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Budget

Obama and the Nihilists

The details of the budget are important, of course, for their own sake. There's this great quote from this fellow named Rudolf Goldschied, a sociologist, who said: "The budget is the skeleton of the state, stripped of all misleading ideologies." Fantastic.

But in this case, not necessarily true. People toward the left end of the spectrum will look at the entitlement cuts and say "Aha! I knew it all along about this guy." People on the center-right will be disappointed that the entitlement cuts are fairly token from their point of view. People on the loony right, which is to say the GOP, will say it's socialism.

More than all that, however, is the fact that Obama and his people apparently know that this whole thing is smoke and mirrors. As I wrote the other day in a column that apparently and disappointingly (and uncharacteristically, I might add) didn't get much traction), it really doesn't much matter what Obama proposes because as long as it includes revenues, which it always will, nothing is going to happen.

So this budget doesn't really represent what Obama believes. It represents the position that he thinks gives him the most leverage in 2014 and beyond as voters decide whose fault the mess is. Greg Sargent wrote this morning:

Bad Day for LaPierre

A Deal on Guns in the Senate

I'm not sure if good news can be both limited on the one hand and amazing on the other, but if such is possible this is it.

Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey are holding a press conference today around 11 to say that they've struck a deal on a background checks bill. HuffPo reports that details are still a little foggy but one element is that checks "would be done through a federal firearm license holder instead of through an online portal -- a policy win for gun control advocates."

Now: The deal is just to allow debate to begin, really. You all know about "cloture" and the 60-vote thing. What you may not be clear on is that most bills need to get 60 votes at least twice, some of them more. This bill would need 60 again to cut off debate and proceed to final passage, where a simple majority of 51 can finally pass a bill.

So having a deal on 60 votes to open debate does not necessarily mean that there will be 60 votes to cut off debate. And in between, Republicans will be allowed to offer amendments, and they could offer amendments that would turn the bill into nothing.

Among the world's top 20 nations in retirement security--the amount given to seniors in the form of public pensions--where does the United States rank, do you think?

Yep, pretty bad--we're 19th. Right behind Slovakia. The people who go around measuring such things measure something called the gross replacement rate---simply, how much of a person's income is covered by the pension system. The EU average is 61.6 percent. The OECD average is 57.3 percent. The United States number is 39.4 percent.

In this context, talking about cutting Social Security seems odd, no? But of course that is all we talk about. Almost never in the mainstream press would you see it mentioned that in fact the United States lags behind nearly every other developed country in terms of the size and generosity of its public pensions.

Ideally, Social Security should be increased, not decreased. An interesting new paper from the New America Foundation makes the case for a new two-part Social Security system, the first part paid for in the traditional way (the payroll tax), and the second part paid out of general revenue. The second part would be not income-based but a flat fee to all retirees, and it would thus be progressive (as it would increase lower-income people's take-home by a greater percentage). The paper's authors, who include Mike Lind, suggest a possible value-added tax as a way to raise the revenue.

A Marketing Problem

I Would Leave Journalism to Help Rescue JCPenney's

My colleague Daniel Gross explains here why Apple stores designer Ron Johnson failed at JCPenney's, but he really only deals with the Apple side of the argument, i.e., Apple had great products that everyone wanted and could have hired unattractive sales people and rented out mildewed basements and sales would have gone through the roof.

But Daniel doesn't look at it from a Penney's point of view, which is more interesting to me. I'm a fan of the old Penney's and thought there was little that was wrong with it. It's where I buy my golf shirts, and they're always half price or a little less. But I noticed when I walked in to my local JCP last weekend, there were no signs saying SALE! above the shirts. They were still the same price, $25 instead of $50, but as per Johnson's evident instruction, they're not into "sales" anymore. This seems an obvious psychological error.

