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Decoder Buzz

Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is the politics that actually gets people talking. Decoder Buzz adds a dash of perspective to the stories that are setting tongues wagging. 

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio departs, with reporters nearby after a meeting of House Republicans on Capitol Hill Thursday in Washington. Confronted with a revolt among the rank and file, House Republicans abruptly put off a vote Thursday night on legislation allowing tax rates to rise for households earning $1 million and up. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Boehner 'Plan B' flop: Good or bad for President Obama? (+video)

By Staff Writer / 12.21.12

So House Speaker John Boehner whiffed with "Plan B." He couldn’t get the Republican caucus to pass his own bill extending Bush-era tax cuts for all but those with incomes over $1 million. If you’re President Obama, sitting in the Oval Office thinking about the chaos on Capitol Hill, are you happy or sad? Is this good or bad for the administration’s negotiating position?

At first glance it appears to be a happy event for Democrats, politically speaking. Mr. Boehner’s leverage in negotiations might have been increased by House passage of Plan B. He’d have shown that the GOP had a plan of its own to avoid the "fiscal cliff" and blame from voters. Mr. Obama might have had to edge closer to Boehner’s position, giving up more revenue enhancement and promising larger reductions in spending, to produce any kind of grand fiscal deal.

“Obama already had the upper hand in these negotiations – he was reelected just over a month ago – and Boehner knew it. What happened on the House floor Thursday night made a bad bargaining situation for Boehner that much worse,” writes analyst Chris Cillizza on The Fix Washington Post political blog.

With many House conservatives balking at Boehner’s tax plan, the Republican Party appears split and confused. The speaker is the party’s highest ranking elected leader, but he can’t control his own caucus or chamber. It’s hard to see who would replace him, but if a serious candidate emerges it is possible Boehner’s position is in doubt.

“It’s hard to see how Speaker Boehner continues from here – or why he would want to,” writes David Kurtz, managing editor of the generally left-leaning Talking Points Memo web site.

But politics (outside of elections) isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. It’s possible that Obama this morning is grimly contemplating a rockier road ahead.

For one thing, who is Obama now negotiating with? The speaker? House conservatives? Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell? The White House had hoped for a debt reduction package of $4 trillion or so, spread out over a decade. It now appears there is no general on the other side who can order his troops to rally around such a deal.

Second, what’s the process? Prior to the failure of Plan B, things had been proceeding according in a typical Washington fashion, which is to say, with the predictable conflict and stilted mannerisms of kabuki. Now all is chaos. The House has gone home for Christmas. There might not be enough time remaining to cobble together even a short-term deal to keep deep spending cuts and tax increases from occurring in a fiscal cliff scenario.

Sure, polls show more voters would blame the GOP than the White House if the nation plunges over the cliff. But the post-cliff scenario is unpredictable. Who knows how voters would actually react, especially if the standoff lingers for weeks? Plus, the economy is likely to suffer from even a short cliff plunge. Just wait to see what happens to stock prices.

“The grim reality in Washington is that nobody really knows whether or where there’s a path to avoid the fiscal cliff, in the aftermath of House Republicans’ stunning failure to pass Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B,” writes long-time Wall Street Journal Washington columnist Gerald Seib this morning.

There may be two likely scenarios going forward. In one, Boehner works with the White House to craft a solution that can pass with the support of perhaps half of his caucus, plus House Democrats. Some liberals are happy about the possibility of this coming to pass. Shorn of the need to placate the conservatives, Boehner could tack to the left to get a deal done, in this view.

The other scenario is simply the absence of the first one. Perhaps Boehner will decline to bring forward a plan his own caucus does not support – he remains the most powerful lawmaker in the House, after all. Perhaps he is deposed and replaced by a more ideological GOP leader. Perhaps he planned for Plan B to fail, to demonstrate to Obama where House Republicans really stand.

“Despite all the overheated rhetoric, Obama and Boehner aren’t that far apart on the actual numbers.... The path to a deal remains. The only question is whether the speaker and the president can walk down it together,” writes Chris Frates of the National Journal this morning.

Ben Affleck, actor and founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, listens to testimony during the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the evolving security situation in the Congo on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 19. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Sen. Ben Affleck? Fearing loss of Mass. Senate seat, Democrats scramble.

