Archive for 2011

Press Clips: What MSM are Missing in the GOP Race

Friday, September 30th, 2011

The most memorable scene in “Boys on the Bus,” the iconic 1973 portrait of life on the presidential campaign trail, comes when Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern engage in a boring debate just days before the California primary.

For political reporters, writing a debate story on deadline is perhaps the most challenging task on the beat, and author Tim Crouse spot-on captured the awful state of dread that descends when filing time is just minutes away and not a shred of real news has emerged from a confrontation in which two rivals stuck unerringly to their same old, same old talking points.

“Walter, Walter, what’s our lede?” Crouse recorded one desperate newshound yelling at the deadline-every-minute Associated Press reporter Walter Mears, whose talent for spotting a nugget of news in a field of mush was unerring.

The episode for decades has symbolized the herd mentality of the press pack, but what rarely gets noticed is that Mears’ lede – both candidates agreed they wouldn’t pick George Wallace for a vice president – was unconventional; the news of a debate is most often what the wannnbes disagree about – “Candidates Trade Jibes,” as the hoary headline cliché has it — not what they agree on.

Which brings us, by way of Hogan’s barn, to the winner of this week’s Little Pulitzer for Investigative Punditry, a splendid, must-read perceptual scoop by Ed Kilgore, writing in the New Republic.

The longtime centrist Democrat policy wonk finds, hiding in plain sight, the really significant lede of the recent Republican presidential debates: while the MSM has focused on issues where the GOP field has been squabbling – Candidates Trade Jibes on Papillomavirus Vaccine! – what’s far more important is their unanimous agreement on more fundamental matters:

But there are a host of other issues where the Republican candidates are in too much agreement to create a lot of controversy during debates or gin up excitement in the popular media. Areas of agreement, after all, rarely provoke shock or drive readership. But the fact that the Republican Party has reached such a stable consensus on such a great number of far-right positions is in many ways a more shocking phenomenon than the rare topic on which they disagree.

Kilgore notes five issue areas of Republican consensus which, not too long ago, would have been considered well out of the mainstream, even in the GOP:  1) the monetary system (Rein in the Fed!); 2) union-busting (Smash the NLRB – right-to-work laws now!); 3) radical anti-environmentalism (Abolish the EPA!); 4) anti-abortion extremism (Litmus tests for judges!); 5) 19th century-style capitalism (Let’s stop choking the economy with child labor laws!)

Most remarkably, the 2012 candidate field appears to agree that there is absolutely nothing the federal government can do to improve the economy—other than disabling itself as quickly as possible. Entirely missing are the kind of modest initiatives for job training, temporary income support, or fiscal relief for hard-pressed state and local governments that Republicans in the past have favored as a conservative alternative to big government counter-cyclical schemes. Also missing are any rhetorical gestures towards the public-sector role in fostering a good economic climate, whether through better schools, basic research, infrastructure projects, and other public investments (the very term has been demonized as synonymous with irresponsible spending). 

Add all this up, and it’s apparent the Republican Party has become identified with a radically conservative world-view in which environmental regulations and collective bargaining by workers have strangled the economy; deregulation, federal spending cuts, and deflation of the currency are the only immediate remedies; and the path back to national righteousness will require restoration of the kinds of mores—including criminalization of abortion—that prevailed before things started going to hell in the 1960s. That Republicans hardly even argue about such things anymore makes the party’s transformation that much more striking—if less noticeable to the news media and the population at large.

It’s been fascinating to watch how quickly right-wing Tea Party types turned on erstwhile savior Rick Perry, for uttering heresies about illegal immigration (and how swiftly he groveled for forgiveness for making sense).

At a time when Republican elites are now begging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter the race and save them from Mitt Romney, it would be even more interesting to see how the politics of a Northeast industrial state pol would go over with a tar-and-feather crowd that boos gay soldiers and cheers the death of people without health insurance.

