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Republican Candidates Battle at Google/Fox Presidential Debate

This post is live-blogging the GOP debate.

10:46 pm A “wild card” question from YouTube, to close the debate, asks who people would want as a running mate. Johnson is honest, with no skin in the game, and he picks fellow traveler Ron Paul. Santorum picks Gingrich—weird—who says he will decline to hurt anyone’s feelings with a pick. Paul says that as a top-three candidate, it’s not appropriate for him to pick. (Huh, there’s a number cut-off for this?) Perry says he would like to mate Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich—a smart way to appeal to popular second-tier candidates. Romney demurs, saying the VP pick is a very serious, lengthy decision process. Cain says he leans towards Romney or Gingrich, and he notes that this is just hypothetical game of a question, anyway.

10:32 pm The debate starts to feel like the most boring book club ever, as Perry and Romney trade accusations about backtracking from their political tomes. Both deny the other candidate’s allegations.

10:31 pm In a largely rehashed discussion of healthcare, Perry says Americans must wonder “which Mitt Romney” they’re hearing, as he recounts several reversals in positions (on healthcare, gun rights and other issues).

10:12 pm Governor Johnson calls for pulling back from the Cuba embargo, at least for some air travel, to a small smattering of applause—an unusual view in GOP presidential politics.

10:09 pm In response to a YouTube question criticizing foreign aid, Gingrich implies that countries that vote against the US in the UN should not receive foreign aid.

10:03 pm According to a “word cloud” displaying the most common word in foreign policy questions submitted to the debate organizers, “Israel” was by far the most frequently used word. Asked about that, Romney criticizes Obama for being insufficiently committed to Israel as an ally, and he dredges up talking points about Obama “apologizing” for America on the world stage.

9:54 pm For the “Google” touch of the night, the debate takes a break from the candidates to go over data from Google searches, which show that Americans are now searching more often for home foreclosures and how to save money on gas. Feels a little forced.

9:49 pm Romney calls for “turning off the magnet” for illegal immigration posed by benefits like in-state school tuition, an attack on Governor Perry. Moderator Chris Wallace says that there were more questions online about Perry’s immigration views than any other candidate’s, an anecdotal snapshot of one weakness for the front-runner. Perry rebuts the idea that he is “soft” on immigration, saying he has spent more time on border security than any other candidate, but that you don’t have a “heart” if you want to punish the children of undocumented workers by denying them education benefits.

9:46 pm A question from an immigration interest group asks if employers should be required to use E-verify to ascertain citizenship of potential employees. Gingrich takes about twenty seconds to propose English as the official language of the US government. That should definitely address the immigration issue.

9:44 pm Perry has repeatedly traded barbs with Romney, showing that he is continuing an unconventional approach for a putative front-runner—punching down rather than staying above the fray. Also, he smirks a lot.

9:40 pm Out of nowhere, Perry blasts Romney for backing Obama’s “Race to the Top” education plan. Romney replies by touting a reduced federal role in education.

9:36 pm Gingirch takes a question about cutting government spending and talks about his record balancing the budget (with Bill Clinton), and he works in a gratuitous Obama socialist reference.

9:33 pm A YouTube question on the first government department that should be elimated draws Herman Cain’s ire for the EPA. Their proposed regulation on dust, he says, shows how far they’ve gone.

9:30 pm Kelly asks if Romney agrees with his opponents that Obama is a socialist. Romney threads the needle, saying Obama is inspired by social-democratic administrations in Europe, and “Europe isn’t working.” But he does not flatly brand Obama a socialist—rhetoric that is popular, of course, with the hard right.

9:29 pm Perry hits back, saying Romney has changed his campaign book to remove positive references to his healthcare plan.

9:28 pm Romney gets in the first attack of the night, pressing Perry on Social Security.

9:27 pm Given the lack of interaction between the candidates up to this point, Mother Jones’s David Corn tweets, “I hope that in the second half, we see questioners debating other questioners.”

