's hoping the White House will free Elena Kagan. Or that she frees herself.

Dawn Johnsen's Fall and Justice Stevens' Replacement

Dawn Johnsen's nomination to head the Office of Legal Counsel fell apart on Friday, but it's actually quite late for an autopsy. President Obama first tapped Johnsen to fill the influential post, which literally defines the legal limits on executive power, in January 2009. One year later, he renominated her. But by then it was already over.

The Senate had refused to even give Johnsen a floor vote, despite approval from the Judiciary Committee and her sterling credentials. Obama had refused to give her a recess appointment, despite a wasted year and few signs of life for her in the Senate chamber. When he renominated her in January, it was surrender masquerading as the middle ground.

Friday’s news only revealed that subterfuge. The White House formalized its defeat by announcing that Johnsen had withdrawn from consideration. The three months between renomination and withdrawal now look gratuitous: There was no big push for cloture and a floor vote (even though she had the backing of Democrats in the high 50s and bipartisan sheen from Republicans like Dick Lugar); there was no presidential speech on partisan obstruction hindering the Justice Department. And while the news of Justice Stevens’ retirement took most of the media and legal attention on Friday, the next Supreme Court battle is not really a distraction from Dawn Johnsen’s fate. Both standoffs reveal the profound ambivalence in Obama’s emphatic pledges to swiftly restore the rule of law.

In surveying the slow, confounding death of Johnsen’s nomination, attorney Glenn Greenwald proposes something akin to Nominator’s Remorse. Obama cooled on his own choice, Greenwald suggests, as his administration began adopting several sweeping theories of executive power that Johnsen had long opposed. “I find it virtually impossible to imagine Dawn Johnsen opining that the President has the legal authority to order American citizens assassinated with no due process or to detain people indefinitely with no charges,” he writes, citing recent assertions by administration lawyers. And while Greenwald does not claim to know exactly “why her nomination was left to die,” he contends that Johnsen’s “beliefs are quite antithetical to what this administration is doing.”

Others do claim to know the inside story. One “Senate Democratic leadership source” told ABC News that fear was a bigger issue than remorse. Obama “didn’t have the stomach” for a close fight on Johnsen, the source said, so the show was over after Scott Brown’s election.

For its part, the White House released a statement that could have been penned by Frank Luntz himself. Since the goal of restoring “nonpartisan traditions” to the Justice Department was threatened by “lengthy delays and political opposition,” the statement explained, Johnsen’s withdrawal would actually help restore nonpartisanship and finally get the post filled. See, having her do the job was going to restore nonpartisan leadership, but since the Republicans won't allow it, now having her not do the job will produce the same result. As if that argument doesn't rankle enough, the White House sent out the statement under Johnsen's name. As The Times reported:

 

Johnsen said she had come to realize that the strong Republican opposition to her nomination had undermined her own goal for the office, which was to restore its reputation for providing legal advice "unvarnished by politics or partisan ambition."

 

Of all the potentially legitimate arguments available, it is odd to see the White House (and Johnsen) endorse the idea that surrendering to a partisan, unaccountable campaign to sink a nominee without a vote will actually advance nonpartisanship in government. Do we really have to go through the reasons that is patently untrue? As the campaign saying goes...

Yes we do.

The test for whether a government official acts nonpartisan in office is whether the official acts nonpartisan in office. It is not whether the official faces partisan attacks, or whether Senators oppose the nomination on partisan grounds. Jay Bybee, President Bush's first OLC director, was confirmed without any opposing votes -- but no one would seriously judge his tenure according to that bipartisan confirmation, rather than his actual performance. Obviously, Johnsen could have led the OLC sans partisanship, even after facing partisan opposition.

Beyond the metrics, there is the precedent. Obama's choice to allow a one-party bloc of Senators to unilaterally scuttle nominees without a vote risks inviting more partisanship. After all, it rewards partisan obstruction with political leverage. ("Weakness is provocative," as Donald Rumsfeld likes to say.) Now to be fair, the White House is not alone -- or even an outlier -- on this front. Many Washington liberal interest groups still quail in the face of partisan filibusters. People for the American Way, which bills itself as a progressive powerhouse focused on justice issues, sent out a bulletin this weekend lamenting Johnsen's withdrawal as a "defeat for the rule of law." "Make no mistake about it," intoned executive vice president Marge Baker, "this is the result of the unchecked, reckless obstruction of the GOP.” But when I asked a spokesman if the group backed a recess appointment for Johnsen, the tone shifted. "We don't have a position on that," said the spokesman. A pressure group afraid of applying pressure -- only in Washington.

