Category Archives: Politics

Headlines distort CBO report on Obamacare

The reaction to a Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday demonstrated how easily politicians are able to game the media system.

The CBO, a respected source of nonpartisan data, found that the Affordable Care Act would lead to the disappearance of more than 2 million jobs — nearly all of them because people will choose to stop working or cut back on their hours now that their health insurance is no longer dependent on their continued employment. CBO director Douglas Elmendorf put it this way:

I want to emphasize that that reduction doesn’t mean that that many people precisely will choose to leave the labor force. We think that some people will chose to work fewer hours. Other people will choose to leave the labor force.

Of course, that didn’t stop Republican opponents from claiming that the CBO report proves the ACA is a job-killer. And why not? The media are so quick to go along. Let’s consider that this is Elmendorf’s report, and he said at a news conference precisely what it meant. Yet the very NPR story in which his remarks are quoted is headlined “Is Obamacare A Job Killer? New Estimates Suggest It Might Be.” Gah.

This morning I looked at the front pages of four major dailies. Here’s how they stack up, in order of disingenuousness.

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1. The Boston Globe. “Health law projected to put a dent in workforce; GOP calls analysis proof of act’s failings.” The clear impression is that people are going to lose their jobs because of the ACA. If you would like to believe that, go right ahead — but it’s not what the CBO said. The Globe headline is slapped atop a New York Times story (below) that isn’t nearly that bad.

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2. The New York Times. “Health Care Law Projected to Cut the Labor Force; Choosing Not to Work; G.O.P. Seizes On Data — Drop May Equal 2.5 Million Jobs.” Whew! Try saying it all without taking a breath. The Times’ headlines is slightly better than the Globe’s: the second deck, “Choosing Not to Work,” gets at the gist of the CBO report. But the rest of it makes it sound like Tuesday was a very bad day for the ACA. You’ve got to read the story to find out what’s really going on.

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3. The Washington Post. “New fuel for the health-law fight; CBO: More will quit jobs, cut hours; Estimates revive debate over economic effects.” Not bad. The impression given by the headline is that the fight is over the economic effect of people quitting their jobs. Not quite right, but we’re getting closer. Here’s the story.

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4. The Wall Street Journal. “Health Law to Cut Into Labor Force; Report Forecasts More People Will Opt to Work Less as They Seek Coverage Through Affordable Care Act.” Folks, we have a winner — a headline that accurately reflects what the CBO actually said. Good story, too. (To get around the Journal’s paywall, enter the headline at Google News. Don’t worry. Rupert knows about it and says it’s OK.)

The problem with deceptive or incomplete headlines is that few people get past them or the partisan attacks they reflect. What House Speaker John Boehner (quoted in the Times story) said is simply flat-out wrong: “The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy, and this CBO report confirms that Obamacare is making it worse.”

As U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., put it in a conversation with reporters (also quoted in the Times): “You guys are going to politicize it no matter what happens.”

Journalists need to resist the urge.

Headline images via the Newseum’s “Today’s Front Pages.”

A loose, funny and partisan SOTU. But will it matter?

President Obama delivering his State of the Union address.

President Obama delivering the 2014 State of the Union address Tuesday night.

This commentary was published earlier at WGBH News.

President Obama’s fifth State of the Union speech wasn’t his best, but it may have been his most entertaining. Freed from the illusion that Republicans will ever work with him, the president last night was upbeat, funny and slashingly partisan.

He paid tribute to House Speaker John Boehner as “the son of a barkeep,” forcing a pained smile and upraised thumb from his longtime nemesis. He rambled about the glories of Obamacare so that Republicans could be seen sitting on their hands for as long as possible. And, in my favorite moment, he pulled a rhetorical switcheroo that put Republicans in the position of having to applaud gay people if they also wanted to be seen paying tribute to our Olympic athletes.

“We believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” Obama said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” USA! USA!

It was an interesting gambit — a way for a president whose poll numbers have fallen to show dominance over a group of people who are even less popular than he is. According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, 49 percent of the public hold a favorable view of Obama and 50 percent hold an unfavorable view — down from the 60-37 spread he enjoyed about this time a year ago. But an ABC/Post poll also found recently that 71 percent of Americans disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their jobs, compared to just 25 percent who approve. (Congressional Democrats do only slightly better, but they were not Obama’s target Tuesday night.)

The pundit class, both liberal and conservative, took note of Obama’s loose mood.

“Gone from the speech was what I’d heard in pretty much every other Obama State of the Union, pressing bipartisan cooperation, finding common ground, pushing points of agreement,” wrote Josh Marshall, editor of the left-leaning Talking Points Memo. “There wasn’t a contrary note. It was more just ignoring the whole thing, as though the President were saying, ‘Okay, guys, I get it. You won’t do anything. Okay. Fine.’ Basically, let’s not play that charade anymore.”