9:19 pm Gary Johnson, a libertarian former governor from New Mexico, gets his first question of the night, and one of his most important of the campaign, since most previous debates have excluded him. (The Politico/NBC debate, for example, concluded that his poll numbers were not high enough to merit inclusion.)

9:16 pm The most popular YouTube question, from Brandy and Michael in Spencer, Indiana, asks about restoring the little-used Tenth Amendment to limit federal power. Moderator Chris Wallace hands the question to Ron Paul, who says the key is electing a president who respects state power. Paul gets big cheers.

9:14 pm The crowd cheers Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 economic plan.

9:11 pm The first two questions go to Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, a focus on the two putative front-runners that reflects other recent debates.

9:11 pm Kelly asks Gingrich whether he supports extending unemployment insurance benefits. He says that the ninety-nine weeks should be an “investment in human capital,” and thus a training program must be tied to the benefits. He cites his record on welfare reform, a strength for Gingrich with GOP voters. “People should not get money for doing nothing,” he adds.

9:08 pm Anchor Megyn Kelly uses her first question to follow up on an unanswered query from a previous debate, when Representative. Michele Bachmann would not say exactly how much people should take home from every dollar they earn. Bachmann doubles down on the evasion, saying only that people should take home all the money they earn.

9:07 pm Baier asks Romney to define what it means to be rich, but he demurs.

9:03 pm The first debate question, on jobs and small business, comes from a YouTuber, and moderator Brett Baier tosses it to Rick Perry, who gives a standard, vague answer. Then Baier turns to Romney, telling him that one of his top Google searches is about specifics on his jobs plan. Romney says he wants to lower taxes on small businesses, and touts the “59 points” in his jobs plan.

Center-Right Leftism

We know one thing about President Obama’s new plan to cut the deficit by taxing millionaires more. It’s popular. Really, unusually popular. But not according to the Beltway press.

First, the facts: 81 percent of Americans say millionaires can pay more taxes to cover the deficit. It’s the most popular approach to deficit reduction. (A spending freeze comes in at 68 percent, while voucherizing Medicare only interests about 45 percent of the public.) So even if this thing doesn’t pass, the president forces Republicans to reject their own constituents’ views on a populist economic issue.

If you relied on some of the Washington media’s coverage, however, you’d think the president is out on some leftist crusade right now.

Ben Smith, the influential Politico reporter, covered the tax plan under the headline “Obama Chooses The Left.The Hill went with “Obama Plays to Base with Tax Plan,” and PBS blared “Obama’s Deficit Plan Rallies His Base.” ’Cause you know that Democratic base goes crazy for deficit plans!

It’s all a little crazy.

Large majorities of voters support taxing millionaires and protecting social security. Yet the DC agenda has been so right for so long, a plan that moves back to the broad, popular center is depicted as a liberal bonanza. But there is no such thing as a “left-wing deficit plan,” just like there is no “right-wing universal healthcare plan.” Right-wingers don’t want universal healthcare (no matter how you get there), and right now, left-wingers don’t want to prioritize deficit reduction. Liberals want government revenues going towards job creation. This is not a deficit crisis, as Nation editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel has said, it’s “a jobs crisis.”

In fact, the entire deficit obsession reflects a conservative victory. They have set the political agenda. Only in Washington can the pursuit of a conservative agenda, with centrist policies, be depicted as liberal reform. 

Video: The Nation’s Ari Melber delivers a version of this piece in a commentary segment on MSNBC:

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The Most Powerful Liberal in America?

Is Jon Stewart the most influential liberal in America media? 

This has been a popular claim for a while, since Stewart clearly has more political influence than most politicos. In fact, many of his most famous moments turned on his ability to stop joking and get serious. Like when he destroyed CNN’s Crossfire, scolding Tucker Carlson for hurting America, or when he led that large, un-ironic campaign rally last year to answer Glenn Beck and, by extension, the Tea Party. Reporter Tom Junod proposes, in a provocative new 7,500-word Esquire article, that these somber forays into reality-based discourse have established Stewart as “the one indispensable figure of the cultural and political Left.” But with great power, comes great disappointment.

