George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Todd Akin’s Shrinking Campaign

This morning’s Wall Street Journal details how Representative Todd Akin—who at midsummer lead incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill by ten points, and is now down by perhaps that much—has contracted his campaign and “retreated deeper into the protection of [his] evangelical base.” Theoretically, all Akin ever had to do was win the vote of Missouri’s Republicans, who will almost definitely give the state’s electoral votes to Mitt Romney in November. Instead, he is spending his time talking almost exclusively to his hard-right faithful:

In a 13-minute speech at a campaign stop this week, Missouri’s Republican senatorial candidate, Rep. Todd Akin, never mentioned jobs or the economy. He did, however, mention God—31 times. “God is the start of it all,” Mr. Akin told about 150 attendees at the “Missouri Women Standing with Todd Akin” rally Monday afternoon.

With the party establishment distancing itself from the congressman, Mr. Akin has favored churches for events, relied on home-schoolers for volunteers and filled parking lots with cars bearing bumper stickers trumpeting creationism.

In an interview, Mr. Akin said he is fighting for something bigger than jobs, and he thinks that message will resonate broadly. “The economy is a big problem, but it speaks to a bigger problem, and that is you and I are losing our freedom,” he said.

In fact, just about every aspect of Akin’s campaign has shriveled. The only politicians that will visit the state to support him are niche stars like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.

His fundraising is similarly anemic. While McCaskill raised $6 million in the past three months, in addition to the $3 million in ad time her campaign has already purchased, Akin won’t even disclose what he raised until the absolute last minute, the FEC deadline for disclosure, which is late tomorrow afternoon—a Friday. All his campaign has said is that he raised $1 million from small donors online. And that might be close to the total number. The national party and big outside money groups have all stayed away from Akin, standing by their August pledge to do so.

I reported last week that the National Federation of Independent Business’s 501(c)(4) backed Akin, but only with $10,000 towards a one-time mailer. Freedom’s Defense Fund, run by conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, has kicked in a paltry $159,619 since announcing its support, according to FEC records. The Susan B. Anthony List said it would stand by Akin—and has done so with a whopping $508 spent on mailings. The Senate Conservatives Fund, run by Senator Jim DeMint, made a much-ballyhooed endorsement of Akin in September—but so far has spent only $54,274, exclusively to rent Akin’s e-mail list.

Meanwhile, McCaskill’s campaign has relentlessly pummeled Akin for being too extreme for the state—an idea he’s perhaps endorsing by staying close to his hard-right, evangelical home. Her campaign initiated a campaign called “35 Days, 35 Ways,” last month, sending out one crazy Akin statement per day up until the election. They have plently. Among my favorites so far:

  • Akin Co-Sponsored Bill to Redefine Rape

  • Akin Was One of 14 in Congress to Vote Against National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

  • Akin Was One of Only 11 Members Who Opposed Acknowledging the Positive Impact of Breakfast

  • Akin Was In Small Minority to Vote Against Creating the National Sex Offender Registry

  • Akin Questioned Spousal Rape Law

  • Akin Called For End To Federal Student Loans, Compared Government Involvement To “Stage Three Cancer”

  • Akin Said 28 Year Old With No Insurance And Cancer Would Have To Deal With “Consequences From [His] Decisions.”

  • Akin Compared Children’s Health Insurance to the Titanic

But the most important shrinkage has been in the polls. Nate Silver gives McCaskill an 82.8 percent chance of winning, and a McCaskill internal poll this week showed her up by fourteen points, 52–38 percent. (Perhaps not incidentally, white evangelical Christians made up 38 percent of the Missouri vote in 2008). 

Rasmussen, which generally has a Republican lean, polled the race and found Akin down by six this month, though within the margin of error. But there really shouldn’t be much doubt—one need only consider that the NRSC is remaining out. If they thought Akin could win, they’d jump in—they’ve said as much. And think about Akin’s strategy here of talking only to his devout base, and nothing more: it seems less like he’s running for Senate, and more like he’s setting up his post-political career.

Read George Zornick’s report on the NFIB’s turnaround on the “legitamite rape” congressman.

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Romney’s Seven Biggest Debate Lies

Perhaps the most famous moment to come out of Tuesday night’s presidential town-hall style debate in Hempstead, New York, was when moderator Candy Crowley fact-checked Mitt Romney on the spot on Libya. (Video here). 

But that isn’t the only time the Republican candidate said something completely false—it was perhaps just the most obvious. Here are the seven biggest lies Romney told:

ROMNEY: “We have fewer people working today than we had when the president took office.”