Observing the same phenomenon through the other end of the ideological prism was Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, who put it this way: “If this is the imperial presidency, it wasn’t a very imperial speech. It was small in every way. It wasn’t eloquent and didn’t even seem to try. Instead it was conversational, including a joke about calling your mother.” Added Ron Fournier of the nonpartisan National Journal: “Is that all there is? … It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader.”

On the more substantive elements of the State of the Union, media reaction focused mainly on the president’s determination to work around congressional gridlock through the use of executive orders to raise the wages of employees who work for federal contractors and to combat climate change, among other things. On this front there is some confusion. Is it no big deal given that Obama has actually used such orders far less frequently than his predecessors, as Dan Amira of New York magazine has noted? Or has he exceeded his authority by taking bold actions such as rewriting parts of the Affordable Care Act without the necessary congressional approval, as conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer argue?

Leave it to Wall Street Journal columnist Ted Cruz — wait, that Ted Cruz? — to offer a distinctly nuance-free perspective. “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency,” he wrote, “none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.” Expect to hear a lot of that in the days and weeks ahead.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the State of the Union was Obama’s near-silence on gun violence, a year after he tried and failed to push Congress into acting following the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. “Obama devoted a whole 67 words to gun control, offering no specifics in a speech that was stuffed with specifics on other issues,” complained Roger Simon of Politico.

And without question, the most memorable and emotional part of the evening came toward the end, when the president acknowledged Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, recovering from grievous injuries suffered in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment, as described by Ernesto Londoño of The Washington Post. We’ll remember that long after Obama’s words are forgotten.

The immediate reaction to the speech was favorable. According to a CNN/ORC snap poll, 76 percent had either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” reaction to the State of the Union, and the president got a 17 percent bump — from 52 percent before the speech to 69 percent after — in terms of whether his policies would move the country in the right direction.

But such findings tend to be ephemeral at best. If we know one thing about the Obama era, it’s that the president can give a good speech and that it rarely makes a difference in his ability to move congressional Republicans.

“A man who entered the White House yearning for sweeping achievements finds himself five years later threatening an end run around gridlock on Capitol Hill by using executive orders, essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow,” wrote Carl Hulse of The New York Times.

On Twitter, John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, put it much more succinctly:

Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

How do you say ‘conservative’ in South Carolinese?

NPR’s Ailsa Chang reported earlier this week on the re-election struggles of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is being challenged by right-wingers who think he’s not conservative enough. I nearly drove off the road when I heard this nugget:

Leading the pack of four Republican challengers is Lee Bright, a state senator who’s pushed legislation to ban abortion funding for victims of rape and incest. He also wants to make enforcement of the Affordable Care Act punishable by one year in jail.

“I would put my conservative record against any legislator in the country. I don’t think there’s anybody more conservative than I am,” Bright says.

Fortunately, Chang found that Graham probably doesn’t have much to worry about. Which means that even South Carolina Republicans have their limits.

Update: In other news from the far right, the Arizona Republican Party has censured Sen. John McCain for being too liberal.

‘Variable tolling’: A new way of sticking it to drivers

The Boston Globe’s editorial page today endorses a terrible idea: tolls that rise or fall depending on the time of day and the amount of traffic congestion. The editorial describes “variable tolling” as “a technology that keeps traffic manageable by raising prices during busy periods, thus giving drivers an incentive to use the highway at other times.”

Well, I’m fortunate enough to be able to drive off-peak most of the time, so I would be able to take advantage of those low rates. But the vast majority of drivers do not have that luxury.

Far better to improve public transportation so that people have a positive incentive to get out of their cars. Sadly, the transit system gets worse and worse. The carrot is gone, and the stick grows longer.

Want to be outraged at Obama? Here you go.

Enough about Obamacare, which will be fixed. If you would like to be outraged at our president, there’s enough in this New York Times story to keep you screaming for the rest of the week. Here’s how it begins:

Standing on the marble floor just outside the House chamber, Faisal bin Ali Jaber looked lost in the human river of hard-charging lobbyists, members of Congress and staffers. It is not every day that a victim of American drone strikes travels 7,000 miles to Washington to look for answers.

Now he stood face to face with Representative Adam B. Schiff — a California Democrat who had carved out 20 minutes between two votes on natural gas policy — to tell his story: how he watched in horror last year as drone-fired missiles incinerated his nephew and brother-in-law in a remote Yemeni village.

Neither of the victims was a member of Al Qaeda. In fact, the opposite was true. They were meeting with three Qaeda members in hopes of changing the militants’ views.

Horrible and sickening. Twelve years of war, and what has it gotten us?