By Correspondent / 12.20.12

As you may have heard, actor/director Ben Affleck visited Capitol Hill this week to testify about violence in Congo. But the real news for political junkies was that he didn’t totally, 100 percent, flat-out deny that he might be interested in running for the Massachusetts Senate seat that would become vacant if – as looks likely – Sen. John Kerry (D) is tapped to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the next secretary of State.

Asked about the possibility, according to Politico, Mr. Affleck responded: “That’s not what I’m here to talk about.”

The point being, of course, that he didn’t say “no.” And in Washington, anything less than a Shermanesque “I will not run even if you promise to somehow round up and destroy all existing copies of ‘Gigli’ ” statement is seen as "leaving the door open." Adding to the intrigue, Affleck met privately with Senator Kerry during his visit.

Celebrity rumors aside, some actual news about the Massachusetts Senate race came Thursday: the release of a poll showing that outgoing GOP Sen. Scott Brown, who lost his reelection bid in November to Elizabeth Warren, would be a strong favorite to fill Kerry’s seat.

According to the survey by WBUR/MassINC, voters said they’d pick Senator Brown over a generic Democratic candidate by 47 percent to 39 percent. Roughly the same percentage – 47 percent to 40 percent – said they’d choose Brown over the current Democratic governor, Deval Patrick (who has said he’s not interested in running). The spread was even wider when Brown was matched against other current and former state politicians such as Rep. Edward Markey (D) and former Rep. Marty Meehan (D). Brown was given a 58 percent favorable rating overall, the highest of anyone tested in the poll.

All this is, for the most part, a reflection of name recognition. But in a special election – which takes place within a highly compressed time frame – name recognition can be crucial. So it’s easy to see why Massachusetts Democrats are eagerly (frantically?) grasping at the ever-so-faint hope of a possible Ben Affleck candidacy.

Or, really, someone – anyone – with a famous name. The other big rumor emerging this week was that one of the sons of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, Ted Kennedy Jr., might be interested in running. The power of the Kennedy name in Massachusetts is still such that Mr. Kennedy, an investment banker who resides in Connecticut, would probably become an early favorite for the Democratic nomination.

Senator Kennedy’s widow, Vicki Kennedy, has also been mentioned as a possible temporary “placeholder” appointment, as has former governor and onetime presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, although Mr. Dukakis himself has dismissed the likelihood of such a move. 

So what about the prospect of a "Sen. Ben Affleck?" Well, we suppose it's no more unrealistic than “Sen. Ashley Judd.” Affleck, a native of Cambridge, Mass., has been one of the more politically engaged celebrities in recent years, ever since he hit the trail to campaign for Kerry back in 2004. And certainly, famous people have entered the halls of Congress before – most recently, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D). But Senator Franken’s celebrity was on a somewhat less-stratospheric plane than Affleck’s.

The real question is whether Affleck would actually choose to leave a productive career in Hollywood to join an institution that many of its current members describe as frustrating and broken.

We wouldn’t count on it.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington in Feb. For decades, Norquist has vowed to drive Republicans out of office if they didn’t pledge to oppose tax increases. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

What counts as a tax hike? Not Boehner 'fallback' plan, says antitax group

By Staff writer / 12.19.12

The keeper of the GOP’s antitax oath has rendered judgment on House Speaker John Boehner’s fallback "fiscal cliff" plan that would allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire only for millionaires: It is not a tax increase.

So decrees Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative advocacy group led by antitax activist Grover Norquist. With that step, the group gives a measure of political cover to congressional Republicans who back the speaker's plan to retain current low tax rates for all but those with incomes higher than $1 million. 

“Republicans supporting this bill are this week affirming to their constituents in writing that this bill – the sole purpose of which is to prevent tax increases – is consistent with the pledge they made to them,” said Americans for Tax Reform, in a statement. “In ATR’s analysis, it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to fault these Republicans’ assertion.”

But the statement gives only partial cover, because other conservative groups that throw millions of dollars into political campaigns rattled their sabres on Wednesday, warning Republicans to steer clear of any proposal that does not extend the Bush-era tax rates for all Americans."

If the Republicans support this tax increase, they will lose control of the House in the 2014 elections.... Not only that, but a whole lot of members who thought they were safe and thought they could get away with this will lose in their own districts," says conservative activist and fundraising heavy-hitter Brent Bozell

"This is precisely what happened to them six years ago, and they've already forgotten that lesson," he adds. "Republicans were tossed out of the majority when they broke their word on spending. Now they're breaking their word again, and it's not just spending, it's taxes on top of that. Fiscal conservatives just won't stand for this." 