Look, I have no idea what the kids buy these days and I won't pretend to. But I think what JCP needed to do, or still needs to do, is make it clear to upper-middle-class people that they actually have some pretty good stuff and that there should be no stigma attached to shopping there. We got some window blinds at JCP. They're great. They came in loads of interesting colors, they made them exactly to order, they arrived in a timely fashion, they were easy enough to install that even I (the most impatient person in the world when it comes to doing that kind of work) installed them easily, they look great, and best of all they're that no strings kind; you just grab hold of the bar across the bottom and up and down they go, and up or down they stay.

These would look at home in any $1.1 million Bethesda house. But it would never occur to the owner of a $1.1 million Bethesda house (whose owner, by our local economic standards, is not rich, just upper-middle-class) to go to JCP to buy blinds. So that's what they need to do. JCP, if you want to hire me, I'll leave journalism to support this noble cause.

Mitch McConnell is asking the FBI to investigate how Mother Jones's David Corn got an audiotape of McConnell and campaign staffers discussing Ashley Judd's potential liabilities as a candidate (this was before she decided not to run). CNN got the scoop:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election campaign is "working with the FBI" on how Mother Jones, a liberal magazine, obtained a recording of political aides meeting with McConnell and discussing opposition research on Ashley Judd, McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton told CNN Tuesday.

In the recordings, political operatives huddling at the senator's campaign headquarters in Kentucky, are heard discussing potentially attacking Judd's mental health, as well as her left-leaning politics, if she had decided to make a bid against McConnell, who's running for a sixth term in office next year.

"Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Senator McConnell's campaign office without consent. By whom and how that was accomplished will presumably be the subject of a criminal investigation," Benton said in a statement.

Left vs. Left

Obama’s Social Security Gambit

Liberals are furious at the president over his Social Security proposal. Michael Tomasky says they have nothing to worry about—because Republicans won’t deal.

With this week’s budget and its official embrace of tying Social Security benefits to the “chained” consumer price index, Barack Obama officially becomes the first Democratic president in history to propose any cuts to the program so venerated and beloved by liberals everywhere. Put that way, it sounds completely indefensible. The reality, of course—well, not “of course” to a lot of people, but “of course” to me—is that the Republicans will never accept tax increases, so it’s all fictional anyway. So assume with me no deal and ponder the politics of this, heading into 2014 and even into 2016. If things go the way I think they will, Obama and the Democrats will come out of this looking good, although almost entirely by accident.

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President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014 is scheduled to be released on April 10. (Alex Wong/Getty)

As you should know by now, indexing Social Security benefits to the chained CPI will reduce benefits especially as recipients get into their 80s. Obama wants cushions built into the new indexing that will soften the blow for these people and says it’s a precondition for his own support for the change. The other precondition is Republicans agreeing to revenues. If those don’t happen, he says, he takes chained CPI off the table and becomes the first Democratic president ever to offer a cut to Social Security and then withdraw it.

And this is what is almost certainly going to happen. Republicans, from John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to Paul Ryan to Ted Cruz to every Dixie back-bencher, have said it a thousand times if they’ve said it once: Obama got his revenue in the fiscal-cliff deal. No more.

Dead at Age 87

Thatcher

One certainly can't deny Margaret Thatcher's historical importance. She was a rarity among politicians, among public figures in general, that she transcended her arena and became a general icon of popular culture, the way Ali transcended boxing. Not many politicians do that: In America in my adult lifetime, Reagan, the Clintons, Obama. That's about it. Maybe Cheney, but in a bad way. But Thatcher was such that an impersonator could show up in a Bond film (For Your Eyes Only) or even on an America-only sitcom, and everyone knew who it was and what she represented.

The thing that made her a hero to the right was undoubtedly the way she took on and beat Arthur Scargill and the unions. Here's a very good BBC piece from 2004 on how that happened. What has happened with Scargill, by the way? Well, I (and I'd guess most American readers) didn't know this, but he's still at it. He helped form the Socialist Labour Party in 1996 after New Labour ditched the platform clause committed to nationalization of industry. But matters haven't exactly gone Scargill's way. Britain went from 13.5 million union members to around 6 million today.