Booze, pills and the economics of casinos

Caesar

Caesar

The chaos that has broken out over the split between Suffolk Downs and Caesars Entertainment is good news for casino opponents. At the very least, it increases the likelihood that East Boston residents will vote no on Nov. 5. At most, we may be able to look forward to delays and lawsuits for years to come.

I was particularly struck by the accusation — reported by Mark Arsenault in The Boston Globe — that Caesars separated one wealthy gambler from his money by keeping him liquored up and plying him with painkillers. I know nothing about the details of that accusation. But it actually fits well with the business model for casinos.

I’ve flagged this before, and it’s worth flagging again: according to Michael Jonas of CommonWealth Magazine, casinos could not survive if it weren’t for the problem gamblers who provide a disproportionate share of the revenues. Jonas explains it this way:

Just how much of the revenue casinos bring in is from the losses of those with gambling problems? One of the most thorough studies of this issue was done in 2004 in Ontario, where researchers had a sample of residents maintain diaries logging their gambling expenditures. The study, prepared for the government-supported Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, estimated that 35 percent of Ontario casino revenues were derived from moderate to severe problem gamblers. Such gamblers accounted for 30 percent of revenue from casino table games and a whopping 62 percent of revenue from slot machines.

I remain appalled that Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature legalized casinos and slots, which are associated with higher rates of crime, divorce and suicide. But I’m optimistic that these social parasites can be stopped one at a time.

Below is a statement from No Eastie Casino:

EAST BOSTON, Mass. — Oct. 19, 2013 — For more than a year, No Eastie Casino has pushed the City of Boston and Suffolk Downs to share more information about Suffolk Downs’ proposed Caesars Entertainment Resort. After ignoring repeated calls for greater transparency and concerns about Caesars’ solvency raised by East Boston residents, on Friday Suffolk Downs dropped the operations partner it chose in 2011 to run a casino in East Boston, Caesars Entertainment, only after state investigators informed them that Suffolk Downs likely would not pass the background check if Caesars stayed on. The Boston Globe reported that a number of concerns were brought to Suffolk Downs’ attention, including Caesars’ alleged business ties to organized crime.

But East Boston casino opponents say the stunning news late Friday demonstrates that residents cannot trust Suffolk Downs when it comes to whom they choose to bring into the neighborhood, said No Eastie Casino co-chair Celeste Myers.

“As recently as two months ago, Suffolk Downs owner Joe O’Donnell stated that Caesars was ‘as professional as they come,’” Myers said, pointing out Suffolk Downs’ frequent assertion that it shares Caesars’ values. “Clearly, they did not do due diligence in vetting Caesars — a company with which they have had a relationship since 2011 — and only ended the relationship when forced to do so.”

She added that Suffolk Downs has now picked two corporations, Caesars and Vornado Realty Trust, that have been unable or unwilling to pass background checks. In March, Vornado put its 19 percent stake in the casino plan into a blind trust after the majority of its executive team refused the state’s mandatory background checks. To our knowledge, Vornado has not divested completely from the casino partnership and voters remain in the dark about who will pick up its nearly one-fifth share in the project.

Caesars’ sudden departure also raises serious questions about the value of the City’s and Suffolk Downs’ host community agreement and shows that the promises in the mitigation agreement were made to be broken. Many key elements of the mitigation agreement-including key components of the jobs and small business plans-were tied to Caesars’ employee practices and Total Rewards programs. (Download our 16-page mitigation analysis here.)

No Eastie Casino leaders on Saturday formally called on Suffolk Downs to withdraw its casino application, in light of the information that emerged late Friday, and to share full details about their casino plans — including what they knew about Caesars and when they knew it — with the community at large.

“Now, more than ever, our neighbors and voters are seeing the glaring problems in the Suffolk Downs casino plans and the flaws in transparency that have plagued this fight from the start,” Myers said. “We hope Suffolk Downs and the City of Boston do the right thing and withdraw their support of this project. Until they do, our campaign will continue to reach out to and educate voters until we are victorious on Nov. 5.”

Talking politics with Storify

Voters in Boston today are heading to the polls to narrow the field of 12 mayoral candidates to the two who will be facing off against each other this November. My students are learning how to use Storify to aggregate and curate Twitter and other forms of social media. Here is the Storify I put together as a demonstration.

Obama, Syria and presidential incompetence

I think attacking Syria is a bad idea. But what I really don’t understand is the incompetence the Obama administration has shown. It seems to me that quick retaliation in the form of a few cruise missiles might have had some deterrent effect (or not), and it’s the sort of thing presidents do on a fairly regular basis without going to Congress.

So now we’re in the midst of an all-out congressional debate over whether to take action that is supposed to be fairly limited. I don’t blame people for worrying this is going to be another Afghanistan or Iraq, because that’s how the White House is treating it.

And I find myself in the position of not wanting to see us do anything but at the same time hoping the resolution passes so that Obama isn’t completely neutered for the next three years. What a mess.

