Creepy Uncle Sam is back! And this time, he’s starring in a Halloween-themed spooktacular that’s meant to scare young adults away from enrolling in Obamacare.
Oh, you’re not familiar with Creepy Uncle Sam’s body of work? We’ll step back a bit and fill you in: He’s an actor who wears an Uncle Sam suit and an oversize, grinning head that makes him look like a freaky, patriotic garden gnome. The character is a creation of Generation Opportunity, a conservative political activist group aimed at the Millennial Generation.
He debuted in September in two ads: Creepy Uncle Sam appears at a crucial moment in health examinations, scaring the young folk who are about to be subject to that. The point was to emphasize Generation Opportunity’s belief that the Affordable Care Act injects too much government into the health-care marketplace.
Critics complained the treatment was so heavy-handed that the ads might have the effect of turning young people away from conservatives. For instance, in one ad Creepy Uncle Sam, snapping a speculum, approaches a young woman in an examination room. In another, he approaches a young man under similar circumstances, while snapping a rubber glove.
Creepy, yes. Also widely viewed. These two ads have been seen a combined 3.5 million times on YouTube. Their number of thumbs-down “dislikes” on the site outnumbers their “likes” by about 25 percent.
The just-released sequel to these efforts might be called “Creepy Uncle Sam 2: This Time, He Wants Your Candy.” It is longer and features a more complicated plot than the original videos.
It opens with a young man named Chad who's watching a horror movie at home, alone. An ad comes on in which a mustachioed hard-sell artist pushes Obamacare. The ad gets louder. Chad can’t turn it off! He pulls the plug on his TV. Then the doorbell rings ...
We won’t spoil the whole thing in case you want to watch it. Suffice to say that it ends with Creepy Uncle Sam at the door, opening his bag wide, while Chad recoils in horror.
Will this work? Well, it’s not as overbearing as the medical exam videos, so in that sense it’s probably less likely to actually turn people off. It’s kind of long, though: Our inner Spielberg says it could have been edited.
And at this point, Obamacare’s own enrollment troubles would seem to be more of an obstacle to Millennials’ enrollment than any ad-induced second thoughts. Given that context, perhaps Generation Opportunity should have just kept Creepy Uncle Sam in his box and let media coverage of those troubles continue undisturbed.
There’s also some question about the group’s assertions concerning health insurance costs.
Generation Opportunity’s main point is that Millennials should “opt out” of Obamacare and its government-run insurance exchanges and buy their coverage on the existing open market.
That means they’d forgo any government subsidies for which they might be eligible if they bought through the exchanges. But the FAQ at Generation Opportunity’s Optout.org says not to worry about that.
“[M]any people will not be eligible and it still won’t be enough to make it a good deal for you,” the FAQ says.
That statement is simply inaccurate, critics say. It depends entirely on personal circumstances and geography and varies widely.
“[T]hat advice is not based on math,” wrote Allie Jones at The Atlantic Wire earlier this month.
One big point of this struggle is that Obamacare needs to attract a high percentage of currently uninsured healthy young people to make its own math work. They are relatively healthy, and their premiums are needed to offset the costs of others.
President Obama urged the House of Representatives Thursday to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill by the end of the year.
The Senate has already passed bipartisan immigration legislation, Obama said, and the House should finish the job to fix the nation’s broken immigration system and show the US that Washington can solve the nation’s problems.
“Republicans in the House, including the speaker, have said we should act, so let’s not wait,” said Obama. “It doesn’t get easier to just put it off, let’s do it now.”
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Immigration is an issue that has reached a crucial point. Democrats have long wanted comprehensive reform, while some Republicans believe their party should join in the effort lest they lose even more Hispanic votes.
The measure approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate would provide a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants while allocating more money and effort to policing the nation’s border with Mexico, among other things.
In the House, key Republicans have said they prefer to take a piece-by-piece approach to immigration. Many conservatives remain opposed to anything that they judge resembles amnesty for those living in the nation illegally.
But overall progress on immigration has stalled in recent months. It threatens to become a will-o’-the-wisp, something that seems almost within Washington’s grasp before receding in the distance.
Given that, why did Obama devote time to the subject today?