Insipid inanities or inane insipidness? You be the judge: The last time we flung a fired up fondue dish into the big screen, it was the televised image of the vile Eric Cantor that had the missus packing us off to anger management school. Now comes the sudden return of Thomas Friedman, ubiquitously driveling all over cable news as he flogs his latest self-help volume for curing the planet’s ills, that imperils our 103-inch Panasonic plasma replacement set.

So we credit Andrew Ferguson, whose Wall Street Journal review of Friedman’s latest extra-large serving of tripe raised anew the question of why anyone would interview this guy, let alone treat him as some kind of wise man (memo to Anderson Cooper: on your knees and slobbering is not your best look).

Faced with era-defining challenges,” he writes, “the country has responded with all the vigor and determination of a lollipop.” One chapter is called “Homework x 2 = The American Dream.” He advocates “empowering powerful breakthroughs” and notes that “the cloud . . . is driving the flattening further and faster.” (Pointless alliteration + runaway metaphor = Friedmanism.) Certain phrases crop up so often that they must have been rejected book titles: “Average is over” is one of the new ones, if you want to give it a try. (You’ll be hearing it on “Charlie Rose.”)

Mr. Friedman can turn a phrase into cliché faster than any Madison Avenue jingle writer. He announces that “America declared war on math and physics.” Three paragraphs later, we learn that we’re “waging war on math and physics.” Three sentences later: “We went to war against math and physics.” And onto the next page: “We need a systemic response to both our math and physics challenges, not a war on both.” Three sentences later: We must “reverse the damage we have done by making war on both math and physics,” because, we learn two sentences later, soon the war on terror “won’t seem nearly as important as the wars we waged against physics and math.” He must think we’re idiots.

Except: forming such a thought would require actual insight.

Anyway, for those, like us, seeking therapeutic treatment for Friedman rage, here’s a lovely rant from Gawker’s “Hacks” column, along with a brief excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s classic leveling of “The World is Flat.”

On an ideological level, Friedman’s new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we’re not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we’re not in Kansas anymore.) That’s the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that’s all there is.

ICYMI: A guide to unnecessary journalism phrases (feel free to report any you find lurking here).

Lies, Damn Lies: Howard Jarvis and Small Biz ‘Poll’

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Few things drive Calbuzz as crazy as seeing phony, cooked-up, biased, bought-and-paid-for alleged survey data get reported and published as if it were the real deal.

So when we saw the headline “Critics of bill to limit initiatives to November push back with poll” and read the story, our heads exploded. It didn’t take long to see that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the Small Business Action Committee – outraged that the non-partisan Field Poll had found that 56% of voters (including 52% of Republicans) support voting on ballot initiatives in November elections instead of June – had gone out and bought themselves some data.

Just exactly as Joel Fox (who is the Small Business Action Committee) had reported on his Fox and Hounds blog, touting this new alleged polling data.

The Field Poll had asked “Do you favor or oppose changing election laws so that statewide initiatives can only be placed before voters in a November general election instead of a primary election?”

This is what anyone in the survey business would consider a fair and neutral question. The Field Poll surveyed 1,001 registered voters Sept. 1-12 via landline and cell phone in English and Spanish. Their data and methodology are publicly available.

The results essentially showed strong support for the central provision of SB 202 sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, mandating that future ballot measures should be voted on in November elections – when the most voters turn out – rather than the next statewide election that comes along after a measure qualifies for the ballot.

This measure was jammed through the Legislature in a last-minute maneuver spearheaded by labor unions and liberal Democrats, and also moved to November a vote on the state’s rainy-day fund and spending limitations. But no one was really surprised by the measure, partly because Calbuzz had told everyone it was coming about two weeks earlier.

(We later also argued that Brown should sign the bill because “a) elections have consequences, b) Republicans [in the Legislature] have proved themselves unwilling to actually participate in governing and c) it’s better that big changes in the law and Constitution should be voted on by the widest possible electorate”).