More than two dozen organizations joined Mr. Bozell in opposing any tax increase. Still, the ATR statement is particularly important for Republican lawmakers, who now know that any vote to extend some but not all of the Bush-era tax cuts, which expire at year's end, would not be considered as a violation of Mr. Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge. More than 90 percent of congressional Republicans and a handful of Democratic lawmakers have signed the pledge, an important political symbol for conservative politicians.

“In this Congress the House has already voted twice to prevent any tax increases on any American," notes the ATR statement issued Wednesday. "When viewed with this in mind, and considering this [Boehner] tax bill contains no tax increases of any kind – in fact, it permanently prevents them – matters become more clear. Having finally seen actual legislation in writing, ATR is now able to make its determination about a legislative proposal related to the fiscal cliff. ATR will not consider a vote for this measure a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”

Until now, Norquist had said only that whatever deal Congress and the White House struck on taxes should have to pass a “laugh test” from voters in the long run. 

The House is scheduled to take up Boehner's bill on Thursday, say GOP lawmakers. House Democrats oppose it, and Senate Democrats say the bill would be dead on arrival at the Senate. The White House has said it would veto the measure should it somehow clear Congress. 

Liberal Sens. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa argued Wednesday that the measure would actually raise taxes because it would not extend three provisions, part of the 2009 economic stimulus legislation, that benefit lower-income families, college students, and families with more than three children. 

The Boehner bill would retain capital gain and dividend tax rates at 15 percent for those earning less than $1 million in household income, but it would raise those rates to 20 percent for Americans earning more. Without a congressional fix, those rates would reset at year's end to more than 40 percent for all taxpayers.

Though Americans for Tax Reform says the Boehner bill passes the sniff test, several other conservative organizations have savaged it. 

“On the substance, this bill is anti-growth,” read a legislative alert from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, urging lawmakers to vote against it. “It increases tax rates for those making over $1 million while also raising taxes on capital gains and dividends. We don't buy into the Washington-speak, suggesting that these are actually tax cuts.”

The conservative Americans for Prosperity, too, urged lawmakers to oppose it, saying congressional Republicans had already extended tax rates for all Americans and so needed no further fallback legislation. Boehner has characterized the bill as a fallback measure should talks fail with the White House over devising a broader debt- and deficit-reduction package.

“All this Plan B proposal would do is put Republicans on record embracing the Left’s divisive and arbitrary income threshold,” Americans for Prosperity said Wednesday in a statement. “It would also begin a never-ending quest to move that higher rate down to lower income thresholds, as everyone knows that there is not enough tax revenue in the upper brackets to solve the nation’s runaway spending addiction.”

What do these conservative groups want?As the Club for Growth's Andy Roth put it, they'd rather go over the fiscal cliff – in which case taxes would rise on all American taxpayers and spending reductions decried by both parties would go into effect – and then move on to a fight over the national debt ceiling, which the federal government will reach in the first quarter of 2013. By threatening to refuse to raise the national debt limit, the speaker and congressional Republicans will have enough leverage over Democrats to win the reductions they seek in entitlement programs and spending, believe Mr. Roth and like-minded colleagues such as conservative advocacy group Heritage Action.

President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Sasha, second from left, and Malia, sing during the 90th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony on the Ellipse south of the White House, Thursday, Dec. 6, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Michelle Obama: What's she doing to get ready for Christmas? (+video)

By Staff writer / 12.19.12

What’s first lady Michelle Obama doing to get ready for Christmas?

After all, during holiday receptions more than 90,000 people tromp through the White House to look at the decorations, munch cookies, and listen to the Marine Band. That puts the impending visit of your Schenectady cousins in perspective, doesn’t it? Suddenly three preteens, two accountants, and one aging beagle doesn’t sound like too heavy a load.

Anyway, Mrs. Obama dished about her holiday workload to former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager on Wednesday’s "Today Show". She described herself as “hostess-in-chief.”

“I love that it is the one time of the year when we really open up the White House. We have thousands and thousands of visitors just streaming through every day,” said FLOTUS. “It’s beautiful, it looks great, the smells are magnificent.”