The ticking clock
With only a few work weeks left in the legislative year it’s unlikely the House will make much progress on immigration before 2014. Once things kick into next year, the 2014 midterms draw ever closer, and history shows Congress makes little progress on controversial bills in an election’s shadow.
Obama likely is trying to inject some urgency into the House’s consideration of the subject, given the limitations of the calendar. Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday that he’s still “hopeful” the House will deal with immigration, so now is a propitious time for Obama to bring the subject up again.
“Every day that goes by makes it increasingly difficult to pass new immigration laws,” writes political expert Sean Sullivan on the Washington Post “Fix” political blog.
The administration also wants to put as much political pressure on the House as possible on immigration even if lawmakers aren’t going to pass a comprehensive bill.
Thus Obama mentioned the recent government shutdown and threat of default in the context of immigration action. He said that polls show the public favors action, and that it’s now up to the House to make that a reality.
His clear threat to the House GOP: If you don’t move we’ll try and make this another example of how a faction of conservatives is making you dysfunctional.
“The latest turn to immigration is more about kicking the GOP when it’s down,” writes Zeke J. Miller on Time’s Swampland blog.
It's not Obamacare
With all the news about troubles in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges it’s also likely a relief for the White House to pivot to another subject, even if only for the duration of a short speech.
That’s what Republicans are charging, in any case.
“I’ll give you 3 guesses and 2 don’t count.... Why did the President suddenly decide to give a speech on immigration this morning? #Obamacare,” tweeted Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus Thursday.
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[Updated 3:45 p.m. EDT Oct. 24.] Lee Harvey Oswald’s wedding ring – a haunting symbol of the tragedy of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – is among the hundreds of items of JFK memorabilia scheduled for auction in Boston on Thursday.
The wedding ring sold for $90,000 on Thursday afternoon.
The ring is a simple gold band with a tiny hammer and sickle stamped inside. Oswald bought it in Minsk in the Soviet Union prior to his 1961 marriage to Marina Prusakova, a young Soviet girl he’d met at a dance.
It’s a “very powerful, significant piece of evidence,” Bobby Livingston, a vice president with RR Auction, which offered the ring, told the Associated Press. “It gives you such insight into the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald.”
The ring played a key role in the troubled Oswald’s emotional turmoil on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963.
A former Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union, then returned to America, he’d had difficulty finding employment. His job at the Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas paid little – certainly not enough to support his young wife and two children in any kind of style. He was living in a drab downtown rooming house during the week, returning only occasionally to the small house in suburban Irving where Marina and the children lived with a friend, Ruth Paine.
His marriage was troubled. On Thursday, Nov. 21, Oswald cadged a ride from a co-worker out to Irving. Marina was surprised and unhappy that he’d come. He took her aside and begged her to leave her current living arrangement and live again with him. He put away diapers and lavished attention on his children, according to William Manchester’s classic 1967 book, “The Death of a President.”
“He wanted her and the children with him, and if she would only nod her head he would ‘rent an apartment in Dallas tomorrow,’ ” wrote Manchester.
She refused. She’d found a haven there with Ruth Paine and could manage without him, she said. Oswald had nothing left, not even his pride.
He awoke early in their small bedroom the next morning, Friday, Nov. 22. He left Marina $187 in bills, virtually all the money he had.
“Before departing he slipped off his wedding ring and left it in the little china cup that had belonged to his grandmother,” writes Manchester. He was giving up.
Oswald retrieved a mail-order rifle he had hidden in the garage. He rode back to the Book Depository with the co-worker, saying the bundle was curtain rods for his small room. The stage was set for the tragedy of his assassination of the president.
Since that day, the ring itself has had an uncertain history. In 2004 it was discovered in the files of a Texas lawyer who had done work for Marina Oswald, now Marina Oswald Porter. It was in an envelope marked “Treasury Department Secret Service,” according to the RR Auction catalog.
The ring was accompanied at auction with a five-page letter from Marina, who after the tragedy of that November married a man named Kenneth Porter, remained in Dallas, and eventually became a naturalized US citizen.
“At this time in my life I don’t wish to have Lee’s ring in my possession because symbolically I want to let go of my past that is connecting with Nov. 22, 1963,” the letter reads, in part.