Stewart”s thirst for political relevance has led to a fundamentally disingenuous identity, Junod argues; and worse, it has begun to curdle his act.

Junod tees up the identity problem by reporting on a warm-up session with the the Daily Show audience, where Stewart flatly denies his impact on the political scene. “But you killed Crossfire!” yells a fan, and Stewart is ready with his rebuttal: “No, I didn’t. Crossfire was already dead.” That’s not exactly the point, though, and if you find this kind of shtick vexing—like politicians deploring “politics”—that is because, Junod argues, it actually undercuts Stewart’s core legitimacy:

…there it is again, that denial of power upon which his power depends. It’s strange, isn’t it: One of the fastest and most instinctive wits in America feeling it necessary to go on explaining himself again and again; a man who lives to clarify resorting to loophole; the irrepressible truth-teller insisting on something that not one person of the two hundred watching his show in the studio—never mind the millions who will watch on television—can possibly believe.

A similar tension emerged during Stewart’s (serious) closing speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity, Junod proposes, because American’s most famous liberal felt the need to pretend that his huge, pre-election bonanza actually had no preference in the election:

Three days before a crucial election, Jon Stewart had stood in America’s most symbolic public space and given a speech to two hundred thousand people. The speech…wasn’t about getting out the vote or telling people to vote in a certain way. It was about Jon Stewart—about his need for another kind of out. For years, his out had been his comedy. Now it was his sincerity—his evenhandedness, his ability to rise above politics, his goodness. And three days later…the side he didn’t even say was his side was routed in the midterms…

Stewart’s speech at the rally did seem weird, at least for people who thought he was finally going to deploy his influence. But a gap between popular expectations and Stewart’s abstention does not tell us much about what’s in Stewart’s heart. Junod doesn’t meet the burden of proof for this allegation, because he doesn’t demonstrate whether Stewart believes the problems that he cares about would be addressed by the election of one party over another. Plenty of social critics advance a critique that prioritizes structural and social change over mid-term disputes between the major parties. Stewart publicly leans left, sure, but there is not much evidence that he has a partisan passion for the Democratic Party. (Even before The Daily Show took off, his only recorded political donation was based on personal ties, to his former housemate, former Representative Anthony Weiner.)

This is a contrast to Junod’s first allegation against Stewart, the silly protests of his own influence, because Stewart knows that his audience rivals The Tonight Show on network television; top candidates compete to get on his show; and his media criticism has turned him into TV’s only real ombudsman. In fact, Stewart’s persona of the innocent, un-influential joker helps him rip people who, if you think about it, are way below him in the media food chain. The conventional storyline about his confrontations with Tucker Carlson or Jim Cramer is that Stewart, the little outsider, took on big insiders and won. But by any measurement you pick—audience, popularity, salary—Stewart is the big-shot entertainer punching down. His arguments may be spot-on, they may cover important ground neglected by the traditional media, but it would still be more painful to watch if people felt that Stewart was bullying, rather than “speaking truth to power.”

Rick Sanchez, who lost his CNN job after making offensive comments in response to Stewart, may have harbored resentment along those lines—he was an afternoon anchor with a small audience drawing more attention from the outsized, out-of-context clips on The Daily Show than from his own show. Stewart needs his persona in order to keep the smackdowns from moving into O’Reilly territory. And while he did not grant Esquire an interview, his sympathizers would surely note that critiquing a comedian for playing a “disingenuous” role is like criticizing a clown for wearing makeup—it’s not merely a bad argument, it’s totally beside the point. In other words, Stewart cannot operate on one premise during his show and another during his rallies, and the comedic imperatives come first. For people who prioritize politics, that is unsatisfying. They probably prefer a willingness to overtly advocate on moral grounds, like the moving Congressional testimony by Stewart’s former protégé Steven Colbert, a comedian who stays in character while revealing what he really thinks, whether the issue is immigration reform (in his testimony) or Super-PACs (which his character has created, in the real world, to demonstrate their danger). Still, some people must be thrown off by the conservative persona, because Colbert never seems to make those lists of important liberals.