This is flatly false. The Bureau of Labor statistics just revised estimates from March 2011 to March 2012 upwards by 386,000 jobs—meaning that Obama crossed the magic imaginary barrier of net job creation for his term, and has actually created a net positive 125,000 jobs. This is a simple fact. And there have been 868,000 jobs created in the private sector during this time, which have been offset by public sector job losses—something Mitt Romney would like to see continue.

Moreover, this is an awful tough metric to judge Obama on in the first place. As he’s fond of mentioning, the economy was hemorrhaging 800,000 jobs a month when he took office—so holding him to a net job creation standard means he has to make up for those massive losses that were out of his control entirely. But he’s still done it.

ROMNEY: “I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.”

Recall back in March, when Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri introduced a bill that would allow employers to deny contraceptive coverage to employees.

Mitt Romney said: “Of course I support the Blunt amendment…. Of course Roy Blunt, who is my liaison to the Senate, is someone I support and of course I support that amendment. I clearly want to have religious exemption from Obamacare…. I really think all Americans should be allowed to get around this religious exemption.”

This one is pretty simple.

ROMNEY: “I am not going to have people at the high end pay less than they’re paying now. The top 5 percent of taxpayers will continue to pay 60 percent of the income tax the nation collects. So that’ll stay the same. Middle-income people are going to get a tax break.”

A Center for American Progress examination of Romney’s tax plan concluded that the top 10 percent of income earners would reap half of the plan’s benefits, and the top 1 percent would reap one-third of the benefits.

Romney tries to dodge this unassailable fact by saying he’ll cut deductions for the wealthy—but he refuses to say which ones. He’s also ruled out raising the tax breaks the wealthy get on capital gains and dividends. This lead the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center to conclude that Romney would have to end up cutting deductions used by the middle class to make his math work—thus raising their taxes.

ROMNEY: “As a matter of fact, oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land.”

Obama immediately challenged this point, leading to the first of many back-and-forths between the president and Romney. But Obama was right. It’s true that drilling on public lands dropped 14 percent in 2011, but it went up 15 percent the year before. Overall oil production on federal lands is up under Obama—and Romney is being extremely dishonest in singling out the one year that it dropped.

We must pause here to note that—since the oil drilled on federal land in the United States has zero impact on global gas prices, since it’s such a trivial amount—it’s not such a hot idea, and not one Obama should be particularly proud of increasing. But he did increase it.

Also, it should be noted that Romney plainly said later in the debate that “coal jobs are not up.” In fact, 1,500 jobs in the coal industry have been created since Obama took office.

ROMNEY: “And — and so we — we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women. I was proud of the fact that…[Massachusetts] had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.


First of all, that effort was spearheaded by a nonpartisan coalition of women’s groups, not Romney. Second, the number of women in high-level appointed positions declined 27.6 during his tenure as governor.

Also, there were no binders full of women at Bain Capital—there were no female partners at that firm during the 1980s and 1990s, according to The Boston Globe. Today, only four of forty-nine of the firm’s managing directors are women.

More importantly, as my colleague Ben Adler notes, Romney has opposed pay equity for women in much more substantive policy ways beyond these anecdotes—opposing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act. 

ROMNEY: “I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing.”

This is simply not true. Romney and his running mate would cut Pell Grants—Romney has been vague on the issue, using ominous budgetspeak that he wants to “refocus” Pell Grant dollars to “place the program on a responsible long-term path,” but Paul Ryan has been far more specific—his budget would cut Pell Grants for up to 1 million students.

ROMNEY: “We’re going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline? I will never know. This is about bringing good jobs back for the middle class of America, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Romney is joining many other members of the Republican party in saying the Keystone Pipeline is a job-creation engine. It’s not. The Cornell Global Labor Institute says it would create only 2,500 to 4,650 short-term construction jobs while it was being built—and the State Department found similar numbers  in its environmental review of the project. That’s not enough to impact the unemployment rate, and is notably far, far less than the millions of jobs independent analysts say would be created by Obama’s American Jobs Act, which focuses on many infrastructure projects and increased hiring of teachers and public safety workers.

As George Zornick points out, Romney opposes important pay equity legislation. Read Ben Adler's latest for more on this issue.


Josh Mandel Offers the Most Nonsensical Plan Yet to Cover Pre-Existing Conditions

Republicans who want to repeal the Affordable Care Act—that is, all of them—have a really difficult time explaining how they would preserve popular elements of the legislation, such as the provisions that ban insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, or requirements that young people remain covered for longer on their parents’ policy.

In a lunchtime debate on Monday, Josh Mandel, the Republican trying to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, gave easily the most confusing “plan” we've heard so far:

Q: How would you, and with specificity please, how would you maintain those benefits without the requirement of people buying insurance?