Also up for auction Thursday are a white Lincoln that JFK and Jackie rode in just hours before his killing and numerous personal Kennedy mementos, such as ties and glasses the president once wore.
The White House has fired National Security Council official Jofi Joseph for running an anonymous Twitter account that harshly criticized Obama administration policies and members, sometimes in scathingly personal terms.
Mr. Joseph was nonproliferation director at the NSC, and was involved in preparing for nuclear negotiations with Iran. He was also poised to move to a top Pentagon job before his abrupt dismissal, according to plugged-in Foreign Policy magazine blogger Gordon Lubold.
In a statement, Joseph said the Twitter account started as a “parody” and admitted that it developed into something “inappropriate” over time. He apologized to those he’d offended.
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“It has been a privilege to serve in this Administration and I deeply regret violating the trust and confidence placed in me,” said Joseph, in an e-mail to Politico.
The now-shuttered @NatSecWonk account, which began in February 2011, was a favorite diversion for Washington’s defense and security cognoscenti, but readers often wondered who was behind the acidic tweets. It was clear the author had inside knowledge of White House discussions – and some pent-up anger and resentment about his colleagues.
He called senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett a “vacuous cipher,” for instance. After strategic communications director Ben Rhodes published a USA Today op-ed, NatSecWonk ran through a list of other White House aides, saying all were “far better choices” to write the piece than Mr. Rhodes.
The Clintons in general and Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular were among his favorite targets.
“Look, [Republican Rep. Darrell] Issa is an [expletive], but he’s on to something here with the @HillaryClinton whitewash of accountability for Benghazi,” NatSecWonk tweeted at one point.
The FBI also suspects that Joseph is the person behind a second, racier Twitter account, @DCHobbyist, reports Mr. Lubold of Foreign Policy. This feed includes numerous references to encounters with prostitutes and paid female escorts.
Joseph is married to a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Openly interacting with escorts can be a security risk; for a married and well-placed official, it can easily lead to blackmail and worse,” writes Lubold.
What was Joseph thinking? That’s what his many Washington-based followers are asking themselves today. Clearly he either lost sight of reality or was drawn into the apparent anonymity of social media, as was Anthony Weiner, the ex-New York mayoral candidate and US lawmaker who was “Carlos Danger” when soliciting sex talk from female followers.
(In one tweet, NatSecWonk insulted Mr. Weiner’s appearance, saying his wife must have been wearing “goggles” when she met him.)
Perhaps Joseph was overcome by the familiar frustrations of midlevel policy officials. They work long hours on papers and positions only to see their work often undone in minutes by bosses attuned to the moment’s political pressures.
Already some Republicans are citing Joseph’s firing as evidence of administration incompetence. The White House has time to investigate someone for nasty tweets and then fire him, but has yet to fire anyone over the loss last year of American lives in Benghazi, Libya, or the glitch-ridden rollout of the Affordable Care Act exchanges, goes this theme.
The right-leaning site Twitchy on Wednesday was giggling over a tweet from Slate political correspondent John Dickerson: “White House has fired crass & disloyal anonymous Tweeter @netsecwonk. Now looking for anonymous person who launched healthcare.gov.”
As for Joseph himself, he has lost more than his impending promotion to the Pentagon. He has apparently also been stripped of his security clearance, a valuable asset in the national security community. That would make it much harder for him to find another job in his current line of work. Not that it would have been easy in any case, given the reason for his dismissal.
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Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky has introduced a constitutional amendment that he says would prevent members of Congress from voting into law special treatment for themselves or for pretty much any other top US federal official.
Why is he doing this? It seems clear he’s aiming at Obamacare provisions that some Republicans say give preferential status to members of Congress and their staffs. There was a lot of talk about that during the recent unpleasantness of the government shutdown and debt-ceiling struggle, if you remember.
The amendment’s language, released Monday on Senator Paul’s official website, seems straightforward. Its first section says, “Congress shall make no law applicable to a citizen of the United States that is not equally applicable to Congress.”
Further sections say similarly that laws have to be equally applicable to the president, vice president, ambassadors, other public US officials, the US Supreme Court, the chief justice, and other federal judges.