Deep-dish disappointment does not begin to describe our sorrow at discovering that the SacBee’s usually estimable Capitol Alert blog reported with a straight face that the  HJTA/SBAC had polling data showing voters want the governor to veto the bill.

As if it was a real survey. Which it isn’t. It’s a push poll done for a specific purpose – to try to convince Brown to veto the bill. (Fox claims this was just about placing the bill in “context” but it was really about loading the dice.)

Fielded by Quantitative Focus (whoever they are) for M4 Strategies of Costa Mesa, a message development firm with corporate and Republican clients, the survey claims to have interviewed 603 likely voters, randomly selected from the voter registration list, on Sept. 22. The margin of error for the survey was said to be +/- 4%.

We have no way of knowing, really, but let’s assume the sample and the calling outfit are all legit. The first substantive question – after a palate-cleansing right-track/wrong-track question – was:

Thinking just about state taxes, are they too high, too low or just about right?

This was followed by:

Would you support or oppose a state constitutional amendment called the “Rainy Day Budget Stabilization Fund” that would cap state spending and limit future state budget deficits by increasing the size of the state’s “rainy day fund.” The amendment would require excess state tax revenue be deposited into the rainy day fund to be made available during economic downturns.

You can see where this is going. Then came the sucker punch:

In 2009, the Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature reached a bipartisan agreement to balance the state budget in which the Republicans agreed to support significant increases to the state’s income, sale and car taxes and the Democrats agreed to put before voters in June of 2012 an initiative limiting state spending increases and increasing the state’s rainy day fund.  On the last day of the current legislative session however, the state legislature passed a union-backed bill that would delay public vote on the initiative until November of 2014.  Do you believe Governor Jerry Brown should sign this bill delaying the initiative or veto the bill and allow voters to consider the initiative next June? 

With all that set-up, we’re frankly a bit surprised that the result was only 60-20% in favor of vetoing the bill. (This kind of one-sided question is done in campaigns to test a message: if the ideas in the question are driven home, here’s the result.)

Props to the Bee for comparing the two questions in their Cap Alert post, but major demerits for lending legitimacy to this survey generally, and to the question (and the order of questions) in particular. They should have called it what it was: bogus.

Oh, one last note: Our bet is that this will backfire and Brown will sign the bill.

Pull up the drawbridge, I got mine: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor ranks at the very top of the Beltway’s massive roster of arrogant, self-important scumbags, the kind of loathsome and repulsive phony it’s easy to imagine  someday turning up seriously dead from auto-erotic asphyxiation in his hotel room while wearing rubber underwear.

And we mean that in the nicest possible way.

Cantor’s overbearing narcissism comes off as especially offensive when joined to his overweening hypocrisy, like in his grandstanding public effort to torpedo disaster relief funding while privately putting the squeeze on FEMA to grab as much money as he can for his own district.

More broadly, his endless, self-righteous hectoring and unctuous braying about “outrageous” government spending qualifies as the rankest form of hokum and mendacity, given the fact that his home state of Virginia ranks second in the nation in per capita rake off of federal tax dollars.

A new Census Bureau report (h/t Dan Walters) shows that Virginia receives about $17,000 per resident per year in federal spending, right behind the $18,000 per person flowing to Alaska, home turf of that fierce Tea Party warrior Sarah Palin.

While other hardcore red states like Alabama, the Dakotas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee and Wyoming make the top 25 big spending list, true-blue California ranks 43rd, with $9,000 in federal tax dollars per resident.  Sic Semper Tyrannis,  indeed.

Jerry Brown vs “Four Horsemen of Tax Apocalypse”

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Jerry Brown says he was prepared for the crippling partisan polarization in Sacramento before he began his second tour as governor — but not for the obeisance Republicans pay on fiscal issues to the unelected “Four Horsemen of the Tax Apocalypse.”