MANDEL: Well you have to make cuts in the other part of the government. In order to pay to cover folks with pre-existing conditions, to your question, and for younger folks on their parents’ insurance, if there’s leaders in Washington want to do that without Obamacare on the books—you’ve got to make significant cuts. A lot of Republicans will say, don’t touch defense, don’t touch the military. Listen, if we’re going to have a good-faith conversation about strong health care, about a balanced budget, we need to actually make cuts in defense. I mentioned some of my ideas in respect to Europe. Another place I’d like to cut—I mentioned Pakistan but I’d like to get more specific. A few weeks ago, in Egypt, our embassy was overrun. In Libya our ambassador was killed. Why in the world is Sherrod Brown, and other politicians in Washington, voting to give our tax dollars to countries that harbor terrorists, when we need that money here to pay for healthcare, to protect Medicare, to protect Social Security. It doesn’t make any sense. They’re going to hate us without us paying them to do that. We don’t need to pay them to hate us.

Mandel’s answer, which somehow ends up on the embassy deaths in Libya, betrays a complete ignorance of what “Obamacare” does.

What it does not do is simply pay insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions. The ACA has an individual mandate to buy insurance, which broadens the consumer pool for insurance companies, while also banning insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and using community ratings to ensure everyone is offered fair prices for coverage.

If you repeal the individual mandate in Obamacare, which Mandel indisputably wants to do, then how do you keep people from simply waiting until they get sick to buy coverage for which they cannot be denied—something that would send the health insurance industry into a fatal tailspin?

That’s what the moderator was clearly asking, and Mandel squares that circle by… cutting defense spending.

It’s a completely nonsensical response. (Brown wryly noted that “That was about a specific an answer on healthcare as he’s given throughout the whole campaign.”) Interpreted literally, it seems Mandel is actually proposing a new federal program that would directly subsidize insurers for covering those with pre-existing conditions and young people who want to stay on their parents’ plans—funded by cuts in defense and foreign aid to places like Libya and Egypt.

But since nobody anywhere has proposed anything like that before—most notably, Mandel hasn’t—what’s more likely is that he’s trading on the common misperception of Obamacare as a massive taxpayer-funded boondoggle that simply throws public money at various problems. Under that understanding of Obamacare, I suppose you could re-fund the “pre-existing conditions coverage” line in the federal budget with defense cuts—but that line doesn’t exist. It’s not how the law works.

Mandel either doesn’t understand that, or wants to willfully mislead voters about the legislation and what he could do for them if it’s repealed.

It’s a tough question for Republicans to answer—Mitt Romney has simply declared that he would magically cover people with pre-existing conditions without offering any details. (This lead an economist at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute to say last week that “It’s a complete mystery what [Romney]’s talking about. He’s clearly asserting that he’s got a new policy, but he hasn’t said what it is.”)

Given how ridiculous Mandel sounded while attempting to flesh out a plan, perhaps Mitt is onto something here. But the bottom line remains that Republicans like Mandel and Romney have no serious plan for maintaining coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

Also, be sure to read John Nichols on the Paul Ryan's "secret plan" to "cut taxes AND balance the budget."

Paul Ryan's Congressional Opponent: Debate Me Next!

On the heels of last night’s vice-presidential debate, Paul Ryan’s Democratic opponent for his congressional seat wants a second round—while he sits Biden’s chair.

Rob Zerban is facing a tough road to unseating Ryan, who won Wisconsin’s 1st district with over 68 percent of the vote in 2010—and the district has since been reapportioned to include even more Republicans.

Yet, the district is still fairly purple—Obama narrowly won it in 2008, and the redistricting only added a couple Republican points. Zerban has far outraised any other Ryan challenger over the years, though he still lags far behind Ryan in that category.

But most importantly, Zerban believes that by exposing Ryan’s radical views on the safety net—Zerban notably supports a Medicare-for-all plan, as opposed to Ryan’s partial privatization—he can win over voters in the district. He believes a debate would be the best chance to do that.

“After Paul Ryan’s performance last night, a lot of questions for me were answered about why he won’t come back to the district and debate,” Zerban told supporters on a conference call Friday afternoon. “We’ve seen that on a national stage that he cannot defend his extremely out-of-touch budget, which calls for killing Medicare and trying to transfer the cost of these programs to the back of senior citizens across this country. We can see that he can’t defend his $5 trillion tax cut for the wealthiest people in this nation, again shifting that cost onto the middle class, hardworking Americans across this country.

“I’m confident that by having Paul Ryan come back to the district and try to defend his positions, which we know are indefensible—the numbers don’t add up—if he were to come back and stand side-by-side with me on a stage, the choice would be so clear we’d have this race in the bag already.”

Every newspaper in the district has called on Ryan to come back and debate Zerban.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has backed Zerban and raised $124,000 for him, and has placed 42,000 calls into the district through it’s Call Out the Vote program. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also placed Zerban in its red-to-blue fundraising drive.