GOP Debate: From Birthers to Earthers

The most striking part of the first full-blown debate in the Republican primary was the total rejection of science. 

In a surreal scene near the night's end, Gov. Rick Perry likened the people denying global warming science to Galileo. To observe that he has that history exactly backwards -- it was the Church that accused Galileo of heresy in 1633 for scientific theories which were on the right track -- is merely to observe that Perry's substantive errors come with their own stylistic snafus. Perhaps that is fitting.  More consequential, however, was the answer that Perry failed to provide.

The original question asked him to name a single scientist that supported his views. None of his opponents seized on the gaffe, since apart from the exception-of-the-night, Gov. Huntsman, every other candidate was aiming for the same conservative turf on which Perry stood.  And unlike Gov. Palin's famous inability to name her sources, the media is likely to put Perry's problems aside, in order to focus on the "fireworks" that finally broke out between top tier candidates.

It says a lot about the weakness of the GOP field, and the hunger of its would-be supporters, that Rick Perry could not only burst to the top of the race at such a late date, but also begin reshaping the field in his image.  Meanwhile, the Romney Campaign seems to think Perry's extremist rhetoric on Social Security creates an opening for arguments rooted in rationality and electability. Still, this is a battle on Perry's turf, as he announced on Wednesday night. "Maybe it's time," he argued, "to have some provocative language in this country."

Now, it has become something of a trope to talk about how the GOP is suddenly more conservative than people might remember, when it's actually been pretty hardcore for a while. But still, it is striking to see just how tough its litmus tests have become this year, from denying global warming to decrying the kind of tax-to-benefit-cut ratios that President Reagan would have loved. In the last presidential cycle, after all, the Republican nominee wasn't just factual in his discussion of global warming, he'd even proposed bipartisan legislation to curb greenhouse gasses. 

Back in September 2007, of course, John McCain was trailing Guiliani and Romney in early states. It's possible that the GOP base will get fired up and ultimately cool down before it's all over.  But this time, I doubt it. 

Obama Releases Video Crediting Supporters for Debt Deal

President Obama released a new video for campaign supporters on Monday, crediting them for the tentative debt deal that he just reached with Congress.

“The pressure you put on Washington is one of the reasons we finally reached a resolution,” Obama says, “in the only way we could, through an agreement between both parties.” 

That feels like a stretch, since the tentative agreement covers most GOP priorities without addressing any of the proposals traditionally associated with the Democratic base. 

One of the early, popular comments on YouTube pushed back on that score.

“What a joke, this isn’t an agreement between both parties, it’s the republicans holding the nation hostage and the democrats giving them all they want,” wrote commenter Aetrion on Monday morning.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina forwarded to the video to the campaign’s massive email list under the headline, “Here’s the story,” and asked supporters to take it viral.

Please share this video with everyone you know,” he wrote. 

Along with the video, the campaign website features a brief fact sheet touting the benefits of the tentative plan.

The video is below—for more Nation coverage of the debt agreement, check out reactions from Katrina vanden Heuvel and William Greider.

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Media Blows Debt Crisis Coverage With Balance Bias

Balance Bias (bal-ance bi-as)
1. The assumption that there is truth and legitimacy to both sides of every dispute.
2. The iron law in political journalism that one side in a debate can never be exclusively right, or have a monopoly on the facts.

This increasingly disorderly fight over raising the debt ceiling has not only exposed the petty dysfunctions of the US Congress, it has also revealed a core failure of American political journalism. The press has made the debt fight the top story for the last two weeks—even accounting for half of all stories on radio and cable news—but much of the coverage has failed to tell the very basics of what is happening.

