Last week, the estimable PolitiFact.com gave its harshest verdict – “Pants on Fire” – to a DCCC ad attacking the Republican plans to privatize Medicare. There are a bunch of exaggerations and questionable assertions in the ad (as in many political ads) but the nub of the issue was the assertion that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” PolitiFact objected on these grounds:

Yes, the Republican plan would be a huge change to the current program, and seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law. Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have said they are strongly opposed to the plan.

But to say the Republicans voted to end Medicare, as the ad does, is a major exaggeration. All seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal, and the program’s budget would increase every year.

Medicare defenders have objected on the grounds that the GOP changes to the program would render it so radically different in form from the old, and the benefits would fall so far short in various ways, that it effectively means the end of Medicare “as we know it.” PolitiFact alludes to that, saying calling it a “critical qualifier” the ad should have included.

Here’s my problem. This is a semantic thicket, and adjudicating this is a hopelessly slippery distraction. PolitiFact has fallen into a trap that exposes some of the limits of political fact-checking as currently practiced.

There is no fact-based “objective” answer to the question at hand. A binary choice will either favor the biases of Republicans, who stress continuity (disingenuously, in my view, given Medicare as currently constituted is viewed by so many people as virtually sacrosanct), or of Democrats, who stress the discontinuity (overplaying that hand in the TV spot). The Republican plan would replace the current version of Medicare with a radically different program. Is this still “Medicare”? Well, it’s still called Medicare, and still pays for (some) health insurance for the elderly as Medicare does. (That’s the PolitiFact argument.) On the other hand, the reforms would change the program fundamentally. Its nature as guaranteed government-provided social insurance would be lost.

But here’s a test that shows the essential semantic nature of this dispute: If the Republicans called their “new Medicare” program “ElderCare” instead and left everything else the same, PolitiFact would have to concede that Republicans had indeed voted to “end Medicare.”

We crave impartial judges, and fact-check sites such as PolitFact are extremely valuable during a time when the impartiality of basically all media institutions is being questioned. But political arguments have deep roots and resonances – especially those surrounding Medicare. Fact-checkers claiming impartiality owe it to us not just to apply an arbitrary, back-of-the-envelope standard of what makes Medicare “Medicare.” They must take Medicare’s history seriously, and explain the sophisticated  rhetorical stratagems being employed that attempt to elide – or to exploit – that history. Making sense of this requires more explanation of what’s at stake, a narrative, even – not a binary choice and a catchy label. It’s not that either-or choices and labels are never useful in explaining complex topics. But entitlement politics resembles three-dimensional chess.

By announcing its “objective” answer to a question with no objective answer, PolitiFact didn’t clarify this most important of issues, it muddied it. As Josh Marshall points out here, its “pants on fire” ruling has fueled juvenile coverage on the “debate about the debate.” The actual impacts of Medicare retrenchment? Not so much.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 29:  "Equal Justice Und...

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I’d like to elaborate on my previous post on the recent spate of wild and/or false racism charges emanating from the Breitbarts and Megyn Kellys of the world. It was glib to ignore the longstanding complaints of conservatives about reverse discrimination.

First, for the sake of argument, some perspective: the United States has a brutal historical legacy of slavery and legalized oppression of African-Americans. It has gradually been mitigated, legally, politically, and socially, a process that continues. This process is one of the things that makes America great. But the legacy hasn’t disappeared, it remains a pernicious force in American society. There is, comparatively speaking, no significant legacy or history of black-on-white discrimination. There are black people who are prejudiced against white people, of course. Statistically speaking, some of them probably work for government agencies. But that’s not evidence of systemic anti-white discrimination.

However. (more…)

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 26:  Rep. Joe Barton (R...

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One feature of modern conservatism has been its ability to embrace, in the service of pragmatism and politics, things many of its followers find inimical. And I want to thank Joe Barton for confirming that that thin thread linking conservatives to basic political reality still exists.

“Wha-?” you say. Bear with me.

The conservatism of the past 40 years or so has basically been a critique of the modern liberal welfare state. Sometimes a pertinent critique, but usually just a critique – never an actual alternative. For the most part conservatives say they’re just fine with the achievements wrought by liberals, over their movement’s opposition: big things like Social Security, Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, and smaller things like regulations requiring seatbelts and airbags. That’s because the public overwhelmingly likes and approves of this stuff.