For a closer look at Zerban, he appeared on Up with Chris Hayes last month:

Read John Nichols' take on the debate Ryan actually took on.

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Scott Brown's Hypocrisy on Wall Street Reform

In his debate with Elizabeth Warren last night, Senator Scott Brown struck an odd pose—as a Wall Street reformer. Just as Mitt Romney dishonestly did during last week’s presidential debate, Brown was attempting to re-upholster an ugly record of helping out the country’s largest financial institutions.

When Warren brought up her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Brown eagerly attempted to hop on the bandwagon—drawing boos from the crowd:

Relevant transcript:

BROWN: Listen I commend you for your work on that. I voted for it, it never would have passed if I wasn’t the deciding vote on the financial reform. [boos] Senator Reed and I went in and actually put in a provision in there to protect our men and women service members who were going to be taken advantage of by the predatory lenders. So I commend you for that, and I’m glad I was able to help put it into effect.

Indeed, Brown was the deciding vote for financial reform. And he used it to win huge concessions for Wall Street before agreeing to vote yes.

First, as has been widely reported, Brown maneuvered behind the scenes to force Democrats to strip a bank tax from the legislation that would have raised $19 billion to pay for implementation of Dodd-Frank. Only banks with assets over $50 billion would have been required to pay that tax—but Brown insisted it be taken out.

For posterity’s sake, I confirmed this today with Representative Barney Frank, the eponymous co-author of the legislation. “We needed to break the filibuster and he, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe did make the difference,” Frank said. “The facts are, I got a call from Chris Dodd and Harry Reid—‘you gotta work with Brown, we need his vote.’ ”

The work involved scrapping the bank tax, Frank recalled. “They extracted a price for it. Twenty billion dollars off the backs of the banks and onto the taxpayers,” he said. “And frankly, for us, that would have set the precedent of [the cost of the regulation] being on the financial institutions. We were ready to go beyond that. We lost that and that was it.”

Brown also scored a series of exemptions in the legislation to the proposed Volcker Rule, which is intended to keep commercial banks from engaging in risky proprietary trades.

As he was doing this, money was “pouring in” to his campaign coffers from Wall Street, at a rate four times higher than what any other Republican Senator was seeing. (In fact, as a 2010 ThinkProgress analysis showed, Wall Street provided a significant eleventh-hour boost to his campaign, and Brown initially opposed financial reform before deciding to trade his vote for substantial reductions in the law’s reach).

So it takes some real “brass,” in the parlance of Bill Clinton, to fund your campaign with Wall Street dollars, given as a thank-you for weakening financial reform, and then turn around in the same campaign and ask for votes because you “helped put it in effect.”

For more political hypocrisy, see John Nichols take down Paul Ryan's claim that he fights for auto workers.

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NFIB, a Mainstream GOP Group, Backs Akin

Major outside GOP money groups foreswore support of Representative Todd Akin in his bid to unseat Senator Claire McCaskill after he made disturbing comments about “legitimate rape,” and so far they’ve stood by their word—until now. One major, mainstream GOP group has started spending on the Missouri race, and it’s entirely possible it is funneling money from other groups who swore they would never back Akin.

The National Federation of Independent Business, a major lobbying group and that purports to represent American small-business owners, recently created a 501(c)(4) spin-off, the NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc.

Yesterday, NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc. notified the FEC that it spent $10,453 in the Missouri Senate race, for mailings that opposed McCaskill. The group did not make any public statements or other indications that it was now backing Akin, but told The Nation the mailer would go to 16,000 small-business owners in the state, and in eight other states where there’s a Senate race.

The mailer, which NFIB shared with The Nation, implores recipients in large block letters to “VOTE AGAINST CLAIRE MCCASKILL” and ticks off her positions on the Affordable Care Act, cap-and-trade laws and the Bush tax breaks for top earners.

NFIB officials said they don’t expect the mailing to be controversial. “What we really care about is our members, and we don’t expect an uproar from them, because from them the issues that are important are the ones that affect their business,” said Jean Card, vice president of media and communications at NFIB. “Akin does have a very good voting record with us. He’s what we call a guardian of small business.”

This giving is significant in itself—NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc. is the first mainstream Republican group to get involved in the race after the “legitimate rape” controversy. Until now, only hard-right conservative groups ponied up for Akin, like Senator Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, and Freedom’s Defense Fund, a wacky group run by conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.

But NFIB is a different animal. It’s research on the supposed harm done to small businesses by letting the Bush tax rates on top earners has been cited by Mitt Romney, in the recent presidential debate, and repeatedly by Scott Brown in his debates with Elizabeth Warren. The NFIB itself has launched multimillion-dollar efforts to get Republicans—and almost exclusively Republicans—elected to Congress, and this (c)(4) that it has created, now backing Akin, has spent $383,405 (through October 9) exclusively supporting Republicans or opposing Democrats.