Finally, these standoffs also have a constitutional character, which brings us back to Justice Stevens' retirement. On Sunday, the A.P. headlined a story about G.O.P. threats to filibuster the next Supreme Court nominee, sight unseen. It was the constant threat of a filibuster, of course, that prevented Johnsen from getting a vote. And with abuse by both parties, the filibuster is fast becoming an extra-constitutional hurdle that requires super-majorities for a vast array of nominations and legislation. Simply checking this abuse would help Obama work towards his pledge of restoring the rule of the law. But to do that, the President would have to stand by his nominees, demand accountable votes and reorder his priorities in one crucial way: Forget about the means of bipartisanship by opponents, and emphasize the ends of nonpartisan leadership within his administration. (One goal is under his control, the other is not.)

Or Obama could let filibuster threats censor the next list of nominees. As a former President once noted, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me [twice], you can't get fooled again."

Image via Flickr.

For Obama, Health Care Victory Has 13 Million Fathers

Kennedy said victory has a thousand fathers. For Obama, it's more like 13 million.

"Thank you, Organizing for America," blared a Monday morning email from President Obama to his massive supporter list. At OFA, the Obama campaign network that was rolled into the Democratic National Committee, staffers said their lobbying efforts have paid off.

"We really laid everything on the line for health reform the past couple weeks - phone calls, letters, e-mails, rallies and other public events - and countless personal conversations between our volunteers and state staff and their Congressional leaders," said an OFA official after the bill passed. "We're feeling good that our actions - including countering the Tea Party people and consistently outnumbering them in districts around the country - really kept us in the game while we were getting the votes," the official told The Nation.

OFA's impact has been questioned both within and beyond the party, and few expected its organizing program to work as successfully for governing as it did during campaign season. For parts of the health care fight, the White House largely barred OFA from acting where it could be most effective -- pressuring Republicans and wobbly Democratic members of Congress. In the homestretch, however, the numbers and coverage suggest that OFA was able to channel grassroots support for the bill in effective and even confrontational ways.

In just the final ten days of the legislative fight, OFA aides said they drove over 500,000 calls to Congress. The group also executed over 1,200 events during that period, about 100 per day, and mobilized a novel program for over 120,000 supporters to call other Obama fans in key districts to fan local enthusiasm for the bill -- a first for either national party. These are massive numbers. OFA has actually been turning out impressive field figures for some time, as I've reported, their struggle has been converting turnout into impact on the Hill. Now, OFA is pointing to examples of votes that switched in response to the field, like Rep. Brian Baird -- a metric that organizers could not cite a few months back.

While legislators rarely say their vote changed because of constituent calls, Baird cited the outpouring from his district, which ran 57 percent in favor reform, as a factor in his decision. The impact on Baird, an unpredictable Democrat retiring from a swing district that has backed both Bush and Obama in presidential cycles, suggests the kind of area where OFA may have more leverage.

The OFA official said its legislative targeting was highly "strategic," coordinating intelligence from congressional leadership with political outreach to a targeted member's office, and layering that grasstops approach with "personal" lobbying on the ground. It was not the only factor, of course. Baird was retiring and, like fellow vote-shifter Dennis Kucinich, he got old fashioned attention from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In fact, Obama's private meeting with Baird about his vote was the only time the 12-year House veteran has ever met with a president.

 

Still, a top-down squeeze is less potent when legislators think they'll catch hell back home for backing the President. Baird and Kucinich were facing consistent pressure from the top-down and bottom-up. It's an approach we might see more often from the White House.

 

Beck and Palin: "Violence is Not The Answer"

Glenn Beck invited Sarah Palin on his Thursday broadcast to discuss the prospect of potential violence by right wing extremist groups.

Both commentators, who are two of the most visible conservative personalities on Fox News and within the G.O.P. at large, took pains to condemn any violent acts.