Lately, though, with the emergence of the tea party movement, conservatives are having a hard time covering up the fact that a lot of them aren’t really okay with the stuff they’re supposed to be okay with. And because they don’t really have a viable alternative to the basic outlines of the liberal welfare state, the atmosphere has been getting crazier and the potential policy results dangerous. (more…)

Entry in the Greenpeace BP parody logo contest

This is a constant drumbeat, but think about it: Isn’t it remarkable how transcendently awful BP’s approach to the Gulf disaster has been? At each and every turn, with the stakes impossibly high, BP has always chosen to do the wrong thing. There’s the substance – having no emergency worst-case contingency plans for a blowout, disingenuously refusing to estimate the amount of oil flowing. There’s the politics and image stuff, including CEO Tony Hayward’s lies and self-pity and the platoons of lawyers and PR people trying to keep cleanup workers silent and choke off media attention. It’s been an awesome display of every kind of 21st century corporate dick-itude.

If you’re cynical, then this is merely garden-variety corporate misbehavior, if on a grand scale. But we’re at an interesting pass here. Consider: for years BP has buffed its image with the green sunflower logo and the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, portraying itself as a forward-looking, responsible corporate citizen. This nominally covered its left flank, but more importantly gave it a forward-looking, friendly image. Perfect mainstream mass-market positioning.

Meanwhile, the cult of the free market, which too often means letting big business do what it wants, retained a powerful hold on U.S. politics. (more…)

"Republican Party Elephant" logo

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Over the past couple of months I’ve had a series of email exchanges over health care reform with a friend with a libertarian orientation. He is not a tea partier by any means. But he doesn’t trust the government to do anything right. This point of view certainly has some validity – the federal government screws a lot up. But it makes having a discussion hard. Argue that government actually can do something and you’ll face incredulity and contempt. End of discussion.

On the right there are Tea Partiers who think Stalinism and/or National Socialism are imminent. And there are conservatives with a firmer grounding in reality who think Barack Obama’s policies will lead us all to fiscal ruination – or simply that fiscal ruination is inevitable no matter who is running things.

This is cynicism. And maybe this is an obvious point. But cynicism is an essential and perhaps under-appreciated element in why so many who consider themselves conservative openly profess contempt or hatred for the government, and in the Republican Party’s disengagement from policy and governing.

You know the backstory here. (more…)

Health care reform is now law. And the fickle public now likes it! Maybe we’re in a new era after all.

But still, the intensity of the anti-health care reform efforts was remarkable, and the new law is likely to make a lot of people even madder. And on that point, I have a simple question: why, exactly, do so many people hate the federal government so much?

Set aside the hyperbole – the claims about imminent tyranny, freedom dying, et al (many of them uttered by sitting members of Congress). Never mind the ugly epithets that protestors hurled at members of the House over the weekend in the runup to voting on the bill. I’d like to better understand the underlying anger. What did the federal government do, exactly, to piss all these people off so much?

The answer is: very little. (more…)

President Obama and the Republican House caucus had a go at each other today at a GOP retreat in Baltimore. For 90 minutes Obama fielded questions from House members, and the result was very interesting, even inspiring (in a civics textbook kind of way). The two sides, which appear to exist in distinct and non-overlapping political universes, were actually engaging each other.

The blogosphere and Twitter lit up: wouldn’t it be great if we could to this regularly, and have an American version of “Question Time,” the U.K. custom of open debate between the prime minister, his government and the opposition?

But don’t set your TiVo to C-Span just yet. There are several perhaps insurmountable hurdles to a U.S. version of Question Time.

One obvious problem is, Obama is too good at this, and the Republicans too maladroit. Obama’s command of policy and the details of legislation, and his ability to frame the political debate about them in a forum like this, are formidable. Republicans know this, which may be why some aides were reportedly regretting the decision to televise the forum afterward.

More broadly, though, the situation is inherently asymmetrical: When a president faces mostly-obscure members of Congress, the story ends up being all about the president. That’s usually good for a president, assuming he knows what he’s doing. It can also be bad (think George W. Bush, who bristled at hostile questioning, or Bill Clinton during Monicagate). But in any case, if it’s just another presidential drama – as so much of our politics is, or perceived to be – that’s not something the opposition will want to participate in on a regular basis. What’s in it for them?

There are also fundamental, probably irreconcilable differences between the British style of parliamentary debate and our own. The Prime Minister is an MP debating other MPs – not the head of state and a separate branch of government. Question Time debates are brutal and raucus arguments, in which insult and contempt flow freely (it would be something to watch Sarah Palin try to bluff her way through one of those). What we call “debates” in America are generally just politicians giving speeches and reciting talking points, trying to frame things favorably for their side – usually without being called on it.

That said, if Obama and the GOP managed to inject a tiny bit of “Question Time” DNA into the body politic, that’s to the good. Our politics is so noxious in part because of etiquette: a mixture of excessive decorousness and fake political correctness. Just look at the silly debate over the appropriateness of Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court and Justice Alito’s reaction. Our political leaders need to mix it up more, not less.