I don’t mean how this deficit was created (by tax cuts, Medicare and recessions), or why the debt ceiling gets raised (in response to past decisions by Congress). That stuff matters, but at bottom, this is a story about politics, not the bond market.

This fight started with a partisan threat to sabotoge the economy in order to extract policy concessions, but then, when Democrats offered most of the concessions, it ricocheted and morphed into something else: a high-stakes lightning round of intramural GOP posturing. Right now, we are living through a Republican primary for economic policy. The results may hurt the nation—an externality that Republicans have widely acknowledged, lending bite to their bark—and no one seems to know what you do with an army that wants to keep fighting after there’s no land left to conquer.

One might quibble with some details and word choices, but that’s the basic story. It’s gripping, it’s scary, and it’s not anything close to the press’s story about this debt fight. Take this headline, running at the top of CNN a day after President Obama’s national address:

“They’re all talking, but no one is compromising, at least publicly. Democratic and GOP leaders appear unwilling to bend on proposals to raise the debt ceiling.”

Journalist Josh Marshall confronted that bizarro narrative with evidence of what’s actually happening. “By any reasonable measure, this [CNN headline] is simply false, even painfully so,” he notes, adding, “even the firebreathers on the Republican side" are not suggesting otherwise. Marshall reports that over $2 trillion in cuts is the current offer from Senator Reid, which is actually larger and more “Republican-leaning than what Speaker Boehner was demanding a few months ago.” And the Reid plan—which could just as accurately be called the Super Sized Boehner plan—does not include any revenues, which was “the primary demand of Republicans from the beginning.”

Whether you think it’s good or bad, we have just seen one party’s leadership embrace the platform of the opposing party, only to watch that party apparently back off its own original position. That’s news! Marshall continues:

It is not partisan or spin to say that the Democrats have repeatedly offered compromises. The real driver of the debate is that the fact that Republican majority in the House can’t agree to win... The real problem at the moment isn’t that neither side’s caucus can accept the other side’s ‘plan’ - [it's] that Speaker Boehner doesn’t have the votes in his caucus for his own ‘plan’.

That reality, however, is deeply uncomfortable for reporters nursing Balance Bias. Saying that “Washington is broken” or “both sides are squabbling” is easy. It is safe. And it’s often true, since structural problems hinder our democracy regardless of which party is in power, and politics is full of petty, meaningless bickering. But not on this one. New York magazine’s Jon Heilemann, an accomplished author and astute political analyst, fell into the habit this week, when he was asked why there’s still no debt deal. The “ideological convictions of two sides have proven to be unshakable,” he observed. It was as if Reid and Boehner were at opposite ends of the table, when Reid actually took Boehner’s seat. Over at The Times, Economist Paul Krugman observes that most news accounts portray this “as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent—because news reports always do that.” This conventional wisdom was sealed a few weeks ago by Jon Stewart, who gingerly knocked both parties, with false equivalency, for stoking their own equally horrific political endgames. (Never mind that only one party was making threats; the video is below.)

So why does this ur-text keep trumping the facts?

Let’s turn to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, a prolific media critic who has a theory, developed in a series of essays that are both elegant and reproachful, that today’s political reporters are on a futile “quest for innocence” when reporting political disputes. By innocence, Rosen means “a determination not to be implicated, enlisted or seen by the public as involved.” I asked him how that works on this debt story.

“Asymmetry in a highly contested situation fries the circuits of the press,” Rosen said via e-mail this week. “The bigger the stakes, the more dangerous it feels for reporters to reflect that asymmetry in their accounts,” he proposed. That makes sense, since often it’s “the big lie” that gets more traction than little fibs. So the political press rebuted Sarah Palin’s spin about opposing “The Bridge to Nowhere” in 2008, a low-stakes example, but they back down on a market-shaking feud like the debt fight. And Rosen suggests that while Democrats or Talking Points Memo or Eugene Robinson may call out the problem, that doesn’t actually do much.

