I wrote just before leaving on vacation about the tendency for major political news to break during my occasional absences from the website. The death of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy last Tuesday certainly qualifies for that distinction. Due to the longstanding nature of Kennedy’s terminal diagnosis, however, the media was ready to go on a moment’s notice with an avalanche of breaking news coverage, retrospective video packages, and expert commentary, so I don’t feel like there is much new for me to add at this point. I will say that as a political junkie, I found much of the archival footage shown over the past week (especially from the 1960s and 1970s) to be truly fascinating.
Still, two comments come to mind. First, some have suggested that Senator Kennedy’s death could serve as a catalyst for renewed progress on health care reform, either by closing ranks within the Democratic caucus, or by fostering greater bipartisan cooperation from Republicans. Unfortunately, I am among those who believe this won’t make much of a difference in the end. Kennedy’s death might change the tone of the debate in the short-term, but I don’t sense that it will fundamentally alter the partisan dynamics in play on health care reform. I still think President Obama will ultimately get some sort of reform package through Congress, but it won't be propelled by Senator Kennedy's passing.
Second, on a personal note, I first saw Senator Kennedy in-person shortly after I came to Washington to work as a U.S. Senate intern in the summer of 1982. I happened to be covering a committee hearing in which Kennedy was involved, so I spent several hours sitting just a few feet away from him. Since that was almost 30 years ago, I no longer remember which committee it was, or the piece of legislation under consideration, but I do recall feeling at the time that I was in the presence of a piece of living history.
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Missed It By That Much!
For the first time since February, I will be away from the website for all of next week.  My guess is that some of you will take this as a sure sign that major political news is about to break. During my vacation week at this time last year, it was the selection of Joe Biden as President Obama’s vice presidential running mate. And, I have documented this rather frustrating (yet amusing) coincidence on other occasions, as well.
In any event, breaking political news or not, I will be back with new content for you on Monday, August 31st. So, enjoy the rest of the month, and I'll see you soon. -Dean
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If Dining Room Tables Could Talk
About the only backlash we’ve seen in the health care debate lately is the one that progressives unleashed this week against the Obama Administration, after it seemed to waiver on the idea of a public option for health insurance reform. But I’m wondering whether Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank’s highly entertaining pushback (watch here) yesterday against the whole gun-toting, Obama-as-Hitler, socialism-here-we-come opposition to health care reform could serve as a turning point of sorts in the broader debate over reform.
Until now, Members of Congress have gone to great pains to be seen as taking seriously even the most abusive, fringe-dwelling questioners at their town hall meetings. Frank simply managed to say out loud what is surely on the minds of many other Democratic elites and Obama Administration supporters. I don’t know whether this moment will prove to be a momentum changer in the end, but today was the first time that I’ve heard callers on conservative talk radio express concern that opponents may be going too far with the leg holsters and Hitlerian imagery.
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Essential Oils
While the Obama Administration is taking a great deal of heat from progressives for the apparent softening of its commitment to a public option for health care coverage, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has come in for special criticism over her suggestion Sunday that a public plan is not essential to the push for comprehensive health care reform. The implication is that the Obama Administration is now mainly interested in reforming the private insurance market, an area where it is more likely to achieve legislative success by the end of the year.
Sebelius was wall-to-wall on the Sunday morning shows, so I actually caught her several times, including the interview in question with CNN’s John King. At the time, it sure seemed to me like she was backing away from any commitment to a public option, so I was surprised to subsequently read that Sebelius has blamed the media for causing the furor on the left by highlighting a misinterpretation of her comments.
But now I have gone back and watched a clip of the CNN interview over and over, and I am a bit uncertain, which itself is problematic for the president from a political communications perspective. Sebelius seems to be saying that either a single-payer government program or a consumer-owned, nonprofit cooperative could provide the competition with private insurers necessary to lower health care costs.
So for Sebelius, choosing between the two possibilities is not the essential question, as long as there is some sort of alternative to private insurance in the final bill. This would be in keeping with the Obama Administration’s position in recent months, hence the secretary’s claim that nothing has changed. Sebelius’ comments near the end of the clip seem to reinforce this interpretation, but it is by no means clear.
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Santorum, Um No
You may recall that back in June I made the bold prediction that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour would not be the Republican nominee for president in 2012. My post was in response to a spate of articles in the media touting Barbour as a rising presidential contender. I am now prepared to go out on a limb once again and predict that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum also will not be the Republican nominee for president in 2012.