Former president of the United States, Jimmy C...

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You probably haven’t noticed this. But for some time now President Obama has been touting a Kennedyesque catchphrase for his programs: the “New Foundation.” He unveiled this last year, to some modest praise and derision. The phrase has yet to capture the imagination of the public or media, but it was back this week – tentatively – in the State of the Union address: “The only way to move to full employment is to lay a new foundation for long-term economic growth, and finally address the problems that America’s families have confronted for years.”

Peggy Noonan picked up on this, and is skeptical:

They’ve chosen a phrase for the president’s program. They call it the “New Foundation.” They sneaked it in rather tentatively, probably not sure it would take off. It won’t. Such labels work when they clearly capture something that is already clear. “The New Deal” captured FDR’s historic shift to an increased governmental presence in individual American lives. It was a new deal. “The New Frontier”—we are a young and vibrant nation still, and adventures await us in space and elsewhere. It was a mood, not a program, but a mood well captured.

“The New Foundation” is solid and workmanlike, but it attempts to put form and order to a governing philosophy that is still too herky-jerky to be summed up.

I agree. Even the most formidable political branding operation in American history can’t force a lame catchphrase on the American people – thank God. Forty years from now, when that era’s version of “Mad Men” about the Obama years is a big hit, “New Foundation” might show up as the phrase that Future Don Draper dismisses contemptuously before sending his minions back to the drawing board.

Whether old or new, foundations are of course essential. It’s nice to know they’re there. But let’s face it: they’re built in the dirt. And once they’re finished, you don’t have to think about them again. Unless there’s a disaster of some kind that cracks the foundation. In which case the builders are in for it.

But the biggest problem is historical, and subliminal: Jimmy Carter used the same catchphrase in the 1979 SOTU. Apparently the invention of speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg, now of New Yorker fame, “New Foundation” was repeated 13 times in the speech, then abandoned a few days later. I’m sticking to my original suggestion to the White House speechwriting staff: please Google all inspirational catchphrases.

What should President Obama do now? Most of the advice he’s getting in the mediasphere, needless to say, is bad – so I’m not going to add to it. But Scott Brown’s win in the Massachusetts Senate race does raise a bigger question: is the system broken? I fear the answer is yes.

Thanks to a combination of arbitrary Senate rules, political polarization, and the Republican Party’s near-total disengagement from substantive policy debate, it’s now impossible to pass ambitious legislation of any kind – even if there is a unambiguous public support for it.

Is that necessarily bad? There’s a legitimate argument that divided government does less damage, and that its persistence reflects the temperamental conservatism of the American public. But I don’t think this idea stands up well given recent history. Democrats and Republicans, at each other’s throats, getting nothing done – that’s America! Well, that was America for most of the past 20 years. Look where it got us. And now, I’d argue that we’ve entered a particularly dangerous and uncertain phase in our history. We need a political system that can respond to it.

Our problems are very big, and a gridlocked system guarantees that they get even bigger – and, in some cases, blow up in our faces. (more…)

When disaster strikes, it’s invariably followed by a rush of memes and metaphors about What It All Means. In the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti, one of the ideas circulating is particularly facile and wrong-headed: likening the Haitian quake and Hurricane Katrina.

There is a superficial comparison to be made, of course: impoverished city, its residents overwhelmingly of African descent, chronically neglected by richer, whiter centers of power. So reporters who covered both disasters are freely comparing the two: “Several times in the continuing cable news coverage, [Anderson] Cooper and other reporters drew comparisons to the scenes they witnessed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman said: ‘Roll back the clock four and a half years ago. What déjà vu.’”

Others are using the two disasters to analyze Barack Obama’s presidential leadership and his political fortunes. Will he screw it up, like Bush did Katrina? What calculations are going on right now in the White House to avert Bush’s post-K, post “heckuva job” fate? A skeptical Dan Kennedy expertly parses some of these reactions. Of them, Howard Fineman offered the purest distillation of this point of view:

Elected in part out of revulsion at the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Obama now finds himself confronting an even more devastating and complex humanitarian crisis.

And, adding irony upon irony, the racial context of New Orleans is writ large in Port-au-Prince. Katrina cost George W. Bush what little standing he had among moderates in his own party in part because the shocking images of suffering in New Orleans were so racially imbalanced.

Now the Obama administration’s competence and compassion will be tested in a similar racial context—and with a much worse infrastructure. Obama and his aides understand all of this.

This doesn’t make sense even on Fineman’s own narrow political terms. (more…)

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