“The people screaming about an asymmetrical situation that has been artificially balanced are likely to be on one side of the contested ground, right? This fries the circuits even more, adding to the danger [for innocent reporters],” he says. This is also your brain on Balance Bias.

Rosen believes that the worst offenders in media literally care more about maintaining their innocence than their first obligation of accuracy. “Our press has an unacknowledged agenda: to advertise itself as an innocent player in politics, to show off how even-handed it is always being,” he argues. “It will put that agenda before truthtelling. But since nothing can come before truthtelling, the agenda stays hidden, repressed.”

That’s a pretty compelling theory. Balance Bias is somewhat lower on the continuum, I think, because reporters can practice it without repressing anything. They may even oppose the concept but follow its rules, knowing that their editors or management will not accept a political story about one side being completely wrong. Or irrational. Or irresponsible. Because that “can’t be the whole story!”

And if you believe that, then your only response to the endgame of the debt crisis is total denial. That may be human, but it ain’t journalism.

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In Debt Address, Obama Asks Americans to Raise the Roof

President Obama did not say anything particularly new in his unprecedented deficit address to the nation on Monday night. The most significant moment came not in an original announcement or last-minute proposal, but in the president’s request that Americans actually get up, get involved and ask Congress to lay off the insanity.

“I’m asking you all to make your voice heard,” the president said near the end of the address.

“If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your Member of Congress know,” Obama continued, “If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise—send that message.”

Even for a politician who ran on his (brief) history as a grassroots organizer, that is unusual. It may really help—there were reports of Congressional websites crashing from traffic spikes on Monday night, according to the Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman.

The potential problem, however, is that while Obama admirably walked through the facts on deficits and default, he did not offer a clear, single, final offer for would-be supporters to rally around.

This was a speech that talked about the roads not taken as much as the road ahead. Take this meandering couplet:

Congress now has one week left to act, and there are still paths forward. The Senate has introduced a plan to avoid default, which makes a down payment on deficit reduction and ensures that we don’t have to go through this again in six months. I think that’s a much better path, although serious deficit reduction would still require us to tackle the tough challenges of entitlement and tax reform. Either way…

And on it went, as Obama narrated negotiations that even political junkies can’t keep straight.

Obama also reminisced about the other presidents who ran up deficits and then raised the roof, quoting Reagan on policy and Jefferson on philosophy. In the end, the focus on process over tangible goals is most evident in a picture of Obama’s verbal priorities.

This chart, based on the frequency of Obama’s word choices, does not suggest a single, overarching goal. After the obligatory salutes to Americans, the takeaway is more about technocratic process than a key priority at stake, or a hardball closing argument.

Apparently, it all comes down to our approach.

The Nation’s Ari Melber debated Obama’s speech with former Bush aide David Frum on MSNBC’s The Last Word on Monday night:

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Democrats Rebel Against Compromiser-in-Chief

“I’ve never won a tough election,” concedes Paul Krugman, “but neither has Obama!”

The Nobel Prize–winning economist is fuming about the White House’s “ludicrous” view of what independents want—a president, apparently, who embraces anti-spending conservatism.

That’s the core thesis in a new article by Elizabeth Drew, which Krugman flagged Sunday and is now roiling the liberal blogosphere. Drew, 76, is one of the good ones—she spent nineteen years as The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, authored thirteen books, and has an intimate yet relentlessly independent outlook on Washington. In The New York Review of Books, her political essays are originally reported and exhaustive; this one runs 4,800 words and features some telling anonymous quotes from Democrats in high places.

Taking the economic malpractice in Washington as a given, Drew focuses on figuring out “what were they thinking?” For Republicans, the answer is simple and well known: by primarying and defeating even stalwart conservatives, the Tea Party has turned positions once on the outer edge of conservative politics, like dismantling Medicare, into a minimum litmus test for GOP candidates. It has been considerably harder, however, to figure out what Obama is thinking.