That’s about it. Simple, right?
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Well, yes and no. The words may be concise, but in this case their effects would be wide-ranging and unpredictable. And in terms of Obamacare, it’s possible that this amendment, if adopted, would have the exact opposite effect of what Paul evidently intends.
That’s why it has drawn some harsh criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.
“It is a shoddy and sloppy piece of work, as if written on the back of a napkin,” writes right-leaning Washington Post pundit Jennifer Rubin.
Some laws exclude lawmakers for good reason, according to Ms. Rubin. Paul’s language would appear to make them vulnerable to lawsuits or criminal prosecution for their votes, for example.
“The problem ... is that it makes no distinction between laws that give special privileges to members of Congress and laws that exclude them from federal benefits for entirely legitimate reasons,” adds Ian Millhiser at the left-leaning "Think Progress" website.
Taken literally, the amendment might mean that every member of Congress is eligible for, say, Medicare, even if they’re not yet 65, according to Mr. Millhiser. To rule otherwise would entail judging a law to be not equally applicable to lawmakers, he says.
As to Obamacare, the situation is this: The insurance exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act are intended for the use of the self-employed or people who work for a small business that doesn’t offer health coverage and of others who buy individual or family insurance on the open market. They’re not supposed to be used by the employees of large entities.
But during the debate over Obamacare, GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa offered an amendment that requires members of Congress and their staffs to buy Affordable Care Act coverage. He thought Democrats would reject this, leaving them open to a charge of hypocrisy. Instead, they embraced it, and it passed.
That means members of Congress and their aides now must buy health insurance through Obamacare exchanges, instead of the existing government Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. In that sense, they are not “exempt” from Obamacare at all, as some Republicans charge.
However, the Office of Personnel Management has ruled that the federal government can continue to pay a portion of the health-care premiums for lawmakers and their staffers. Virtually all big employers engage in this cost-sharing. Some in the GOP, most notably Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana, have pushed to end these contributions, arguing that they amount to Washington’s true Obamacare exemption.
That’s why conservative Republicans tried, and failed, to attach the “Vitter amendment” eliminating these subsidies to the government-funding bill that finally passed last week.
The problem here with Paul’s proposed amendment is that Congress in essence applied special treatment to itself by voting to put members and staffers in the small-business-oriented section of the Obamacare exchanges in the first place. Workers of other large US employers are prohibited from participating in the program.
“So taking all this together, as to members and employees of Congress, the net result of Senator Paul’s proposed amendment would probably mean that Congress would revert back to the employer-provided insurance system in place before the [Affordable Care Act],” writes Steven Schwinn, an associate professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, on the "Constitutional Law Prof Blog."
This is all theoretical, of course, because it is highly unlikely the amendment will be added to the US Constitution. It would first have to pass by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Then 38 of the 50 state legislatures would have to vote to approve it as well.
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Suddenly, the on-time arrival of President Obama’s signature domestic-policy initiative is under question not just because of politics, but because of technology.
Despite the president’s efforts on Monday to quell concerns about technical problems facing the Obamacare website, Healthcare.gov, questions continue to surface regarding whether to delay a key deadline involved in implementing the law.
The law’s Republican critics in Congress – who have long been trying to repeal, defund, or delay the Affordable Care Act – are taking aim, of course. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is suggesting the mandate to enroll for insurance be postponed until the website is certified as operating smoothly for six months.
But Senator Rubio's plan is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate. The bigger question is: If the software fixes prove to be difficult, might the president feel forced into a delay, offering some sort of exemption for Americans who are unable to enroll online?
In a press briefing Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney faced questions along that line. Mr. Carney avoided giving a definitive answer, but the administration's take so far has been: Be patient.
The rollout of the website is only three weeks old, and there’s still plenty of time before enrollment deadlines arrive, the thinking goes.
But concern is growing. “The administration should make clear whether, and under what circumstances, it might delay the tax penalty for people who are unable to buy insurance through the exchanges,” a Bloomberg View editorial said Monday.