When the National Republican Senatorial Committee flirted with supporting Akin last month (something it never followed through on), Democrats immediately began tying every other Republican backed by the NRSC to Akin. Now, you might expect the same thing to happen with Republican candidates also backed by NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc.—they include Senate candidates Connie Mack (FL), Tommy Thompson (WI), George Allen (VA), Josh Mandel (OH), Pete Hoekstra (MI), Linda McMahon (CT), Denny Rehberg (MT), and Rick Berg (ND), along with a wide range of House candidates, like Tea Party star Representative Sean Duffy (WI).

But there’s also a much more interesting possibility here. What if NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc. is serving as a conduit for money from other outside groups and donors who swore they’d never support Akin?

It’s a possibility worth considering, given the NFIB’s history.

Despite the fact that NFIB claimed to be the voice of small business, funded by membership fees from small business owners, it has advocated a strident conservative agenda. A recent poll found that 47 percent of small-business owners plan to vote for Obama, versus 39 percent for Romney. But 98 percent of NFIB's 2012 campaign contributions went to Republicans—and in recent years, it has taken aggressive lobbying stances in the interest of big business. NFIB was the lead plantiff in federal court against the Affordable Care Act, which it spent almost $3 million litigating. It has fought ferociously on tax policy to protect top Bush rates for the wealthy, despite the fact those affect at most three percent of small businesses.

Other small-business groups began criticizing the NFIB for “selling out small business owners to benefit the rich and powerful,” as Mother Jones wrote this summer.

But why would it do this? As always, following the money gave the answer. The Center for Media and Democracy this year revealed that NFIB was taking money from a wide array of corporate-backed, GOP-aligned heavyweights. NFIB accepted a $3.7 million “gift” from Crossroads GPS as it was fighting the Affordable Care Act. It also received $1.15 million from Donors Trust, a major contributor to the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity Foundation, along with substantial funding from the Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation, a major donor to the American Exchange Legislative Council (ALEC).

This sparked a Congressional inquiry this summer from lawmakers who saw the big donations and said it “call[ed] into question the NFIB's role in speaking for small business interests.”

Interestingly, earlier this year NFIB created NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc., which seems to have the purpose of resolving this conflict. Anybody can donate to NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc.—NFIB officials said in February that the new initiative would allow non–small business owners to support the NFIB agenda, something the group “had a need for it for a long time.” Since, again, it’s a 501(c)(4), we’ll never know who is funding the effort.

“What the (c)(4) gives them is a way to channel donations from CEOs or CEOs of global corporations or CEOs of privately held corporations or others that are not technically members of NFIB, that don’t meet the test for being a small business,” said Lisa Graves, the director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which exposed the past donations to NFIB from big outside groups. “This provides a vehicle for them to receive donations from an unlimited variety of sources that don’t qualify as small businesses.”

Graves would not speculate as to whether NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc. was taking money from Crossroads GPS and others again, but did state the obvious: “There seems to be a lot of money sloshing around between these groups.”

Back in August, in the wake of the “legitimate rape” controversy, Crossroads GPS said that “Neither American Crossroads nor Crossroads GPS will spend in Missouri as long as Todd Akin is the Republican candidate.” That’s a tough statement to retreat from publicly—but is it still backing NFIB’s efforts via Voice of Free Enterprise Inc.? We’ll never know because of the vagaries of campaign finance, but it’s certainly possible. (If Crossroads gave a grant to NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc. that would eventually have to be reported—but not until well after the election. It could also conceal the money by marking the expenditure differently, or simply directing Crossroads donors to give instead to NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc.)

Again, we don't know who is bankrolling NFIB Voice of Free Enterprise Inc.—but if Crossroads GPS and other big GOP donors wanted to back Akin without taking heat for it, this is just how they would do it.

Schumer Calls Out Dems on Regressive Tax Reform

As the election season barrels towards the end—we’re only twenty-eight days away—key players in Washington are already maneuvering to deal with the so-called “fiscal cliff” that awaits on the other side of November 6. Tuesday, Senator Chuck Schumer delivered one of the most crucial speeches to date.

There’s an important caveat at the end, but most of the speech ought to make progressives awful happy, as Schumer is boldly trying to pull Democrats away from flirtation with dangerously regressive tax policy.

Here’s why: the dirty little secret of President Obama’s re-election is that, despite campaigning extensively on a pledge to end the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans, it has seemed fairly likely that Obama would be inclined to sign a fiscal cliff deal, or a deficit reduction deal later in his term, that did the exact opposite—one that lowered rates across the board.