Of course, the Reagan-Thatcher relationship was much lionized on both sides of the drink. It was indeed a very lucky thing for conservatism in both nations that at the exact point in both nations' histories when the general public was ready to break with liberalism, the conservative parties just so happened to offer leaders whose personalities were large and strong and appealing to many people and were very nicely in tune with the times in both countries. Reagan had that American optimism, Thatcher was a bit more somber. But they were more similar than different.

We learned recently that they did have their disagreements--with Thatcher standing to Reagan's right! Reagan urged her to cut a deal on the Falklands, papers released by the British government last year urged, but she said no. The New York Times:

GUNS

LaPierre et Le Deluge

The NRA may have won a temporary victory, but it can’t keep winning forever. Eventually, predicts Michael Tomasky, gun control advocates are going to prevail.

As I said on Current TV a couple of nights ago, I have never seen a situation in which a Congress, terrified of a particular lobby, has behaved in such open contempt of American public opinion as it’s doing now on guns. Ninety percent of Americans approve of background checks, and upwards of 80 percent in many red states. But one man opposes them, and there we are. Wayne LaPierre may have won the week, and he may slither away without Congress doing anything this time around. But the laws of physics are such that he can’t do this forever. He’s like Louis XVI in about 1788. He may be on top now, and his hard-line posture against any and all change may serve him well for the time being; but the revolution is coming, and once it arrives, we’ll beat the NRA, and he’ll be a figure not of power but of ridicule, left to ponder the what-ifs.

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Left: Wayne LaPierre, holds a custom 300 Remington ultra mag during a gun auction after speaking during the Western Hunting & Conservation Expo Banquet in Salt Lake City, Feb. 23, 2013. Right: Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson presents the school safety recommendations of the NRA backed National School Shield Program at a press conference on April 2, 2013. (Rick Bowmer/AP; Win McNamee/Getty)

I don’t know what’s going to happen with the current bill. It looks like Republican Senator Tom Coburn is no longer negotiating with Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin. If that’s the case, any reform is on hold for now.

But it doesn’t mean this fight is over. This episode, even if it ends today, has already cost the NRA a lot. For starters, America now knows that a majority of the group’s rank and file disagrees with the leadership and are not the crazy hard-liners that the group’s leaders are. This is very useful knowledge indeed. It would have been like knowing, had it been true, that most white Birminghamians secretly opposed Bull Connor. Wouldn’t pay immediate dividends, but over time, and over the corpses of more dead children, that silent majority would no longer stay so silent. Would it be so shocking to see a moderate alternative to the NRA—one dedicated to protecting the rights of sportsmen and collectors but also to keeping military weapons out of regular citizens’ hands—emerge someday soon?

Grand Bargainism

I Think Obama Is Bluffing

Liberals are upset today because Obama's budget is going to include a call for chained CPI and some means-testing of Medicare. Krugman thinks he seeks the approval of the Serious People. Chait concurs. Ezra Klein tweeted earlier today that it appears that Obama is once again opening a negotiation at the other side's halfway point. In 140 characters he didn't have room to denounce this, but presumably that's what he meant.

Well, could be. But I tend to agree with Kevin Drum on this one. Drum writes that Obama doesn't really expect the GOP to budge on taxes and therefore doesn't expect a deal at all. And that Republicans, rather than make a deal, would prefer to continue to have the deficit as an issue to bang Obama with:

The truth is that, for the most part, the deficit isn't a real issue for Republicans. They don't want to raise taxes; they don't want to cut defense spending; they don't want to cut entitlement spending on seniors (the core of their base); and cutting future entitlements doesn't affect the deficit any time soon. The only thing left is cutting spending on the poor, and although Republicans think that's a fine idea, even they can't cut social welfare spending enough to have a serious impact on the deficit.

So it's mostly a charade. And it's a good one! One of the very best, in fact. Cutting the deficit polls well, it lends itself nicely to demagoguery, and it's an all-purpose excuse to oppose any spending proposals they don't like. So why on earth would you cut a deal to take it off the table? That would be crazy. And if they're forced to swallow a tax increase as well, that makes it even crazier. There's literally no benefit at all in this for Republicans.