Under the law, Americans must sign up for insurance by early in 2014 – or owe a tax penalty. In effect, the practical enrollment deadline for people buying health insurance on new exchanges is mid-February. The exchanges opened Oct. 1, and people hoping to have coverage in place on Jan. 1 need to be enrolled by Dec. 15.
So there is time. But Mr. Obama gave no clear word Monday about how long the website fix might take, and some specialists working on the project have said the process could drag into late this year or longer, according to The New York Times.
Calling the problems a “website” issue is an understatement. This is a data-processing job of mammoth scale and considerable complexity. It involves recording and verifying information from millions of Americans. It involves relaying that enrollment data to private insurance companies across the nation. And it involves cooperating with more than a dozen states that have chosen to operate their own health insurance exchanges.
One insurance firm, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Nebraska, "had to hire temporary workers to contact new customers directly to resolve inaccuracies in submissions," while "Medical Mutual of Ohio said one customer had successfully signed up for three of its plans," according to The Wall Street Journal.
“The Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” Obama said Monday, as he sought to defend the law.
That's true in that the law isn’t fundamentally about online signups. And the government is offering ways to sign up, other than the website.
But the website woes do play into the hands of critics trying to raise doubts about whether the law is a "train wreck."
“When the administration blows this kind of big project it only corroborates Republicans’ feverish arguments that government cannot do anything efficiently,” the Bloomberg editorial said.
For Obama, some estimate of how long the fixes might take would be a good first step.
Even some Democratic supporters of Obamacare are talking about the possible need for some deadline relief.
In a letter sent to the president Tuesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire suggested extending the open enrollment period, in the interest of making the law a success. She also asked the White House to clarify how the “individual responsibility penalty [for people who don't buy insurance] will be administered and enforced” in light of the website’s difficulties.
The Obama administration scheduled a briefing for Wednesday with House Democrats on the technical problems, Reuters reported.
The administration also announced that Jeffrey Zients, a former business leader who worked for Obama at the Office of Management and Budget, will help guide the "tech surge" aimed at solving the problems as soon as possible.
President Obama caught a fainting woman who was standing behind him during his Monday speech on the Affordable Care Act, in case you haven’t heard.
The incident happened near the end of his address. Mr. Obama was wrapping up his defense of his signature health-care law, saying that it was intended to free families from the fear of illness and so forth, when a dark-haired woman in a red dress began to crumple in the Rose Garden sunshine.
The president and several other people reached out to steady her. “You’re OK. I’m right here. I got you,” Obama said.
“This happens when I talk too long,” he added.
The woman’s name is Karmel Allison. She is pregnant and has been diagnosed with diabetes. She had not drunk enough water before the outdoor event, she told Business Insider, and eventually began to feel faint.
Next thing she knew, the nation’s chief executive was breaking her fall.
Ms. Allison has not actually signed up for Obamacare yet, or attempted to. But she’s looked at whether she’d be able to make use of the law, given that she has a preexisting condition, and was happy to learn that diabetes would not preclude her from getting what she felt was affordable coverage.
“My husband and I are reviewing our options, now that we have other options,” she told Business Insider.
In fact, this is the second time a young woman has fainted in conjunction with Obamacare addresses. It’s a bookend of sorts, as the first fainting occurred back in 2009 during a congressional hearing on the legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was speaking before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the bill’s features when a female intern fainted and hit her head. Secretary Sebelius immediately stopped speaking, and several lawmakers who are trained physicians rushed to her aide.
She eventually revived and walked from the room under her own power. Then-chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California said that everyone was “distressed” about the incident and added that he hoped the prospect of congressional passage of health-care reform legislation would not slow her recovery.
“Maybe the hope of it will spur her on,” he said, jokingly.
Opponents of the law would say that such hope has been proved wrong, at least so far, given the many teething problems that have appeared in the Obamacare website.
Pressure on the administration to provide more details about the problems of HealthCare.gov is increasing, Politico notes Tuesday morning. That’s one reason that Obama spoke in the Rose Garden in the first place.
“Transparency isn’t the only issue that’s dismaying the law’s supporters,” writes Politico’s David Nather. “Some Democrats are privately irked that Obama, in their eyes, had to bail out HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who’s likely to be grilled mercilessly about the website breakdowns – and the lack of pre-launch testing – the moment House Republicans get her into a hearing room, which is expected next week.”