Recall that during the debt ceiling negotiations, according to all available reporting, Obama was prepared to accept a tax code overhaul that would lower all income tax rates in exchange for $800 billion in new tax revenue gained by closing loopholes and exemptions. This is basically what the Simpson-Bowles plan does: it calls for the top income rate to be no higher than 29 percent (and as low as 23 percent), offset by raising the capital gains tax and closing exemptions and loopholes.

And although his campaign contains many paeans to tax fairness, at the same time Obama has also said that he is “eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission.” (That’s a quote from his acceptance speech in Charlotte—not exactly an insignificant address). Meanwhile, key Democrats in Congress—Senator Dick Durbin and Representative Chris Van Hollen—have explicitly called Bowles-Simpson a “template” for a debt deal in recent weeks.

Today at the National Press Club, Schumer kicked out the stool from beneath supporters of any such plan—a speech his press office billed as one in which the New York Senator calls for “scrapping the Reagan-style tax reform model used by Simpson-Bowles.”

“It is an alluring prospect to cut taxes on the wealthiest people and somehow still reduce the deficit, but you can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” Mr. Schumer said. “The reality is, any path forward on tax reform that promised to cut rates will end up either failing to reduce the deficit or failing to protect the middle class from a net tax increase.”…

“If upfront rate cuts are the starting point for negotiations on tax reform, it will box us in on what else we can achieve. Certain conservatives will pocket the rate reductions and never follow through on finding enough revenue elsewhere in the code to reduce the deficit. Or, if they do, it will almost certainly come out of the pockets of middle-income earners,” he said.

Schumer is right on every policy point here. If Congress does actually agree to remove a whole bunch of major tax deductions and exemptions—an enormous “if”—in order to make the math add up, those lost deductions would have to include many important to the middle class, like exemptions for retirement savings and college tuition. Afterwards, opportunistic members of Congress would almost certainly build the deductions back into the tax code—that’s what happened after the tax code overhaul of 1986. So you’d return to a similar tax code, just one with much lower rates.

Most importantly, across-the-board rate deductions are just terrible public policy that’s bound to increase inequality. They disproportionately benefit top earners, as this chart from CBPP shows:

In the speech, Schumer finishes with a call to preserve the Clinton-era rates on top earners while also raising capital gains rates and eliminating some deductions not harmful to the middle class, like the carried-interest loophole.

Schumer is the leader on messaging and policy in the Senate, and his speech today marks an important shift in the fiscal cliff debate. He’s openly demanding that his party not enter into negotiations with a pre-compromised position on tax policy.

There is one major caveat, however—acknowledging that this approach will be fiercely opposed by Republicans, he proposes “serious entitlement reform” as an enticement to the bargaining table. Given that the approaches to the safety net attractive to Republicans involve privatization, deep cuts, raising eligibility ages or some combination thereof, this is a dangerous offer.

But consider a few things: Schumer said today that privatization is off the table, meaning that whatever “serious entitlement reform” he’s talking about is likely along the lines of what’s already been offered. So it’s not clear what he is substantively proposing to offer the GOP here.

Moreover, as David Dayen theorizes, in the end this makes a “grand bargain” on the deficit less likely. (Remember, we don’t need a grand bargain on the debt. All that happens on December 31 is that all the Bush tax cuts expire—something that would in itself go a long way towards reducing the national debt.) The only thing that even got John Boehner to the bargaining table during the debt ceiling debacle was that the tax reform didn’t raise rates. (The increased revenue still ended up being too much to handle for his party.) But if Democrats adopt Schumer’s line, it’s extremely difficult to see the GOP agreeing to any grand bargain deal. So these “serious entitlement reforms” would never happen anyhow.

Republicans, Here's How to Complain About the Jobs Report Without Conspiracy Theories

Today’s jobs report is good news for the economy, and of course by extension, the president’s re-election campaign. The unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent, bringing it under 8 percent for the first time since January 2009. That was fueled by the 114,000 jobs added to the economy in September, and an upward revision of August’s number from 96,000 to 142,000. (This wasn’t one of those drops in the unemployment rate because more people stopped looking for work—in fact, the rate went down despite 418,000 more Americans joining the labor force).

While the September spike may be a statistical fluke—that has happened before—the unemployment rate is almost certainly moving down, if not as fast as today’s report might indicate, says Dean Baker.

Within the data there are several promising individual indicators. The real estate sector added 7,100 jobs in September, a sign of an improving housing market. The restaurant and retail sectors continued to add jobs, as they have for the past year, as did the healthcare, transportation, and financial services sectors. The public sector posted somewhat rare gains—adding 10,000 jobs in September. (These gains are due in large part to a rise in state government education, which added 13,600 jobs. Recent upward revisions are due to robust hiring in local education, which added 79,000 jobs in the past three months).