She and Mrs. Hager went on to have a nice chat about how magical it is to live in a (taxpayer-subsidized) mansion during the holidays. It was all in preparation for a “A White House Christmas: First Families Remember” special running Thursday at 8 p.m. on NBC. Several comments jumped out to us:

FIRST DOGS RULE

“Bo is the most popular member of our family,” said Mrs. Obama. What she didn’t add was that the Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog is also a star of this year’s White House decorations. In the East Room, a life-size Bo replica is the centerpiece, and handmade “Boflakes” hang from the trees, according to a tour book prepared for visitors.

Bo’s also the leading canine of “Bo Ho Ho”, a one-minute video of 2012 White House holiday preparations. We must say that in our judgment he’s a bit stiff as an actor. He’s no BarneyGeorge W. Bush’s Scottish terrier, whose “Barney Cam VII: A Red White and Blue Christmas” would have won an Oscar for Best Dog-Based Political Infomerical, if that was an Academy Award category.

NO PRESENT FOR POTUS

That’s what his wife said, anyway. “The president and I, we don’t exchange gifts. We say, we’re in Hawaii, Merry Christmas,” the first lady told the ex-first daughter.

She’s referring there to their annual holiday trip to Hawaii, which occurs after all the tours are done and their official host and hostess responsibilities are over.

Will the Obamas get to go on this trip if negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” remain unresolved? We can’t answer that – the White House won’t say. But according to Politico, federal authorities are already setting up security air and sea no-go spaces in preparation for a POTUS Hawaiian visit.

“The key air restriction surrounds Koko Head on the southeastern side of Oahu, near where Obama has vacationed in the past,” writes Politico’s Josh Gerstein.

MICHELLE OBAMA’S SECRET TALENT

When they’re in Hawaii they like to do “crazy stuff,” said Mrs. Obama. For one thing they have a family talent show.

“Everyone has to participate, the moms and dads, whether it’s singing or reading a poem. The kids will construct a play of some sort,” said FLOTUS.

She added that she did not know what she would do in the show, but even if she did, she would not disclose it to the public. That information is classified “embarrassing,” apparently.

We know – she could pretend to address an empty chair! Or she could do Joe Biden impressions. Just putting ideas out there.

As a final note, this year’s White House holiday theme is “Joy to all.” Fifty-four trees in the executive mansion are decorated to reflect this theme in some manner. The tradition of naming a theme began with Jacqueline Kennedy, who as first lady designated a Nutcracker theme one year for her daughter Caroline.

And the first first lady to have a White House Christmas tree at all? That would have been Caroline Harrison, wife of Benjamin Harrison, who was also the first first lady to use electricity.

Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner walked to his office in the Capitol after meeting with President Obama at the White House in Washington Monday. (Joshua Roberts/REUTERS)

Amid Newtown grief, will a 'fiscal cliff' deal quietly get done?

By Correspondent / 12.17.12

In the wake of the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Conn., many in Washington have noted that the "fiscal cliff" suddenly doesn’t seem all that momentous, after all.

Instead of a big, year-end showdown over taxes and spending, it’s looking as if lawmakers may wind up quietly settling the matter in the coming days, without much fighting or fanfare. The simple fact is, it’s hard to envision anyone choosing to dig in their heels in an ugly stalemate over fiscal matters when the entire nation is grieving the murders of 20 schoolchildren and their teachers.

On Monday, President Obama met again with House Speaker John Boehner – presumably to discuss in earnest the offer Mr. Boehner made over the weekend, in which he agreed for the first time to raise tax rates. According to reports, Boehner’s proposal would raise rates on those earning more than $1 million a year, along with closing some loopholes and eliminating deductions, for a total of $1 trillion in new tax revenues over 10 years.

The proposal also calls for about $1 trillion in spending cuts, at least some of which would come from entitlement programs. In addition, there are reports that Boehner also has agreed to raise the debt ceiling – averting another potential crisis – in return for the broader cuts in spending. 

While Democrats say they have some concerns about the proposal (Mr. Obama has been calling for raising tax rates for those earning more than $250,000 a year, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has expressed strong opposition to cutting Medicare), it’s becoming clear that a real fiscal cliff deal now appears to be on the horizon.

Not long ago, this breakthrough would have been seen as a big deal. But, understandably, it barely registered amid all the coverage of the Newtown shootings. 