Who’s the face of the national Republican Party now that the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis is over? We admit that this is a rhetorical question given that such a job doesn’t actually exist. It’s more like asking who’s the Big Person on Campus, which is a position bestowed by a rough consensus among underclassmen that is subject to continual reconsideration. And the recent unpleasantness in Washington has upset the old GOP consensus to an extraordinary extent.
One thing’s for sure: John Boehner’s down at the moment. Yes, the speaker of the House remains the highest-ranking elected Republican in the nation. Yes, he’s retained the loyalty of his caucus despite his troubles. Tea party conservatives appreciate that he adopted their tough stance toward Obamacare, at least until the debt crisis loomed.
But a CNN/ORC poll out this morning shows he’s now got brutal numbers with the public. Sixty-three percent of survey respondents say the Ohio Republican should be replaced as House speaker. Only 30 percent say he should stay in the job.
For Mr. Boehner, the breakdown of these numbers is even worse. Republicans as a whole are split on his leadership, with 47 percent calling for his head, and 46 percent saying he should remain. The only subgroup that’s really in his corner is conservatives, who favor his speakership 55 to 35 percent.
Meanwhile Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is up. Conservatives may rip him as a sellout for his role in the deal which ended the recent fiscal crisis, but most other GOP factions have been quietly relieved. (Or loudly relieved, if you’re Sen. John McCain.)
On Sunday Senator McConnell said flatly on CBS Face the Nation “there’ll not be another government shutdown. You can count on that.” That’s a pretty direct assertion of power, if you ask us. It also likely means he remains unworried about his tea party primary challenger back home in Kentucky, where he’s up for reelection in 2014. Frustrated conservatives have vowed to direct money to Matt Bevin, the challenger in question, but they’re going to have to dig deep to make a difference: new third-quarter totals show McConnell has $10 million on hand while Bevin raised only $220,000 from the outside, plus $600,000 of his own money.
McConnell appears confident that his real worry is the general election, where he’ll face Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled in recent days he is increasingly focusing on his Democratic opponent in next year’s Senate race and not so much on his Republican primary challenger,” writes the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Sam Youngman.
Then there’s Ted Cruz of Texas. Millions of barrels of pixels have been spilled discussing the future of the junior senator from Texas in recent weeks. He went out onto the defund-Obamacare stage and came back a star, particularly among those on the right. As we’ve written before, Senator Cruz’s willingness to fight against the odds has thrilled his supporters and made him the closest thing there is to the president of US conservatives.
But it is our belief that in so doing he has limited his future political appeal.
Look, the tea party is a minority faction in the GOP. In September, about 35 percent of Republicans identified themselves as tea party conservatives, according to Gallup. That’s a big drop from 2010, when 65 percent of the party said it supported the tea party.
Is Cruz the front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination? Well, maybe – polls show he’s a top pick at the moment. And tea party adherents are more likely to vote in primaries than other Republicans. But it’s early and he’s just had a burst of publicity. Some of that represents name recognition. And he’ll have to do some extensive tacking toward the center of the party just to win the GOP nod. Remember Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and the rest of the right-leaning GOP challengers? They lost.
Cruz has alienated many GOP establishment leaders, and they’ll be sure to make that clear as the campaign develops. That’s going to matter, argues political scientist Jonathan Bernstein on his "A plain blog about politics."
“To the extent that those future negative cues are already baked in – and I’m fairly confident that’s the case for Ted Cruz – no, he’s not the frontrunner. Not at all,” writes Mr. Bernstein.
It’s hard to imagine a more divisive political figure in the United States today than Ted Cruz.
The freshman US Senator from Texas drives liberals and Democrats crazy. If anything, he drives many of his fellow conservatives and Republicans – that is, the members of Congress trying to compete with President Obama through traditional legislative means – even crazier.
He’s the face of a newly-revived tea party movement that’s as much a threat to the establishment GOP as it is to Democrats. And as much as any other individual in US politics today, Sen. Cruz was responsible for the 16-day partial federal shutdown and up-to-the-edge government default, cheerleading House tea partiers to the detriment of Speaker John Boehner’s position.