The number of average hours worked went up to thirty-four and a half hours, and average hourly earnings increased seven cents to $19.81. The number of discouraged workers fell sharply, 1,032,000 to 802,000.

So things are getting better. And it’s possible—though not yet certain—that this is part of a sustained upswing. Public perceptions about the economy have been rising for the past couple of months, which many analysts attributed to people listening to Obama’s re-election campaign and simply believing the rhetoric about an improving economy. But this report, and recent upward revisions in BLS data, may paint a different (or complementary) picture, as Josh Marshall notes—maybe the strong September numbers, plus the July and August upward revisions, plus the upward BLS revision of the first half of the year’s numbers by 386,000 announced this week, means that people were noticing a real recovery that was underway before the economic indicators picked up on it.

This good news for the economy was naturally unwelcome in conservative circles.The jobs report prompted a round of conspiracy theorizing from right-wingers who believe BLS is cooking the books for Obama—this has been floated by everyone from media types like Joe Scarborough and Laura Ingraham, to elected officials like Representative Allen West.

This can easily be debunked (see here and here), but let’s be clear—a real recovery remains quite elusive. An unemployment rate of 7.8 percent is by no means desirable, nor is monthly job growth of under 150,000.

Ironically, there are plenty of things to complain about in today’s jobs report. Republicans didn’t need to immediately dive off the deep end and start talking about Alinsky-ite tactics at BLS. So, some free advice for sane Republicans—talk about this instead if you want to score points:

• At the rate of job growth shown in the September report, it will take more than a decade to reach full employment.

• The duration measures for unemployment all increased in September, meaning people are staying jobless longer.

• The number of people involuntarily working part-time rose 581,000.

• Obama has been touting his plans to revive the manufacturing sector, promising in ads to add 1 million jobs there. He hasn’t done a great job of that recently, though—manufacturing employment shed 16,000 jobs last month after dropping 22,000 in August. (The unemployment rate in that sector is “only” 6.7 percent, though).

• Blacks, Hispanics, and teenagers reaped virtually no benefit from the recent upswing in employment.

For more on the conspiracy theorizing surrounding the latest jobs report, check out Greg Mitchell’s latest.

Romney's Obscene Posturing As A Wall Street Critic

Among the many obfuscations of Mitt Romney last night, this was perhaps the biggest laugher of them all:

ROMNEY: Dodd-Frank was passed, and it includes within it a number of provisions that I think have some unintended consequences that are harmful to the economy. One is it designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they’re effectively guaranteed by the federal government. This is the biggest kiss that’s been given to—to New York banks I’ve ever seen. This is an enormous boon for them. There’s been—22 community and small banks have closed since Dodd-Frank. So there’s one example I wouldn’t designate five banks as too big to fail and give them a blank check. That’s one of the unintended consequences of Dodd-Frank. It wasn’t thought through properly.

Romney—the private equity veteran running a presidential campaign funded by Wall Street, on a platform that contains a full repeal of every financial regulation over the past four years—positioning himself as an opponent of those big “New York banks” was a historic moment in presidential debate cravenness. (And a real missed opportunity for Obama to wallop his opponent).

So what exactly was Romney talking about? It’s a complicated answer, but understanding it reveals the true perversity of Romney’s posturing.

Dodd-Frank has two provisions regarding too-big-to-fail that Romney is talking about here. The first is the ability of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, created by the legislation, to name financial institutions “systemically significant.” This means they are so big that their failure could threaten the health of the financial sector, and that designation subjects them to heightened regulation and higher capital requirements.

The big banks hate this requirement, for obvious reasons—they come under increased scrutiny and restrictions. So Republicans have been dutifully attacking it. (Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, repeatedly blasted it before joining the ticket). The GOP argument, as you heard Romney deliver it, is that by giving them the “systemically significant label, the government is officially “designating” banks as too-big-to-fail—a very bad-sounding thing indeed!

But this is nonsense—these firms are too big to fail. The FSOC designation doesn’t make them so, and is in no way a “kiss” to the big banks—again, it subjects them to higher regulation. Romney and his party would prefer to repeal this provision, full stop, and thus effectively stick their heads in the sand about too-big-to-fail institutions. It’s like saying a doctor who diagnoses someone with cancer has given it to him.

Interestingly, a key feature of this provision is that FSOC can name non-banks as systemically significant, and just this week news broke that AIG is on the verge of receiving this label. Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee have been trying to amend Dodd-Frank to protect AIG from that designation, which to me raises an interesting question about Romney’s timing here.