This president is not responsible for most of the actual deficit—two-thirds of it is from Bush administration policies and the business cycle. Nor is he to blame for the accompanying political crisis manufactured by Republicans, who, like gauche dining companions, are complaining about a bill for food they’ve already eaten. All that, you might think, would leave Obama with very little patience for obstinate BS. Instead, the president has shown the opposite instincts on both temperament and policy. Why? Drew reports damning allegations from “someone familiar” with Obama’s internal deliberations—almost certainly a White House official or senior, trusted Democrat—who argues that Obama has now traded unpopular but necessary Keynesianism for swing voter posturing.

“If the political advisers had told [Obama] in 2009 that the median voter didn’t like the stimulus, he’d have told them to get lost,” says the source. But by January 2011, the State of the Union address didn’t even propose spending to address unemployment, and the other shoe dropped in April, when Obama first outlined his plan to cut $4 trillion from the deficit.

“It was all about reelection politics, designed to appeal to this same group of independents,” Drew reports, and the same politics drove Obama to put Social Security on the table. “[It’s] consistent with that slice of the electorate they’re trying to reach,” the source explained, although “there’s a bit of bass-ackwardness to this; the deficit spending you’d want to focus on right now is the jobs issue.”

Then Drew moves from insiders to electeds. An anonymous Democratic senator recounts the caucus’s mounting frustration with Obama, Drew reports, and his slow-motion acquiescence:

Because of the extent to which the President had allowed the Republicans to set the terms of the debate, the attitude of numerous congressional Democrats toward him became increasingly sour, even disrespectful. After Obama introduced popular entitlement programs into the budget fight, a Democratic senator described the attitude of a number of his colleagues as: “Resigned disgust at the White House: there they go again. ‘Mr. Halfway’ keeps getting maneuvered around as Republicans move the goalposts on him.”

That kind of critique is common on blogs and liberal talk shows, sure, yet it’s rare for senators, even anonymously, to air it in the open. Presidents always have some tension with the parties that they lead, but Drew’s sources suggest a White House political strategy that is now fundamentally at odds with Congressional Democrats.

Still, nobody really wants to default. Despite some progressive attacks, Republicans are not literally shorting the US economy, given the risk that voters would punish them. They are threatening a murder-suicide on the bet that Obama will fold—and he appears to be playing a good hand badly. But incompetence is not the worst sin. The key allegation in Drew’s article is that Obama is not only giving too much away (e.g., needlessly undercutting spending, stimulus, seniors or Medicare) but that he is doing so to politically save only himself.

None of that changes the Republicans’ culpability.In an emphatic response to Drew’s article, StevenD, a writer for the liberal blog Booman Tribune, argues that the GOP are abusers and Obama has become their enabler:

we are in this situation primarily because the Republicans are dogmatic to the point of insanity.… They bear the greatest portion of blame for this ‘crisis’ because of their adherence to an economic cult and political ideology grounded in selfishness, unfettered and unregulated capitalism and the destruction of the Federal Government.… However, as Drew’s reporting shows, Obama own actions this year have often enabled the worst and most cynical among the Republicans to give no quarter in negotiations…

the President’s failure to consult and work with the leaders of his own party on a strategy to combat the [GOP] has placed him at odds with senior leaders of his party to his detriment, the detriment of his party and quite possibly the severe detriment of millions of Americans who will suffer whether “a deal” (which I predict will have spending cuts but no revenue increases) is reached before August 2nd or not.

Harry Reid is pushing a deal without revenues this week, as it happens, but it it’s pretty hard to tell what is genuine at this point.

Finally, turning back to Mr. Krugman, there is the political argument that Obama is just, to use a technical term, tripping. He explains:

As I recall, two things happened last year: voters were angry about the weak economy, and older voters believed that Obama was going to take away their Medicare and send them to the death panels. And so the way to win those voters back is to cut Medicare and weaken the economy?