And while conservatives and liberals from both parties may not like certain elements of the eventual deal, we don't anticipate them putting up a big fight in the days to come. We could be wrong, of course – in the past, we’ve made a point of never underestimating the far right’s resistance to tax hikes, or the left’s resistance to cutting entitlements. But for Congress to continue to stage a petty, manufactured “crisis” over fiscal matters – at a time when the nation has just experienced a real crisis, with all its heart-rending effects – would, we imagine, not be received well by voters. We think lawmakers get that.

The proposal has the political advantage of not forcing Republicans to actually vote on raising taxes – since they’d simply be letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for those earning more than $1 million. And they’d get to vote to extend tax cuts for everyone else.

Lawmakers now have an opportunity to make the compromises they need to make for the good of the country, and move on, without all the needless “cliff-hanging” drama. We think there's a good chance they'll take it.

This June 2012 photo shows U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice listening during a news conference at the UN. Rice has withdrawn from consideration for secretary of state. (Bebeto Matthews/AP/File)

Susan Rice: Was she pushed to end secretary of State bid?

By Staff writer / 12.14.12

Susan Rice, ambassador to the UN, on Thursday withdrew her name from consideration to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State. Among the Washington chattering classes, this move raises an obvious question: Did Ambassador Rice jump, or was she pushed?

In other words, did she end her bid for Foggy Bottom on her own? Or did the White House tell her it was time to do the loyal thing and not plunge the administration into a contentious nomination battle?

We’ll tell you up top our belief: It was a blend of these reasons, heavier on the latter than the former. In our experience, that’s how Washington works.

First, the background. Rice is no one’s idea of a diplomatic diplomat. She’s been a tough, verbal presence as America’s person at the United Nations. Reportedly on Thursday, she characterized China’s response to North Korea’s missile launch as “ridiculous.”

She’s also one of President Obama’s earliest and staunchest national supporters. She served Mr. Obama as a top foreign policy adviser when he started his run for the Oval Office in 2007.

Sometimes her words have landed her in trouble. The most famous instance of this was her insistence in September on five Sunday talk shows that the Benghazi attack, which killed the US ambassador to Libya, was a spontaneous uprising instead of a preplanned terrorist attack.

The administration has pointed to CIA talking points as the basis for that misstatement. Senate Republicans have said they suspect she was providing political cover for a president just prior to an election.

Now, the thickened plot. In an attempt to answer the concerns of GOP senators who would be crucial to any nomination battle, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rice went on a visiting tour of Capitol Hill following Obama’s reelection. It’s almost unthinkable that she would have done this without White House approval; whether they asked her to do it is unknown.

What Rice found was that opposition to her candidacy was undiminished. We won’t debate the merits of that here. Suffice it to say that even moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine criticized Rice following a 90-minute meeting.

This Senate round accomplished two things. First, it put the White House on notice that it would have to fight to get Rice to fill Secretary Clinton’s chair. Second, it showed this to Rice herself. She was left with little doubt as to exactly what would happen if she sat before the TV lights in a Senate confirmation hearing.

Now, partisans outside power are often eager for their elected favorites to take up a battle. But presidents and their officials know that their capacity for such fights is limited. Most voters don’t like the wrangling; political allies dislike having to rally to arms if they think it unnecessary; the time and energy spent on planning take a heavy staff toll.

Obama knows this. Rice knows it, too. We have no idea – yet – what words passed between them in regard to the secretary of State office. But in the context of the opening of the president’s second term, with the “fiscal cliff” problem unresolved and big issues such as immigration reform still on the table, Obama did not need a confirmation battle that could be avoided. Realistically, Rice had little choice but to take her name out of the mix for what would have been a big promotion.

She did the loyal thing. In politics, loyalty is a river that runs most strongly toward the top. In return, she’s still positioned for bigger things. Even if she’d won confirmation as secretary of State, she’d have remained a congressional target, and questions about Libya and Benghazi would have dogged her days. Now she remains UN ambassador, with the possibility of an eventual appointment as national security adviser, a job over which the Senate has no say.

And who knows? Four years is a long time in politics. She may yet have a chance at the prize she has foresworn – after secretary. John Kerry might get tired of the traveling.

FISCAL CLIFF 101: 5 basic questions answered

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, where he accused President Barack Obama of not being serious about cutting government spending. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

'Fiscal cliff': Is John Boehner in a lose-lose situation?

By Correspondent / 12.14.12

What do Republicans want?