In any case, when Romney spoke about “guaranteeing” a bailout, and of “blank checks,” he’s echoing another GOP complaint about the resolution authority provision of Dodd-Frank. That gives the federal government the power to wind-down big banks in the event of a failure. The idea is to dissolve the bank, without taxpayer money, not save it—Rep. Barney Frank has called this a “death panel” for big banks. (Pat Garofalo wrote on this issue for us here).

Banks also hate this provision, preferring instead the inevitable ad hoc, blank-check bailout that we saw in 2008. So Republicans have been going after resolution authority—the 2012 Ryan Budget would repeal it—by arguing that the provision somehow guarantees bailouts. This is the same flim-flam as before: the bailout is going to happen either way if the firm is too big to fail, and by repealing resolution authority, you take away the increased power of the government under Dodd-Frank to deal the problem. (Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said he “would have loved to have had” resolution authority in 2008 instead if issuing straight-up bailouts).

Many progressive critics have legitimate complaints about the failure of Dodd-Frank to be tougher in dealing with too-big-to-fail firms, but to be absolutely clear, that’s not what Romney and the Republicans are trying to do. They’re trying to get rid of the limited reforms that have been made. To do it while preening as tough-on-Wall-Street politicians is deeply, deeply cynical.

For more on Romney’s posturing last night, read John Nichols on the Republican candidate’s debate with… himself. 

There Is No Debate: Mitt Romney Would Raise Taxes

The mainstream media, to their credit, have latched onto the fact that Mitt Romney won’t describe roughly half of his tax plan—something sure to come up in tonight’s debate. Romney pledges to reduce taxes by $5 trillion through well-detailed cuts, but since Republicans are deeply concerned about the deficit (ahem, cough) Romney claims he would also eliminate or reduce tax breaks to make up for the lost revenue and make the plan deficit-neutral. He just won’t say which ones.

There’s a reason for that—independent analyses show Romney would have to cut popular deductions used by the middle class in order to truly offset the lost revenue. He denies this, of course, but it’s hard to believe Romney if he won’t actually explain the details. (This week his campaign floated a plan to cap deductions at $17,000, which still won’t make the math work).

This rather shocking lack of specificity lead even Fox News’s Chris Wallace to go after Paul Ryan this weekend in a quest for details, an indignity Romney has repeatedly suffered as well. The Obama campaign has relentlessly hammered the Romney/Ryan ticket on this point, and openly told reporters this week that since “Romney won’t name which deductions he’ll eliminate,” Obama will press him to do so during tonight’s debate.

But frequently lost in this conversation is the fact that Romney has, in fact, named three (and only three) specific deductions that he would reduce. Not surprisingly, they mainly affect low-income families. I’ll pull from the Center for American Progress’s lengthy examination of Romney’s economic policies earlier this year for the details:

Eliminate President Obama’s American Opportunity Tax Credit for families paying for college

Under the current American Opportunity Tax Credit, families are eligible for a tax credit of up to $2,500 for four years of college (partially refundable for families with no income tax liability). Under Gov. Romney’s plan, credits would be limited to a nonrefundable credit of about $1,800, available only for two years of college.

Reduce the Earned Income Tax Credit for larger families

The Earned Income Tax Credit supplements the earnings of low-income families, rewarding work while offsetting payroll and other taxes. Prior to 2009, families with three or more children received the same tax benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit as families with two children, despite a higher cost of living. A provision enacted in 2009 made such families eligible for an additional benefit, but Gov. Romney’s plan would let that provision, along with another improvement to the credit signed in 2009, expire. A two-parent family raising three children on $30,000 of earnings would lose $1,076 a year.

Lower the Child Tax Credit for low-income families

The Child Tax Credit also rewards work while defraying child rearing expenses. Only families with earned income can benefit. The credit is generally $1,000 per child, but families at low-income levels can often claim only a partial credit. President Obama’s 2009 reforms allowed low-income families to claim more of the credit. Gov. Romney’s tax plan would repeal those reforms, resulting in a smaller credit or no credit for the families of 15.8 million children.

All told, CAP calculates that by letting these three reforms expire—which, again, Romney has explicitly asserted he will do—18 million households would see higher taxes, including 13 million families with children. (Which, by the way, is 27 percent of all families with children). These are all tax provisions Obama has pledged to extend.

So if Romney says tonight that he won’t raise taxes on the middle class (as he said at the RNC) that is not true—it can be debunked without even getting to the hairy debate about unnamed exemptions and deduction caps. And if Romney gets hammered for refusing to name what deductions he would reduce, that is not really true either—he’s named these three, which would hurt exclusively low- and middle-income families.

That’s perhaps a good a hint as any about what other deductions President Romney would end up targeting.

For more on Romney’s seeming inability to talk about specifics in his plan, watch Katrina vanden Heuvel’s appearance on Now With Alex Wagner.

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