The segment opens with Beck, flanked by large pictures of several founding fathers painted in Shepard Fairey's stylized "Obama Hope" motif, citing a recent gathering of the "Second Amendment Constitutional Task Force" rallying for "armed resistance" in Alaska. While saying he appreciated the protester's "passion," Beck describes the effort as "fringe" and intones that "violence is not the answer," twice.

Palin repeated that line, and then discussed the distinction between assault and voting. "Leadership is not hitting somebody over the head. It's not taking up arms at this point. That's not leadership -- that's assault," Palin said. "We need to make sure that the tool that we use in taking up arms, if you will, is our vote."

The whole segment, titled "Using faith, hope and charity to bring about change," is surreal.

Why 62 Million Bleeding Heart Liberals Back Health Care Reform

A flood of national surveys show that Americans are divided about health care reform. Why?

Moving beyond vague, binary polling questions ("for or against reform"), Gallup's latest survey actually asked people to back up their health care position with the reasons, in their own words, that they favor or oppose reform. The results are telling.

With a little data alchemy, statistician Nate Silver created a word cloud based on the "words that were used most frequently by the 45 percent of the country who would tell their Congressman to vote for the health care bill." The animating arguments are clear:

Silver explains:

The message that the pro-reform voters have taken away comes through loudly and clearly: 'PEOPLE ... NEED ... INSURANCE'... the moral arguments [] seem to have broken through... Very few people have been persuaded by the discussions about bending the cost curve, on the other hand. Although the word 'AFFORD' is used more often by proponents of the legislation, terms like 'COST' and 'MONEY' are used far more often by those opposed to it.

 

The White House has focused far more on affordability and pre-existing conditions, however, to target audiences that have insurance. And Obama officials used to downplay overt moral appeals. That strategy might have been logical, given the districts and communities that were skeptical of reform. Yet Gallup's findings suggest those arguments are not even sustaining the current reform constituency, let alone pushing it over 50 percent. "Supporters of healthcare legislation commonly cite a moral imperative as a reason for their support," explains Gallup's report.

The most common "main reasons" - again, drawing on supporters' own words - were concern for the uninsured and fixing a broken system, followed by controlling costs and a general "moral obligation" to provide health care. (Those three moral rationales, plus helping the poor, are driving 62 million people to support reform, while the cost constituency runs to another 17 million people.) And in the single instance when Obama's team crowdsourced its health care message, in an online video contest, the winning submission was a moral plea about health care for children:

 

The winning ad was a definite departure from the administration's [traditional health care] messaging. Administration officials routinely pressed reform based on practical considerations and self-interest - lowering costs for all, improving access, avoiding deficit spending - the winning video hammered the moral imperative of caring for the most vulnerable members of society.

 

On Monday, Obama struck an impassioned, moral tone in his address, "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Oa9fJXJKpU ">Health Insurance Reform Right Now." He recounted the story of Natoma Canfield, an Ohio woman who survived cancer, then lost her insurance this year after premiums spiked 40 percent. She is currently battling Leukemia. "I'm here because of Natoma!" Obama said, flanked by her sister.

Opponents of the health care bill would counter, of course, that they are also here for Natoma. They just don't think the federal government can help her effectively. Returning to the public's own words, Gallup found it's all about government for reform opponents:

Three dynamics jump out here.

There is a remarkable public fixation on "government" for a bill that has been stripped of any government expansion - no public option, no Medicare buy-in, no major federal program beyond the budgeting process. But many people just don't know what's in the bill.

Then, on the politics, the Democrats are clearly carrying the costs of "Big Government" - but without netting the benefits (like rallying the base with a public option, or wooing 60-somethings with a lower Medicare age). The predicament evokes Obama's odd reluctance to capitalize on the exaggerations of his opponents - if they're going to call you a socialist anyway, you might as well take the political space and run with it. You're already paying for it. The satirist Alex Pareene recently captured this dynamic:

 

If you're going to be painted as a socialist for expanding Romneycare nationwide, and you're not going to win Olympia Snowe's vote even by giving her everything she wants, why not push for even better subsidies, a national exchange, and a public option? Because you're scared they'll call you a double socialist?

 

And finally, there's the Big Issue that still threatens the entire health care bill. Except, you know, you can barely find it registering among opponents. In their own words, abortion is a blip. Gallup found that two percent of opponents cited abortion as the main reason to spike health care reform.

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Images courtesy of www.wordle.net.

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