As the two parties continue to complain about a lack of progress in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, the GOP’s maneuvering has been complicated in part by a lack of clarity over what kind of deal its own base would really support.

In theory, of course, Republicans want big spending cuts. Speaker John Boehner is resisting President Obama’s call for higher tax rates unless he can get assurances of meaningful spending reductions – which means, first and foremost, changes to the entitlement programs that most independent analysts agree are posing the biggest threat to America’s long-term fiscal health.

FISCAL CLIFF 101: 5 basic questions answered

But cutting entitlements is certain to be politically painful, and Republican lawmakers understandably appear reluctant to be seen as “owning” those changes. Particularly when recent polling suggests that even many Republican voters wouldn’t support them.

As Reason’s Peter Suderman pointed out this week, a new poll by McClatchy/Marist found that nearly every proposed entitlement reform is strongly opposed by a majority of voters – including a majority of Republicans.

Cutting spending for Medicare? Seventy-four percent of voters said no way, including 68 percent of Republicans. How about raising the eligibility age for Medicare? Nope, 59 percent of voters – and 56 percent of Republicans – don’t like that idea, either.

Even the GOP’s preferred means of raising taxes – by eliminating deductions rather than raising rates – appears at least somewhat problematic with its base. When asked if they’d support eliminating the home-mortgage deduction, 66 percent of Republicans said no.

Mr. Suderman concluded: “[T]he unwillingness to face up to our actual long-term budgetary challenges explains a lot about why the GOP’s last presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, talked a big game about cutting deficits and reducing the debt, but when asked for specifics focused heavily on small-ball spending cuts. It also helps explain why Republicans now are so often wary of talking about overhauling the entitlement system. And it also speaks to a larger confusion within the party about what government should do and be: In theory, the GOP is the party of small government. But polls like this one suggest that it’s really the party of the status quo.”

Now, other polls have painted a somewhat different picture. A Fox News poll also out this week found that 59 percent of Republicans say they'd favor "major spending cuts" in general. It also found that 62 percent of Republicans would favor "reforming Social Security to reduce future costs" (though we'd note that "reforming" sounds a lot friendlier than "cutting benefits"). Sixty percent of Republicans in that poll said they'd favor raising the eligibility age for Medicare. 

Still, the murkiness as to what Republican voters really want – the fact that the party seems to want "cuts" but is less happy about the specific cuts under consideration, particularly to entitlements – helps explain the excruciating position that Speaker Boehner and his party are in right now. They’re essentially being asked to give in on one of their most strongly held positions, the need to keep tax rates low. And in return, they may get to be the bad guys on Medicare and Social Security!

That alone could relegate the party to minority status for decades to come. It’s easy to see how Boehner may eventually conclude that going over the fiscal cliff is a better option.

In reality, both parties know that entitlement reform is going to be necessary. But for it to happen, it’s going to take a lot more public education than we’ve seen so far. And it’s going require that both sides step up and agree to share the blame.  

President Barack Obama speaks to workers about the economy during a visit to Daimler Detroit Diesel in Redford, Mich., earlier this week. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Taxing the rich: why $250,000 became the benchmark

By Staff writer / 12.14.12

What is the definition of “wealthy”?

This matters, especially now, as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner try to come to terms on a package of tax hikes and spending cuts that will keep the nation from going over the "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1.

Over the years, Democrats have gone back and forth on the “wealth” question, as they have sought ways to raise more federal tax revenue. For a time, it was a taxable family income over $250,000 a year. Then last year, Democratic leaders – with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer leading the charge – decided it should really be $1 million. That’s a pretty big difference, no matter how you slice it.

After all, as Senator Schumer likes to point out, there are pricey neighborhoods in his state (and others), where $250,000 is a comfortable income, but hardly extravagant. The $250k threshold would also mean higher taxes on some small businesses, which is politically awkward.

“I think we feel millionaires – that’s the fairest way to go,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California told Politico in October 2011.  

But then the presidential campaign kicked into gear, and Mr. Obama went back to $250,000. It was one of his mantras on the stump: The wealthiest households in America should pay modestly higher taxes on annual incomes over $250,000, the same rate they paid during the prosperous Clinton era. The million-dollar benchmark might have been easier to sell politically, but it would have meant giving up a whole lot of tax revenue – $68 billion a year, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

For the same reason, Warren Buffett’s suggested benchmark of “maybe $500,000 or so,” as the billionaire investor wrote in The New York Times last month, also wouldn’t work.