Being on Rubio's side of the aisle, Byron says far more gently more or less what I said a bit more directly on Tuesday, namely, that the junior senator of Florida might be giving himself big headaches come 2016 with this immigration push:

...as far as Republican primary voters are concerned, Rubio has taken a huge risk by hanging out with a bad crowd. McCain, fellow GOP Gang of Eight member Lindsey Graham (known to some critics as "Lindsey Grahamnesty") and Democrat Charles Schumer are not a popular bunch with the GOP base.

The bottom line is that if Rubio is playing a long game, as the GOP strategist suggests, he's running a significant risk of never making it through the Republican primaries. And if he's playing a shorter game, and insists on tough, GOP-pleasing measures, he risks blowing up the whole immigration project and looking like the villain.

Byron sets all this up by arguing, probably rightly, that passing a lot of big legislaiton ain't what gets a person to the White House. Barack Obama did little to nothing legislatively, and John McCain did a lot. Those statements are both true but they are not proof of causality, either. The question I'd like to see York tease out, as he's one of your better conservative writers, is whether he thinks the GOP base is going to be every bit as nutso in '16 as it was in '12, booing gay soldiers and demanding that their candidates make various professions of heartfelt bigotry. I would guess the base will be slightly more pragmatic next time--not pro-same-sex marriage, for example, but not demanding the usual blood oaths against it. That would grant Rubio a little more wiggle room. But I still think he'll be better off overall if immigration dies and he can say to the base, "Hey, I tried, but the crazy liberals asked too much of me."

Trouble

Unemployment and the Sequester

So the jobs number for March was terrible, just 88,000 jobs. The household survey, which is the other survey the BLS does but gets far, far less attention, was weaker still. The economist Justin Wolfers estimates based on combining the two that the real number is more like 30,000. (By the way, if you don't follow Wolfers on Twitter, you ought to, if nothing else for the first Friday of every month when he bangs out a series of illuminating tweets that really tell the story. And needless to say if you're not following me yet @mtomasky well shame on you.)

And yet, the last two months were revised upward, repeating a recent trend. And, Wolfers notes, job growth averaged over the past 12 months comes to 169,000 a month. As he just tweeted: "It is weaker than we might hope, but it is enough to (slowly) reduce unemployment."

The sequester is not in these March numbers, the pros say. Too early. So that doesn't necessarily augur well for April. Or May. There are going to be more job losses, particularly in the public sector. Good, you say? Question: How many public-sector jobs have been shed in the last three years? Answer is 648,000. That's 18,000 every month. I don't think this has ever happened since the birth of the welfare state, not under any Republican president or Democratic one.

It's just now starting to bite, the sequester. It can do serious economic damage heading into the summer. It's up to...oh, someone; who would that be?...to explain to the American people the relationship between sequestration and the economy, between sequestration and jobs. Otherwise, people are just going to let it happen. They don't make these connections themselves. And the economy is going to be lackluster and people are naturally going to blame that someone instead of the people who are actually responsible.

Iraq and Morality

Michael Kelly and the War

It was 10 years ago yesterday that the journalist Michael Kelly was killed in Iraq. His death was a tragedy. I met him just once, and spoke to him one time other than that, so I didn't really know him, but I know many people who did and they mostly speak extremely highly of him, and I take their word for his qualities as a mentor and editor. And obviously that's no way for anyone to die.

But "anyone" includes, of course, the Iraqis whom Kelly was so certain, so morally certain, we were liberating. Tom Scocca has a fantastic piece up at Gawker putting Kelly's death into what seems to me the proper perspective:

That Kelly was brave in going to cover the combat does not change the fact that he chose to be bold with other people's lives. It was time to do something about Iraq—"to turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping," as Rupert Brooke wrote in 1914, in a sonnet celebrating the chance to go fight the Great War. A year later, Brooke died of an infected mosquito bite on a troop ship, taking his place among the 16 million corpses.

The premise of Kelly's argument for invasion was that escalating the war, carrying it to Baghdad on the ground, would settle the problems "easily and quickly." Like his fellow poets, Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens, he presented his romantic vision as clear-eyed advice. Evil must be opposed. Good would triumph. Anyone who disagreed was benighted, mistaken, immoral.