Hold the uplift, and make that shower extra hot

9780399161308_custom-4ec8d3a4e862d4dbc42dedad106a97aecb8dda44-s2-c85Earlier this month my wife and I were watching the news when Patrick Leahy came on to talk about something or other — I don’t remember what.

Leahy, 73, has been a Democratic senator from Vermont for nearly four decades. Normally that stirs up feelings that, you know, maybe it’s time for the old man to go back to the dairy farm and watch his grandchildren milk the cows.

But I had been reading Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” And so I felt a tiny measure of admiration for Leahy stirring up inside me. He hadn’t cashed in. (His net worth — somewhere between $49,000 and $210,000 — makes him among the poorer members of the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) He hasn’t become a lobbyist. He apparently intends to die with his boots on.

That amounts to honor of a sort in the vomitrocious Washington that Leibovich describes in revolting detail — a town of sellouts and suckups (“Suckup City” was one of his working titles), a place where the nation’s business isn’t just subordinate to the culture of money and access, but is, at best, an afterthought.

If you plan to review a book, you shouldn’t “read” the audio version. I have no notes, no dog-eared pages to refer to. So consider this not a review so much as a few disjointed impressions of “This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.”

Mark is an old acquaintance. He and I worked together for a couple of years at The Boston Phoenix in the early 1990s before he moved on to the San Jose Mercury News, The Washington Post and, finally, The New York Times. (Other former Phoenicians who’ve reviewed “This Town”: Peter Kadzis in The Providence Phoenix and Marjorie Arons-Barron for her blog.)

There are many good things I could say about Mark and “This Town,” but I’ll start with this: I have never known anyone who worked harder to improve. It was not unusual for me to leave the Phoenix in the evening while Mark was working on an article — and to come back the next morning to find him still at it. The result of all that labor is a finely honed sense of craft that most of us can only aspire to.

As virtually every reviewer has pointed out, “This Town” begins with a masterful description of the funeral service for “Meet the Press” impresario Tim Russert, an ostensibly mournful occasion that provided the media and political classes in Washington with an opportunity to carry out the real business of their community: talking about themselves and checking their place in the pecking order.

There are so many loathsome characters in “This Town” that you’d need an index to keep track of them all. And Leibovich puckishly refused to provide one, though The Washington Post published an unofficial index here. For my money, though, the lowest of the low are former senator Evan Bayh and former congressman Dick Gephardt — Democrats who left office but stayed in Washington to become highly paid lobbyists. Bayh, with his unctuously insincere laments over how broken Washington had become, and Gephardt, who quickly sold out every pro-labor position he had ever held, rise above (or descend below) a common streetwalker like Chris Dodd, who flirted not very convincingly with becoming an entrepreneur before entering the warm embrace of the film industry.

Also: If you have never heard of Tammy Haddad, Leibovich will remove your innocence. You will be sadder but wiser.

Because Mark is such a fine writer, he operates with a scalpel; those of us who have only a baseball bat to work with can only stand back in awe at the way he carves up his subjects. Still, I found myself occasionally wishing he’d grab his bat and do to some of these scum-sucking leeches what David Ortiz did to that dugout phone in Baltimore.

Mike Allen of Politico, for instance, comes off as an oddly sympathetic character despite the damage he and his news organization have done to democracy with their focus on politics as a sport and their elevation of trivia and gossip. (To be sure, Leibovich describes that damage in great detail.) I could be wrong, but it seems to me that that Mark was tougher on Allen in a profile for the Times Magazine a few years ago.

Thus I was immensely pleased to hear Mark (or, rather, narrator Joe Barrett) administer an old-fashioned thrashing to Sidney Blumenthal. It seems that Blumenthal, yet another former Phoenix reporter, had lodged a bogus plagiarism complaint against Mark because Blumenthal had written a play several decades ago called “This Town,” which, inconveniently for Sid Vicious, no one had ever heard of. More, please.

I also found myself wondering what Leibovich makes of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ever-rightward drift into crazyland. The Washington of “This Town” is rather familiar, if rarely so-well described. The corruption is all-pervasive and bipartisan, defined by the unlikely (but not really) partnership of the despicable Republican operative Haley Barbour and the equally despicable Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.

No doubt such relationships remain an important part of Washington. But it seems to me that people like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and their ilk — for instance, the crazies now talking about impeaching President Obama — don’t really fit into that world. And, increasingly, they’re calling the shots, making the sort of Old Guard Republicans Leibovich writes about (Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, for instance) all but irrelevant.

But that’s a quibble, and it would have shifted Mark away from what he does best: writing finely honed character studies of people who have very little character. “This Town” is an excellent book that says much about why we hate Washington — and why we’re right to keep on doing so. Hold the uplift. And make sure the shower you’ll need after reading it is extra hot.