So the $250,000 family threshold (and $200,000 for individuals) looks as locked in as Obama’s insistence that the rich pay a higher tax rate, not just that they kick in more revenue to the feds. This week, Obama lowered his revenue goal from $1.6 trillion over 10 years to $1.4 trillion, a small move toward what is expected to be a final revenue number in the $1 trillion to $1.2 trillion range.

The president’s allies on Capitol Hill are in lock step behind him on the $250k benchmark.

“I originally believed a million dollars was the right place to draw the line,” Schumer told the Monitor Thursday. “The president campaigned on $250,000, the voters ratified that, and that’s where we are.”

It’s also worth noting that the $250,000 benchmark would end up being higher than that, as the Obama administration has bent over backwards to make sure people below $250k in taxable income don’t end up paying a higher marginal rate.

A Dec. 5 report in the Times concludes that, in fact, “a large majority of families making up to $300,000 – as well as hundreds of thousands of families with even larger incomes – would not pay taxes at a higher marginal rate.”

There are multiple reasons, according to reporters Catherine Rampell and Binyamin Appelbaum.

“To guarantee that tax rates do not increase for any family making less than $250,000, the Obama administration proposed in 2009 to raise marginal rates on taxable income above roughly $230,000 – because the minimum amount of income a family is entitled to shelter from taxation is roughly $20,000,” they write. “But the average amount families in that income range are entitled to shelter from taxation is much larger, closer to $60,000. In other words, families with taxable income of $230,000 on average earned about $290,000 in 2009.”

Furthermore, they add, the administration is adjusting the numbers for inflation – that is, $250,000 in 2009 dollars. In effect, the Times reporters say, Obama is “now proposing to raise marginal rates on families with taxable incomes above $246,000 – meaning, on average, families earning more than about $305,000.”

They cite an analysis by the Tax Policy Center that says the president’s rate hike would affect only the top 1 percent of taxpayers, instead of the 2 percent Obama often cites.

Also worth noting: People below the $250,000 benchmark will be subject to other tax increases, such as those in the Affordable Care Act.

House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio points to a chart while speaking to reporters in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13. Congressional leaders and the Obama administration are attempting to negotiate a deal to avoid the so-called 'fiscal cliff' and work toward a deficit reduction package in the next session of Congress that begins in January. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

How bad is the GOP's image problem?

By Staff writer / 12.13.12

How bad is the Republican Party’s image problem? Pretty bad, according to the latest polls. A just-released NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey put the GOP dead last in the ratings of 11 political figures and institutions, for instance. Fully 45 percent of respondents said their feelings about the party of Abraham Lincoln were now “somewhat” or “very” negative.

Part of the GOP’s problem is that losing a presidential election isn’t good for your brand. Many voters probably still see the Romney campaign as the face of the party as a whole. Part of it stems from the fact that there are now more self-identified Democrats in America than Republicans. Partisans usually disapprove of the other US political team.

But there’s no escaping the fact that in general, voters now see the GOP as an unappealing product. Asked an open-ended question about which word would best describe the party, 65 percent of respondents to the NBC/WSJ poll said something negative, such as “bad” or “outdated”. It’s as if it was a Ford Pinto, or bottled water for pets.

'FISCAL CLIFF' 101: 5 basic questions answered

A Pew Research poll released Thursday had similar results. Only 25 percent of respondents approved of the way Republican leaders in Congress are doing their jobs. Democratic congressional leaders had a 40 percent approval rating in the Pew survey, while President Obama’s comparable figure was 55.

It thus appears the administration has public opinion on its side in the negotiations over ways to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts. Fifty-five percent of Pew respondents said Mr. Obama was making a serious effort to reach agreement on the budget deficit, while only 32 percent said the same thing of GOP leaders.

But Democrats shouldn’t start hiring the DJ for the victory party just yet. There are indications within these surveys that the GOP’s image is in part cyclical – and that the Democratic Party would not escape blame if no agreement is reached and Obama and House Speaker John Boehner plunge together over the fiscal cliff’s Reichenbach Falls.

On the cyclical point, there’s one striking part of the NBC/WSJ poll in which respondents rate their feelings about Obama’s reelection. Thirty percent say they are “optimistic,” 23 percent say they are “satisfied,” 17 percent say they are “uncertain,” and 30 percent say they are “pessimistic.”