This time, I am responding to an item I came across last week, which reported that Santorum is planning a series of campaign-style visits to Iowa this fall. The article begins by suggesting that we add Santorum to the list of potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates, but it is honestly difficult to view him as a serious contender for the party’s nomination. While Santorum is noncommittal about any presidential ambitions, he is at least open about his desire to be a bigger player in conservative politics, and he seems especially eager for the larger media megaphone that can accompany visits to places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
The reality, however, is that this is mainly yet another headache for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, as he tries to defend the ground upon which he built his victory in the 2008 Iowa Caucus. Last month, I wrote about Huckabee’s passive-aggressive behavior toward former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and now with Santorum also about to become more active among social and religious conservatives in the state, there is the potential for an even greater fragmentation of the party’s conservative base in Iowa.
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Shout Out
No, I won’t actually be shouting at any lawmakers tomorrow, but I will be away from the website. I will be back on Monday, August 17th with new content for you. See you soon. -Dean
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Ayotte's Social Studies
I was so preoccupied with the dueling political narratives surrounding President Obama’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth yesterday that I temporarily forgot about former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte’s big coming out appearance at the Republican Party’s summer social in Wolfeboro. I was fortunate enough to later catch some of the video on WMUR-TV, which you can still watch here (at right).
There is something especially fascinating about watching a high-profile public official, who has previously enjoyed the protection of nonpartisan institutional status, take those first tentative steps into the political arena. For all the speculation about a potential run for U.S. Senate, to actually hear Ayotte utter some overtly partisan rhetoric for the first time irrevocably changes one’s frame of reference for her; she is now the Republican candidate who claims, somewhat self-consciously, that she is the candidate who can beat Paul Hodes. The self-consciousness will fade over time and the partisan rhetoric will flow more freely with the endless repetition of the campaign.
Ayotte continues to say that she is only exploring a possible run, but that certainly won’t buy her any free passes from potential opponents. The dictates of our technology-driven instantaneous news cycle have made the leisurely dipping of one’s toes into the political waters largely a thing of the past.  So, it is no surprise that the New Hampshire Democratic Party has been hitting Ayotte with everything but the kitchen sink, literally from the moment she signaled some interest in the race. And, she certainly seemed to be acting like a candidate yesterday.
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Hey, You're a Good Crowd!
I watched President Obama’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth today via the web. I know the White House has insisted that the attendees were not vetted in advance for their political views, but that sure was one friendly crowd in the gymnasium this afternoon. Yesterday, I suggested that the combination of a sitting president, the Secret Service, New Hampshire's deliberative tradition, and Obama’s general popularity in the region could make for a town hall meeting that was a rather civilized affair (at least inside the venue), and that seemed to be the case today. But the upbeat, yes-we-can ambience certainly won’t earn Obama any new cred with his critics; my guess is they will use it to largely discount his performance.
As an aside, President Obama should consider sending a personal thank you note to former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin for her recent over-the-top death panel posting on Facebook. Her comments read almost as satire, and as such they provided a big juicy target for Obama to hit in his effort to regain the messaging advantage against opponents on misinformation grounds. Palin, in an attempt to curry favor with her party’s base, unintentionally provided Obama with a fresh opportunity to cast the conservative critique of healthcare reform as just so much fringe politics, and we saw the president jump at the chance to do so almost immediately this afternoon.
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High School Musical
President Obama’s healthcare town hall meeting at Portsmouth High School tomorrow afternoon is shaping up to be a real humdinger, especially since the citizen outrage angle has had additional time to percolate in the media, while the president has been on his trip to Mexico.   I’ve received emails from advocacy groups on both sides of the issue claiming that their supporters will be out in force at the venue.
Initial reporting on the event’s setup suggests that protesters will be restricted to a free speech area, which is actually quite convenient for groups wishing to shout at each other, and for the large media contingent eager to cover the attendant civic circus. My guess is that for the ticketed participants inside the venue, however, the presence of a sitting president and the Secret Service will greatly reduce the potential for the kind of chaos we’ve seen at Congressional town hall meetings around the country.  In fact, Obama’s recent town hall meetings, while sometimes boisterous, have been much more orderly affairs.
As I mentioned in my discussion of the issue earlier today, this particular town hall meeting is really about President Obama trying to regain control of the messaging on healthcare reform. Presidents often go public with these kinds of campaign-style events, when confronted with a difficult legislative sell on a particular policy issue.  The goal for the president is to make his best case directly to constituents, while projecting that interpersonal connection out to a national audience (and back to Washington) through favorable media coverage.
Given Obama’s popularity in New England, and New Hampshire’s tradition of deliberative democracy, it is no surprise that he has chosen to return here with the hope of regaining his political footing on healthcare reform.
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The Doctor is In (Again)
If you missed my discussion of health care reform on Minnesota Public Radio earlier this week, fear not. I will be doing another full hour on the politics of health care reform on Monday morning, as a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s the Exchange. With President Obama arriving in the state on Tuesday for a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, there is no better time to talk about the issue. You can listen to the show live here at 9 a.m. (top menu), or catch it later here.