US Rep. Peter King (R) of New York says his fellow Republican is “either a fraud or totally incompetent” for having instigated a shutdown strategy – focused on killing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) – that had no chance of succeeding.
Yet for all the broken political crockery strewn along Pennsylvania Avenue between Capitol Hill and the White House, there’s no one who has been more successful at articulating his message, gathering a substantial minority of like-minded lawmakers to his cause, and riveting the attention of political activists, pundits, and those in office feeling the broad disgruntlement of the American electorate today.
As political professionals in Washington – and those voters paying close attention – catch their breath after the recent unpleasantness, everyone wants to know what Sen. Cruz is thinking now, what his plans are.
“There’s an old saying that ‘Politics, it ain’t beanbag.’ And, you know, I’m not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends in the US Senate,” he said on ABC’s “This week” Sunday. “Given the choice between being reviled in Washington, DC, and appreciated in Texas, or reviled in Texas and appreciated in Washington, I would take the former 100 out of 100 times.”
The deal worked out to avoid default and get all government employees back to work restores government funding until Jan. 15 and raises the debt limit through Feb. 7. In other words, a crisis situation may have been averted but not solved.
“Will you rule out pushing to the brink of another shutdown by saying you would block funding for the government unless Obamacare is defunded?” ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked Cruz. “Will you do that again?”
“I would do anything and I will continue to do anything I can to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare,” Cruz replied. “What I intend to do is continue standing with the American people to work to stop Obamacare, because it isn’t working, it’s costing people’s jobs, and it’s taking away their healthcare.”
“Standing with the American people?” Among the largely-conservative electorate in Texas, perhaps, but not necessarily among the broader majority – which may have problems with Obamacare and its startup troubles, but clearly was opposed to fighting it with a government shutdown or threat of default.
Still, Cruz has surpassed Sarah Palin and others as the champion of the tea party right. “Stand With Ted Cruz” is the fund-raising rally cry of the Tea Party Express.
“I don’t expect him to moderate. We don’t think he should moderate at all,” Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, told the Dallas Morning News. “One thing about Congress, there’s no CEO. Everybody’s an independent contractor. Everybody answers only to their constituents who elected them to office. And Cruz has struck a chord with a lot of people.”
A lot of like-minded people, that is.
While the tea party is less popular than ever, with even many Republicans now viewing the movement negatively, the Pew Research Center reported this past week that Cruz’s own popularity has soared among tea party Republicans.
Among this group, his popularity has risen 27 points since July – from 47 percent to 74 percent.
That was certainly true in San Antonio Saturday, where Cruz received an eight-minute standing ovation from about 750 people in an appearance organized by the Texas Federation of Republican Women.
“After two months in Washington, it's great to be back in America," he quipped.
"We saw what can happen when the American people unite, when the American people stand up," Cruz told Reuters after his speech. "What the American people want is economic growth and job creation. They are crying out for something that fixes all the enormous damage that Obamacare is causing."
That’s a potent message that resonates with many Americans. And yet the messenger himself may see an increase in personal toxicity.
A Gallup poll during the government shutdown found that Cruz had gained significant name recognition, but the percentage of Americans with an unfavorable view of him had doubled to 36 percent from 18 percent in June.
Here’s what’s known about the so-called “Kentucky kickback,” a controversy that blew up just as Senate leaders were signing off on a deal to end a government shutdown and avert default on the national debt.
While the Senate had held out for a "clean" bill to fund government in its standoff with the House, the deal that Senate leaders took to the floor on Wednesday included an obscure, one-line change to an unrelated law that increased authorization for spending on a massive water project in Kentucky, the home state of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
It didn't spend $3 billion, as critics quickly charged. It authorized a new cap of $2.9 billion for a project that had already spent well beyond the $775 million level authorized by law. (More on that later.) Nor was it, technically, a banned spending "earmark." But it smelled bad. Conservative critics, who viewed the Senate deal as a sellout and Senator McConnell as the traitor, dubbed it the "Kentucky kickback." [Editor's note: In the original version, the number in this paragraph was incorrect.]