Change Is Gonna Come

Mike Rice, Macho Men, and Homophobia

Mike Rice deserved to be fired at Rutgers after we saw that video. I don't think many people would dispute that. And while he's obviously (I hope!) an extreme case, I doubt very much that he is some kind of insane outlier among men's coaches.

I played a lot of sports and had a lot of coaches. I had only one who arguably sat somewhere on the Rice continuum. He would say things to you like, "I bet you sit down to take a piss, DON'T YOU?!" And this was junior high. He took it all rather seriously. We were 3-8, I think, in part because we rebelled against him. And I bet you can guess which side I was on! But even he had his good points I guess.

Mostly, my coaches were gentle types. My favorite was my high-school baseball coach. Also the American history teacher. A great man. Dave Chaplin. Died young. He could ride you all right, but I don't remember him being anything close to abusive.

But at the upper levels, I bet Rice stands out, but not as much as you'd think. I think huge numbers of college football and basketball coaches call their players (pardon me, but just to keep things real here) pussies. Now, that's offensive in virtually all human contexts. A company president would be way out of line in calling a (male) sales rep with low figures by that name. But in male athletics, it's not really so awful. As a player you sort of expect to be called something like that by a coach once in a while.

Are Republicans really going to try to damage Hillary Clinton by digging up old non-scandals no one even remembers? They’ll do damage, all right, says Michael Tomasky, but not to Clinton.

Do any conservatives really believe that if Hillary Clinton does run for president, Americans will care a bit about the old stories from the 1990s? Two commentators I respect seem to think so. My colleague David Frum, in a column about Clinton’s 2016 chances that elsewhere makes several thoughtful points, seems to believe that the old Clinton White House issues could rise again. MSNBC analyst Jimmy Williams, across from whom I sat on the sound stage Monday, invoked Filegate and something else. Conservatives have spent two decades trying to destroy Clinton. They’ve only helped make her the most popular woman in America. And if they keep at it, they’re going to help make her president.

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Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stands for the presentation of colors during a ceremony for the Department of Defense's highest award for public service at the Pentagon February 14, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty)

If you are old enough to think back, please do so now with me. Part the mists of time. I feel like that first ghost taking Scrooge back to when he was the vital young man who’d been completely buried. Remember the Rose Law Firm? Remember the alleged billing scandals? And then the supposed commodities trading scandal? That was a great one.

Just mentioning these nothings feels like opening a door to a section of the house that you haven’t been using for the last 20 years, since someone died, like Olivier in Rebecca. There are torn and frayed little pieces of furniture, draped in drop cloth, spider webs emanating from their corners. Whitewater was far and away the biggest of these utterly phony stories, consuming years and many millions of investigative taxpayer dollars and besotting initially even The New York Times (I bet the Times won’t get fooled again). And I would bet that if you asked Americans about it today, no more than 20 percent would have the foggiest idea what it was. No, check that. It would be 33 percent. The same, reliable 33 percent who say Barack Obama was created in a laboratory in socialist Zimbabwe.

North Carolina State Religion

And You Thought It Was Basketball

I speak of the official religion of North Carolina. I at least thought it was basketball. But now come a couple of yahoo Republican state lawmakers with a bill to allow the state to declare an official religion if it wants to and to prevent the federal government from doing anything about it:

Overtly Christian prayers at government meetings are not rare in North Carolina. Since the Republican takeover in 2011, the state Senate chaplain has offered an explicitly Christian invocation virtually every day of session, despite the fact that some senators are not Christian.

In a 2011 ruling on a similar lawsuit against the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not ban prayer at government meetings outright but said prayers favoring one religion over another are unconstitutional.

"To plant sectarian prayers at the heart of local government is a prescription for religious discord," the court said. "Where prayer in public fora is concerned, the deep beliefs of the speaker afford only more reason to respect the profound convictions of the listener. Free religious exercise posits broad religious tolerance."

About the Author

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Michael Tomasky

The Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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