In an interview with Calbuzz over the weekend, Brown said his failure to reach a budget compromise with GOP lawmakers resulted, in part, from their “deep belief system that does not permit any association with something that could be called a tax increase.”

Invoking the infamous symbols of Conquest, War, Famine and Death from the Book of Revelation, the former seminarian identified the anti-tax fearsome foursome to whom the Republicans submit as 1) DC anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist; 2) Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association; 3) LA radio spewers John Kobylt and Ken Champiou and 4) FlashReport, GOP operative Jon Fleischman’s right-wing blog.

“It’s emotionally quite wrenching for any of the Republicans to embrace anything opposed by the Four Horsemen of the Tax Apocalypse,” Gov. Gandalf told Calbuzz. “If that group, or even maybe any one or two of them, invoke the dreaded ‘t’ word, they do cower.”

Warming to his theme, he added:

They don’t even have to have a majority. One of them can do the job. For example, the FlashReport was for eliminating the single [source] sales tax break . . . but that wasn’t enough because Coupal . . . said he wanted more time to think about it. And if you don’t get Coupal’s vote you won’t get any votes . . . I won’t say they all think that, but I definitely spoke to a few Republicans who said I had to get Coupal’s sign-off, had to get his blessing .. . . Coupal doesn’t even have to spend any money. It’s just that his name is out there and an opponent will invoke Jarvis. It’s not that they’re going to do a campaign against you, it’s that your opponent will take the Jarvis brand and link it to the tax they say you voted for and that will end your career right then and there. That is a real perception.

Brown’s comments came during a 30-minute telephone interview over the weekend in which he reflected on his first nine months in office. Despite hoarseness from apparently fighting a cold while he studies hundreds of bills the Legislature has sent him, he said he is still enjoying being governor and has given no thought yet whether he would seek another term.

Will you continue to do this even if the Democrats don’t win two-thirds of the Assembly and Senate in 2012, we asked?

I don’t know. I’d like to finish my first year before I start speculating on my second term.

Did he wish he’d just gone off to his ranch in 2010, as he had speculated to us, instead of running for governor?

No. I’ve extremely enjoyed my first year. I find it – I don’t know if I’d call it exhilarating – but I find it quite engaging and interesting and fully worthy of my total involvement.

Whither the charm offensive: The interview began when we asked Brown to tell us what he had learned during the first nine months of his third term.

His first answer was 12 seconds of total silence.

Then he allowed, “I appreciate more the complexity of legislation that’s being generated.”

In the course of our conversation, the 73-year old governor addressed a host of issues, from pension reform and his belief that the Legislature simply passes too many bills to the progress he said his administration is making on green energy, transportation and water policy (full quotes below).

But he was most energetic in responding to questions about how he dealt with the Republican minority on budget and fiscal issues, and flatly rejected the suggestion that during the campaign he may have oversold his ability to charm, cajole and convince Republicans to make a deal with him.

I think that’s a silly narrative. I knew before I ran for governor that it was very, very difficult, maybe impossible, to really solve the budget problem, and that’s really what we’re talking about … it’s the two-thirds vote that can’t be arrived at in most cases … I don’t know where that story came from, but I knew before I ran for governor that it was very difficult and I knew that I might ultimately resort to an initiative because the logjam can’t be broken and a majority vote doesn’t do the job.

Yeah, where did that story come from? Well, when we were the first to interview prospective candidate Brown about the governor’s race in April of 2009, we asked him how he would deal with the fiercely ideological legislators on the left and the right.

“I’m going to become an Apostle of Common Sense,” he said then, borrowing from the title of a book about one of his ideological and theological heroes, G.K. Chesterton. “I will disabuse them of their ill-conceived predilections.”

“There’s an embedded partisanship that has to become dis-embedded,” he said then. “In my bones, I’m not that partisan. I’m an independent thinker. That’s my tradition. I’ve been wary of ideology since I left the Sacred Heart Novitiate (in 1960).”