Those responses are virtually identical to the ones voters gave in 2004 when the same pollsters asked how people felt about George W. Bush’s reelection.

We’re not saying that Republicans don’t need to reach out to Hispanics, or try to appear less the party of plutocrats, or develop new leaders. We’re just saying that the tide of US politics ebbs and flows. By 2016, we’re fairly certain the GOP will not appear as if it’s about to march off the stage of history, as did the Whigs.

As for blame, it’s true that more voters say they’d blame Republicans than say they’d blame Democrats if the United States plunges over the fiscal cliff. That disparity is 24 percent to 19 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll.

But that is not a huge difference. And the real story in that answer may be that fully 56 percent of respondents said that both sides would be equally to blame if no deal is reached.

Stephen Colbert presents an award onstage at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles in this Sept. 23 file photo. (John Shearer/Invision/AP/File)

Is Stephen Colbert trying to buy Senate seat in South Carolina?

By Staff writer / 12.11.12

Is Stephen Colbert trying to buy a US Senate seat from South Carolina? It kinda sorta sounded like he was during Monday night’s “Colbert Report," as he speculated about transferring nearly a million dollars in untraceable former "super PAC" cash into a secret Palmetto State slush fund.

“That would be horrible if that came out. Which it wouldn’t, because like I said it’s impossible to trace,” said Mr. Colbert on the Senate subject.

Let’s back up and explain the context here, shall we? Last week Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina announced he’ll resign to run the Heritage Foundation, a conservative D.C. think tank. Senator DeMint’s term runs until 2014, and GOP South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gets to pick a replacement to fill the seat until then. South Carolina native Colbert immediately launched a tongue-in-cheek effort to persuade Governor Haley to pick him – although “tongue-in-cheek” is a pretty mild descriptor for Colbert’s comedic style.

“My network contract prohibits me from taking on another full-time job. So the Senate would be perfect,” he said Monday night.

Here’s where the money thing comes in. Colbert used to have a super political-action committee, which he used, among other things, to mount a notional run for “president of South Carolina” during the GOP primaries. But last month, he suddenly shut down the super PAC, even though it still contained almost a million dollars.

What he was doing was taking things a step further to continue to illuminate the netherworld of US campaign finance law. With on-air advice from his personal lawyer, former Federal Election Commission head Trevor Potter, he legally laundered his super PAC stash through a couple of 501 (c)(4) nonprofit groups, essentially making it disappear.

But you just know that money is going to surface in a comedy bit in some manner. The South Carolina Senate situation offers a perfect opportunity. During Monday’s episode, Colbert brought up ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who in 2009 was convicted of trying to essentially sell President Obama’s old Senate seat.

“I certainly don’t want this Senate appointment to turn into a Blagojevich scandal,” said Colbert. “Where, and I’m just spit-balling here, an ambitious would-be senator with a secret stash of nearly a million completely untraceable former super PAC dollars uses that money to buy political influence by transferring all of it to a shadowy fund located in the governor’s state of South Carolina that no one would be able to trace.”

Wink wink, nudge nudge, knowwhatImean?

Don’t hold your breath – Colbert’s not going to be a senator.

Yes, there’s a Public Policy Polling survey out showing he’s the top choice of South Carolina voters for the post. But that poll was not exactly rigorous, in that Colbert’s name came first in the question and the other choices were GOP politicians with generally lower name recognition in the state. Also, it was of all voters. Colbert ran strongly with Democrats and independents. Only 6 percent of Republicans said they wanted a Colbert appointment.

More to the point, Governor Haley has reportedly drawn up a short list of potential appointees, and he’s not on it. On her Facebook page she charged that when she appeared on his show Colbert couldn’t correctly identify South Carolina’s state drink (milk), calling into question his Palmetto bona fides. Colbert’s shot back that she couldn’t identify the state amphibian (spotted salamander).

South Carolina’s other US senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, said on Tuesday that it might be a good thing to have somebody as funny as Colbert in the Senate. “Anybody that could make us laugh might lead to better dealmaking,” Senator Graham told the Huffington Post.

But Graham added that Colbert needs to earn the spot, as comedian Al Franken earned his Senate seat from Minnesota in 2008.

“If Steve Colbert wants to run, then he should go run,” said Graham.

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