[E]ven if Obama really does cut spending, will anyone notice? Even people who are supposedly well informed believe that there was a vast expansion of government under Obama, when in fact there wasn’t. So we’re supposed to believe that independent voters will actually be able to cut through the fog—the deliberate fog of Fox, the he-said-she-said of most other media organizations—and give him credit for spending cuts? Remember, whatever he does Republicans will claim that the government is getting bigger—and news organization will report only that “Democrats say” that this isn’t true.

Obama has made Republicans “look bad,” Drew concludes, but he is not actually getting much for it. I’d go even further. By fully caving on this standoff, where the White House is backed by the general public and large swaths of the GOP (the financial community and the well-informed), Obama would not only fail to impress independent voters, he’d ensure a drubbing on a series of future fights, large and small, with his unreasonable opponents. 

Sometimes politics really is like parenting. You don’t reward tantrums.

For the latest coverage on President Obama's national address on the debt ceiling, see Ari Melber's new post, Obama Asks Americans to Raise The Roof.

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Photo credits
Elizabeth Drew image courtesy of C-SPAN
“P-Krug: Enemy of the Good” by Mike McCAffrey, All Rights Reserved.

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New Data: Media's Economic Coverage Spikes in Response to GOP Threat

This is just a quick blog post to flag an important media trend: the American press is finally covering the economy again.

While the recession and unemployment are some of the most significant problems facing the public, the press does not actually prioritize economic coverage very often, outside of crisis events or the economy as politics. But both those dynamics—the threat of real crisis and the intensity of political squabbles over the (typically standard) increase in the debt ceiling—have now put the economy back on top of the press agenda. 

“Not only has the economy become a much bigger story, it is a bigger story no matter where one looks,” notes a new report from Pew. “The topic was the No. 1 subject in all five media sectors studied,” the report stressed, referring to blanket coverage across print, online, network TV, cable and radio.

The economy was far and away the big story last week, accounting 37 percent of the “newshole.” That’s more than triple the coverage of the next biggest item, the NewsCorp hacking scandal. 

Over the past month, in fact, economic coverage has jumped from just one out ten stories to over one out of three:

Political scientists talk about the “agenda-setting function” of press coverage in politics, where almost anything that the press chooses to cover will seem more important, as an issue, to media consumers. But here, the GOP converted a routine housekeeping measure into default brinksmanship, and it looks like the media is affirming that agenda. 

Pew estimates that about 85 percent of this economic coverage is about the debt battle—not the unemployment and recession that form the real threat to most Americans concerned about the economy.

What Was Obama's Secret in Winning the Debt Standoff?

There’s so much fake drama in Washington that it gets hard to recognize big developments when they actually happen. By any measure, though, Republican leaders are offering a massive reversal to their debt threats.

Senator McConnell’s proposal gives Obama everything on substance, in return for concessions on optics. 

In essence, under the plan, the debt ceiling gets raised without spending cuts, but the vote is structured so it looks like Obama is pulling the lever alone. And then he has to pull it again in several, politically risky increases. For Republicans, as The Nation’s George Zornick reports, “it’s a stunning de-leveraging” of their hard-fought position. “After spending much of 2011 threatening to execute the economy unless they get their way,” Zornick explains, “McConnell is now proposing to just release the hostage [without] one scrap of policy concessions from Democrats.”

The deal looks like a big win for progressives—never a conventional narrative in Washington, so it probably won’t be covered that way—and some liberals argue it casts Obama’s negotiating in a very different light. Lawrence O’Donnell, who held a senior staff position in the Senate long before his fame as a liberal anchor, proposes that Obama was never really threatening Medicare, he was ratcheting up pressure on a GOP caucus that could not stomach any revenue increases at all.

“Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to [in these marathon legislative bargaining sessions],” O’Donnell stresses, and thus many observers (and progressive critics) misread Obama’s true position.  Political junkies are fairly tired of the “three-dimensional chess” defense of every Obama move, but this time the theory makes some sense. O’Donnell’s ten-minute presentation is also one of the clearest explanations of the default showdown available, so it’s worth watching for that reason alone: 

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