During the campaign, Brown said he would succeed by gathering all the legislators in for lunch, dinner and a little Kumbaya around the campfire out behind the Capitol. So when we recalled this weekend that he was the one who had said he’d fix Sacramento by forging consensus, he replied:

That was my answer. Did I ever indicate that that was going to produce results? What else can you say when you’re in the campaign? What’s your answer to what they called a $15 billion deficit — it was more like $25 billion — so they say, ‘What is the answer?’ You can say you’ll cut and tax…If you say ‘tax’ then you’re the enemy of the people and if you say ‘cut’ they say ‘What are you going to cut and how the hell are you going to cut that much?’

Or, as he put it back in our April 2009 interview: “Anyone who answers that (tax and cuts question) will never have a chance to be governor.”

The Horsemen: Brown clearly was loathe to acknowledge that he didn’t understand the dimensions of the challenge in Sacramento before he got there; as a political matter, however, he  didn’t want to claim he hasn’t learned anything about how to handle it, either.

When we pressed him about Republican intransigence, he said that coming into office he was not fully aware of the depth and details of the dynamic in which the Republican caucuses operate under the whip hand of the Four Horsemen.

I can’t convince [Senate GOP Leader] Bob Dutton to vote yes on something if his colleagues and the people he looks to or fears are going to say “Don’t do that.” And that’s basically what individual Republicans told me, that even though “I’d like to vote for that I can’t, it’s basically a death sentence.”

So if that’s the way people feel you can have the wisdom of a Solomon but you’re not going to be able to persuade them. The fact that 66 and two-thirds is an immutable barrier that requires Republicans to say “yea” or you have to bypass them and go to the electorate.

We asked a follow-up: Does he believe that in terms of policy any Republicans are “convincible” that new revenue could ever be part of a solution?

No, because they are embedded in a deep belief system that does not permit any association with something that could be called a tax increase — even to allow voters to vote on a tax increase. Now, there may be a different attitude in the next year, I can’t tell you. But that’s the rule. The rule is you have to have a two-thirds vote and the current operating rule of Republicans is “We won’t vote for it -– on any tax increase.” So if you have a gap of $10 billion or $7 billion or $5 billion – we don’t’ really know what it is yet – you gotta cut or you gotta go to the people at some point.

How candid are Capitol Republicans in admitting their position is largely a matter of political survival?

Some say that if the Howard Jarvis people say that I raised a tax or a fee, I’ll be defeated. It’s that simple.

Why not a two-track strategy? Some Democratic and labor allies of Brown have suggested he made a serious miscalculation by not immediately backing an initiative campaign to put tax increases on the ballot, even as he sought a compromise on the issue with Republicans; when that negotiating effort fell through, he was left with no alternative but to agree to deeper cuts than he had originally proposed.

Brown said he couldn’t begin his term by threatening to go to the ballot and besides, he had no reason to suspect the Republicans wouldn’t at least vote to place a measure on the ballot allowing voters to decide whether to extend then-existing tax rates.

I don’t know that it was knowable that the Republicans wouldn’t let the people vote “yea” or “nay” on a tax or a cut. There’s no fundamental reason why letting the people decide something is to be responsible for the peoples’ decision itself. There’s a pretty clear distinction between a tax vote and permitting the sovereign people to vote yes or no on a tax or a cut. . .  

(But) during the time of the tax extension there in March, the Farm Bureau was supporting the extension, the Chamber, Chevron, Safeway – there was virtually no private-sector support, other than the Four Horsemen, that were telling the Republicans not to go along with it.

Too many damn bills: Beyond the polarization that gridlocks Sacramento, Brown said the expansion of state government into the lives of Californians and the resulting volume of legislation is another concern.