Pork projects, or member earmarks on spending bills, were once common practice in Washington. After Republicans took back control of the House in 1995, pork projects soared – peaking at $29 billion in 2006, the year the GOP lost control of the House after scandals involving bribes for earmarks. In 2010, a new GOP majority banned the practice, and the Senate followed suit.
What makes earmarks toxic is the appearance of special favors for the powerful, drawn up in secret, and not vetted by any government agency or subject to competition from other projects.
But the Olmsted Locks and Dam project, spanning the Ohio River between Olmsted, Ill., and Paducah, Ky., is no "bridge to nowhere," the notorious Alaska earmark that launched the drive in 2005 to end earmarks. The dam replacement project aims to ease a bottleneck for barges about 17 miles upstream of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The Army Corps of Engineers calls the site "the busiest stretch of river in America's inland waterways."
When Congress first authorized the project in 1988, the estimate for completion was $775 million. By FY 2011, costs had soared to more than $1.4 billion, and the Army Corps says it will need authorization to spend up to $2.9 billion to finish the work. Despite delays and cost overruns, the project retained bipartisan support. The proposed increase was included in President Obama’s FY 2014 budget and authorized by both Senate and House committees.
It's not clear whether Senate leaders expected the blowback they're getting on this project. Accounts from aides, who will not be quoted publicly, differ on this point. What is clear is that Senate leaders, on both sides of the aisle, quickly rallied to its defense.
Both McConnell and Senate majority leader Harry Reid denied that the project was an earmark or that McConnell had requested it. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Water Development subcommittee, said in a statement that he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who chairs the panel, had requested the project and that it would save taxpayer dollars.
“According to the Army Corps of Engineers, $160 million taxpayer dollars will be wasted because of canceled contracts if this language is not included,” Senator Alexander said, in a statement.
So, if it's not an earmark and McConnell hadn't requested it, what’s the problem?
One problem is that Senate leaders promised a “clean” bill but delivered a $2.9 billion add-on that benefited one of the principal negotiators of the deal, who is also up for reelection in 2014, as is Senator Alexander.
“It’s a big amount of money in a bill that was supposed to be clean, so everyone started screaming pork,” says Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a public interest group which tracks pork projects and government spending.
"There are other projects like this around the country where it could be more expensive to taxpayers to delay the funding or the project," he adds.
At a time when Congress’s approval rating is at near record lows, special treatment for powerful members is a red flag for critics and can be a big liability for individual lawmakers.
When news broke that Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, a critical swing vote for the president’s health-care reform in 2009, had also negotiated a special funding stream for Nebraskans in that bill, critics dubbed it the “Cornhusker kickback.” McConnell called it, “a smelly proposition.” Senator Nelson faced criticism about it right up until his decision to not seek reelection.
But in McConnell's case, the fire wasn't coming from across the aisle but from a civil war deep within GOP ranks. The Senate Conservatives Fund, known for funding primary campaigns against GOP incumbents not deemed conservative enough, broke news of the special provision soon and went on the attack.
“In exchange for funding Obamacare and raising the debt limit, Mitch McConnell has secured a $2 billion Kentucky kickback. This is an insult to all the Kentucky families who don’t want to pay for Obamacare and don’t want to shoulder any more debt,” said SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins, in a statement on Wednesday.
On Friday, the SCF endorsed tea party candidate Matt Bevin against Senator McConnell in the 2014 Senate primary.
So far, the controversy has barely registered in the Kentucky Senate race. Neither Mr. Bevin, nor McConnell's likely Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, have questioned funding for the dam, in a state where politicians often run on what they are able to send back home from Washington.
"There was no earmark," McConnell said in an interview with WVLK news radio in Lexington, Ky. on Friday. "Every single member of the Senate had a chance to review it and none asked for it to be taken out, and the committee points out that this authorization actually saved $160 million for taxpayers and it's pretty rare when you're able to save money in a spending bill."
Still, as McConnell said of the Cornhusker kickback, the special treatment for this project strikes many critics as "a smelly proposition."
"Congress's reputation has been adversely affected by the shutdown, and now by spending in this not-so-clean continuing resolution," says CAGW's Schatz. "They set themselves up for this criticism, whether it is warranted or not. It doesn't matter whether this particular project is an earmark, that's what everybody is calling it."