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Title Defense
Perfect. That was my initial reaction to reading that the title of Mitt Romney’s forthcoming book will be No Apology: the Case for American Greatness. The title is in part a reference to the popular conservative meme that the Obama Administration's foreign policy consists largely of the president and various officials jetting around the world to apologize for the Bush Administration’s cowboy diplomacy. If you had any doubt that Romney is planning to run for president in 2012, or that he will double down on his effort to win greater support from his party’s conservative base this time around, then this book title should put those doubts to rest once and for all.
There is one aspect of this title that I find especially intriguing. While I have no specific advance knowledge of the book’s actual content, the title at least suggests that it may focus mainly on foreign policy and economic concerns, of course with healthy doses of patriotism and American exceptionalism mixed in. I have written before about Romney’s rocky attempt to burnish his credentials as a social conservative in the last election cycle, an effort for which he received a tremendous amount of derision from the other Republican primary candidates.
So, rather than use the book to take another crack at currying favor with religious conservatives on issues like gay rights and abortion, Romney may very well be planning to stick more to foreign and economic policy, issues where conservatives seem to view him as speaking with greater authority. That won’t necessarily solve his authenticity problem with this group, but it may provide him with a stronger platform for launching his campaign.
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Yeah, I'm the Taxman
My guess is that state Democratic activists and hardcore political observers were interested to learn (free registration required) earlier today that former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Fernald is dropping his bid to replace Rep. Paul Hodes in the 2nd Congressional District. When I mentioned that Fernald would not be running to a friend of mine who pays only occasional attention to politics, her exact response was, “Hey, he’s the income tax guy, right?” So, even she remembers Fernald’s spectacularly bad run for governor against Craig Benson in 2002. And, the income tax issue was only one aspect of his campaign’s messaging problems.
It is true that the income tax issue doesn’t play in a Congressional race in the same way that it would for a gubernatorial or state legislative run. But with that kind of obvious residual branding problem still lurking from 2002, Fernald would have been a tougher sell in the general election than some of the other potential nominees, even with the state’s increasingly progressive political demographics. As James Pindell notes in his piece, this certainly simplifies matters for Ann McLane Kuster on the progressive side of the state party.  She has already staked her claim with some solid initial fundraising numbers.
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Say My Name
Senator Judd Gregg showed up on MSNBC’s Hardball earlier this evening to talk health care, but the most interesting exchange with host Chris Matthews came in the interview’s final minute, when Matthews suggested that by retiring now, Gregg was essentially handing his U.S. Senate seat to the Democratic Party. You can watch the entire interview here (Gregg follows California Senator Barbara Boxer).
Gregg seemed caught a little off guard, but did his best to sound bullish on his party’s chances of keeping the seat in November 2010. What really grabbed my attention, however, was Gregg’s comment that the party already has one very strong candidate, but then for some reason he didn’t name Kelly Ayotte, to whom he was obviously referring. It made me wonder whether Gregg was reflexively pulling his punches a bit, in response to the recent editorial in the Union Leader suggesting that Republican elites in Washington are tugging too hard on Ayotte and 1st Congressional District candidate Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta.
I will say that on the intended topic of health care reform Gregg sounded like the picture of moderation in comparison to some of the conservative vitriol now being directed at President Obama. He even took a firm step away from the culture war critique of the Obama Administration’s plans (it’s really euthanasia, federally-funded abortions, etc.), and instead presented traditional fiscal arguments about the unsustainability of large long-term deficits.
And, when given a chance by Matthews to attack Obama for trying to put the country on a path to nationalized health care, Gregg let the softball float by and instead focused his criticism on old-line liberals like Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. So, given how critical Gregg has been of the president recently, his appearance this evening struck me as being a bit more subdued than one might have expected.
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When Advisors Attack
I managed to catch both of the much-discussed Sunday morning television appearances by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (This Week) and Chief Economic Advisor Larry Summers (Face the Nation) yesterday, so I was treated to the full head-scratching, hearing-checking impact of both men refusing to rule out a middle class tax increase by the Obama Administration, in order to help with deficit reduction.
When multiple administration officials show up on the Sunday morning shows making essentially the same argument, that is usually a subtle signal that the administration is seriously considering a shift in future policy direction. But given how adamant President Obama was during the campaign about not raising taxes on incomes under $250k, the combined impact of the two men’s statements was anything but subtle. Not surprisingly, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs set about walking back the two advisors’ comments at today’s White House briefing.
It is true that some economists claim that taxing high incomes alone isn’t sufficient to deal with projected program costs, and it may be that Geithner and Summers were answering their respective questions in the hypothetical, speculating as economists often do. But even if their answers accurately reflect a changing economic reality, from a political perspective, I can’t think of anything that would be more damaging to Obama than reneging on this very clear pledge. You can listen to him rule out any middle class tax increases on the campaign trail here, and, while you’re at it, why not take a trip down memory lane with President George H.W. Bush here.
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