Since his previous two terms, from 1975-1983:

…there’s definitely an uptick in legislative involvement in the affairs of Californians. That obviously reflects the complexity of society itself but it does tax the system because there are so many prescriptions floating around this relatively small number of people can only grasp a part of what’s being done. So that makes government less transparent, less understandable.”

Every bill, “whether it’s a microchip on a dog or whether or not to develop a form for some new law,” takes time to understand, he said. For example, Brown said he asked why all the Democrats had voted one way and the Republicans the other way on a bill to ban paying signature gatherers a bounty rate for qualifying initiatives.

The response I got was, “Look, we only had five minutes for that bill.” They basically had to go along with whatever their staff put up for them in their little poop sheet that they give them. And on that particular bill I spent several hours [talking to the deputy secretary of state, academics and others.]. . .

My only point is that one bill alone is hard to understand in just a few minutes of debate so you multiply that by several thousand you have a system that is not very transparent and that even only selected members and staff consultants can understand only some of the bills. It’s not healthy for democracy that so much is opaque and I think regaining public confidence when it’s so low is very difficult when what is being done is beyond the canon of most of the people in the process, let alone the people themselves.

No consensus, impotent leadership: Brown said the “breakdown of a governing consensus” is a problem that extends far beyond Sacramento, but California at least has a potential solution in direct democracy.

I’m also perceiving it in Washington, which is very similar…so we do have the spectre haunting America that the country is becoming ungovernable. It’s a real threat. It’s a serious threat. And how we get out of it is unclear right now.

I think what we are facing in California is much, much more manageable than the breakdown in Washington … In California we have the ultimate resort to the ballot box. So there may be stalemate for a couple of years but ultimately we can hammer this thing out by bringing this before the people and some way that’s probably what we’re going to end up having to do.

The Republicans could have won some significant pension reforms if they had been willing to include it as part of a revenue deal, Brown said.

They [pensions] need reform, they need change, they need to take into account that people are living longer and that the stock market and bond funds may generate a lower return in the years ahead than they did looking backward.

[But within the GOP] The leadership was opposed to the deal. Dutton and [Assembly GOP Leader Connie] Conway could not maintain their leadership against the more hard right unless they took a very hard anti-tax posture…There wasn’t much that was worth the trade-off. The evil of any association with a tax increase is so profound that it’s hard to balance the scale with whatever — ag, pension, reg reform whatever else you can think of –- it pales in terms of the ideological impact of being associated with a tax.

…The people we were talking to weren’t in the leadership and they weren’t used to negotiating … When the leadership is in opposition it becomes very difficult. They call it a ‘pick-off strategy.’ The leadership will say ‘you’re trying to pick off my members’ and they do their best to prevent that because then that challenges their leadership, And if they don’t look like they’re able to hold the governor at bay, then someone else will take their job and get the bigger office.

Brown said he will offer pension reforms some time before the end of the year. “I’ll make some proposals and let the Legislature chew on it for a while,” he said, declining to outline his proposals. Nor would he say what he plans to do with legislation now on his desk to move initiatives to November.

The EGB Jr. stamp: He said that while he has not been able to get a two-thirds vote for revenues through the Legislature, there’s still a lot that his administration has been able to accomplish in his first nine months.

There’s a lot to be done by the executive whatever’s going on in the Legislature. The legislative body is only the generator of new additions to the voluminous codes of California. There’s a whole other and vaster terrain which is called public service – the fish and game, the forests, the rivers, the water, the roads, the trains, the research, the schools, the prisons — there’s a lot going on that has to go on whether or not we get our dose of a 1001 legislative proposals.

Now I know from being governor this time that, looking back on what I knew before, I have a much better sense of how things operate, about how one part of the government fits into another, I know issues when I see them, I’ve put together a very good group of people working with me so I think in the development of the realignment, in the development of the state boards, in the work on the Delta conveyance, in the advancement of energy, renewable energy, all these are going well . . .

I understand how the government operates and I’m putting my own stamp on how to make it work better.